The Supermarine Spitfire is one of about half a dozen World War II-era fighters that museum-goers can identify without really trying. Like its opposite number, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Spitfire was in development and production the whole length of the war. Last year about this time, I reviewed an early Mk, the IA, from Shockwave; this was the Mk that fought the Battle of Britain, and I still enjoy flying it a year later.
The package under review here, from RealAir Simulations, features a pair of Spitfires from a later period in World War II, the Mk. IX and Mk. XIV, in several variants and multiple liveries. It is one of the finest flight sim products I have ever reviewed.
Installation and Documentation
Installation is automated. There is a configuration panel, which you can revisit ad libitum, but that won’t hold you up long. Documentation, in Portable Document Format (PDF), is extensive and beautifully illustrated: 49 pages of flying guide, 12 pages of additional pilot’s notes, and 47 pages of facsimile from the original Mk. XIV and Mk. XIX pilot’s handbook, as issued by the British Air Ministry one year after the war.
To get in the air, what you really need to read are pp. 18 and 19 of the Flying Guide, “Setting Up the Spitfire in FSX.” These pages show the proper (or in some cases just recommended) settings for aircraft realism. The flight model on this product is finely tuned and very responsive, but to get that level of fine-tuned responsiveness, it has to make certain assumptions about your sim settings. I’ve learned, from testing this and other products, that when a developer says, “Use these settings,” it’s a good idea to comply. Sure, the airplane or helicopter will still work if you don’t, but it will usually be harder to fly and less fun.
The other must-read pages are 39 and 40, which cover “Engine Failure Simulation.” It’s not hard, with this model, to keep the engine going, but you do have to monitor the oil temperature so that it remains under 105 C. If it exceeds that for any period of time, the engine will seize up and splatter oil over your windshield and fuselage. This is fun the first few times, after which -- either you get tired of it and turn off the effect, or embrace the limitation and take responsibility for keeping your machine in the air.
The rest of the flying guide details what is new in this version of the Spitfire, what has been carried over from the previous version (for FS2004), history of the various liveries, limitations of the simulated model, and how to use the various instruments. So that you can research the product before buying it, the flying guide is downloadable gratis from the RealAir website.
There is a 2D mini panel, but this product is intended to be flown exclusively from the virtual cockpit (VC). Also, the RPM gauge on the mini panel gives a false reading -- the only real bug in the whole package that I found in a month of testing. Most purchasers will never notice it, because they will be spending all of their cockpit time in the virtual cockpit.
It is absolutely convincing. VC shadowing, which became available in FSX SP2 and even then is only visible under DirectX version 10, is not implemented here. However, all of the cockpit’s interior surfaces have been modeled in 3D, down to the level of individual bolts on the canopy frame. So far as I can tell, there is no frame rate penalty for this level of detail; or if there is, the modeler, Sean Moloney, has found a way to make up for it in ways that we don’t notice.
One thing that’s different about the Spitfire, compared with other RealAir products that I have owned, is that some of the cockpits show signs of wear. Everything works, and the gauge labels are still legible, but there are surfaces where the paint has gotten dirty, rubbed off, or been sweated on. If you prefer the pristine, showroom-fresh look of the developer’s other products, that’s available too. But even the dirty versions look clean, in the sense that everything is modeled smoothly.
If you peek under the panel, you will notice places where the model has holes; I believe this is intentional, to save frame rates. But in the places where you normally look during flight, there doesn’t seem to be any shortcuts, either in the modeling or the textures. This, in my experience as a reviewer, is quite rare.
In addition to “used” and “just-painted,” there are two main cockpit variants, vintage and modern. The vintage cockpits have World War II-era gauges and, in place of radios, a reflective gunsight (with working electrical switch). The modern cockpits have more familiar-looking gauges: most noticeably, the artificial horizon, turn indicator, and compass. They also carry radio equipment, for basic voice comms and navigation.
These are the same gauges that you will find in other RealAir products, and use the same mouse interface for turning dials and knobs. It took me a while to appreciate this, but once you get the concept, dragging the mouse to change a frequency is easier than holding the mouse steady over a click spot, especially in turbulence and especially if you have TrackIR.
