Shooting for realism
The great thing about the advent of accessible flight simulation is that we don’t have to content ourselves with simply reading about classic warplanes any more, we can have a go at flying them ourselves.
However, in most combat flight simulations, the fidelity of the flight model is invariably sacrificed to leave processing power free for all those combat calculations. But when a classic warplane shows up in a civilian simulator, it’s a very different matter; we get the chance to experience more of what the machine was really like to fly. Which is exactly where Shockwave’s Wings of Power II Messerschmitt bf109E is coming from.
And with Shockwave’s production values embracing the ‘it’s got to have every switch the real thing had’ approach to creating Flight Simulator aircraft, it seems we weren’t born too late to see if we could handle the real thing after all. But just how good a job have they made of things with the bf109E? Well let’s find out…
A shock wave for Milch - about the real thing
When officials turned up at Messerschmitt’s Augsburg-Haunstetten facility in the Summer of 1935 to view the prototype bf109, they got a bit of a surprise. It had been built as one of the contenders for a fly-off competition between manufacturers, in order to choose the new Luftwaffe fighter aircraft.
Personal animosity between German Secretary of State for Air, Erhard Milch, and Bayererische Flugzeukgwerke’s (bf) chief designer, Willi Messerschmitt, had led to the company being openly told they would not win a contract. Nevertheless, Milch was content to let Messerschmitt enter the contest; he was arrogantly convinced the man didn’t have enough experience of high-speed aircraft to produce a winning design. Thus he assumed Messerschmitt would be the author of his own demise, and the pre-determined negative decision would not be seen as unfair to outside observers.
To further complicate matters, legendary WW1 fighter pilot Ernst Udet, second in victories only to Manfred Von Richthofen, had been put in charge of the Reich Air Ministry’s development department. A happy go lucky type, Udet was not suited to the role, and between Milch, Udet and Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goering, winning contracts to build aircraft for the Luftwaffe was often more about who you knew, than what you knew.
Rather embarrassingly for Milch, the prototype bf109 flew rings around all the other offerings in the German Air Ministry’s contest – these being the Arado AR 80, the Heinkel He 112 and Focke-Wulf Fw 159. Further tests, engineered to make the bf109 look bad, also backfired, and eventually the German Air Ministry had to admit that a company they assumed could only make gliders, had in fact come up with the goods.
The AR 80 and FW 159 disappeared into obscurity, the He 112 did put up a reasonable showing, being built in very limited numbers, these being painted in dummy unit markings - appearing in propaganda photographs to fool the Allies into thinking it was in service as the fictitious ‘He 113’. Like the bf109, the He112 was evaluated during the Spanish Civil War, however it had a complex cooling system and pilots were critical of its handling, as a result the bf109 triumphed, ending up with over 33,000 versions being built.*
Demonstrating its enduring legacy, production of the last 109 variant, the Hispano Aviacion Buchon – which can be seen playing the role of the bf109E in the 1969 movie, The Battle of Britain - only ceased in 1958, twenty-three years after the bf109 prototype flew, and ten years after Spitfire production ceased!
The prototype bf109 was powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel, but early production versions switched to a Junkers Jumo 210 and by 1937, A, B and C variant bf109s were being combat tested by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. The following year saw the bf109D arrive, later variants of which, were powered by the Daimler-Benz DB600A, an engine that evolved into the 1,175hp fuel-injected DB601A, found in the Messerschmitt bf109E. The ‘Emil’ model was the variant that would fight the Battle of France and later, the Battle of Britain - this is the classic bf109, the Spitfire’s arch enemy, and the variant modeled by Shockwave for FS9 and FSX.
* Note that this oft-quoted production figure is somewhat dubious; many semi-completed 109 airframes - damaged during Allied air raids - were salvaged, and subsequently completed, these being counted again in the production figures. Thus the real total production figure for the 109 was considerably less than 33,000.
Shock’s away – about Shockwave and the bf109E
Shockwave Productions specialize in producing add-on military aircraft for Flight Simulator, although they cater for other software too, including Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator, as well as being involved in the heavily updated reincarnation of Rowan’s standalone combat simulation, Battle of Britain. They have a reputation for obsessive accuracy that few other developers can rival, and you get the impression that if they could copyright World War 2, they would!
The Wings of Power II brand is Shockwave’s trademark for its aircraft appearing in FSX, and with many of these subjects having already been simulated for previous incarnations of Flight Simulator and other sims, they have a wealth of experience in the genre. You might also have noticed that Shockwave recently released the 3D Lights package for the default FSX aircraft set, this being an effect which initially appeared on their Wings of Power II Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress add-on. This should give you some idea of how this developer likes to push things, leading from the front rather than simply meandering along.
