FOREWORD: "Flight Of The Intruder"
Sometimes, when I write a review for a product, I get big ideas on how to make my article seem interesting for the readers. This time around, I am test flying the Grumman A-6 Intruder, an American bomber aircraft that flew many missions into Vietnam, and was a common sight for many years on the decks of the aircraft carriers of the United States. History, culture, and even morals are valid topics regarding the deployment of the Intruder. That's even before we delve into the A-6's flight dynamics, and how it looks in FSX. For help with my review of the Intruder by sim developer RAZBAM, I felt I needed the best source I could find regarding the A-6. I contacted Stephen Coonts, the author of the classic war novel "Flight of the Intruder", who kindly offered me some tips on what it was like to fly the bomber.
If you have never read the book, I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in military aviation. Briefly, the story concerns a fictional Navy Lieutenant named Jake Grafton who flies an A-6 Intruder against the Communists. The reader is taken on missions that are exciting and horrifying by turns, but equally interesting are the personal journeys young Jake embarks upon as he finds meaning in honour, love, courage, and sacrifice. "Flight of the Intruder" has realistic characters and deeply plausible story-telling to satisfy even the most discerning of readers, but in the tradition of the best contemporary military thrillers it also presents a wealth of clearly-explained information on what it was like to fly an Intruder.
This information comes from a reliable source: in 1971 to 1973, before he became a writer, Stephen Coonts piloted sixteen hundred hours in the same Grumman Intruders that his fictional Jake Grafton flew. After the Vietnam War, Mr. Coonts channeled his experiences into his typewriter and came up with "Flight of the Intruder", which for him was the beginning of a prosperous literary career.
Steven Coonts explained to me, "As my website notes, the thirteen missions in 'Flight of the Intruder' were missions I flew, missions that friends flew, missions I heard about, and a couple that I made up to tell the story. It is literally the lore of the time and place." He points out that much of the information on how to fly the A-6 is in his books. Armed with this knowledge, I set out to discover how close the RAZBAM edition of the A-6 Intruder was to the ones flown in the book.
Mr. Coonts graciously gave me permission to use small quotes from "Flight of the Intruder" in my review. I have chosen lines from the book that I believe add more information and colour to my examples in the review. Each of these quotes has its own "By The Book" headline, and includes page numbers for reference. I hope you enjoy them!
INTRODUCTION: Armed And Dangerous
RAZBAM is a small third-party developer of military aircraft designed for FS9 and FSX. Specifically, the folks at RAZBAM are most interested in re-creating the fighters and bombers of the American Navy. The Grumman A-6 Intruder is their latest effort. It's designed to look good, fly accurately, and in the case of FSX, push at the boundaries of what the flight sim is capable of doing. Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual features of the add-on Intruder is that you can actually drop its bombs. Although the RAZBAM Intruder is functional on its own, I would highly recommend that FSX users have the Acceleration Expansion Pack installed to get the most from the A-6.
If you are interested in the history of the Intruder, there's a lot of material on the topic. The RAZBAM website does a creditable job of explaining the Intruder in brief, so with their permission, I will quote this excerpt:
"The Grumman A2F (A-6) Intruder was the result of a February 1957 Navy request for proposals for a replacement for the Douglas Skyraider in both the Navy and the Marine Corps. The request was accompanied by Type Specification 149, which asked for a two-seat aircraft capable of performing in all-weather conditions. An ability to take off and land in short distances was required, as was a top speed of at least 500 knots and a mission radius of at least 300 nautical miles.
Since supersonic performance was not called for, the aircraft was powered by a pair of non-afterburning Pratt & Whitney J52 turbojets mounted on the lower corners of the central part of the fuselage, fed by large intakes mounted on the lower sides of the forward fuselage. The first Intruder was rolled out at Bethpage on April 14, 1960. It carried no radar, and was equipped with only enough electronic equipment to allow for safe flight.
The fourth Intruder was the first airplane to be fitted with the full set of avionics. It began flying in December of 1960. While the problems with the DIANE targeting system were being worked on, carrier trials began aboard the USS Enterprise in December of 1962. Initial deliveries to the training squadron VA-42 at NAS Oceana in Virginia began in February of 1963. On September 18, 1962, the A2F-1 was redesignated A-6A. Most A-6As were fitted with a non-retractable refueling probe, mounted immediately in front of the cockpit. A total of 488 A-6As (including the prototypes) were built before production switched over to the A-6E version in December of 1970."
The Intruder was larger than the fighter aircraft of the time, but smaller than the medium bombers from World War II. So, it's quite a large airplane for two men to fly, yet it's also powerful and agile in the air. Since it could not break the sound barrier, the Intruder was not fitted with engines that had afterburners. Stealth over the battlefield was achieved by bringing in the Intruder fast below the radar horizon, no more than 300 feet off the ground. Its payload could be as much as 18,000 pounds of ordinance, which would be almost equal to what four B-17 Flying Fortresses could deliver in wartime. A sophisticated radar showed the contours of terrain, and would be used in conjunction with DIANE, a computer-assisted navigation device. This allowed the Intruder to fly at any time of day or night and to strike at targets in the "clag", under heavy rain and thick clouds.
