It was AVSIM’s Reviews Editor - Robert Whitwell – who first suggested the idea of combining the Flight Replicas Messerschmitt 262 and AlphaSim’s Lockheed F-104G Starfighter into one large review.
I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t completely convinced by the idea, sure, they’re both early jets, both famously flown by the Luftwaffe, but apart from that, what have they got in common? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot, the more I read up on these two aircraft in preparation for this review, the more I realized Robert was right, and there are a great many things that make these two seem very much birds of a feather.
So grab yourself a bottle of schnapps and a plate of sauerkraut, put on some Wagner and sit back, as we kick the tires and light the fires on this pair of classic aircraft, in real and simulated form…
The Messerschmitt 262 Schwalbe
A turbulent arrival in the jet age
In every sense of the word, the Messerschmitt 262 is a classic. Enigmatic, occasionally troublesome, and incredibly advanced. It was the first operational combat jet fighter, the culmination of years of research, and a brutally handsome bird too.
But it’s a classic that very nearly didn’t happen. Political wrangling saw it come close to being dropped in favor of competing aircraft more than once. And during its troubled birth, the Me262 underwent numerous redesigns to get around failings and setbacks. It suffered delays to vital components; a prototype crashed the first time a German Air Ministry pilot took the controls. And as if all this wasn’t enough, enemy bombers constantly tried their best to disrupt its production too.
And yet somehow it managed to make it into service, eventually being credited with an estimated 100 air combat victories, plus numerous successful strike and reconnaissance missions.
Around 1,433 Me262s were produced, with about 300 of that number seeing combat, more being cannibalized to keep the Luftwaffe squadrons flying. A good many completed Me262s were destroyed on the ground, having never taken to the air.
Oddly enough, the Me262 remained in production even after the Nazis capitulated, it being built in Czechoslovakia by Avia, at a former German shadow factory, where it was named the Avia C-92 and used by that nation’s air force, right up until they got the MiG-15. The Me262 also flew on with most of the Allies too, in captured - and highly prized - form, as engineers sought to benefit from the knowledge gained during its protracted development.
Only nine original examples are known to exist today, plus two of the post-war Czech variants, but such is its appeal, five brand new Me262s were recently created, in exacting detail, by an enthusiastic team in the United States. So accurately in fact, that the present-day Messerschmitt company allowed these aircraft to be assigned official werke numbers, making them not reproductions, but new Me262 production models!
The Me262 is an aircraft that continues to fascinate and intrigue anyone who has ever thought, what if…
Separating the myth from the magic
Amongst the ‘what if’ speculation about the Me262 however, are several misnomers, many of which are so oft repeated, that they are sometimes taken for fact. But in any assessment of either a real or simulated aircraft, it’s useful to know the truth, so it’s probably worth clearing up some of these inaccuracies right now.
There is little truth, for example, in the popular notion that Hitler’s insistence the Me262 be produced as a bomber resulted in its delayed entry into service. In fact, the opposite is true, it was always intended to be a multi-role aircraft from the outset, and it was designer Willi Messerschmitt who highlighted its bombing capabilities to Adolf Hitler, as part of the designer’s subterfuge to guarantee its production.
Ironically, the German leader is on record as having approved the development of multi-roles for the aircraft, particularly stressing its production as a fighter.
The real cause of delay to its introduction, was the unreliability of the complex axial flow jet engines being developed for the Me262 and other aircraft. The original, even more advanced B.M.W. designs intended for use on the Me262 having to be dropped in favor of only slightly less reliable Junkers Jumo 004 engines.
Axial flow engines, favored by the Germans in WW2, were far more advanced than the centrifugal flow types the Allies were working on. In a centrifugal jet engine, the air is thrown to the outside of the chamber as it passes through the engine, being a much simpler arrangement. An axial flow turbojet compresses the air to the center of its chamber, by passing it through more complex impeller stages, increasing the air’s density as it proceeds to the point of ignition. This larger mass enables more fuel to be mixed with the air, making the thrust capability far greater.
Ironically, when Messerschmitt resumed aircraft production, years after the Second World War, it was to license-build the Lockheed F-104G, a design that owed much to the Me262’s pioneering features. And even more ironically, copies of the General Electric J79 jet that powered it - developed with knowledge gained from studying the Jumo engine - were built by B.M.W!
It’s also often regarded as amazingly prophetic that the Me262 featured swept wings, many historians attributing this to some advanced wind-tunnel testing carried out by the Messerschmitt designers. Again this is a fallacy, the truth being rather more prosaic.
Originally straight, the wings of the Me262 were redesigned to offset an unexpectedly huge increase in engine weight. The increase having the effect of shifting the Me262’s center of gravity too far forward. To get some of the weight further back, the wings were swept to the rear. Their 18.5-degree sweepback was nothing to do with any hoped-for speed increase. It was not enough to make the design suitable for anything over a maximum speed of about .86 Mach, nor was it ever intended to be; a maximum speed of around 560-600mph was always the design goal for the Me262, and it could have done that with straight wings. The real advance was in how thin the wings were - a feature later taken to extremes in the F-104 Starfighter.
There are numerous other features of the Me262 which were born out of expediency rather than inspired engineering brilliance, yet however it was they came about, what resulted was an aircraft that almost all who flew it agreed, was a work of genius.
Simulated Swallows and Stormbirds
And so we come to Flight Replicas Me262 for FSX, created by Michael Flahault. This being a compatibility update of a version offered for FS9, which has been around for a while. Flight Replicas tend to concentrate on reproducing classic historic military aircraft add-ons for Flight Simulator, and if this is your preference, you’ll find many to suit your taste from this company.
It’s not the only simulated Me262 you can get your hands on of course, there’s one to be found in Combat Flight Simulator 3 and another in IL-2 1946, however, if you’d like one for, FS9 and FSX, then it’s this you’ll be wanting.
Installation and documentation
The FR Me262 is available on disk or via download, download file size being 30Mb, which unzips into a 56.5Mb .exe file suitable for both FS9 and FSX. Clicking on this file effortlessly installs the Me262 for you, with everything going in either FS9, or FSX depending on which option you choose.
However, you’ll need a sizeable 203Mb of disk space to install it in either version of Flight Simulator. But whether you install the FS9 or FSX version, you end up with a total of 8 Me262s, some are merely repaints, but there are differences physically modeled in a couple of the variants on offer too.
Documentation comprises a manual, conveniently presented in several formats, plus a couple of html files that also form the basis of the in-cockpit briefings. The main manual is fairly brief, however it does provide pretty much all the data you need to fly the Me262 in the correct manner, as well as detailing some of the more unusual features, such as the gunsight and the external drop tank mechanisms.
While not quite as comprehensive or convenient as some of the start menu types of manuals seen in a lot of add-on packages, it does nevertheless do its job adequately.
What arrives in your hangar
In addition to the basic Me262A-1a Schwalbe (Swallow) fighter variant, plus a variation equipped with drop-tanks, we find the Me262A-2a Sturmvogel (Stormbird) fighter-bomber version, with bomb pylons and racks for spin-stabilized under-wing rockets. Additionally, there is the Me262A-1a/U3 reconnaissance model, with its characteristic bulged nose fairing for the twin downward-looking cameras, these fairings having originally been developed to house cannons fitted to a prototype U1 variant armed with six, rather than the standard four guns. The Me262A-1a/U1 six gun prototype is not in the package, but could probably be created by means of a fairly simple re-skin of the U3, since the shape is there.
Unfortunately there is no two-seat variant in the package, which is a shame, as this is perhaps one of the most aesthetically pleasing Me262 models, and would have found a use in FSX, with its multi-crew online capabilities. It might have been nice to see one with the ‘Lichtenstein’ radar antennas on the nose too, as this could have offered some mission possibilities. Still, you can’t have everything.
