Most people who are reading this probably know that the Supermarine Spitfire was Great Britain’s best fighter in World War II. If you want to know more, I recommend the article on Wikipedia and, if you’re still curious after that, the Spitfire books by Jeffrey Quill, who was the fighter’s main test pilot.
In the meantime, let’s talk about versions. To my knowledge, there are no less than four Spitfire products currently on the market for FS2004: the Mk. XIV Spitfire by RealAir Simulations, the Spitfire series by Aeroplane Heaven, the Mk. XVI by Plane Design, and the Mk. IA by Shockwave, which is being reviewed here.
Assuming that someone decides to build a Spitfire for Flight Simulator, one of the first questions that has to be decided is which version. The first version, Mk. I, started production in August 1938; the last version, Mk. 24, was introduced after the war in 1948. Of these, the test pilot’s personal favorite was Mk. XIV, which is the one RealAir decided to simulate.
So why bother with anything else? Specifically, why go to the trouble of recreating the earlier marks when everyone agrees they were inferior? I am aware that, to Spitfire fanatics, this question will seem vulgar, or even obscene. If you love the Spitfire, then of course you will want to explore and “own” all of the marks, from I to 24 (which is what you can do if you buy the Aeroplane Heaven package distributed by Just Flight). But if you were going to do just one Spitfire, why would a developer pick the Mk. I?
There is a very simple answer: this is the aircraft that, with the Hawker Hurricane, won the Battle of Britain. Later versions of the Spitfire were faster, more agile, and better armed. But if you are trying to put yourself in the mindset of a British pilot in 1940, when the invasion of his homeland was a real possibility, then the Mk. I is your airplane.
Installation and Documentation
Originally, the Shockwave Spitfire was sold as part of a CD-ROM package, Wings of Power II: WWII Fighters. That was quite successful, but there were some customers who didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) all five aircraft. Enter the “Solo” fighters, available through download only. These are the same models as the CD-ROM version, but you can purchase them one at a time, and you have to print the documentation yourself.
The download is not large and installation is simple. There is an installer program, and only one decision to make: FS2004 or FSX? If you have both, choose one and then rerun the installer for the other version. That’s it.
Documentation, in the form of a PDF file, is elegant but economical: only six pages, and one of those is a title page. If you’re looking for a history lesson, go to the library. For flying the plane, everything you need is attractively laid out in the space of four pages: a labeled map of the virtual cockpit; reference speeds; general flight notes; and checklists for engine start, pre-takeoff check, taxi and takeoff, climb, cruise at various altitudes, and landing. The reference speeds and checklists are also available from the kneeboard.
The visual model is outstanding. While working on this review I’ve looked at a lot of photographs, and when I go back to the sim version, everything is in the right place with the right dimensions and proportion. Nose and fuselage: long; wing: elliptical and thick. The pilot sits high, as on a horse. Compare this with the main German fighter from this period, the Me 109; there the pilot sits low, inside his machine, and his wings are narrow, squared-off.
In combat, the two planes were well matched, but they breathe a different air. To my eye, the German fighter projects intensity: “I am going to hunt you down.” (This is not just fancy: the German word for fighter is Jäger ‘hunter’; a fighter pilot is a Jagdflieger ‘hunt flyer’.) The Spitfire, I think, projects power: its lines are muscular, but there is no sense of strain. The Shockwave model captures this very well.
As good as the modeling is, the surface textures are even better. I never got tired of looking at these. The Shockwave Spitfire comes with only one livery, but that one livery is superb. In the FSX version, bump-mapping and self-shadowing are not enabled, but I can’t say that I miss them -- the painted shadows, on rivets and other extrusions, are entirely convincing. The other factor is color. Of course, all textures have color, but these are quite subtle. I don’t know how the effect was actually achieved, but the result is something like an oil painting.
Specifically, it looks like the colors have been applied in several layers or coats, in such a way that the undercoat deepens the color of the overcoat. However it was done, there is a richness here that I am not used to seeing in a flight sim model.
There are also several repaints available on the web. Of these, my favorite is eps_wwiif_spit_jze.zip, found in the AVSIM file library.
The inside looks just as good as the outside.
Beware, however: the 2D cockpit is minimal as you can see from the accompanying screenshot. (To show what’s available, I’ve also included all of the pop-up panels, but normally these would be hidden, all except the wide one at the bottom.) If you don’t like virtual cockpits (VC's), stay away or be willing to rethink your position.
