“112 Cylinders Of Raw Power-Checklists Redefined!”
Back in December when I was contemplating possibilities for my next review piece, my thoughts kept returning to the Air To Air Simulations B377 Captain Of The Ship (hereafter referred to as A2A B377 COTS). About a month earlier my 5-year old son and I were watching an episode of “MegaMovers” featuring a rather peculiar aircraft nicknamed the “Pregnant Guppy” which was carrying out the movement of a NASA station module and both my son and I were giggling away at the size and outrageous shape of the plane. Don’t ask me why we were watching the program…more interesting than SpongeBob…but the airframe stuck in my head.
Digging a little deeper I soon discovered the Pregnant Guppy was a derivative of the C97/B377 which themselves traced their design right back to the B-29 SuperFortress of WWII. Whew! Now before I go diving down the historical rabbit hole AVSIM contributing reviewer Ray Marshall is currently polishing a piece specifically regarding the A2A “Guppy” model leaving me free to provide a quick Wikipedia grab and concentrate on the actual A2A B377 COTS experience within FSX.
Obligatory Wikipedia B377 Notes:
Released in the late-1940s, the aircraft was powered by four piston engines, driving tractor propellers. The aircraft had surprisingly low fuel consumption for the era and was able to cruise at about 32,000 feet. It also had a pressurized cabin, which was a relatively new feature to transport aircraft at the time. At cruising altitude the cabin altitude was 5,500 ft (1,700 m).
Airlines were able to make transoceanic flights easier and faster with the new aircraft, which enabled easier international travel. The aircraft often made transoceanic flights to places like Hawaii that were much harder to get to before it. Nevertheless, they did not have great reliability (chiefly due to chronic problems with the extremely complex 28-cylinder R-4360 engines and the associated propellers), and only 56 were built for airlines.
The aircraft also had two decks. The upper deck was for economy class customers, while the lower was a VIP lounge and bar. Passengers could walk down and get a drink on the long flights, once the plane leveled off at cruising altitude. Most Stratocruisers had economy seats on both decks.
When jet airliners were introduced in the late 1950s, propeller planes such as the Stratocruiser became uncompetitive for major airlines, and many were sold off to feeder lines. Others scrapped, while some were converted by Aero Spacelines to Guppys, which were versions of the Stratocruiser with an enlarged fuselage and turboprops.
Now while Wikipedia is a great resource we shall learn during the course of this review that some of the information provided is not quite correct especially regarding cruise altitudes.
Where was I? Ah yes-thinking about tackling the A2A B377 COTS model within FSX. I am sure that most of you readers will have figured out by now that I am really not much of an “airliner” guy and am usually found noodling around in Beaver’s, Twin Otters, C208’s, PC-12/47’s, and Husky’s.
I venture into the ATR72-500 from time-to-time and even dare take up the odd jet flight but that’s as far as it goes with heavy iron. I love props - they have “soul”!
After pondering further the possibility of reviewing the A2A B377 COTS, watching a couple of the wonderful JaggyRoad clips and sneaking around the A2A forums, I could not stand it anymore. It was an itch that needed scratching and I decided to step outside my personal sim flight comfort zone…..and I mean way out!
Here is a little note to Robert Whitwell-AVSIM Reviews Editor:
From: Ted G
I must be crazy-honestly! But it will be ever so much fun to do.
Hooo boy….can I handle the challenge? Let’s find out!
Air To Air Simulations (A2A)
I have continually seen references to A2A regarding their highly-praised Spitfire, B-17, and especially the J-3 Cub models among others. Founded by Scott Gentile in 2003 and progressing from combat sims to the present day work within the FSX environment the mission statement is clear:
“We continue to strive for the enhancement of realism, immersion and entertainment in everything we do.”
The basic description of the B377 COTS:
“A2A Simulations has crafted and pioneered many new technologies for this aircraft which has become the flagship of the Wings of Silver line for Microsoft Flight Simulator X. Never before has the team worked so diligently to produce what we feel, and you may agree, is the most accurate representation of a true “classic” airliner.”