The Me262 is a striking aeroplane even today, with an aesthetic grace that makes it particularly suitable for screenshots, and this is reflected well in the FR incarnation, which sits well, even if slightly better on the runway in its FSX incarnation. The models themselves are very well done, with some great - and highly accurate - attention to detail. It’s not unnecessarily pedantic however, so frame rates have clearly been carefully balanced against unnecessary frippery.
One or two details do appear to have been overlooked though, notably the seat armor plating behind the pilot’s head, which is not there on either the FS9 or FSX versions. In fairness, this is alluded to in the manual, with cockpit visibility and view panning performance quoted as the reasoning behind decisions of this nature.
Similarly, the ring pulls for the Riedel two-stroke starter motors, located in the center of the shock cones of each engine on the real thing, are not there either, with merely a black texture spot marking their location. This is a shame as these ring-pulls are quite a prominent and fairly unique feature of the aircraft. On the plus side though, the rear ends of the Jumo engines are animated, although the start sequence lacks the notoriously common flames shooting out of the engines, as was often the case on the real thing, owing to fuel pooling up in the bottom of the engines and igniting.
There is plenty of pleasing detailing in evidence around the landing gear. The undercarriage doors feature all the correct hinges and retraction linkages, and the main gear tires are particularly worthy of note, having the correct tread patterns texture-mapped on. So beautifully in fact, that you might think twice about stamping on the brakes, as it would be a real shame to put a flat spot on them!
Modeling of the wheels is also of a really remarkable standard, although if we are being picky, I did spot that the brake line - prominent on the real thing - was absent from the nose gear. If you want your Me262 to look more like one in service, you’ll have to dirty all this superb detailing up though, as it is textured in factory-fresh style. The retraction sequence for the gear has also been carefully considered too, and is faithful to the real thing.
If you like aircraft with fancy features, the Me262 has one for you, the versions with external drop tanks can actually jettison them, which they apparently do automatically when empty, or you can do this yourself, by assigning a key in Flight Simulator. And this feature does affect fuel capacity, so it is not mere eye candy; they tumble away to the rear most convincingly too when you jettison them I might add!
On the whole textures and mapping is good, there are one or two very minor placement issues along the left rear of the fuselage, where the feathering demarcation line comes to a slightly abrupt stop, but you have to zoom right in to notice this. Details such as the stenciling for the fuel octane rating symbols and the like, are not as clear as they could be, but they are all in the right places, along with the panel lines.
As you might expect, textures are unchanged for the FSX version, but given the expanded graphic capabilities of FSX, they are perhaps a little bit of a lower resolution than you might prefer if you run Flight Simulator at very high resolution. Still, all of this is nothing that repaint fans couldn’t address, and it will give them something to do, so I think these are negligible nit-picks really.
On the subject of repaints, there is a layered PhotoShop repaint kit kicking around for this aircraft on the ‘net. There is no evidence of it appearing in the folders upon installation, it therefore would be nice to see this added to the default installation in any update that is forthcoming - providing it isn’t too large - as tracking it down is slightly tedious.
The included paint schemes are good, with accurate camouflage and national insignia, Defense of the Reich theatre bands etc, all of which tallies well with the real RLM color swatches. I think I’d be inclined to dirty them up a bit myself, as many Me262s were really shabby looking, by virtue of the fact that they often operated from less than perfect airfields as the Allies closed in on Germany. A nice concession to this however, is the emulation of a number of panel and parts replacements, notably engines, which have the appearance of being switched from other aircraft during maintenance, in many of the included schemes.
It’s interesting to see that the Hakenkreuz has not been omitted from this aircraft, as it often is, in an all-too-common misguided nod toward political correctness. There is no point in denying that the Me262 was a Nazi-sponsored creation after all, and designer Willi Messerschmitt found himself in prison after the war because of this.
Deleting the Swastika on representations of German aircraft of WW2 vintage is a little bit too much like trying to change history for my tastes, which are most definitely not sympathetic to the Nazis.
It would therefore be interesting to see how selling this add-on in Germany would be handled, given that nation’s strict regulations regarding the Nazi emblem, and its appalling connotations. Another job for the repaint artists perhaps, since the Swastika did sometimes find itself getting overpainted during maintenance, often ’accidentally on purpose’ by those who were not fans of Hitler’s regime.
Both the FSX and FS9 versions of the FR Me262 eschew the 2D cockpit, so apart from an additional radio panel - available via the menu or a shortcut - which incidentally, is modern in appearance, you’re in the virtual cockpit only with this bird. And that’s a good thing, because the virtual cockpit on this aircraft is really great. It does appear to depart from the colors of the cockpits I’ve seen for Me262s in museums, but since they were widely produced and had quite a few variations, I’m prepared to accept that some Me262s may very well have had cockpits painted this color.
It’s a really very accurate representation of the real article in terms of appearance, and panning your view around reveals that it works well, with no glitches at all. The cockpit dials are crisp and work as you would want, and I think it is fair to say that there are not many virtual cockpits that can embarrass this one for both clarity and usability. Functionality of many cockpit switches is not modeled, but this generally does not detract from the operational capabilities of the aircraft, as many of them are the sort of thing only ‘rivet-counters’ would miss.
One fun thing that is included however, is the gunsight, which can be folded in - or out of - its operational position and the reticule can be illuminated too. This does make you wish the thing had working cannons on it though when that crosshair lights up!
A new role for the multi-role Me262
If you are into machinima, you’ll probably find this model fairly useful in combination with CFS3 and IL2, as it is markedly superior to the Me262s in both those simulations when it comes to looks.
For the uninitiated, machinima is the art of using games and simulations to make movies, typically, one might make a film about a famous dogfight using IL2, but then use another program to ‘film’ the close ups of the pilots. In the case of the FR Me262, it would be a good close-up stand in for the combat aircraft of other simulations, being that it is a far more accurate visual model in every respect. So if you rate looks on exterior views highly, you’ll like this aircraft very much.
It’s interesting to note that, had this Flight Simulator add-on been produced a few years ago, making an accurate assessment of how it should fly would have been considerably more difficult. These days life is made a bit simpler, courtesy of several authentic Me262 reproductions now flying around the air show circuits. And although these do not use the same engines as the original Me262, the ones they do use are similarly-rated, which means we can form a very good impression of how the old Messerschmitt jet looks when in flight. There are plenty of clips on sites like YouTube of these replicas whizzing around the skies, if you are curious to see them.
Start me up
Starting the FR Me262 up in Flight Simulator is greatly simplified in comparison to the real thing. The manual does present details of a slightly more complex procedure if that is your desire, but it is in no way as convoluted as the real affair, which it is doubtful FSX could simulate. The real engines were started by a mechanic pulling a ripcord linked to, what was essentially a two-stroke motorcycle engine located in the front of the Me262’s engine nacelles.
This would turn the engines over, up to a speed of 1,800rpm. When the engines had stabilized at that speed, C-3 fuel would be used to ignite the turbines, which would then run up to 3,000rpm. At this point, the engines would then switch fuel again, to J-2 composition gasoline and crank up to between 6,000 and 8,000rpm, a regime where it was safer to move the throttles. When the engines were stable at that speed, they’d be pushed up to 8,400rpm, at which point the brakes were released for the take off roll, and away you would go!
The FSX option that is more accurate than you thought…
Me262s were rarely taxied to the take off point, usually being towed to the runway by an NSU SdKfz-2 Kettenkrad HK-101 half-tracked motorcycle, then lined up before the engines were even started. So, for a change, this is one aircraft where starting your Flight Simulator flight on the active runway is actually more accurate, how about that for an excuse to be lazy and not bother with taxiing?!
Engine starting was often a risky procedure with the Me262, leaked fuel could sometimes cause fires, and without adequate cooling from the action of the engine, a great deal of stress and wear was inevitable on components, which were already notoriously fragile owing to manufacturing tolerance difficulties.
