AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Review

WILCO A400M AIRLIFTER

Product Information
Publisher: Wilco Publishing, Just Flight Ltd
Description:  Add-on aircraft and load manager.
Download Size:
N/A
Format:
DVD
Simulation Type:
FS 2004
Reviewed by: Brian Fletcher AVSIM Sr Staff Reviewer - November 8, 2006

Introduction

The Airbus A400M is an aircraft still in the early assembly status, that is set to replace the aging C-130 and C-160 of some nations and introduce more economic long-range military transport to others. The aircraft will be powered by four EuroProp International TP400-D6 turboprop engines fixed on carbon fiber reinforced plastic wings, and will have a fly-by-wire flight control system with sidestick controllers and flight recovery abilities known as flight envelope protection.

The Airbus A400M will have the capability to operate as a cargo and troop transport, MEDEVAC, electronic surveillance, or aerial refueling aircraft, and will have an increased range and payload over the aircraft it is intended to replace. As of Q2 2006, 195 A400M’s have been ordered by 10 nations, including France, Germany, Turkey, Spain, the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, Malaysia, South Africa, and Chile, over half of which will be delivered to Germany and France by 2010.

The A400M under review today is an offering from Wilco, available from Just Flight that gives simmers the opportunity to fly this soon-to-be airlifter in FS9 for $34.99 USD. Since the real deal is still in the making, we will not have much to go on comparing the authenticity of this model, but using the information already available, we should be able to make an educated decision as to how well Wilco’s rendition is suited for your FS9 virtual world; let’s get started.

Installation and Documentation

My copy of the Wilco A400M came in the form of a DVD, packaged with a paperback manual and a handful of Just Flight freebies and previews. Simply insert the disk into your DVD drive and follow the onscreen instructions and you will be flying the A400M in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, a search for an all-inclusive, detailed documentation yielded nothing more than the paperback manual, which is not extremely detailed or informative, at least not from my perspective.

There will be a new folder added to your FS9 main directory during installation titled “Wilco”. This is where you will find the load manager as well as the FMC Nav data and a few other files that require nothing more than to be left alone. And, of course, the aircraft itself will be added to the FS9 “aircraft” folder, which is where you will find all of the necessary components except for a manual.

Exterior Model

The Wilco A400M comes with two models which, in reality, are both the same model with the only exception being that one variation has a single truck in the cargo bay and the other has two. Both variations include a variety of liveries, including a representation of the Belgian, German, Spanish and Turkish Air Forces, as well as two French and Royal Air Force paint schemes. Also included is an Airbus camouflage, UNICEF, and a seemingly hopeful, yet not out of place U.S. Coast Guard livery.

Most of the liveries have a near show room finish with few indications of normal wear and tear, but some do have the occasional stain here and there, just not as pronounced as I would have liked. I did not find a whole lot in the way of exhaust smoke effects on the wings or fuselage, nor did I come across chipped paint, scratches, or anything that would suggest the aircraft have many hours on them, which I suppose is suiting for an aircraft that does not technically exist yet. But if I still have this bird in my collection a few years from now, a repaint may be in order.

The exterior model itself is comprised of an obvious airlifter style fuselage, wings with a lot of surface area, and four EPI TP400-D6 turbo-prop engines with uniquely curved 8 bladed propellers. It’s a relatively large aircraft with a wingspan somewhere in the vicinity of 140 ft, a length of 145 feet or so, and a height of nearly 50 feet up the tail give or take a few feet. And as far as I can tell, there are not any notable modeling errors, such as gaps, or misaligned parts. I did notice that the spinners seemed to rotate a bit wobbly, but not so far off axis that I found it to be a big issue.

The animations include the usual suspects; flaps, ailerons, elevators, rudder, landing gears and bay doors, troop and cargo doors, and all of the “must haves” that I wouldn’t pay for an aircraft without. If you pan around to the rear of the aircraft you can take a look inside at the truck(s) and check out the details in the cargo bay, which I find decent. And there is even a fuel probe for those of you who want to test your luck at in-flight refueling, or at least simulate the act of aerial refueling.