INSTALLATION & DOCUMENTATION: One Step Forward, One Step Back
RAZBAM's A-6 Intruder is downloaded as two executable files, one for FS9 and one for FSX. The file for FS9 is 49 MB, while the FSX version is roughly twice as large at 115 MB. For the purposes of my review, I will be looking at the FSX version only. Either way, installation boils down to clicking on the executable file, and the rest is automatic.
Documentation is another story. The long and the short of it is that there isn't any. No .PDF file, no manuals, no history lesson, no trouble-shooting guide, no cockpit illustration, no read-me file, no nothing. I suppose there is a certain logic to not having any documentation included with the product. Firstly, no matter what you choose to fly in FSX, there are bound to be similarities between aircraft. All of the jets share common characteristics, as do all of the prop-driven aircraft. The A-6 is roughly equivalent to the LearJet but with bombs. Many of the operational features of the LearJet are also operational on the Intruder.
Then there's the level of documentation that comes with FSX. Most of the instruction comes from the Learning Center, which mostly provides generalized lessons on how to fly. The Learning Center is quite good when you know exactly what topic you wish to research, but it's cumbersome if you are attacking an issue that's beyond your understanding. RAZBAM assumes that you are familiar enough with the Learning Center to find out for yourself what you need to know to fly a jet. Seeing as the Learning Center covers how to fly jets, why bother repeating the information in a manual? If you are just learning to fly in FSX, the RAZBAM Intruder is not a good choice for new sim aviators, as some parts of it go beyond what the Learning Center can offer.
Finally, there's a lot of information on the A-6 Intruder in books, movies, and on the Internet. RAZBAM expects us to cull the information we want from these outside sources. At least this way, they don't have to ask for permission to print information that's already been published. It's often fun to do my own research for a product, but if you want direct help in flying your new A-6, you won't find any with your download.
RAZBAM does maintain a website forum where users ask questions and get answers about the product, especially on how to get the bombs to work, how to get the Missions to work, how to fold the wings and so on. A few "stickies" are permanent posts that provide a few operational details for the A-6, like how to fly a traffic pattern around an aircraft carrier, how to set up the bombs, and a few very basic flight parameters. The rest of the website is a grab-bag of topics presented in the chronological order of which the questions were asked.
The RAZBAM Intruder truly suffers from not having a manual presented in a logical, sequential manner. If you have a problem with your aircraft, you're going to find yourself bouncing from topic to topic trying to figure out if the RAZBAM crew has a fix for your issue. I did have a few problems setting up my Intruder, and now I'm at the point where I've decided I'd rather just live with the issues rather than spend any more time trolling the Internet for solutions.
I do dream about back in the day when the flight sim manual was King. The Falcon 4.0 (SP3) manual clocked in at over 300 pages. Spectrum Holobyte (Sphere) made a "Flight of the Intruder" video game that had a manual with notes from Stephen Coonts as well as veterans Pete Bonanni, Norman Cosand, Phil Handley, and John McGinn. The manual was 193 pages long, and included history lessons on the Vietnam war, as well as first-hand accounts of what it was like to fly the planes at the time.
I don't expect developers to make money publishing those extravagant manuals from ten years ago, but even so, the A-6 has accumulated so much history and culture as a fighting aircraft that it seems shameful not to have a decently laid out document to go along with it. Otherwise, the Intruder becomes just another jet with some bombs hooked on for good measure.
EXTERIOR MODEL: Memories Of A Warrior
The Grumman Intruder was a one-of-a kind vehicle. It's been described as "so ugly, it's beautiful". I will let the individual sim aviators decide on how highly they would place the Intruder in a beauty contest for warplanes, however, I will state for the record that the A-6 comes loaded with appeal, as long as you remain on its friendly side.
The wings are designed to fold up to make it easier to store a squadron of Intruders on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The cockpit carries two aviators, a pilot on the left and to his right a "beenie": a B/N or Bombardier/Navigator. The Intruder also has two engines, which is a common requirement for aircraft operating from American naval carriers.
The RAZBAM Intruder looks like a faithful reproduction of the real thing. The model seems to me to be accurate, although it does have the occasional rough edge here and there. The textures generally seem to fit the A-6 in the 1970's: mostly cloud-grey, but with a few bright primary colours splashed about. The contemporary A6E's that went to the Gulf War are painted in muted tones of grey. These more advanced aircraft carry modern payloads, such as frequency jammers, larger weapons, and a nose-mounted TRAM (Target Recognition Attack Multi-sensor). The FSX textures show some bump-mapping to simulate seams and rivets. I found that the textures along the nose and fuselage tended to be both blurry and pixilated, whereas textures on other parts of the aircraft look sharp. If you look at the aircraft from at least 30 simulated feet away, the textures look good, but go any closer and you are likely to find some small faults here and there.
RAZBAM made their aircraft look polished. If you turn on bloom in FSX, the metal textures look stunning. I suspect that in wartime, you wouldn't want to fly in an aircraft that sparkled so conspicuously, but if you like specular eye candy you will find many brightly-lit things to appreciate on the RAZBAM Intruder.