In FSX a simple Control+E will do the job of cranking the FR Me262’s engines up, although the engine start-up sounds are not very convincing. The start up and running sounds for the Me262 in Combat Flight Simulator 3, for example, are far superior, having been recorded from one of the recently reproduced ‘new’ Me262s, when it was performing an engine test.
Likewise, the running engine sounds on the FR Me262 are somewhat disappointing. Although well produced, with seamless looping, they don’t sound remotely like a screaming turbojet, and are an obvious candidate for early replacement in my opinion.
I wouldn’t be too harsh in judgment here however, as it’s not as if working Junkers Jumo 004 engines are all that easy to come by, and as a consequence, the slightly weak sounds are somewhat forgivable. In addition to which, replacing sound files on aircraft is fairly commonplace, and not particularly hard to do either, so I don’t really regard this as a deal breaker for the FR Me262, just a little bit uninspired.
If you are looking for a suitable donor to give you its turbojet sounds incidentally, I can certainly recommend borrowing them from the freeware Tin Mouse Boeing 737 with its early P&W turbojet sounds (available via a link on the AVSIM forums). This aircraft has extremely convincing sounds for that type of engine (as well as being great fun itself), and I imagine adding sound files such as these - with a bit of swift copying and pasting - would make the FR Me262 a much more engaging experience.
Come on baby, light my fire
Once the engines are running, the documentation for the FR Me262 cautions us to adopt the correct procedures with regard to RPM settings, similar to the real thing. Unfortunately - or fortunately if you look at it another way - unlike the real Me262, you can be as wild and ham-fisted as you like with the throttles on the FR Me262. Nothing you do will induce the engines to emulate the real Junkers Jumo, in terms of how prone to it actually was to failure or catastrophic fire.
Now, while I’m not suggesting that Flight Replicas should have made their Me262 into some sort of intermittent airborne Zippo in waiting, I do think they should have made an attempt to at least incorporate some of this well-known foible of the real aircraft. For me, not including this element removes a lot of the character from the aircraft, not to mention some of the skill that was required to fly it properly. It may be possible to remedy this to some degree with the simulated failure capabilities of Flight Simulator, but it is doubtful if they could be realistically emulated and matched to how well you nursed the engines, without some sort of custom coding.
Sadly, we may have to wait some time to see a realistic emulation of this less endearing, but undeniably challenging feature of the Messerschmitt jet’s character. The Me262 in IL2 does emulate this need to be gentle with the throttles, although it goes to the other extreme, being a bit too over the top in its implementation.
Give me some room
So, carelessly ramming the throttles forward, or easing them up gingerly to take-off thrust - whichever you prefer - we begin our take-off roll. And this is where the FR Me262 does get it absolutely spot on, like the real thing, the simulated Me262 gathers speed painfully slowly, and you’ll find yourself anxiously looking at the end of that strip of tarmac as it gets closer, and closer… Then, just when you think it’s time to test the abilities of sixty-odd-year-old German braking technology, you find yourself with flying speed, and the venerable old jet lifts off.
But the panic isn’t over yet, bringing the gear up, again like the real thing, you find that old turbojets don’t exactly thrust you forward like a MiG-29 on full ‘burners. This thing takes time to build up speed, and you have to keep the climb-out angle fairly flat. Again this is precisely how the real thing performed. So definitely full marks here for some excellent flight modeling.
It was invariably at this point in the proceedings, that unsporting Mustang, Mosquito and Thunderbolt pilots liked to sneak up behind the Me262 and show it what a well-aimed burst of machine gun fire could do to ruin your day. Nevertheless, apart from at take-off, and on landing approach, that was all the chance they were going to get, because once you pass the 250 knots mark, the Me262 suddenly seems to come to life. When this happens, you begin to realize why German pilots ignored official names like Swallow and Stormbird - they called this thing the Turbo.
All action and no torque
The FR Me262 is easy to fly from a piloting point of view; the real thing was too. With no whirling propellers to produce masses of torque, and no spiraling airflow hitting the vertical stabilizer and requiring rudder correction, the Me262 was a revelation to the pilots who first flew it. Where life got hard for your average pioneering Luftwaffe jet jockey however, was in managing the engines. Most Me262 pilots would set the throttles for a decent cruise speed and then leave them alone for the vast majority of the flight. Can’t say I blame them for that, as moving them too quickly could cause fuel surges and, very often, uncontrollable fires or shattered impellers.
But even though the lack of this feature being modeled on the FR version does rob us of part of the challenge of operating the Me262, it also confers a nice benefit. If you were looking for something to fly in FS with a good turn of speed, reasonable range, high service ceiling and looks that could indeed kill, then you’ve no need to search any further. This is like having your own really cool-looking, single-seat Lear Jet.
The ease with which the FR Me262 will settle into an effortless cruise, is in keeping with what most pilots who flew the real Me262 relate when talking about what it was like to fly. This was an aircraft that handled beautifully. And you do most certainly get that feeling with the FR Me262 too.
Luftwaffe General of Fighters Adolf Galland, a man not normally given to the poetic, said that flying the Me262 was like being pushed along by angels, describing his first flight in a prototype as ‘the greatest day of my life’.
As far as I can determine from observations of the recently reproduced Me262s, the FR incarnation does appear to have a rate of roll similar to the real thing, and the climb performance is fairly close to what all the books say on the matter. Although there appears to be no sign of one trait known on the real thing, that of the airflow suddenly breaking away from the mid-section of the wing during steep turns. In practice not a huge issue on the real thing, after all, the Me 262 was no dogfighter, it was a boom-and-zoom interceptor and high-speed bomber. Nevertheless, some WW2 gun camera footage from US Mustangs, which captures the Me262 in flight, reveals that it was certainly not bad in terms of maneuverability, and the FR Me262 reflects this quite well.
Easy does it
Where the lack of an engine management aspect with the FR Me262 forces a departure from reality however, is with the ability to very specifically control your speed.
Because pilots of the real thing were often cautious about fiddling with the throttles, formation flight was right out of the question for the Me262. Now, unless you are flying online, this isn’t really going to matter too much in FS, but it does have a bearing on landing the thing. Without having to worry about fuel surge issues, you can drop the simulated Me262 down to some very low speeds for approach, knowing that if need be, a quick burst of full power will arrest a potential undershoot. This is something that no real Me262 pilot would have dared to contemplate, unless he had a death wish. But of course it does mean that the FR Me262 is actually very easy to land and is even fairly controllable on one engine. The real thing was a much trickier proposition where these things were concerned, although it is true that it most certainly could be controlled and flown with one engine out.
On the subject of coming in slow, also worthy of note on FR Me262, is the depiction of another particular Messerschmitt favorite, the Handley-Page type automatic leading edge slats. These being very convincingly done, and again demonstrating the meticulous attention to detail in this package.
Interestingly, the FR Me262 seems to be very good at emulating sideslips, something many FS aircraft appear to have trouble with. Although again, with a pair of touchy engines powering me along, I’m not sure I’d want to be disturbing their air intake too much with a move like that on the real aircraft. Although I have to admit that this point is pure speculation on my part, as to whether it would be risky to do that in a real Me262.
Was ist das?
One last point crops up when landing the FR Me262, in relation to the audio. If you get too low on the approach, you’ll hear some distinctly un-Germanic Flight Simulator audio piping up, with things like the 'Sink rate' and ‘Too low, Gear’ call outs from the default big Boeings chiming in. It’s really something of a mood breaker for this aircraft, and I’d recommend editing these sounds out, as it is really very silly to hear these on what is supposed to be a WW2 Luftwaffe interceptor!
The Flight Replicas Me262 package is good value for what you get in it numbers-wise, as it is not a particularly expensive add-on. Modeling is virtually faultless and in many respects it has not been bettered, although as noted, one or two things have room for improvement. It is certainly one of the better models around, and the virtual cockpit, even with its limited functionality, is a real winner. So there’s definitely many more plusses than minuses in the looks department.
