Just imagine traveling from New York to London in less than two hours. That is exactly what happened on September 1st, 1974 when Major James V. Sullivan and Noel F. Widdifield made this 3,461 mile flight at FL800 in just 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds, including an in-flight refueling. The machine used to make this happen was none other than the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ Long Range Strategic Reconnaissance aircraft.
The Blackbird, which is commonly referred to as the “Habu” by its pilots and crew members, is a reconnaissance aircraft developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works program capable of surveying up to 100,000 square miles of earth per hour at speeds approaching mach 3.3 and altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet. In fact, the SR-71 was so fast that its speed was the only form of evasive action when targeted by enemy aircraft and surface to air missiles. Not a single Blackbird was ever shot down throughout its 34 year history.
The SR-71 first entered service with the U.S. Air Force on December 22nd, 1966 after two years of test flights and use by the Central Intelligence Agency, when aircraft number 64-17976 was delivered to the 4200th Strategic Recon Wing at Beale AFB, California (which later became the 9th Reconnaissance Wing).This aircraft, in combination with 32 other Blackbirds, including 29 “A” models, 2 “B” model trainers, and a “C” model, completed 17,300 sorties with a total of 53,490 total flight hours, 11,675 hours of which were at speeds in excess of mach 3.
Making the SR-71 so successful was the Pratt & Whitney J58 engines capable of providing 32,500 pounds of thrust that could be used with continuous afterburners. Also adding to the success of this aircraft was the fact that the design yielded a low radar signature which causes many to consider the Blackbird the first step towards stealth technology.
But as they say all good things must come to an end, and for the SR-71 the end began on the 26th of January 1990 when the U.S. Air Force determined that the Blackbird was too costly to maintain and fly. However, the Air Force did reinstate a handful of the Blackbirds into service in 1995, but after a short three year stretch the SR-71 program was officially laid to rest in 1998.
But just because the Air Force no longer employs the SR-71 does not mean that you can’t. Thanks to the team at Just Flight, you can now experience the virtual skies of Flight Simulator 2004 with the release of the Pilot’s SR-71 Blackbird package available at www.justflight.com. With the Pilot’s SR-71 you will be able to see the world the same way the real pilots did at speeds of mach 3.3 and altitudes up to 85,000 feet, and aboard one of the most historically accurate SR-71 models available for FS9.
The authenticity of this package begins with realistic flight dynamics, interior modeling, and sound set, and continues right through the dripping fuel that leaves stains on the ground, the white tires on the landing gear, and seven historically accurate liveries. In addition to this, you will also find a detailed drag chute that can be jettisoned for an added touch of realism, and very authentic blazing afterburner effects.
There is plenty more to this package, like a unique heads up display (HUD) and an animated fuel door, but we will get to all of that and more later. The first thing we need to do is get this package installed, which I will be doing with the boxed version available for $29.99, a price that I will determine the reasonability of by the end of this review. So strap yourself in and get ready to see how this bird can change the way you use Flight Simulator.
Getting It Installed
Inside of the SR-71 folder will be two documents that can be viewed from this directory or through the kneeboard. The first is a reference manual which gives you some specifications of the aircraft, and the second is the checklist, which is a somewhat inclusive guide to operating the aircraft from startup to shutdown.
The third piece of documentation comes in the form of a paperback manual included with the DVD. This manual will give you a brief history lesson of the SR-71, show you how to install the package, and give you some advice on how to fly the aircraft. This is all in addition to some tips and tricks for operating the Blackbird and getting the best performance from your system. Speaking of performance, this package comes with two different texture sets to fit the needs of your system. Let’s move on and see how to change the textures and what this process can do for you.
Changing The Textures
The SR-71 comes with two different sets of textures. By default, the aircraft will be installed with high detail 32 bit textures which provide a fantastic visual model. However, if you want to improve the frame rates, you can change to an alternative set of DXT3 textures which could increase your frames considerably, but will sacrifice a little detail.
To change the textures you will need to insert the DVD and choose the menu option titled “Change SR-71 Textures”. A program will then appear giving you the option to choose which textures you wish to use. This process can be done anytime you want to change from the 32 bit to DXT3 textures or back, and will not affect the aircraft in any other way than to enhance or lessen the model detail applicably.
So how much of a difference does this make? Well, on my system I found that the DXT3 textures improved my frame rates by an average of 5 fps, and at times as much as 8 fps. On two other test systems the average increased to 8-10 fps with a maximum of 14 fps. This can come in handy for those of you with a more modest computer, or those who use laptops. The difference in detail is noticeable but not glaring. I found the 32 bit textures to be more authentic with a better display of the intricate details, such as the rivets and decals.
