Some aircraft models are famous in the flight sim world because they are famous in the real world, such as the Boeing 747, the Supermarine Spitfire, and the Cessna 172. As it happens, there are excellent payware versions of all three aircraft, but we would talk about them even if there weren’t. The aircraft under review here is not one of these. Designed as a utility aircraft, it is was produced in greater quantity -- but survived in fewer numbers -- than the famous De Havilland Beaver.
Harrison Ford has never owned one, and I dare say that, before last year, most flight simmers had never heard of it. What changed that was not an event in the real world of aviation: it was a model of the plane that was so good -- and so different from other bush plane models -- that people who had never heard of the real plane, wanted to own the model. Since that time, Digital Aviation’s Do-27 has won several flightsim awards, and I have yet to read a less-than-enthusiastic review anywhere.
Two weeks after the Do-27 was released, FSX became available in retail stores. Customers who had just purchased the Do-27 wanted to know, naturally, whether their new baby would work in the new sim. Officially, the answer was “No.” Unofficially, it was reported that you could get a “flyable” Do-27 by copying some files, but in fact the results of this procedure (which the developers did not recommend anyway) were disappointing. The resulting aircraft could take off and land, but a lot of things didn’t work right, including most of the special features that had won over customers in the first place. To get those back, they would need an update from the developer. Ten and a half months later, the update is here, and last year’s favorite bush plane is available for FSX, with all of its special features and lovable quirks.
The original Do-27 for FS2004, was discussed here last November by senior staff reviewer Bert Pieke. As we’ll see, very little has changed in the new version for FSX. For that reason, I am going to skip most of the topics that we usually include in an aircraft review, such as installation and documentation, external model, cockpit, sounds, and flight dynamics. All of these subjects have been well covered in my colleague’s review -- which, if you do not have already own the Do-27 for FS2004, I urge you to go back and reread before going further. I am going to concentrate on issues that are specific to the new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and when I am done with that, offer my own thoughts about why the Do-27 has become so popular in the last year.
What’s New for FSX?
It’s embarrassing to talk about money, but with an upgrade the question is inevitable: what are you getting that you didn’t already have, and is it worth the extra cash?
The original Do-27 for FS2004, sells for 20 euros or 25 dollars (US). The new version, for FSX, costs 28 euros or 37 dollars. If you want to fly it in both sims, you’ll need to purchase the FS2004 version first, and then buy an upgrade for 13 euros or 17 dollars. That’s a total of 33 euros or 42 dollars. Let’s put the numbers in perspective. For 40 dollars (US), you can get two good GA models from Carenado, and the upgrade to FSX will be free; there won’t be any new features in the FSX versions, but you won’t be paying for them either. Or, for about the same price, you can buy one GA model from RealAir Simulations, including the upgrade to FSX. Pricewise, the Do-27 package (if you’re getting it for both FS2004 and FSX) is closer to RealAir. The difference between them is new features.
When, a few months ago, I upgraded my RealAir Marchetti SF.260 for FSX, I paid 12 euros and got a new set of liveries, a second cockpit model, brand-new 3D gauges, more faithful flight dynamics, improved sound (which, admittedly, my speakers can’t do justice to), 3D rivets on the exterior (thanks to a new feature of FSX textures called bump mapping), wings that can cast a shadow on the fuselage (another feature that is new in FSX), and more views (using the new FSX camera system).
Now, what new features do you get when you upgrade the Do-27? Two words: new views. The camera system in FSX is quite powerful, and the upgraded Do-27 takes full advantage of it. Outside of the aircraft there are wing views, nose views, and tail views. Inside the cockpit, there are dedicated views for the rear cabin, both front seats and all of the control panels, and specialized views for landing and taxi. (The landing view looks down at the landing gear, so you can see the wheel touch down on the driver’s side. The taxi view looks forward from the side, because in a tail dragger you can’t see much over the engine cowling.)
