The Apache helicopter makes no attempt to hide what it is. It looks mean. It wears its guns on the outside. In production since 1983, it has seen combat in Panama, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently Lebanon. So what is it doing here in Flight Simulator, where there are no missiles, bullets, or bombs?
Short answer: in addition to being well armed, the Apache attack helicopter is one of the fastest, most agile helicopters anyone can fly. It is also a lot of fun.
Installation and Documentation
Both versions, for FS2004 and FSX, come in zip files. If you already know what you’re doing, the installation is easy; if you don’t, the instructions are there, but they’re buried one folder down. I’ve already commented on this in my review of another AlphaSim product, the Dornier Do217, so I won’t belabor the point here.
When it first came out, the Apache came with a one-page installation guide describing how to start the engines (one key will do it), move around the cabin, open the doors, and remove the pilot figures (though that shouldn’t be necessary). That was it. With version 1.3, there is now an illustrated history of the Apache and its weapons systems. There is also a kneeboard reference card and a kneeboard checklist, with recommended settings for speed and power.
The custom sounds are minimal. The rotor and engine sound is modeled, as well as the sound of landing gear touching down. Nothing beyond that. About the non-existent start-up and shut-down sounds, the installation guide says, “these are not currently implemented. We hope to provide a future update which has these.” That’s information that should probably go on the product page.
What’s more frustrating is that, during flight, we don’t hear the engine throttle up or back: it’s all one constant pitch, whether idling or at full power. Someone commented on this in the support forum, and I hope it gets fixed.
So much for bad news. The good news is that the visual modeling is first-rate and, in the FSX version, takes advantage of several new features: bump-modeling and light bloom are both implemented, and when the helicopter is backlit, it casts shadows on itself. The contours are exact, the textures are sharp, and the animation is smooth. Crew doors open and, of course, you can see the rotors spin. (In the FS9 version, the main rotor also tilts according to what you are doing with the cyclic; apparently there was some trouble getting this to work in FSX.) The landing gear flexes, as well.
But the best animations are the crew. This seems to be an AlphaSim specialty. If there’s a developer that can make better looking heads, with more natural movements, I don’t know about it. In this aircraft there are two crew members, a pilot and a gunner. The pilot sits above the gunner, and his head movements follow the cyclic (i.e., your joystick).
Also tied to the cyclic -- and therefore to the pilot’s head movements -- is a chin gun, under the helicopter’s nose, and a turret on the tip. This is the aircraft’s infrared targeting system, which displays images and data on the pilot’s monocle (modeled here on the pilot’s face, though it isn’t part of the virtual cockpit). The coordination of these three movements is completely convincing. When the helicopter turns, the pilot looks into the turn, and the infrared imaging turret follows his gaze.
I would like to have see more liveries. Currently there is only one for the AH-64A, the United States Army. Happily, there is a paint kit.
The panel textures in the 2D cockpit are all sharp as a tack, although on my 17” monitor the torque gauge was too small to read easily; with 19” monitors becoming more common, that probably doesn’t matter. There are pop-up panels for GPS and tuning the radios, but nothing exotic. (This is the A-model Apache, so features from the D-model, such as heads-up display, aren’t modeled here.)
There is no start-up procedure to speak of: you just have to make sure the battery is switched on and, if you’re picky, the avionics. For some this will be a disappointment, for others, a relief, since in a real Apache (I am told) the start-up procedures take a full thirty minutes. That’s a long time to be flipping switches if all you really want to do is get in the air and buzz some treetops.
In their heart of hearts, helicopters want to be flown from the virtual cockpit (VC), preferably with TrackIR. The VC in this helicopter looks great, but doesn’t have a lot of clickable switches. One of them, avionics, was originally mislabeled such that on was really off and vice versa. I mentioned this to one of the developers and two days later he shot me back a revised texture file. But this is really beside the point. The big news is: this helicopter has two virtual cockpits, one for the pilot and one for the gunner.
This is not just a matter of filling the right-hand panel with gauges, as it would be on a regular flight deck: in an Apache, the gunner sits in his own separate pod, below the pilot, with his own panel and his own point of view (closer to the ground). In this model, you can fly the helicopter from either cockpit, and both cockpits are reproduced with equal care.
Gauge quality is average; movement is smooth, but when viewed from close-up, some of the instruments look fuzzy.
When a model has as much detail as this one, you worry about low framerates. In this case, there’s no cause for anxiety. From what other users have reported, framerates in this aircraft are not an issue. This was my experience as well -- and I did most of my flying in FSX. If performance is a problem, you can remove the pilots and disable the moving map (which is off by default anyway), but I didn’t find either of these measures necessary.
It would be absurd for a non-pilot, such as myself, to render judgement on the flight model, so let me describe the flight characteristics. Unlike every other helicopter that I have flown in Flight Simulator, the Apache does not mind sudden movements. I guess that’s the difference between an attack helicopter and everything else. If you get up enough speed -- and the Apache is meant to go fast -- you can do rolls and even loops. Hovering still takes practice, but the landing gear is quite strong, so while you might roll backward, even a hard landing will usually stick.
The main difficulty I had was not landing tail-first. Unlike, say, the default Robinson, the Apache has a very low tail and it’s easy to ding if you don’t level out before touchdown. There is a wheel back there, but it can’t absorb the full weight of the helicopter; the front gear are supposed to touch down first. The trick (or at least my trick) is to slow way down, well in advance of touching the ground, so that you don’t have to flare. It’s the flare that dings the tale.
In flight, the Apache handles like a sports car. I can only guess what it would be like on the battlefield, but in downtown Chicago (what Chicagoans call “the Loop”) I was able to fly in low and fast, dodge between skyscrapers, and execute hairpin turns around municipal landmarks. Ordinarily, I’m just not good enough to make this work -- not at high speed, and certainly not in a helicopter. So what made the difference? Practice is part of it: the more you fly, the more you can do. But mainly it was the helicopter: this is the kind of flying (if not the precise environment) that the Apache was designed for.
AlphaSim sells its Apache for 40 New Zealand dollars. (In US currency, that’s about $28.) This is more expensive than their other helicopters, and I’m not sure why, especially when the sound package is so minimal. Still the visuals are outstanding, framerates are high, and you can fly from both cockpits.
For long helicopter flights, I still like the Aerosoft Jayhawk, because it has a three-axis autopilot. But for seat-of-the-pants, turn-and-burn, light-the-fires-and-kick-the-tires helo action, the Apache is very satisfying. Or, rather, it will be when it gets better sound.
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