With that said, I would recommend trying both texture sets and deciding for yourself. In my case, I have chosen to stick with the DXT3 textures as they are more frame rate friendly, allowing me to keep my scenery settings high. Plus, since I do most of my flying from inside the aircraft, there is little need for me to worry about how clear the tail markings are.
The Exterior Model
From one end to the other, this GMAX model has been crafted with an obvious attention to detail. There are seven liveries including 3 from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (No. 17974, 17975, and 17976), No. 17972, a DBX and NASA version, and a replica of the SR-71 on display at the Duxford Air Museum (No. 17962). As you can imagine, there is not a whole lot of difference in each of the paint schemes except for the tail markings.
Even though the aircraft is somewhat reflective in just the right light, the dull flat black paint dominates this bird from all angles most of the time. The 32 bit textures are more defining than the DXT3’s and more reflective. The smaller details will be more vivid with the 32 bit textures, but in reality, I have found that the difference is modest at best.
Of course, you can expect the usual animations, such as an opening canopy, retractable landing gear, and animated control surfaces, but there is a lot more to this model. For starters, the afterburner effects blaze brilliantly past the animated exhaust petals as fuel drips to the ground. The lost fuel will leave stains on the ground wherever you go. Speaking of fuel, the refueling bay door on top of the aircraft is also animated, as well as the intakes, and pilot figure.
When it comes time to stop, the default spoiler key command can be used to deploy a detailed drag chute. Another press of the spoiler key will jettison the chute and leave you with some fairly powerful brakes that combined with the chute, and of course a proper landing, will allow the Blackbird to land on airstrips of only a few thousand feet.
And as for the frame rates, I was pleased with the fps with the 32 bit textures, and very pleased with the DXT3 textures. From the external view, I averaged 44.4 fps with the 32 bit textures and 51.2 fps with the DXT3’s, which is just about 3 frames less than I average with the default 747 with the scenery around 80%. Now let’s go see if the virtual cockpit can beat that.
The Interior Model
The first thing you will need to do when you step inside of the aircraft is to zoom out a little bit. By default, you will be very close to the panel with a close-up view of the turn indicator, but nothing else. As you zoom back, you will notice that the panel is comprised almost exclusively of dial gauges, many of which have an old-fashioned military look to them with a modern touch of color, just as I would expect.
The most essential instruments are right smack in the center of the panel, including the airspeed indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, and artificial horizon. These gauges, along with the radio altimeter and heading indicator are the largest of the instruments and remain clear and legible even if you zoom out for a more panoramic view.
Even though much of the virtual cockpit is “clickable”, and the majority of the gauges are functional, there are a few instruments that do little more than take up space. Most of the useless instrumentation is located on the panels on either side of the seat, which makes these parts of the virtual cockpit seem a little less worthy of being payware quality.
Despite the minimal percentage of the cockpit that is not functional, the rest of the VC more than makes up for it, especially the fuel indicator to the lower right side of the panel, and the detailed trim wheels to the lower left. The virtual cockpit contains the usual animations, such as the rudder pedals and throttle, along with the trim wheels and many of the switches.
The view is slightly limited to the front as soon as you close the canopy because of the center canopy strut. This is not much of a problem with the exception that it can be an impediment when trying to see the runway. Other than that and two struts on either side of the canopy, which do not impede your vision too badly, you actually have a fairly panoramic view.
One neat feature of the virtual cockpit is that you will always have a brighter view outside than in any other view. Even if it is pitch black outside, the VC view will brighten up the outside world to look like late dusk. The only real problem that I have with the virtual cockpit is that the gauges are not shadowed darkly enough, and I would like to see a better display of depth.
The frame rates in the virtual cockpit were just a pinch less than the exterior model with each texture set. As opposed to the 44.4 and 51.2 fps I achieved earlier, the VC provided 44 and 50.5 respectively. I should note that when using the HUD and TCAS my frame rates did drop by an additional 2 to 3 fps, and not more than 1 frame with the HSI.
The Panels and Sub-Panels
The upper most portion of the panel begins with the digital vertical speed indicator and works its way up with the radio altimeter adjuster, digital airspeed indicator, glide slope indicator, green and red HUD display, the pitot switch, and a toggle to display or hide the canopy center strut.
Below this section is the airspeed and attitude indicators, altimeter, lights and GPS switches, and a radio panel, TCAS, and HSI switch, all of which will display the applicable instrument in the lower left side of the panel. The rest of the panel is made up of an autopilot panel, clock, viewpoint position and zoom controls, trim wheels, fuel tank selectors and readouts, and a G meter.