I do, and as a result I didn’t end up using the various camera views that are provided to facilitate cockpit operations. These include: a simulated 2D panel (which is really a fixed view of the virtual cockpit), straight ahead over the instrument panel, and close-up views of various instruments, switches, and levers. The most useful of these is the close-up view of the P11 magnetic compass, which sits perpendicular to the rest of the instrument panel.
It works just like the real thing, but the angle makes it hard to see, even if you have TrackIR; hence the special camera view. This isn’t a defect in the model so much as a shortcoming of the real thing -- there is a reason that modern cockpits aren’t set up this way anymore -- which the model faithfully simulates. To set a compass bearing, you drag on it with the mouse. This works, but I would prefer it if you could also use the keyboard, the way you can use the keyboard to move the heading bug on a modern HSI.
Speaking of which, the HSI in this package’s modern cockpits doesn’t have a heading bug; that’s not a defect -- I’m sure lots of real-world HSIs don’t have heading bugs. But lots do, so why not include one? Also, while I’m being picky, I’ve noticed that you can’t use the normal keyboard shortcut (V) to select a radial on the modern cockpit’s VOR; of course, the instrument is still usable, but if you’ve got a controller button assigned for this, it won’t work.
And that is the worst thing I have to say about the whole package. The instruments themselves are the smoothest, most legible gauges I have seen anywhere, except in other products from the same developer. Crisp, fluid instruments have been a specialty of RealAir since at least FS2004, and with their FSX products, the best has gotten even better.
All gauge components, including gauge needles, are now modeled in three dimensions. Why does this make a difference? They’re sharper this way, move more fluidly, and cast dynamic shadows. Screenshots can show some of this, but to grasp the effect, you really need to see everything in motion: not just the gauges moving, but light moving over their surface. The result is a kind of unexpected beauty.
Smart, sensitive people can differ about this, but I don’t think British gauges are particularly attractive; in the 1930s and 40s, the best looking gauges were made in Germany and Italy. (German gauge styles are widely known; to see what the Italians were doing, search for and install “Savoia Marchetti” in the AVSIM file library.) Even so, the Spitfire gauges are engrossing to look at: sturdy rather than stylish, they please the eye with their solidity.
This is as good as it gets in cockpit modeling; the only competition comes from other RealAir products.
By my count, the Spitfire includes six different models and 22 liveries:
High-resolution, 32-bit textures are available separately, as a free download, but my screenshots were made with the default-resolution textures that are recommended for less-than-Olympian video cards. By normal standards, the default textures are high-resolution, but if you want more detail it can be had.
Landing gear and control surfaces are animated, of course, as well as the radiator flaps under each wing. On the Mks simulated here, these flaps open and close automatically, so unless you happen to be in spot view at the right moment, you might not notice; I didn’t until fairly late in the review process, when it came as a pleasant surprise.
A paint kit is available, and several high-quality repaints have already appeared. No external cameras are defined by default, but there’s a good set available from user "jcagle" at Sim-Outhouse.
Bar none, this is the best representation of an airplane skin I have seen yet in Flight Simulator. What makes it the best? Today, most payware -- certainly in this price bracket -- has excellent 3D models and detailed textures. What distinguishes this model is the way light plays over the surface. Again, you only get the full effect when the image is in motion, but enough comes through, even in still-frame screenshots, to see what’s going on.
At one point, I wondered if there was too much reflection for a war-time paint job. I was recently in Washington, D.C., so to check, I visited the National Air and Space Museum where they have (among other things) a Spitfire Mk. VII. Sure enough, the real skin glints, just like the model. It’s not just that the surface reflects light, though -- lots of models can do that. What sets Moloney’s model apart is the way that shadows and reflections are used to reveal subtle irregularities in the airplane’s metal skin.
