AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Package Review

Abacus Flight Deck 4

(update 1)

Product Information
Publisher: Abacus
Description:  USS Ronald Reagan Scenery w/ Flyable CVW14 Aircraft.
Download Size:
60 MB
Format:
Download (boxed version available)
Simulation Type:
FS 2004
Reviewed by: Alexis Esguerra AVSIM Senior Staff Reviewer - August 5, 2006

Introduction

There’s a reason why Nimitz Class ships are called supercarriers. At better than 1,100 ft long and massing around the ballpark of 97,000 tons fully loaded, any one of these imposing grey giants is truly a mighty sight to behold, representing the current apex of US naval might. Saddle one of these babies somewhere within range of some evil-doers, and it dictates a moment of pause. After all, these vessels are amongst the most powerful ships in the world.

This is in no small part to the airwing it brings to the field, the punch of any aircraft carrier. Naval aviation has evolved into a majestic and powerful thing that is as effective as it is feared, and the current fleet of carrier-borne aircraft is proof of this concept. Ask anyone who, in the last few decades, has had to suffer under the incessant electronic gaze of the E-2C Hawkeye, or felt the fatal sting of the F/A-18C Hornet. The 90+ warplanes that are embarked are in essence the carrier’s sword, and it is indeed a very sharp, very proven, and long reaching sword.

Abacus is no stranger to carriers. In the past, they have released a series of aircraft carrier add-ons that have brought this world to MSFS. The latest to hit the internet and store shelves is Flight Deck 4, representing the latest Nimitz to join the US Navy – USS Ronald Reagan.

Installation and Documentation

FD4 can be obtained in one of two ways. The first is to purchase the installer directly from the Abacus website, and the latter is to go to your local retailer that (hopefully) stocks MSFS add-ons and pick up a boxed copy. The version that was reviewed here was the downloaded version.

Installation was relatively simple. Just double click the file, enter the necessary info (including the very important authorization code) that was supplied from Abacus upon purchase, then follow the prompts. After a few moments, the installer runs it’s course and you’re halfway there. Then comes the Scenery Installer, in which you essentially authorize the program to initiate FD4 in the scenery library. Presto – the Reagan, and the wing that makes her the powerhouse she is, are yours.

In this day and age where programs are offered via download and/or boxed version, why would I make the effort to point this out? Because FD4 recently underwent a major patching effort, something that the boxed versions and downloaded installers purchased prior to July 18th do not have. If you plan to own or already own one of these two versions of FD4, you may want to visit the Abacus site and grab the patch to bring your copy up to snuff (downloaded installers purchased from July 18th onwards have the patch already factored in).

The documentation includes 3 PDF manuals covering the Reagan, its visual landing system (covered later on), and the F/A-18 panels and their operation (the panels for these two aircraft are a touch more complex than the others). Also loaded to your hard drive are two important Read-me's in Word format.

The Facelift

The centerpiece of this scenery is none other than CVN-76 herself. This behemoth comes to MSFS in four locations throughout the world, including off the coast of Southern California in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean south of India (of course), the Med near Greece, and somewhere near mainland China.

Whatever locale you decide to base yourself at, there’s no denying that the Reagan makes one indelible impression when you first lay eyes on her. As one of the largest ships ever to ply the seas, it’s hard for anyone to think anything else. We are talking about a vessel that plays base to an entire wing and the 5,000 odd folk that directly or indirectly support that mission.

Day or night, Reagan’s a powerful ship.

As for Abacus’ take, the exterior modeling of the carrier is generally good. All the basic obvious structures appear to be present (including a basic hanger deck), and their proportions appear correct in all dimensions. The colors of the general textures seem accurate, as do the markings that adorn them. Night is even better, when the various lights come on in all their glory. The amount of illumination may be a touch too much (based off of available photos and film footage), but in that liberty comes a ship that is beautifully lit up as she sails the darkened seas.