There’s not much to say about the exterior model of the Wilco A400M that the screenshots can’t say for me, other than to express my satisfaction from the spot view. I’m not sure what the repainters have done with this aircraft yet, but looking at the bitmaps, I can see that Wilco has made it easy for anyone to slap a coat of paint on this bird. Perhaps someone might consider a courier livery, maybe FedEx for example…hint, hint. Either way, I think that this model will find favor with a lot of simmers as it has with me.

Interior Model

The virtual cockpit is my preferred view to fly from in this aircraft, the reasons for which will be made clearer in the next section. The flight deck is not as detailed as many of the quality aircraft I have researched lately, but does have clean lines and reasonably authentic texturing in most areas. The panel is only partly functional, that is to say that while there are a lot of switches, toggles, etc, only a few are actually clickable. The flight displays can be enlarged with a click of the mouse, which might be necessary for those of you using a lower resolution.

Other than a few of the instruments and NAV-COM equipment, most of the clickable features in the VC are those that I would normally operate with my HOTAS anyway, such as the throttle, flaps, and parking brake. However, there are some other animations that can be controlled by the mouse, including the rear jump seats and cabin door. Other animations include the rudder pedals, side stick controller, and the co-pilot will move his head around.

The panel is clear and legible to a point, but if you zoom out too much you might not have a clear view of the gauges to go along with your panoramic view. I flew in 1024 X 768 mode most of the time and had no problems finding a good comprise between a decent view point and legibility, which required me to zoom out twice from the default view which places you right on top of the panel. I was pleased to find out that I could back off far enough to have quick access to the overhead panel, but like the rest of the flight deck, it is only partially functional. The same goes for the pedestal, which is fairly well detailed, but lacks functionality.

If you scroll your way back through the cabin door you will come to a stairwell that you can take down to the cargo bay. You once you get down to the cargo bay you can take a look at your payload, or work your way over to the windows for good view outside the aircraft from the loadmaster's perspective. The detail along the way is convincing enough to me, but there is really not a lot to see other than a truck or two.

I spent a lot of time flying this aircraft from the virtual cockpit, and while I am not taken away by the functionality, or lack thereof, I did find it to be fitting for my needs, though yours may be different. The only recommendation that I would make is to go with a higher screen resolution as I found my settings to be only acceptable as opposed to a lower setting which rendered most of the instruments virtually unusable from a distance.

Panel

If I had to pick one aspect of this aircraft that I do not care for it would easily be the 2D panel. Unlike many or perhaps most of the panels I have used in FS9, this one is designed to show more of the panel from the furthest left extent through the center console. Doing this has placed the pilot’s point of view in an offset location from the main instrumentation, which seems to create an almost disorienting view.

The panel certainly contains all that you could ever need to fly the aircraft, including a PFD, ND, E/WD, SD, and MCDU, all of which are clickable for a larger view. Also included is an audio control panel, autopilot, and NAV-COM, ADF, transponder, and other navigational and communications equipment. The problem is that few, if any, of these instruments are legible without enlarging them by use of the “shift + number key” commands or by simply double clicking on them. But while enlarging them provides a crisp, clear view of the instrument, doing so greatly reduces the realism of the panel, and can inhibit your view of other instruments. This is most notable for those using lower display settings such as 800 X 600.

From my perspective, the audio and navigational equipment across the top of the panel is virtually unusable in the “cockpit” mode. I may not have the best eyesight, but I think you would need some pretty thick glasses to read any of these instruments in a hurry. The exception to this is the NAV-COM radio which can be enlarged just like the instrumentation described above. Assuming that you do want to fly from this view, you may find the HUD to be invaluable given the difficulty of reading the PFD when not enlarged. The HUD is positioned on the top left portion of the panel and is large enough to follow without squinting. It includes all that you need to monitor your airspeed, altitude, attitude and heading.

