AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Review

Vertical Reality Simulations F/A-18E “Superbug”

Product Information

Publishers:  Vertical Reality Simulations

Description: F/A-18E fighter aircraft add-on .

Download Size:
98 MB

Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS9 (to be released for FSX)
Reviewed by: Benjamin van Soldt AVSIM Staff Reviewer - June 27, 2009

Introduction

F/A-18 Hornet 2.0

When I was approximately 8 years old (No, I’m not an old guy), I received my first flight simulator: a combat flight sim with the simple title “F/A-18 Hornet”, by Graphsim entertainment (screenshot of it just below, image courtesy of Mobygames). I loved the game to bits and I played it a lot. It’s probably the flight simulator I played most of all flight simulators I have or ever had. Now, 11 years later, there is the Vertical Reality Simulations F/A-18E “Superbug” for FS2004, and in the future for FSX, too.

The F/A-18 Hornet is already an old aircraft, with its first flight being in 1980. The way the aircraft came into being is a funny story: it basically amounts to the navy not wanting to adopt the F-16. They didn’t think such a small aircraft, with a single engine and narrow landing gear could be very successful on carrier decks, so they opted for an alternative. Viewed at the aircraft this way, the F/A-18 is an aircraft designed specifically for the US Navy. In the end, more and more countries started to use the F/A-18, and it proved a very successful plane. So successful, that many variants have been made: F/A-18A through F, and then I’m not counting the special models used to test various kinds of apparatus.

The F/A-18 is a handsome twin-engine aircraft that can be used for a wide variety of missions, such as Close Air Support (CAS), Close Air Patrol (CAP), ground strikes and air strikes. With its good speed, maneuverability and ability to hold much weapons at once, and its various carrier adaptations, it is the perfect aircraft for carrier operations and missions starting from carrier decks.

Vertical Reality Simulations (hereafter to be called VRS) has modeled this multipurpose jetfighter, and I’ll be giving it a close inspection. More specifically, the model in the VRS “Superbug” package, is of the F/A-18E: the youngest of the F/A-18 series. It is a drastically redesigned aircraft with a 25% larger airframe, more CRT screens and generally updated systems. The package will cost you $45, a price to be used by great publishers like PMDG, Level-D and Captain Sim. It is a steep price, and anybody will now be wondering if you get what you pay for. You know what? Even after two hours of reading manuals and getting acquainted with the aircraft, I can tell you this plane is vastly underpriced!

Installation and Documentation

Getting the plane is hardly a problem: the simple procedure you find at all retailers applies here too. Buy the plane using an online payment service, you get a download link, you receive an email with activation codes, and that’s it. Installation of the plane is equally simple. The screenshots in the table below will show you the entire installation procedure.

When the install is complete, you are presented with the ACM (Aircraft Configuration Manager): a rather handsome utility with a slew of information, available settings and options that will boggle your mind the first time you set eyes on it. More on that later.

Looking in my aircraft folder, I saw all the necessary files there. A folder had been neatly created in the Start menu’s programs folder, at the location I had assigned to it during the installation procedure. The folder contains the documentation and the ACM. The documentation is available to you in a PMDG way: every chapter has its own PDF file.

Starting up the installation wizard When installation is successful, you need to activate: a rather simple process. As you can see, my activation worked!

Generally, I don’t like this approach. I want one document. However, with a PDF that large, Adobe Reader would quickly run crying to its mother because the VRS Superbug’s manual is large. The shortest chapter I could find is 17 pages, and that is the section detailing with the paint kit. If you count all chapters you reach a grand total of 300+ pages. The tutorial flight, which only gives you the basics, is 87 pages alone.

Save for some typos, this manual is a very easy and user-friendly handbook. It contains very clear, clean and straightforward instructions that nobody should have any trouble understanding. For those who English is not their first language or prefer to read the manual in their own language, VRS is in the process of making non-English versions of the manual. Also, there are ample pictures with numbers and descriptions, and every function is clearly explained. There are clear diagrams with good captions.

The layout is generally good, and it is clear what every chapter is about. Sometimes, I noticed text is not always easy to find: there were places where text was “squashed” in a corner between pictures. It also would have been nice to see pictures not interrupt sentences; it would have been cleaner if the sentence had reached a full stop first, and then the picture could have been placed. These are very minor gripes for a manual as comprehensive as this one.

Test System

Macbook Pro with:
Intel Cure Duo2 @ 2,4 gHz
Geforce 8600GT
4GB DDR2 RAM
Windows Vista Ultimate 32bit

Flying Time:
30 hours

The only thing major gripe I found was that the documentation appears not finished yet. The chapters detailing air-to-air (A/A or AA) and air-to-ground (A/G or AG) radar and weapon operations, and the chapter detailing the navigation and communication systems are prime examples.

Basically, this means just about all the systems available on the plane currently don’t have a manual chapter detailing them. However, I must say the tutorial does a very, very good job giving an overview of these systems. After completing the tutorial, as you’ll see later in the review, you’ll have a fairly good idea of the F/A-18’s systems. I should also mention that the remaining chapters are currently being worked on. On the forums one of the developers says it will be between 400 and 600 pages of documentation (!).

Overall, my impression of the manual is very good. It gives the information you need in an easy to understand way, and it mixes in a sense of humor from time to time. You basically can’t have too much information with this aircraft, and I think VRS did a good job supplying the information. They get you started with a very good tutorial. I found myself reading the documentation with great pleasure.

I’m not trying to dishearten you in any way. I just want to make absolutely clear how complex this aircraft is. Just about all systems are operational, and the rest are planned for a future “pro” version, of which no release date has been announced yet. However, in a talk with one of the developers, I heard some new things about the pro version, including new features. The interview at the very end of this review holds this information.

The Aircraft Configuration Manager

The ACM is such a comprehensive and useful utility, that I decided to devote an entire subtopic to it. You see, it’s not just a program to support the payware add-on: it isn’t just a load editor, fuel manager, etc. It is more.

The program, at first start-up, asked me for some more registration details, like name, phone number and email address. After inputting it and it being successfully saved, I was greeted by a splash screen that opted me to click it, after which I got to the actual program. Its structure is fairly simple: 6 tabs at the top bring you to a category, and then, if available, there are subcategories to choose from, from a menu on the left hand side, as can be seen in the following screenshots, what you see selected in the various tabs are the factory settings. This is what you get when you start the ACM up directly after install.

When first starting, it asked me for my registration details
Payload tab Fuel tab Failures tab
Preferences tab Liveries tab Reference tab

The payload tab gives you the option to hang some ordinance under your airplane. Various missiles and bombs have been modeled, and you also have the option to have multiple external fuel tanks. This all looks great, but doesn’t this mean you have multiple models? No. You see, that’s the great thing, I’m not sure how they pulled this one off, but there is one F/A-18E model, and through the ACM, that model can be adjusted in such a way that you can hang whatever you wish under it, at whatever position you wish.

That way you can fly cleared of everything, or with just bombs, just missiles, some fuel tanks, and a mix of everything, whatever you wish. The guys at VRS included a bunch of preset packs, including specialized packs for air strikes, CAS and CAP missions. All is very clear and very easy to use.

The fuel tab speaks for itself: left you see the fuel tanks of the F/A-18E itself, and right any external fuel tanks can be filled up.

The failures tab is extensive, to say the least. As you can see, you can fail just about everything. I’ll be honest, most of these things I don’t know what they do, but I bet it’s bad if they fail. Anyway, you have the power! If you wish to know what something does, enable its failure, and watch your plane go down. Just lovely.

Under the preferences tab you’ll find multiple, separate sub categories. The first is the simulation; configure the VC, 2D panel and all related stuff. From here you can also configure the chance of a previously set failure to occur and how severe it will be. What I find particularly enthralling is the detail and possibilities of what you want to see in the VC; the options are staggering. Normally, it’s either VC or no VC and you’re done. The Flight1 ATR gives more options, enabling the cabin, wing views etc, but what I found here amazed me.