The flight model seems very accurate in most respects and is representative of the vast majority of opinions from Luftwaffe pilots, most whom claim the Me262 was very easy to handle, notwithstanding the Kamikaze tendencies of its Junkers engines.
The sound set is rather disappointing, technical implementation with regard to stereo, levels and placement is perfect, but the actual audio files themselves are certainly the weakest element of the whole package, and as mentioned, a couple of somewhat incongruous ones are in there. It’s fortunate that replacing these is not particularly hard to do, thus, with some small effort, this can be remedied, and I guess that means it is not a disaster, as long as you are prepared to switch things around a little. So this is somewhat forgivable.
Not attempting to emulate the quirky engine performance of the real aircraft is however, a huge disappointment. This simulation of the Me262 would have been considerably more impressive had it been addressed. Since the dangerous aspects of operation are part of what the real thing was like, it has to be said that this is a look alike that flies like the real thing on a good day, rather than an emulation of the real article in all its flawed glory.
So on balance that makes two good points and two bad points, but with one of these easily rectified by the user. Making it three to one on the good side, after a bit of tweaking. Which, if you regard all three points of equal importance, adds up to a score of 75 percent.
Three out of four ain’t bad, but I think I’d up that score somewhat, because you do get quite a lot of bang for your bucks in this package. And if you aren’t bothered about the unreliability element of the engines not being simulated, then my chief complaint will not bother you, consequently you could rate it even higher if that’s your preference.
Given the mission capabilities of FSX, it would have been nice to see something along these lines in the FSX version. Perhaps an air show display mission, or even a photo-reconnaissance flight. Both of which would be easily achievable with the FSX mission design capabilities, and would have added some extra polish to an aircraft which, although certainly of interest, needs something to do after having had its offensive claws removed. A two-seater radar-equipped variant might also have helped to add further possibilities here. Alas, these are not part of this package, and that’s a missed opportunity to round out what is otherwise quite an unusual and exciting add-on for Flight Simulator.
This is a worthy effort from Flight Replicas, but ironically, paradoxically, and not unlike the real Me262, with a tweak to the engines, it could have been much better. Even so, it’s still well worth a look, and worth your pennies too if you fancy something a bit different.
The Lockheed F-104G Starfighter
Krieg ist vorbei - or is it?
At the end of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe was forced to disband, Germany suffering the indignity of being split into two nations – East and West - when the ‘Berlin Wall’ went up.
This split put Germany right at the front line of the Cold War and so, rather unsurprisingly, it wasn’t too long before the transgressions of WW2 were forgiven, and both East and West Germany found themselves being permitted to have combat aircraft again. Things really got rolling when The Federal Republic of (West) Germany joined NATO in 1955, and although to a large extent the country was still effectively ‘occupied’ by Western Allied forces, the Luftwaffe was reborn that year.
Over on the East German side, Soviet forces were also in occupation, and in response to the rebirth of the Luftwaffe in the West, 1956 saw the formation of the East German Luftstreitkräfte der NVA (Air Force of the People’s Army).
Our story stays in the West however, where the problem of what type of aircraft with which to equip the newly re-formed Luftwaffe arose. The Luftwaffe was now effectively allied with the US, opposing Soviet-backed forces in the East, which made US-built aircraft the expected choice for the new Luftwaffe. Accordingly, the pilots who just a few years earlier, had been at the controls of the Me262, now found themselves flying Northrop, Grumman, Republic and North American products, and very occasionally on the other side, MiGs.
Although the Cold War remained a stalemate in Europe, it warmed up considerably in other places around the world. When the Korean War began, most combat aircraft sent there were leftovers from the Second World War, and initially, the few jets that did appear, were largely vintage latecomers to WW2, souped-up with the benefit of studying what the Germans had managed with the Me262.
However, when the US-built, straight-winged, Lockheed P/F-80 Shooting Star jet fighter started coming up against the swept-winged MiG-15 - and losing - the US rushed their shiny new F-86 Sabre into the fight over Korea. Technically, the MiG-15 had greater performance than the F-86 in a lot of respects (notwithstanding its lack of an all-flying tailplane); however, superior American piloting enabled the F-86 to gain the upper hand. Even so, advances the Soviets had managed to make came as a rude awakening to the US aircraft industry, and the stage was set for a battle on the drawing boards.
Higher, faster, stronger…
While the Luftwaffe were busily patrolling the front line of the Cold War, back in the United States, Lockheed were painfully aware that all its current products were roundly outclassed by Soviet ones. Like all the other US aircraft manufacturers, Lockheed were determined that this was going to change.
Their main challenge was to come up with an aircraft that could get above the MiG’s high service ceiling, and in response to a US Air Force requirement for an air-superiority day fighter, Lockheed set about designing something capable of doing just that. But what they eventually came up with surprised everyone.
Something a little bit different
With knowledge gleaned from his Korean excursion, Johnson and Lockheed declined to bid for many Air Force contracts, instead concentrating on quietly developing what turned out to be the F-104.
Upon seeing the F-104 prototype in 1955, the US Air Force were impressed, and although there were many teething troubles – and not a few fatal accidents - in getting the F-104A approved and certified, in 1959, it began joining USAF squadrons, having been given the name, Starfighter. Unfortunately for Lockheed, the protracted development process and delays caused by the advanced manufacturing processes employed in its production, meant that by that time, the US Air Force were less enamoured with the F-104A, and they reduced their initial order numbers quite considerably. A problem that had similarly afflicted the Me262, many years before.
Named and shamed
Unfortunately for Lockheed’s marketing department, owing to its advanced design, the F-104 was not a particularly forgiving aircraft to fly, and as accidents increased in frequency, the F-104 began to earn some rather less complimentary nicknames in the press. Among these new epithets, ‘The Flying Coffin’, ‘The Widowmaker’, ‘The Ground Nail’ and the metallurgically incorrect, but nevertheless amusing, ‘Aluminum Death Tube’.
Some years later, a running joke regarding the huge number of F-104G crashes all over Germany went as follows: What do you do if you want a Luftwaffe Starfighter? Buy an acre of land in Germany and wait…
Top of a list of problems that contributed to the many deaths of Starfighter pilots, was the aircraft’s Lockheed-built C2 ejector seat, which actually fired downwards! Surmising that most ejections would take place at altitude, and wishing to throw the pilot clear of the Starfighter’s high tailplane, Lockheed did not see a problem in their system. Worse, they actively blocked requests from potential customers for a superior replacement seat from British company, Martin Baker to be fitted.
Sadly, they were misguided, the C2 seat would not work at low speeds or, of course, low altitude, unless the pilot was able to roll the aircraft inverted, an unlikely option when control had been lost. As a result, it became standard procedure to eject from the F-104 at no lower than 15,000 feet if control was lost. Practice spins and stalls were largely prohibited and even if attempted, required a minimum height of 25,000 feet!
With its reputation damaged, and expected huge sales to the USAF not forthcoming, Lockheed found themselves in financial dire straits. They had gambled on selling up to 3,000 F-104s, but the USAF had stopped buying at less than 300 aircraft. As if to underline this, it had proved disastrously incapable when the USAF deployed fighter variant F-104s to Vietnam in the mid sixties.
Development continued on the aircraft with model B, C and D Starfighters incorporating several improvements, among these, an enlarged tailplane to improve stability, and the abandonment of the downward-firing ejector seat. But what the Lockheed ‘Skunk works’ really needed, was another big Air Force customer, or the F-104 - and indeed Lockheed’s - future was not looking too rosy.
The ‘Super Starfighter’
Although outwardly almost identical to earlier F-104 variants, the G model was vastly different. To cope with a new low-level nuclear strike and bombing role, as well as high-level interceptor missions, the entire airframe was strengthened and the aircraft’s meagre endurance was improved too. Suddenly, one of the best avionics fits in the world found itself in the cockpit of what had been a simple daylight clear-weather interceptor. The F-104G also sporting a multi-mode bomb aiming computer, night vision capabilities and state of the art navigation aids.
