AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Review

A340 500/600

Product Information
Publisher: Just Flight
Description:  Aircraft Expansion Pack .
Download Size:
188 MB
Format:
Download or 1 DVD
Simulation Type:
FS 2004
Reviewed by: Jeff Shyluk AVSIM Staff Reviewer - October 22, 2006

FOREWORD:

The United Kingdom-based aviation software publisher Just Flight has expanded their line of "F-Lite" products, geared towards sim pilots who prefer airliners that are straightforward to operate, yet display a high level of detail. I have the pleasure to introduce you to A340 500/600, the newest F-Lite add-on for Microsoft Flight Simulator. There's a lot of nice details in this product, and in my review, I will try to touch on as many as I can. If you prefer to get my overall impression of A340 500/600, I provide an "Executive Summary" at the end of this article. Please be sure to look at all of the pictures along the way!

Previously, I reviewed Just Flight's Airbus Collection, an F-Lite product that featured twin-engine passenger and cargo jets modeled after real-world Airbus aircraft. Both the Airbus Collection and A340 500/600 share a common lineage in that they were both originally released by the software developer Commercial Level Simulations CLS). This A340 500/600 add-on is a more comprehensive re-release by Just Flight of the product from CLS. Just Flight also sells the A340 Professional by Phoenix Simulations Software (PSS), which was released back in 2004. The CLS and the PSS Airbus A340s are different, unrelated products from one another despite some thematic overlap between the two developers. A340 500/600 represents what I would consider the most modern version of the Airbus fleet in the MSFS 2004 universe.

INTRODUCTION: Ultimate Airbus Evolution

My first idea was that A340 500/600 would be a continuation of Just Flight's Airbus Collection, with the two-engine planes going to the one package, and the four-engine planes going to the other. If that were the case, it made sense to me at that time to enquire if the two packages would ever get released as one big Airbus fleet? I wanted to write one review that would cover both products at once. However, after loading up the add-on, I quickly realized that A340 500/600 went quite a bit beyond the scope of Airbus Collection. Instead of comparing apples to oranges, I found myself comparing apples to Ferraris.

Test System

P4 3.0 GHz 1 G RAM, Radeon x800 GTO
Creative Labs Audigy 2
Win XP SP2
Thrustmaster Top Gun Afterburner II
Microsoft Intellimouse
MS Digital Media Pro Keyboard
MS Sidewinder Steering Wheel (for the foot pedals).

Flying Time:
50 hours

I must be quick to point out that I found Airbus Collection to be a worthy product and is a whole lot of fun to fly. It's just that in terms of the evolution of the sim jetliner, I feel that the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 represents a peak of evolution for MSFS 2004. The best of both worlds, I suppose, would be to purchase Airbus Collection and A340 500/600 together, which is what I imagine the good people at Just Flight would want us to do. A340 500/600 is not completely perfect, and sim pilots who prefer total accuracy in all aircraft components may find some of the F-Lite system simplifications too broad for their tastes. However, I took great delight in putting this add-on through its paces.

As the name suggests, you get two passenger jet types with your A340 500/600 add-on: the Airbus A340 500 and the A340 600. Power comes from either the Rolls Royce Trent 556 engines or the -560 engines, providing two different flight envelopes. In addition, A340 500/600 provides a "Realistic" versus "Simplified" flight model for each jet that the user can select in advance of his or her flight. So, although the A340 500/600 presents relatively few airframes, there are many viable options to configure them to your liking.

Just Flight's A340 500/600 for MSFS 2004 is available either on a single DVD in a colourful plastic box, or as a download of 188 Mb. Included in the box is a paper manual of 16 pages, and on the disk is another manual of another 24 pages in Adobe Reader .PDF format. As well, a few free items of interest to sim pilots and some Just Flight advertising material round out the DVD package.

"F-Lite", as I mentioned before, is a product line intended to appeal to the casual sim-pilot. An F-Lite plane should be as easy to operate as any of the default MSFS aircraft, yet still provide a highly detailed model. This feat is accomplished not so much by getting rid of complicated systems or easing the restrictions of the flight model, but rather the F-Lite jetliner provides the pilot with a high degree of user-controllable cockpit automation.

In the case of A340 500/600, you can perform a reasonably accurate engine start-up sequence, including powering-up a realistic APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), setting the air flow to the various packs, igniting each engine in sequence, and activating the generators. Or, you can automate the whole thing with the MSFS Autostart command.

