by Will Reynolds
I do tend to follow several aviation forums as well as developer pages, and one Flight Simulation product kept coming up as “Best in its Class”, sometimes as “Best in Flight Simulation”, and also “Best X-Plane add-on”. Naturally when you read such statements, your curiosity gets the better of you.
I purchased this add-on just over three months ago, and had to do some urgent research…so what is a Saab 340? Here it gets embarrassing as a dear friend of mine (like a brother to me) is actually a SAAB 340 Captain for the major regional airline and I knew little to nothing about them!
The SAAB 340 was originally a joint partnership between SAAB AB of Sweden and Fairchild Aircraft of the USA. The partnership was geared to developing a mid-sized regional transport aircraft of around 30 passengers, ease of maintenance, high reliability and ease of operation. Development was split roughly 60/40 with the bulk of the work done by SAAB AB
First flight took place in January 1983, but it was a somewhat turbulent partnership. Fairchild was having financial difficulties and ceased the partnership in 1985 after 40 airframes had been delivered. SAAB AB continued the production of the aircraft until 1999. Some 459 airframes were built and entered service around the world.
The versatility of the aircraft saw its production enter the military market with a maritime surveillance model as well as 4 airframes developed with a Scanned Array Early Warning Radar;The radar was mounted with brackets on top of the fuselage.
The civilian versions started with the 340A model powered by 2 General Electric CT7-5A2 turboprop engines (1215kW) and 4 bladed Dowty Rotol propellers.
The 340B model featured upgraded General Electric CT7-9B turboprop engines (1394kW). Serial numbers 160 – 359 were B models.
The 340 B+ was the final version of the aircraft, featuring noise and vibration reduction, improved avionics and other interior enhancements as well as the option of Hamilton Sundstrand propellers. Serial numbers 360 – 459 were B+ models.
Enter: Leading Edge Simulations (LES)
I reached out to the developer of the SAAB 340A, and found a team that has climbed the Aircraft Development ladder and completed their homework. Every aircraft they designed had a goal and complexity in mind, and amazingly they achieved it, their planning and management are very impressive indeed.
I had a brief chat with lead developer Goran Matovina, and asked him a few questions to introduce us to Leading Edge Simulations as well as the SAAB340:
A – Thanks for chatting with us Goran, what was your very first model for X-Plane?
Goran – Very first model was the Beechcraft Sundowner C23 (Musketeer). It’s the next step up from the trainers at the local airfield where I did my training and an aircraft I am very familiar with. It is definitely showing its age though, and I am in the process of overhauling the mesh, flight model and textures. It will be released as a paid update, and the Beech Duchess will follow.
A – What made you decide to simulate the SF340? Why the A model specifically?
Goran – My old flight instructor called me up one day and told me if I ever wanted to make a SAAB 340 for X-Plane, to let him know. He offered to provide me all the information I would ever need, plus photos, diagrams, and first class information as he was working for the largest regional airline operating the type. We settled on the “A” model because we wanted to start from the “beginning”. Once we completed the A model, we could use the majority of what we created and build a B model should the opportunity present itself.
A – So what is the current roadmap for the SAAB?
Goran – There is a rather large update coming out in the near future which addresses the annoying re-assignment of Condition Levers every time the SAAB is loaded. This was something we could not address earlier as the issue lies in X-Plane’s source code, but code was adjusted to find a workaround. There will also be code optimisation and better FPS. This next update will likely be the last one for the SAAB.
A – Obviously an incredible amount of planning and work went into the SF340, the systems manual is 209 pages! Can you talk to us about this document?
Goran – We have access to the actual official SAAB Flight manual. Based on this document, we wrote our own “Systems” manual. To put it simply, we only put in that manual the things that are ARE simulated. To clarify further, only a few areas are NOT simulated like the Circuit Breakers, Test Panel, Oxygen, Failures Display on the CRTs.
We discussed making the Test Panel fully functional during development, but after consulting with active SAAB pilots, we were advised that in over 5000 hours of services, the Test Panel had been used once, when ground engineers wanted to check something.
The Failures Display on the CRTs was also another feature that would be too rarely used for the amount of work put into it.
The Oxygen system, well, we didn’t really see the point.
A – What are some of your favourite features in the SAAB?
Goran – There are quite a few. The icing effects on the windows and airfoil boots. Engaging the anti ice on the respective boots and windows will de-ice them gradually and individually.
The systems on the aircraft are coded according to the actual SAAB documents so you will see features just the way they were designed. For example, not resetting the generators will eventually drain the battery while the aircraft is running, the hydraulics are exactly as in the real aircraft - all the way to the constant leaks - and function of the pump.
The Leading Edge Simulations Saab 340
The aircraft was purchased via the X-Aviation site as it uses its authentication and distribution systems. You download an 8Mb installer.
Running the installer begins the authentication system, you log in with your account details (the account you used to purchase) and once authenticated, the installer begins the download of the complete aircraft package, about 700Mb.