There are a few decent sub panels included, but the functionality is so-so. I have not taken the time to count how many of the switches, buttons, and knobs are actually useable, but I would put it somewhere around one out of every 7 or 8, give or take. Those that are functional can be difficult to make out, that is to say, the labeling is small with so many switches, buttons, etc. crammed into such a small place. Trying to use the sub panels at night is not an easy task either as the backlighting is only marginally affective. My suggestion would be to enable the cockpit tool tips until you memorize where everything is.

The first sub panel contains a few useful items, including a switch that allows you to disable the HUD or adjust the brightness to one of four settings, light controls for the entire aircraft, and a pretty decent APU and engine start effect. This sub panel is reasonably suitable for use in flight because it spans the width of the visible portion of the panel, but is not a vertical challenge for other instrumentation. The same does not apply for another useful, yet visibility inhibiting sub panel; the overhead. This panel gives you access to the fuel pumps, alternators, batteries, engine and wing anti-icing, and the pitot heat.

The pedestal panel has a few more useful controls including a switch to change the pages in the SD and EFIS lighting control, along with the less useful parking brake, throttle quadrant, gear lever, and flaps. I consider these to be “less useful” because, if you’re anything like me, then your HOTAS or yoke should be able to handle the duties of the parking brake, throttle, gears and flaps. My biggest complaint about the sub panels is that I think the non-functional items should be removed in order to allow the panels to be resized small enough to remain open in flight without blocking my vision of vital instruments.

The lighting in the panel is not my cup of tea, but fairly effective nonetheless. There is no drop lighting on the panel, instead, each of the individual gauges, toggles, knobs, buttons, and displays are backlit independently. While it does look pretty good, I feel as though some additional lighting on the panel could help a bit, perhaps a soft panel-wide backlight would be suitable. But the lighting is just one man’s opinion; the screenshots should tell you all that you need to know.

In summation, I am not particularly thrilled with this panel. Taking the viewpoint, instrument legibility, and functionality of the sub panels into account, I would not rate it very high. However, having discussed this panel with a few of my fellow simmers, I have received a mixed response, some like it, some don’t. And while I am in the latter group, I cannot possibly determine what each simmer likes, so take a look at the screenshots and decide for yourself.

Sounds

After coupling my dissatisfaction of the panel with my overall approval of the external and internal models, I am glad to report that the sound set included in this package gets us right back on track. There is no noise abatement technology here; this aircraft roars like it has something to prove. Actually, this sound set was very dominating from all views with the default settings, but it does not have the growl that I was expecting. Instead, the mixture of radial and turbine sounds seemed to highlight the swell of the turbines a bit more than the bite of the props.

The internal model is the place to be if you really want to rumble your desktop. Unlike the exterior view, I was able to pick up a little more of the hum from the props than I did outside. In short, it sounded much more like a turbo-prop inside than it did in the spot view. There are also some original cockpit sounds that go with the switches and call-outs, but I found it necessary to turn their volume settings down a tad as I was a little annoyed by some of them. Aside from the engines and cockpit sounds, you can also hear the APU during startup, which sounds as authentic as most of the APU sounds I have heard in other aircraft.

Flight Dynamics

Evaluating the accuracy of the flight dynamics of the A400M is a virtually impossible task at this point, after all, the real plane hasn’t even flown yet. But given the specifications of the aircraft made available to me, I am more than confident that Wilco’s version of the A400M is in the right ballpark, not perfect, but more than sufficient for Flight Simulator. If asked to compare the flight characteristics of the Wilco A400M to another aircraft, I would consider it to be fairly close, with no payload, to that of a C-130 with a full payload.

Every aspect of the flight dynamics is directly related to the fuel and payload that you are carrying. Between the default FS9 payload options and the load manager included with the A400M, you can configure the aircraft from a mere 154,000 lbs to a challenging 315,894 lbs, which is approximately 51,344 lbs over the maximum takeoff weight as described by Airbus. Using fuel and payload settings somewhere in between these two extremes will allow you to get airborne in about 3,000 feet with only 2,000 feet or so needed to touchdown. As you can imagine, increasing or decreasing the fuel and payload will have an impact on the distance needed, but surprisingly not that drastically.