The other subcategories available give you options concerning the ACM itself and, you read it correctly, There is a possibility for in-air refueling and carrier operations! The VRS “Superbug” comes with its own systems to model carrier and in-air refueling operations. More about this later.

The next tab gives us an overview of the liveries. There are a lot of them, and all are equally good, which is to say, very detailed and a joy to behold. Plus, for as far as I could see, there is at least one livery for every country that operates the F/A-18E. Also in this tab, you can import and export liveries plus assign names and numbers to be used by, for example, ATC

Finally, the last tab, “reference”, will present you with a neat-looking, well laid-out reference card summarizing all procedures you could possibly imagine. This reference card can also be accessed in the sim by the way. Just open the kneeboard by pressing F10 and click to the “reference” button. You are then presented with the same card as under the ACM’s reference tab.

Exterior model

You can say whatever you want about the aircraft, but in the end exterior models fall into two categories: the ones you care less about when flying, and the ones you do care to see flying. Aircraft like the PMDG 747 and the LDS 767 are, for me, planes that I love to see in the air. Same goes for the Captain Sim 757 or the or the CLS 747.

The Superbug is no different, in that respect. Ever see an eagle flying? Imagine the eagle flying now, and you have a rather clear picture of the VRS Superbug while in the air. With its pointy nose, small, but well-armed, wings, its two engines and signature vertical stabilizers, the F/A-18E is like an eagle in your sim.

On first inspection, the amount of detail really is extraordinary. I provided some screenshots below, to give you a general overview in “ready to fly” conditions. In these screenshots, notice the great attention to detail of how everything looks realistic, and of course, the beautiful repaint. Also notice the weapons, which look great, the canopy that reflects an outside world (because it really doesn’t reflect the outside world you are flying in) and the tremendous gear detail.

Now that we’ve looked at a general overview of the exterior model, lets get into more specialized stuff. We basically open up everything there is that we can possibly open (do note that while writing this, I noticed I could have also folded the wings and apply the speed brakes. I guess you can see those in other screenshots too, so the loss isn’t too great). What’s mainly to be seen after we open up everything is the tremendous amount of detail.

Something amusing to note is the pilot’s head movement. Every second or so, the pilot moves his head in a random direction. Below there is a screenshot showing this, but note that these are only four of the head positions the pilot’s head can take. There are more. Also, the pilot pushes the visor of his helmet up when you open the canopy, and he pushes it down when you close the canopy.

For the rest, mainly of note is the canopy, the ladder, the wiring that can be seen, the open radar cone, the flaps and rudders. Especially look at the ladder: every hole in the ladder’s frame is replicated ad nauseam, just look at the screenshots. Also of note is the position of the rudders: when you drop your flaps, the rudders “curl in” to slow the plane down even more. It is obvious you can still move them enough to maneuver the plane using them, but now they can also slow down the plane. For carrier operations, this is a must.

Mainly notice the amount of detail in the ladder, wires you can now see and the radar parts that have opened up Notice the flaps are full down, and how the rudders have now “curled in” to slow the plane down even more. Also notice the tail hook Zoom in: notice the tremendous detail in the cockpit’s main panel. Literally every knob is there!
Weapons, and the wirings at the front of the plane The head movement of the pilot is rather amusing Front from closer by. The open radar cone says: “Radiation hazard”

Now, let’s turn off all vital systems. We do this in two simple steps: turn off the engines, turn off the battery. After we do that, some changes have occurred in the exterior model, as can be seen in the screenshots below. First of all, there are engine coverings. Second, the pilot is gone. Third, we see small red “leaflets” hanging from the plane at all angles, reading “Remove before start” (or something similar). Fourth, the ailerons/elevators, flaps and rudders “droop”, and finally, there are wheel blocks. There are some nice things here that deserve to be noted, because here, too, the plane is not static. There are nice animations to be seen.

There are mainly two animations to be seen here: the drooping of ailerons/elevators, flaps and rudders, which stop when they have reached their final position, and the red “leaflets” swaying in the wind. That last animation gives the shut downed plane an actual feeling of being part of the environment. This is the detail that always pleases me, and while I don’t care if it’s there or not, it can add a lot to the general enjoyment of such a plane.

For the rest, everything looks very good although the engine coverings are slightly blurry. However, since we are talking about symbols on fabric, I can forgive this. Stuff on fabric (especially when the fabric stretches out), become blurry, meaning that the representation the VRS Superbug gives us, is spot on.

General overview from the front. Notice the drooping control surfaces and flaps, and the covering over the air inlet of the engine General overview from the side. Notice the wheel blocks
Her lady’s behind: engine coverings, wheel blocks, the “leaflets”, drooping control surfaces Another overview. Notice all that I mentioned in the paragraphs above

Finally, some screenshots at night just to show the A2A Xenon lights that we get with this awesome aircraft and because it looks so great to see her fly. By the way, don’t miss the lightened “strips” on the front and back sides of the fuselage, and on each of the vertical stabilizers. The first night shot shows you one on the nose of the aircraft. These strips light up, so it’s easy for wingmen to see where another plane is flying while in formation.

Great landing light. Just a beautiful shot, but notice the afterburner.
Notice the green navigation lights and the afterburner. On approach for landing: another nice shot with nice lights.

So all in all, the exterior model of this plane can be determined as “great”, “awesome”, “fantastic”, and various other words that convey the same meaning. This plane’s exterior model, with its wide range of repaints of a lot of F/A-18E squadrons out there, truly is a remarkable piece of designing. It’s up there with PMDG’s MD11 and 747, it’s as great as Captain Sim’s 757 and recently released 727 for FSX. I’m confident that the FSX release of the VRS Superbug will be even better due to the greater amount of effects FSX will be able to handle (in FS9 there is a limit of 8 light effects).

Interior model

We have already spoken of a great exterior model, and I have often seen that planes with a great exterior can have a worthless interior, or no interior at all. The VRS Superbug is definitely not one of those. It has an interior model, and it looks tremendous.

Think of the wonderful Captain Sim 757 interior, or the PMDG 747 VC, or MD11 VC, and the VRS Superbug is in the same league. 90% of the buttons you see are 3D, and in this plane, when they are 3D, you can usually move them. This gives you a load of buttons to play with, all nicely textured, at the right size, at the right position. Heck, you can even use the ejector seat handle, and the handle to eject the canopy, if the need arises. Before we go into more detail, first what you have been waiting for: screenshots of the F/A-18 virtual cockpit.

Overview of entire cockpit. Zoomed in on main panel and HUD. Zoomed in on upper left console.
Zoomed in on lower left console. Overview of right console. Overview of entire cockpit during flight.

Now that you have had a look at the screenshots, I should mention something. Please take another look at the ACM’s “Preferences” tab, over at the ACM subtopic of this review. You see there various options concerning the simulation. For this review, I have set everything to the highest possible: I opted for 2D/VC configuration, with all the items checked in the “Virtual cockpit” part of the screen, and “VC detail” is on its highest setting (meaning also individual bolts are 3D). It doesn’t need any explanation that the sim takes a performance hit because of this. I didn’t notice it that much, but you can count on a loss of between 10 and 20 FPS.

Now for a closer look. Let me be very clear on this one: Every button you see on the first screenshot is entirely functional. Like with various other add-ons, various mouse buttons do various things when interacting with levers and switches: left click moves the switch to one side, right click back the other side. A middle mouse click sometimes also has an effect in moving the switch, but I didn’t encounter this very often. It’ll be clear now that this mouse click behavior doesn’t include buttons, since they can’t be moved in multiple directions.