The technology for doing this is new to FSX, and other modelers have used it, but never (to my knowledge) so effectively. I used to be of the opinion that this kind of thing -- rivet dimples, for example -- could be simulated just as well with painted-on shadows. That technique is still effective, and incurs no performance penalty. But painted-on shadows are static; they don’t move, dip, and swell as light rakes sideways over the seams of the fuselage. At some point, I’m sure, the novelty of this effect will wear off, and everyone will be doing it. But they aren’t yet, and it hasn’t.
Both of the Spitfires I have reviewed, this one and the Shockwave Mk. IA, were developed in part by professional musicians. As you would expect, the sounds on both are first-rate. When gear extends and flaps retract, it sounds like real metal. Pull too many Gs, and you’ll hear the airframe creak. Nudge up to a stall, you’ll hear the buffet (and, with the RealAir model, see it in the cockpit).
In this package, there are two separate engine sounds, one for the Mk. IX Merlin and one for the Mk. XIV Griffon. My first impression, when listening to both of these, was that they should have more bass. I like to feel the engine when I’m flying, and last spring I bought a special sub woofer, called the Buttkicker, that straps under your office chair and translates your sound system’s bass range into vibration.
In this case, however, there’s not a lot of bass for the Buttkicker to work with, so you don’t feel the power that you might otherwise expect from these monster engines. I asked Rob Young, who did the sounds for these models, about this, and he replied that this was a conscious decision: “we erred on the side of a brighter sound because most ordinary PC speakers respond better to the upper frequencies and excessive bass simply distorts the speaker output.”
He encouraged me to experiment with the bass settings on my equalizer, which I have done, and also to notice how sounds vary, both in spot plane view and in the VC, depending on where your eye point is: “If you pan downwards in the cockpit you will hear a marked difference in tone which emulates the resonance of the cockpit structure. The more you pan upwards in the cockpit the brighter the sound becomes. Similar effects can be noticed when you pan right or left. The sounds are designed to be as ‘alive’ as possible when panning. In Spot view, there is an enormous difference between sounds in front of the engine, or rather slightly to one side but at the front, and then the sides and rear, where you will hear a much louder and bassier ambient exhaust sound effect. The further to the front you pan, the cleaner the sound.”
This level of subtlety, whereby it is possible not just to define the sound itself but also how it is heard (its “sound cone”), is new in FSX, and to date most developers aren’t taking advantage of it. I don’t say this to criticize, but it’s another example of how RealAir is leading the pack of FSX development.
I’m not a real-world pilot of anything, much less a high-powered prop fighter, and while I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the Spitfire, it’s not a substitute for experience. Let me try, though, to describe the experience of flying the model.
By all accounts, the Spitfire was not a difficult plane to fly. Gerald Stapleton, who was a Pilot Officer in 603 Squadron, recalls in an interview, "When I was at Duxford and saw some German pilots I said, 'Do you know why the Spitfire was a better aeroplane than the Messerschmitt 109?' and they said 'No.' And I said, 'Any idiot could fly a Spitfire but it took a lot of training to fly a 109.'"
I’ve flown both in the sim and you can see it there clearly. Like most taildraggers, the Spitfire is somewhat tricky on the ground, because the long engine cowling obscures your forward view. There’s a danger, if you turn too sharply, of digging your wing-tip into the ground, or if you brake too hard, of nosing forward onto your propeller. Both tendencies are more pronounced in the Shockwave Spitfire, but I couldn’t say which is more realistic. Also, you don’t have to rely on differential braking. It’s there if you have toe brakes, but you can also steer with the rudder.
Take-offs are somewhat tricky, because at high RPMs the engine exerts a great deal of torque. To stay on the runway, you’ll need to (a) not firewall the throttle and (b) cancel out the engine torque with reverse rudder. There’s some variation here, depending on the engine: Merlins pull to the left, Griffons pull to the right. The contra-prop models offer a third variation, in which torque is neutralized by a second propeller, spinning in the opposite direction. This makes the plane easier to fly -- and is very cool to watch, especially at start-up and shut-down, when the rotors are slow enough to see distinctly.
