AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Package Review

PMDG 747 - 400
Queen of the Skies
(Release Version)
 

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Rating Guide

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Isn't she lovely? — Click any image for full size view

Publisher: Precision Manuals Development Group
Description:
Commercial Airliner simulation rich in cabin realism and systems functionality
Download Size:
57MB (Base)
5.8MB (Livery)
Format:
Executable Auto Install File
Simulator Type:
FS2004 Air Transport/IFR
Reviewed by: Maury Pratt, AVSIM Editor-at-Large

Possible Commercial Rating Score: 1 to 5 stars with 5 stars being exceptional.
Please see details of our review rating policy here

Introduction

The Boeing 747 is well known to anyone who has ever taken a long journey by air. Originally placed in service in 1970, Boeing's -400 version was introduced in 1989. As stated at Boeing's 747 family webpage (click on 'background info):

The 747-400 continues the 747 family legacy by integrating advanced technology into one of the world's most modern and fuel-efficient airplanes.

The 747-400 incorporates major aerodynamic improvements over earlier 747 models, including the addition of winglets to reduce drag, new avionics, a new flight deck and the latest in-flight entertainment systems. And, the 747 continues to be the world's fastest subsonic jetliner, cruising at Mach .855 - or 85.5 percent of the speed of sound. Along with the popular Boeing 777, the 747 is a key element of the Boeing long-range market strategy.

After some eighteen month's effort the PMDG development team has released Boeing's largest airliner for MS Flight Simulator, applying their notable expertise in systems modeling already celebrated with the breakthrough PMDG 737NG series (reviewed here in May 2004). Inevitably PMDG's 747 implementation will be compared with their earlier 737NG, and for that matter with Level-D Simulation's B-767 (reviewed this past May). Anyone who has learned either of these aircraft will feel at home with the PMDG 747. In fact there are so many similarities that I refer you to those reviews for in-depth coverage of panel features and the like, rather than to describe them again here.

Test System

Dell XPS P4 3.6 GHz with 1GB RAM
Windows XP
nVidia 6800GTO 256MB video card


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'Queen of the Skies' in British Airways livery

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Here's the overhead panel as it appears in the "cold and dark" cockpit. Note the 'panel switcher' bar across the top of the screen.

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Center console pedestal details. Here I've set the autobrake to 'RTO' and activated the TCAS

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Notice how conveniently the engine display mode - EICAS MFD pop-up is placed in conjunction with the engine start switches (center of overhead panel) and fuel flow switches (on the throttle quadrant)

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The main panel during climbout.

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In PMDG house livery, nearing Edwards AFB, California

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Touchdown at Edwards. Note extended flaps and speedbrakes . . .

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. . . and deployed engine thrust reversers

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The virtual cockpit as it appeared preparing to park

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The same VC screenshot viewed with night lighting. Note the clarity of instruments and switches in this and the next screenshot!

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A view of the same panel in 2D mode at night

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Here's a shot of the crew stations—notice that I've lowered the yokes and raised the arm rests for a better view of the panels, and slid the Captain's and First Officer's seats all the way back. (Two jump seats, spares racks and a movable sliding library table are modeled behind those—even the on-board procedure manuals sport British Airway logos!).

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Take a seat in the upper deck's first class section! (notice the galley details)

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Note the soda cans on the galley shelf—now that's attention to detail!

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Further examples of the care taken are seen in these exterior views; the nose gear . . .

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. . . and the main gear trucks—keep in mind that the gear, flaps and slats, and all doors are moving parts as well!

Instead, this review highlights refinements the PMDG 747 brings to the flight simulation community. The big news is two-fold: PMDG have completely rethought aircraft dynamics modeling, moving the point of reference to the aircraft's nose, rather than within the airframe space as is assumed in Microsoft's Flight Simulator design—and implemented through mathematical modeling using authentic Boeing specifications and engineering data. According to PMDG these include elements such as model wing stiffness and the response of the airplane wings to various changes in flight. As they point out, "Heavily fuel laden wings represent a different behavior pattern than do lightly loaded wings, both during ground operations and in flight. Wing motion on the ground, in flight and during high speed segments of takeoff and landing respond realistically to the forces of physics." (I certainly couldn't verify all that, but I will say that the ground handling and flying I experienced with a lightly loaded plane was wonderful.) Anyway, it's reasonable to expect that this aircraft's performance is pretty much identical to that of the actual 747-400—that should put to bed debates about whether this plane's handling is "realistic."

