Developer: Black Box Simulations
Reviewed By: Werner Gillespie - Staff Reviewer
I have mostly flown Boeing aircraft during my sim career, so this was somewhat of a mind set change that I had to make in order to fly and review the Airbus Extreme Prologue from Black Box Simulations, developed (or rather still being developed) for FSX only.
The Airbus series of aircraft, specifically the A320, introduced the concept of Fly-By-Wire (FBW) technology, which lets the computer, through the use of a side stick on the flight deck instead of the conventional control column which is found on the Boeing and other aircraft types; determine the input by the pilot. This is similar to the flight system on fighter aircraft, like the F-16 Fighting Falcon for example.
Because of the less bulky equipment required for FBW, you get weight saving, reduced maintenance costs, and more accurate flying. This also means that the pilot can fly the aircraft to the limit of its capabilities whilst enjoying the maximum protection in dangerous performance envelopes, for example, low speed protection, making sure the aircraft will not stall. Again, this is similar to systems incorporated on Dasault’s delta wing fighters, like the Mirage 2000 series and later types, allowing the pilot to fly the aircraft in the flight envelopes which are favourable, but would otherwise put the aircraft at risk, since the envelopes were beyond the capabilities of the pilot.
Benefits for operators of the Airbus aircraft includes:-
1. Weight savings from replacement of bulky and heavy mechanical systems by computer operated ones, which makes the aircraft much lighter;
2. Electrical controls are much cheaper and easier to maintain than their mechanical counterparts;
3. By giving direct input through electronic signals, the inputs are far more accurate and thus makes more accurate flying possible;
4. The system monitors the inputs by the pilot and makes sure that they do not exceed what is safe in that particular situation, which makes the aircraft safer to fly (theoretically anyway!); and
5. This FBW concept also makes sure that the cockpit differences between the variants are kept at a minimum making conversions between the different types easier and less costly.
(Information obtained from www.airbus.com/)
I think it is fair to say that Airbus and Boeing are worlds apart from each other in terms of design philosophy. The Boeing is a pilot’s aircraft whereas the Airbus is to be managed by the crew - by the way that is not my view, it is the view of a Senior First Officer at South African Airways who used to fly the B747 variants and now flies the A340 series for the carrier!
The object of this review is the A319 and A320 series of the aircraft. The A320 series (of which the A318, A319, A320 and A321 all form part), was launched in the way of the A320 in March 1984 and first flew in February of 1987. (Wikipedia)
Now a word of caution here - during the review of this product, I obtained the newly released v0.54 which made significant improvements to the package. What I have done is edited these improvements in whilst keeping most of what I wrote about the original release so as to give you an idea of the advances that have been made to the package as work progresses.
So let us have a look at what you get...
Installation and documentation
After purchasing the aircraft from Black Box Simulation’s website, you can download the aircraft which comes in a 184 MB large download. With the release of v0.54 this changed to a 206 MB file. It is a straight executable installer, which operated without any glitches.
You are required to enter your name, company and serial number obtained after you purchased the aircraft into the installer before installing the aircraft.
The A319 is installed as the base aircraft, with the option of installing the A320 as well. You also get an option of whether or not to install the manuals that come with the aircraft.
You then select your FSX default folder and where you would like to place the shortcuts (yes, they apparently get a folder of their own!), confirm the information and your off with the installation.
The installation takes about 30 or so seconds, you will click finish and you are done!
If you now look in your FSX folder, you will find the Black Box Simulation folder, which contains the following:-
1. An Airbus A320 Family folder, which contains a very useful fuel planner, both for using metric and standard units, and it includes some flight plans that have been setup for you for use with the aircraft’s FMC;
2. A NavData folder, containing, to my surprise, an updated database for use with the FMC. The developer confirmed that they are using PSS navdata which can be purchased from Navigraph in the same way as other payware - marvelous;
3. An uninstall folder from which you can select the uninstallation options for the aircraft; and
4. The Airbus Prologue Manual in .pdf format.
The manual consists of 98 pages and contains the following:-
1. Instructions on improving the visual looks and setup of the aircraft;
2. Instructions on throttle calibration to use the detents on the throttles (more on that a little later);
3. Cockpit familiarization;
4. A detailed systems description;
5. Procedures, which deals with taxi, takeoffs and approaches;
6. Performance limitations;
7. Some other selected limitations;
8. General limitations; and
9. Systems abbreviations.
I found the manual to be very user friendly, well written, but there is one major aspect missing from the manual - a normal procedures flow! I was a little disappointed with this. Although the taxi, takeoff and approach sections deal with all the necessary details, the preflight section is missing and I found this from the following sources:-
1. Detailed visual representations for download and printout regarding everything that you may not find inside the manual; and
2. My favourite - This is a YouTube video of a pilot taking you through the preflight, programming the CDU and starting and taxiing the Airbus A320 out.