Likewise, you have some control over a limited-function MCDU (Multifunction Control Display Unit, a type of Flight Management Computer) or the fuel system, but these things will work nicely on their own as if you had a co-pilot helping you with the cockpit workload. This means that if you want to flip all of the switches and dials, you certainly may do so for the full-on Airbus experience, but if you prefer to concentrate on your flying, most of the in-flight workings can be automated. F-Lite, then, provides the sim pilot with an extraordinary level of flexibility with regards to aircraft operations: given some limitations, it can be as simple or as complex as the user wants it to be.

INSTALLATION: Easy Does It

As I have the DVD version of A340 500/600, this is what I will describe for my review. Just Flight provides an automated install system that is very easy to use. The install menu came up automatically when I loaded the DVD, and I followed the simple prompts to load the airplanes into MSFS.

One interesting thing the installer did was to set up a new folder in my Windows Start Menu. This was necessary because there are some options you can choose for A340 500/600 that must be selected before MSFS is booted up. Specifically, the options are for setting up your 3D cockpit viewpoint, and for selecting your desired flight model complexity.

Preliminary set-up options screens.

The planes you have installed will appear in the "Just Flight - Commercial Level Simulations" folder in the Select Aircraft menu of MSFS. You can choose from 25 liveries, as well as select between aircraft with a virtual cockpit, a 3D cabin view, or a special wing view.

DOCUMENTATION: A Simple Plan

The two manuals that come with the DVD version approach issues in A340 500/600 in different ways. The paper manual largely addresses how to install and configure your airplanes. It also has some very good advice on how to set up your sound and graphics to the best advantage. The .PDF manual goes into some specifics on how to actually fly your A340.

The .PDF manual more or less sets up the sequence of events that go from start-up to shut-down, and is illustrated with many charts and diagrams from the real-world Airbus manual. I think it's really important to read and understand the manual before you attempt your first flight on the "Realistic"-mode flight model. Although its four engines are very powerful, the Airbus A340 is a monumentally heavy aircraft, and as such is not an agile jet. Pay particular attention to how real Airbus pilots perform what is referred to as a "step climb" to get your jetliner up to its cruising altitude.

Although the manual covers the simple basics of how to operate your A340, I very much wish the instructions went into more detail. Nothing is mentioned on how to actually start the A340 from a cold cockpit, so that while many of the authentic cockpit flight instruments are operational, very few of them are described beyond their labels. It's up to the user to experiment with how things work in the cockpit. Unlike more complicated add-ons for MSFS, there is little damage you can do to your aircraft by experimenting, although needlessly pulling on the fire extinguisher handles or jettisoning all of your fuel can earn you some heavy glider practice if you're not careful.

Just Flight pointed out to me that the F-Lite aircraft are intended to be easy to operate, and so extra information in the manual may make flight too complicated. To be sure, the F-Lite A340 500/600 can be flown using the same techniques as a MSFS default jet, but to do so would be to miss out on all of the extra switches, gauges, and instruments that are packed into the cockpit. A beginner sim pilot might find this approach somewhat frustrating, as a knob on the autopilot that appears innocuous actually has multiple navigation functions, or the transponder is part of the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) instead of the radio stack.

You can get good support through the Just Flight on-line forum, or by e-mailing your questions to them directly.

FLIGHT DYNAMICS: Heavy Metal

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 comes with two distinct flight models for each aircraft: a "Simplified" and a "Realistic" mode. For now, I will confine my comments to the "Realistic" mode, although I will go into detail about "Simplified" flight model later.

Just Flight champions a magnificent flight model system they call "True Feel". "True Feel" is based on real-world Airbus data, and transforms your MSFS session into a first-rate flight simulation experience. "True Feel" has the ability to make the massive weight of your Airbus totally convincing to the sim pilot. In this product, you maintain control of your A340 with the use of a "sidestick" which resembles a good gaming joystick rather than the traditional aircraft yoke. In a real A340, the sidestick controls are analyzed and refined by a series of flight computers, which then issue the appropriate commands to the external control surfaces. The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 gives the sim pilot a strong sense of how this works. The airplane is just too large and heavy for a casual pilot to fly without some kind of assistance.

The manual tells us that a loaded A340-500 can weigh up to 822,000 lbs, and out of that, 348,004 lbs can be fuel. By comparison, a fully loaded J3C-65 Piper Cub (as one of the MSFS default planes) has a maximum take-off weight of 1,200 lbs. If my math is correct, handling a fully laden A340 on take-off would be equivalent to lifting about 685 Piper Cubs.

