When FSX came out last fall, there were a lot of complaints about frame rates— and a lot of converts to bush flying. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, the new sim came with several new aircraft, including a pair of bush planes: the De Havilland Beaver and the Maule Orion. That was a major incentive right there: not only were the planes new, but they looked fantastic. Second, frame rates were much better in the back country than in major cities like Seattle or Tokyo. This, too, encouraged sim pilots to see what bush flying had to offer.
It’s been almost a year now, and in that time at least three different developers have released bush planes for FSX: the Pilatus Porter (from FSD), the De Havilland Beaver (from Aerosoft), and the Dornier Do-27 (from Digital Aviation). Now there is one more bush package, a trio of taildraggers, from RealAir Simulations. I say “trio,” because there are only three names: Citabria, Decathlon, and Scout. Actually, though, there are five aircraft models, because the Scout comes in three versions: regular wheels, tundra wheels, and amphibian.
All five are currently manufactured by American Champion Aircraft. The basic model is the Citabria (“airbatic” spelled backwards), which is similar in performance to the Cessna 172. It carries a smaller payload, but can land in more places and do basic aerobatics. Pilot and passenger sit side-by-side, so it’s a popular model for flight training.
The other two models, Scout and Decathlon, are variations on the Citabria airframe, but have tandem seating (passenger sits behind pilot) and more specialized capabilities. The Citabria is sturdy, but for real bush flying you’d want the Scout. With longer wings, the Scout can get in and out of shorter landing fields, because it has more lift at low speeds; it also has the option for pontoons or tundra tires. The Decathlon is better for aerobatics, but doesn’t have any flaps. All three have big windows and would be a good choice for touring.
Like almost all third-party aircraft that are currently available for FSX, the planes in this package were originally made for FS2004. In this case, however, the developers have taken the opportunity, not just to keep the old package going in the new sim, but to make it better and push the envelope of what’s possible.
Installation and Documentation
There is nothing about this package that isn't well polished, including the installer program, the configuration program, and the documentation.
Installation went smoothly on my system, but if it doesn't on yours, it's been my experience that an email puts everything right. Several months ago I had some trouble with the upgrade procedure for another RealAir product, and the response I got back was polite, very prompt, and got me up and running with a minimum of fuss.
I have noticed something similar in the user forums. Robert Young, who is one half of the RealAir team, is a regular participant in two of the forums I read, and I am always eager to hear what he has to say. He's modest about what he's done and generous with what he knows. He also doesn't get defensive.
Once the files are in place, the configuration program will load. It’s attractive, functional, and intuitive. (I mention this, because you rarely get all three. A lot of functional programs look ugly, and the ones that look good are often cumbersome to actually use.) This is where you can select options for start-up (ready-to-fly or cold-and-dark), how vigorously the virtual cockpit will shake when you stall (an eye-candy feature that is also useful if you fly aerobatics), and which instruments you want on your dashboard. For the instrument panel, options vary according to model: for example, you could have a VFR-only panel on your Citabria, but an IFR panel on your Scout.
The manual, which comes in PDF form, has several parts. A “Flying Guide” tells the story of the three aircraft and what each of them is good at; explains how to operate the radios; and describes the Bear Gulch landing facilities. There is also an operating handbook for each of the three aircraft. The operating handbooks are based on the manuals for the real aircraft, and give information on performance and recommended procedures. (This information is also available from the kneeboard.) The only thing I couldn’t find in the manuals was an engine setting for cruise flight.
The manual says to open the throttle about 75%, but I was expecting a value for manifold pressure. I emailed the developer about this, and apparently the real manual isn’t specific on this point. Finally, there are separate manuals for the KFC-225 autopilot (provided by gauge programmer Rob Barendregt) and the Bear Gulch landing strip (by scenery designer Bill Womack).
All three aircraft share the same basic airframe, which has very simple, straightforward lines, such that you’d only notice them if something were wrong. Nothing is. The longer I look, the more I admire. What struck me as stodgy on first acquaintance now seems retro, even classic.
Paint schemes are simple, too, but there are a lot of them: about fifty, not including third-party repaints (which are sure to multiply). Zoom in as close as you please, and they still look sharp. Some weathering is in evidence, but not much. Like other RealAir products, the birds in this package have the look of aircraft that are used, but well maintained. You’ll see fuel stains on the wings, but no dirt on the fuselage, and certainly no cracks on the windscreen. Some customers like the dirt, some customers don’t. I’ve decided to embrace the filth, but “well cared for” is a good look too, and fitting for planes (like the Scout) that are still in production.