Why would someone prefer a 2D cockpit? I can think of several reasons: habit, efficiency (you never need to pan), and more legible gauges. In this case, however, gauge clarity is not an issue. You can practically press your nose up against the glass on the altimeter, and it will still be readable. Even the compass card is legible, and those numbers are pretty small.
The one gauge I had trouble using (not reading) was the flat P8 compass behind the spade grip (that’s a joystick to you and me). Even with TrackIR, it takes some doing to find the right viewing angle.
This isn’t the model’s fault -- it’s a feature of the real plane’s cockpit. (It would be convenient if the FSX version had a special view set up for this, the way the new default planes have special views for things like radio panels and engine controls, but that hasn’t been implemented.)
Unfortunately, once you get into position the compass doesn’t function like the real P8 it’s supposed to emulate. Fortunately, there’s a fix from user Todd Connelly, which you can download from the Shockwave support forum (look for the thread titled “Some replacement gauges”).
Compass notwithstanding, the cockpit in this aircraft is a work of art. Colors are rich, curves are clean, animations are smooth. The only thing I don’t see that I would expect to find on a Spitfire of this era is a vintage R/T (radio telephone). There is a pop-up panel with a modern-day radio stack, but it looks out of place.
One of the Shockwave developers, Scott Gentile, is a professional musician. (You can listen to samples of his work on the shockwaveproductions.com website.) It’s not surprising, then, that the sounds in this model are just as rich as the visuals.
The deep, reliable thrumming of the powerful Merlin engine, the protracted hiss of retracting flaps, the solid clank of landing gear locking in place, the high-pitched whirr of gyroscopes spinning up to speed, the shriek of ignition: all of them are here, clearly rendered, with subtle gradations and sequences. There is nothing missing, and nothing that is not well done.
One sound that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the stall buffet. A lot of models don’t bother with it, and I didn’t appreciate it until recently, when I got the Buttkicker Gamer. This is a specialized subwoofer that attaches to your chair and translates bass sounds into vibration. Apparently, the Spitfire’s stall buffet sound has a big bass component, because when I stalled the fighter in a steep turn, I could feel the buffeting in my chair. Thank you Shockwave, for shaking me.
As of this writing, the Plane Design and RealAir Spitfires have not been updated for FSX. The Shockwave Spitfire is FSX-compatible but does not take advantage of new features in the sim, except to add some external views: nose, tail, left wing, and right wing. This is hardly a deal-breaker: even without the new features, it still looks and flies like a thoroughbred.
There is, however, a glitch with the propeller: when viewed in front of a cloud, it disappears. This is a common problem with FS9 models that have ported over to FSX. Shockwave has acknowledged the problem on its support forum, but doesn’t seem eager to fix it. That’s disappointing. It may be tedious, but if the default planes can do it, the payware planes should do it too.
Frame rates were not an issue on my test system. VC textures took a second to load, but cockpit panning was smooth afterward. Frankly, I was surprised. When something looks this good, you expect to pay for it somewhere else (usually in performance). That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
One thing I noticed in studying the VC panel, is that it’s constructed all in one piece, like the default planes from Microsoft. This isn’t the easiest way to build a virtual cockpit, but it’s the best way for the end user because the gauges refresh more smoothly.
The Shockwave advertising makes a big point of its “Absolute Realism Technology,” with a little TM after “Absolute Realism.” So what is “Absolute Realism”?
According to the support forum, it means that the developer consulted written accounts from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ok, but is there anyone selling models of vintage aircraft who does not do that? As far as I can tell, “Absolute Realism” is not a technology at all: it just means doing your homework.
Shockwave has done this, very well. Ideally, someone who reviews a World War II-era fighter should have flown in one. Failing that, he should at least be a real pilot. I am neither, alas. But I do have a library card! Over the last month, I have read numerous reports of what the Spitfire was like to fly, both from R.A.F. pilots and from Luftwaffe pilots who were flying downed aircraft and comparing them with their own Me 109s.