“Real pilots will tell you that no two aircraft are the same. Even taking the same aircraft up from the same airport to the same location will result in a different experience. For example, you may notice one day an engine is running a bit hotter than usual and you might just open your cowl flaps a bit more and be on your way, or maybe this is a sign of something more serious developing under the hood. Regardless, you expect these things to occur in a simulation just as they do in real life. This is Accu-sim - it puts the gauge back in the game.
Realism does not mean having a difficult time with your flying. While Accu-sim is created by pilots, it is built for everyone. This means everything from having a professional crew there to help you manage the systems, to an intuitive layout, or just the ability to turn the system on or off with a single switch. However, if Accu-sim is enabled and the needles are in the red, there will be consequences. It is no longer just an aircraft, it's a simulation.”
Keep the bits I underlined in mind as you read further!
Installation and Documentation
Installation of the A2A B377 COTS was an easy and painless affair. There are three separate downloads: the initial B377 package, the B377 service pack, and finally the COTS package each checking in at 191Mb, 138Mb, and 271Mb respectively.
I followed my usual FSX procedure where I install-reboot-install-reboot-install reboot in order to ensure all registry values are happily updated. The DRM is unobtrusive and individual to each user.
During the installation, the B377 package will prompt for either FSX SP2 or FSX Acceleration. I use the latter having FSX Gold that includes Acceleration. The same prompt comes up when installing the service pack. During the installation of the COTS package a DirectX checker appears.
Given the size of the package I went ahead and ran a defrag once everything was installed.
While the defrag was running, I transferred the two accompanying .pdf manuals to my second PC for initial reading. The first 67-page manual deals mainly with the B377 background including history of A2A’s production, a basic introduction to engine theory (and when I say basic I really mean quite detailed easy-to-read and comprehend information about the inner workings of the piston engines), and an overview of what you should expect).
The second 160 page manual is the POH covering everything from recommended FSX settings and checklists to where everything is and what everything generally does.
Do NOT be put off by the size of the manuals. They are of exceptional quality, entertaining, informative, and utterly vital to having a great experience. Another great source of information is the A2A forums under the dedicated B377 section.
I would also strongly recommend printing off pages 79-108 as this is the full normal and emergency procedure checklist.
There is also a joystick Input Configurator tool added under the A2A Program menu. I did not use this as my stick/HOTAS and rudder pedals were already configured to my satisfaction for control and I was quite happy using the VC animated controls for non-programmed items. Control with a single throttle is easy as the engines can be individually selected with a pop-up window in the sim or ganged as required in real time.
First Impressions And Liveries
Included in the package are liveries featuring Aero Spacelines for the “Guppy”, Pan Am, BOAC, Northwest, AOA, and a dedicated A2A paint job. Sir Richard Branson would be envious of the A2A tail section pinup! All textures are crisply detailed and I really appreciated the artistic effort displayed when I noticed the feathered-in discoloration of the different bare-metal panels.
And then I started hearing voices! And sounds! Really amazing sounds! Now I am used to having a bit of “bitching Betty”, altitude and glide slope callouts, and even flap/climb power callouts. What I did not expect was to be greeted as the captain by multiple individuals including Heidi (well-known to the A2A J-3 Cub pilots), Thurston my co-pilot (yeah I gave him the name…pick your own!), and the all-important wizard….errrr….flight engineer Fredo (A2A calls him Larry). Then you have passenger sounds and the ground crew guy (I have not thought of a name for him yet) suddenly coming to life too.
I distinctly remember the huge grin spreading across my face as I realized this was NOT your average add-on.
And then having my grin fade when I started looking around the cockpit. Actually it’s less of a cockpit and more of a mobile home in the shape of a goldfish bowl and it is enormous. And filled with more 1940’s and ‘50’s electro-mechanical stuff than a B-movie spaceship.
I love prop aircraft and steam gauges but owwww….my brain! And how on earth am I supposed to man all these crew stations and fly the aircraft as a one-man band?
The question of how can one individual sim pilot fly this monster was recently posed on the AVSIM forums. I hope the poster will be illuminated as I was. You’ll see!