Absent from the visual model are self-shadowing and light bloom. These features are new to FSX, and I was a little surprised not to see them here. Surprised but not overly disappointed: on my system, light bloom and self-shadowing are turned off anyway, because they are tough on frame rates. Maybe in a few years I’ll be gnashing my teeth, but right now I don’t regret what I can’t see. What I do like is that, in exterior views, the propeller does not disappear in front of cumulus clouds. This is a problem on most of the non-default aircraft that are currently available for FSX, but it can be fixed, and RealAir has fixed it.
There is one bug in the visual model: when seen from the virtual cockpit, the lights on the wingtip can be seen through the wing. I emailed the developer, and he replied that a fix was on the way, pending more testing.
A 2D panel is available, but like all of RealAir’s current models, the Citabria and its cousins are all intended to be flown from the virtual cockpit (VC). The style of the interior is like the style of the exterior: clean, well maintained, with no cockpit junk or litter. Glass is reflective, just like the new default planes, and there is lots of it. Even the roof is glazed (although in practice I didn’t notice this much except in spot plane view). The result is that all three of these birds are excellent for sightseeing.
But is that a feature of the plane being modeled, not the model itself? What makes the model stand out, visually, are the cockpit gauges. For a couple of years now, RealAir has specialized in ultra-legible and especially ultra-smooth gauges.
Credit for this goes to Sean Moloney, who is the other half (with Robert Young) of RealAir Simulations. With the possible exception of Reality XP (whose TrueGauge products I haven’t tried), there is no one who makes gauge dials that move this smoothly. The smoothness I’m talking about is particularly noticeable in the magnetic compass that floats in kerosene (a.k.a., the whiskey compass). Normally, we use this to check and correct the gyroscopic compass on the instrument panel, but we don’t fly by it.
With the RealAir gauges, not only could you fly by the whiskey compass, but you could enjoy doing so: it’s that interesting to watch, bobbing there in pixel space. Of course, if you only fly VFR, gauge smoothness (as opposed to gauge clarity) could fall under the category of eye candy. (I like eye candy myself.) But if you fly IFR a lot, smooth gauges are also practical, because they are more sensitive and precise than jerky gauges. In this department, Sean Moloney has been setting the gold standard since 2005.
New here for FSX are gauges modeled in three dimensions. Before, gauge makers would simulate three dimensions with painted shadows. The new effect is still an illusion (your flat screen won’t literally bulge out at you), but the shadows are generated dynamically, just like the rest of cockpit. The result (at least for steam-powered gauges) is an instrument panel that looks mechanical rather than virtual. The effect is most noticeable with the turn-and-slip indicator (where the tube really looks tubular) and the horizontal situation indicator. (The artificial horizon bulges out as well, but to my eye the effect is more satisfying on RealAir’s Marchetti, which was reviewed here several months ago.)
Other cockpit features, also new for FSX, include bump mapping and highlights for panel and joystick; more realistic backlighting for the instrument panel; and special camera settings for things like the electrical panel (which you would otherwise have to crane your neck to see). There’s also a new system for tuning radios with the mouse; I’m not sure it’s any easier than the old, default system, but perhaps some people will find it more natural, since it involves dragging the mouse rather than clicking its buttons.
Sound contributes a lot to whether a sim model is enjoyable over a long period. With this package, the recordings are extraordinarily clean, and I am guessing that someone involved with this project had access, not just to the real Lycoming engine, but also to a very expensive microphone.
Details are distinct, without being tinny. During taxi, there’s a good rattling sound (to remind you this is a machine), and when you press the starter button, the engine doesn’t catch until a human voice calls out “Prop!”
These features, I’m assuming, were all part of the original taildragger package for FS2004. What’s new, I gather, is better use of more speakers (beyond the two you get with stereo), but since stereo is all I have, I couldn’t evaluate this.
And the bad news? For once there is no bad news. Frame rates are as good as or better than default aircraft such as the Beaver or Maule.
By themselves, good frame rates aren’t enough to ensure a successful add-on. But for airplanes that advertise themselves as “aerobatic,” high frame rates are vital.