I’ve mentioned already that you have to monitor your oil temperature, and that you can’t fly flat out for more than a few minutes without blowing your engine. This isn’t a new feature, in the Spitfire or in Flight Simulator, but it’s one that I wish more modelers would actually make use of. It does make flying somewhat more involved, but in other respects, the Spitfire is not a complex machine to operate (compared with, say, the default 737), so a slightly higher workload is not hard to cope with.
The next step (which this product does not take) would be to make engine handling cumulative, so that if you were to abuse the engine in one flight, performance would be impaired in subsequent flights unless there is some intervention. At that point, though, it becomes a different, more challenging kind of product (and one with a smaller audience). As implemented here, the Spitfire is an airplane that even casual simmers can enjoy right out of the box, but won’t outgrow. Like a well balanced pen or hammer, it feels right, right away.
Flaps aren’t used for a normal take-off, and when extended, hang down almost perpendicular to the wing chord acting as an air brake. All the Spitfires I’ve flown, both in Flight Simulator and IL-2 Sturmovik, exhibit a pronounced nose-down tendency when configured for landing, and to achieve a three-pointer you need to bring the stick way back.
Forward visibility is a problem, again because of the long engine cowling. For this reason, RAF pilots developed a curved landing approach, which allowed them to view the runway through their side windows almost to the last second. (The same technique was used by American aviators in the Pacific, who learned it from the RAF, and developed independently by German and Finnish pilots flying the Me-109.)
There was a time, a few years ago, when RealAir’s Rob Young made almost the only Flight Simulator models that could spin properly. That’s not true anymore -- the Shockwave Spitfire will enter a spin very readily -- but Young keeps refining his models, with the result that spins are more vigorous.
His latest version
of the Spitfire -- and this is true of all his products for FSX -- not only
enters a spin realistically, but stays in one without coaxing.
Where the RealAir difference is more pronounced, I think, is in the way its
products handle slips. Cross your controls, and you can slide out of the
sky without gaining speed (as you would in a dive). Cross-wind landings are
as well. It’s not that other products can’t slip, but with the
RealAir products, the effect is more pronounced, and there is more range of
Like its predecessor product for FS2004, the Spitfire package includes a vintage air station by scenery designer Bill Womack (he of Tongass Fjords fame, Bear Gulch, and Dillingham). West Malling, in Kent, is about 25 miles from London and was used as a base for Spitfires throughout the war; Womack’s scenery shows how it would have looked c. 1943.
The colors are drab, as befits an air station in wartime, but there is lots of eye candy (and on my rig, shown at the side, little or no frame rate penalty). Quite as impressive as the static scenery are the AI Spitfires that take-off and land here; care has been taken to minimize their effect on frame rates and to synchronize their speeds with those of your bird, so that you can fly in the pattern with them.
I do make one
request to scenery makers as a tribe: if you put files in the general “Addon
Scenery” bin, make a list of them in the documentation.
That way if, for some unforeseen reason, they need to be deactivated later,
the user will know -- and not have to guess -- which files to move or rename.
Not that anyone will want to deactivate this scenery in particular; it’s
well crafted, like all of Womack’s work, and it’s a fun place to
interact with other Spitfires.
With FSX, you usually have to choose: eye candy or frame rates. But here, you can have both. The Spitfire is slightly more demanding than RealAir’s other products, but still comparable with the defaults. If your hardware can handle, say, the default jets, it will have no trouble with the Spitfire. Even with standard textures and a decent video card, there is a delay loading textures when you switch from spot view back to the virtual cockpit.
If you order it from the RealAir website, the cost of this package is 29 euros, 22 if you already bought the previous version. If you order through Flight1.com, it’s US$42 for the download, US$50 for the CD-ROM. At that price, you have to think; it’s not an impulse buy (or at least, it isn’t for me).
Once you buy it, though, it’s not something that you fly for a few hours until the novelty wears off and then set aside when something new comes along. Variety helps, and this package has plenty of it, but what counts in the long run is quality.
There are a few things about this product which I would do differently (if I could do them at all), but nothing which is not polished and well crafted. Right now this is the best model, not just of a Supermarine Spitfire, but of any prop fighter in existence. We’ll see better eventually, but not (I predict) for this version of Flight Simulator.
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