Secondly, Virtual Cockpit (VC) implementation has been further enhanced (as compared with their 737 series) and completely reprogrammed, resulting in exceptional "user friendliness" when flying in VC mode. As the documentation puts it,

"It is our hope that enhancing the frame rates from the Virtual Cockpit, along with ensuring smooth update rates on the VC displays will make most simmers into 'True Believers' when it comes to operating the airplane from a 3D cockpit."

I can attest that frame rates are little reduced (if at all) when the plane is in VC mode (I do confess to having a very fast system – see the 'Test System' box to the left). But no worries; PMDG has even provided controls to limit instrument update frequency (the default is 15 fps) as well as other 'complexity' options that allow further frame rate tuning. Also, PMDG offers a DXT3 texture option (or 32bit if you prefer) with their livery downloads to further improve frame rate performance.

The PMDG 747-400 features both the earlier CRT-based and contemporary LCD-based "glass cockpit" versions. By the way, you can satisfy yourself as to both fidelity and completeness of the various panel views by comparing them to the 747 panel illustrations at "Meriweather's Photo Gallery & Flight Deck Simulation" web site. This site offers a great orientation to the B-747 instruments and systems—it'll take you a bit longer to get through all that in PMDG's documentation; though exquisitely comprehensive, PMDG's documentation takes more than a little effort to find your way around at first.

The "bottom line" in my opinion is that the PMDG's 747 package offers the ultimate in refinement in air transport aircraft add-ons for Flight Simulator 2004. The base package – $54.95 USD at the PMDG website – comes in PMDG's 747-400 "house livery" together with three engine variants: the Pratt & Whitney PW4062, the GE CF6 and the Rolls-Royce RB211 (delivering some 60,000 lbs thrust each). You can select and download any of the free liveries now becoming available at the PMDG and other websites. Each livery installs to its appropriate engine variant; for example, the British Airways livery illustrated to the left is RR engined. As with the 737 NG series, a free paint kit also is available.

Getting Acquainted with the PMDG Package

Once you've downloaded and installed the base product, you'll find (as with the 737 series) that a "PMDG" tab has been added to the FS menu when the plane is selected. There you'll find general options for customizing such things as panel arrangements, instrumentation features, various sound controls, and whether to load the virtual cockpit (VC), as well as the aforementioned VC frame rate adjustment tool, and a keyboard command interface submenu. You'll find the 747's fuel loading facility here, too; as PMDG notes, the fuel system on the 747-400 is easily the most complicated of all the airplane's mechanical systems and—like the autopilot functions, engine performance model, and nearly all the mechanical subsystems—has been completely customized with software that is independent of FS2004. Consequently each flight's fuel load must be entered here (not from the FS Aircraft menu). Interestingly, built-in fuel loader logic distributes fuel in accordance with the 747-400's standard operating procedures and correctly configures the fuel crossfeed valves for the loaded quantity.

The next selection item lets you save and reload (even from an earlier flight) the plane's panel conditions and settings during the current simulation session. Finally, there's a Failures menu that offers a mind-numbing list of system emergencies you can invoke together with their timing and frequency of occurrence. Speaking of thoughtful options, there's a choice to have the plane pause at 'top of descent' if you happen to be sleeping during a long over water flight; there's also a functioning TCAS display on the ND (great for on-line flying); and even overrides to avoid waiting for the authentic 10 minute IRS alignment cycle to complete, or the extended (but realistic) time for brake cooling after an especially hard slowing whilst landing.

By the way, the Active Camera add-on is required to use your mouse wheel (or middle button) to change viewing position while in the virtual cockpit, and to "walk-around" the passenger cabin interior (as illustrated in two of the screenshots below).

Navigating among the various 2D panel views is a delight using the new "panel switcher" bar (which can be placed, hidden or called up at will). With that you can place yourself in either in the (default) Captain's position or First Officer position, either as a normal panel view or with enlarged PFD, ND and EICAS MFDs (I found the normal views to be so clear that the latter option is quite unnecessary, at least when viewed on my 19" LCD screen). Further choices are to call up the overhead panel, the throttle console, the FMC, the EICAS itself (as when starting the engines from the overhead panel), the center console radio/communications panel, a chronometer pop-up, and finally a small "miscellaneous switches" screen. All but the Captain and First Officer main screens have 'x' buttons to quickly dismiss them so it's really easy to bop about among the panel views—for example, see the screenshot (above and to the left) showing how all the information required to start the engines is easily viewed together: from the EICAS (left), overhead (center), and the throttle quadrant's fuel cutoff valves (shown at the lower right).