You will also find a very useful guide, the Airbus tutorial flight in the way of the Airbus for Dummies (like me!) manual available for download from Black Box Simulations’ website. This takes you through a complete flight in a simple, easy to understand manner and is also very well written and very user friendly. It also points to different external fuel planning utilities for the aircraft.
The aircraft does not come with a separate passenger and fuel loader; this is done through FSX as with the default programs.
You cannot select a cold and dark state for your cockpit. This is done via the Cessna trick - another disappointment. In fact, if you simply shut down the aircraft and try starting it up you may find funny things happening. You MUST select the Cessna and shut it down, then select the Airbus, then start from there.
Remember that this is still a PROLOGUE - it is not a complete product, so the basics are there, the rest will be added in due course, so some areas are still inoperable on the aircraft, others are there in full.
What I found to be inoperable is the following:-
On the overhead:-
2. The oxygen systems;
3. Emergency Electrical Power;
4. Evacuation section;
5. Flight Control section;
8. Fire systems;
9. Audio switching;
10. VHF 3;
11. Cargo fire;
12. Ventilation systems; and
13. The rain repellant systems.
What I found to work on the overhead was the following:-
3. Cabin Pressure systems;
4. Packs and bleed systems;
5. Normal Electrical Systems; and
What I found not to work on the main panel:-
1. Only the switching between the hPa and Hg on the altimeter, no big issue thought to be honest!
On the lower display unit, which is referred to as the ECAM system, I found the following not to work:
6. STS; and
When selecting any of these captions, the display will simply be blank.
So as you can see, it really is bare bones stuff! The developer does state on the website that updates will be released bi-weekly, and although this has not happened yet, they state that the aircraft will be modeling each and every system conceivable, just like the real aircraft.
They further state that this release should be complete by the end of the year.
Right, so let us have a look at the outside of the aircraft. I have included a few snapshots so you can have a look at it.
Generally it is well modeled; all the parts are working as they should. No signs of use is visible on the aircraft though, apart from a few streaks of hydraulic fluid. It is also possible to look through the cabin by virtue of the see-through windows. The general shape of the aircraft is well done, but the engines and the fan discs are a bit “empty”, and they are a bit basic in modeling.
So the exterior needs a bit of work in some areas. This is not an exterior that will leave you gasping, but the developers are promising graphics upgrades as work progresses.
Here are some shots of the exterior:-
The first thing that you will notice when you look at the flight deck is that the displays are beautifully modeled! They have the right reaction to light, they are very reflective, and they look the part!
You will also notice that the cockpit (VC) has fully modeled side stick controllers. Nice! They are animated and will move as you move your joystick. A really good addition is widescreen 2D panels for both the Captain and the First Officer. You will also immediately notice that the 2D and the VC both have excellent frame rates!
The aircraft comes with a 2D panel which you can fly from, which is becoming a rarity, so that is a nice addition for the 2D die-hards. Another odd thing that I have found about the various pop-up 2D panels that are available in-flight, is that you cannot pull all of them up by using the old Shift+X key combination.
The following can be accessed by using your Shift+X key combinations:-
1. IFR panel
2. First Officer’s VFR panel
3. First Officer’s IFR panel
4. Captain’s VFR widescreen panel
5. Captain’s IFR widescreen panel
6. First Officer’s VFR widescreen panel
7. First Officer’s IFR widescreen panel.
Although this is all good and well, the following can only be accessed by using the menu in FSX and selecting it from the list:-
3. Primary flight display
4. Navigation display
6. Lower ECAM; and
7. Multi functional display controller.
Some of these can be popped up by clicking on them with the mouse, which will show enlarged 2D versions. This is a bit of a disappointment - you would want these easily accessible in-flight and the compromise is not a practical one and detracts from the enjoyment of the simulation experience.
As far as functionality is concerned you can fly from either the 2D or VC easily and you will find the odd switch or knob or function that does work in the 2D but does not work in the VC, but to be honest, it is not a major problem.
