Now there are three.
The last twelve months have been good ones for FSX and World War II-era fighters. In March 2008, RealAir Simulations published an all-new version of its award-winning Spitfire, which I reviewed here last spring. Then in February of this year, A2A Simulations released the first product in its new “Wings of Power III” series: the P-47 Thunderbolt with Accu-Sim which I reviewed here just a few weeks ago. Now from Classics Hangar comes another first-class model, this time the legendary Focke-Wulf Fw 190A.
Nicknamed Die Wuerger (in English, “the shrike” or “butcher bird”), the Fw 190 was designed in the late 1930s by the engineer and test pilot Prof. Kurt Waldemar Tank as an eventual replacement for the Me 109 (which, at the time, was still setting speed records). Tank’s fighter was not only faster than the Messerschmitt; it had more automation in the cockpit, for a lighter pilot workload, and a wider stance in the landing gear, for more stability in the final seconds of touchdown. As it turned out, the Me 109 was never abandoned; it continued to evolve (or at least get heavier) and saw active service through the end of World War II.
But late in 1941, when the Fw 190 was introduced, it was arguably the best fighter in the sky. The Mark V Spitfires who faced her in combat believed themselves to be overmatched and a plot was devised to steal a Butcher Bird on the ground, fly it back to England, and analyze its performance. In the event, a German pilot landed in England by mistake, and his machine was captured intact.
This particular specimen, before and after it was repainted in RAF colors, is represented here along with 8 other models and 32 additional liveries. The package ships with a paint kit and, in the weeks since it has come out, customers have uploaded at least a dozen repaints with more promised on the way. It’s difficult to predict how all of this will seem a year from now: Classics Hangar is already working on a sequel (“Later Variants”) and A2A is showing preview screenshots of a rival. But from what I’ve seen so far (and I’ve been flying this plane almost exclusively for the last three weeks), “Early Variants” has all the makings of -- dare I say it -- a classic.
Installation and Documentation
Installation requires 1 gigabyte of free disk space. There’s an installer program to copy the files, but to get the full visual effect, you need to increase your maximum texture size in the FSX configuration file; how to do this is explained in the documentation.
The PDF manual is in English and runs 45 pages. The first twelve of these discuss the history of the Fw 190. Then there are thirteen more about how to operate the aircraft, with illustrations for each procedure and diagrams of the cockpit. The last third of the manual gives a brief history of each livery, moving chronologically from the A-1 models of late 1941 and early 1942 to the A-4s of 1942 and 1943. Subsequent versions of the A series will be modeled in a sequel.
In addition to the PDF manual, most of the aircraft can also access a checklist and reference sheet from the kneeboard. These differ slightly from model to model, depending on the power plant: the A-1 and A-2 models, equipped with the BMW 801 C-1 and C-2 engines, have lower power limits than the A-3 and A-4 models, equipped with the BMW 801 D-2. One would expect the A-4 models to have higher cruise speeds and possibly different v-speeds from the A-1s; but if so, those differences are not reflected in the kneeboard reference pages.
That is my only criticism of the documentation, and it’s a small one. Manuals are often an afterthought, but this one is stylishly produced, prints economically, and -- most importantly -- gives clear explanations of how to operate the model’s various features. It even uses an authentic German typeface, DIN 1451, which was introduced in 1936 and used for all manner of industrial signage, including license plates and the original Autobahn.
Before we say anything else, let me answer the obvious and possibly most important question: yes, this is a native-FSX model, not a port-over.
Since FSX came out in fall 2006, modelers have become more and more skilled at using “bump mapping” (also known as “normal mapping”) to create subtle 3D textures. In particular, this feature is useful for creating rivets and seams that reflect moving light and cast moving shadows. The RealAir Spitfire and the A2A Thunderbolt represent what I take to be the state of the art in this realm, and this model equals their achievements. The easiest place to see this is looking down at the wings.