Encompassed within the Wings of Power brand, is Shockwave’s Solo range of aircraft, which includes the bf109E. Numerous other fighter aircraft also find a place in the Solo range, including many of the Messerschmitt’s equally famous adversaries. Marketing of the Solo range is specifically pitched to allow simmers to enjoy high quality combat aircraft for FS at an affordable price.
Shockwave’s online forums are home to quite a lively ‘modding’ community too, also offering a wealth of information on the finer points of many historic warplanes. So if I make an historical or technical mistake in this review with regard to the bf109E, expect them to spot it in approximately a nanosecond!
The download file for the Shockwave bf109E weighs in at a reasonably compact 66.7Mb and it serves for FS9 and FSX, both sim versions exhibiting much the same in terms of features. Installation of the download file is a simple double click affair, with the only thing required of you being to choose whether you want your bf109E in FSX, or FS9.
What you get
Upon installation in Flight Simulator, you get three very different bf109E models. First, a bf109E-3, sporting an early Luftwaffe splinter camouflage scheme in the markings of JG53’s technical officer, Erich Mix, a pilot who was quite a celebrity early in WW2, because he was also the Mayor of the City of Wiesbaden!
Next, you’ll find an E-4 variant wearing typical 1940’s war paint and the markings of JG53’s second gruppe kommodore; this is a paint scheme of particular historical interest. Sporting the high visibility yellow markings initially applied to avoid friendly-fire incidents, the lack of a red band around the cowling and the presence of the Pik As (Ace of Spades) emblem and swastika markings date it to fairly early in the Battle of Britain.
But halfway through that battle, a punishment ordered by Hermann Goering when he found out an officer of JG53’s wife was Jewish, resulted in him ordering the Pik as emblem to be removed from all JG53’s aircraft and replaced with a red band. Which gives you some idea of how childishly petulant Goering could be. In protest, the entire JG53 Geschwader painted out the swastikas on their aircraft. So if you want a genuine Luftwaffe WW2 paint job without the Nazi swastika on it, now you know you can have one, with a simple alteration to these textures!
Finally you get an E-4 tropical variant in early Luftwaffe desert camouflage typical of service in North Africa. With markings for JG27, it depicts an aircraft from the unit, and of the type, flown by the bf109’s supreme marksman, Hans Joachim Marseille. This variant is equipped with a longer, more complex dust filter for the DB601’s turbocharger air intake. Making suitable for the desert environment.
A difference that really made a difference
The major distinction between the E-3 and E-4 versions is in the type of engine and propeller mechanism fitted; this is modeled accurately by Shockwave, with the propeller being fully automatic on some versions, and adjustable on others. These operational differences add more interest - not to mention value - to the package, and are a very nice touch. They are accurately reflected in the cockpits too, with the requisite control lever, or blanking plate, found on differing variants of the real thing also showing up on the Shockwave versions. You do have to fly these things differently, and you can get better speed or fuel economy at altitude if you use the controls properly; thus these are genuinely altered variants which are modeled, and not just eye candy changes.
Interestingly, despite making various phases of flight more practical with the adjustable propeller, having to mess with the control during combat was not particularly desirable. However, Luftwaffe pilots could use these faster settings to obtain a greater rate of fire on their cowling-mounted machine guns, these being synchronized with the prop, and there is anecdotal evidence that some pilots did this in battle. Although you cannot fire the guns on the Shockwave bf109E, you can at least try tweaking the engine during a tight turn, and gain an appreciation of the kind of skills required to perform some of the tricks Luftwaffe pilots could get up to. Fiddling with the prop control could apparently also be used to boost acceleration in order catch up with your squadron mates if you were lagging behind too!
Installation also places a ‘Wings of Power’ folder on your hard drive, with a bf109E PDF manual inside, it being accessible from your Windows Start menu. This folder also includes useful web links to the Shockwave online forums, which incidentally, are well worth a visit for useful information and lively discussions. Although the included PDF manual is just six pages long, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality, being nicely produced, and offering lots of handy flying tips.
In addition to the manual, the cockpit briefing for the aircraft is well worth more than a cursory look, it being of a very high standard too. It covers a great deal of data that is not only interesting, but invaluable, if you want to fly the bf109E to its limits. Although it sometimes strays off on the odd tangent, it does contain a lot of comparative data with regard to other fighter aircraft, and if you intend to dogfight this aircraft online against a buddy in a Spitfire, Hurricane or even a Mustang, you’d certainly do well to read it.