New views are good, so far as they go, but they’re not enough to account for the higher price, and on the support forums one or two users have complained that the new version doesn’t have bump mapping for things like fuselage rivets. I’m not convinced that this is a big deal, since the old textures were extremely detailed already, and used shadows to create the illusion of depth. Maybe bump mapping would have enhanced the illusion further, or maybe it just would have consumed more CPU cycles. Light bloom (another new feature of FSX aircraft) would probably have yielded more dramatic improvements, but since light bloom kills frame rates, almost no one I know actually has it turned on. That could change, though, with DX10 -- and if it does, the Do-27 is going to look a little dull compared with other products for FSX.
But that hasn’t happened yet. For now, readers are probably wondering two things. Question #1: Should customers be discouraged by the lack of new features? In principle, I’m disappointed, but in practice, I’m content: there’s not much that’s new here, but since the old was already very good it matters less than it might. Question #2: Why does the FSX version cost more? I think there are at least two plausible answers.
One is fairly straightforward. The original Do-27 was, by GA standards, a very complex model. Visually, it had a lot of animation. Not only did the normal control surfaces move, but the control panel and gauges vibrated under special conditions: when the aircraft was moving on the ground, and when the engine was under strain. (Avoiding this second condition, by staying away from extreme RPM's and making engine changes gently, was a big part of what made the Do-27 interesting to fly.)
In addition to this, the aircraft also kept track of what was done to it: how much oil was left, how many hours the engine had been running, and whether the engine was being handled roughly. A mistreated engine would use more oil, and over time produce less power. You could have the engine overhauled, of course, but repairs were not instantaneous. If you started or stopped the engine while the avionics were on, it would shorten their life span too. And so on. Not all of these complex features were unique, but they did require the developers to learn or invent special techniques. Apparently, some of those techniques don’t work anymore, and new ones have had to be found in their place. That costs money.
This explains the upgrade fee. But why is the FSX version priced higher than the FS2004 version? Was the FSX version really more expensive to develop than the FS2004 version? I doubt it. What really happened is that the FS2004 version was under priced. According to the support forum, the Do-27 was originally going to sell for 25 euros. That would not have been unreasonable for a package this good, with lots of visual detail, high-quality sound, accurate flight dynamics, and careful tracking of engine wear. When the actual price was lower (20 euros), I don’t think anyone complained, but it was a bargain. The new price isn’t a bargain anymore, but it’s not out of line with the rest of the market.
There is one thing that does need to be fixed, and that is the propeller: in spot plane view, it disappears in front of clouds. This is turning out to be an extremely common problem with FS9 aircraft that have been converted to FSX, and I have commented on it in all three of my previous reviews. It’s not a big issue, anymore than bump-mapping is a big leap forward. But if a product is specifically marketed for FSX -- especially when it’s more expensive than the equivalent FS2004 product -- it’s reasonable for customers to assume that all of the basic features will work at least as well as they did in FS2004. If for some reason that’s not practical, it should be mentioned on the product web page.
To summarize: the FSX version is almost exactly the same as the FS2004 version. There are a bunch of new camera views, and the propeller doesn’t look right in front of clouds. Other than that, the two versions are identical. The only question that’s left -- and it’s a crucial one -- is whether the new version gets decent frame rates post-SP1.
Performance in FSX is noticeably improved, but high-end aircraft (which the Do-27 certainly is) can impose additional burdens on a system that is already strained to the limit. In this case, however, frame rates were not an issue: on my computer, the Do-27 had average frame rates, comparable with other general aviation payware.
“The Hard Is What Makes It Great”
Let me conclude by posing a somewhat philosophical question. Why has this model, of a relatively obscure bush plane, attracted so much attention from flight simmers around the world?
I’m not much of a sportsmen, but I do like to watch movies. In one of my favorite sports movies, A League of Their Own, a baseball player decides to quit the team because the schedule of games and training “just got too hard.” The coach, played by Tom Hanks, responds this way: “It's supposed to be hard! If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!” I think this is why simmers like the Do-27, even though (until last fall) most of us had never heard of it.