I can tell you, for example, that at high speed the early Spitfires had sluggish ailerons. (So did the 109s they were flying against.) Apparently, Shockwave read the same report because if you wind up the airspeed indicator past 350 miles per hour, the controls on this model will become unresponsive. I also know that the Merlin engine, manufactured by Rolls Royce, lost power when flying inverted. (The 109s had an advantage here, because a fuel-injected engine doesn’t care if it’s upside-down.) Shockwave got this one right too: roll over and the engine plays dead until you flip back. (The other company that makes a Mk. I Spitfire, Aeroplane Heaven, apparently missed this NOTAM, because its Merlin runs just as well upside-down as rightside-up.)
Where “Absolute Realism” breaks down is in engine management. You can run the motor as hard you want, for as long as you want, and it will still love you at the end of the day. Real Merlins were reliable, but if you mistreated them, they could fail in-flight. That danger is not modeled here. You can rip the wings off, but you can’t burn up the engine.
The things I’ve mentioned so far are easy to check, if you know to look for them. The overall feel of an aircraft is harder to judge, especially when the reviewer is a non-pilot. Several weeks ago, there was a long and (I thought) fruitful discussion on one of the forums here about which flight model is more realistic: the RealAir Spitfire or Plane Design?
It was agreed that the Plane Design Spitfire is harder to master, but the original question wasn’t settled: is harder more realistic? From what I have read, the Spitfire was not regarded as hard to fly compared with other fighters from the same era. (This was in contrast with the Me 109, about which there were many complaints -- as well as much praise.) Taxiing is tricky and visibility is poor in the last seconds before touchdown (when it’s hard to see over the long engine cowling), but these are problems with all tail draggers. Takeoffs do require some care, because of the high engine torque, but (again) this wasn’t something that pilots harped on during the war.
Which flight model is most accurate? I think the question could be answered by someone who has flown the real thing, and there are living pilots who have. Trouble is, I’m not one of them.
Let’s leave it at this, then: the Shockwave Spitfire is probably easier to fly than the other three. I don’t have the Plane Design or RealAir versions, but the consensus is that Plane Design is harder to fly than RealAir Simulations. I have compared the Shockwave Spitfire with the Mk. I Spitfire from Aeroplane Heaven (which you can download as a free sample of the whole package), and the Shockwave version is noticeably more forgiving.
If you turn hard at low speeds, it will stall -- and if you are just coming off of the runway when that happens, you will crash. But the Aeroplane Heaven version will stall sooner (and so will the RealAir Marchetti, if that gives you a reference point).
According to the Shockwave manual, the Spitfire IA was not certified for spins. This doesn’t mean you can’t enter a spin -- you can -- but whether you can get out again there’s no guarantee. This afternoon I did five spins and recovered from four.
There are, as we said before, several options for flightsim pilots who want to fly Spitfires. The “Solo” version of the Shockwave Spitfire, which we looked at here, sells for US$18. It does only one thing, but it does that one thing well, with substance and style. The other Spitfires cost more, and have more options.
The RealAir Spitfire (25 euros) comes with four different versions of the Mk. XIV, including one with modern instruments, and also has custom scenery (a 1944 airbase twenty miles south of London). The Plane Design Spitfire ($30) also has several variants (including one with modern instruments) and comes with more animations in the visual model and virtual cockpit. The Aeroplane Heaven Spitfire ($45) has the most variants of all -- multiple marks, from each phase of the Spitfire’s development history -- and also comes with scenery.
That’s the competition from other Spitfires. The other competition comes from another Shockwave product, Wings of Power II: WWII Fighters ($25 plus shipping if you shop around). This includes the Spitfire reviewed here, and four other fighters from the same era: Messerschmitt Bf 109-E, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, and Mitsubishi Zero. This is a CD-ROM product, but there is also an update which you’ll want to download from the Shockwave website.
By all accounts, the quality of all five models is uniformly high, and this gives one pause. Do you buy one for $18, or five for about $30? Of course, if you only have $18, and you must have a Spitfire, there is only option, and it’s a good one. But if you have alternatives, here is my advice.
If you want to explore the whole development cycle, download the sample aircraft (Mk. IA) from Aeroplane Heaven. It’s free and it will give you a basis for deciding whether you want to invest in the whole series. If you want to fly in bad weather, you will probably want something with modern instruments, and that means either Plane Design or RealAir; both have received favorable marks from AVSIM reviewers, and their flight models have been widely praised, even if they differ from one another.
But if you are at all interested in comparing the Spitfire with other fighters from the same period, look at the Wings of Power fighter package: it’s five good models, including one very good Spitfire.
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