Incidentally, in case you thought successfully dogfighting online with a buddy was impossible in FS, try this: Map your joystick fire button to a screen grab command with something like FRAPS (set it on low resolution so you don’t get any RAM lag). When you think you’ve got a shot lined up, press fire and call a kill in on voice comm's. After you’ve finished your dogfighting competition, compare screen grabs with your opponent and see whom you think won. This is more or less how real fighter pilots practice stuff, and makes for some hotly debated discussions and arguments too!
Back on the topic of installation and documentation, there is no doubt this package is among the best served. Installation is simple and faultless, the documentation is available quickly and easily, and in combination with the cockpit briefing information, is both informative and interesting. Full marks all round here.
One very minor thing to note however, is that installing the bf109E in FSX and FS9 resulted in my Windows Start Menu having two ‘Wings of Power’ entries. This is not the end of the world of course, but it does mean you’ll have to delete one of the entries if you want a tidy Start menu.
A walk around
Firing up FSX, having selected one of the three Shockwave bf109Es, finds the aircraft parked up on the tarmac with its nose pointing high into the sky, much like the real thing - a feature which afforded the pilot appallingly bad visibility while taxiing on the airfield. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, before we climb into this beast and worry about seeing where we are going, let’s have a walk around, and check out the exterior modeling.
As is the norm with Shockwave, pretty much every screw and rivet puts in an appearance on the textures, these being sharp, accurate in color, placement and, for the most part, demonstrating good historical research.
There’s some great detailing to be seen, such as the zip fastenings of the leather walls inside the wheel wells, and discoloring of the exhaust stacks – this being particularly well done. The alpha channel work on the textures lends a convincing level of sheen to the aircraft too, demonstrating a deft artistic touch.
One or two erroneous points show up, which purists might spot – but only if they use a magnifying glass. For example, the stenciling on the cowling’s water/glycol radiator filler access cover does not display all the completely historically accurate text you’d find on a real Luftwaffe bf109, instead, advising to ground crews that Glycol alone goes in there.
Similarly, some of the airframe detailing is spurious rather than technically correct, such as the addition of exposed lightening holes on the tailfin rudder post, a feature the real bf109E did not sport. Still, without having an obsessive bf109 reference book on hand, or a real Messerschmitt parked in your back garden, frankly you’d never pick up on this sort of minutia. And if this kind of thing really bothers anyone that badly, I suggest they need to get out more and perhaps find a girlfriend.
In common with many FS aircraft, the main tires, although accurately modeled and textured, do not appear to be flattening under the weight of the aircraft, looking like they are inflated to 1,000lbs psi. Although I think it is fair to say that complaining about this would be to accuse almost every FS aircraft! That said, accompanying the tires, the undercarriage legs are bereft of quite a lot of the detail to be found on the real thing, and one or two minor detail inaccuracies are in evidence on the undercarriage fairing covers too. But once airborne with the gear up, this is of course no longer an issue.
It is refreshing to see that the developers have not shied away from the inclusion of the swastika or the national insignia either – the real thing had them, so any model of it should have them too.
So despite the occasional minor inexactitude, the overall look of the texturing and detail modeling is very convincing and well deserving of praise. It’s right up there with the very best in fact.
Rotating the spot camera view revealed that all was not well with the main model’s shape however. When my suspicions were aroused with regard to this, I decided to give it a considerably more thorough examination.
Sure enough, upon checking, the profile where the engine cowling drops down to the spinner appears to be at the wrong angle, but that’s not what initially alerted me, what I’d spotted was that the nose looked too short; the real bf109E has a very long, rakish appearance.
It’s this characteristic that appeared to be lacking in the Shockwave bf109E’s external modeling. Even so, to check my suspicions before leveling such an accusation in a review, I took a couple of screenshots and matched them to transparent overlays of Messerschmitt blueprint drawings:
Of course, comparisons with blueprints are all very well, but often a photograph is a better choice to see whether a model captures the feeling of the real thing, so I tried that too, only to be disappointed again.
Carefully comparing a couple of screenshots with a pair of Second World War photographs confirmed that the nose of the Shockwave bf109E slopes down approximately two degrees steeper than it should. Over the length of the cowling, this results in the nose having to be shortened in order to meet up with the spinner.
The upshot of this error is that the long, sleek appearance of the bf109E’s nose is absent, with the top line and ventral profiles being incorrect.
So what went wrong?
What I have done here - overlaying blueprints and pictures - is essentially how one goes about creating a 3D model, i.e. by constructing the 3D shape over images imported into a modeling application such as 3DS Max. However, the fact that I spotted the error in FSX with the naked eye, prior to doing all this comparative checking, indicates that the error is fairly apparent even without resorting to this kind of scrutiny.