To cut a long story short, once I got my breathing re-established and a fresh cup of tea made, I proceeded to start examining the 4 crew stations in detail using the POH as a reference. Once I started making sense of the fact that despite the complexity, all stations are arranged logically with regard to controls and the actual workflow involved in operating the model became quickly apparent.
Some instruments will be initially unfamiliar (the pilot’s compass repeater was initially driving me crazy until I stopped confusing it with a heading indicator) and others are no different to what you find in a typical GA prop aircraft….although there are a LOT more of them given there are 4 engines! And some just have different names (Master Prop Synchronizer lever is to my mind the standard prop lever with a fancy name).
Lets take an initial look at the various crew stations:
In yet another reviewer aside, I need to mention I upgraded my graphics card in the middle of this review. See if you can spot the difference between the old nVidia GT430 1Gb and my new ASUS GTX550 Ti 1Gb Direct Cu….much improved AA for starters.
I spent plenty of time just sitting at the various stations examining the controls, flicking the switches (yes the gang bars work too), and referring to the POH to get a general feel for everything and what view angles worked best for me. I then proceeded to work slowly through the normal checklist procedure and things started to fall into place. It was with a great sense of accomplishment that I finally managed to get the engines started from complete cold and dark. And with the engines started you can start to see the effects of various engine controls on the gauges (adjusting cowl flaps and so forth).
Thus far we have touched very lightly on the systems modeling. During my initial flights to get a feel for the aircraft I tried to do everything and I found it quite exhausting as the systems complexity is fully (and superbly) modeled. It is quite hard to actually fly the aircraft when you continually have to check temperatures, flows, super and turbo charger settings, cowl flaps as well as navigate and communicate. Then I remembered:
“Realism does not mean having a difficult time with your flying.”
I have a flight crew! My job as the COTS is to manage that crew and fly the airplane responding as needed to situations along the way. With this in mind it was time to step away from the systems micromanagement and start experiencing the B377 as the Captain Of The Ship.
Thanks to an A2A forum member that posted a link to a real 1950 Pan Am schedule, I always had it in mind to recreate certain flights for this review. In addition, I planned to make it even more difficult and fly the main multi-leg segments on VATSIM. So let’s move on to the actual flights and get a feel for what Accusim and the Captain Of The Ship is all about.
For the inaugural flight of my COTS career (oh yes-not satisfied with an ultra-realistic aircraft and procedural model the A2A folks are putting YOU to work!) I decided upon a historic Pan-Am run from KSEA up to PAKT. This was for a couple of reasons:
With a planned dawn departure the routing looks like this:
KSEA BF CL YPW YZT MS PR ANN PAKT planned for FL240 for the 620nm trip.
The B377 navigation systems (or lack thereof!) assume the pilot is capable of handling basic VOR-VOR and NDB navigation principles. There is no GPS but not to worry….your navigator has a full chart suite at his disposal to assist you and as we shall see it works very well. In addition, the autopilot is incredibly simple - essentially you can turn right, left, pitch up, pitch down, and hold current altitude.
No RNAV, no VNAV….the PIC needs to navigate via the instruments and map position (or ATC instruction) and this will take practice for those entirely too used to “flying the magenta line” and punching buttons on your FMS! I would strongly recommend reading up on the basics of VOR/NDB navigation prior to commencing serious flights and especially if you plan to fly online!
From the moment you step into the cockpit as the captain, A2A fully immerses you in a way you have never previously experienced within FSX. On this particular flight once the greetings have been made I turn over full control of the FE station to my main man Fredo who immediately begins prepping his station for flight leaving me free to concentrate on setting up comms, navigation, and turning on the defrosters (if you don’t the windows get foggy - seriously!).
And you had best allow FE Fredo to finish his work as a crucial part of getting ready is to get passengers on board. They do not like a cold cabin and FA Heidi will let you know about it. A pop-up window allows you to select various real-time loading options for both passengers and fuel and the ground crew captain (GCP) cheerfully advises what actions he is performing. And in the meantime, the FE works through the checklist out loud and in sequence with all appropriate sound effects like moving switches, cowl flap adjustment, and starting the APU. When you hear something along the lines of “Ooo that warm air feels great” you know you can begin boarding the flight.