I wanted to include that tidbit to impress upon you how heavy the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 can be. Since it's so heavy, the A340 is a reluctant climber. The pilot has to be aware at all times of how to manage speed and a comfortable rate of climb. The manual provides a chart to show the pilot how to perform a "step climb", where the A340 reaches a plateau altitude and cruises level for a while to gradually build up the speed needed to surmount the next plateau. Using this method, the aircraft can comfortably cruise at 41,000 feet. It's not easy to perform a proper step climb! This is the kind of thing that I would suggest goes beyond a casual flight experience. Of course, a sim pilot can simply choose to cruise at 31,000 instead of 41,000 and avoid the step climb. The challenge is there if you want it, and it's satisfying to accomplish a step climb to cruise altitude without stalling.

Likewise, the manual says that the effective range of an A340 is 7,000 to 9,000 miles. With A340 500/600, I re-created a real-life long-haul flight I made as a Lufthansa passenger from Vancouver non-stop to Frankfurt, easily within the range of the A340. I personally prefer short-haul flights over these marathon stretches, so for pilots like me, there's nothing stopping us from taking an A340 on a spin from Paris to London instead of Paris to New York. I think that this is one of the strengths of this particular F-Lite product: if you want to fly a challenging plane, the challenge is certainly available. If you want a simple, easy hop across the sky, you can do that, too. Unlike some of the more realistic MSFS add-ons, A340 500/600 can be tailored to suit sim pilots of almost every skill and patience level.

Two views of a Lufthansa A340

As far as taxi is concerned, one should remember that the A340 is one massive bird. Just Flight assures us that the landing gear footprint is modeled exactly after the real thing. The A340 turns are wide and slow. A good pilot must make turns carefully, and even the best sometimes go off the tarmac and onto the grass a bit. The "True Feel" system ensures a dynamic sensation of mass and inertia while taxiing. Although the A340 feels very heavy on taxi and take-off, it does not suffer from tail-heaviness nor does the nose seem to want to lift off the ground unexpectedly.

At the end of the flight, when your fuel tanks are reaching empty, your A340 will feel noticeably lighter and more maneuverable, although you're still riding a gigantic mass of metal over the landing threshold. The sim pilot must be extremely careful when lining up for your approach, as the weight of the jet makes it prone to over steering your mark. Bringing in an A340 against a crosswind on final is a true white-knuckle experience. My hat is off to the real-life Airbus pilots who do this for a living! It takes a lot of practice and skill to safely land the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 by hand.

Your autopilot becomes indispensable for helping you perform the more difficult maneuvers, such as the step climb and intercepting the ILS landing beam in a crosswind. The autopilot control is faithful in its appearance to a real Airbus autopilot system, and it's somewhat more complicated to use than the MSFS default autopilots. The dials are small, so it's easy to miss the control hotspot and click your mouse on something you did not intend to. Still, the autopilot is trustworthy in its ability to handle your A340.

Turn off the autopilot, and the A340 handles in a stable, non-violent manner, slow to respond to control inputs, but sure in its turns and descents. Climbing the A340 requires managing airspeed and rate of climb carefully, so that if you fail, the aircraft will stall very gently until you bring the nose back down.

Finally, there are two engines to choose from: the Rolls Royce Trent 556 or the 560 series. Both engine types are very similar, with the difference being that the 560 series produces 4,000 lbs more thrust than the 556 series. If you choose a jet that mounts the 560 series engines, you should notice a boost in your thrust, which can make the step climb a little easier to perform.

COCKPITS: Lots To See And Do Here

Since the two basic airframes in A340 500/600 are similar, it is logical that they share a single cockpit layout. The cockpit is upgraded from the one found in Just Flight's Airbus Collection and is far more detailed than any default FS 2004 cockpit. The A340 500/600 cockpit is a good replica of a real A340 cockpit. Most of the gauges and devices are operational, although some are made redundant by the automated F-Lite flight system controls. Still, the range of things you can do in the cockpit is impressive!

The A340 500/600 requires something of a cockpit tour, so I will do my best to present you with as much detail as I can:

The 2D cockpit

At the outset, the A340 500/600 uses a contemporary "glass cockpit", in that many of the dials and gauges found on older Airbus jets are replaced by computerized screens. Most of the basic flight information can be read from these displays. A340 500/600 provides the sim pilot with some MSFS-style hot-buttons to open up other parts of the cockpit, such as the complicated overhead panel.