Lockheed was as good as its word where European manufacturing was concerned, and what became known as ‘The Fighter Sale of the Century’ had the effect of completely revitalizing the European aviation business. A huge Europe-wide consortium, led by Messerschmitt, constructed 996 F-104G Starfighters and employed well over 100,000 people. This massive amalgam was made up of: Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm, Heinkel, Dornier, Siebel, Hamburger Flugzeugbau, Weser Flugzeugbau, Focke Wulf, Fokker, Aviolanda, Avions Fairey, Sabca, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Aerter, Macchi, Siai-Marchetti, Piaggio, Saca, B.M.W. and F.N.
The ‘Widowmaker’ lands on your desktop
So now it’s time to look at the simulated version of this controversial and exciting aircraft, brought to us in the form of AlphaSim’s F104 Starfighter.
AlphaSim has a reputation for producing add-on classic military aircraft that are somewhat unusual in comparison to the ‘safer bets’ that tend to come from other developers. And the make a lot of them too, so if you like the less common types, their website is most definitely well worth a visit.
Installation and documentation
The downloadable FSX version of AlphaSim’s F-104G weighs in at 79.7Mb in zipped form, which unzips to 159Mb, an FS9 version is available too, which is basically the same (not identical however, some features differ), but the FS9 model was not evaluated as part of this review.
Installation is not an automatic process; but it’s not far off it. A careful read of the installation documentation reveals that if you decompress the download file into the main FSX folder and have all the correct file and folder name options checked in WinZip beforehand, then the AlphaSim F-104G Starfighter package will do the rest.
Admittedly this is not quite as convenient as a ‘wrapper’ type of install, but it nevertheless does the job, and so this is not a major issue. Just make sure you read the text document in this package carefully if this procedure is in any way unclear to you.
The AlphaSim F-104 comes with a couple of html files that include a very brief potted history of the aircraft, plus a fairly comprehensive set of details on how to fly the aircraft, these also forming the basis of the F-104’s cockpit briefing data. There’s the odd typo to be found on these which needs correcting, but looking past that, they do contain a lot of very well researched information to help you get the best out of this demanding aircraft. A text file also details key commands for the more unusual features, such as toggling the pilot on or off in the cockpit and adjusting the sounds to your liking.
Like the FR Me262, the Starfighter’s documentation might not be the pinnacle of paperwork for a Flight Simulator add-on, but I prefer content over style any day of the week, and there’s plenty of that here; ‘Not pretty, but it gets the job done’, is just fine by me.
One useful addition to the extras that come with this aircraft however, is a video file of the correct way things should look when you land. The F-104 comes in pretty hot, even by jet fighter standards, so it’s well worth noting the very flat trajectory of a ‘proper’ Starfighter landing demonstrated in this clip.
A nice, thoughtful touch from AlphaSim.
The jet set
Upon installation, you’ll find five F-104s in your FSX hangar, two Luftwaffe G models, two Marineflieger G variants, plus an Italian Air Force S model. And yes, I know ‘that ain’t a Luftwaffe aircraft’.
To the untrained eye, the S might appear only a repaint, but the Italian-built F-104S incorporated many changes. It was designed to optimize the high altitude interceptor role, whilst retaining low level strike capabilities, therefore, the S model had two additional ventral strakes added, and this is reflected in the model.
Many of the other significant changes to the S variant were however internal and are not modeled, the real thing was equipped with a continuous wave radar to enable it to fire the AIM-7 Sparrow missile (which is where the S designation comes from). The AlphaSim F-104S version is depicted carrying these. The S model also featured more pylons for weapons and a considerably more powerful version of the J79 engine built by Alfa Romeo, as well as an additional generator to provide power for the Sparrow support systems.
Because of its additional power and improved high altitude stability, the F-104S was cleared up to a higher maximum speed (Mach 2.2), although this difference does not feature in the flight model as far as I can tell. The AlphaSim configuration file for the S variant duplicates the Mach 2.0 limit found in all the G variant configuration files - so you might want to edit that bit if you buy this package, as the F-104S should be the ‘hot rod’ out of this lot.
Similarly, a variety of weapons/stores are depicted on the various aircraft, which also reflects their roles, and while the weapons are mere eye candy, the fuel tanks are not. On an aircraft that drinks gas at the rate the F-104 does, you’ll find the variants depicted with drop tanks are considerably more usable in Flight Simulator!
Having said that, only the models depicted with under-wing drop tanks seem able to actually carry more fuel, with the versions that carry tip tanks rather than the sidewinders not displaying any greater capacity. This is another omission that could be manually corrected in the aircraft’s FS configuration file if you know what you are doing, but it could do with sorting out by AlphaSim.
Unlike the FR Me262, the F-104 also appears to have had its drop tanks welded to the pylons, as they will not jettison.
While perhaps not the most exciting collection in terms of paint work, or the variety of stores hanging from the wings, there is enough of a difference to make things interesting, however, a shiny bare metal variant is a noticeable omission from the group. Such a version was originally intended to have been included from what I can gather.
Nevertheless, when you consider the number of different air forces that used the F-104, many of which painted them in striking ‘tiger meet’ schemes and unusual anniversary paint jobs, this aircraft probably offers some of the best possibilities for repaint artists ever. There is apparently a sizeable community doing this kind of thing too if you check the AlphaSim forums. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see what shows up in the freeware livery department for this aircraft, so, as in the case of the FR Me262, keep an eye out!
AlphaSim invariably make layered PhotoShop file paint kits available for their aircraft, although like the FR Me262, it wasn’t in the package by default. Curious about that, I contacted AlphaSim, and was informed that there is indeed a paint kit available to purchasers, this being a layered PhotoShop file weighing in at a not inconsiderable 60Mb. Since it is of such a size, and many buyers will not actually use it, the decision to not include it by default is to some extent understandable for a company that conducts its business online, via download sales.
Also akin to the FR Me262, you don’t get any two-seat F-104 variants in this package either, which is a shame as again, FSX offers a lot of possibilities for flying these. Although, as in the case of the FR Me262, the work involved in creating a different model is of course going to have a bearing on why you don’t get one.
But, like the Me262, the two-seater variant of the F-104 is a nice looking aircraft, so I would hope that this model also becomes available from AlphaSim at some point, for reasons which will become clear when you read on!
Texturing on the AlphaSim F-104s is very crisp, with well researched stenciling and insignias all in the correct locations, and very clear they are too, yet despite this, it is not particularly convincing. The textures look ‘too clean to be realistic’ in my opinion, with the Marineflieger versions being perhaps the best of the bunch. Frankly, the alpha channel work on the textures is not up to the standard of a lot of other add-on aircraft for Flight Simulator either. Somewhat ironic considering the developer’s name.
There is a caveat to this however. Contacting AlphaSim’s developers about the F-104 - with regard to the repaint kit - revealed that the product is due to get its textures updated. Evidently there was some confusion during its production which resulted in less than optimal versions being included in the download package, with the rather hectic FSX compatibility update schedule for many of AlphaSim’s products being blamed for this confusion. I certainly hope this is the case, as they are currently not very impressive. That said, if the speedy response to my enquiries is anything to go by, AlphaSim demonstrably proved their ability to respond quickly to matters.
Notwithstanding production glitches, I am certainly not alone in making this ‘too clean’ criticism, it having been leveled at AlphaSim before by reviewers of other products from them. Although this failing can, and in fact is already being addressed by repaint artists, as evidenced by the Avsim file library among others, from what I can gather, it seems to be a recurrent issue. That being the case, I really think the developers ought to have a serious look at it. See the accompanying screenshots and caption comments for an expansion on this criticism.