Air stairs appear and the baggage handling equipment docks at the loading doors correctly oriented to the hatch opening. And then you notice the lovely mechanically rotating beacon on the tail (part of the Shockwave lighting….I love it!) as the plane creaks and rocks as passengers and baggage get loaded in real time. You can skip the real time ground effects if desired - but why would you want to? You hear the FA greeting individual passengers as they board and they chunter away in the background settling in.
Then it’s time for push and start. For this flight I used the FSX ATC in conjunction with UT2 for maximum system stress. Another pop-up panel gives an “autostart” option and the FE cheerfully cranks the engines that open up with a throaty vibrating roar and settle into an idle rumble coupled with FE informing you “oil pressure coming up” and “Captain we need to increase our idle” (this to prevent fouling the spark plugs). Seat belt and no smoking signs trigger the FA briefing while you, in the right seat, continue running through the checklists for the PIC. The FO does his part by calling out flap assignments as you set them to 25 degrees takeoff.
The first time I touched the brakes it sounded like the Titanic sinking! And revving the engines during taxi firmly fixes just how much waiting power is there at your command in those 4 engines. After running through the final checklists, including a run-up, it’s time to get flying! The FO calls out “we’re rolling” as all the horses get unleashed (on the numbers or you will likely break something) and provides additional V-speed and rotation calls as the plane thunders down the runway.
Once in the air the B377 is delightful to fly by hand. It is very easy to trim for climb but be aware that it is a rather ponderous aircraft to maneuver even with the rudder boost enabled. In any event, it’s time to snap on the autopilot and start following the instruments as we climb through the dark and clouds under ATC control.
Onward and upward. After this first real formal flight, I developed a 5-leg trip based on real 1950’s Pan Am B377 ops to be flown exclusively on VATSIM taking us from New York to Geneva by way of Boston, Gander, Shannon, and Heathrow.
I will admit to being somewhat apprehensive about attempting this - especially the North Atlantic segment; however, several folks at the VATSIM forums provided useful guidance and encouragement giving me more confidence that I could make this work.
The flight plan to Boston showed a late morning departure and the following routing:
KLGA CMK HFD PUT NZW KBOS at a planned FL190 for such a short hop.
I did not take many screen shots during this leg as within 15 minutes after takeoff the aircraft hit severe turbulence - not only was the plane violently shaking but I could hear the screams of terrified passengers in the back! I was also notified by the crew of multiple injuries!
Now having flown in real life out of La Guardia, Kennedy, and Newark on multiple occasions, I can firmly attest to the horrible conditions at altitude and having this happen on a simulated flight with all the A2A effects working in the background left me simply managing the situation and keeping the B377 on course to destination to get the injured safely on the ground.
Sadly there was no local controller on VATSIM at the time or I would have considered requesting permission to perform an emergency landing at Hartford or Providence - in this case I went ahead and carried on through rough air finally getting the bird down safely in Boston. That’s the Captain Of The Ship’s call to make and it turned out to be the right one!
After the near-disaster on the run up to Beantown, I was hoping the next leg would go off a bit smoother heading on up to Gander in preparation for crossing the North Atlantic.
KBOS ENE PNN YQM YYG YGR YJY YQX CYQX was planned for by the navigator and me for the 830nm trip at FL250 leaving late in the morning.
And now for the main event - my first ever non-stop crossing of the North Atlantic from Gander over to Shannon. After much thought and consultation of the forecast charts, the actual flight route itself was fairly easy to plan. There are no navigation references once out of Gander VOR range until one arrives off the coast of Ireland. But knowing the navigator would have the general course plotted, all I had to do was track it with the wind until picking up the Shannon VOR….in theory! I did include the CRONO and DOGAL waypoints just to make life easier should a controller need some reference.
CYQX CRONO 5250N 5440N 5630N 5520N DOGAL SHA EINN at a planned cruise of FL270. I found myself really enjoying the buildup to the flight despite it being the longest I have attempted. And I was looking forward to seeing what surprises A2A might throw my way.
