One of the really great aspects of Microsoft Flight Simulator is the sheer indulgence you can lavish on creating the ultimate 'dream hangar'. Whatever your fancy, whether it be a Boeing 767 for those long sectors to far flung foreign destinations, or perhaps a rare and exotic warbird as your chosen steed for that upcoming virtual fly-in; the choice and possibilities really are almost limitless.
A truly wonderful thing and I think that most of us who spend a little bit of time striving to improve our flightsim experience are thankful for it – “long may it continue”, you will shout. But what if your hangar wasn't quite so grand and accommodating? What if your virtual landlord, keen to recoup some of the huge losses he's suffered on that virtual sub-prime debt suddenly announces that you've got to find a new home for your rather significant collection of machines, and the only option he can offer is the small, cramped hangar on the other side of the field? I suppose what I'm saying is, and brace yourself for this... What if you had to choose?
The aircraft under the spotlight in this review is the latest release from the stable of aircraft developer SibWings Lab, the Cessna O-1/L-19 Bird Dog.
Installation and Documentation
Purchase and installation is both simple and straight-forward. After your purchase is complete, you will receive an e-mail which contains both the download link to the 90.8MB self-executable file and instructions to successfully installing and activating the product. I had absolutely no issues at all with this process, but do yourself a favour and ensure you read the instructions carefully as there is a period of time that must elapse before you can request a new link if you're unfortunate enough to foul up your first attempt.
The 40 page User Guide is a real treat. I fully admit to being the sort of person who typically jumps straight in and prefers to figure everything out for myself, inevitably returning to the manual with the proverbial tail between the legs once I realised that the landing light switch (or whatever I'm frantically clicking, tongue half out looking patently ridiculous) has absolutely no affect on getting the APU online.
Not so with the Bird Dog manual. If you're anything like me, try to resist the natural urge and do have a quick read – it’s a concise and extremely well written document that really deserves to be read. Manuals can often be a little overbearing, but this one is pitched perfectly with a good balance of things you need to know, such as performance data and checklists, and things you simply might like to know.
A significant portion of the manual describes the history and development of the design along with information about the type's operational service history (most notably in Vietnam), which you can take or leave. For me, a particularly nice touch is the inclusion of individual aircraft histories for the four examples provided within the package, and is indicative of the overall care and attention that this product has received from its creators.
With the manual safely stowed and the sim up and running, you'll be the proud recipient of four new individual aircraft models to your collection. The four models include three land-based variants, the main differences characterised by fixed-pitch propeller, retractable ski, and constant-speed variable pitch propeller versions respectively. The final variant comes with a set of floats, essentially giving you a Bird Dog for all seasons. This really is a serious and rugged bush aeroplane which will be most at home in the more inhospitable of environments.
It’s a credit to the developer that four individual models were produced, each with its own characteristics and paint scheme. Personally, I am not a fan of products that come with countless repaints, I simply get lost in the variety. I prefer to have a single repaint for each aircraft and then perhaps choose to add any third party repaints that might appeal.
SibWings have definitely opted for the quality, not quantity approach, and I think this is appropriate because you always have the option of adding more repaints, whether it is from the developer's website or one of the other popular sites.
The exterior of the aircraft is visually very pleasing. All four models benefit from all the usual FSX features such as bump, reflection and specular mapping, and dynamic self shadows and the end result is impressive. The textures are both detailed and crisp; the Bird Dog is festooned with rivets which showcase the modelling work particularly well. The exterior model simply oozes quality, so don't be surprised if your pre-flight walk-around becomes an ever more lengthy affair.
The Bird Dog is a simple type so there is a limit to what can be animated beyond the standard control surfaces and doors; however SibWings have added some lovely features, such as rumbling, vibrating exhaust stubs. Open the engine cowlings with the engine running and you'll be rewarded with the entire engine block shuddering with life - wonderful.
When I read a review for a new aircraft add-on, I skip straight to the images of the virtual cockpit. I do this because most of the time, not always, but most of the time, I get a good idea of whether its a product I might consider buying, whether it's worth investing any more of my time reading the review, merely from the quality of the virtual cockpit - they have become that important for me. This is especially the case for GA types such as the Bird Dog, where you're going to be spending 99% of your time looking out, so the view better be good, right?