Exterior animations are basic, yet I find them interesting. The Intruder uses spoilerons for steering: the ailerons are on top of the wing and swing up to create drag that will cause the wing to dip in flight. Trailing flaps will extend and retract realistically. Since the A-6 relies on its speed brakes for "flying dirty" (slow flight with the landing gear and flaps extended), I finally got around to mapping a precious joystick button to activate the speed brakes. On the RAZBAM Intruder, the surfaces that are revealed when the spoilerons, the flaps, and the speed brakes are extended are all painted cherry red.
In addition to the control surfaces I have mentioned, the landing gear extends and retracts asymmetrically to simulate the way the hydraulic pumps worked on an A-6. The tail has a functioning stablilator and rudder, and turning the rudder will also steer the nose-wheel. The cockpit can be opened and closed with a clickable switch. Strobe lights and running lights are bright in both day and night conditions. The sim-aviator can also extend and retract a tailhook for aircraft carrier operations.
In flight, you can see the compressor blades spinning in the engine nacelles. Since there is no afterburner, there isn't much in the way of exhaust effects, but the wings will leave nice-looking vapour trails any time you add to their G-load.
VIRTUAL COCKPIT: Jake Grafton's Office
Climbing into the cockpit of an A-6 Intruder leaves little doubt in the mind of the sim aviator that he or she is sitting in an aircraft built for war. The crew looks forward through the peculiar curvilinear windscreen that seems common to Grumman aircraft, including the Intruder, the Goose, and the Tomcat. RAZBAM has made the A-6 virtual cockpit an exciting and exotic place to visit, but it's not as complicated as it looks.
Since the scope of Flight Simulator really isn't intended for wartime pursuits, many of the Intruder's cockpit devices are just there for show, and don't do anything. This is especially true of the B/N's half of the cockpit, which looks fearsome but in FSX gets about as much use as your fussy aunt's living room, the one with all of the furniture covered in plastic. Just as in a real A-6, the pilot's job is to fly the aircraft, so the workload is designed for piloting. In FS9, that's all the RAZBAM Intruder will let you do, while in the FSX version, you can drop bombs if you want to.
The heart of the A-6 attack system is DIANE, which is said to stand for "Digital Integrated Attack Navigation Equipment", although the rumour has it the device was named for the a designer’s daughter, and then the designation followed. The DIANE display is perhaps best described as a sort of artificial view of the terrain with markers built in for finding waypoints and establishing a bomb run. The DIANE system allowed the A-6 to fly its missions under zero-visibility conditions, for as long as the computer had a lock on the target, the crew could use the display to find their way to the attack point.
RAZBAM did not have the resources to make a fully-functioning DIANE computer for their A-6. However, I think they did a good job in re-creating DIANE for what FSX can do. Mostly, the RAZBAM version of the DIANE functions like an attitude ball. There is a user-selectable steering cue that you can tune into waypoints. If you want to attack the VOR's in FSX, then DIANE will show you the way. Otherwise, I found the DIANE computer to be a very pretty but somewhat unhelpful gauge. It is much better than nothing at all, though, so I appreciate the effort.
The rest of the cockpit devices are divided between items that are functional and items that are just for show. Mostly, the devices that are for show would be used for wartime activities. This includes things like the bomb switches, the anti-missile defences, and parts of DIANE. The pieces of the cockpit that do work are things like flight controls, radios, the autopilot, and the engine switches. The active controls have tool-tip labels to help you identify them, although the" Master Arm" switch is labeled as a "Water Rudder" switch. The majority of the switches are depicted as large toggles, and most have clear labels to help you find the switch you are looking for.
The RAZBAM website does provide some very basic cockpit diagrams to help the rookie sim aviator find his or her way around the A-6 cockpit, but it seems that every new pilot just needs to spend some time looking around and finding things. In my view, Grumman tends to design complicated cockpits, and the RAZBAM Intruder reflects this complexity. There's a strange, yet exciting mix of steam gauges with ribbon displays, large black analog dials, and futuristic glowing computer screens all jumbled into the dashboard.
The good news is that all of the major gauges are extremely readable, even though the semi-functional DIANE takes up a lot of space in the middle of the dashboard. Normally, I keep my cockpit zoom level at 0.70, but in order to see all of the Intruder's instruments, I have dialed my zoom back to 0.50. Even at this setting, the dials and instruments are easily readable. I wish that the response time for the instruments was a little faster, but as it is the refresh rate and accuracy of the dials is acceptable. There are no click-to-enlarge gauges nor are there any pop-up windows, so when you are sitting in the cockpit you are looking at everything you can operate.
I would like to have more switchable views inside the cockpit. The obvious choice would be to have the opportunity to sit in the B/N seat, although there are no operational controls on the right side of the RAZBAM Intruder. As well, custom views of the radio stack, autopilot, throttle quadrant, and engine switches would certainly help sim aviators use these controls while in flight. A real Intruder pilot would be able to operate these switches by feel, and as is the case for Grumman cockpits, some of the switches are hard to see. In Flight Simulator, most sim aviators have to see the switch before he or she can click on it, or else have their controllers pre-programmed with dozens of keystrokes. Even with a TrackIR, it can be hard to maintain situational awareness in the Intruder while hunting for the autopilot switches or the radio knobs.