This flight really showed off everything the A2A B377 COTS has to offer in terms of technical and atmospheric immersion and quality.
On the atmosphere side you have the passengers being served lunch and dinner and the lovely FA Heidi coming on to the flight deck with:
And in the background the FE Fredo grumbling away as he babied the aircraft systems….opening and closing intercoolers. It really is HIS airplane and I’m just the driver!
And on the technical side the aircraft performs “by the book”. You WILL be step climbing this baby with this kind of load and it takes over an hour to get to final cruise altitude. One of the cool little nuances I discovered on this leg was the art of “getting on the step”. In a nutshell (and fully explained as an aside within the checklist) the step is “the range of the B377’s AOA where the plane is at its most efficient lift/drag ratio”….if you own a boat you would get this immediately.
When I finally crept up to FL270, I throttled back and adjusted for autolean settings and immediately noticed a loss of airspeed, power, and the nose was creeping up in level flight. I peeked outside and could definitely see the B377 cocked at quite a high AOA for level flight. I quickly scanned the checklist again and found the segment dealing with the “step”. I then applied full climb power again, climbed another 800 feet or so and then descended to FL270 where she stabilized quite nicely and easily entered the expected cruise speeds and correct attitude.
I had not seen this before due to the short ranges flown but with the heavy fuel load onboard, the impact was felt…subtle…but there. I did have to keep a bit more than the standard cruise power applied (autolean and props per checklist) until the center tank emptied out.
Another detail to be aware of is making sure you whack that “d” key every so often or your gyros will take you wandering right off course. Sure you might eventually hit the coast of Ireland but probably better to be in the vicinity of your destination.
After the mandatory crew rest period it was time to prep the B377 for the fairly short hop into some of the world’s busiest airspace - Heathrow.
In planning this leg I needed to be mindful of traffic volumes and the standard STARS to avoid conflicts with RNAV-equipped aircraft.
EINN CML STU BCN BSO BNN EGLL was planned with a 5 minute leg tracking the outbound 120 radial from BNN (or the same time frame tracking the inbound LCY NDB) before a final right turn to intercept the 27R ILS. I basically planned as if no control will be present to avoid scrambling around and the weather forecast seemed pretty solid with west winds for the day.
The flight was quite short and I was so busy actually flying, I barely had time to get screenshots. Plenty of jet traffic to keep me on my toes and the workload in the cockpit for a short flight is pretty intense. The FA did manage to sneak in a lunch service and even the hard working folks on the flight deck were treated to: “Excuse me gents-here’s some crackers and cheese”!
Before we follow the last leg of the trip over to Geneva I want to talk about the overall performance of the A2A B377 COTS on my relatively modest FSX system. Remember this snippet from my note to Robert?
“My only caveat being that if it runs like crap on my system (which I should know pretty quick) and I find myself unable to fairly review the beast I could hand it back for someone with a super-dooper system to run with?”
I needn’t have worried and neither should you. I am pleased to report that regardless of the A2A B377 COTS complexity and immersive depth, the model has absolutely ZERO impact on frames. The performance is actually extraordinary and I can state unequivocally it is the best flying experience I have EVER had within FSX.
Not a stutter, pause, frame drop, crash…this is what FSX should be like with ANY aircraft. As we have seen, the plane was flown under demanding conditions including 100% AI traffic injected by Ultimate Traffic 2 at KSEA surrounded by ORBX PNW scenery and covered in REX clouds. I even get minor issues from time-to-time with my usual GA aircraft in this region; however, the A2A B377 COTS was silky smooth.
A2A’s Scott Gentile had this to say when I asked how A2A manages to pull this off:
“This is the difference between a 3D modeler and a professional 3D simulation modeler, as its one thing to make a nice model, but quite another to make a nice model, frame-rate friendly…… We do everything we can to not bypass FSX, but things become interdependent on each other, so many times we have to turn off entire sections of the code. I don’t think anything you see in that cockpit in terms of systems and gauges is FSX – you are seeing directly into our Accu-Sim engine. There may be a button or something that is still using FSX, but off hand, I can’t think of one.”