So, either poorly researched technical drawings were employed, or accurate drawings were employed, but good observation was not. Either way, the result is a model that simply does not capture the bf109E’s character properly, unless viewing the model from the front or rear, where this inaccuracy is masked to some degree.
Some might regard these observations as picky, but the fact remains that part of this aircraft is incorrectly modeled, and, as noted, the measurements are out by enough to make the failing reasonably obvious. Quite honestly, this should have been picked up on by the developers, as it lets down what is otherwise a very nicely done piece of work.
In marked contrast to the exterior model, it has to be said that the virtual cockpit is just about as accurate as one could possibly desire, demonstrating great research and intelligent modeling choices. Here, comparison with photographs and drawings reveals no dimensional errors at all. Contrast a screenshot with a photograph of the real thing below:
You might have noticed the control column does appear to be missing one of its fire buttons in the Shockwave cockpit, but this could be explained away as a field modification. In some cases, single fire buttons were wired to trigger every gun, and occasionally, guns were removed from early bf109s because of vibration problems (notably the infamous engine-mounted cannon which fired through the propeller boss), so again, this cannot be regarded as erroneous.
Other than this minor variance, it does, as promised, having every single switch and dial that the real thing has, the vast majority are operational too, with only obscure things like the seat adjuster not appearing to do much.
The dials and switches all look very nice, they work smoothly and the controls move well too, with even the minimal lateral deflection of the control column being modeled. Better brush up on your German though, for all the controls are labeled as the real things were, in the language of the Fatherland. If you are feeling adversarial, you’ll find the Revi gunsight can be switched on too, so you can dogfight a buddy online, or practice your strafing runs on the AI Boeing 737s in FS if you wish!
You can also select the arming switches on the gun panel in the cockpit, and these light up; technically, the ‘armed’ lights should actually be green rather than the red portrayed in the Shockwave cockpit, but this is hardly a disaster, they still look cool. With a bit of ingenuity, I imagine it would be possible to make the guns appear to be firing by adding some flashing light effects to the muzzle locations in the aircraft configuration file, if you really wanted that effect. But as it stands, you’ll just have to settle for ‘arming’ them.
Beyond merely like-for-like comparisons between the real and the virtual, what is far more consequential, is that the virtual cockpit works well, being excellently placed. It pans smoothly, even with the graphics cranked all the way up in FSX, it works nicely with TrackIR too, and perhaps more importantly than all this, it successfully conveys the cramped and claustrophobic feeling the bf109E’s cockpit was noted for.
Visibility from the cockpit is faithful to the original aircraft too - i.e. it’s as appallingly bad as it was on a real bf109E, making turning onto finals an interesting affair. But the canopy windows slide open just like the real thing, so with TrackIR (or any other head tracking device for that matter) you can realistically lean out a bit and improve your view somewhat. Doing this reveals no graphics glitches from this viewpoint either - it is absolutely spot-on. Texturing on the wings when viewed from the cockpit is really great too, with detailing on the model, such as lightening holes in the airframe, riveting, stenciling, slats and such, appearing most convincing indeed.
All this visual fidelity has practical uses too. Like the real bf109E, the Shockwave model has handwheel operated crank-down flaps, with many different degree settings available; the extremely accurate portrayal of the flap deflections on the wing enables easy and accurate monitoring of their setting, with a simple glance to the side. Unlike the real thing, which requires about twelve turns to get the flaps all the way down within the cramped confines of a 109, you can do it in about nine turns on the Shockwave version, but to complain about that would be very pedantic.
In short, this is a really great virtual cockpit, easily one of the best and most accurate I’ve seen by a quite considerable margin. It’s indeed fortunate that this is what you will be looking at most when flying the thing, as it is nothing short of a visual treat.
There is a 2D pseudo-instrument view available for the Shockwave bf109E, which places the most useful flight instruments in a row across the bottom of the screen. This view might be handy during take off, as it makes more of the runway visible and would assist in spotting any torque-related swing very early, but I never actually tried it this way, preferring to go with that beautiful cockpit view despite the visual difficulties it engenders. It’s realism all the way for me when it comes to something like this add-on, and making life too easy kind of defeats the object of a Flight Simulator version of the bf109 in my opinion. But if you lack my masochistic streak, it’s nice to know that there’s another, more sensible option.
Modeling fine points aside, now we get to fly the thing, which is what really matters with something like this.