There are two HUD sub panels that can be displayed; one red and one green. The problem with the HUD’s is that you can’t read it too well as the canopy struts are in the way. Even if you remove the center strut, which is a sub panel itself, about 30% of the HUD is unreadable. Therefore, it would be best to either eliminate the panel by use of the shift + 1 key command, or move the HUD down a little to make the important information visible.
The rest of the sub panels can be accessed through switches on the main panel, including the default Garmin GPS, which I was hoping would be replaced for this package. Every instrument is very clear and legible, and the view is so-so with the canopy center strut in place, and very good without it. For the sake of realism, however, I would recommend keeping it where it is.
From the rumbling Buick engine sounds at startup to the whining shutdown, this sound set is just about as authentic as you can get, with one exception that I will discuss momentarily. When you start the aircraft you will first hear the sounds of an automobile engine running. This is used to recreate the manner in which the real SR-71 was started, with Buick engines configured to hoses that blew air into the engines. During this process you will hear at least one person talking, and perhaps more, unfortunately I have not been able to make out what they are saying, but I assume that they are the crew chiefs.
Once the engines start to rotate, you will hear them begin to wind up with a slight hissing sound over top of a growing rumble. After this, the more throttle you use, the more hissing you will hear, the less throttle you use, the more rumble you will hear. When you shut down it sounds similar to the Learjet winding down, but with a little more bass.
From inside the aircraft you will not hear a whole lot more than a soft whisper from startup to shutdown. This is because the sound set is intended to recreate how the pilots would normally hear the aircraft with their pressure suits and helmets on. Of course you can always jack up the volume in the FS9 sound settings menu, but I happen to prefer the more authentic hushed sound. Since the cockpit is silenced quite a bit, you will not hear a lot of the usual clicks that accompany the use of toggle switches and other instruments, but you will still hear the landing gear retract.
Now on to the one problem with the sound set. Above I mentioned that the aircraft startup sequence begins with the Buick automobile engine, but unfortunately, that is the case no matter where you start the aircraft, including a FL500 restart. Though this is not exactly realistic, but it doesn't occur often enough to leave me disappointed with the sound set.
How's It Fly?
Surprisingly well. From novice to expert, simmers of all skill levels should have no problem whatsoever maintaining control of this bird, even at speeds approaching mach 3.3 and altitudes of 80,000+ feet. The formula for flying the SR-71 is simple, the faster you go, the longer it will take to maneuver the aircraft. At 250 knots you can follow a traffic pattern with ease, try doing that at mach 2 and you may just find yourself in another country trying to make the turn onto final.
The Blackbird does not require a whole lot of room for takeoff, at least not when compared to a 737. The biggest problem that I ran into during my first few flights was trying to keep my airspeed below the 250 knot limit while less than 10,000 feet. At first I tried taking off at ½ throttle, but I found that required too much runway. Then I tried taking off at full throttle and cutting back after takeoff, but then I shot passed 250 knots very quickly. The solution was to keep it at 2/3 throttle during takeoff and cut back to ½ throttle on the climb.
While in flight, the only problem that I encountered was that it can be very difficult to follow the flight plan unless you throttle it down a lot. While attempting to use the Blackbird in Airliner Pilot (a pilot career oriented program), I had points deducted for falling off of my flight plan many times. The trick is to get it down to under 500 knots when anticipating a turn and you should be fine. Those of you who use the FS Passengers program may also run into some difficulty when it comes to keeping the speed down to keep the passengers happy.
When it comes time to land the only impediment I ever ran into was the strut in the middle of the canopy which can prevent you from seeing the runway. If you fly in the “cockpit” view, you can eliminate the middle strut as it is a sub-panel, or you can approach from a slight angle so that you can keep your eye on the runway. Personally, I choose to land in the virtual cockpit as I find the view much less limiting.
With the drag chute and descent braking system, you can touchdown at speeds upwards of 190 knots and still have plenty of time to slow down. For best results, I find 175 knots to be optimal, just as described in the checklist. It is important to note that when extending the landing gear you will likely encounter a noticeable drag, but it can be helpful to lose some of that excess fuel.
the reference guide, here are some more specifications for this aircraft:
When it comes to comparing the reference specifications to the real world aircraft, there is not a great deal of difference, but in reality, the aircraft will exceed most of its so called limits without encountering too much adversity. For example, the ceiling is 85,000 feet, but I managed to cross that barrier and scale to over 90,000 feet on a few occasions. From time to time I can even break the mach 3.3 rule… my max thus far is mach 3.5.
