Aircraft add-on for Microsoft FSX
 

"The pilot can just rush around in little circles, rolling his socks down, pulling 8g or something silly"

Before I start this review, I have a confession to make. This one might possibly be a little biased. Or, okay, even more biased than usual.

The reason for that bias is that I love, and always have, the little Advanced Trainer jet that it covers, the British Aerospace T.Mk1 Hawk. Whether it's wearing the bright scarlet of the Red Arrows, the black and yellow hi-vis scheme of modern life or the orange and white hi-vis of its distant relation the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk, the Hawk is one of my favourite aircraft, so when Rick Piper announced that he was doing a full FSX native one, I was going to be getting it regardless of whether it was payware or not.

So anyway, what about the aircraft itself? Well, the BAe Hawk was designed as a replacement for the Folland Gnat, a small, two seat fore-and-aft initial jet trainer to move British Royal Air Force pilots on from prop aircraft before they were stood in front of a Phantom, Tornado or something equally complex and expensive if you bend it.

The Hawk first flew in 1974 and entered service in 1976, providing the RAF with not only a jet trainer, but also a weapons delivery trainer capable of carrying small amounts of underwing ordinance alongside a belly-mounted gun and replacing the Hawker Hunter in that role. It achieved a wider degree of fame in 1979 when the RAF air display team, the Red Arrows, replaced their Gnats with the new type.

In spite of being a 35 year old design, the Hawk T.1 is still very much in active service with the RAF and Royal Navy. A number of derivatives have been developed by BAe and its partners, including the heavily modified T-45 Goshawk for the US Navy and a number of dedicated counter insurgency/light strike fighters but the type is still most widely known outside the UK as the aircraft operated by the RAF Red Arrows and the Finnish Air Force aerobatic team, the Midnight Hawks.

Whether screaming up a Welsh valley annoying the people on holiday from Birmingham, dropping bombs in The Wash or introducing pilots to trans-sonic handling over the Saudi desert, the BAe Hawk is very much a success story and is showing no sign of fading into history for some time to come yet.

The Red Arrows package being reviewed here, developed by the very well known Rick Piper and distributed by Skysim, is for Microsoft Flight Simulator X only and, for me at least, definitely earns the tag "eagerly awaited", so let's take a look at it and see what you get for your money.

Installation

Upon purchase via the Skysim online shop, you will be presented with a download link for the 40Mb zip file that contains two executable files, a readme.txt introduction and a folder entitled "Setup" that contains more detailed instructions for the installation procedure.

The reason that the installation requires a manual is that it isn't just a case of running the installer and entering the code you were sent by e-mail this time. You start off doing this, as usual, but once the installation is complete, you will have a time-limited demonstration of the aircraft which turns to building bricks when that limit is reached. You can restart FSX to get it back again, but to unlock the aircraft fully, you need to run the other executable from the zipfile, which unlocks the package.

The activation routine involves sending two sets of numbers - your purchase code and a machine-specific key - to Skysim, who will then reply with an unlock code, allowing you unlimited access to the aircraft package.

While I can understand developers protecting their packages and really have no problem with it whatsoever, there are a couple of drawbacks to this process. The first, in the modern global marketplace, is that it requires someone in the UK, working in the GMT+0 time zone, to send the code. If you live in Hawaii, Japan or New Zealand, for instance, the chances are they they'll be asleep when you're awake and vise-versa.

The other side effect of the method used is that it isn't very fond of Windows Vista, as Nick discovered, although my XP SP3 installation went fine.

Unless you have disabled User Access Control on Vista, at least for the FS directories, the activation routine will not 'take', no matter how many times you press the activation button. In order to get the activation to work, Nick had to turn UAC off, run the install routine, active the aircraft, then re-enable UAC. A lot of packages have problems have 'issues' with UAC to be honest, not just this one, but nevertheless there are a number of problems that may cause users of MS's current operating system a few expletives or hair pulling. It may be too late for this release, but I think Skysim will have to take a serious look at their protection routine before the next release.