The missing link
Furthermore, the modeling has some features omitted, and while this may conceivably have been because of frame-rate considerations, one or two things are missing which it seems hard to believe would have affected matters-FPS owing to increased polygons - such as some of the undercarriage leg forging detail and linkages. This is particularly irksome in the case of an aircraft such as the F-104, which is basically a very simple tube, with little in the way of complex tapering or compound curves to make frame-rates an issue. The saving grace here is of course that for much of the time, the landing gear will not actually be visible.
Getting in a flap over visual errors
In addition to the points just mentioned, some control surfaces are incorrectly modeled, specifically, the flap movement. The drooping leading edge slats do feature multi-stage movement, which is tied to the lowering of the flaps, and this is correctly reflected in the cockpit flap position indicator for take off and landing configurations.
But on the external model, the trailing edge flaps only move to one position, which is too much of a deflection for the take-off setting, and not enough of a deflection for the landing configuration. This does not affect their consequences on flight characteristics, which is correctly implemented in the aircraft’s configuration file, but from a visual standpoint, it does appear to be either a mistake or an unnecessary over-simplification.
Look on the bright side
It’s not all bad news with the visual model however; the night lighting is particularly good. When the all-weather night-capable F-104Gs came along, they were noted for their lack of formation lights to assist night flying - doubtless a legacy of having originally been a clear weather daylight interceptor. Consequently, Starfighter pilots tended to instead rely on how much illumination the basic navigation lights threw onto the fuselage of an aircraft they were formatting on, which fortunately was quite a lot. This is also true of the AlphaSim F-104.
Full marks here, because with the limitations of lighting and mapping in FSX, this is not always easy to achieve.
Also on the subject of lighting, the afterburner flame on the AlphaSim Starfighter is another major plus point. You might want to be a bit frugal with the old loud switch on the F-104’s throttle, as it drinks gasoline like it is going out of fashion. But as a visual spectacle, it looks great, with nicely implemented shock diamonds spreading along its length and a rosy glow casting light on the surroundings. Again, a great job that does much to redeem things. Also of note are the accompanying afterburner outlet petals, which are very nicely animated when you play with the throttle.
Not as bad as it’s painted…
Fortunately, what this all boils down to, is that for the vast majority of nit-picks I’ve just listed, things are not quite as bad as my comments would suggest. The textures can of course be improved with some third party additions, likely to be abundant and free from a variety of sources, and as noted, they are slated for an improvement anyway. Similarly, although the gear is not vastly detailed, for most of the time you probably won’t care, as you’ll be too busy flying at Mach 2 with it tucked away inside the fuselage. So that only really leaves the slightly inaccurate flap movement, and if I’m honest, that doesn’t bother me all that much.
In the driving seat
Happily, climbing inside the F-104 sees things improve considerably. In common with most (not all) aircraft from AlphaSim, the Starfighter’s implementation of working cockpit features is somewhat limited. You won’t find many of the switches functioning, or even moving in a dummy fashion for that matter, but what you will find is a virtual cockpit which is nevertheless nothing short of a visual treat.
Although not as visually crisp as the FR Me262’s office, The AlphaSim F-104 cockpit somehow manages to really capture the feel of being in an old jet amazingly well. It’s kind of hard to say why this is so, I think it might be the reflection on the dials, but trust me, whatever it is, it’s great. The layout is fairly accurate too, with things looking pretty much as they do in a real one. In short, whoever created the visuals for this cockpit deserves a big gold star.
Within the limitations of the kind of instruments that FSX can easily emulate, you’ll find most of the ones in the AlphaSim F-104 work as advertised. The cockpit features a big Horizontal Situation Indicator in the center of the panel, which on the real Starfighter would actually be a PHI navigation system with bearing pointers and DME/TACAN capabilities, later versions using the Litton LW-33 system. But this is really not a big deal unless you are an obsessive perfectionist, as the one can be used in much the same way as the other, and they do look very similar to one another anyway. Apart from this difference, all the other dials are very close in both looks and operation to what you’d find in the real cockpit.
Note that there is no attempt made to emulate the differences between the G and S variants in the cockpits, but since they’d only actually matter if you were able to fire the Sparrow missile and drop munitions, this is not a big deal.
Unlike a lot of other jet aircraft conceived in the 1950s, Lockheed was one manufacturer which carefully considered the ergonomics of cockpits in terms of how easily stuff could be used when things got tricky. The F-104’s instrument layout was nicknamed the ‘Peek and Panic’ panel - in that it was specifically designed to relate urgent information more clearly than had been the case with earlier designs.
What this means for Flight Simulator users, is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to use than many other historically accurate jet cockpit layouts. This is a definite plus on something that is as tricky to fly as the F-104!
Centerpiece of the F-104 office is the radar screen, in the real aircraft; this was linked to an F-15A radar (not to be confused with the McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle). The real F-104’s radar had both air to air, and air to ground modes, however, in FSX, you only get an emulation of the air to air mode. Something of a shame, as terrain following capabilities would have added to the fun. Evidently this feature is not available in the FS9 version of the F-104G, but I have not personally checked this, as we never got sent an FS9 version to review!
The real F-15A radar screen required a great deal of skill to use, and was nothing like the APG systems you find in aircraft such as the F-16 Falcon and F-18 Hornet. In the days of the Starfighter, radar screens displayed raw, unprocessed data, which had to be carefully interpreted.
Fortunately, we are spared this headache in FSX, and can simply look for the locations of aircraft in relation to the range rings presented on the display, all without having to worry about steering the radar dish around or messing with PRF settings. The only adjustment controls we get on the radar are a dimmer, range selector and an option for how detailed the data it presents to us appears.
None of this is very much like the real F-15A radar’s capabilities, but it is nevertheless useful and largely a case of what can be done within the limitations of FSX without causing a graphics slowdown.
Somewhat unrealistically, you can spot stuff on the radar screen when it is behind you, which is the sort of thing that generally only an AWACs datalink on a modern radar system would do. Even so, the fact that you can actually perform interceptions on AI aircraft from miles away in FSX with this feature makes it a cool thing to have. It all works faultlessly too, and is much more realistic than having FSX display aircraft tags.
But far more important than all that, this capability gives the F-104 a purpose in Flight Simulator, and one that definitely adds to the fun factor. This kind of thing is crying out for a few FSX missions, in order to make full use of it!
If you prefer 2D cockpits, you’ll be happy to learn that, like most AlphaSim products, the F-104 Starfighter has one, and it’s pretty good too. Along with the main panel, you also get several pop-up 2D sub-panels for the radar, radios and various sub systems. These work well and were it not for the fact that the virtual cockpit was so good, I daresay they’d get more use. Very nicely done.
In any case, they do make tuning the radios a bit less finicky, and that’s definitely a useful feature on an aircraft with a minimum final approach speed of over 190 knots!
The Right stuff
So, having checked out the visuals, it’s time to fly this baby. And visual disappointments on the exterior model aside, this is where things see what can only be described as a massive improvement. In fact, I really don’t think it would be too over the top to say that this thing has one of the most exciting and fun flight models I’ve ever come across.
Whether good or bad, there are one or two aircraft in the world that have a reputation, of which even those who are not aviation enthusiasts are aware; among them, Concorde, the Spitfire, the Fokker Triplane, and this one, the F-104 Starfighter.
Where the Starfighter is concerned, there can’t be many other aircraft that have received so much press regarding the accidents it suffered and the number of fatalities involved in taking its controls. As previously noted, much of this reputation is in fact undeserved. Nevertheless, it would be a lie to say that the F-104 is not a demanding aircraft to fly, and so even in simulated form, it was with some trepidation that I set about testing it. After all, it’s not often you get to play at being Chuck Yeager.
Starting it up
A pop up 2D panel allows you to start the F-104 in much the same way as you would the real thing, although you can hit Control+E if you prefer. Either way, you’ll be greeted with a spectacularly good engine start sound and an equally spectacular cloud of filthy grey smoke too!