A clever feature is the selection of graphics card memory...choose 2Gb or 4Gb of VRAM and the program will adjust some of the texture features for you.
The installer process allows you to choose the models you wish to install, such as passenger, freight or Airborne Early Warning. You can also choose what default repaints you wish to install.
The installer will create a Manuals folder, where you will find 5 PDF documents. Be sure to read them, at least the Intro and Settings manual as well as the Quick Start. This is a Study Level simulator, you will do yourself a favour taking the time to read the Systems document, as it is created specifically for this aircraft, not just a manual from which you extract relevant items....trust me, it is all relevant.
The aircraft has a menu on the far right hand side of the screen which auto-hides...in it you will find features such as the Condition Levers programming, a Virtual Checklist, Ground Equipment control, Throttle quadrant visualisation, Chart Selector, Preferences and a cool feature, Engine Auto-Start for those who don’t enjoy going from Cold and Dark but still wish to retain full operational realism. (Screenshot below from the manual)
The Engine Auto Start option is fully explained in the manual, basically set and don’t touch anything. Just watch the system go through and start the machine for you. (Screenshot below from the manual)
The exterior detail is exquisite with attention to detail prevalent everywhere you look.
The detail extends to things like flap fairings, airflow fences, prop pitch...you name it
But wait, there is more! These aeroplanes are flown on regional routes and the crew will perform various duties...the good folk at LES have modelled this...you can walk to the rear of the aircraft, move the locking bar for the baggage compartment to the unlock position, then put the mouse cursor on the door itself and “push the door up”...to close it, perform the duties in the reverse order..
Now it is time to get inside the aircraft...we can do this properly..walk to the main door and open the latch, due to the location of some of the controls, it is easier to do this from the inside of the cabin..as shown here...move the lever to the “access” setting, then unlock the door by moving the handle upwards.
Door opens outward and is secured
We need to move the flight attendant’s seat out of the way, press on it, it hinges to the right.
Now we have access to the stairs, first unlock them from the stow position, then press the small latch to deploy them and finally a separate latch to lock them in the deployed position. Very neat.
Now we have access to the cabin...very complete and great detail
The virtual passengers also have individual working window blinds
Cabin lights are controlled by the flight attendant via a working control panel inside the cabin...this is also functional. You can control the individual light set for every seat... call the flight attendant with the Red button, and turn on your individual reading light with the other button
Once Cabin lights controls are set, you can arm or turn on the emergency exit signs
Now let’s have a look at the Office...regardless of whether you like the layout or not, what is important here is...does it look like the real thing...the answer, once again is a resounding YES.
The graphics are crisp, the 3D detail is extremely professional...as someone said, there is a bit of magic here. Notice the “dirt, grime and worn” marks.
It is worth clarifying, the version you are looking at is 1.3. This version provided the SF340 with a GPS unit which is clearly visible. This GPS unit is quite functional as it couples with the Autopilot and provides a moving map, lateral guidance, top of descent, etc...and it is kept up to date via Airac support from the major vendors.
Here is a video from the developer specifying the changelog for version 1.3
With that in mind, let’s look at the functionality of this product, remembering it aims at “Study Level”.
Starting with the Centre Panel, all switches are active and simulated, very easy to read (the screenshots are all in the lower “2G” resolution) and they do have a meaning. No bogus readings here.
Moving down the centre into the pedestal, we have the Hydraulic controls, pressurisation.
Further down we see the Gust Lock control (fully functional), the throttles, Condition Levers, Friction Locks, Prop Sync and flaps.
Further aft we see the Course and Heading knobs, (yes they are on the pedestal), the weather radar controls, the autopilot control panel, the CTOT controls (more on that later), and the radios.
To the left of the Captain, this side panel has the Parking Brake, the Flight Number memory panel (you type in the flight number so you have it handy...it works), the Com transmit/Activation panel, and the round object towards the bottom is the steering tiller ( I actually did not try it, would not surprise me if this also worked).
On the right hand panel of the First Officer, we see the Oxygen control valve, GPWS/Rudder limiter, and an inactive CVR panel. At the bottom is a Com transmit/Activation panel.
The lower part of the Overhead cockpit is 100% functional, every switch you see here is active, coded and does something significant, just like the real aircraft.
The upper part of the Overhead is partially active. Anything that says “Test” is not modelled, but the rest is fully coded. This means the Ice Protection, Fuel, and Air Con panels are fully working, as well as the Fire handles.
Looking at the ceiling of the cockpit we see the escape hatch for the crew...and yes it does work!
So as you can see, this is a simple enough machine in terms of regional airliner, and Leading Edge Simulations has captured it in incredible detail.
So what does it do?
It does what the good folk at SAAB intended it to do. Starting up the aircraft is a fairly straight forward routine, made even easier by the integrated Checklist. The checklist is not integrated to the aircraft systems though, it is only intended to be used as a checklist. However, a great touch by the LES team has the small “View” button...press it, and your view is moved to the relevant switch and stays there for a few seconds, enough time for you to act upon that switch.