The main panels show us multiple CRT displays: the UFCD (middle upper display), two DDIs (LDDI and RDDI) (The two big displays on the left and right), EFD (smaller screen in the lower left) and MPCD (The big screen, in the middle bottom). Then there are some switches to control these, some analog instruments, with the control yoke prominently placed in front of the pilot. Finally, we see the HUD.

Most of these displays are controlled with small buttons you see placed alongside the edges of the screens. All these are in 3D and working. If you look closely, you’ll also notice how the LDDI and RDDI are also 3D, in that the edge of the display, where the buttons are located, is higher than the actual display. For the rest, as can be seen, the analog instruments have a rather nice reflection to them, and of course, all switches and buttons you see can be moved, including the interesting yellow/black handle on the left (which will jettison the canopy).

Moving on to the left upper and main consoles, we see the throttle quadrant, various engine and APU related buttons, gear and flap handles and indicators, parking brake, radio switches, light switches, and some emergency (backup) equipment, like the handle to manually open the canopy and emergency jettison controls (which will drop almost everything the plane is carrying on its wings, to make the plane lighter in case of emergency. Think of engine failure). Here, too, everything is 3D, and just about all of it is functional (the great majority of buttons, anyway).

Now time to look at the right console: here it’s mostly buttons to operate the electrical circuits of the aircraft, equipment cooling, sensors (radar and the like), and some less important buttons which I’m not to mention here. Suffice it to say that, again, all buttons but the lowest four switches (encircling the blue plug) are operational, and all are 3D.

In the middle we see the ejecting pilot’s seat. It looks really good, and it seems not a detail was left out. In the screenshots of the left console you see some tubes: these are most probably for oxygen and carbon dioxide transportation to and from the pilot’s helmet. The fact that it’s not connected to anything makes me wonder if I, the pilot, am not choking while flying this plane, but, then again, I’m not sure I’d want to see a pilot in this VC. I’m usually not very fond of that.

Look at the screenshot of the right console, and we notice a yellow/black striped metal bar running along the right side of the seat. This bar is made out of two handles: one to arm the chair, a second to manually launch the chair if the ejector handle at the front between the pilot’s legs doesn’t work properly (in that case, you’d want to pull the handle of the canopy jettison first, or you’ll bang your head against the canopy glass, which should hurt quite a bit).

I checked all of this switches, and after arming the chair, the chair actually works. Yeah, you read that right: you can eject from this plane. When you pull the ejector handle, your view is switched to spot view. You hear a bang, and the canopy comes off. Next, a sound of a launching rocket, and the chair comes out, with pilot and all. You keep viewing the plane though, meaning the view is not centered on the ejecting pilot. Any input from the controls is ignored, making the plane uncontrollable. As you keep following the plane with your view, you can see how in the distance the parachute opens and the chair falls to the ground.

So that’s all quite neat, but there is a compromise: This is done in a way of a recurring animation. This basically means that about 30 seconds later, if your plane does not crash, the canopy, seat and pilot are back and you can continue flying the plane. I’m not sure why it’s like this, since the weapons can be animated to fall off and not come back. I’m guessing the ejecting had to be done this way because of FS2004 limitations, for I can’t think of any other reason for it to be like it is. However, I see this as a minor point, and I’m already glad it’s even possible to eject: it’s the first time I’ve seen this in a FS fighter aircraft.

Suffice to say that like the exterior model, the interior model is absolutely superb. Any VC freak (like myself), especially if he or she has TrackIR, will find this VC to be one of the best out there. It’s of the level of PMDG and Captain Sim, if not better. This is quite a statement, I know, but it’s true. It really is that good.

A word about active camera

When I first flew this aircraft, I noticed how still the screen seemed to be. In the end, I understood active camera simply was not working. I was disappointed it didn’t work, because I though it’d be cool if the head motion simulation would work with this add-on package, especially because it’s a fighter aircraft (I remember how awesome the head motion simulation was in the Aerosoft A-10).

So, a word of warning for people who hope to use active camera: for some reason, I can’t get this to work. I heard a person on the forums say active camera worked well for them, so who knows. Maybe you are lucky. I advise you not to get your hopes up though. On the other hand, don’t let this cloud your judgment too much. The aircraft is too good for this little thing to spoil your day.

2D Cockpit

After looking at the modeling of the plane, let’s take a closer look at the 2D panel and its possibilities. By now, after all my raving, you can probably already guessed how blown away I am by this plane. Now I’ll show you exactly why, but first, some screenshots:

“look-up” part of the main instrument panel. look-down” part of the main instrument panel. A selection of various subpanels, activated by the panel navigator, shown bottom left.

These three screenshots should give an adequate overview of how the panels look. As you can see, they look rather realistic, the gauges are easy to read and use, and it’s generally a pleasant panel to look at. What is so intriguing about this panel, is not really that, though. What is intriguing, is the systems coded within the panel: just about all systems you can think of are modeled here, faithfully reproduced and in stunning realism.

Before I start discussing the various systems in detail, first I’ll devote some time explaining the functional lay-out of the cockpit. In essence, it isn’t very different from any Boeing or Airbus panel: In front of the pilot are the various CRT displays, on the sides are the systems to support these displays, the main difference being that a jetfighter has no overhead panel. The consequence of that is that there is not a lot of space in the F/A-18’s cockpit, and this expresses itself in the knob-filled consoles on the sides and displays like the UFCD (screen in the upper middle part of the panel).

The UFCD and two DDIs are the most important displays in the F/A-18’s cockpit. These three displays, together, let you manage just about anything to fly the plane, provided nothing has failed. It is because of this reason I’ll spend most of my time discussing the functions of these three displays. Of course, I’ll talk about some of the nice buttons on the left and right consoles too, but later. Below are screenshots of the standard look of the LDDI, RDDI, HUD and UFCD.

So, what do the DDIs and UFCD give us? A lot: all necessary navigational equipment (HSI, artificial horizon, route indicators and information), radar, EW (Early Warning systems, used to detect SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) sites), all autopilot related functions (including various steering methods, autothrottle), weapon management, instrument failure checking, communications, ILS and related systems… That should be about it. You can probably imagine that if you lose all these displays due to failures, you’re FUBAR’d. Because of this reason, the DDIs and UFCD can show each other’s pages.

Since the DDIs can show navigational information, it’s not such a great problem when the MPCD (the lower middle screen) fails. You do have a grave problem when the UFCD fails: this is your only portal to the autopilot. So, if the UFCD should fail, you’re essentially without an autopilot. And believe me: it can fail.

This brings me to a second point I wanted to mention before showing you all possible DDI/UFCD/MPCD screens: the panel is excellent to an extent that not only everything works, but everything can fail too. If you, for example, forget to switch on the avionics cooling systems and apply full throttle, you’ll quickly spot an advisory caution telling you the avionics are “hot”. If this situation persists, the various CRT screens in your cockpit black out and fail. Yes, your HUD can also fail. When this happens, you are assigned to your analog panels that are less-than-conveniently placed just above your right leg. As you can imagine, this is hardly a spot you’ll be looking at when in a fierce dogfight.

Be warned though: you probably remember that ACM tab I showed you? The one containing failures. There is a very genuine difference between what you can set in this tab, and what happens in the aircraft. What happens in the aircraft, is completely dependent on what you, the pilot, does. If you make silly mistakes, your aircraft brakes down. However, if you set in the ACM parts that should/can fail, all you are doing is setting up a chance for a failure to happen by itself.

In this case, not you but the virtual pilot is handling the aircraft in a silly way. The fault typically lies with the ground crew that didn’t check your aircraft as well as they should have done. So in short, you can set in the ACM tab everything that can fail, with the result being that nothing actually fails, and you can set in the ACM that nothing fails, but in the end everything fails because of piloting errors.

With that out of the way, it’s time to give the Superbug’s intricate systems a closer look.

