AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Package Review

B-25J Mitchell 'Briefing Time' 

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Rating Guide

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B-25 on approach...

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...and this is how the panel looks
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Publisher: Mid Atlantic Air Museum Simulations —
Bill Rambow, Jan Visser, Fred Banting, and Rob Young
Description:
One of the best replicas of a vintage warplane we've ever seen
Download Size:
CD or 34.3 Mb (plus doc files)
Format:
Executable Auto Install File
Simulator:
FS2002
Reviewed by: Maury Pratt, AVSIM Chief Managing Editor

Possible Commercial Rating Score: 1 to 5 stars with
5 stars being exceptional.
Please see details of our review rating policy here

Every now and then you get the chance to install a package that can only be described as a "labor of love." If there ever was one, Bill Rambow, Jan Visser, Fred Banting, and Rob Young's Briefing Time is it. In fact, this product is a collaboration of their Mid Atlantic Air Museum Simulations outfit and the guys at the Mid Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) with their completely restored WWII era North American, Inc. B-25J Mitchell medium bomber. In fact, MAAM's pilot Russ Strine and copilot Tim O'Hara were intimately involved in the project, flying it endlessly so the team could make this package as realistic as possible (and to get all those great photos and sounds). When Tom Allensworth, Marty Arant, Bill Dailey and I visited them last November I had the singular opportunity to climb aboard and look around—the thing that struck me most was how confining the spaces are; you can surely imagine the courage (and discomfort) their flight crews had back in the '40s!

Pete Malashevitz, the MAAM Program Director writes that "the B-25J, "Briefing Time," was assigned to the 57th Bomb Wing, 240th Bomb Group, 489th Squadron, and served in the North African and Italian Campaigns.

"The Museum's aircraft restoration is complete with the famous Norden bombsight, operating bomb bay, original radio equipment, and armor plating. Many of the aircraft parts, which are no longer available, had to be fabricated for the restoration to be completed... an example is the top machine gun turret, for which the metal framework and Plexiglas were out of production. Museum staff members, working from original drawings fabricated these pieces in order to return the aircraft to its wartime look.

"The crew names which appear on the fuselage are those of the crew that flew her first 60 missions. In addition to these missions, "Briefing Time" shares the credit for the sinking of the Italian cruiser, "Taranto".

"After becoming surplus in 1959, "Briefing Time" was used as a freight support plane by Tallmantz Inc., in producing such motion pictures as "Around the World in 80 Days". It appeared as "6C" in the motion picture "Catch 22", "War and Remembrance" and has "starred" in six other movies. "Briefing Time" has traveled to hundreds of air shows and aircraft displays, as a part of the Museum's educational outreach program. It has been honored with several awards for its quality of restoration, including the Experimental Aircraft Association's "Best Restored Bomber" award. The Museum's Mitchell was donated in 1981."

Installation, Display and Documentation

I found installation to be easy and straight-forward. I found that flying with my 19" monitor in 1024 x 768 resolution to produce excellent images; of course higher resolutions are even better, especially with a 21" monitor. In my estimation you'll need at least a 17" monitor to effectively use all the panel's features. To facilitate frame rate management with a range of systems, the developers have thoughtfully provided three "complexity levels"—in the Select Aircraft menu you'll find a 'Variation' box which lets you select either the full-scale version; a 'medium' version that is equipped with the Virtual Cockpit flight deck, but not the Bombardier's or Upper Gunner's compartments; or a 'light' version that omits the virtual cockpit.

Test System

Dell 8200 P4 2,400 MHz
WindowsXP
512 Megs RD RAM
GeForce 4 4600ti graphics card
40X DVD CD ROM
MS Force Feedback 2 joystick
Dell 19" Monitor

Flying Time:
3 hours over 2 days


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Starter and Switch panel (note the corresponding main panel 'click points' to the left).

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Full Quadrant pop-up

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Gear, Flap, and Trim pop-up (activated from the co-pilot's panel)

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Radio Stack pop-up

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ATC window

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Kneeboard window

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GPS pop-up

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Map window

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My flight started with engine run-up at the Stead, Nevada airport

Documentation comes in several forms. First, there's the expected User Manual. But this one is different from most—not only does it cover and illustrate all the plane's panel features and instruments in complete detail, but also has guidelines on handling the plane from engine start-up through each phase of flight. These are augmented with eleven digital videos in which MAAM President Russ Strine demonstrates actual flying situations with the restored "Briefing Time" flying from MAAM's Reading, Pennsylvania airport and at various air shows.

The videos really enhance your flying enjoyment—you have real insight into not only what to do, but why you're doing it. Russ shows and explains it all during actual flights.

There's plenty of information about the real-world plane, and numerous tips designed to assure its maximum enjoyment; there's even guidelines on using views and sim settings to get the best possible frame rates with your system.