In fact, the F-104 kicks out so much smoke on start up, that you can almost see a hole opening up in the ozone layer above you. Environmentally friendly J79 engine is not, and it’s hardly surprising that the F4 Phantom, which used two of these engines, was nicknamed ‘Old Smokey’.
Applying the brakes and winding up the throttle for an engine test reveals that the jet turbine sounds are hugely impressive, there is even a hint of the real F-104’s characteristic howl from the inlet air vanes switching position. This was something Starfighter pilots likened to everything from a banshee howling to a moose in heat, but whatever you think it sounds like, turning your volume up is recommended. Absolutely brilliant!
Incidentally, if you don’t like this sound effect, the documentation provides advice on how to edit that part of the engine sound set out, but frankly, if that's the case, then I recommend you go and see a doctor, because you would clearly be mad.
Light the blue touch paper
Being powered by an older turbojet has its advantages, notably the extremely quick throttle response in comparison to modern high-bypass turbofans, and the F-104 was particularly noted for its extremely responsive throttle. What this means is that to describe the Starfighter as fast, is like saying that Mount Everest is fairly tall. Fast doesn’t even begin to describe the Starfighter, and the AlphaSim F-104 replicates this feature very well indeed.
The excellent throttle control of the F-104 was in stark contrast to the Me262, and a quick search on the internet will probably turn up some pictures of Starfighters in very tight formation. Not something you are likely to see with an Me262, it being a legacy of fast and predictable throttle response. This means that if you were looking for an aircraft in which to do some online formation aerobatics with a buddy, the AlphaSim F-104 would be a particularly suitable choice. But it does mean that, there not being a two-seater for even more online fun, one of these would most certainly be welcome!
Gone in sixty seconds
With all this in mind, I decided to try an experiment, from a standing start, I hit full afterburners and started the clock, to see how fast and far I could get in one minute.
There’s none of that ponderous Me262 initial acceleration going on here, watching the speed needle rotate around the dial when you start your take off roll, will have you thinking you are on accelerated time in Flight Simulator.
Like the real thing, you have to be quick to retract the flaps and gear once off the deck, to avoid a dirty configuration overspeed, because this thing accelerates like a missile on steroids. It’s quite a feat to simply get the gear up before passing 300 knots.
The configuration file for the F-104 has the flap damage speed set at less than my copy of a Lockheed manual claims is the real figure, but whatever the truth, getting those flaps in rapidly is the order of the day! On my full afterburner take off test, within one minute of releasing the brakes, I was at 9,500 feet, accelerating through 530 knots, and that was with a full fuel load on board! This thing is insanely quick, I think I’m in love...
Ordinarily, the F-104 has seven stages of afterburner, but in FSX it tends to be more like two or three, as there is no throttle detent for it, other than to carefully position your throttle and juggle it a bit. This is not really a big deal as in most circumstances; you’ll either plug it in all the way, or fly with just dry power. But watch that fuel gauge, this thing empties tanks faster than a surrendering panzer brigade - about ten minutes at low level on full throttle.
You gotta roll with it
One rather unrealistic aspect of the AlphaSim F-104 flight modeling shows up almost straight away. In moderate winds and turbulence, the aircraft tends to roll around quite a bit; the real thing was noted for stability in these conditions, as its high speed enabled it to penetrate the air very cleanly at low level in bumpy air. However, I’m actually rather glad that AlphaSim decided to model the F-104 in this way, because even though it’s not strictly realistic, it does add to the edgy dangerous feel of the aircraft, and if it bothers you that much, you can choose to knock turbulence off in FSX. In which case it won’t exhibit this tendency. I left it on myself, because despite the lack of realism, I liked the additional challenge it presented.
Similarly, while I’m not normally a fan of turning off the ‘Aircraft stress causes damage’ option in Flight Simulator, I’d recommend this as not a bad idea with the F-104. This aircraft does have a rather complex flight model, and that might cause frustration if you have the damage setting on, at least before you’ve learned to tame it. When you’ve figured it out, I’d stick it back on though, as it definitely adds to the fun!
Keeping the ‘burners lit means that you can get up to some serious speed and heights in this thing, and it’s important to keep note of where you are because of this. You can easily find yourself 200 miles from your base before you’ve even noticed at the speeds this aircraft can attain. That’s not a good prospect with its small fuel reserve, because with those tiny wings, if you run out of gas, the F-104 has the same glide ratio as a grand piano with an anvil strapped to it!
Turning and burning
The F-104 has a reputation for not being very maneuverable, and that’s sort of true in one way, but not in another. If we are talking about the horizontal plane, then yes the Starfighter does turn very slowly in comparison to other fighters. But pilots who flew the real aircraft were aware of this limitation, and so they used its vertical maneuverability instead.
When it came to turning in the horizontal plane however, despite the tiny wings suggesting otherwise, the Starfighter could actually manage a creditable turn when at low altitude, owing to its massive power to weight ratio. In fact with the afterburners on, a Starfighter could actually maintain a continuous 7G turn if down in the lower, denser air below about 5,000 feet. Although after about ten minutes of this it would be flying on fumes!
You can do this too in the AlphaSim version, but you might want to turn off the G effects in Flight Simulator, as they do tend to kick in rather early in my opinion.
Highway to the danger zone
I was pleased to note that the AlphaSim aircraft does emulate the real F-104’s capabilities in the turning regime very closely.
High up, you have to be aware of the angle of attack, and pulling too much G will sound a stall warning very early. The real F-104 did this too, and had quite a sophisticated stick pusher system to let pilots know they were nearing the danger zone. While the AlphaSim aircraft doesn’t really emulate the stick pusher aspect too well, it does kick the stall warning in early like the real thing did, meaning you can fly it on the edge with plenty of useful feedback.
There is also a fairly convincing emulation of roll coupling, pitch up and high speed control surface forces too, all of which makes for a challenging aircraft to fly. In other words, there are definitely lots of quirks in the F-104’s flight envelope to be mastered.
On the downside, the roll rate is perhaps a little too good for something with virtually no wings, but again, with that wild mid-position anhedral and high tailplane making for some twitchy aerodynamics, this adds to the aircraft’s edgy feel. So I think I can live with it as being within the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it.
Catch a falling Starfighter
Like the real Starfighter, if you let your attention slip or take liberties with it, the AlphaSim F-104 will quite happily jump up and bite you on the ass. There can’t be many Flight Simulator aircraft that are as dangerous as this one seems to be when it departs from controlled flight - it most certainly can get into unrecoverable flat spins from which there is no escape. And like the real Starfighter, the spins can be absolutely vicious in the extreme.
Eject! Eject! Eject!
Deliberately overcooking some maneuvers at 92,000 feet, to get the Starfighter into a bad spin while testing it, I was rewarded with it going into a massive deep stall - never a good thing on an aircraft with wings the size of a postage stamp and a high T configuration tailplane. Dropping all the way down to the ground from that enormous height, I tried everything I knew in an attempt to recover it, with absolutely no effect at all.
Shame there is no working ejection sequence on the aircraft, although since you can toggle the pilot off on the external model, I guess you could regard that as sort of similar. Anyway, the fireball on impact was most impressive!
Real Starfighter pilots would tell you that gentle recovery attempts are best, allowing the aircraft to do what it wants - to fly you out of trouble. But since even Chuck Yeager couldn’t get one of these things out of a flat spin once – being forced to eject from it – don’t feel too bad if you lose one or two virtual versions. Although up to now, I’ve only managed to crash it just the once, mind you, in the real world, once is all it takes.
Down in the weeds
As if all these envelope-pushing shenanigans were not enough fun, low down in hilly terrain is where flying the AlphaSim Starfighter turns out to be even more thrilling.