I copped a screenshot of the lower EICAS from PMDG's website because it conveys more than I could in words about detailed systems information available in this simulation:

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Visible from top-left to bottom right, these are the Gear, Doors, Hydraulic, Electrical, and Environmental status displays. (Not shown are the Secondary Engine indicators, Fuel, and STAT – miscellaneous indicators, including control surfaces position.)

According to PMDG, the center EICAS is programmed with over 350 possible advisory, caution and warning messages. I'll have to take their word for that!

Of course you might prefer to see all the panel components in their real-world locations by switching to the aircraft's VC mode. The MFDs pop up when you click on them, and of course you can move closer to panels such as the MCP to more easily operate their controls. Another innovation I like is that, in either 2D or VC mode, you turn knobs to the right (increase numerical selections) by holding down the right mouse button, or rotate the knob to the left (decrease the selection) with the left mouse button—it's very intuitive. In either mode you can access any panel function from among the plane's 1200 moving parts. But in VC mode there's lots more fun; you can reposition control yokes, rudder pedals, seats and armrests; open and lower sunscreens, sit in a jump seat and view a collection of on-board procedure manuals (for those emergency check lists, I'm sure!), pull out the library table, and discover I don't know how many more mischievous animations the developers have in store for you! And cockpit night lighting (both 2D and VC) is much improved; three intensity choices are offered.

A complete Flight Management Computer is included (either of the FMCs may be used) which of course is fully integrated with the Autopilot Flight Director, Autothrottle and Navigation systems. Cost Index functionality is accurately modeled (at last). A robust set of flight plans, SID and STAR procedures and files are provided as well. The plane's autoland capabilities are impressive, too.

There's much more in this package to enjoy—cockpit ambient sounds tailored to each engine variant, audible callouts (selectable), and finally documentation that is as thorough and clearly presented as any I've seen. There's also PMDG's visual Load Manager utility, used to configure passenger and cargo loading and compute the flight's zero fuel weight and fuel load.

If you're at all interested in an air transport simulation that is both comprehensive and immersive—and you have a reasonably adequate computer*—I think the best (and really the only) way to appreciate its qualities is to go ahead and purchase it. There's already an excellent tutorial, Jared Smith's 22 page "Illustrated guide to getting started with the PMDG 747." You'll find it here. An initial "cold & dark" situation file and a short and simple flight plan from Los Angeles (KLAX) to Edwards AFB (KEDW) are included with the tutorial. By following Smitty's preflight procedures and flying guidelines I quickly got a feel for the plane's instrument layout, essential controls and systems—and a real admiration for how powerful and enjoyable the Queen of the Skies is. On the other hand I have no doubt that you could study and fly nothing else for months before you have a full command of everything this simulation has to offer!**


*According to PMDG, 1.4 GHz - 512MB RAM minimum; 2.5 GHz -512MB preferred.
** Look for an extended tutorial by Capt. Randazzo shortly.

Meet the PMDG 747 development team

Though you'll find ample credits (with photos) at PMDG's website, I felt it appropriate to recognize nine of the 747 product's developers here as well:
Captain Robert S. Randazzo Founder and senior developer
Lefteris Kalamaras Lead developer / programmer
Vin Scimone Aircraft model / cockpit designer
Vangelis M. Vaos PhD Flight and engine model developer
Marc Harrington Cockpit artwork and animation
Bill Grabowski Panel/gauge developer
Michael Frantzeskakis Panel/gauge developer
Pete Sterling Model artwork developer
Paul Gollnick Technical advisor / Customer Support

There are in addition a host of beta testers who obviously have wrung just about every problem out of this masterpiece—our emphatic thanks go to them all!

 

What I Like About the PMDG 747-400
  • An even more complete systems simulation than in the 737 NG
  • Highly refined virtual cockpit—cockpit instruments are crisp and readable
  • Beautifully modelled and detailed exterior
  • Authentic handling qualities made possible with reconceptualized flight model
  • As challenging as you want it to be when using the FMC, many failure scenarios
  • Great customer support by the PMDG team

 
What I Don't Like About the PMDG 747-400
  • It's hard to find anything to dislike other than the amount of time it takes away from pursuing our other interests

 

 
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The review above is a subjective assessment of the product by the author. There is no connection between the producer and the reviewer, and we feel this review is unbiased and truly reflects the performance of the product in the simming environment. This disclaimer is posted here in order provide you with background information on the reviewer and connections that may exist between him/her and the contributing party.

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