There are other reasons, too. The variety of this package is engrossing. It comes with two basic models, A1 and B1, and eight different liveries. The youngest of these birds is forty years old now, so all of the liveries look weathered and well used. Unique details abound, and each livery has something distinctive in the cockpit: a pine-tree air freshener, an extra gauge, a missing gauge, a different-colored gauge, or a handwritten N-number on the instrument panel. After a month of flying, I am still noticing new things.
But it’s “the hard” that makes this model great. I’ve been simming, off and on now, for over twenty years, and when I first got started, the last thing I wanted was more difficulty. Some of this was laziness, but not all. I didn’t have a joystick, for one thing, or a color monitor, or a fast CPU. I had terrible trouble lining up with the runway, and on the few occasions when I did line up successfully I was usually coming in too fast. At this stage, I really couldn’t handle more difficulty.
Later, I had a friend who was learning how to fly at the local airport, and he assured me that the real thing was much easier. After that I didn’t fly in the sim for a long time. When I came back to it, ten years later, everything was more realistic. Cockpit views were more detailed, and motion was much smoother. And I discovered that my friend had been right: the realistic plane was much easier to land than the old, unrealistic plane.
I bought a joystick, and embraced realism. Later I got rudder pedals. I suppose the next logical step would have been to enable malfunctions; for some reason that has never tempted me. Still, as we get better at flying, and the basic maneuvers become second nature, our brains turn to new questions and new challenges. Some might call it boredom. But the poet Yeats had another name for it: “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.” When we are young, we chafe at anything that limits our freedom. But after the initial flurries of exhilaration, absolute freedom turns out to be absolutely boring. From the outside it looks random, and from the inside it feels aimless. We need to have goals, or at least games, and that means having rules.
It just so happens that the rules of our game, Flight Simulator, are also the rules of physics, engine maintenance, and air traffic control. In the sim, we can get away with ignoring most of these rules except those of physics. That is all right: one of the nice things about our game (or simulation, if you insist) is that you can advance at your own pace. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you don’t have to know everything before you can enjoy something.
What I’ve found, however, is that it’s easier to learn a rule when there’s something enforcing it. For example, the best way to learn the rules of air traffic control is to fly online with VATSIM or IVAO. All of the sudden, what you were doing before in the privacy of your sim cabin has an effect on other people in the real world. This is a big motivation to learn the rules. Of course, if you don’t, no one will die. You’ll discover, however, that most of the rules are very practical: when you follow them, everything runs more smoothly, and everyone has a good time.
It’s the same with mechanical rules like “Don’t hold the primer in too long” or “Don’t let the engine exceed 3,000 RPM's or fall below 1,500 RPM's” With most simulated aircraft, you read these rules in the checklist, but if you ignore them nothing bad will happen. And that is what most of us do (unless we are pilots in the real world, who know better and already have good habits). A rule with no consequences is like a game with no rules: it doesn’t hold our attention. Add consequences, though, and the rule springs to life.
In my view, this is what makes the Do-27 by Digital Aviation a great aircraft model. Let me give an example. About five hours into my experience with it, I was getting ready for a flight and noticed that the flaps were stuck at 35 degrees. Try as I might, I couldn’t retract them. In frustration, I reloaded the flight. Still stuck! I knew, from reading the manual, that damage was persistent from flight to flight, unless you had it repaired. But my previous landing hadn’t been that hard -- for a bush plane -- and besides, why should that affect the flaps?
With this package, you handle maintenance through a series of kneeboard pages, so I pulled up the kneeboard and requested an inspection. A minute later, the answer came back, “Flaps jammed.” I put in a repair order, but I still couldn’t think why something should be wrong with the flaps. Then I remembered: on my last approach, I was too high and too fast when I entered the traffic pattern, so I dropped flaps to increase drag. It worked -- my speed dropped, and then my altitude. But I was exceeding VFE, which is the maximum Velocity for Flaps Extended. In most flightsim models, this wouldn’t make any difference: you might know (in your heart of hearts) that you were doing a bad thing, but you wouldn’t feel it. Well, now I was feeling it.
Let there be no mistake: learning to fly the Do-27 is harder than other bush planes. You have to read the manual carefully, and you have to internalize a new set of rules -- rules which, if you break them, will have consequences. That is what makes it great.
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