Anyway, after going through the installation and activation routine, when you look at the aircraft selection screen, you will find yourself with twenty very similar looking thumbnails - as the name of the package implies, you'll find ten Red Arrows aircraft with options to fly from either the front or rear seat of the jet. Yes, I know that the 'Reds' only display with nine jets, but you don't want to lose a display because a jet - or pilot - goes "tech", so Red Ten is very much a part of the team, even though you don't normally see them all together. There are other liveries available, but as part of the licensing agreement with the Ministry of Defence (Royal Air Force), this is a Red Arrows package, so you get the rest as a freeware download developed not by Skysim, but by the occupants of the Classic British Flight Sim website.

Another nuisance is that, as you might have noticed, I've gone on a little spree recently of telling off publishers who don't rename the uninstall routine. We have another guilty party here. After installing the Hawk, attempting to uninstall any other package that has done the same thing will uninstall the Hawk instead. Similarly, if you install something else after the Hawk, you then can't uninstall this jet. This is something that people - not just Skysim - seriously need to address. It's a pain.

Documentation

Apart from the installation instructions covered in the previous section, the documentation for the Hawk is provided in the form of a HTML page located within the aircraft folder - FSX/simobjects/airplanes/Skysim Hawk T.Mk1 FrontSeat or RearSeat. If you want a look in advance, it can also be viewed directly from the Skysim website HERE.

Although I'm not the greatest fan of HTML manuals (they're swines to print out if you want to, for one thing), this one contains a lot of useful information in a very compact format. It provides a brief introduction to the aircraft and its history, covers the instrumentation and switches, then provides a checklist to follow for the full start procedure. There are a couple of errors in this ("&nbsp" may be rather familiar to any web developers reading this...) but it is easy to follow and is lot better, for me at least, than hitting ctrl-e or just flicking a jet starter.

The reference section, detailing operational weights, settings and speeds for the aircraft, is followed by a short FAQ section that details a number of potential problems and their solutions or reasons. It's nice to see these included in a manual, rather than as a "stickied" post on a forum, as it means they are always to hand.

Inside the sim, you can access the reference information on the aircraft kneeboard, but unfortunately it does scroll off the side of the kneeboard screen and the checklist page is plain black. Personally, I still prefer to have a print of checklists for a new aircraft when I'm learning to fly them, so it's a copy and paste job into a word processor, then print that.

As I said before, I prefer PDF manuals to webpages by a long way, but the information here is both useful and well presented, so I can't really complain too much.

Exterior

If you've been around the FS world for a while and especially if you have an interest in the UK military, the chances are that at some point, you will have sat looking at a model by Rick Piper, or at least a screenshot of one, and gone 'wow'. This Hawk in no way breaks that chain and is, I'll say straight off, an absolutely superb visual representation of the aircraft.

The Hawk is not a clean aircraft, its 1960s/early 70s design requires a number of 'lumps and bumps' around the airframe and these are all recreated, indented and everything is nicely rounded rather than squared off. The strobe lights are modelled inside their little transparent protective domes and shutting the aircraft down fully removes the pilots from their seats, yet adds protective covers and flags, plus a set of steps to access the cockpit.

Despite the Red Arrows livery, this little jet is by no means harmless. With a bit of typing in the 'aircraft/fuel and payload/change payload' screen, your scarlet trainer is no longer equipped with a belly pod containing oil and dye and the probes that eject the mixture into the jet exhaust to create smoke - instead it has a choice between SNEB rocket launchers, CBLS bomb-training pods, AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and "Acquisition Rounds". I'll be honest, I'm not sure what the latter are, they look to me like training pods for Sidewinders or other guided munitions, but I may be totally wrong there. Finally, adding 360lbs to the belly position adds an Aden gun pod. Give your Red Arrow a pair of Sidewinders and an Aden gun pod and you might look a little silly, but with the Hawk having gained a name for being able to hold its own in practice dogfights against supposedly much superior aircraft, you may well be the one flying home with a grin on your face... Not that the well modelled pilot in the aircraft would show this, hiding behind his oxygen mask and tailhook command operated helmet visor.