Wait-what? Scott elaborates further:
“Our entire group is also obsessed with writing solid, clean, efficient code. Accu-Sim is huge, but it runs fast.
The flight model is FSX, but modified. The systems, however, are all being run in Accu-Sim. Every dial and switch in that 377 is linked and controlled by our own, independent code. The crew’s intelligence, captain’s log, etc. is also all controlled and processed within Accu-Sim. Our new single-engine fighters (Spitfire and soon P-40) take it a bit further by completely turning off the FSX aircraft engine and slave it to our own engine. The 377 is a bit of a hybrid, considering it is a 4-engined beast. This keeps it running fast too.
It is easier for us to work when we spend most of our time in our own engine environment. Our sound engine runs alongside FSX’s sound engine, so when we want to add a certain sound like rattles, wind, switches, levers, etc., we are working in our own engine.
FSX is still King in terms of being a solid, opened, quality platform by a long shot for what we do as well. These are good times for flight simulation for sure when two independent flight sim engines can work seamlessly as one.”
One thing is for sure-I would re-purchase every single one of my current payware aircraft if the A2A magic was to work on them! I’ll state it again in case you missed it the first time-the A2A B377 COTS from a system performance standpoint is simply extraordinary!
“I love my aeroplane ‘cause she’s got style”
Back to the flying as Clipper 01 continues on her final leg to one of my favorite European airport - LSGG Geneva. Depending on the winds it can be a very tricky approach, quite similar to Ketchikan (PAKT) with surrounding high terrain and a big lake in which to splash if the approach is muffed.
Departing EGLL is no picnic either given the volume of traffic. With a wind-directed departure from Heathrow calling for using RWY 27L, I was able to slightly modify the DVR5F SID to accommodate task loading on the flight deck.
EGLL WOD OCK DVR BNE CTL RLP FRI SPR LSGG was the planned routing to Switzerland and based on the weather, I was anticipating a RWY23 arrival via the FRI 1T STAR making for a very busy arrival providing all went well.
I certainly hope you have enjoyed the ride and now have a taste of the flight experience offered by the A2A B377 COTS package. The routes were selected to mirror real flight schedules into interesting and tricky environments as well as put the model under as much pressure as I could within the sim and the constraints of my system. Give the routes a try with either AI or online ATC - you should find them enjoyable.
“Oh I want to get away
I am recommending the Air To Air Simulations B377 Captain Of The Ship package for the AVSIM Gold Star Award. In my eyes, A2A has created a powerhouse of unique technical innovation, superlative performance, staggering system modeling of a rare aircraft, and unparalleled immersion to the FSX simulator pilot.
Frankly, I am blown away. Every flight was a pleasure to make and a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience. The decision to system micromanage to the nth degree or allow FE Fredo to deal with it leaving me to concentrate on being the captain and navigation. The crew and passenger audio immersion coupled with the various wonderful aircraft grumbles, howls, squeaks, squeals, whines, and whooshes will rattle your windows if you dare crank it up on external speakers, like I did (sending the poor dog scurrying away under the bed and my son onto my lap gazing in wonder at Daddy’s latest flying machine!).
The only visual miscue I noted was the aforementioned fuse panel. Some of you may point out the lack of a virtual cabin - I have one in another payware aircraft and the amount of time I spent looking around within was approximately 3 seconds overall. Just for the sake of completeness, I did ask A2A’s Scott Gentile about a virtual cabin:
“Every project is like a bucket, and at the end of the project, that bucket should be just about full. We certainly could have made a virtual cabin, but we would have to take something out of the bucket. It’s just a matter of priorities and there was always a feature that took priority over making a virtual cabin.”
Use your imagination folks. With the depth of immersion involved in flying the A2A B377 COTS you will have no trouble picturing what’s going on behind you. Believe me you will certainly hear it!
The A2A B377 COTS is, simply put, the very definition of what flying in FSX should be all about. I loved it….and so will you.
What I Like About The B377 Captain Of The Ship
What I Don't Like About The B377 Captain Of The Ship
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