Short of actually providing one or two of the ‘Black Men’ – i.e. the Luftwaffe ground crews clad in black overalls - to hand crank the eclipse starter for your engine, the start procedure is exactly as it is in a real bf109E. You even get smoke and ‘fumes’ penetrating the cockpit on start up, as on the real thing, which looks great by the way. Incidentally, the smoke effects can be toggled off if you want to fly around in an environmentally friendly virtual version of the bf109E.
The engine start up noise is really excellent too, as is the propeller animation, but be sure to turn the volume up. The real bf109E was apparently very noisy in the cockpit, there being nothing much more than a zip up access cover and a thin alloy panel between the pilot and that DB601 engine!
Unlike a lot of other taildraggers – including most other WW2 fighters – the bf109E was noted for being particularly tail-heavy at the start of a flight, because the fuel tank was situated behind the pilot. This feature meant that running up to full power for an engine test was a lot less likely to see the aircraft tipping onto its nose than would be the case on most other aircraft with such a powerful engine, however, keeping the stick back for this is still recommended!
Running the engine up on the Shockwave version exhibits the same behavior, but also reveals that some great DB601 engine sounds have been modeled, these being nicely positioned levels-wise, with the audio shifting convincingly as you turn your head and look about. They kick out a lovely whistling roar when you pour on the power, emulating the whistle one hears from a Spitfire as the air enters the radiator cooling intakes. This may or may not be like the real thing for all I know, since I’ve never actually had a bf109E dive past me at 400mph, but frankly I don’t care, because it sounds fabulous.
Stick and rudder
Taxiing the real and the simulated bf109E is where any pretence of similarity with other WW2 fighters definitely ends. To get the thing turning, you shove the stick forward and give it a burst of power to put some prop-wash over the elevators, in order to take the weight off the tail wheel, then, use the rudder and give it a dab of differential braking too. Needless to say, this goes against the grain of what most people are probably used to, and if you did that in a Spitfire for example, you’d dig the prop into the ground in a microsecond.
Because of the need to get the weight off the tail in the bf109E and apply rudder, I found it vastly easier to use proper rudder pedals rather than a stick with a twist rudder function. You might want to bear that in mind if you fancy this add-on, although with a bit of juggling, it’s not impossible to do it all on a stick alone, and I did try that too, eventually with success - after a bit of practice! Nevertheless, I have to say that rudder pedals make life a lot easier, and all this is exactly like one would have to taxi the real bf109E, so full marks to Shockwave here for realism.
Taxiing the bf109 is not as bad as you might imagine though, given its slightly quirky handling and limited forward visibility. With TrackIR, I was able to peer over the nose quite a bit and look out to the sides - both still within the confines of the cockpit - and see enough to only require a minimum of weaving. Real Luftwaffe bf109E pilots often had a couple of the ground crew sit on the wings either side of the cockpit to help them steer, so don’t feel you are cheating too much if you resort to the external view. Lots of bf109s collided on airfields in real life while they were attempting to taxi around!
Despite many old wives tales about the terrible ground handling of the bf109E, the truth is that it was in fact quite stable over rough ground in a straight line, and really only risked scraping a wing if extreme liberties were taken with it. But quite a bit of care is needed to come off the power quickly when going for a sharp turn, and may even need some correction back the other way to arrest a big swing.
On the whole, the handling is quite believable on the Shockwave bf109E in this respect, and while it does take some getting used to, after a while, you will be able to sling the thing around in almost its own length with confidence. So again, this is very nicely modeled, and it tallies with all the footage I checked out of the real thing.
But it’s when the aircraft is lined up on the runway that the fun really starts; more bf109s were lost in take-off and landing accidents than in combat, and all largely because of a notorious feature of the aircraft’s geometry. The trouble was, with all the fuel to the rear of the pilot, there was a lot of weight behind the moment of the wheels, which could lead to a ground loop if a swing on take-off was allowed to develop. This, apparently, made it prone to roll coupling too, so there’s something else to look forward to!
Now, I have never flown a real bf109E (even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, as there are no airworthy ones in existence), but I have read quite a lot of flight test reports from people who have, and I have flown a fair few taildraggers in real life. From what I can gather, the bf109E was actually scarier by reputation than effect with regard to the take off swing problem, with it only becoming an issue if it was allowed to develop unchecked.
Luftwaffe fighter pilot Ulrich Steinhilper, in his book ‘Spitfire on my tail’ for example, remarks that the bf109E was in fact very little different in take-off characteristics to the earlier bf109 variants powered by the Jumo engine, these only generating around half the horsepower of the DB601A. He points out that the real difference manifested itself when landing the Emil, with the heavier engine requiring a faster approach to overcome increased sink, and it was this which was behind many of the mishaps with inexperienced pilots on the bf109E. With this in mind, I was ready to make a big correction, only if necessary, when I opened up the throttle for take-off.