Fortunately, to avoid looking silly in the first place, an additional liveries pack is now available from freeware download libraries (I know it is at Avsim), giving you an additional eight liveries for the jet, going through from 1980s camouflage and training liveries, past a couple of special display ones other than "the Reds" to current day training schemes for squadrons from RAF Valley and RAF Leeming.

A PSD format layered paintkit is also available from Classic British Flight Sim and, as a result, a number of additional liveries are also now appearing. In addition to more 1980s camouflage versions and a small number of tactical grey liveries (now including my favourite RAF Brawdy display one - thanks Rick! :)), there is also a livery for a US Navy MDD T-45 Goshawk available from Sim Outhouse. Given the number of operators of the T Mk.1 and the export versions of it, known as series 50 aircraft, there's a lot more scope for repaints beyond this as well.

All of the textures are done in dds format and have both reflective layers and subtle bump maps that improve the model without making it look overdone.

Overall, I simply can't fault the external model of this aircraft, it's just superb.

Interior

As I mentioned before, the Skysim Hawk T.Mk1 is a paid up member of the new wave of aircraft that eschew traditional .dll gauges, in favour of, wherever possible, modelling them directly in the VC. Quite apart from the realism aspect, as you can now see "into" the instruments in 3d, this technique also seems to be a little lighter on your system resources than traditional gauges, giving the user both smoother gauge movement and a smoother sim experience. The downside of this is that the developer was forced ino splitting front and rear piloted versions of the jet due to the compiler running out of animations that it was prepared to deal with. In an e-mail to me during the development of this review, Rick Piper gave the following example of why this happened:

Rick Piper "One of the 3d altimeters uses the following animations: Hundreds of feet needle, thousands of feet needle, tens of thousands of feet needle, Kholsman knob, 4x Kholsman number drums and 5x Altimeter ft drums. That's 13 animations gone already!"

Given the age of the Hawk, it is unsurprising that it has dials, knobs and 'steam driven' gauges rather than the 'glass panel' displays you see in more modern types (and when you sit and look at it, you can see those animations clocking up!). The layout, however, is fairly standard to most aircraft, with the AI in the middle of the panel, airspeed to the left, albeit slightly lower than the AI as the turn co-ordinator is above it and the altitude to the right, again slightly low, as there is a backup AI above it. There's a second altimeter grouped together with the engine instruments above the Central Warning Panel 'carrot salad' to the right of the main gauge group and a typically 1970s clunky radio set is fitted to the left.

Not everything in the VC is animated and working, but everything you need to fly is (plus a few things you don't), which is a good job, because there is no 2d panel at all in this aircraft and, once again, given the resolution and clarity of the VC, you don't really need one. Some of the controls that do work might not appear to at first, as there are a variety of methods used to activate them - some use left clicks, some right clicks (normally to reverse the motion of a left click selection) and others can be controlled using the mouse wheel. I've not seen any click and drag controls here, which is good from my perspective because I find them sometimes quite hard to use accurately when flying, but even before I read the manual I was able to very quickly work out how to activate the controls I wanted to.

The Hawk's left side console, rather than being fitted with two NAV radios, actually sports four receivers - although two of them are linked to the others - the ILS receiver and NAV1 are linked, while the TACAN receiver is linked to NAV2. The TACAN receiver is unusual, however, is that rather than selecting a MHz frequency, as you normally do in FS, you actually select the channel number of the TACAN (TACtical Air Navigation beacon) that you want to receive. Unfortunately, FS doesn't properly simulate TACAN receivers and unless they are VORTACs, where the TACAN is combined with a civilian navigation beacon, you can often find yourself only receiving distance information rather than navigation info. This is a pity, and with military aircraft now included in FS by ACES themselves, in the guise of the Acceleration pack EH101 Helo and Hornet fighter, hopefully the TACAN system can be included in FSXI, properly. Unfortunately I doubt it will be.