Allow me to alleviate any fears right away - the Bird Dog's virtual cockpit is one of the most immersive VCs out there. There are a number of features that make the Bird Dog's VC so good, the gauges are smooth and clear, the textures are appropriately subtle, the switches are easily clickable (unless you're trying to start the non-existent APU with the landing light switch. You're not...are you?). I could go on. All of these points aside, the most important point is that it just 'feels' right. It does what every virtual cockpit should do; it takes you from your living room into the cockpit.
The interior has that lingering presence of authenticity, so you tend to find that you're not really looking at whether a particular gauge looks real or accurate or out of place, you never really get to the point where you ask yourself those questions because it soon becomes irrelevant. The development team have clearly recognised the importance of creating a genuine atmosphere, and you can see traces of their effort wherever you look; whether it is the weathered and worn panel, the slightly glazed gauges or imperfect scribbles of a hand written compass swing card.
True to form, the four variants each come with their own virtual cockpit, each with their own unique scratches and idiosyncrasies. Again, this is a nice touch and it further reinforces the ever-present feeling that this product has real quality about it.
By this point I had read the excellent manual and had loaded the aircraft for the imminent first test flight at a favourite airfield of mine. I had completed the external walk-around to great satisfaction and after marvelling at the virtual cockpit had begun to familiarise myself with everything I would need to complete the flight.
Now I had to pray - 'Please let the flight model be as good as the rest of the package. Please let it fly like a Bird, and for everything that's good on this Earth, let it not be a Dog!' At this point, Mrs H walked in and found me on my knees, talking to my computer screen about Birds and Dogs. Let’s move on.
Needless to say I was pretty anxious that the Bird Dog not be let down on what, let's face it, is the most important aspect of any aircraft add-on, the realism and fidelity of the flight model. As a real-world tail wheel stick n’ rudder jockey myself, this is the area that I always reserve most scrutiny for. Is it possible that all of this other window dressing, fancy as it is, flatters to deceive when it comes to the main event? No, it's a gem. Let's take a quick test flight to learn more.
Engine start is no more complicated than ensuring you have the basic ingredients of fuel, air and spark, and other than a handful of supplementary tasks such as turning the generator on, you're good to go in fairly short order. Taxiing the aircraft is straightforward, and it feels much like a Citabria does in real life, the tail wheel steering is progressive, and much like the real thing there's a sweet spot to be found, a balance between rudder and tail wheel deflection (the two are directly linked albeit with dampening springs), forward speed, differential braking and throttle setting.
It is something of an art to manoeuvre the Bird Dog in confined spaces, and whilst by no means difficult, if you're used to default aircraft it may take a little while to appreciate the attention that is required to taxi the aircraft to best effect.
The aircraft waddles satisfyingly from side to side as the weight shifts in response to your attempts to negotiate a successful path to the runway. This is best appreciated from one of the external views, the effects on the main gear are particularly noticeable. So you've made it this far and you're ready to go flying.
Wind from the right is noticeable as the nose nods in acknowledgement. Forward stick brings the tail up and a stab of rudder seems to kill the subsequent gyroscopic procession. As I complete the first syllable of “Something's not right”, the starboard wing lifts, and before I can counter with in-to-wind aileron the weight shifts onto the port wheel and induces a yawing motion to the left. I counter with right rudder but when it becomes apparent that my tail wheel is on a non-stop course to overtake me, I chop the power and try to dampen the rotation. Round we go. I've ground looped!
I was both surprised and pleased at the results of my first eleven second test flight. It is the first time that I have ground looped an aircraft within Flight Simulator - and I mean properly ground looped. This really was the best possible start to my test flight, and with a new-found respect for the lengths to which the development team had gone with the flight model, I humbly made my way back to the runway for another go.
Once safely airborne I proceeded to climb and explore the handling characteristics, beginning with some stalls. The flight model offers convincing and fairly benign behaviour in all configurations, and readers won't be surprised to hear that the stall comes at absurdly low airspeeds, so I moved promptly onto spinning. This was an interesting part of the flight test.