Flight models can be as subtle as you like - and these ones are - but if the frame rates are low, the controls will be less responsive, and all of those subtleties will be for naught, wasted like perfume on the desert air. Alas, I myself am not a real pilot of anything except a 1996 Toyota Corolla, so on the subject of flight models my opinion doesn’t count for much. Like many sim pilots, though, I’ve noticed that the airplanes in FSX feel more fluid. Yet many -- maybe most -- developers don’t seem to be making any changes in this area. I hope that’s not true, but when developers talk about the work they’ve done updating their products for FSX, it’s very rare that they mention flight models.
That worries me. Something feels different, and in theory at least, that something should require some adjustments, however minor, in an airplane’s flight model. Certainly that was the case with aircraft designed for FS2002: the flight models would work in FS2004, but the balance was noticeably off; nose angles were different, and there didn’t seem to be enough thrust. This doesn’t seem to be happening as much with FSX (except with helicopters). But what, in theory, seems like it ought to have been a problem is turning out, in practice, not to be a problem after all; or the problem is so small that most of us (including me) don’t notice it. Maybe there is nothing to worry about after all.
That being said, there is at least one developer who is taking the new feel of FSX seriously, and that is RealAir’s Robert Young. For the FSX version of the three taildraggers, Young has reinvented the flight models for each of the five aircraft types, including the pontoon and tundra tires. That sounds like a lot of extra work. But Young has a reputation to uphold, for flight models that are uber-nuanced, super-supple, and extra-subtle.
For example, there was a time when very few airplanes could spin in Flight Simulator, except for the ones that Young made. Spinning isn’t unique anymore to flight models by Rob Young, although Young does keep making it better. With the FSX versions of his Marchetti and taildragger models, a plane that enters a spin will continue spinning until the pilot takes further action; even among flight models that can spin, that’s unusual.
But for me, there is a better, more practical test of an airplane’s flight model than whether it can spin, and that is how well it can slip. That is, when you send the stick left and the rudder right, how quickly can the airplane lose altitude and airspeed? While it might sound perverse, this maneuver is an excellent way to bleed off altitude when you are coming in too high for a landing, and in a plane with no flaps (such as the Decathlon) it is often the only way to land on a short runway, because you can lose altitude fast without actually going fast (i.e., without picking up airspeed).
Now in Flight Simulator, most airplanes can slip, but the results are undramatic (and unrealistic). With the RealAir planes, it’s almost like watching a stone drop. With a little practice, you can lose thousands of feet in well under a minute and still keep your airspeed down at the same time. This is quite useful for bush flying, where you sometimes need to make steep descents. Again, I don’t say that no one else’s models can do this; but I can’t think of anyone who does it better, and most models can’t do it nearly as well.
A little more than two years ago, I received my first RealAir add-on as a birthday present. It was the Marchetti SF.260 for FS2004, and I came to think of that airplane as my own personal Shadowfax, the lord of horses who, as Gandalf says, “has been my friend through many dangers.”
I flew it everywhere, on every continent of every hemisphere, online and offline, through New Zealand and California, over Germany and Japan, everywhere. It was fast and agile, it had good views for VFR, and for IFR it had those glorious gauges I described earlier. When FSX came out, it was the first airplane I tried to convert from FS2004.
The conversion, which I wrote about for Computer Pilot magazine, went tolerably well. The operation was a success. The patient lived. That is, the gauges worked and the airplane could fly. But the lighting was wrong and, what was worse, the flight model felt coarsened somehow. It was completely flyable, and still very enjoyable. But it didn’t handle like a sports car anymore, the way it did in FS2004. Several months later, RealAir came out with an upgrade for 12 euros, and my old friend was back -- not just as good as new, but better than new, a genuine upgrade.
It’s the same deal with the taildraggers under review here. New, you can buy the package of three planes for 29 euros; or 14 euros if you’re upgrading from FS2004. That’s not chicken change, even for the upgrade. But it is what the word “upgrade” means, an actual step up, with new features and about two dozen new paint schemes.
I’m guessing, though, that most upgraders won’t need any urging, because once you have owned a thing that is finely crafted - with no excuses, and no compromises - you know what it is worth. That is how I feel about these models here. Everything looks right and (what is more important) everything feels right: right away and for as long as you fly.
What I Like About the Citabria, Decathlon and Scout for FSX
What I Don't Like About the Citabria, Decathlon and Scout for FSX
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