The scale slides a touch the closer you get to the ship, where the quality in the finer things start becoming a hit or miss affair. A few examples of this mentality lie in the IFOPS array or the CWIS Phalanx mounts, which take on a somewhat generic look when scrutinized. Another one, is any of the countless pad eyes that are used for tying down the planes, which blur as you get close up. Animations are limited to the radar antennas, which dutifully rotate in search of potential threats. Elevators and jet blast deflectors, the first things you’d expect to move, do not.

Up close on the details.

The waters that surround Reagan are a different matter. It’s now alive with animation, with the carrier churning up a bow wave and leaving turbulent foam in it’s wake. Extending further out are the crests of waves in motion. Again, this is something that looks better from afar than up close, and the waves are more reminiscent of breakers pounding the surf of a beach. Still, it gets points for the extra dimension that the animation provides. Reagan is about as immobile as any other default carrier in MSFS, but she sure looks like she’s going somewhere.

As for adding the naval aviation flavor to the mix, Abacus decided to populate the deck with the things you’d normally expect to see there. A crash truck and several tugs are scattered around the deck, as are (of course) the aircraft themselves. With AI traffic set at maximum, I saw up to seven aircraft displayed at any given time, including every single one found in the FD4 library (except the Hawkeye… I never did see that guy). That number may seem a touch light, but countering that is the fact that these aircraft are not static. They are programmed to fly a launch and recover racetrack throughout the day, adding a realistic measure to the flight ops flavor.

The locals on the ship.

Notably absent are the people that work the flightdeck, the yellow shirts (flight deck directors), greens, reds (ordies), purples (fuelers), and other participants of the energetic and very dangerous launch-and-recovery ballet. It’s nice to know you won’t have to worry about running over an unsuspecting simulated crewmember, but their absence was keenly felt.

CVW-14

The air wing is the very basis for the existence of a carrier. Without it, a modern day Nimitz (or any flattop for that matter) is essentially one very large, but highly impotent weapon of war. Abacus realized this and included each type of aircraft that makes up a typical Carrier Air Wing, with the scenery for both the purposes of adding the aforementioned eye candy, and for the fun of flying them. A quick check of the hangar shows that their focus was CVW14, which includes the following:

- F/A-18E Super Hornet: Type - Strike Fighter. VFA-115 ‘Eagles’
- F/A-18C Hornet: Type - Strike Fighter. VFA-25 ‘Fists’*
- EA-6B Prowler: Type - Electronic Warfare. VAQ-130 Zappers* and VAQ-139 ‘Cougars’
- S-3 Viking: Type - Maritime Patrol/Anti-Submarine/Aerial Refueling. VS-24 ‘Scouts’* and VS-33 Screwbirds,*
- E-2C Hawkeye: Type - Patrol/Surveillance. VAW-113 ‘Black Eagles’
- C-2 Greyhound: Type – Fleet Logistics Support. VRC-30 ‘Providers’.
- SH-60 Seahawk: Type – Anti-Submarine. No specified squadron.

*Note – Naval buffs may note that CVW-14 does not currently embark VAQ-130, VS-24, or VS-33. Not represented in the package are VFA-22, VFA-113 and (officially speaking) HS-4.

If I had to come up with a term to sum up the flyable aircraft in FD4, I think I would settle on ‘Ctrl+E’. They are not intended as complex representations of the real world mounts, but flyable aircraft that won’t overwhelm a new user, much like the MSFS default types. In general terms, they cover a rather wide variety of quality in exterior, interior, flight behavior, and audio modeling. Let’s take a closer look at the high and the low ends of the spectrums.

For me, the SH-60 is the best one overall. The final appearance of the exterior model may not be the most convincing of the lot, but shows good detail and has the best weathering textures of the lot. It’s when you go inside that this helo takes the cake; the panels are fairly true to the real deal (there are inconsistencies, but nothing so major as to detract from the general ideal), and it is the only one of the multi-crew aircraft that has virtual crewmembers that were modeled in the interior VC view (and very good ones at that, too). If that isn’t enough to convince you, it also is the only one of the types that have a cabin that features a virtual cabin. FM-wise, it has a good overall feel, a touch light on the controls, but not too sensitive.