Another view I would like would be a rear view looking out of the back of the aircraft. Real bomber pilots used mirrors in the cockpit to see what was going on behind their aircraft. The mirrors in the RAZBAM Intruder are pretty but non-functional. As a pilot, I cannot see behind my aircraft to look at where my bombs hit without stopping the sim and changing to an exterior view.
Night lighting in the RAZBAM Intruder is very dramatic. The DIANE glows emerald green, the radar glows bright orange, and the entire dashboard is illuminated with a fiery red light. The cockpit glass reflects back the rich red glow, making the pilot's view look like something out of a big-budget science fiction movie. With all of the lights on, the red glow is intense, making it easy to read the dials and instruments, but not so easy to see out the windows. On the roof of the cockpit is a dimmer switch that turns the overhead lighting on and off. If you dim the overhead light, the intensity of the interior glow drops considerably, making it easier to see outside.
If you can afford to, switch on bloom! Not only does the bloom shader in FSX cause the exterior metallic parts to look shinier, the sun will reflect off metal surfaces in the cockpit as well. This is a striking effect that I think has been modeled superbly in the RAZBAM Intruder.
Earlier in my review, I mentioned that the Intruder could fold its wings to make it easier to keep in storage on an aircraft carrier. The RAZBAM Intruder allows you to fold and unfold its wings. Unfortunately, the cockpit lever designed to operate the wing folding mechanism caused major problems with the aircraft model. Where the lever is supposed to be, behind and to the right of the pilot, is empty space. Fortunately, you can make your own keystroke command, and the wings will fold for you.
In the FSX version of the RAZBAM Intruder, there is only a Virtual Cockpit (VC), but no 2-D cockpit. I haven't looked at the FS9 version, but the RAZBAM site says that the FS9 A-6 has a simple 2-D cockpit. Either way, the VC gives the best view of this aircraft.
AUDIO: Sounds By Swindle
The sound files for the RAZBAM Intruder were created by talented audio designer Aaron Swindle of SkySong Soundworks. I think the sound files for the A-6 are superbly crafted. From the piercing primal scream of the engines down to the click of the canopy as it closes, almost every animated event on the Intruder has an appealing sound cue to go along with it. There's also a little bit of voice work as well, with some pilot chatter included in the engine start-up sequence and when the autopilot is engaged.
If there's a weak spot in the sound files, it occurs at the moment the engine compressors spool up to full power. The engines make a transition from starting up to idle power, and that's where I detect a slight hiccup in the sound. Even so, it's really something to listen to the Intruder sound set. It's almost like being in a time machine going back to the 1970's, when the jet engines were loud, smoky, and extravagant with power.
Then, there are all of the little sounds, basic ones like the activation of flaps and gear, and then there's more exotic sounds. I really like the sound of rain drumming on the canopy, which makes those bad weather hops even more atmospheric. One of my favourite sounds are of the rubber tires on take-off and landing: the pitch of the rolling sounds increases as the Intruder gains speed on the runway. Once you get used to the sound, you can judge your rotational velocity by listening to the pitch of your tires as they spin.
The voice work for the Missions is of professional quality, and sounds good. Your B/N "Boomer" pronounces his lines clearly and with a friendly American accent. The whole sound package is an excellent fit for the Intruder model.
FLIGHT MODEL: Don't Sneeze!
In the hands of a naval aviator, the A-6 Intruder behaves like a living beast. Small, precise movements of the controls will yield dramatic manoeuvres. Sneeze, and you'd bounce a couple of hundred feet before you know it. To fly the Intruder with any kind of precision requires that the pilot study the instruments religiously. Fortunately, the gauges are easy to read, which makes instrument flying a little easier. Gazing out of the window for any length of time can result in a wild deviation from your flight path, for without review of the altimeter and the attitude gauges, it's easy to lose your position in the sky.
Equally important as the in-flight study of the gauges is a good set of accurate flight controls. The Intruder is very sensitive to control, so that the most precise actions require a sure touch on the stick and throttles, and to a lesser extent the rudders. If you don't have a good set of controls, you might find that the A-6 will be difficult to fly.
The flight model for the RAZBAM Intruder is interesting in that it is realistically affected by the load-out it carries. In FSX, there are two basic types of RAZBAM Intruder: free-flight and mission-capable. You can tell the difference as the mission-capable birds have a "MISSION" tag on the thumbnail page for aircraft selection. Mission Intruders come with specific load-outs designed for the FSX Missions. Free-flight Intruders also come with visually specific load-outs, but in terms of the flight model, they are all overloaded with fuel and bombs.
If you try to fly a free-flight Intruder, you will find that it is overweight and will barely take off. You need to trim away the weight that you don't need, and in this way you can simulate different payloads.
The mission-capable Intruders, on the other hand, come ready to fly. If you use a mission-capable A-6 in a mission that has the bomb-drop code enabled, then you are allowed to drop your bombs. Among other things, this has the effect of reducing the weight of your Intruder while in flight, and your flight model adjusts accordingly.