Normally, I refrain from the long boring haul over the Pacific from the U.S. to Japan, but for today’s flight I am going to take advantage of the Blackbird’s incredible speed to venture from Los Angeles to Tokyo. For a little added realism, I have enlisted the help of a few fellow simmers to keep me company, and perhaps help us with an in-flight refuel on the way.
Since I still tend to have problems keeping my airspeed down during takeoff, I have allowed my wingmen to take off first and get up to speed so that I don’t end up in Japan before they take off. While waiting for the others to get out of my way, I kept busy watching the fuel drip from the Blackbird and leave stains on the taxiway.
Once cleared for takeoff (metaphorically), I set the throttles to “full military power” (50%) and found myself running out of runway very quickly. I managed to get airborne with a little runway left, but this takeoff causes me to reiterate my previous comment about using 2/3 throttle. Once I got up to a few thousand feet I began to make the turn back to the west over towards the Pacific, but failed to keep my speed down. This made for a very wide turn and threw me at least 5 miles off course with only a few minutes passed.
Fortunately, I had no problem catching up to my fellow simmers, and even found myself almost 20 miles ahead of them trying to slow down. Once we finally got into formation, I realized that slowing down enough for the others to keep up with me would almost triple the time it would take me to get to Japan…time for a new plan.
The new plan was simple; fly by myself until I need a refuel. Though not as exciting as flying with others, I was finally able to kick in the afterburners and let loose for a while. After a while it was time for that refuel, but finding a KC-135 in the middle of the Pacific is not the easiest thing to do. After sharing my coordinates (predicting where I would be in a few minutes), a fellow simmer came to my rescue and the in-flight refueling began.
This brings me to a small problem. The autopilot in the SR-71 does not have an auto-throttle, which can make refueling awfully difficult for someone who is used to letting the aircraft do all of the work for you. Eventually we got everything hammered out and I was back in business with a full load of fuel…that was a problem.
How can it possibly be bad to have a full load of fuel? Well, after looking at the map, I realized that I was a lot closer to Japan than I thought. Since the Blackbird requires no more than 25% fuel load when landing, I decided to show boat for a while to burn some off. It worked, and I found myself over Japan shortly thereafter.
After trying to follow the traffic pattern at mach 2, I gave in and throttled it down to 250 knots. I made a somewhat steep decent and touched down at about 200 knots, about 25 knots faster than suggested, but it was not a problem. After slowing down to 150 knots I deployed the chute and came to a halt just a few hundred feet later.
So, even though this flight did not go quite as planned, I did get the opportunity to see how the SR-71 handles during in-flight refuels, and I even got to try a few barrel rolls…I would recommend giving that a try for yourself. All in all, I was very pleased with how the aircraft handled, and appreciated the way it tolerated my incompetence from time to time.
But Wait....There's More
Before you hop in your new Blackbird, you might want to take a tour of the CD-ROM to see some of the other goodies included in this package. One section on the CD, titled “Free and Demo Software, Information, Videos and Previews”, is jam packed with all kinds of freebies. I have found promotional videos, screenshots, and even a free copy Just Flight's Supermarine Spitfire. I have also come across free screen savers, and a whole bookshelf full of videos for other Just Flight products.
Given the attention to detail, the craftsmanship, and the accuracy of this aircraft, not to mention the extras included on the CD-ROM, I think that the $29.99 price tag is fair…or at least not ridiculous. When compared to other Blackbirds on the market, I think that the Pilot’s version is just as good as any I have seen, and in some ways even better.
The dripping fuel, ability to change from high performance to high detail textures, and the excellent frame rates have all led me to favor this package. When compared to its real world counterpart, there are no major discrepancies to be found on the exterior model, and I did not find anything glaring in the virtual cockpit or panel views either.
Aside from the quality exterior and interior modeling, and the authentic sound set, it is the ease of use for all skill levels of simmers that has given this aircraft my stamp of approval. The novice simmer should find this bird relatively easy to fly, and the expert simmer will likely appreciate the authenticity of virtually every aspect of this aircraft.
My only complaint about this package is the sounds of the Buick engine during an in-flight restart, which does deviate from the authenticity of this aircraft, but than again, I did not have to restart the aircraft at 50,000 feet very often. I never found any bugs, even after changing back and forth from the high performance to high detail textures at least 40 times.
So to sum it up, I would at least suggest that everyone interested in this type of aircraft take a flight over to the Just Flight website to take a closer look at this package. My feelings towards this aircraft are as follows; I like it, I regularly use it, and if I ever needed to, I would buy it again. Most aircraft in my inventory don’t get half the attention that I give this bird.
|What I Like About the SR-71|
|What I Don't Like About the SR-71|
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