The next thing that is obvious from the screenshots I have included, is that apart from the displays, the rest of the VC is rather less up to date with modern modeling standards and unfortunately looks a bit FS9’ish, however there have been some upgrades with the release of v0.54. Again, to be honest, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall enjoyment of the sim, but as far as I was concerned, I was a little disappointed that, after all the effort was put in to create such beautiful displays, the rest of the VC did not follow suite. Again, the developer is promising upgrades as far as graphics are concerned here too.
So overall then, not a breathtaking rendition of the Airbus cockpit, but it definitely looks and feels like an Airbus cockpit otherwise and as I said, upgrades are still being applied as we are going along.
Here is a preview of the interior of the aircraft, the VC:-
I enjoyed the engine sounds, as they are quite realistic. Another really impressive feature is when you are opening and closing the throttle levers, you get that nice “clack” sound that you normally would on a flight deck, so 10/10 for that one.
The dials and knobs have their own various sounds and so do the flap levers etc. So in general, the interior and exterior sounds are quite well modeled, BUT...
A sound package as far as I am concerned, can round out a product or can cause disappointment to a simmer and detract from the overall experience of the product. In this case unfortunately, the sound package misses one critical element - wind noise!
I find that the engines are clearly audible and that there is hardly any wind noise. This means that when sitting at FL380 cruising at Mach 0.76, I can hear the engines as if I could whilst powering them up for the takeoff run!
Furthermore, the rumbling sound (like you get when you are on the ground and accelerating down the runway) remains there, even when cruising at FL380. With the release of v0.54, some elements have been addressed and the sound package is a little better, however, the wind noise is still missing.
So we have a sound package that still needs some work, but a decent base has been laid for it and the developers are still looking at improvements as we go along.
I have decided to break this section of my review into a few more subsections, so here it goes...
One of the most impressive features of the prologue then, is beyond any doubt, the CDU, or as Boeing pilots will know it, the FMC - the flight management computer.
If you had a look at the tutorial flight, and you also had a look at the YouTube video, you will see that the MCDU is basically fully operational. It is already fully capable of following and accepting SIDS, STARS and ILS approaches, together with all performance information.
You will also be able to see that you can follow the preflight procedures as outlined by our pilot friend on the video.
For those of you used to flying the MD-11 from PMDG, this MCDU should make you feel right at home! Although not 100% the same, you will know the design philosophy that drives it!
I found it very user friendly and as I said, fully functional. I cannot comment on the smaller things that real Airbus pilots will be able to point out, but it seems to be authentic.
Another very nice feature of this airplane is the detents that are modeled into the throttles. Once you have computed the necessary takeoff data into the system, all you need to do is to put the throttles into their detents, whether it be full takeoff power or the FLX detent (Flex, reduced takeoff power), you leave the throttles there and the takeoff power is handled automatically.
Another thing about the throttle detents - you can cycle through them by using page up and page down keys. You will also notice that the throttles do not move with the auto thrust system. This is not a bug, but a feature of the Airbus.
You will find that the ignition system for the engine start works like the real aircraft. This is explained in the tutorial and the video on YouTube. The system is also explained in the manual.
The initial spool up time for the turbine is modeled quite well, and before the release of v0.54, it had the same “flash over” that the engine of the default aircraft in FSX have, but this has been addressed and sorted out in the v0.54 release and they act realistically now. Good stuff then!
The subject for this flight will be the actual tutorial flight in the Dummies manual available for download from the developer’s site. The rest of the systems that I have not dealt with above are included in this discussion about the tutorial.
The tutorial flight takes place from LMML (Malta) to LFKJ (Campo Dell’Orro). This tutorial will assume that you have the cockpit in the cold and dark state and that you have used the Cessna trick to get it into that state. If you didn’t, you will not get a performance page with takeoff figures in your MCDU! You will be taken directly to the approach page.
So by following the tutorial, we start our Airbus by switching both batteries on and by connecting our external power - that’s it, nothing more!
I keep following the tutorial; I switch the lower ECAM display to the APU page and see the vitals of my APU which is not yet switched on. I then switch the MASTER SW for the APU on and press the START button just below it. The APU starts up, also maybe a little more quickly than is realistic though. A real Airbus pilot would be in a better position to comment. After this, I switch on my BEACON lights and that is it, the aircraft is ready for the MCDU preflight!
By following the instructions in the tutorial, I quickly program the MCDU, enter my takeoff performance and I decide to use a FLX temperature of about 45 degrees centigrade. I follow the tutorial’s instructions and again, find that entering the route with the departures and arrivals and the jetways follow the same pattern as if I was using the MD-11's MCDU. Very nice! And yes, they work the way they are supposed to, I have no vices to report here and frankly, again, I am very impressed with this.