You'll also find a 21 minute black & white WWII training film that augments Russ Strine's videos (though the planes depicted in this video file are the earlier B and C models).

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The Manual's table of contents shows how amazingly comprehensive this package is.

Then there's the official U.S. Army Air Corps April 1945 Pilot Training Manual. This 170 page scanned document contains everything you could want to know about the real-world B-25's operation.

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A sample page from the Pilot Training Manual. This one shows the layout and functions of each of the real-world plane's instruments.

There's even more data available for those "really into" vintage WWII aircraft in a separate Multi-media CD available from MAAM. Included are more actual manuals (including a flight instructor's manual for both the B-25 and B26), videos made during various air shows, a history of the plane describing changes made during its six years in production, and photos "of every nook and cranny of 'Briefing Time' taken over the last two years in the course of developing the B-25J 'Briefing Time' Flight Simulator 2002 add-on package. Since 'Briefing Time' is not open to the public during air shows, this is a unique chance for you to see what she looks like inside, from nose to tail. What the pictures reveal is a very rare bird indeed, one of only three B-25s in existence that are restored inside and out to this level of war-time condition and completeness."

The Aircraft

Not only is this plane accurately and meticulously detailed, but the developers have gone all-out with animation beyond the usual control surfaces, landing gear, etc. There's moving cowl flaps, a working pilot's window you can move, a forward crew entry hatch, and of course you can open the bomb bay doors.

Take a look at these screenshots!

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Can you believe the detail in this engine close-up?
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...as compared with the real thing (Photograph courtesy Bill Rambow)
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Here's the corresponding right-side view
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...um, this one's "Alice"(Photograph courtesy Bill Rambow)

Sound Suite

And 'sweet' it is! You're sure to enjoy hearing the 'staged' run-up of the plane's Wright Double Cyclones Bill Rambow recorded at various RPMs on the apron at Reading—and you can see exhaust flames these engines' 'short stacks' produce when you see the 'runup.mpg' video he took at dusk while these sound recordings were made. You'll hear various instrument sounds he recorded from the cockpit when you fly the sim B-25 too!

Bill Rambow adds, "If you are not among the real B-25 veterans who will be flying our creation, let me tell you a little bit about the racket inside a real Mitchell. It has been described as being akin to climbing into a 55 gallon drum and having 28 beefy men beat repeatedly upon it with sledge hammers. Colorful as that analogy is, it does not do justice to the cacophony! Standing in the upper gunner's compartment, where I often did to film out the windscreen between the pilots, the two massive props are beating the air against the thin metal of the fuselage a few feet from one's head. The engines, even at idle, have to be heard to be believed! Communication below the level of a shout is impossible, and without ear protectors, the noise is mind-numbing. With the original short exhaust stacks, (that 'Briefing Time' still has, unlike the vast majority of the remaining B-25s in the world) the Mitchell is renowned as one of the noisiest aircraft ever built. You will hear the characteristic popping of those short stacks when the plane is at idle, the first time you start up the plane in FS. I would suggest you resist the urge to simulate the true volume of a B-25, though. I doubt your speakers, windows, or neighbors would tolerate the attempt!"

Panel features

An outstanding feature of this panel is its near 100% accuracy in appearance to the real thing. Complementing that is the great job they've done with the Virtual Cockpit views (not only from the flight deck, but at the various crew stations as well).

The Main Instrument Panel

Both the conventional (if I can call it that) 2D panel and the 3D Virtual Cockpit are superb. You can toggle between both the pilot's (left hand) and the copilot's (right hand) panels, and you can call up enlarged versions of both if desired. There's a number of highly detailed pop-up screens (described below) as well.

The comprehensive, illustrated instrument descriptions contained in the User Manual are cross-referenced to other sections of the manual that explain their use as you start up and fly this plane. While most instrument functions are familiar to any sim pilot, these explain differences inherent in flight controls and instrumentation of the WWII era. As mentioned above, there's a video with each of these that not only show how these are used, but also explain applicable procedures and settings.

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Here, we have the B-25J 'Briefing Time' panel as done by the MAAM team
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Here's a comparison shot of the real B-25J panel to compare the level of detail between the real aircraft and what you get with the MAAM package. (Photograph courtesy Bill Rambow)
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Here's a view of the Virtual Cockpit (pilot's view)
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This screenshot is looking again from the pilot's view, but toward the copilot's panel.