At the other end of the scale is the E-2C Hawkeye. The exterior model is almost devoid of any detail shying away from the generalized realm; few panel lines, no rivets, zero weathering and highly generic pilot figures. As for the 2D and VC panels, photo resources were scarce, but what I dredged up showed that the FD4 version bore very little resemblance to the real thing. The surroundings of the virtual cockpit have a rushed feel to them and some areas appeared somewhat incomplete. Last but not least is the sound, which keen ears will identify as the MSFS default King Air’s.

The rest of the aircraft fall somewhere in the middle, some possesses some good traits, perhaps some bad ones, and all with things that lie in between. Researching sessions proved to be a mix of high and lows. The Super Hornet has a great (albeit a rather clean) skin, a panel that’s more reminiscent of it’s ‘C’ predecessor, and rather quirky ground handling (imagine a plane in which the mains rather than the nose gear does the steering). Then there’s the Prowler, which also has a good skin, a panel that doesn’t quite live up to the original, and again, strange ground manners (unless the true EA-6B really does require approximately 2/3rd power to get those wheels rolling). But there are constants between them all. Each and every one of them has accurate folding wing animations (definitely a plus), and handle well in the air.

The Navy's Way Of Flying

For all the averages and below-averages that I’ve been pointing out, there is one area where Flight Deck 4 shines, and that is how well is conveys what carrier-flying is all about. The mere act of take off and landing from any flattop is very much a different affair from the way it’s done from the land. It is in this regard that Abacus saves the day; nowhere else in MSFS have I experienced what FD4 does for simulating this special little world.

I think the best way to describe this is to take you on a flight; the experience will speak for itself.

Today’s op will be a simple launch and recover, just off the coast of the United States, in one of the wing’s Super Hornets. Taxiing to the starboard bow catapult, you finally note just how little room there is to maneuver on this largest-of-all-flightdecks. Once on and aligned with the catapult’s track, you set the flaps and trim, then engage the parking brake. This is a compromise in FD4, where the catapult’s shuttle that would normally pull the aircraft forward is not modeled. Stick slightly back, one last check on the panels, brace your head back into the headrest... now time for some fun.

Carrier Launch… Ya Gotta Love It!

Powering up to at least 95% power then tapping off the parking brake is FD4s equivalent of the catapult officer hitting the button. The steam catapult fires, and instantly, the Super Hornet is on the move, quite literally 0 – 140 kts in 2 seconds flat! The sensation is exhilarating to say the least, and you can almost feel the effect of the ‘cat shot’ shoving you back into your seat. In a little more than a blink of the eye, you’re out of deck, and the F/A-18E sags slightly towards the waves as you bring the nose up. As you slap the gear handle up, you feel the wings begin to really bite into the air as the speed comes up. Yep, you’re flying!

Flaps now up, you start the turn to the downwind leg. It’s time to come home. The one thing that sets naval aviators apart from their land-based brethren, is that it’s no small feat to land a 25 ton aircraft onto a moving patch of deck, especially when the landing speeds in this beast is done somewhere in the 130-ish kt range. It’s a less than subtle procedure, calling for you to fly that plane down to the ship at a consistent glideslope ALL THE WAY to touchdown (no flaring), aiming for a tiny patch where those four steel cables – aka wires - are stretched across the deck. The hope is that the tailhook you have extended will snag one of them and bring your plane to a stop. Naval aviators refer to this practice as ‘trapping’; the rest of us (and those same aviators, in fact) call it ‘a controlled crash’.

Slightly left and on speed. “Call The Ball.”