The tutorial points to an external fuel and payload planner, but I simply used the one that was included with the package and I have to say, it was more than useful! I also followed the figures that the writer of the tutorial placed inside his Fuel settings page within FSX.
I then follow the instructions of the writer about setting up my performance page for the takeoff. The only thing I did extra was to put in a FLX temperature for the departure. Another good thing about the tutorial - if you had trouble following the description of how to program the flight plan into the MCDU in the manual, it is explained again in the tutorial.
Now, it is time to start the engines. We start engine no 2 first, simply turning on the APU bleed, setting the BLEED VALVE to OPEN, and then flicking the ENGINE 2 SWITCH to ON, and then switching the MODE KNOB on the pedestal behind the throttles to IGN START for engine no 2. I repeat this for engine no 1.
Once this has been done, switch the MODE KNOB to NORM (center position) and that’s it, you’re done!
Folks, getting through a pre-flight and getting your engines started, can take you less than 5 minutes! The interesting thing is that this is not simply because you don’t have all the systems modeled either. I did a proper preflight flow from the YouTube video, and although the ADRS setup should take the proper 10 minutes, it still won’t take you more than 5 minutes to get through everything and get the engines running.
I might get shot at dawn with a blindfold for saying this, but this is about as complicated as setting up a regional jet aircraft for a flight. This is obviously not a degrading remark, but I am actually quite impressed with how easy it was to get to know the aircraft, having flown Boeings for all these years!
The fuel system operates automatically, unless switched to manual mode (remember the MD-11?). Very little intervention is normally required and like the ATR for instance, you just extinguish the white lights in the overhead on the scan, that’s it!
So, I am setup, the external lights are set, the engines are running, and I am about ready to go. Now to setup the Flight Control Unit (FCU), known to Boeing pilots as the MCP (Mode Control Panel).
Another gripe here - the system is a little less intuitive. The click spots are difficult to get right and I would have struggled a bit if it had not been for the tutorial telling me where to look and how to get it right. I still don’t find it very intuitive after spending about 40 hours in the aircraft! There is certainly a bit of room for improvement here.
Taxiing out, the aircraft is quite enjoyable and I found the handling quite good. Again, this is based on my experience and not real world flight experience.
Another feature of the Airbus is the difference between flap indications. Airbus uses a different system to Boeing. I place it in position 1 as indicated by the tutorial flight.
Once on the runway, I check on the electronic checklist that all items are green before I commit to the takeoff, place the thrust levers in the FLX detent, and start rolling down the runway. I find that the engine responses to throttle changes are absolutely instantaneous, which I find unrealistic. It can only be described as akin to flying a fighter jet! Although they are not the size of the B777's engines, they should not react so sharply to thrust changes. Then along comes v0.54 and fixes this issue as well - nicely done!
Acceleration is what you would expect from an aircraft this size. Upon reaching Vr, you can pull back on the stick. Now, what you would expect from FBW is that the controls will be sensitive, but not akin to that of a fighter jet rocketing off a runway, and yes, it feels good! You get the feeling of taking off with an aircraft that weighs a few tons! I loved the feeling.
So we establish a climb into the flight director and once I reach about 400 feet, I engage AP1 (the Captains Autopilot switch). I was presently surprised by the smoothness in the operation of the autopilot system. I really liked the way it performs and still do!
The autopilot latches onto the assigned flight path and goes into a steady climb maintaining the proper thrust setting. The PFD then tells you to change to LVR CLB, which tells me to move the thrust levers to the CLB detent on the throttle quadrant, which is done by pressing the Pg Dwn twice (if using full takeoff power) or once (if like me you use FLX).
I watch the speed tape on the PFD. As I accelerate, it reaches a point where green F and S indications are visible (remember the MD-11?). These will tell you when the Flaps and Slats have to be retracted as the speeds are commanded. Neat!
Another interesting feature is the fact that the aircraft automatically detects the transition altitude and warns you thereof, although you can change it on the flight plan page. You will also notice as you near your top of climb point, the green hockey stick indicator (the writer of the tutorial uses this description!) indicates your top of climb point. Remember the MD-11?
So you reach the cruising altitude, you level off, and you watch the scenery for a bit. But hang on, something looks odd on my PFD - it tells me my nose is level! I switch to the outside view, and yes, the aircraft is flying at FL350 with the nose level, instead of about 2-3 degrees nose up! I am also happy to report that with the release of v0.54 this issue has been addressed and the aircraft looks normal in flight now. More good stuff then!