There are lots of interesting instruments besides the one's we're familiar with; I've shown a few of these here (descriptions are quoted from the User Manual):

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This is one of those unusual ones – at least from a modern standpoint. First of all, the needle registers miles per hour, since this is an Army plane—unlike the Navy R4D and most modern aircraft, which display nautical miles per hour (knots). The needle only reads from zero to 100 mph, while hundreds of MPH are displayed on a disc that is read through a cutout in the gauge face. The white triangle is the hundreds reference mark. So, the ASI indicated airspeed shown above is 225 mph.
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This instrument may be familiar to you, if you fly some of the CFS aircraft, as it was a fairly common WW2 instrument. It features a heading indicator that serves the same purpose as the heading bug on a modern light plane's HSI. The knob is used to set the point of the heading indicator (double-lines) on the intended heading, then the plane is steered to bring the compass needle between the parallel lines, and keep them lined up.
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The name of this gauge may be a bit misleading. In modern terms, it is an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), but without the rotating compass ring with which you are probably familiar. When a Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) station is tuned and being received by the ADF receiver, the needle of the radio compass will point toward the station... Turning the plane until the needle is at zero will take you straight over the station.
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The radio (or radar) altimeter has a Low Range, where the needle will indicate the altitude above ground level (AGL), each hash mark representing ten feet. The numbers 1 through 4 show hundreds of feet. Mouse clicking on the RANGE knob will toggle the instrument into High Range, where each hash mark is a hundred feet. In High Range the numbers become 10 through 40 and still show hundreds of feet AGL. The picture shows an indication of 2400 feet AGL.

'Briefing Time' is equipped with a LORAN receiver for use in navigation. The LORAN system, which has been made obsolete by GPS and is being phased out of use in the U.S., is not supported by Flight Simulator, so none of the buttons work. However, we have programmed it as a DME readout, which is just one of its functions in real life. Linked only to the Nav 1 receiver, from top left to bottom right the readouts are: True ground speed in knots, the estimated time of arrival (ETA) over the station in minutes and seconds, the frequency of the station tuned on Nav 1, and the distance to the VOR station in nautical miles and tenths.
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Here is one I'll bet you are not familiar with (unless you were a real WW2 bomber pilot). This was an indicator that told the pilot which way to steer the aircraft during the bomb run. The B-25, unlike the B-17, was not steered directly by the Norden Bombsight. Instead, the bombardier would transmit a steering command to the pilot to keep him on course until bombs away. FS does not have a facility to duplicate this function, of course, so we have decided to program it as a VOR steering indicator. It will point in the direction of the tuned VOR 1, (Nav 1 Receiver) up to the limits of its needle travel, which is 45 degrees on either side of center...

Beside information about each instrument you'll find interesting and helpful information on topics such as fuel management, and using the autopilot (there isn't one in the actual B-25, of course, but then you don't have a copilot either, so an 'invisible' one you use with FS' keyboard commands is supplied).

SubPanels

(See the column to the left for subpanel illustrations from the User Manual.)

Starter and Switch panel:
Here you'll find mouse-clickable switches for the battery disconnect, fuel booster, primer, energizer and mesh (starter), and ignition. These functions enable a realistic engine start and shutdown sequence – just as in the real airplane. Very nice. There's also a switch to feather the props, the pitot heat switch, and various lighting buttons such as position lights, anti-collision lights, and landing lights.

In a "Note for purists," the manual states that "placement of the Battery, Position Lights, Anti-Collision Lights and Pitot Heat switches on the starting panel is one of the few departures from reality that we have made. It is one of those compromises which FS sometimes require, for utility's sake. These switches are actually located on a circuit breaker and switch panel beneath the Pilot's panel that we have chosen not to depict, since there are no other useable FS functions on it. To make room for these functional switches on the panel, a few circuit breakers and recognition light switches have been removed, since these could not be duplicated in FS, either."

Full Quadrant pop-up:
Though of course the console is actually located on the deck between the pilots' seats, it appears as a pop-up in the simulated panel—there's also a foreshortened view of the throttle, prop pitch (RPM) and mixture levers on the main panel so these can be controlled from either of those as well. In addition to these three engine control levers, the pop-up contains an elevator trim wheel (with directional click areas and an elevator trim scale). There's even twin supercharger boost levers for high altitude operations, and carburetor heat levers.

Gear, Flap, and Trim pop-up:
Though you have wing flap and landing gear position indicators on the co-pilot's panel, you'll use this pop-up to activate the landing gear lever, wing flaps lever, cowl flaps levers, and aileron and rudder trim knobs.

Radio Stack pop-up:
This is an exact replica of the real one installed in 'Briefing Time'. It's easier to show an illustration than to describe it:

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This is the authentic radio stack, together with identification lables as shown in the User Manual.
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Here's an example of radio stack operation illustrations from the manual; this one is the ADF

ATC window:
This is the usual FS2002 moving map.

Kneeboard window:
This one's a little more interesting—very detailed checklists were compiled from several vintage B-25 manuals. There are both Normal and Emergency Operation checklists that can (and should) be used to operate the aircraft simulation realistically. (There's also a printable MS Word version of the checklists in the installation Documents folder.) Similarly, there's a Reference tab showing detailed aircraft specifications, performance data and limits, and power settings (also with a printable version).