The textures were mastered at double what is normally the maximum resolution in FSX: 2046 by 2046 pixels instead of 1024 by 1024. The result is very fine details that still look sharp up close. Making this work requires tweaking one line in the sim’s configuration file; and if the tweak becomes undone (which can happen if you change your display settings), not only will the textures blur slightly, but the bump mapping will stop working altogether. It’s easy to set the tweak back -- but if you suspect something’s not right, it’s the first place to check
The package ships with 34 historical liveries, which are pictured and described in the PDF manual. The manual can be downloaded gratis, without buying the product, from the classics-hangar.com website, so there’s no need to list all of the liveries here. The models, though, take some sorting out. This package covers the “Early Variants” of the Fw 190A: namely, A-1, A-2, A-3, and A-4. Within this series -- and I apologize if this seems complicated -- there are some additional variables, represented here by nine separate models:
A-1, with BMW 801 C-1 engine
With most models, you can also add a drop tank or bomb.
Like most of the high-end payware titles that I have reviewed in the last couple of years, this package does not include a 2D cockpit; the virtual cockpit (VC) is all you have, and all you need to have, to fly the plane. This one is first-class.
When you load up a flight for the first time, you’ll notice that the instrument panel is shaking slightly. I assume this is supposed to simulate engine vibration. It would be better, though, if the effect were coordinated with engine speed (more vibration at higher RPMs) and engine state (no vibration when the engine is off).
Two texture sets are provided, worn and fresh. Just as they were outside, textures inside the model are rendered at high resolution, so that details stay clear even when viewed from a few inches away. Gauges and controls are labeled in German, but tool tips are in English, so if you don’t know German you can still figure out what something is by hovering the mouse over it. The metric system was standard in both German and Russian cockpits during the war, so altitudes, airspeeds, and the like are measured in meters, kilometers per hour, and so on; if you need help, the manual provides conversion tables.
The modeling of 3D objects inside the cockpit is comparable to the RealAir Spitfire and A2A Thunderbolt. Gauges are, just possibly, even better. RealAir pioneered the technique of making gauges part of the model, which allows for very smooth animation and, in FSX, opens the opportunity for 3D modeling. (In FS2004, gauges were always flat, even if they were shaded to look otherwise.) Now that FSX has been out for more than two years, this technique is becoming more common. What makes it interesting here is the depth of 3D modeling. Not only do the gauge needles cast shadows, but the gauge backs are modeled in 3D so that, for example, you can read the part numbers molded -- not painted -- into the metal.
The last aircraft I reviewed was the A2A Thunderbolt with Accu-Sim. Among other things, Accu-Sim requires you to regulate various temperatures -- and gives you several ways of doing so. With the Fw 190A, several of those options are not available, because they weren’t available in the real fighter. The Butcher Bird was designed by an engineer, Kurt Tank, who was also a test pilot.
He understood the requirements of pilots first hand, and to reduce pilot workload, many settings in the Fw 190 were automated (such as prop speed or fuel mixture); others (such as flaps and elevator trim) were motorized. In practice, this means that you control power with just the throttle. Flap settings, though, are indicated outside of the cockpit in a small window on the wing. The one operation that requires more steps than we are used to is dropping the landing gear.
Engine state is not persistent from flight to flight (as it is with the Accu-Sim P-47), but if you run the engine too hard it will quit (as it does with the RealAir Spitfire) and the prop will feather automatically.
This is Flight Simulator, not Il-2 Sturmovik, so the guns don’t work and, while you can drop a bomb, it won’t explode. You can arm the bomb, however, and adjust the level of ammunition in your cannon and machine guns. There’s also a reflector gun sight, which you can turn on or off according to preference. You can’t tell from a screenshot but, unlike the reflector gun sight in the RealAir Spitfire, this one actually works. (A2A’s gun sights work as well.) If you’ve never seen a reflector gun sight in real life, watch this 8-second video to see how it should look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Blem3FlkaMc.
As I have said, the quality of this VC is very high, which is why I’m comparing it with the best VCs that I know of. If I could change one thing, it would be to add some nav radios (the way RealAir has in the modern versions of its Spitfire model). True, the nav gear would be anachronistic. But I am not complaining, just fantasizing.