So I now near my top of descent, again the little hockey stick indicator (remember the MD-11?) shows me where to find it. I change my altitude window to 4000 feet as per the tutorial and once I reach the TOD point, I press the ALT knob by left clicking on it.
You have to ensure that you don’t click it before reaching this point or you will find yourself doing the equivalent of a Flight Level Change descent in a Boeing.
Watch the mode change in the PFD as you start your descent and confirm that you are in DES mode.
The aircraft will smoothly and precisely fly the STAR that you entered and also the ILS that follows it. I really love the way the automatic systems operate with the SIDS, STARS and ILS approaches!
Upon reaching the transition altitude, you make the changeover from STD to the local altimeter setting. You can also check on how much higher or lower you are on the descent path by looking at the ECON DES page in the MCDU.
Once you are into the approach phase, you need to slow the aircraft down. You now select your own speeds or speeds that are assigned by the ATC. To do this you right click (pull) the speed knob which gives you the option to select your speed.
I follow the tutorial and set the speeds as commanded by it. One change from a Boeing to an Airbus is to activate the APPR PHASE in the MCDU, and to left click or push the button to re-enter the managed mode for the approach, which will command the speeds again, similar to the Boeing.
You would then look at the APPR page of the MCDU to see what your landing speeds and flap settings need to be. It also gives you your actual landing speed and your approach speeds. These work very well by the way! I have done heavier and lighter approaches and found all of them to be accurate and safe. I didn’t get caught out once by figures that were dangerously high or low for that matter.
We then switch our ND ROSE knob to ILS. The display will also change accordingly. Similar to a Boeing, you would select the APPR button once you have a LOC and GS active, and then proceed to select the second autopilot button, the AP2 for a more accurate approach and for system redundancy.
The aircraft flew the ILS beautifully and all the right calls and sounds from the GPWS are there, right to the RETARD, RETARD, RETARD, calls. How do I know this? I watched some cockpit videos of course!
I also followed the tutorial’s prayers not to touch anything and to let the aircraft land itself and it was very decent indeed! Once you are down, taxi to the gates, park the aircraft and shut it down as on page 1 of the tutorial.
The tutorial is marvelous and gets you in the air with the minimum fuss and it gets the job done. It is well written, user friendly and if you follow it, you will have no issues in flying this aircraft at all.
As I have already said earlier, on my Q9550 quad core with 6 GB RAM and a 768 MB GeForce GTX 480 I experienced excellent frame rates and I believe that, largely due to the less complex VC, you should not expect any performance defects on a midrange machine.
So here we have a prologue of the final product, a preview if you will of what is to come. As I have indicated earlier, what we have here is bare bones stuff, but as you can also see, some extreme issues have clearly been dealt with in the v0.54 release. I am very happy with the progress that the developers are making with this airplane!
It is slow going just at the moment, but the developers have clearly been hard at work behind the scenes and I do believe that when the final touches are put on to the aircraft, it will be a properly modeled A320 series aircraft and one which I certainly will enjoy to fly!
Yes, the graphics may not be ground breaking stuff, and there may be a few rough edges here and there, but overall, if you are a huge Airbus fan, this is your aircraft in FSX! Since the PSS A3XX series for FS9 a few years ago, it is good to see that a very serious approach to systems programming and realism is been undertaken by a developer to give the FS community something that it has been wanting for a long time - a serious FSX Airbus!
I think as can also be seen from the demise of Flight, it is clear that the FS community does not want arcade stuff anymore - they want systems fidelity, and unmatched realism. I believe that this product may just deliver that to the Airbus fans in FSX!
I believe that the price may a bit on the high side at the moment, but time will tell if it was worth the 45-00 Euros that you spent on it or not.
What I liked about Black Box's Extreme Prologue:
1. The MCDU and the way it interacts with the airplane - for a preview, it is already up and running to finished standard!
2. The flight dynamics
3. Certain of the sounds, like the detent and flap sounds and the new and improved sounds from the v0.54!
4. The modeling of the displays - very high fidelity, beautifully done!
5. The autopilot system - works very well!
6. The amount of upgrading that took place between v0.5 and 0.54, excellent job being done behind the scenes!
What I didn’t like
1. The rest of the VC is a bit too basic by modern standards
2. The sound package needs a bit more work
3. The exterior needs a bit more work
4. The pop-up panels are not very intuitive and can make flying a bit difficult when you need to call the 2D overhead up quickly
5. No separate loading utility for fuel and passengers
6. You still have to use the Cessna trick to get a cold and dark cockpit state