Using the Ground Equipment menu, you can call up several static elements, including the GPU.
Loading this bird is done via the default X-Plane menu....this is perhaps my truly only gripe with it, it would have been nice to see a custom made loading interface. Having said that, an avid fan of this aircraft created his own module for it, available on the iPad, for around $10...it provides a moving map, loading of passengers, fuel, calculates fuel required, V-Speeds, you name it! I found it a good investment, you don’t need it, but it is nice to have.
Starting the engines is a simple enough task, but requires careful monitoring of the instruments, mishandle it, and you will be sorry. I have to say the visual effects and the sounds here are top notch. Of course, if you are not up to the process, you can use the wonderful Engine Auto Start and the program will progress in detail through the start up routine without your input.
Once we have power in the aircraft, we can start our Garmin 530....the unit undocks for ease of use, you can load a flight plan exported via PFPX, EFASS or any other flight planner you use, it is a very good unit.
Another neat feature is the ability to undock the radio panels, you can control all radios, Com, Nav, ADF and Transponder via the single pop up unit.
Checking the overhead now we are on engine power, you need to monitor battery temperatures, pneumatic pressure, etc..following the checklist is a must.
Once all is done, she looks majestic and eager to take to the skies.
Taxying is a breeze, the animations, sounds and effects all add to the atmosphere.
After going through the checklist, you come up to an item called “CTOT”...it stands for “Constant Torque On Takeoff”. It controls engine power to a selected torque value above the power lever position, basically think of it as an N1 controller in a jet. In the real aircraft, operators provide charts for the crew to use, indicating items such as temperature, winds, weight, elevation etc. and it advises a CTOT value to enter. The Systems manual included in the aircraft goes into good detail of this system, here we set it to 100, arm the system....advance the throttles about 65% Torque and the CTOT system will kick in, advancing power to the requested value and providing you with that power throughout your takeoff run, until you go into Climb thrust. Very interesting, and properly simulated.
Again, sounds and animations are spot on as we retract flaps and gear.
We can give ourselves a little “license to damage”...here we push the engines a little too hard, and you can see the engine instruments are telling us the story.
The SAAB 340 A model is known for being a little underpowered, so don’t expect crisp performance at altitude, it is more on a par with the JS41, the difference being, its autopilot system is very good, and operators have been known to engage autopilot as soon as they hit V2.
The autopilot in the SAAB 340 requires Yaw Damper to be engaged, and the Autopilot Engage button must be pressed and held for at least 2 seconds. This is to avoid inadvertent engagement of the system, and this is again properly simulated here.
This is where the Mode Select Panel (MSP) comes into play, select Heading or NAV mode, Vertical Speed or Climb mode, all properly simulated. If you read the manual and get to grips with them, they bring you lots of joy.
The aircraft operates anywhere from 10,000 to its maximum operating altitude of 25,000ft. It is easy to configure and easy to operate, hand flies really well. I specifically like the small amount of lag in the control input....and a person who knows about these things in real life gave it the thumbs up.
Another neat animation is rain effects on the windscreen, and ice effects on the aircraft. The ice appears gradually, not in chunky unrealistic “fixed” bits, another great touch.
Approach and landing I found really hard to get used to. This aircraft doesn’t just “glide” to the ground...more like falls at a constant rate. After wrestling with the concept, I was told to put up with it, because the real aircraft is exactly the same, speed is the key, and management of the energy to touchdown.
Conclusions and Thoughts
This was truly a surprise package. I know people have been saying for a long time that the SAAB 340 from Leading Edge Simulations was the benchmark of X-Plane realistic add-ons, but I just could not see how that could be the case, considering it is a 2013 product and the advances made since then. How wrong could I be!
While I have to admit a SAAB 340 did not hold as much appeal as a Dash-8, ATR72 or some of the more modern turboprops in the real skies, the labour of love by Leading Edge Simulations means if you wish to have a properly developed regional turboprop for X-Plane, you need look no further.
The level of detail, level of complexity, the graphics, animations, functionality, the documentation, the choices (cargo, passenger or AWAC) and the lack of any discernible bug makes this a remarkable release.
The cockpit lighting is also very well done..
The documentation is extremely well done...here are some snippets from the Systems manual, and remember, everything in this document is relevant to the LES SAAB 340A
Let me give you a final thought....on landing, when moving the levers in and out of the Beta range, particularly after reverse, the aircraft tends to “balloon” with power. I thought this was a glitch in the simulation, until I had a real life SF340 captain at my house, who was stunned because that balloon effect is present in the A model, but not the B or B+ models of the SF340.
Then came the hardest part, I had to wrestle my simulator off his hands, as he would not stop enjoying himself.
So if a real world SAAB pilot who has always been a sceptic of home flight simulation gives it the tick of approval folks, this humble reviewer will follow suit.
Two BIG thumbs up from me, and hope the quality we see today will follow Leading Edge Simulations in their future releases.