The overhead panel is home to controls for engine ignition, fuel pumps, air conditioning, APU, electrical power, cabin and cargo doors, cabin signs, and lighting. Not all of the controls are shown at once, as the panel automatically changes configuration depending on the sub-system the pilot wants to use. Many of the controls can be bypassed by using the Autostart function. If you want to perform an authentic checklist, the controls can be activated in order, but many of them are clickable mostly for show.

My usual complaint that third-party vendors don't put battery and generator switches in their cockpits does not apply completely to the A340 500/600. The generator switches are functional for all four engines, which I like to see, although the APU generator seems to me to be included for show. The clickable battery switches, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The battery setting seems to easily become lost so that the voltages never go past zero. Using the keyboard shortcut to operate the batteries bypasses this problem. Also, I tried the trick that PMDG 737 users have: I loaded the default Cessna, shut off the engines and turned the battery on, and then I loaded the A340, which made the battery work. Just Flight recommends that sim pilots use the Autostart keyboard shortcut to get the engines going properly.

One of my biggest problems with the layout of the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 cockpit is that there is so much realistic detail that the fonts on the buttons, switches, and gauges are absolutely microscopic. Those of us that are cursed with weak vision (and so will never be commercial airline pilots in real life) have to really squint at the monitor to make out the lettering. Just Flight provides a practical cure, in that the two main Flight Displays are endowed with the power to "Click-To-Enlarge". Click anywhere on the display, and a larger, more legible version pops up at the expense of seeing the surrounding gauges. Why many of the 2D cockpits in MSFS add-ons don't have this essential feature is completely beyond me.

I have used "Click-To-Enlarge" to make displays more legible. Also, the MCDU and the overhead panel have been activated

The Flight Displays can be configured to show a wide range of data. Not only can they plot your IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) course, they also can show nearby airports, way points, VORs (Very high frequency Omni-direction Range navigation beacons), and NDBs (Non-Directional navigation Beacons). TCAS information of aircraft near to you also gets shown on the Flight Display, meaning that a good pilot must be able to manage the screen clutter.

The MCDU, or FMC, is the "brain" for the automatic controls in an Airbus. The MCDU in A340 500/600 has limited functions that can be accessed by the sim pilot. Most of the FMC functions are automatically controlled by the default MSFS Flight Planner. You generate an IFR flight plan in MSFS, and when you load it, the MCDU automatically sets up and follows your way points.

At this point, some readers might become distressed. At best, the MSFS Flight Planner represents an older, limited technology. Just Flight kindly points out that the A340 500/600 MCDU reads all flight plans in the MSFS .PLN format, so that any third-party flight planner that can generate .PLN can be used to program the FMC. One advantage to having the FMC programmed by the default Flight Planner is that the Air Traffic Control will correctly follow your IFR flight. The airways and approaches the MSFS ATC uses may not be completely true-to-life, but it is good to have a voice guiding you into vectors when your destination airport is covered with pea soup fog.

This being said, the programming of the FMC is mostly automatic. The user can input a few settings if they want to (some, like Cost Index, are there just for show, as the flight model will calculate this and other values for you) or they can leave the FMC completely alone. Having spent hours manually rigging up a FMC in another add-on for FS 2004, I appreciate how a lot of this work can be done by the computer itself, and I like this simplification. The MCDU is most helpful in the area of speed management and fuel planning. The FMC can be tasked to compute your fuel consumption and give you an estimate of how much fuel you will be carrying into your landing. It can also calculate your V-speeds and flap settings based on aircraft weight, and display those figures as bugs on the Flight Display.

The Traffic Collision Avoidance System
The A340 pedestal controls, including throttles, radios, MCDU, parking brake, ignition and fuel switches, flaps, and brakes

The TCAS has two controls built into one. The TCAS shows other aircraft that are close to your A340 as icons on your Flight Display. The TCAS also shows your Transponder frequency, which can be set manually or through contact with the MS 2004 Air Traffic Controller.

The pedestal controls feature the throttles for all four engines. Although the trim wheels are depicted, the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 performs its own trim adjustments automatically. The other controls in this quadrant work as expected. The speed brake lever, when activated, comes right to the bottom of the screen, making it difficult to fully extend the brakes using the mouse. I found that by using the keyboard control, or by moving the window up, I could get full control of the brake.