Over the top?
Upon initially opening up the throttle, the Shockwave bf109E wants to go to the right for a second, which kind of catches you out. However, as the power comes on, it begins to develop the familiar swing to the left common to most single-engine props, owing to everyone’s favorite aerodynamic quirk - P-factor. If you don’t keep this in check, the bf109E will happily go for a wander across the grass to the left of the runway.
With 1,175hp powering a bf109E, it’s true that torque and the P-factor would certainly make it turn a fair bit. But if that turn is corrected early, the only thing that would make it really start going over a lot, would be the momentum of a swing from the mass of the fuel being so far back from the fulcrum of the main gear, effectively pulling it around. So it shouldn’t do this if the initial turn has been arrested; but because it does, I think the somewhat legendary evil swing has been a bit over-egged on the Shockwave bf109E’s flight model. Particularly when one notes that the fuel level seems to make very little difference to this behavior.
I’m not going to pretend that I think the real bf109E was easy to fly, I’ve got literally hundreds of pictures of 109s that have gone out of control on airfields, all of which prove it was no pussycat. But there is plenty of footage of bf109Es taking off in close formation, and if they were this sensitive to swing and this hard to control for an experienced pilot, it seems difficult to believe that such formation departures would have been contemplated.
Having said all that, I do kind of like it, again in a sort of masochistic way, because it definitely requires a bit of a knack to get the thing to track down a runway properly. And while I personally don’t think it’s completely realistic, it is something of a challenge, which is a characteristic I always tend to like with FS aircraft.
Realistic or not, what all this means, is that bringing the power on very slowly and feeding in a progressive rudder correction until directional momentum and control surface efficiency are there, is the way to go with getting this thing into the air. And keeping it off the grass on the take off roll too for that matter - so if you are looking for a challenge in FS, I think you’ve just found one.
Wait for it
Holding the Shockwave bf109 down on the runway until you have a lot of flying speed is also a prudent thing to do, and this is most definitely akin to the real thing. The real bf109 had sloppy-feeling ailerons at low speed, and its Handley Page automatic leading edge slats were known for deploying asymmetrically too, under that imbalanced prop-wash. In addition to making the take off interesting, these were traits that made it a notoriously tricky gun platform in a slow turning fight, where a badly coordinated turn would cause it to weathercock if the slats deployed unevenly. This led to some enemy pilots giving it the aerodynamically inaccurate, but nevertheless amusing nickname of ‘Flutterschmitt’ incidentally!
If you watch footage of real bf109s taking off, you’ll notice their very flat attitude in the climb, with pilots definitely keeping the nose on the horizon and only letting the wings fly them off the runway when they have plenty of lift to spare. Notwithstanding the bf109E’s high-lift slats, with a wing area of 174 square feet, in comparison to the Hawker Hurricane’s 257 square feet and the Spitfire’s 242 square feet, this is not surprising!
So you have to fly the Shockwave bf109E properly on take off, which means full marks go to the developers, as it seems to be just like the real deal - once you’ve got over that slightly insane swing.
Bringing the gear up reveals that another trademark bf109 trait has not been forgotten by Shockwave, that of the very unbalanced rate at which the left and right landing gears retract – which is certainly a nice visual touch.
Raising the flaps is also very like the real thing would be; small increments of change, from simulating hand cranking the flaps up, result in a very progressive pitch change effect; this, emulating deflected airflow on the elevators, which is easy to compensate for with trim. It was a strong point on the real bf109, as the trim wheel on the real thing (and this FS model) is right next to the flap crank, making simultaneous flap retraction and trim changes easy. To emulate this in FS, I would recommend mapping your flap keys in close proximity to trim keys on either your keyboard or stick - unless you want to use the virtual cockpit that is!
In real life, this feature also meant that bf109 pilots could use small flap settings in combat, which was a definite advantage, and may be behind the claims of many bf109 pilots who dispute Spitfire pilot’s affirmations that their mount could easily out-turn the Messerschmitt.
This feature is of course in marked contrast to the Spitfire’s flaps, which were either fully up or fully down, consequently resulting in a large pitch down and the need for a rapid change in elevator trim whenever they were deployed, thus making them unsuitable for use in combat. Remember that if you have an online dogfight with a Spitfire and you end up slow!