Once airborne you will find that the A400M is capable of very steep climbs as it maintains upwards of 350 knots. The optimal cruise speed is said to be somewhere between mach .68 and .72, which I would tend to agree with. As far as the service ceiling is concerned, you have all the way up to FL400 before you need to level out, however, I have gone up to FL500 with little effect. Try for much more than that and you may find yourself trying to pull out of a stall, which is why I like to keep it at or below the recommended 37,000 ft ceiling.

The range of the A400M varies tremendously as you adjust the payload. An empty aircraft can span up to 5,000 nm, whereas a 30 ton payload will only get you near 2,600 nm as opposed to a 20 ton payload which can stay airborne for 3,700 nm or so. Interestingly enough, the Airbus specifications project the A400M to be able to travel 1,782 nm at max payload, but I have yet to cross 1,200 nm without fearing an immediate need for fuel. This is not a discrepancy with the intended specs however, because while the real A400M will have a maximum takeoff weight of 287,000 lbs, Wilco’s version can handle up to 315,000 lbs, though takeoff can become quite the challenge on a short runway at this weight.

Maneuvering the A400M is something that takes time to master, especially if you are used to a more responsive and less over-correcting aircraft. It’s not that the aircraft doesn’t respond to commands well, it’s just that it has a tendency to be slow to perform banking maneuvers and gets very touchy when you try to level out. For example, on my first test flight I lined up with the runway perfectly coming off of the base leg, but while on final I found myself constantly correcting the aircraft to remain on centerline. And I’m not referring to the typical slight corrections either; instead I found myself a few degrees off either direction a number of times.

My overall impression of this airfile is that it has been created with good knowledge of how an aircraft of this nature would fly. And though I do not have an exact real-world flight envelope to compare it to just yet, I think that Wilco will have been proven to be very accurate once the real A400M takes flight.

Performance

 

Test System

Compaq Presario SR1232
AMD Athlon 3.0 GHz
2 GB Ram
NVIDIA Ge Force 7800
StarLogic 21” Flat Panel Monitor @ 1024 X 768
CH USB Flight Yoke
CH USB Rudder Pedals
Saitek X52 Flight Control System
FTP 290 Throttle Quadrant
Bose 5:1 Surround Sound

Laptop

Toshiba Satellite
2.2 GHz Intel Celeron M
1 GB DDR2 SD Ram
Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900

Flying Time:
94 hours

With frame rates becoming such a big issue with many sim enthusiasts, I thought it would be worth taking a moment to discuss the performance of the Wilco A400M on my test systems. For starters, I never encountered any scenario that created the “stutters” while flying from the “cockpit” view. The worst frame rates I ever received was 25.7 while flying in a major thunderstorm near Los Angeles, and that was on my laptop. My home cockpit system always stayed maxed out at 50, which is where I locked the FPS, and my review system generally provided anywhere between 40 and 45 FPS, even in foul conditions. As a reference, these numbers are only a few fps lower than I am used to seeing with the default aircraft in the same situation, which leads me to believe that most simmers should not face a major frame rate problem from the panel.

The virtual cockpit did drag more than my default aircraft, but not by that much at all. Though my laptop struggled in the VC from time to time, mostly while on the ground, my review system gave me an average of 34.8 FPS with full AI traffic (Just Flight’s Traffic 2005), cold front conditions, and “High” scenery settings across the board. This is only a drop of 3-5 FPS as I am used to seeing in the default Boeing 747 and 777, which again makes me think that the frame rates should not be a big problem for most simmers.

The spot view was the most demanding of resources on my systems, but once again I did not find the hit to be too bad at all. My laptop was good for about 25 FPS on average, my review computer posted 31 to 33 FPS, and my home cockpit was not affected in the least as it continued to push hard against the 50 FPS lock. Of course, the performance of my default aircraft vary from this view, but I would venture to say that none of them have ever dropped as low as the A400M did, though my naked eye could not tell the difference anyway.