In the lower right-hand corner of the pilot's half of the cockpit lives the ECAM (Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor), similar to an EICAS (Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System). This display shows the pilot the exact nature of each avionic system in the A340. This is a very impressive gauge; I like the way it shows so many facets of your jetliner's operation, uncovering parts of the flight model that might otherwise be totally hidden to the casual sim pilot. Unfortunately, this device suffers horribly from tiny lettering. I have taken the liberty of enlarging each view by dragging the window to a much larger size than its default.

The ECAM window displays a detailed read-out of engine performance. Note that the fuel units may be changed on the fly from pounds to kilograms, litres, or gallons. Also featured in the panel are a functional Digital Distance and Radio Magnetic Indicator, a working chronometer, the radio stack, landing gear lever, working differential toe brake hydraulic pressure indicators, and functional knobs to adjust display brightness. The ECAM can be configured for many other displays:

The DC Current display shows battery power and direct current electrical flow through your A340. Green indicators are active systems, while orange indicators show systems that have been shut down.

The ECAM AC Current display gives the pilot information on which generators are active, and how hard they are working to supply alternating current electricity.

ECAM panel, engine display ECAM panel, air bleeds display ECAM panel, cabin pressurization display
ECAM panel, DC electrical display ECAM panel, AC electrical display ECAM panel and overhead fuel controls

When you open the Fuel display on the ECAM, the overhead panel changes configuration to show fuel controls. On the display, you can see that I have armed and activated the functioning fuel jettison sequence! There is no exterior animation to show fuel being dumped, but the ECAM and the fuel buttons light up, and the pilot hears a persistent warning signal. This is a dire situation! Likewise, another emergency tactic is to pull the fire extinguishers on the engines. Again, there's no animation, in that the controls don't move, but the ECAM records the event and shows you how successful you are to douse your burning engines.

ECAM panel, APU display ECAM panel, cabin air conditioning display ECAM panel, access display
ECAM panel, wheel display ECAM panel, flight control display ECAM panel, hydraulics display

The ECAM Flight Control display gives the pilot feedback as to how the exterior control surfaces are responding to sidestick and rudder pedal commands. Since the Airbus is an advanced fly-by-wire (more correctly: fly-by-computer) system, the pilot needs to be aware of how the avionics are interpreting commands to the flight controls.

The final ECAM setting shows the Hydraulics display. This shows how well the hydraulic systems are functioning aboard the A340. If hydraulic power goes out, the controls become extremely unresponsive.

The view of the Virtual Cockpit from the pilot's chair. I have zoomed out the view a bit

Whew! And that's just the 2D cockpit! Of course, the high level of detail in the displays has deserved the lion's share of attention. The 3D Virtual Cockpit (VC) is also well-appointed.

The default Virtual Cockpit view

All of the clickable controls that are found in the 2D cockpit are available in the 3D cockpit as well, including the overhead panel, radios, MCDU, and the ECAM. The VC is modeled very closely after a real Airbus cockpit, and I think it looks superb.

Of course, the VC suffers from the same problem as the 2D cockpit, in that even at normal zoom, most of the instrumentation is tiny and hard to read and can be difficult to click on. Fortunately, the two main Flight Displays are quite legible in the default VC view, so it is possible to fly your A340 entirely from the 3D cockpit.

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 represents Airbus passenger jets with four engines. There is a lot of detail that is included with each flight model. As a result, frame rates do take a minor hit. On my mid-range computer, I found my VC frame rates were around 25 frames per second, which is about my norm for a big four-engine jet, or a passenger jet with a large number of avionic systems being modeled. The A340 500/600 may not be appropriate for an older computer system, but if you are running a mid-range rig or better, you probably should notice very little frame rate decay.

If you want to save frame rates, you can use Just Flight's "Wing view" model, which eliminates the VC but adds the A340 wings floating in mid-air. If you set the viewpoint correctly, you get a convincing view of the wing from a business-class seat. Just Flight also gives us a "Cabin view" which puts your viewpoint inside of an empty A340 passenger cabin.

Hong Kong as seen from two Wing views What it looks like to be a passenger in your own jet. I've zoomed the view out a little for a wider field of view

You don't need a third-party viewpoint application to get these views, as they are built into each A340 500/600 airliner. Just Flight does include the freeware F1 View Utility by Flight One, for use if you want to set a custom viewpoint.

Finally, night textures in both the 2D and 3D cockpits are realistic and look very appealing. The gauges and panels are backlit in colour, while the ambient lighting is a rosy-orange that is not overpowering.