Once at a decent flying speed, and all the way up to about 460kmph - yep this is a German aircraft so it’s metric all the way – aileron response is very similar to what most reports of the real bf109 attest, i.e. very impressive and fast. Ailerons are nicely harmonized with the rudder and elevators too. However, the real thing required a permanent application of left rudder to fly straight, and in stark contrast to the over the top torque and P-factor modeling on take off, straight line torque effects seem to be quite mild on the Shockwave bf109E. There appears to be very little rudder required in order to keep the ball centered, although if you want to fly a perfectly straight and level course, you will definitely need to apply at least some, so it hasn’t been completely ignored.
Personally, I think the flight model is a little too forgiving in level cruising flight, although as noted, I am only going off what I have read about the Messerschmitt. But in support of my opinion, I can state that the lack of any rudder trimmer on the bf109 – other than its asymmetric rudder profile – was a perennial complaint from Luftwaffe pilots. And very late in the war, a rudder trimmer was actually added to some versions, as were geared trim tabs for the other control surfaces.
I think I know what may be behind the decision to model things this way however, and if I am right, then it is entirely understandable. In aerobatic maneuvers, this aircraft handles beautifully, with the ailerons and rudder being wonderfully well harmonized throughout a huge swathe of the flight regime. If achieving this balance meant that the torque effect in the cruise had to be sacrificed, then I’ll gladly kiss it goodbye.
Pushing the envelope
Upon taking the bf109E up to very high speeds, the ailerons duly behave like reports of the real thing again, becoming far less effective. To some extent this was not always due to an aerodynamic effect of the real thing, but simply because it was difficult to get leverage on the stick to counter the increased forces with so little elbow-room in that tiny cockpit! Nevertheless, whatever the cause may be, it is emulated well in the Shockwave bf109E flight model, so again full marks go to the developers.
Another somewhat nasty characteristic of the bf109, which is rarely addressed in simplified combat flight simulator versions of the Messerschmitt, was the aircraft’s tendency to pitch down in a dive. Consequently the bf109 required a lot of height - and quite a bit of elbow-grease - to recover from a dive, with the elevators proving tricky to manage sometimes.
Ironically, fore and aft movement of the stick was not restricted by the Messerschmitt’s cockpit size, yet despite this, more than a few bf109 pilots actually underestimated the trait, and dived uncontrollably into the deck, burying themselves deep underground in the process. There has been an attempt to model this undesirable trait on the Shockwave bf109E, and it has to be said that it is fairly viciously done too. Again, I am only speculating here, but I think it may possibly be slightly over the top, as with this effect acknowledged, the bf109 was still rated as one of the best ‘boom and zoom’ fighter aircraft of WW2. And everyone knows that with its fuel injected engine, bunting into a dive was the perfect way for a bf109 to lose a Spitfire or Hurricane on its tail.
Even so, the way the effect is simulated does add to the challenge of flying the Shockwave Messerschmitt to extremes, so I can certainly live with it and enjoy the challenges it presents. Real bf109 pilots were cautioned against trying to counteract this behavior too much with the trim, as doing so could cause control difficulties upon recovery. It must be admitted that I found this to be the case with the Shockwave bf109E too; so clearly, this demonstrates another area where some thoughtful work has gone into the flight modeling.
Bringing it in
One very nicely modeled feature of the Shockwave bf109E is the stall and – if you push things – spin characteristics. The real Messerschmitt had an extremely benign stall, and wouldn’t really give up flying, with the flaps down, until around 60 knots (or 111kmph if you want that in metric). This is very well emulated, and because this is so, it is easy to recover from a spin, making it great fun to throw the bf109E about. On the other hand, it does mean that you have to three-point it for a landing at right above the stall if you don’t want to bounce it. And like the real thing, it’s tricky to land in a crosswind too, something of a legacy from being born when fighter planes operated from big fields I imagine, where they were always able to land into the wind.
On the subject of landing and low speed maneuvers in general, it is a shame that there doesn’t appear to be any circumstance where you can get it to deploy the slats unevenly (at least visually), but I suspect this may be a Flight Simulator limitation. And while we are on that topic, occasionally the FS9 version doesn’t display the slats as being extended when it is parked up. I’ve not spotted it doing this in FSX incidentally, but that’s a minor observation and not really a complaint; in the flight regime, they seem to work fine.
Regrettably, the slats do not exhibit the notorious bang, for which they were famous, when deploying suddenly if the angle of attack is suddenly overcooked. This was something that often scared the pants off inexperienced bf109 pilots in combat, it apparently being mistaken for the sound of being hit by cannon fire. I’d be tempted to try changing the rumbling stall sound effect to this slat bang if I was ‘modding’ this aircraft, as it would probably add a lot to its character.