GPS pop-up:
Though a little strange in a vintage plane, it's useful indeed with the sim version. Bill comments that "a hand-held GPS is actually used by her MAAM pilots, on occasion."

Map window:
Again, this is the standard FS2002 area map, though it's conveniently called up from the icon on the copilot's panel.

Other crew position views

Here's some additional views (shown in 2D below) that are provided in both 2D and VC modes. Though usually (in FS2002) you must choose between a virtual cockpit and 2D, the developers have figured out how to provide both. Well, not quite. Bill Rambow tells me that "the VC actually stops at the rear bulkhead of the upper turret compartment (UTC). The waist gun view is 2D only, but all the others are in both 2D and 3D, only because there is no tail gunner's view. Neither the 2D or 3D crawls back there! ;-) In other words, the virtual cabin and cockpit include the flight deck, UTC, tunnel, and bombardier's compartment."

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In this 2D view we see how the world looks from the bombardier's station...
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...from the radio-waist gunner's position
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...and from the top turret gunner's position
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Here's an example of an interior view in VC mode; also in the upper turret compartment.

The User Guide states that "To move about the VC, use the keyboard commands you will find listed on the first page of your kneeboard, or in the Options / Controls / Assignments menu FS2002... To return to the pilot's seat - the starting position when you first load the aircraft, press the space bar." But another way of moving and looking around "is to try a very nice freeware utility called "ActiveCameraPro 1.2" by Serge Baye, Guillaume Darier, and Andy Newman, of Anticyclone. This add-on program for FS enables keyboard control of movement around the VC using the number pad, which is much easier and more intuitive than the default key combinations. The program also allows you to move in the same way outside of the plane, which makes a real walk-around inspection possible. You can even 'squat down' to examine the landing gear and tires - or take some dramatic screenshots..." (as shown below).

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Flying 'Briefing Time'

Whatever I might write about flying this plane would be redundant, as the screenshots and videos tell the story more effectively than I could. Suffice it to say that I've flown this FS2002 plane from the Stead Regional Airport near Reno, Nevada (home of the annual Reno National Air Races), imagining that I was taking part in the military aircraft "fly-by" featured at these races. In a word, this plane is easy to fly, the engine sounds are convincing, and its handling qualities feel realistic. And it's a real plus to be able to move to and from the flight deck to the various crew stations at will.

You can begin with the engines running, or you can start with a 'cold and dark' cockpit. You follow the illustrated text procedure in the User Guide, then click on the video link to see how Russ does it. Here's the Starting viedo that shows how it's done, as an example.

As a good example of tips in the User Guide for handling this plane, the section on Taxiing says, "First of all, Steering the B-25 on the ground is primarily done by using the brakes. You should know that the B-25 has notoriously sensitive and strong brakes." Using the F11 and F12 keys I found that making turns on the taxiway is 'a piece of cake'.

A number of pre-established flights (situations) are included; you'll find these in the Flights menu under the category 'Briefing Time Flights'. A "start-up" flight you might want to try is called 'Briefing Time at MAAM'. Others return to the locales of war-time bases in the North African and Italian theaters. And there is a flight commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. The User Manual notes that "Because the default carriers are so poorly made, this flight requires the download and installation of Javier Fernandez's gorgeous U.S.S. John C. Stennis (cvz74jf.zip) which you can get here. It is labeled as being for FS2000, but it works fine in FS2002, as well."

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Doolittle Raid re-enactment flight

Conclusion

So that's the 'Briefing Time' story. Whether or not you're a fan of WWII planes, this one is a must have for its "blow you away" authenticity, excellence in execution, and all-around fun.

At $25 USD (plus $4.95 shipping anywhere in the world), this package is an outstanding bargain (and it all goes to support MAAM aircraft restoration projects). You can download a somewhat limited 21 MB version from the Avsim Library intended to introduce you to the full aircraft package; hopefully this will encourage you to purchase the full product (from the Avsim Store once arrangements are completed) or from MAAM directly.


 

What I Like About MAAM Simulations' Briefing Time
  • Incredibly comprehensive documentation
  • Video-based flight instruction
  • Exquisitely detailed views of the plane's internal structure
  • Exceptionally complete panels and crew stations, both in 2D and Virtual Cockpit modes
  • Great ambience with the convincing engine and instrument sounds
  • "Aircraft Complexity" options to conserve system resources for improved frame rates
  • Sale proceeds are contributed to MAAM aircraft restoration projects

 
What I Don't Like About MAAM Simulations' Briefing Time
  • Nothing at all

 
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The review above is a subjective assessment of the product by the author. There is no connection between the producer and the reviewer, and we feel this review is unbiased and truly reflects the performance of the product in the simming environment. This disclaimer is posted here in order provide you with background information on the reviewer and connections that may exist between him/her and the contributing party.

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