Night shift on an A340. I've zoomed out the views a bit

EXTERIOR VIEWS AND ANIMATION: Supermodels On The Runway

The Airbus A340 500 and -600 are basically the same jet, with the -600 carrying a fuselage that is around 25 feet longer than the -500. The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 package does not offer much variety in terms of airframes, but the sim pilot will get a good number of real-world liveries to use.

Since this add-on focuses on just one jet plane and its variants, much attention seems to have been paid to get the exterior model and textures to look exactly right. The A340 500/600 features what I would consider a superior level of modeling craftsmanship. These aircraft are highly detailed. Every inch of the aircraft seems to have just the right level of visual realism. The shape of the fuselage, tail, wings, the way the exterior lights are mounted, even the rendered brake lines in the landing gear, all these things enhance the beauty of the models.

An A340 taking off from Abu Dhabi International Airport. The detailed landing gear are about to be retracted

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 comes with a wide range of animated parts as well. Passenger and cargo doors open and close, control surfaces droop when the engines are not running (and they respond effectively to user commands while in flight), engine turbines race, and landing gear retract and extend realistically. Subtle puffs of smoke are emitted by the engines on ignition, and large amounts of smoke and sparks are generated if you are unfortunate enough to strike your airplane against something hard. In addition, Just Flight includes the now-famous CLS Pushback Tractor that hooks up to the front wheel to reverse your airliner on the tarmac when you call for a pushback.

Doors open, an A340 from Singapore awaits a load of baggage. The cargo and cabin doors are easily opened and closed

Textures for the A340 500/600 are crisp, realistic-looking , and appealing. Airline liveries are from around the globe, and feature some of the top Airbus clients: Emirates, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, South African Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, China Eastern, Etihad, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways. Also included is the fictional CLS livery, some paint kit liveries, and one jet painted in manufacturer's primer coat.

The art team that put together the textures for A340 500/600 appear to understand and appreciate the way that light reflecting off of paint and metal will affect colour. Especially in the area around the engines, there are subtle plays of light that make the textures look like real paint and metal instead of mere pixels. The entire effect makes for a jet that looks like it's ready and waiting for you to check in and climb on board. One texture in particular deserves mention: the Air Canada A340-500 with an older paint scheme. This is the only texture that has received a "weathering" treatment, making it look well-used. It's an added touch of realism that makes this product a treat for the eyes.

An older A340 getting a pushback from the CLS tractor as the fog breaks over Vancouver. Note the latent effects of the harsh Canadian climate on the fuselage, especially around the doors and windows.

The detailed textures look great by day, and they also look good by night. The metal body of the jet is shiny and gleams in the night without looking like it is made out of plastic. The wash of light from the exterior lamps is quite strong, making the light sources seem powerful. The strobes and beacons look realistic.

This Cathay Pacific A340 navigates the last bit of twisty taxiway before gaining clearance to take the runway

SOUND SET: Engine Music

Your basic Rolls Royce jet engine is a powerful beast, and the A340 needs four of them. The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 is supplied with a thunderous sound set to match the fury of those engines. Recorded and engineered from real Airbus sources, the A340 500/600 features a wide dynamic range of engine sounds. Distracting audio artifacts are largely kept out, resulting in a pleasing, authentic-sounding flight experience.

The audio inside the cockpit provides excellent ambience. Apart from the whirr of the air conditioners and the hum of the avionics, the sim-pilot can hear more subtle sounds, such as the tiny rattling cabin noises one hears when the aircraft is taxiing over a concrete tarmac, the rumble of the tires, and the sounds of various aircraft parts engaged in extension or retraction. Switches make substantive clicking noises, and various cockpit systems will generate their own alerts when appropriate.

This means bad news! Many important alerts have both audio and visual alarms

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 goes well beyond the default array of MSFS cockpit alarms. There are call-outs for severe wind shifts as well as altitude when coming in for a landing. Stall, low fuel, and sink rate alarms show up as visual cues as well as persistent alerts.

The sum total effect of the A340 500/600 sound suite is one of sophisticated aviation audio in the most complete sense. I continually was drawn into the realism of the product by the excellent audio.

OUTSTANDING ISSUES: Simplified Flight Model

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600, to my mind, represents excellent value for a wide range of sim pilots. The attention to detail makes this an unusually stable and robust product, even in the company of so many other excellent third-party add-ons. Many of the tiny bugs and details that can plague other products have been stamped out in A340 500/600. In my exploration of this package, though, there was one design decision that I found I did not agree with, and that has to do with the "Simplified" flight model.