Typically, the Grumman Intruder uses raw power and some finesse to fly. Since it holds a large and heavy payload, it has to be very powerful to be manoeuvrable. Without afterburners, though, the power does have limits. The Intruder will allow the pilot maybe two or three Advanced Combat Manoeuvres (ACM) before it runs out of airspeed and stalls, forcing the pilot sacrifice altitude to gain airspeed. Of course, if you're already on the deck - a couple of hundred feet or so above ground - you won't have the luxury of many ACMs. Then, you want to get as close to the mud as you can and open up the throttles. The Intruder will zoom along at 500 knots at 110% engine RPM fairly comfortably, but if you drop the nose for even a fraction of a second, you will buy the farm if you are too close to the ground at that speed.
Under normal conditions, I had the Intruder cruising at 360-400 knots. At that speed, the Intruder can have an effective tactical range of around 850 nautical miles, although it could be ferried quite a bit farther than that if a return flight was not necessary. The Intruder can fly up to about 40,000 feet altitude; I managed at my best 43,400. I rarely took my RAZBAM plane above 20,000 as it's not the most agile of climbers when loaded up. The real Intruder should never have crossed the sound barrier. I took my RAZBAM Intruder to Mach 1.13 in a power dive, but I figure this is just FSX being lenient towards my ham-handed warplane skills.
The Grumman Intruder also excels at slow, stable flight. It has a strong set of clamshell spoilers on the tip of each wing. In addition, the flaps produce a great deal of lift and drag, allowing the Intruder to be stable at as low as 130 knots. There may be times when you want to go in slowly to line up a bombing target (at least in FSX where nothing is firing at you), but more likely, you want to come in low and slow because you are approaching the deck of an aircraft carrier on final for landing.
Another instance of slow flight happens when the Intruder loses an engine. The A-6 is capable of flight on a single engine. In wartime, this could happen when the engine has been shot out. In Flight Simulator, I found it a little tricky to fly on one engine. I could not find individual fuel cut-offs for the engines, only a single main cut-off. So I cut the fuel, and then as I was gliding I re-started one engine. Typically, the top speed was reduced, but otherwise the Intruder flew rather well. I was expecting to feel some drag from the side with the dead engine, but really the RAZBAM A-6 flew straight as an arrow.
I was hoping to find more use for my rudder pedals in the RAZBAM Intruder. Single engine flight proved to be almost maddeningly straight. Fully powered flight with two jet engines does not require a lot of rudder in the first place. The rudder seems weak and only really does anything useful when fully deflected. On the ground, the rudder also steers the nose wheel, and in this aspect, the rudder works very well as the A-6 is very easy to steer.
CARRIER OPERATIONS: Catch The Three Wire!
Although the RAZBAM Intruder can be flown without the benefit of the Acceleration Pack, if you don't have it you will be missing some advanced features. Specifically, the RAZBAM Intruder is made to be fully integrated with the carrier operations in Acceleration. I am really excited by this, as I enjoy flying the pattern to make carrier traps with the F-18 in FSX Acceleration. With the RAZBAM Intruder, now I have a new jet with which to snag the three wire.
I can compare the handling of the FSX F-18 versus the RAZBAM Intruder to give you an idea about what flying the A-6 is like. First of all, the F-18 is a speed demon, it's meant to go fast and fly high. The A-6 is also quite fast, but I think it flies best at treetop level. The F-18 dances in the sky, a lethal dart that will spin and roll in almost any direction, and will keep the pointed, dangerous parts always towards the enemy. The A-6 is also nimble, but it also seems to be direct in its approach: straight in below the radar, drop the payload, then turn and burn.
I find the F-18 to be skittish at low speed and altitude. In one of the Acceleration missions, Rocket Launch Air Cover, you are tasked with escorting a Cessna away from Cape Canaveral. In trying to match speeds with the hapless civilian, I ended up bouncing my F-18 all over the sky thus ending any hopes of my joining up with the Blue Angels. While true fighter jocks would probably have been more graceful than I was, precision flight for the F-18 can be difficult for the casual sim-pilot such as me.
The A-6 isn't really that much more forgiving at low speeds than the F-18, but it does offer some advantages to the F-18. I find it easier to see out of the A-6 cockpit, for one thing, which makes lining up your approach less of a chore. The Intruder also does not have the range of power that the F-18 does. Since you don't have to worry about afterburners, you can fly your final at nearly full throttle. For carrier traps, it is normal procedure for the A-6 to approach with flaps, gear, and speed brakes fully extended. If you bolter (you don't catch a landing wire), then you firewall the throttles, close the clamshell brakes and go around for another approach.
Both the A-6 and the F-18 seem sensitive to control input, although the F-18 is more manoeuvrable than the Intruder. I feel that the Intruder will hold a straight line of flight at slow speeds better than the F-18. This makes the final leg onto the aircraft carrier easier, or at least less chaotic. I find that by adjusting my angle of attack (how high the aircraft's nose is pointed above the horizon line), I can adjust my approach vector without the need for playing with the throttles.
The only downside to the RAZBAM Intruder for carrier operations for me was that I could find no way to use the ACLS (Automated Carrier Landing System) for the A-6. Basically, an ACLS operates like an Instrument Landing System (ILS) for aircraft carriers. The ACLS was, during the Vietnam War, a primitive system of moving the needles on the glideslope indicator in the cockpit. By comparison, today the ACLS is much more sophisticated, and is capable of auto landing an aircraft onto a carrier deck.