Navigational systems

The navigational systems displayed on the DDIs consist of the HSI and artificial horizon. While the artificial horizon can’t really be altered, the HSI can be altered to display various information, depending on the pilot’s preference (things as zoom levels), or a selected mode (there are various steering modes that alter the HSI’s look). I won’t show you every tiny detail, but it might be nice to mention that all in all, the HSI really is not that different from any standard Boeing or Airbus HSI.

In fact, most people will recognize it and will be able to operate it without too much trouble, although I do recommend reading the respective paragraphs in the manual (the tutorial covers it too, and it is my opinion that the tutorial offers enough information to keep you going for a long time).

Overall, most screens look like the screenshot on the left. However, there is a possibility to call up a map, as can be seen in the right screenshot. The refresh rate of this map is not very good, though. I’m not sure how this is in the real plane, but if you make a tight turn, the map may be lagging behind by 60 degrees. This is only a problem when you are in bad weather conditions and want to know how you are aligned, top down, with a runway, or, if you perhaps are trying to navigate the land without a preset flight plan.

Ultimately, the navigational systems aren’t the most exciting systems on this aircraft (except the map. That one’s great). The weapons and radar are something extraordinary and are not something we often see in our FS world. So, without further ado, on to the weapons and radar systems.

Weapons and radar

The basic sms page: gun selected. Sidewinder 9X missile selected. AIM-120 AMRAAM missile selected.
The HARM missile interface. Bombs selected. The basic radar layout

The EW system screen layout.

Understand that this is only a small selection of the available variations of the screens you can see. There are many more.

The weapons and radar systems consist of a large variety of screens, including the weapon management systems (SMS pages), the A/A radar and A/G radar, and the EW system. The SMS pages are rather self explanatory: a wing-shaped form dominates the screen, and at the various weapon stations the weapons hung at that station are displayed (if available). Depending on what weapon you select (what you can select and the weapon information displayed in the lower half of the screen is dependant on the radar type you select), a different weapon name will appear on the screen, and a rectangle will appear around the stations where that weapon is hung.

It should be evident that there is a very tight integration between the SMS page, the radar system, and the EW system. As previously mentioned, the radar type selected governs which weapon you can select. For example, in A/A radar mode, you can’t select A/G weapons. The entire weapon-related system is a very complex system and it needs some practice to really know what you are doing. I found, though, that I managed to get the hang of it pretty quickly, but I think this probably is because I spent a great deal of time with F/A-18 simulators already before trying out the Superbug. For people who are new to this, it may appear a greater challenge than imagined.

The EW system is something quite different though. Think of it not as a radar, but as a “priority calculator”, because that’s what it really is. It shows you the approximate locations of ground-based air defenses, but in a very limited way. It doesn’t show you the distance between you and the air defense, only the direction relative to your plane. Instead of the distance, what it does show you is the threat it forms, and therefore also the priority you ought to give it. The way it does this is simple: there are various circles displayed, and each circle is a level of importance. The plane’s computer places an air defense mark inside a circle if it thinks the air defense is such a threat.

When air defenses are placed in the innermost circle, you’ve got a problem. The defenses have started being such a great threat, that they can easily shoot at you. Fortunately, the EW system is not only “Early Warning”, but also Fast Action, in a way. When a missile is shot at you by one of these sites, the EW automatically locks onto the shooting air defense with a HARM A/G missile, and simply waits for you to press the “shoot” button.

I see you are confused: “we are talking about FS2004 here, right? FS2004 doesn’t shoot at you.” The answer is easy: FS2004 shoots at you. More specifically, the ACM shoots at you. The “preferences” tab of the ACM contains a “Mission ops” sub tab. If you click it, you are presented with various mission related operations, including the placement of air defenses on the ground.

If you now proceed to designate a waypoint as a hostility zone, that spot is littered with the air defense type of your choice (being either SAM or AAA). The air defenses will proceed with locking on and shooting at you. Sadly, you don’t see any rockets coming at you, but you do hear the whizz of the rocket when it misses, and the bang when it hits.

And again I see your confusement. “The bang when it hits? You mean I can actually be hit here?” Most certainly! In the “preferences” tab, you can set the severity of a rocket hit from 0 to 10. On 0, no damage is done at all.

Failure checking and reporting

Of all the systems on board, I found this particular part the most fun to watch and meddle with. Like in any plane, stuff can fail (especially in this plane where you can make everything fail), and when a failure occurs, it would be nice for the pilot to know about it. The reporting of failures is done in two ways: first of all, in the lowest half of the DDIs, there are two fields. The upper half or so displays major cautions, the lower half displays advisories. Both are displayed in 150% sized, yellow text.

Advisories fall into two categories: messages to alert the pilot to the activation of systems, and alerting the pilot to various minor cautions. Actual failure warnings are not displayed in the advisory or caution fields, rather on the respective DDI page. From this page you can check the various subsystems, or check all systems onboard.

If it’s okay, GO is displayed in green, otherwise NO GO is displayed yellow. I found it very nice to see the computers doing a self check, although I got bored in the end and made it stop. As a side note, the screenshot above does not display any cautions or advisories. The shot of the standard look of the two DDIs on the other hand does show a caution: it shows “RIG” in yellow letters on the LDDI.

Autopilot, ILS, communications, engine information and related systems

For once we are not looking at the DDIs or MPCD. What you see in the screenshots is the UFCD: the central screen that handles everything; autopilot, ILS and communications, which also include TACAN station navigation besides the normal NAV and COMM radios (TACAN is a special military navigational aid, it is not used by civilian air traffic). Basically, you see a keyboard on the left, and various options on the right. The UFCD is touch screen, so you can simply click on the screen and it’ll work. The screenshots display the normal layout of the UFCD (the CNI), and five DDI screens that can also be displayed on the UFCD.

Something else is the EFD (Engine/Fuel Display). This screen, as the name suggests, shows you engine and fuel information. It is a rather handy and informative screen that shows you all kinds of things: fuel level, engine rpm and various temperatures. See the screenshot for a better understanding.

With that said, since I’m not going to detail every function, let’s go in with possibly the most important instrument on board: the HUD.

The HUD

Of all the systems I’ve mentioned, the HUD is the single most important gauge onboard your aircraft. If your HUD fails, many things suddenly become more of a hassle than you’d want it to be, if not only because the HUD is such a standard thing to be looking at. You look at it for speed, height, heading, but also for weapon and radar related cues, navigational cues… It is used for just about anything and everything you do on this plane, and the integration with all other cockpit integration is unbelievably tight. I remember from all those years ago when I flew the F/A-18 Hornet game/sim, how I would be extremely upset if the HUD were to fail. Even here, in FS2004, I feel paralyzed when it fails.

This last fact is surprising in a way. There have been planes out there where I hardly cared if a system didn’t work anymore. Usually it was because the system was made in a poorly. In the Superbug’s case, the HUD has been made in a very realistic way. It even simulates the caged/uncaged conditions of the HUD.

If the HUD is uncaged, the HUD symbology is free to roam the HUD surface, depending on what the actual flight path of your plane is. However, it often happens this roaming around is just annoying because you might miss out on some information (while landing, the ILD bars might slip off the HUD surface, which is terribly annoying). In these cases, you can “cage” the HUD, making everything stick to its place. In that instance, a “ghost aircraft” is added on the HUD: a representation of the aircraft, except it shows you exactly where your plane is heading at all times. Rather nifty, isn’t it?

Alas, I can’t tell you anything more; this is something you have to experience. Look at the screenshot, and think about what happens when you lose this.

In general

In these last paragraphs, I’ve only given you a glimpse of all the systems onboard and their functions. If we were looking at a piece of fruit, we have only begun peeling it, and we still have to eat it. The detail of the systems simulation is great. Everything works accurately and smoothly. If something didn’t work as expected, it was my fault (I forgot to flip a switch somewhere, for instance). This should give you some idea of the greatness of this panel.