The F-Lite system is designed to create a sense of realistic airliner flight without burdening the sim pilot with too many tasks in the cockpit. The flight model is not compromised or simplified, but many routines that the pilot and co-pilot share are automated. This means that you can take an A340 and be up in the air in a matter of moments, yet still get a realistic flight experience.

So far, I am extremely happy with the F-Lite system. I think that it is a tremendous achievement in aviation simulation. The issue that comes up, though, is that the A340 is one of the world's largest passenger jets. In the real world, this jetliner is not designed to be picked up and played with. Even the task of climbing the A340 to cruising altitude requires attention to detail and adherence to procedures, something that goes somewhat against the F-Lite philosophy.

Just Flight has a created their own solution to this dilemma: how do you get an 800,000 pound passenger to act like an F-Lite aircraft? The answer is to provide two different flight models, one "Realistic" and the other "Simplified". Just Flight suggests that the Simplified model is easier to use for less experienced sim pilots, and is a good way to get a feel for the A340. In my opinion, I'd have to completely disagree with that. The Simplified model provides a massive boost to the A340 engines, causing this aircraft to perform like a jet fighter on full afterburner. In repeated trials in Simplified mode, this was the kind of thing that happened to my A340:

First of all, taxi was difficult. The aircraft was capable of taxiing to take-off speed with the engines on idle. I had to ride the brakes continuously just to keep the aircraft from lifting off. I would definitely suggest using an analog device for differential toe brakes, because it's so difficult to perform a safe, smooth taxi using keyboard braking controls.

On the runway, I found that I had to just nudge the throttles forward to get to 250 knots, my assigned climb-out speed. If I threw the throttles all the way forward, I found that I went "overspeed" before I got past the end of the runway. At this point, I ended up turning off some of the damage realism options in MSFS to save my aircraft.

In flight, I found that I could make an 80-degree climb without losing airspeed. It does not take long for the A340 to reach the upper altitude limit of MSFS 2004 (99,999 feet). Once up there, you've not much atmosphere to hold the airplane up, so it will tend to stall, wing over, and dash headlong towards the ground. Informally, I was recording descent speeds up to 3,470 knots or Mach 5.65, easily in the range of speed for the X-15 (top speed Mach 6.7), and well above the cruising speed of an SR-71 Blackbird (Mach 3.2+). (NOTE: my calculation of Mach is crude, and I am not a math whiz!)

Then, there's the fuel consumption. On my test flights where I had foolishly chosen manual control and the A340 rocketed into the stratosphere, I tried following my Canadian flight plan from Vancouver, British Columbia to Toronto, Ontario (3400 km). Because the engines were labouring to get me to Mach 5+, they actually ran out of fuel by the time I was over Kelowna, British Columbia, a distance on the ground of about 400 km.

So I turned on the Unlimited Fuel option in MSFS and tried again. I had drastically over speeded my takeoff before I could engage the autopilot, then I brought the speed down as best as I could, and engaged the autopilot. The airplane performed basically as it should. As long as the autopilot is engaged, ideally before takeoff, until the plane has landed, and ideally beyond that, the Simplified A340 will follow the pilot's instructions. Of course, with that kind of power, I can choose any cruising altitude I like, and the step climb procedure does not apply, which I imagine was the original intent of the designers.

So I thought, what if I keep the autopilot on but turned the auto throttle off? Can I make a world record cross-continental speed run? The moment I turned off the auto throttle, the A340 leaped past its overspeed constraints back into the Mach numbers. As I accelerated, the autopilot lost its grip on the situation, gave up, and allowed the plane to soar to 99,999 feet, where it again stalled and dove at the earth like a gigantic lawn dart.

My own private little air show. The "Simplified" flight model didn't make my simulated passengers very happy

If there is anything at all in any of those scenarios I have presented that could be easily handled by an "inexperienced" pilot, I would be surprised. My advice is to never

use the "Simplified" flight model unless you are prepared to fly your A340 like a rocket-plane test pilot. I discovered that at high Mach in the upper atmosphere, the engines of the A340 leave long, streaming contrails, the kind that look great in air shows, and I used them to record the various twists and loops I was able to perform at supersonic speed.