Regardless, the ACLS is not a feature that seems to be supported in Acceleration. The work-around is to follow the green waypoint markers in a mission to get to the carrier, and then follow the "meatball", the coloured indicator lights on the carrier deck in for your landing. Both the F-18 and the A-6 missions will give you some cockpit chatter from the landing signal officer on the carrier, but it's up to you as the pilot to bring in your bird using your eyes, your good judgement, and a steady hand on the stick.
I really like the RAZBAM Intruder for practicing with the carrier. If there's one feature about the RAZBAM Intruder that really boosts the fun factor, it's that it works seamlessly with the Acceleration carrier.
DROPPING BOMBS: Fire Away!
Now, if there's one feature that sets the RAZBAM Intruder apart from the rest of the aircraft in FSX, it's that this aircraft can drop live bombs that will explode on target and leave burning wreckage. There are some restrictions, though. Firstly, you have to have FSX, as the FS9 version of the Intruder won't drop bombs. In FSX, you must fly the Intruder in a Mission that has bombing enabled.
Although it's possible to operate the RAZBAM Intruder with just FSX SP2, I had all kinds of difficulty getting most of the Missions to work. I was told by RAZBAM that all but one of the Missions should work with just FSX SP2, but frankly, that was not my experience. The problem was solved by installing the Acceleration Pack.
Here I would like to pause in my description of the RAZBAM Intruder to address a larger issue, namely, are guns and bombs appropriate for a civilian flight simulator game? There are some reasonable objections to including bombs in FSX: they may be inappropriate for younger sim-pilots, and all of the targets that you choose to bomb are completely defenceless.
The Missions are designed to keep your Intruder in areas that it has traditionally operated in: Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and a couple of American training facilities. I think it's one thing to fly over simulated 1970's Hanoi when there's a war on, and the air is thick with flak and missiles. It's another to fly over a very peaceful and modern Hanoi where nobody on the ground sees you coming.
It's also not difficult to subvert the Mission structure so that your Intruder starts away from carrier with live bombs. With a small amount of ingenuity, you can drop payloads on any landmark you would prefer. Again, is this entertaining, or is it creepy? I won't be the judge of that, but every sim-aviator who flies the RAZBAM Intruder should take the time to think this through. For the sake of my review, and to test how bombs are enabled, I did try replacing the ultralight Trike with the Grumman Intruder to see if it would drop flour bombs (or real bombs) in the "Flour Power" Mission. It didn't. Then I tried changing where the Intruder started on the Persian Gulf Mission. I chose to relocate the A-6 to an airport near the stadium of a sports franchise I particularly despise. I'm not going to post pictures of that, because I don't wish to give anybody any ideas. Maybe you see that on the one hand it's fun to experiment with the simulated ordinance, but on the other hand dropping bombs on civilian targets might upset some people. At the very least, it's an unfair fight without anti-air defences.
Okay, time for me to climb off my high horse. The actual mechanism that RAZBAM uses for dropping the bombs in FSX strikes me as being very clever. First of all, as I said before, the bombs have to be enabled in a Mission if you want to drop them. When think you are ready to drop, you must arm the bombs. On the B/N side of the cockpit is the Master Arm switch (it's a Water Rudder switch re-purposed to arm the bombs).
FSX considers each bomb to be an aircraft, a glider to be precise. So, when you drop each bomb, it should fall realistically according to its own inertia and aerodynamics. The trouble is that when multiple aircraft (or bombs) are in the same space, FSX will trigger a collision. The ingenious solution is to turn off collision detection temporarily while the bombs are let go. The Master Arm sets the simulation to be ready to turn off collisions, and then pressing the trigger will allow you to release your load. Reset the Master Arm, and the bombs will not drop, and the sim will stop trying to turn off collisions.
The RAZBAM Intruder looks for the Ground Braking command as the cue to release the bombs. Often, this will be the joystick trigger, which is natural. For me, though, I use toe brakes on Saetek rudder pedals. My joystick trigger did nothing, and instead the toe brake releases the bombs. Hunting online for a way to make the RAZBAM Intruder recognize my trigger turned out to be pointless for me. I would suppose that a registered version of FSUIPC might help, as it has a dedicated "drop the bombs" cue built into it.
As I had mentioned before, the DIANE system in the RAZBAM Intruder is mostly for show. In the real Grumman A-6, the B/N could lock a target into the computer and have the computer drop the bombs (the pilot would depress the trigger to enable automatic bomb dropping), or else the pilot could drop the bombs manually, following either the heads-up bombsight or else use the drop cue shown on DIANE.
Bombing with the RAZBAM Intruder means that you are dropping unguided ordinance using eyesight as a reference. This seems rather inelegant, but it does provide some challenge for after all the target does not shoot back at you. I can't imagine what resources it would take to build a fully integrated DIANE into a simulated A-6 for FSX, given RAZBAM's limitations as well as those of FSX. Although I really would like to see DIANE working, bringing the bombs on target using dumb fire and loft bombing can be satisfying in its own right. After all, DIANE's computers weren't perfect in Vietnam, and a crew could easily be forced to drop their load using dead reckoning.