Sounds

What I always like about taking off, is that growl of the engines when you apply full throttle. The plane starts its slow takeoff roll, until the nose lifts up and the plane soars up into the air. The mighty, raw power of these engines, are expressed mainly in their sound, and that’s why it’s so important for me to have realistic sounds.

The VRS Superbug again hits it right on the nose. The developers got the F/A-18 engine sounds by TSS, which is a renowned aircraft sound studio. The pure joy you get out of hearing these mighty fighter engines is enormous. The growling of the afterburner is stunning!

What’s also nice, is the distinct difference in sounds, depending on the camera location. For example, the sounds are very different from the cockpit (2D or VC), compared to spot view. What’s even cooler, is that if you are in the cockpit (2D or VC) and open the canopy, you hear the engines much louder than before. Even better, it’s a distinct sound on its own. The volume, frequencies and tones differ from the canopy-closed and spot view sound, which adds just that extra bit of realism.

If the realism in engine sounds is not enough, there is also a very wide array of button-pushing, switch-turning and switch-flipping sounds, all distinct and recognizable. Of course, there are the sounds of the GPWS, which is a female voice, telling you in a friendly and quiet voice that you are about to crash and be obliterated. That same female voice also warns you of major failures or problems, like engine fires and “bingo” (fuel low) conditions.

Finally, we have all the weapon related sounds. These are a wide range of sounds produced by the various systems (like the distinct 9X sidewinder missile’s “growl” when not locked onto a target, or the irritating beeping of the Early Warning and Radar Warning Receiver systems (informing you of a missile launch), or the weapons themselves (missile being shot away or bombs being dropped).

The sounds are great in all respects, and that’s all I can really say to summarize them. It’s only amongst the more expensive add-on packages out there that I generally here this all-around level of sound realism.

The tutorial flight

I already talked about the tutorial flight. However, I’m now going to discuss it and use it as the primary example of the excellence of this Flight Simulator aircraft. I’ll show you my flight with screenshots, point out the various MFD screens in action (you already saw them, now it’s time to see them in use).

Before you start reading the tutorial part of the documentation, it is essential you first read the introduction, especially the paragraph explaining the required setup of FS2004. For example, you need to set up your controls in such a way that the ACM can detect them. This basically amounts to inverting all your controller’s axis, so that a “write to the FS9.cfg” is done, which the ACM can detect. You also have to set FS2004’s realism to 100%, otherwise the flight model (which has been made so that it performs well under most realistic conditions) will start to give you problems.

After you do that, the tutorial tells you to create a new flight with a flight plan from KSEA (Seattle Tacoma intl.) to KPDX (Portland intl.). This will be automatically loaded into the Superbug’s flight computer. Press “Fly now”, and you are in the F/A-18E’s cockpit.

Originally, the tutorial says it does everything in 2D-only mode, but I selected 2D/VC mode, so I could also take screenshots in the VC while flying. I couldn’t find any reason not to use the 2D/VC mode and everything was fine during the flight.

Being dumped in the cockpit, the tutorial starts out with an overview of the cockpit and the basics of what we are seeing. It then continues with takeoff settings (there aren’t a lot of these, but there are some details you need to get right), orders us to give max power, and there we go. At 135-145kts we rotate, but gently! If you do it too fast, you flip over and crash. This aircraft is so nimble and fast that you really have to be careful with every maneuver. It’ll take you some time to get used to the FDE if you mostly fly the big iron, but it’s worth it. Now on with the flight.

Takeoff roll. Takeoff, gear up!
Sharp and steady turn. Enroute to Portland, the engines can rest now.

After climbing (very rapidly, I should say! I forgot how fast such a fighter can accelerate) to FL100, ending up with a speed between 350 and 400 kts and turning 190 degrees to get enroute to KPDX, the tutorial wants you to pause the sim. Next, we get information on the autopilot and the Heads Up Display (HUD). It’s clearly written and easy to understand, so we can read it quickly and continue flying. With the A/P on and programmed to fly us to KPDX, we start reading about the radar systems.

The explanation of the radar modes is done in a fun and memorable way: shoot down some aircraft! The weapons load out you had to choose prior to starting this tutorial flight gives you AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, sidewinder 9X and HARM missiles, plus some bombs. In the tutorial we’re supposed to use the AMRAAM missiles for this part of the flight. I can tell you, the systems are very faithfully replicated. The radar works very well and it is modeled in such extreme detail that you can only be awed by the experience.

So there you are: weapons armed, radar on, locked on a target. We read the tutorial, and then you get the final point of the checklist: FIRE! The rocket actually is fired when you press the trigger button. It has a decent “fire” effect, as can be seen in the screenshot. What happens now is very cool: you can follow the missile by using your HUD, just like in the real plane.

The HUD will show a counter denoting the amount of time to activate (TTA, which is the time until the missile’s radar takes over from the plane’s radar), and the time to go for the missile to hit the target (TTG, time to go until impact). The tension rises as the counter counts down, and the missile nears its target. The moment TTG counter has reached 0 and the missile hits, you hear a soft “boom” (very neat, by the way!), and the aircraft vanishes from your radar. Do note that the aircraft isn’t actually destroyed: in the FS2004 world, where stuff just can’t crash just like that, the aircraft continues to fly, but is wiped from your radar as if it has never been there. That way, while a bit faked, you sort of have the sense that you actually destroyed something.

Cockpit overview Main panel from closer by: notice the radar and weapons management pages on the DDIs. Maneuvering to line myself up with my target.
Found my target: it’s the number with the “cap” over it. AMRAAM missile now armed. My target is that little box you can see on the HUD. Decided to change HUD color.
Max throttle: time to engage that culprit! Weapons free! Again, from another angle.

Next we turn back to our original heading: Portland intl. Earlier in the tutorial, what we did was to designate the Portland Intl. area as a “hostility zone”. As I explained earlier, this activates various SAM or AAA sites around that waypoint. The reason for the tutorial wants you to do this, is so it can instruct you on the use of the EW and RWR (Radar Warning Receiver), which beeps in increasingly annoying ways when you are locked on and/or shot at by the mentioned air defenses.

In conjunction with EW and RWR explanation, the tutorial will also explain the use of HARM missiles. I won’t repeat what the tutorial says for you to do, but you basically lock on and fire on a SAM site. Besides that, it wants you to fly closer to a threat, and observe what happens when a threat launches a missile at you. First though, it wants you to manage the countermeasures the F/A-18E offers you: chaff and flares. They are to divert missiles to the “fake” targets. The managing of this countermeasure business extends to making a “program”, in which you tell the computer how much of each to drop at missile launch, how often that should be repeated, and the time interval between the repeats.

HARM missile active. Left MFD displays the HARM missile’s interface, the right MFD displays the EW. When a target gets in the innermost circle, you have a problem. Weapons free: HARM missile launch.

So, once a missile launch is detected, the computer automatically changes to the HARM interface. It tries to lock on to the target, and all you have to do is shoot. I did just that, and it works. Again the nice “boom” sound, the SAM site vanishes from the EW display. Beautiful. And fun, so much fun.

Last but not least, a bombing run. Target: the nuclear power facility close to Portland. The tutorial guides you beautifully through an approach, how to set the radar and the dropping options, and the final dropping of the bombs. See the screenshots for the dropping of the bombs. The radar modes again are extensively detailed and will require some getting used to.

This is actually easier than I thought: you just line up with the target and drop your bombs when you see a certain, very clear visual clue. When I flew over the power plant, I hear a soft “boom” and that was it. No actual damage to the structure, but better than nothing, I’d say.

Lining up with the target. Bombs selected, on my way to the target. KPDX, Portland Intl.
Approaching my target. Bombs away! Heading back home now.