For you, the war is over
One final point about landing, which is likeable; it is entirely possible to belly land the Shockwave bf109E intact, even with full damage and realism options selected in FS, which incidentally, are recommended by Shockwave. It might seem a little odd to praise such a feature, but since pilots of the real thing sometimes had to do this, it is nice that you can try it too.
So if you like, you can see whether you could manage a belly landing in a small cornfield in Kent full of old cars, placed there to prevent invasion gliders from landing!
Messin’ with the Messerschmitt
Overall, the Shockwave bf109E flight model is pretty close in most respects. The take off swing is perhaps more of a challenge than it ought to be; it should also require more of a big bootful of rudder than it does in certain phases of flight too. And it can probably do a climbing turn to the right in a way many Luftwaffe pilots probably wished the bf109E could have managed in real life when a Hurricane was crawling all over it. But apart from in these few specifics, it appears very much how I suspect a real bf109E was to fly.
Regardless of any minor complaints I have about it not doing this or that like the real thing should, one resounding theme does shine through – it is really great fun to fly, and has flight model that rewards precise control. So if you’re the sort of pilot that enjoys putting on your own airshows - buzzing the tower whilst inverted and then rolling as you fly between two hangars, this may be the one for you!
I’ve not come across an FS aeroplane that is as tight and responsive in the rolling plane as this is; rolling it, then snapping it out with a dab of rudder and seeing the wings perfectly level to the horizon, is very simple to accomplish in this aircraft. In fact, most of the standard aerobatic maneuvers require pretty much exactly the same control inputs as they do in a real aeroplane - something which is not as common as it should be in FS aircraft. So if you were balking at the cost of adding some rudder pedals to your set up, this aircraft may well provide you with the impetus to cough up the cash.
I got a bit of a ‘shock wave’ myself when I discovered that the external model for this aircraft was not as accurate as it should be. This is certainly not what I expected from a company of Shockwave’s caliber, a developer of which I am a big fan. So I would be lying if I said that this aspect didn’t disappoint me. Nevertheless, almost every other facet of this add-on is spectacularly well done.
The texturing is great, the virtual cockpit is great, the sound is great, the effects are great, and the flight model - despite some of my, admittedly, rivet-counting reservations - is also great. Oddly enough, with all that going on, the frame rates are great too, even with the graphics card whistles and bells on full throttle.
It’s also nice that you get operationally different variants among the three choices, requiring you to master different engine management techniques. Thus, the variety in this collection is commendably much more than just a repaint-fest.
But with so much going for it, all the good points also serve to highlight the modeling inaccuracy that so badly lets them down in not matching their brilliance. This really does need addressing to make it worthy of all the other effort that has gone into this package. I’m sure this will prove something of a disappointment to repaint artists and lovers of screenshots, although I daresay a carefully chosen paint scheme might help to mask the modeling inaccuracy somewhat. And if you’re the kind of sim pilot that stays in the cockpit view, you’d never know that was there at all, in which case, it wouldn’t matter.
If you can live with that (and considering it is so much fun to fly, I think I can), it is certainly well worth seeking this one out. It offers enough of a challenge to reward your efforts in taming it, and this means you will really feel you have achieved something upon doing so. And if you like aerobatics, then expect to be crashing this thing a lot while perfecting those millimeter-perfect down the runway knife-edge passes and wingtip-scraping hesitation rolls, because its precise handling positively dares you to try cutting things ever finer!
To conclude: If you want to know exactly what tasks have to be met in learning how to fly a powerful piston prop warplane, the Shockwave bf109E offers you that opportunity, and with considerable elan too. But if you want to know exactly what that warplane looked like, you’d be better off studying a picture rather than taking a tape measure to the external view – so if they could patch it to correct this slip up, it would be just about perfect.
Modeling glitches aside, it’s still highly recommended.
Test systems for this review
Pentium 4 equipped PC with 2Gb of RAM, running Windows XP, and a Laptop with a dual core processor and 2Gb of RAM running Windows Vista 32 bit and standard built-in graphics card. Both Flight Simulator versions had the most recent patches available applied.
Overall test time and resources
Absolute Air Land and Sea: Messerschmitt bf109 interactive CD.
Classic Publications: Jagdwaffe Volume 1, Sections 2, 3 and 4.
Aerodata International Publications: Classic Fighters and Bombers of WW2, the Messerschmitt bf109E.
Pilot Magazine, June 1994: The eternal magic of the Spitfire and how it compares with the Me 109 - flight test article by Brian Smith.
PRC Publishing: Hurricane and Messerschmitt, flight test reports on the bf109 by Charles Lindbergh and Major Al Williams, USMC.
The Imperial War Museum.
What I Like About The Shockwave bf109E
What I Don't Like About The Shockwave bf109E
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