There was some stuttering on occasion when switching from the VC to the spot view, and every once in a while when switching from the panel to the VC. I encountered a few occasions when the VC would take a moment to load, and sometimes I had to wait for a brief moment while the textures loaded in the spot view. This generally happens in the initial stages of my flight, usually no more than once or twice. While I never had this happen in my home cockpit, it was pretty standard on my laptop, and not unheard of with my review system.

My analysis of the performance of the A400M is that I doubt many simmers will have to alter there settings a whole lot in order to enjoy it. I have kept my scenery settings at high, my AI traffic around 80%, and most other options near the upper limits with only minor drops in the frame rates. Of course, a few subtle alterations might not hurt, but I am content with how well this bird performs. I encourage those of you who already own the Wilco A400M to share your performance results in the Avsim forums to help those with similar system specs.

The Load Manager

Included with this package is a simple, easy to use load manager that allows you to adjust the payload of the aircraft choosing between cargo and vehicle loads. The Load Manager can be found in the “Wilco” folder in the main FS9 directory and contains a single page platform giving you the two payload options. The first load alterations you can make is with the slider located next to the “cargo” option. This slider moves in increments of 1 ton from 0 to 30.

The second option is to choose the weight based on what vehicles you want to simulate transporting. You can choose to load 3 trucks totaling 15 tons, 3 jeeps at 9 tons, 2 trucks and 1 jeep weighing in at 13 tons, or an 11 ton load of 1 truck and 2 jeeps. I am still uncertain as to how much of an effect these loads actually have on the aircraft. Despite testing each payload several times in a variety of scenarios, I failed to encounter what I had expected to be a notable difference, as opposed to when I varied the payload with the FS9 fuel and payload menu. I would not, however, conclude that the Load Manager is not an effective tool, just that I happen to prefer other methods of altering the payload.

Conclusion

While I am fairly content with this offering from Wilco, I suspect that not all simmers will embrace this aircraft with enthusiasm. The panel may not find the approval of some, and though I am generally satisfied with the VC, sound set, and flight dynamics, there is plenty of room for disagreement, especially since there is not a real-world aircraft to compare this rendition to just yet. The only aspect of this package that I cannot find much room for debate about, is the external modeling and texturing, which I happen to believe is well above par, but I leave you to draw your own conclusion. I am indifferent about the load manager; I like knowing that it’s there if I ever want to use it, it has a simple, user-friendly interface, and as far as I can tell, it is effective. However, I have grown fond of a third-party universal fuel and payload editor and do not have much of an interest in Wilco’s.

I’m not particularly ecstatic about the $34.99 price tag that Just Flight has placed on this product, but just like every other aspect of this package, you can make the cost-value determination for yourself. I will say, however, that over the past year I have reviewed quite a few products, and this is has been one of the most costly for what you get. In my opinion, the price could stand to come down a bit. I am also mildly concerned about the FSX compatibility of this aircraft. It has been made clear that the A400M is designed and intended for FS9, but I would imagine that some of you would like to take it to FSX with you. Unfortunately, I was not able to get this aircraft to load up properly in FSX, but that is just one person's experience. Perhaps somebody else who already owns this aircraft might be able to share their experience with it in FSX in the Avsim forums.

So all in all, I am pleased with this product, not overwhelmed, but satisfied to the point that it will remain in my virtual hangar. The highlights, from my point of view, are the exterior modeling and texturing, reasonably suitable flight dynamics, and what I consider to be a novice to moderate simmer-friendly virtual cockpit. On the other side of the scale, I am not fond of the panel, the load manager has little purpose for me, and I am disappointed with the lack of a more inclusive manual, especially for the FMC. And that is where I am going to leave things for now.

If you would like to give this package further consideration than I would encourage you to visit Just Flight’s website for their take on things, or for a more balanced point of view, you may consider taking a flight over to the Avsim FS9 forum and seeing what your fellow simmers have to say.

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