The last part of the tutorial is approach and landing, and right at the mark! A friendly female voice just said: “Bingo, bingo”, which basically means you should be heading home right now if you ever want to see it again, otherwise you’ll run out of fuel. The tutorial now takes some time instructing you on how to handle the approach and landing: Angle of Attack (AOA) and its importance for a carrier-landing Navy fighter, flaps, gear, ILS use, and autothrottle. I didn’t find this all to be very difficult, certainly not with the autothrottle and ILS enabled and working as beautifully as they did.

The role of the autopilot in landing is surprisingly different from a normal jetliner. While in most jetliners the autopilot performs a complete autoland, and autothrottle is either managed by the pilot, or by a preprogrammed set of instructions in the FMC, this works just the other way around in the F/A-18. In this case, there is no such thing as autoland.

The pilot hand flies the plane to the ground, and the autothrottle manages the engine thrust. Actually, it is very important that it is done this way, because of the fact we are dealing with a carrier-landing aircraft. Because of this the AOA needs to be perfect, and to that end, the throttle is managed by the autopilot, and not by you. It will make sure that whatever you do, the throttle is always in such a setting that the AOA is good for a carrier landing.

Navigating back to Seattle KSEA was done in a different way than navigating to Portland KPDX. This time around, we used TACAN. You can find a table in the reference guide explaining how to convert “normal” frequencies into TACAN frequencies, and the tutorial does a pretty good job of explaining why we want to use TACAN at all.

So there you have it. A fine flight with a fine aircraft. I say, just look at the screenshots. They say more than a thousand words.

Heading home, A/P is lining me up. Landing has officially started.
2D cockpit view. The yellow circle next to the HUD tells me I’m on the mark with the AOA. The DDIs show me the navigation related pages. Yep, still landing. Watch the nice effect here… …and again, from the other side.
Cockpit view. Touch down! Came to a complete stop.

You might have noticed that at the point where I start the bombing run, suddenly I have all my weapons back. This is because I had to stop and reload my flight. Although the tutorial says you can reload your flight without that much trouble, I still strongly advice you not to. When you do it, all systems are re-activated, all switches are set to their original positions. You essentially have to set up everything from ground up, including any custom waypoints you made.

It would have been nice if, like the LDS767 or PMDG747, there would have been a “panel save state” utility that can save your panel’s state when you can’t complete a flight. On the other hand, usually all your flights will be so short (missions just don’t take as long as a transatlantic flight, now do they) with this aircraft, that it really isn’t that necessary. Maybe something for a later version, but not something to worry about now.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this tutorial flight, and I hope I gave you a glimpse of the power of this aircraft, knowing it will get even better with the alleged “pro” version still to come in the following weeks/months/years.

Carrier operations

Remember, the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft are not just a series of fighter aircraft. They have been specifically designed for use by the US NAVY. This includes quick, efficient and easy use of this aircraft on carrier decks. Well guess what, this has also been simulated in the VRS Superbug! All you need to do is enable the carrier operations from the ACM’s “preferences” tab.

You may be confused now. Does the ACM have its own systems to handle aircraft carrier models? Do you get an aircraft carrier model with the VRS Superbug? Let me explain.

As you may have figured out by now, the ACM is the core program of the VRS Superbug. It handles everything and gives you access to anything. Through the ACM, you can also configure aircraft carriers to be used with your Superbug. Basically, what you do here, is tell the Superbug at what locations there’s a launching catapult and where the arrestor wires are located (the wires that are caught by the airplane’s arrestor hook, to quickly slow it down and keep it on the flight deck). But what the ACM does not do, is give you a fully functional model. You deliver the model and the ACM delivers the functionality.

This is good and bad. The good side is that VRS took the trouble to give you the option to do carrier operations, something that is, of course, very welcome. The bad side is that the ACM configured flight decks only work for the VRS Superbug. So, if you were hoping to fly Alphasim’s F-14 onto an Alphasim USS Enterprise and use the ACM arrestor wires and catapult, I say retract those flaps, gear and hook, because all you’ll do is overshoot!

That said, it is absolutely lovely to do carrier operations with the Superbug. The ACM comes with a preconfigured set of carrier flight decks, including Alphasim’s USS Enterprise aircraft carrier scenery. This basically means all you have to do is get the Alphasim package, go to the ACM, enable the carrier operations from the “preferences” tab, and you are set. From that point on, you can do carrier operations.

With NAVY aircraft, the carrier operations are undoubtedly the most exciting, difficult and rewarding operations you’ll do with this plane. They fall into two main actions: takeoff and landing.

Taking off from the aircraft carrier is done with the catapult. Normally, crew on the flight deck guides you onto the catapult, arms it for you, and gives you directions on what to do. In FS2004, this is not possible, of course. Instead, you get an extra gauge that lets you arm the catapult manually. Once you’ve found this gauge, all you do is taxi over a catapult until the light in the catapult gauge becomes green (denoting the gauge detected a catapult).

Now you arm it, lower flaps, lower the launching bar (the catapult shoe now appears), then raise the launching bar (it won’t actually rise, but will stay in the catapult shoe. It will rise immediately when the shoe catapults your plane from the flight deck), set throttle as required, and release your parking brakes. It really is that easy. Next, all you know is your plane accelerates from 0 to possibly 160 ~ 180 kts, in mere seconds, and you are in the air. A sweet sound effect makes the launching even more impressive.

Parked on the ramp At the catapult
2D panel: notice the catapult gauge (green light with ARM next to it) in the panel navigator, to the left. Launched! Turning away.

Landing is more difficult. I found that doing the tutorial helps a lot when doing carrier landings, since the process is basically the same as landing on normal runways. The only two different things is you lowering the arrestor hook, and the fact that you have to touch down at the beginning of the landing zone of the flight deck, or your hook will miss the wires, meaning you have to do a go-around. This is something that might happen often to you.

In my experience, I noticed that if I stick to the ILS approach explained in the tutorial, and I use the plane’s autothrottle (ATC), everything is all right. At my second attempt (when I actually did it the tutorial’s way), I successfully landed.

Lining up for landing, notice the arrestor hook. Nice shot of my plane landing. Touch down!

In summary, another plus for the VRS Superbug. Adding this kind of functionality is great, it extends the possibilities of the plane in many ways. Do note that if you decide on Alphasim’s great payware USS Enterprise models, this costs approximately 25 dollars, which will have to be paid in order to enjoy the VRS’s carrier operations. I have found that the ACM had also some preconfigured settings for various freeware models, but ultimately, I wanted the convenience of a payware package.

Air refueling

There remains only one more topic to cover: in air (or A/A) refueling. This is a delicate operation requiring very fine maneuvering, but it’s very rewarding when it turns out well. As with carrier operations, you activate air refueling from within the ACM. The only thing you have to provide, is a tanker model with extended beam and drogue (The F/A-18 has a fuel probe, so the system of refueling is indeed quite different from the F-16 one, which uses a beam to connect to an opening on the top side of the fuselage behind the cockpit. See the screenshot just below, and it’ll be clear to you.)

The F-16 way of refueling. Photograph by Dirk Voortmans
Courtesy of Airliners.net
The F/A-18 way of refueling. Photograph by Christopher Hagstrom
Courtesy of Airliners.net

From here on, you have two options: if you have a registered FSUIPC, you can enter an aircraft ID in the ACM and a TACAN frequency, and then you can fly to the tanker using that frequency in FS. However, if you don’t have a registered FSUIPC, you’ll have to accurately know where the tanker is at a specific point in time, or you’ll never find the tanker. This is because to be able to find other aircraft, you need FSUIPC’s TCAS ability, since it is not built into FS2004.

Anyway, assuming you have FSUIPC registered, it is rather easy to find the tanker. Simply fly towards the TACAN beacon. The actual refueling, on the other hand, is quite difficult (I found it to be the most difficult maneuver to perform, and I still didn’t quite succeed in the actual coupling), but the ACM helps us a little: it comes preconfigured with various tanker types, so the place of the drogue should already be set. All you have to do now is extend the refueling probe, flip some more switches, and fly to the drogue. You insert your probe into the drogue, and you should be refueling.