SIMULATED BOMB RUN: "Operation: TANNEN-BOMB" Or... How The Grinch Bombed Christmas
To illustrate exactly how the bombs work in the RAZBAM Intruder, I decided to make a photo journal of a strike mission. Part of me was concerned with Political Correctness. After all, AVSIM enjoys an international readership, and so I did not want to depict the Intruder dropping bombs on a landmark on some readers' home soil. Then again, some of the targets in the custom Missions are rather hard to hit, so I did not want to embarrass myself by missing my shot. So, I created my own pretend Mission, Operation TANNEN-BOMB. I go after a cluster of nasty-looking Christmas trees that appear to be advancing on an innocent farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, deep inside the vast and mysterious Canadian prairie, where the frame rates are high:
MISSIONS: Why Being "Cool Hand" Is Better Than Being "New Guy"
In order to become an A-6 pilot in the real world, you would need at least two years of flight school before the Navy would ship you out to a carrier. If you don't have that experience, you can always be a sim aviator and try out the Missions that come supplied with the Intruder. There are six Missions that range in difficulty from "Beginner" to "Expert". I found all of the missions to be difficult, though, and I would not expect rookie sim-aviators to do very well on them, at least not without many hours of good practice and study. I still have yet to complete any of the Missions successfully, but I imagine it's possible. I do like the variety of Missions, in that you get to do more than just bomb targets.
There are three "free range" Missions where you fly out to bomb both stationary and moving targets at your discretion. If you run out of bombs, you can return to the runway and get more. If you run out of fuel, you can rendezvous with a tanker plane.
Then, there's a Mission that has you low on fuel but lined up with a KA-6D tanker. You have just a few minutes to place your fuel boom into the tanker's drogue to get more gas. It's not easy! Turbulence throws your jet around like a kite on a string, and aiming the boom into the drogue is like trying to stuff a potato into the tailpipe of a car -- if it was driving at top speed and weaving across all of the lanes of a highway. Fortunately, the fuel flow from the tanker has been boosted to unrealistic levels, because otherwise you'd have to remain coupled with the tanker for at least three minutes!
One very difficult mission is the Check ride. You quickly learn that the A-6 is an all-weather aircraft as you take off in the soup. You have to maintain a very precise flight profile as you fly from waypoint to waypoint. Deviate from your flight path by as much as a hundred feet and you will wash out. You don't get the luxury of looking out of the window on this Mission, as the slightest distraction from the instruments could send you off course.
Lastly, there is Bomber Qualification, which launches you off the Acceleration carrier towards Hawaii. There, you have to drop bombs onto difficult targets, including a moving destroyer and a very challenging bomb loft approach. Good luck, you're going to need it!
Apart from the difficulty of the Missions, they are otherwise well-presented, if a bit direct. Your B/N, an experienced flight officer by the name of "Boomer" will give you clear directions as to what to do, but he isn't chatty, and he won't usually give you feedback if you begin to do something wrong. About his only extra comment has Boomer feeling bottomed out when you pull too many G's. I would have liked to hear more from Boomer, as the A-6 is flown by a crew, and not just a pilot with a passenger. That, and Boomer's gifted voice work seems to fit very well with the spirit of American naval aviation.
I would also like to have seen some genuinely easy missions, especially some tutorial flights, like a ferry ride to bring an Intruder to the carrier, or a land-based training scenario that has you landing on a carrier deck marked out on a runway such as the one used by Whidbey NAS. RAZBAM does mention in their website that they would like to present more Intruder Missions, but I haven't seen any of them yet.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES: The Gripe List
As long as you use FSX with Acceleration, then the RAZBAM Intruder should run like a champion. Despite a high amount of detail, it's a reasonably frame-rate friendly aircraft, about equal to the Acceleration F-18. If you don't have Acceleration, the RAZBAM Intruder will still fly, but you can expect to have problems with the Missions. I experienced errors where the bombs never loaded, the waypoint cues never showed up, and Boomer the B/N wouldn't say anything. Again, installing Acceleration seemed to fix this.
Beyond the issues with Acceleration, my gripe list is not long, and the points are minor. As I mentioned before, the bomb release mechanism is very clever, but it can be difficult to work with. It turns out that my toe brake releases the bombs, and not the joystick trigger as expected.
I also have problems with the flaps lever. There are three detents in the Intruder flap control: Up, Take Off, and Land. The RAZBAM Intruder only uses the Up and Land settings. On the RAZBAM forum, there is a way to work around this problem by writing into the model's .CFG file, but since each aircraft has its own file, that ends up to be a lot of typing.
Also at RAZBAM, some people are reporting issues with the fuel gauge. They say it doesn't work. I found that the gauge did work, but it wasn't always accurate. To be precise, the closer the needle reached to zero, the more accurate the gauge was. Even so, I found that my fuel range took me about 1,000 miles farther than I expected, with a one-way flight that ranged 4,300 miles. I did this test using a lot of time compression, so it's entirely possible that the sim fudged the fuel numbers somewhere along the way.
Minor graphical issues include a small number of textures that seem to "run" inappropriately across some surfaces, and a "crack" in the canopy glass that looks to me like an inverted vertex somewhere in the model. As well, the launch bar that extends from the front landing gear does not animate. These visual gremlins can be found by looking for them with utilities like TrackIR and Walk & Follow, but most casual users won't see these little problems.