The key to this is IFOLS (Improved Fresnel Optical Lens System). FD4 did not model a functional unit on the carrier itself (there is a device that operates similarly to a tri-color indicator on the port quarter of the flightdeck, but it is not an IFOLS), so you’ll have to settle for SHIFT+5. A pop up appears on the left of the window, and it’s actually a very simple, yet remarkable display that you can bet the bank on. This device is designed to align your plane vertically for the… "ahem" landing. An amber light located in the center of the array (known as the meatball or just plain ‘ball’) reflects exactly where you are relative to the desired glideslope. Dead center and aligned with the center bars of blue lights and your right on the money, lower than them, means your lower than expected, and higher than them means… well, higher. The trick is to maintain the ‘ball’ dead center throughout the approach, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. If you’re like me, you first find yourself chasing that ball, especially the closer your get to the ship where it becomes very sensitive to vertical deviation.

The reward of staying within the tight constraints of the meatball’s bidding is that it precisely drops your hook right into the midst of those four wires. FD4 will recognize this as a successful ‘trap’ and will pour on some serious braking power. FD4’s way of simulating the very violent result of the hook taking a wire, bringing the plane to a halt in a distance that will make you blink. Stray from the meatball’s indications and you end up in one of two worlds; a crash (struck the end of the boat or came down way too hard for even the beefiest landing gear ever built to take), or a bolter (you missed the wires entirely – go around and try again). If it pegs to either extreme, you might want to consider pouring on the power and go around for another shot (if you’re really close and this happens, you really have no choice in the matter).

Next stop, a very sharp stop!

Today is your day, though. Flaps out, gear down, you settle on final with the ball properly aligned and fly it all the way down. Somehow, you suppressed the notion that your ginormous carrier has all of the sudden become a pretty small place to land on, that it seemed to be rushing at you incredibly fast, and resist that land-based, fixed-wing pilot’s urge to do what comes normally - flare. Your Super Hornet is right on target (this is the moment why you’ll suddenly understand the term ‘controlled crash’) and slams down with all the subtlety of a baby grand piano dropped from a second story window (I once saw footage of a civilian airliner landing in this fashion for whatever reason – it wasn’t pretty). You can almost feel your spine compress as you automatically throw the throttles to the stops, just in case that hook fails to make a grab so you can go around again. But that’s not the case today. In less time than it takes for the mind to register the fact (seriously, maybe a second and a half, max), the plane comes to a screeching halt.

That’s carrier-flying in a nutshell, and FD4 emulates it extremely well. Yes, I found that the launch process does have a tendency to result in some of the planes rolling forward as the resulting thrust overwhelms the brakes (especially true of the fighters). Also, the stopping distance once I trapped did seem a touch short. Still, it’s done very admirably within the constraints of MSFS.

Performance

Tests Parameters: resolution – 1280X1024x32 locked @ 30.0, detail / autogen levels – MAX, traffic – 50% (Traffic2004), weather – detailed (AS6), chosen scenery – AC21 (San Diego)

Another major plus for FD4 is the performance factor. Speed is one of those qualities that come to mind when I thinks of naval aviation, and this program really took my FPS meter for a ride. Some may argue that this is because of the slightly lower quality of the textures of the scenery (and they’d be right, too). But if there’s one thing that comes as a very close second to visual quality in my book, it’s a stutter-free world to fly in.

VC… online AS6 detailed fog… a point five FPS hit.

In every aircraft contained within the library, flying in and around the Reagan hardly had an impact. Average frame rate soared at 26 FPS, with an absolute low of 20 FPS during a loading of the Seahawk’s VC. I am quoting the figures obtained during a full blown, high load test session using 3rd party add-on weather and flying in visual range of the Southern California coast (where I wanted a lot of AI traffic). At the settings I usually use as a baseline (ie – 1024X768X32, do away with the additional add-ons, etc.), the FPS tended to stay just a hair below locked setting, translating to a loss of a single frame per minute during consistent flying in a chosen view.

Noted Issues

As previously noted, FD4 underwent a recent patching that was designed to correct a number of problems reported to the developer. These included items that related to the ship’s night lighting, scenery textures, and issues specific to both Hornets. Any item listed here was discovered in the version that incorporated Update 1.