If you are not good at this, you can go into the ACM and enlarge the area your refueling probe should get into to trigger refueling activation. It goes without saying that the more you enlarge this area, the easier it gets to refuel.

All in all, this is another fun operation, although the AI tanker traffic can be a pain to set up. If you have problems, just go to the forums, where you’ll find ample information.

An interview with the developers

As a last part of this review, I’ll share with you a nice interview with Jon, one of the developers. He was so nice to answer all of my questions and give me permission to reprint them in this review. We talk about how things are now, how the development was, and what’s on the horizon. Particularly the future of this add-on seems to be very bright!

You mentioned in the manual that you were on the original F/A-18 Hornet (by Graphsim) developer team. Is this the reason you designed a F/A-18E for Flight Simulator, or are there other reasons too?

The primary reason for choosing an F/A-18 was that I have a great deal of experience with the F/A-18 from my previous experiences. I felt there was a lot of detail and functionality, which needed to be expressed, and MSFS was a good platform for simulating the aircraft as a complete system. For example Jane's F/A-18 was a fantastic sim, and has the combat capabilities MSFS lacks, but it's not beautiful, and it's not capable of simulating the aircraft at a fundamental level. That is to say, it doesn't know what an APU is, and you can't fly over the "real" world. I wanted to create an AIRCRAFT simulation of the F/A-18, which was in every way as complex and rewarding as tube liner simulations can be. While we certainly delve into combat systems, and even provide some combat-oriented "game play", it's still all about simulating the aircraft to the nth degree, not about blowing stuff up.

Are you still linked to Graphsim in some way, or are you on your own now? I’m asking, because I’m rather curious what’s going on with Graphsim now. They seem… dead.

I'm friends with Trey Smith and Jeff Morgan, and speak to them on occasion. There are some possible collaborations in the works, but we're not working on anything together at the moment.
Graphsim is far from dead. They moved away from in-house development and are purely publishers now. They publish a couple of titles you may have heard of (X-plane and Falcon 4: Allied Force), and some other less popular titles. Apparently they're doing OK because the last time I saw Trey he was driving a Porsche:)

The Graphsim aircraft takes the older generation F/A-18C, not the E version you developed. Is there a really big difference between the two?

The F/A-18E is essentially an entirely new aircraft. While it shares the same basic shape, the airframe itself is entirely new, having been built from the ground up to carry more fuel and more ordinance. There are also some features, which help lower the radar profile. The cockpit itself is approximately 90% similar, with the one major difference being the "UFCD", or Up-Front-Control Display. This is an interactive display that allows quicker and more robust data entry, and we simulate it to the hilt. This is basically the F/A-18E's FMC.

Back to your plane now: So, why did you actually develop the F/A-18E? Why not the earlier versions (I remember the F/A-18C quite fondly)?

The F/A-18E is under-simulated. It's got characteristics that make it a unique and very rewarding aircraft to fly. We had excellent data available including control-law schedules and aerodynamic data, which allowed us to build a true and accurate fly-by-wire control augmentation system. It was simply too good to pass up. The F/A-18E is slower and less responsive than the F/A-18C, but it can go farther and get more done.

The FSX version is in full development, and seeing as what the current plane misses in effects (like the light and smoke effects of the gun), is it possible to remedy this in FSX?

The problem with FS9 is the effects are limited to "light circuits". There are a number of discrete circuits, which must be used to control effects. What's not being used for actual lighting (the left-overs if you will), can be used for effects. This severely limits the available number of effects we can tie via code to events. We had to carefully choose which effects to use out of our limited supply of available "channels".
FSX has no such limitations. Effects can be tied directly to the model and driven by any code we want. So for example in FSX we have missiles that trail smoke, gun gas and shell ejection, etc. While the FS9 version does some incredible things that in fact haven't been done before, the FSX version will lift most of the remaining restrictions we had

What panel system took most time to develop on this plane? Why that?

I'm not quite sure if you mean cockpit (2D/VC) or avionic system, so I'll cover both bases: The VC took approximately a year to build, but at best that's an estimate. I jump around from one thing to the other, so it's hard to gauge. I have a petpeave for building polygons one vertex at a time. This dates back to my experiences with real-time modeling for games when I was using a military-grade modeling system called "Multi-gen." This was the same modeling system used to develop level-D databases for military simulation. You had to be efficient, and efficiency takes time. So in short, the VC took much longer than the 2D panel set. FWIW, the FSX version will receive some significant upgrades.
Now if you were talking about avionics, then the UFCD took more time than anything else. The full UFCD has 15,000 lines of code. Granted most of it is XML, but it reads in data from C-gauges as well. The UFCD has it's own functions, but it can also perform exactly the same tasks as either DDI, so it's by far the most complex single instrument.

In the manual, it is said that most of the plane’s data was gathered from the official F/A-18E NOTAPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization). Did the military aid you acquiring the NOTAPS, or did they help you in other ways producing this fine piece of software?

That's right, we used the NATOPS manuals as the basis for much of what we did, but we used the publicly available manuals, not the classified ones. The Flight Manual and Performance charts are part of the publicly available documentation. There are other documents, which are also non-classified, and these involve more technical aspects such as control schedules and aerodynamic data. The military doesn't get involved with helping development unless you're actually doing work for them. We do some sub-contract work for third-parties which in turn work directly under military contract, but we don't work with the military directly, so we've never had any direct help or contact with them in the US. However the Australians are currently purchasing the F/A-18E, and we have been speaking with various official entities there about possible collaboration.

You also say how you got your second team member (Álvaro C. Navarro): via a forum. How did it work out working together? I mean, it sounds like you two are miles apart from each other. Was it easy to cooperate that way?

Álvaro was an early forum visitor, perhaps a 18 months or more before the FS9 version shipped. He was clearly very knowledgeable and when he spoke about technical aspects I could see he knew what he was talking about. I had previously been working with the late Ron Friemuth who was doing some FD work. Unfortunately Ron passed away and much of his work went with him. For those who don't know, Ron was the quintessential FS flight dynamics guru, and did a great deal to expose the mysteries of the .air file.

Á lvaro quickly got to work filling Ron's shoes, and in fact surpassing Ron's efforts in ways I never expected. Álvaro has gone from knowing virtually nothing about MSFS to probably the most talented FD person I've ever seen. He is a aeronautical engineer by trade, but has managed to learn what he's needed in order to make actual code changes in our flight control system. Álvaro is now completely in charge of all aspects of flight control.

Working with Álvaro has been quite easy most of the time. Although we are continents apart, he speaks perfect English and we've learned to deal with most of our individual idiosyncrasies. It was challenging at times, and we would often have some serious arguments and misunderstandings, but I think we've moved passed most of that. Neither of ever lost sight of the vision, and that's what continued to drive our successful partnership.

Now that we are talking about development related stuff, can you reveal anything about the pro version? Like, will it be a paid upgrade for existing users (10 dollars extra and get the last bits of avionics, for example). I understand if you can’t reveal anything about this, just curious. Also, can you give in more detail what the pro version will include that is not included in the “light” version?

The Pro version is primarily targeted at very serious simmers and training applications. It is not a consumer product in the normal sense and will feature no additional eye candy. Pro concentrates on very advanced control laws/FDs, navigation (INS), automatic carrier landing system (ACLS), and a wider and more flexible spectrum of damage modeling. Pro will certainly be near the $120 range, and yes, we will offer upgrades to existing customers at a 1:1 ratio. For example if a customer paid $45 for SE, the upgrade price will be the difference in price exactly.