Performing standard incipient spins, and spins with perhaps a single rotation presented no difficulties. I then moved onto a competition spin where the entry is more critical (because the judges will mark you down if they see the nose drop before the rotation starts). I wasn't at all surprised to struggle to get the Bird Dog to comply, after all she's no lean carbon fibre competition mount. I was however, fairly startled when the spin went flat. Not only did it go flat, but it was unrecoverable.
After picking my teeth out from the tangled mess of twisted metal, I loaded up another flight and altered the fuel and payload values to try to achieve a more forward Centre of Gravity. This, I thought, had been the culprit. Second attempt, this time a standard entry but I kept the spin going beyond a couple of rotations, and sure enough the spin again went flat. I experimented with various techniques but none appeared to offer a satisfactory solution.
With the upper air work complete I returned to the airfield to bash the circuit. The book figures for the approach speed are cited as 70kts, but I found that this induced too much float in the flare. It's probably a good starting figure, but you might want to experiment with what works for you and think about bringing this figure down, particularly if you're looking to put the Bird Dog into especially short airstrips or gravel bars. I found that full flap was rarely necessary and preferred to fly the approach with a single stage of flap, going to half flap (second stage) on short final.
The Bird Dog really is something of a puppy in the circuit. It handles well and presents no particular difficulties. It's draggy airframe means that with power off the energy dissipates rather quickly. The side-slipping characteristics are well modelled, and you'll notice that the slip becomes progressively less controllable the more flap you add. The handling qualities are docile enough to encourage the beginner, but refined enough to reward the more seasoned of simmers.
This is equally true when it comes to getting the aeroplane on the ground; it can be done with the minimum of effort, or with a bit of experimentation it is possible to perform some quite intricate tail wheel landings. The Bird Dog can be wheeled on, or three-pointed, but unless you're really trying to land on a dime, the tail low wheel technique seems appropriate for most situations.
So, the flight model really is quite an achievement and in certain areas, it excels. I haven't flown a Bird Dog, and I suppose the closest thing I've come to in terms of configuration and geometry is the Super Decathlon, but I'm convinced that SibWings have got this one about as right as they can.
Attention to detail extends to the sound files included within the package. Custom sounds are provided as recorded from a real Bird Dog aircraft, and they do a good job of adding to the overall experience.
The Bird Dog runs extremely smooth, without a jitter or stutter to speak of. The test system for this review is around 2 years old and I'd guess is fairly representative of a large majority of readers. If you can run vanilla FSX okay, you should have no problem with this package.
Minimum requirements are given as...
Windows XP SP3/Vista/7
Recommended requirements are given as...
Windows XP SP3/Vista/7
Summary / Closing Remarks
The past year has arguably been one of the best for third party add-ons. A number of developers are really pushing the envelope of what's possible, raising the benchmark. As standards improve, so do our expectations and developers must work ever harder to meet them.
In many ways the decision to release the Bird Dog was a brave one, when you consider the esteemed company it holds. SibWings have in a sense pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this product because it really does sit comfortably with the very best of them. It's a simple aeroplane, but it does the important things incredibly well, and with add-ons such as Tongass Fjords and the upcoming release of Orbx's Pacific North West, it's a very relevant product. I wonder, have bush pilots ever had it so good?
It has been a real privilege to sample the Bird Dog, and I think what SibWings has achieved is a real triumph. If good old-fashioned stick n’ rudder, ‘seat of your pants’ bush flying is your thing, this aeroplane is simply a ‘must have’. In fact, even if you're more at home on the flight deck of a commercial airliner only infrequently dabbling into the world of ‘Puddle Jumping’, I would give serious consideration to making the Bird Dog that occasional indulgence.
And what of my leaner aircraft collection, the cramped hangar with limited room for all but the very pick of aeroplanes, does the Bird Dog have a home in my dream hangar? Indeed it does, and it's right at the very front.
What I Like About The O-1/L-19 Bird Dog
What I Don't Like About The O-1/L-19 Bird Dog
Tell A Friend About this Review!
All Rights Reserved