The last section of the interior modelling I'll discuss is an addition to what I was talking about earlier, where you can change the external stores of the aircraft by altering weights on load points. Because the two belly stores - the Red Arrows dye pod and the Aden gun pod - require in-cockpit equipment to operate in the form of smoke controls and a gunsight respectively, these components are added to and removed from the VC at the same time as the external stores are loaded or unloaded. The smoke controls allow for red, white and blue smoke and the gunsight can be switched on and off using a switch on the side.

Finally for this section, the VC texturing is worth mentioning, as they're all sharp and recognisable, with the writing easily readable and nice shadowing in the depths of footwells and dark corners.

Flying

This little jet, while fairly forgiving, definitely shows why RAF pilots have to go through both the Grob Tutor and the Shorts Tucano before they get to it. It's agile, far from slow and things tend to happen quite quickly, especially on final, where you have to very much keep an eye on things if you don't want to end up floating along half the runway or descending at a rate far in excess of that you were aiming for.

Rotation on a takeoff run varies greatly depending on how much weight you have added to your aircraft. While even with full tanks, the Red Arrows jet, one crew up with the pod on the belly, will float easily into the air at 120KIAS, if you put two Sidewinders on, or worse a pair of SNEB rocket pods and a second crewmember (you'll be overweight so take some fuel out!) then at 120, the jet is still welded firmly to the runway and will take a little more unsticking. Once airborne and cleaned up, however, the jet comes into its own, climbing at a prodigious rate and, when light, easily able to pull straight up into a half loop provided you don't waste too much airspeed.

Obviously, with the base pack containing the jets of a world famous display team, you're going to want to throw it around the sky with happy abandon, screaming around corners to pass through your own smoke trail, honking up into loops and spinning climbs... first person to achieve the Red Arrows' trademark heart and arrow using recorder module deserves a medal - but no fudging it with Photoshop, people... ;)

However you want to fly it, the Hawk seems willing to work with you. At full power, even in the tightest turns, it shows no real inclination to stall out and even with my ham-fisted attempts at aerobatics it remained fully under my control. Loading it up with those aforementioned SNEB pods or CBLS training bombs makes it a little less sprightly, but you'll still have no problem screaming along those Welsh valleys and with cruise speeds in excess of 400KIAS, it won't take you long to reach a bombing range. Incidentally, while I'm mentioning the CBLS pods, there's no flight included to drop them, but instructions to create one are available in Hawks' SimObjects folders.

When it came to doing stall testing, the first thing I proved was that in a clean configuration the Hawk is a slippery little jet. I didn't want to pop the spoiler, as that can lead to unreliable information, so at 6000' over virtual Lincolnshire I sat and watched the ASI holding a steady 250KIAS, VSI steady and throttle closed, until it finally decided it was bored of that and started to slow. Below 150KIAS, even clean, the Hawk actually slows and loses lift quite quickly so you have to balance back pressure on the stick until you run out of rearward motion around 100KIAS and it loses altitude rapidly. Even fully stalled you retain full control with all inputs and simply lowering the nose breaks the stall. Applying power quickly had me back at 6000' and I dropped the gear and flaps to repeat the test in approach configuration. This time, the stall warning came on around 85KIAS, but all of my test figures were considerably lower than the "book" speeds of 124 knots (clean) and 102 knots (approach). This was confusing until the developer explained that the speeds provided by BAe and the RAF were, in fact, True Airspeed (TAS) not Indicated Airspeed (IAS). A quick check after changing FS's realism settings to show TAS rather than IAS put them within a knot or two of the "book" figures. In my defence, however, the manual does state "Stall Speed (IAS)"...

When you really do want to fly an approach, the Hawk gets a little more finicky, demanding power on to maintain a sensible speed the moment you deploy the gear and especially with gear and both stages of flap down. A three degree glideslope in approach configuration requires in excess of 80% RPM all the way down and even small changes in the throttle made for large changes in airspeed. Full flap is very efficient and this aircraft will float significantly if you increase power much. I should also note at this point that gear and the airbrake are not compatible - the airbrake retracts automatically the moment you deploy the gear and will not extend again until you retract the wheels.