Since I wasn't sure what the pro version was all about, I'm quite glad to hear this, and I now understand why you are making a difference between "light" and pro. Indeed, I guess most people will find the normal version to be complex enough. This does raise another question, though: You talk of an automated carrier landing. Does this mean the F/A-18 in fact does have an autoland feature, like so many modern civilian jetliners? And does this ACLS also work for "normal" (non-carrier) landings?

The ACLS uses specialized datalink equipment usually only available on carriers. It compensates for deck heave/roll so that the aircraft will always touch down safely. There are two modes: one is a manual mode that gives cues via an ACLS display on a DDI, and the other is a fully automatic touchdown. We didn't simulate this in SE because it requires some quite drastic changes to the flight control system along with a custom flight director. Right now we have a custom autopilot, but we still use the MS flight director to drive it, and that's not fast enough or accurate enough to put you down on a postage stamp:)

The ACLS won't work at normal airfields in the real world unless they have a special datalink. There's no system on the plane for VNAV such as that used in commercial airliners. But unlike the real aircraft, we will allow you to use the ACLS at any airport when we get the system built.

How will this all work online? I imagine people playing online, even do entire missions, but since the Superbug remains bound to the ACM, I wonder how this will all turn out online. I guess air refueling and carrier operations are no problem, but an actual dogfight might prove problematic. Any comment on that?

Online has always, and will continue to be "problematic." Microsoft enhanced the multiplayer capabilities significantly for FSX, but it still suffers from the same fundamental problem; there's no way to pass through custom variables. For a simple example, all of our aircraft's control surfaces pass through a flight control system prior to being output to MSFS. None of this movement is captured in multi-player simply because it's custom.

For FSX we're planning to create a model specific to multi-player. You'll choose which model you want to use in the ACM. This will use simplified primary flight control surface animations based on stock variables. While the surfaces won't move in the same highly integrated way they do in single-player, they will work.

Other aspects like seeing missile flyouts, gun kills, etc, are only going to be possible through some new sim-connect based technologies we're working on. While none of these will be available for the initial FSX version, future products will have the capability to completely recreate a combat environment right down to true missile objects and destructibility of both AI and multi-player aircraft. Our ultimate goal is to bring true air combat capability at a consumer level to FSX.

One more thing I was curious about is the manual. Honestly, I'm perplexed by the tutorial. The ease of use and fun factor is so high, I never expected that. However, much of the manual seems to be incomplete. Can you give a time frame for when chapters will be completed? Also, I couldn't find anything specific about carrier landings or aerial refueling. Will this at some time be included in the manual too, or is this something to be confined to the forums (so, people come to the forum if something is unclear?)

I started writing the manual around November of 2008, and it was imperative that we released the software before Christmas. We managed that, but only by about 3 days:) The tutorial is about 100 pages long and covers every aspect of the simulation in basic detail except carrier operations and in-flight refueling. Service pack 2 included probably about 100 additional pages of cockpit systems, and we will complete as much additional documentation as possible before the FSX version is released. Right now the documentation is approximately 400 pages, and we expect it to be closer to 600 when all is said and done.

We cover all the topics associated with using the built-in carrier ops features (ACM guide), including zone setup, but we rely on the extensive checklists to cover catapult and arresting procedures. No, it's not a tutorial, but certainly the information is there, if a bit dry.

Not to make excuses, but right now we're in a situation where we either need to finish FSX or go bye bye for good. While the remaining documentation is a priority, it won't do us much good if we run out of money before we complete it:) We have a very small market and almost no community recognition (I'm sure your review will help that tremendously). While I don't think anyone who's purchased the software has been disappointed, the fact remains that we have a very serious financial motivation to get our FSX version to market, and lack the resources to work on multiple things simultaneously. As I'm sure you're away, it's just me and Alvaro.

So on the one hand, the lack of all the manual sections could certainly be looked at as a "con", the upside is that there IS 400 pages of documentation, it's well organized, well illustrated and well written. Contrast that with for example the Aerosoft F-16 with has perhaps 100 pages? Regardless, it will be completed ASAP and in the mean time, as I'm sure you've seen, we answer each and every question in our forums.

Finally, what aircraft carrier model do you recommend the readers to use for carrier operations (Alphasim, Abacus, freeware models, etc.)? And what AI refueling aircraft?

For FS9 there are a number of great freeware and payware carriers. The HMNZS Waikato by Savern Reweti is excellent. Also Carriers 2006 by Richard Hogen et al (carr2006.zip from FlightSim.com or Avsim.com). Also CV-74 USS Stennis by Paul Clawson (cv_74.zip) from flightsim.com or Avsim.com). On the payware side there's really only one choice: The Alphasim Enterprise. All are excellent carriers. Since our package has built-in carrier operations to take advantage of these, there's no need for the Flight Deck packages, but those are also an option as long as our built-in carrier ops are disabled when using that system.

For FSX, the field increases significantly with many great things on the horizon. Of course Acceleration includes moving carriers, but there are some other more detailed options in the works that will knock your socks off.

Just look at that. Ain’t it beautiful?

Summary and closing comments

There we are, the end of the review. Let’s look back at what I’ve shown you: the beautiful exterior model, the very impressive interior, the absolutely great panel, carrier and air refueling operations and the tutorial flight. Besides that, we have a very versatile ACM to manage your aircraft, a lot of combinations of weapons to hang under it, the ability to shoot missiles and hit something, the ability to drop bombs and fuel tanks, the fact that you can eject from your plane, the incredible and comprehensive set of possible failures, the fact you can be shot at and downed… Oh, and let’s not forget the outstanding, though unfinished documentation.

All these things add up to one heck of an add-on package; a package that can be easily awarded the same status as PMDG or Level-D add-ons. Just about anything is either great or outstanding, including the price. The add-on costs $45, which, looking at some of the great features and innovations, is a surprisingly low price. Were the aircraft developed by PMDG, the price would probably be double for the FS9 version of what it currently is.

I still feel I need to point out the one “con” I can find and already highlighted: the lack of a completed manual. I think one should reread what John had to say about this, namely that they are currently over the 400 pages mark and that because of financial trouble, the FSX version needs to get released first. Besides, it’s very easy to go to the forum and ask a question there. The help usually is fast and reliable, pleasant and helpful and I didn’t encounter any problems there.

Also, the most important part, in my opinion, is the tutorial since it’s the basic portal for people to get acquainted with an add-on. This part has been completed and as I hopefully made clear to you in the respective paragraphs, is more than great, both in fun factor and usefulness.

My final opinion on this product and my advice: if you like military aircraft in any way, this aircraft is a must-have, like the Level-D 767 is a must-have for airliner fans and Carenado is a legend for turboprop fans.

Although I swore never to touch military aircraft again, this add-on drew me back in and I’m not letting it go. There is some serious fun to be found here, and great potential is hidden within it, especially reading Jon’s comments on the FSX version. I’m very hopeful about the future of this add-on and await many great things of VRS.

 

What I Like About The F/A-18E

  • Awesome exterior model
  • Highly realistic and highly customizable virtual cockpit, with 90% of the buttons 3D and operational
  • Terrific panel, a prime example of great FS engineering, as good as PMDG, Level-D
  • Great FDE, feels and handles beautifully under all circumstances
  • Great sound set
  • Carrier operations and air refueling is possible with this plane
  • You can actually shoot missiles, drop bombs (jettison weapons), use external fuel tanks
  • Ejecting actually works on this plane!
  • Cool effects, both on the plane and by weapons (bang sound effect on impact)
  • You can be shot at by mock-up SAM and AA sites, it actually does damage
  • The ACM is a great, easy-to-use yet very powerful utility
  • Manual is easy to understand and stuff is well explained
  • Tutorial is great fun and very informative
  • Great potential for the future, especially if all that Jon told me will come out, the future is bright for this add-on!

 

What I Don't Like About The F/A-18E

  • Manual is not complete, thus you don’t have information on all systems (is being worked on, though)
  • Active camera may not work for you.

 

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F/A-18E "Superbug"

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