The engine sounds are credited to Steve “Lawdog” Buchanan. To my ear they are indistinguishable from the excellent sounds that he released as freeware in 2005 and 2006; compare Fw-190A_Sound.zip in the Sim-Outhouse.com file library.
First, a verifiable fact: each of the nine variants in this package comes with its own flight model. Second, there is a trivial bug in the flight model, which causes the plane to rotate very slowly on the ground. Mine never stays parked long enough for me to notice, but the problem has been documented.
Beyond that, and before he says anything further about the flight model, there are two things you need to know about the reviewer. First, he has never piloted an airplane in real life, which greatly limits the value of his opinion. Second, he is skeptical. That a table of thrust values and wing chords can somehow, merely by virtue of being accurate, reproduce the subtle interplays of fluid dynamics seems to him improbable; the real world is too complex.
There are people that he has faith in, such as Robert Young of RealAir Simulations, but when someone claims to have discovered a system for calculating the flight dynamics of historical aircraft, ones that have been grounded for decades -- and especially when someone gives the system a scientific-sounding name, such as “the 1% Assembly Line Process” -- the reviewer rolls his eyes.
And yet, in this product, the process seems to have worked. The flight model for this aircraft, even though it was calculated on the basis of the aircraft’s weight and dimensions, feels as rich, responsive, and “analogue” as any I have owned. In principle, I am still skeptical; on the other hand, one of the things that chaos theory seems to have demonstrated is that relatively simple formulae can approximate complex systems (such as eye movement). It’s difficult, after flying this model for about a month, not to think of it as something that has been regrown, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; that the memory of the pilot’s experience is preserved in -- and is still accessible through -- the measurements of his machine. If that’s not true, it’s a powerful illusion.
Unlike the Me 109, which took me a lot of practice, the Fw 190 is not hard to land; this is partly because of the wider gear stance that was mentioned earlier. Even without an artificial horizon, which wasn’t available in the early variants modeled here, it’s easy to achieve a three-point stance for touchdown. (It’s also easy, if you come down too hard, to break the landing gear.)
What I still can’t do is recover from a spin. The normal technique, of applying opposite rudder, can slow the spin temporarily, but can’t break it. If, in desperation, you apply opposite aileron, it will only tighten the spin -- something that’s both distressing (for the pilot) and inspiring (for the observer who takes screenshots from the safety of Spot Plane view). It means (a) that the pilot is going to die and (b) that the math is doing what it’s supposed to. The model feels real: not mechanical and not random either, but edgy, organic.
Despite all of the detail, frame rates on these models are high: right up there with the RealAir Spitfire and A2A Thunderbolt. For reference, I also compared frame rates and smoothness with the Me 109 from A2A’s Wings of Power II series (which was upgraded several months ago to FSX-native status). In identical weather and scenery, the Me 109 feels a bit smoother, but all four of these products are genuinely frame rate-friendly.
“Focke Wulf Fw 190 A: The Early Variants” sells for about 25 Euros; at today’s exchange rate, that’s about US$33. If you live in the EU, VAT adds another five Euros.
The team that produced this package includes some veteran modelers: Mathias Pommerien and Alessandro Biagi, of the Groundcrew Design Group, and Gregory Pierson, of AvHistory.org. This product, their first joint venture as “Classics Hangar,” has already grabbed a lot of attention. Over at Sim-Outhouse, which specializes in military aviation, the announcement and discussion of this model have been stickied in the FSX forum for more than a month. Classics Hangar’s next project will be the later variants of the Fw 190A, followed by another World War II-era fighter, the twin-engine Me 110 Zerstoerer. Gauge screenshots have already begun to circulate.
It’s hard work to establish a new brand, but with this product Classics Hangar is well on its way. Normally, I don’t quote the evil wizard Saruman, but in this case his words seem appropriate: “A new power is rising; its victory is at hand.”
What I Like About Focke Wulf Fw 190 A: The Early Variants
What I Don't Like About Focke Wulf Fw 190 A: The Early Variants
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