In closing, I would like to say that I think that offering two sets of flight models, one for novices and one for experienced pilots, is a tremendous idea and the potential exists to revolutionize the way sim-pilots can learn to fly the big jets. I hope one day to see the implementation of "training wheels for jets" that can help people learn to fly the more complicated aviation products and to gain a greater appreciation of MSFS. I see this as Just Flight's attempt to help out the beginner pilots. In this particular instance, the "Simplified" flight model just does not work very well. It's drastically overpowered and lacking in the facility to restrain the wilder motions of the aircraft. Hopefully, Just Flight will go back to the drawing board and try again, as their F-Lite system is otherwise exceptionally good.

CONCLUSION: Executive Summary

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 is an add-on for Flight Simulator 2004 that can be downloaded or purchased on a DVD-ROM, showcasing the four-engine Airbus A340 passenger jet. It features Just Flight's exemplary "F-Lite" avionic system, a straightforward control scheme that provides a high level of visual detail and a realistic flight model. Despite being a part of the "F-Lite" brand, the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 can actually be rather challenging to fly. In this product, a well thought-out cockpit system with some automated instrumentation, such as the MCDU and the ECAM, goes a long way to help a novice pilot to manage his or her flight. This product should appeal to a wide range of sim pilots of long-haul passenger jets, in that you can have an A340 in the air in a matter of moments, or you can follow real-world checklists and run your cockpit much in the way a real airline would.

The visual models are authentic and beautiful. The cockpits are filled with realistic instrumentation, although I found some of the read-outs to be tiny, even at the normal zoom level. There are several user-configurable viewpoints included in the add-on that allow you to enjoy a nice wing view and passenger cabin view. Day and night textures are rendered well, and the sound set that comes with the A340 500/600 includes a wide range of excellent aviation audio.

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 is somewhat thin on documentation. For such a complicated cockpit, I would have expected to see more information describing the gauges, and perhaps a tutorial flight that explained more of the real-world Airbus checklist. The manual does provide some good step-by-step instructions once you are taxiing, and has invaluable advice on how to perform a step climb, which is very important given the A340's reluctance to gain altitude. Fortunately, Just Flight's on-line support is good.

As well, the "Simplified" flight model, intended to give beginner pilots a way to handle this challenging aircraft seemed, in my opinion, to be poorly implemented. "Simplified" flight radically boosts the power and maneuverability of the A340, transforming it into a virtual rocket capable of exceeding Mach 5. The "Realistic" flight model on the other hand, is excellent, albeit challenging. The "Realistic" mode uses Just Flight's proprietary "True Feel" system, which does an absolutely believable job of giving a sim pilot a sense of the massiveness of the A340. Mastering the "Realistic" flight model does require some practice, but conquering the step climb and other essential flight procedures should give the sim pilot a real sense of accomplishment.

The Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600 has been released near the end of the FS2004 life cycle. To me, it represents a peak in the evolution of the third-party vendor add-on. It is accessible to sim pilots of just about every type; from beginners, to casual pilots, to dedicated long-haulers. This kind of flexibility is a real asset for Just Flight, at least in my opinion. The A340 500/600 boasts sophisticated features and a strong attention to detail. The installation is stable and reliable.

Of course, a big question will be if A340 500/600 will be compatible with the new FSX flight simulator. I don't have the answer to this directly, and neither does Just Flight, at least until FSX gets its official release. However, Just Flight has said in their website that "there’s plenty of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that as many of our products as possible will be promptly updated to work in the new sim and we'll be posting details for each product... as soon as they become available." This should mean a free patch or amendment for Just Flight product users.

I give the final word on A340 500/600 over to the crew at Just Flight, who wish me to pass this message along: "At £19.99, this package is very good value and if you fancy an alternative to the four-engine offering from Seattle, this may be just the thing!"

Soar the skies with the Just Flight/CLS A340 500/600!

 

What I Like About the A340
  • Challenging "Realistic"-mode True-Feel flight dynamics!
  • Detailed cockpits filled with working instruments.
  • "Click-To-Enlarge" displays.
  • MCDU helps calculate fuel requirements, and uses .PLN flight plans which the FS2004 ATC will follow.
  • Wide range of animated parts, nice aircraft models, beautiful textures for day and night.
  • Excellent dynamic sound file.
  • User configurable viewpoints.
  • Good frame rates.

 
What I Don't Like About the A340
  • Overpowered, difficult to control "Simplified"-mode flight system.
  • Manual lacking in some details.
  • Tiny lettering on some gauges.
  • Overhead battery switch didn't work for me.

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