The slightly twitchy response to turbulence may not be all that realistic on this simulated Starfighter, but it has the effect of making you feel that you are right on the ragged edge when taking this aircraft through valleys and ravines. I have to say that this is the most fun I’ve ever had with an aircraft in Flight Simulator - honestly. So I really couldn’t care less whether the external textures are not as good as they could be, or that the flap animation isn’t exactly like the real thing, all of that pales into insignificance in comparison to how much genuine challenging fun this aircraft offers.
And the only downside to all of this, is that you’ll probably strain your computer’s ability to load autogen scenery quickly enough, as you streak across the fields and up the valleys, terrifying all the virtual locals! There may indeed have been plenty of fatalities on the real F-104, but if this is what it was like to drive one, I’m not in the least bit surprised that people wanted to fly it, even after hearing the scare stories. If I win the lottery, I’m going to buy a real one!
Bring it on home
Aerial adventures aside, it turns out even landing this thing is something of a test. In the grand tradition of being a bloke, I of course decided to have a crack at it without reading anything about how you really should do it. The results of these first attempts made for quite a few go-arounds, and so I dutifully looked up in some of my books how it really should be done. Trust me on this one, doing it the proper way is a good idea…
By the book
The real Lockheed book for the F-104 landing circuit says that you should drop the flaps into take off position at 325 knots when over the runway at 1,500 feet. Then, reduce speed to 260 knots and lower the gear as you fly the circuit, descending at 350 feet per minute. At 240 knots the flaps can be dropped to landing configuration and then you should maintain 200 knots and switch to a descent rate of about 700 feet per minute on final approach at no less than 190 knots, aiming for a minimum one-mile final approach. Adding 5 knots for every 1,000lbs over 16,000lbs gross weight, and keeping the power on all the way to touchdown is also recommended.
All this takes a bit of practice, and I’d certainly recommend assigning a spoiler button to your joystick for this by the way. But it is great fun to have an aircraft in FSX that is this demanding to fly properly, and tricky to land too.
An interesting part of the flight model for the AlphaSim F-104 that bears out the validity of doing things the proper way when it comes to landing, is that on the real F-104, the flaps were fed warm bleed air from the engines to improve lift. A feature also found on the F-4 Phantom. Consequently, chopping the throttles as you crossed the runway threshold was not a good idea, because you’d lose the bleed air on the flaps, and as a result, lose lift and slam onto the runway. Full marks to AlphaSim here on the flight modeling, because their simulated F-104 behaves very much like that too. Not entirely sure how they managed to pull that off actually, but it seems to be the case.
In fact, the only thing missing from this part of the flight regime appears to be the engine noise changing and emitting another trademark howl when the bleed air kicks in, as the flaps get lowered. This was a feature of the real F-104 that was very apparent if you heard one overhead in the circuit.
Chute for the Stars
As you can imagine, coming in for a landing at 190 knots calls for some fairly fine judgement on shorter runways, and this is made more difficult by the fact that the braking parachute of the real F-104 is not modeled on this simulated version. What is modeled however, is the arrestor hook, although without any sort of trap wires on the runways, this is largely a cosmetic feature - unless you happen to have an aircraft carrier add-on. Even if you do happen to have such a thing, I should point out that trying to land the Starfighter on a carrier would be tantamount to suicide.
As a concession to all this, the brakes on this F-104 are rather more effective than even the up-rated ones to be found on the real European versions of the Starfighter. Thus it isn’t limited to huge runways of the Groom Lake variety - I managed to brake it to a standstill quite easily on the average European strips of tarmac in Flight Simulator. This might not be totally realistic, but in lieu of a working brake ‘chute, it was clearly the expedient thing for AlphaSim to do.
A sound decision
One last point worth mentioning concerns shutting down the engine on the AlphaSim Starfighter. The engine noise even for this phase of your simulated flight is superbly done, and while this might not seem too important to most people, it is indicative of the overall quality and attention to detail of the sounds that come with this package. This is an often-overlooked aspect of Flight Simulator add-ons. But not here, the sounds in the AlphaSim F-104 Starfighter in virtually all phases of flight are richly deserving of high praise.
There’s no denying that the exterior textures on the AlphaSim F-104 Starfighter are the weak link in this package, despite their fidelity in terms of research, in execution they are quite simply a very poor artistic effort.
I’m sure many repaint addicts will attack the F-104 with gusto, given the rich seam of inspiration there is out there for paint schemes which adorned the Starfighter over the years. So I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long to see this issue well and truly rectified. But I really think that, as they apparently intend, AlphaSim should also address this. It lets down what is otherwise an outstanding effort.
The availability of some third party textures will clearly make this a much better proposition than it is by default, but since this is a shortcoming that is fairly easily corrected, and given the developers comments on this issue, I can find it in my heart to overlook it.
As noted, the sound is of a very high standard, it’s atmospheric and goes way beyond simply being a jet engine whine. There has been a genuine attempt to capture some of the specific audio character peculiar to the F-104, both inside and outside the aircraft.
But for me, the chief feature that makes the poor textures and lazy undercarriage detail so easily forgivable, is the flight modeling. I really do believe this aircraft has one of the finest flight models I’ve ever come across. It is not completely accurate in every respect, but beyond this, it captures the spirit of the Starfighter in a way that is, quite honestly, hugely creative and staggeringly impressive.
I’m really not exaggerating when I say this is without doubt one of the most exciting and challenging add-on aircraft I’ve ever taken control of in Flight Simulator. It really is that good, and it’s the aircraft I am looking forward to having a go at racing when Microsoft’s FSX Acceleration add-on is released, more than any other.
Reviewing software for Flight Simulator might sound like fun to the uninitiated, but it is often a tedious process, with many hours of loading and reloading aircraft to check this feature or that. Often it is with some relief when the task is done. But in the case of the AlphaSim F-104, I’m glad I’ve finished this review for an altogether very different reason; now I can load the thing up and really have some fun with it on my own time, and that, I am really looking forward to!
Like the Flight replicas Me262, I think it’s a shame that there was no effort to include any sort of missions with this aircraft package. The F-104 made some really historic flights in its time, among them testing the Mercury spacecraft parachutes, and being used to train astronauts for re-entry procedures. It also flew a great deal of combat in several wars, making the first ever kill by a Mach 2 aircraft. Of course the combat element is not really an option, but with the versatile mission capabilities offered by FSX I should have liked to see some attempt at things like altitude and speed records at the very least. More could have been made of the aircraft’s radar capabilities in this arena too.
Notwithstanding the missing missions, I think you’d be robbing yourself of a very exciting experience if you passed this one up. The AlphaSim F-104 Starfighter is a ‘must have’ add-on in my opinion. Just make sure that you immediately take a look for some replacement textures the moment you get it.
And get it you should.
Test system for this review
Both aircraft were tested on a Pentium 4 equipped PC with 2Gb of RAM, running Windows XP, and on a Laptop with a dual core processor and 2Gb of RAM running Windows Vista 32 bit and standard built-in graphics card. Flight Simulator had the most recent patch available applied.
Overall test time
The Me262 and F-104 were tested over a period of about 30 hours; however, much of this testing time included referencing flight performance with a lot of historical sources. I think it is only fair to say that without the several high quality reference books I used, the task, and indeed writing this article, would have been very much harder, so these are deserving of mention:
Messerschmitt Me 262 by David Baker (ISBN 1-86126-078-4)
Me 262: Volume 2 by J Richard Smith and Eddie J Creek (ISBN 0 95268 673 2)
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter by Martin W Bowman with Matthias Vogelsang (ISBN 1-86126-314-7)
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter Warpaint No.43 by Charles Stafrace (ISBN 9 700000 0 14526)
Camouflage and Markings Luftwaffe 1939-1945 by Mike Reynolds (ISBN 1-85486-066-6)
Fighters by Bill Gunston (ISBN 0 600 33620 4)
What I Like About The Me262 & F-104
What I Don't Like About The Me262 & F-104
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