The only problem found is something that Abacus has been fixing, which are the scenery textures themselves. For reasons that have never been completely pinpointed, viewing the carrier from a distance from either inside or outside an aircraft, triggers in a blurring effect of almost every texture being displayed. The exception being the Reagan, her associated components (AI aircraft, equipment, etc), and maybe the textures (interior VC and in some cases the exterior ones) of the plane in which you are flying. Additionally, FD4 aircraft are not the only ones that will set this off (MSFS default 737 confirmed). Countering all this is the fact that Update 1 went a long way in correcting this problem (original release had the blurring kicking in at any distance in which the scenery is visible, Update 1 tends to occur much closer in – maybe a mile out) and for whatever reason there might be, the F/A-18C, SH-60, and EA-6B does not trigger this effect as they did in the original release. Blurring does not happen when the scenery is viewed while onboard or in the immediate vicinity of the ship.

Texture blurring.

This is the sole true glitch I found in FD4. Everything else is more a quirk. For example, none of the AI aircraft were noted to not use a catapult at any time (the Seahawk can get away with this… maybe the C-2 and E-2C, but a fully loaded Prowler?). I don’t have a lot of experience with programming, but I can easily imagine that this can be attributed to AI traffic behavior in this strange new world. At least there’s no waiting in line for the bow catapults.

Anything else that I might wish to bring to the table is just my own personal preference talking. Would I have liked more aircraft on the deck? Sure. How about a moving elevator or two (perhaps getting an AI plane to the deck)? Absolutely. However, my personal preference does not constitute any additional inherent problem within FD4. Besides, Abacus has advised me that other new features are being planned for the scenery, to be released in future patches.

Final Thoughts

The final verdict? It depends on what you hope to garner from the package. FD4 is, after all, a mix of scenery, aircraft, and special features. Any of which a user might be attracted to.

Test System

CPU: AMD 64 X2, +3800
RAM: 2.0 GB
Video: ATI X800XT X2 (SLI) 256 MB each
Sound – SB Audigy, Klipsch 5.1 (digital)
Joystick – MS FF2

Flying Time:
35 hours

Flight deck operation simulation is definitely the high point of FD4, and I cannot lavish enough praise upon it. Granted this is the only MSFS supercarrier add-on I have ever owned, but if any of the others come this close to simulating the act of getting shot off the boat or snagging an Ok-3 wire, I’d be surprised. This in itself makes FD4 worth looking into.

When reduced to its absolute scenery essentials, FD4 hits par. As compared to other carrier add-ons that I’ve seen, I felt that it could have used a little more detail and animation. Still, it delivers a very credible Nimitz Class supercarrier that easily surpasses any of the MSFS default variety.

Finally, there’s the aircraft. Ok, there’s no denying that some of them could have used a bit more visual work before coming to the PC. However, when viewed collectively, they are a decent collection as the strengths of certain ones have the potential of making up for the weaknesses of others. Most importantly, the airborne FM’s of each is generally good, conveying a believable basic feel one would expect of the type it represents.

Now whether or not one can deal with a texture issue until it is fixed, is a question each interested party will have to ask his or herself. There’s no denying that it needs to be fixed, and until it is, FD4 won’t quite be what it should. For me, it really wasn’t a problem as it didn’t interfere with anything critical, but it very well might be a deciding issue for others.

In closing, I thoroughly enjoyed FD4 with the experience it provided. Yes, it does need some tweaking here and there, but it was a great entrance into the realm of true Navy flying. And I have no doubt that if and when the bugs are ironed out, it will live up to it’s full potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see the end result.


 

What I Like About Flight Deck 4
  • Excellent rendition of basic carrier flight ops (catshots and recoveries).
  • Reliable IFOLS indicator.
  • Good representation of an up-to-date Nimitz Class Supercarrier.
  • Inclusion of sea effects.
  • Minimal impact on PC resources

 
What I Don't Like About Flight Deck 4
  • Potential blurring of surrounding textures at close range to ship.
  • Inconsistent quality of included aircraft.
  • Limited shipboard animations (radars only).
  • Light flight deck population.

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