CONCLUSION: Executive Summary
The Grumman A-6 Intruder was a low-level all-weather jet bomber for the American military that specialized in aircraft carrier operations. Retired from official service in 1997, the A-6 lives on in legend and now as the legendary RAZBAM Intruder. The RAZBAM Intruder can be added on to FS9 or FSX SP2. If you have FSX with Acceleration, you will enjoy the widest range of options for this aircraft, including compatibility with the Acceleration carrier and custom Missions that feature dropping bombs.
The RAZBAM Intruder is a shiny, dangerous-looking aircraft that features some excellent modeling and a thrilling, realistic sound set. The flight model displays the power of the Intruder's twin engines. Due to the weight of the aircraft, if you pull too many G's, you will bleed off your airspeed and quickly discover how to stall. Stalls are gentle in the RAZBAM Intruder, and not hard to overcome. The real trick is precision flying at treetop level, in the mud where the action is. The A-6 responds quickly and fearlessly to control inputs, so you don't want to blink if you are coming in hot and low.
The weight of the aircraft is affected by its bomb load. In non-Mission flights, you can adjust the bomb weight in the Fuel and Payload Manager, whereas in the Missions, every time you drop a bomb, your ride will get lighter. Bombs are treated as individual aircraft in FSX, like little heavy gliders. A very clever system allows you to arm the bombs and yet prevent colliding with them when you drop them. When the bombs hit, they leave craters and smoking wreckage.
The RAZBAM Intruder comes with six custom-designed Missions, ranging from unrestricted bombing practice to a harrowing mid-air refueling hop to final qualifications as an Intruder pilot with a Check ride. and a bomb run. The Missions are well-designed, but be aware that they are all difficult. Although you can fly the Intruder in Free Flight, you may find that instrument navigation is difficult due to the layout of the cockpit and the partial functionality of the DIANE navigational computer. Despite being an all-weather bomber, the RAZBAM Intruder seems to be at its best under good Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions.
The biggest downside to the RAZBAM Intruder package is to total lack of documentation that comes with your download. There isn't even a READ.ME file, let alone a manual. Users are expected to find information on the Grumman Intruder on their own, or else trawl through the official RAZBAM Internet forum. While the forum does answer some common issues with the Intruder, much of it isn't indexed to make finding answers easier, leaving one to have to read the whole thing. I would not recommend the RAZBAM Intruder to rookie sim-aviators, as its flight model is somewhat complex. Wait until you have had some practice time in the FSX LearJet, or better still, the Acceleration F-18.
While the RAZBAM Intruder will work with FSX SP2, I had trouble loading the Missions and dropping the bombs. Installing Acceleration seems to solve the issues I had with Missions. As a bonus, the RAZBAM Intruder can be launched and recovered from the moving aircraft carrier. I really enjoy flying the carrier traffic pattern and practicing traps in the A-6 Intruder, as I find the Intruder is more stable at low speeds than the F-18.
Overall, the RAZBAM Intruder wins a lot of points for being fun to fly. RAZBAM severely dropped the ball in terms of making their aircraft educational, but maybe you've got the 200-page manual for your old copy of Spectrum Holobyte's "Flight of the Intruder" video game lying around somewhere. Failing that, you could also buy a copy of the classic war novel "Flight of the Intruder" by Stephen Coonts, a Vietnam veteran who flew an A-6 in the war. The more you learn about the Grumman A-6, the more you will come to appreciate the fine work that went into making the RAZBAM Intruder.
THE LAST WORD: Thanks, Mr. Coonts!
I have never piloted a Grumman Intruder, but I do remember getting into the cockpit of one at the Moose Jaw International Airshow. So, how can I see how the RAZBAM Intruder matches up to the real A-6? I asked the first expert I could think of, best-selling author Stephen Coonts, for advice regarding this amazing jet. His first novel, "Flight of the Intruder" is a fictional account of a Vietnam A-6 pilot named Jake Grafton, but it's based on many real events. Mr. Coonts graciously answered my e-mail questions, but his best piece of advice was that much of what he had learned about flying the Intruder was in his books. What a great opportunity for me to pull out one of my favourite titles and read it again!
As far as I know, Stephen Coonts does not have the RAZBAM Intruder, nor does he officially endorse it. His comments as well as those of his books are on the topic of the real Grumman Intruder. However, the RAZBAM Intruder to me seems close enough to the real thing that I was able to recreate in FSX many of the things that fictional Jake Grafton did, given that Jake and Mr. Coonts are much better pilots than I am.
It was fun learning about the A-6 as well as flying it, if only in simulation. For the last word in my review, I'd like to pass on what Stephen Coonts said in his e-mail to me:
everything I know about the A-6 I put in three books, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER,
and THE MINOTAUR.
NOTE: The "By The Book" quotes are all taken from "Flight of
the Intruder" (1986) with the kind permission of author Stephen Coonts.
Screenshots are of the RAZBAM Intruder using DBS Walk & Follow, XP SP2,
FSX + Acceleration. Some material in this review is courtesy of RAZBAM, used
with their permission.
What I Like About RAZBAM A-6 Intruder
What I Don't Like About RAZBAM A-6 Intruder
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