I found the best approach technique was around 120KIAS, with 80% RPM set and using the stick, not the throttle, to regulate both flight path and speed. With a little practice, I got better with both, but if you come in too slow, expect to hit the runway hard and the nosewheel strut is not that strong.

Get the approach right and you can close the throttle in the flare, rounding out to touch down on the mains and gently landing the nose. I was pleased to find that the wheels on this aircraft do not "lock" and stop turning, even if you apply maximum toe brakes, and it will slow quickly with or without much assistance from the brakes.

Taxiing control is achieved using the rudder pedals, which are linked to the nosegear, but the Hawk does require power to taxi and if you close the throttle, it will stop. The manual states that for taxi you should be using 75% N2 which seems reasonable, but you might need a little more to actually get you moving in the first place! The Hawk is very stable around corners and, when I realised I'd forgotten to test something during one test flight, I actually turned from a taxiway onto the runway at Scampton with 100% thrust already set... It wobbled a bit, but boy was that a short takeoff run!

The flight model, in general, seems very "crisp" and is great fun to fly. You'll need a little practice to perfect landings, perhaps, but it does reward you if you fly well and punishes you in a very polite way if you push the limits.

Conclusion

I said at the start that this review was going to probably be rather biased, but to be entirely honest - and as unbiased as I can be - it wouldn't matter if I utterly loathed the model it represents, the rendition presented here is a fantastic add-on for Flight Simulator.

The model is excellent, both inside and outside, it flies superbly and comes with a host of little features such as the hot-swappable loads that add value to a package which, while not cheap, is well within the price range of comparable products.

The only real downside, unfortunately, is the awkward activation system - particularly for Windows Vista users, which could be improved and hopefully Skysim will look into this for future releases.

I'll finish this review off by quoting an article that I found in an ancient "Take Off!" magazine. I think it was from somewhere in the late 1980s, but Keith Hartley, British Aerospace Tornado ADV project pilot, was describing the test flights they did with the Tornado F2 and, in particular, the dog fighting capability of the interceptor. What's that got to do with this review? Well, if you remember my comments about the "slipperiness" of the flight model, the article contained the following little section about flying against Hawks in mock combat:

"They've become very cocky, 'cos they've done very well against the F-15s and F-16s in Detchi and on exercise. [The Hawk] has very low induced drag, so it doesn't slow down in hard turns. The pilot can just rush around in little circles, rolling his socks down, pulling 8g or something silly."*

It's starting to sound like a stuck record from me, given the quality of releases I've had to review recently, but while it may not be to everyone's tastes... Oh, what the heck, I'll take my backside off the fence. Just pull those socks up to get ready and go get this thing already, will you? It's great fun. ;)

* Keith Hartley is quoted from Take Off Magazine, article "Tornado Test Pilot Part 2: Expanding the Envelope", Aerospace Publishing Limited, date unknown due to missing magazine cover.

Find out more about the Hawk at the Skysim web site.   

If you'd like to comment on this review, please use our forum to do so.

All images are Copyright � screenshotartist.co.uk

Ian Pearson is a real world CAA PPL-IMC qualified pilot (unfortunately now lapsed) who has been hooked on civilian flight simming since Mail Pilot on the Commodore 64 and Thalion Airbus on the Amiga. He joined the MS Flightsim world with FS4 and almost immediately FS5.1CD, which was when his first attempt at designing aircraft went seriously pear shaped and he gave up. He has Beta tested for a number of well-known organisations and teams from FS98 through to the present day, but still hasn't found a way of making his addiction to Flight Simulation pay for itself, so officially works in the railway industry in the real world.

Nick Churchill has been providing images for marketing purposes of Flight Simulator products for several years and claims that staring at a virtual cockpit for too long can make you go blind.
 

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