The Microsoft flight simulator world has never been as well-endowed with Airbus aircraft as it has been with those of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. PSS produced the A319/320/321 for FS2002, which they converted across to FS9, but these never had active Virtual Cockpits. They also produced the larger A330/340 for FS9 which do have these, and they remain the current best choice for Airbus pilots, although there are no confirmed plans to move them across to FSX. There was also a Wilco PIC A320 that was VC-only, but that has since been withdrawn from the market. So what the Airbus devotee needs right now, and I include myself in that number, is a fully up-to-date A319/320/321 that will run in both FS9 and FSX.
There was therefore a great flurry of excitement last year when not one, not two, but three separate companies announced their plans to launch these planes. Not only that, but those of us at the AVSIM Conference in September 2006 were able to see a very early version of one of these. But basically it was all what, in the software business, they used to call 'leaflet ware'. However the PR-stimulated level of excitement continued to build up to such an extent that we just couldn't wait - and neither could one of the suppliers.
When Wilco launched the Feelthere-developed Airbus Series Volume 1 in February 2007, it did appear to many that this was an attempt to get to market before the competition, whatever the state of the product; in other words, a triumph of the Marketing Department over the Production Department. I'm sure many of us have been involved in this sort of conversation - "You can't launch it yet, we haven't fully tested it!" - "Never mind that, being first to market is the main thing, you can sort out the problems later, and the early users will pay for the privilege of helping you!" Marketing often win, sadly, and so it seemed in this case. When I got my copy of this product in early March, it had more bugs than the Insect House at London Zoo. The Wilco Forum was full of angry customers jumping up and down, and quite rightly. However it was also evident that the Feelthere side of the operation was like the proverbial swan - gliding serenely on the surface, but a flurry of activity underwater, itemizing and sorting out all the problems. Had I written this review at that time, it would have been far from complimentary, to say the least. However fate intervened, in the shape of the delivery of my new PC set-up, and in the intervening time that it took to migrate across all my flight simulation baggage (a trauma as great as moving house or moving job!), Wilco had issued two sets of product fixes. So have they sorted out the problems, and have Wilco and Feelthere given us an Airbus that will stand the test of time?
Installation & Documentation
Installation is by 125 or 152Mb download, depending on whether you go for the FS9 or the FSX version, and this is then unlocked by the product key that you've paid for previously. Before you fly, though, there are one or two things you need to do to configure the aircraft. There is a separate Configurator program that allows you to load the aircraft and calculate the fuel (more later) but it also allows you to decide whether you are a Beginner, Intermediate or Expert type of pilot, which basically determines the level of realism - for example, how long the Inertial Navigation System takes to calibrate - as well as how much "spoon-feeding" you prefer. I'd like to think of myself as an Expert, but I don't have the thick Airbus manual needed to calculate V-speeds for every runway in the world, so I opted for spoon-feeding and elected to be an Intermediate instead. You can also choose at this point to have the aircraft load up in "cold and dark" mode, although there are no options for other modes - for example, engines running - that you'll find in some other payware. The final thing you need to do is to set up the sensitivity and null point on your yoke or joystick and, if you have it calibrated through FSUIPC, alter FSUIPC so that it no longer controls the throttle for this particular plane. That's because the throttle is the Airbus unique combination of variable-thrust in the lower range of its travel and separate detentes for flight, reduced take-off and full-power take-off in the upper range. The plane uses special programming for this which FSUIPC would otherwise interfere with.
Documentation consists of manuals for specifications, checklists and procedures, and 100-page System manual in both English and French. This manual is reasonably comprehensive, although it doesn't have certain bits of information that are crucial to get you going, like what to do with FSUIPC to get your throttle working. To get that you need to go to the Support Forum, which is a problem because not everyone is in the habit of using forums and there is nothing more frustrating than to load up a new plane, read all the manual, and still find that your throttle is completely dead.
Having said that, the Wilco Airbus Forum itself is very good, with the developers being much in evidence and responsive to people's issues. As well as many people having genuine software problems, new users can have trouble with the eccentricities of the Airbus - (for example, when taking off, the message 'TO Inhibit' comes up. This does not mean that you are prevented from taking off, but instead it means that all but the most serious warning messages are inhibited until you are in the air!) - and it is good to see that both bugs and usability problems are dealt with in equally helpful ways.
From the outside, the aircraft looks good. For the amount of time that most people will spend on the outside looking in, it's a very convincing representation of that Airbus characteristic shape, with good detail and the right amount of reflection. Without being excessive, all the necessary animations are there, from reverse thrust on the engine to all the passenger doors opening. The only thing that mars the outside is the FSX baggage loader who drives his ramp straight through the fuselage! As I have never seen this with any other FSX plane, I assume it is a problem with this specific one.
There is a number of liveries available at the Wilco site, and currently 74 more in the AVSIM library. Whilst not covering the full range of airlines yet, I'm sure our great army of repaint volunteers will soon remedy that.
Inside the aircraft, there is a passenger cabin. In FS9, Wilco have supplied F1View, courtesy of Flight 1, to look around it. FSX can achieve a similar effect with Camera Views. The cabin itself is very good, apart from the in-seat TV screens (all showing the same picture) that you wouldn't normally find on a short-haul flight.
The 2D panel manages to fit the most important instruments and controls on the main panel. When you need to access the MCDU (Flight Computer), Overhead or Throttle Quadrant, moving the mouse pointer down to the bottom left-hand corner of the screen reveals a tiny group of six icons that will bring them up. Move the mouse pointer away, and they disappear. It's very unobtrusive, and very effective. There are also the various quadrantal views you might expect. The overall appearance of the panel is both realistic and usable, so on a screen with a decent resolution there should be no problems in reading captions and finding what you are looking for. There are tool-tips for most things, although it would have been good if they could, as some planes now do, display the readings when pointing at gauges. The majority of the major systems are modeled, including an Inertial Navigation System, which has a delayed start-up period depending on what is set in the Configurator. What is surprising about a new aircraft released in 2007 is the absence of a weather radar, which I'm sure many people will miss if they're used to flying other recent products. However if, like me, you have lots of hours on the venerable PSS Airbus range, you'll still find many new things to please you.
The VC is very good to sit in, it's a realistic representation and very readable. However it doesn't work as well as the 2D panel and if, like me, you like to spend all your time in the VC, you're going to need to flip back to the 2D to do certain things. For example, the only way to arm the spoiler, apart from the keyboard, is to go back to the 2D, call up the Throttle Quadrant, and do it from there. Similarly, if you want to decrease the Altitude setting on the MCP, it's impossible to find the "-" (minus) click-spot, so unless you have a mouse wheel it means another trip back to the 2D. The manual says that clicking in the middle of the MCDU will bring up a larger version, but that doesn't work, so unless you have very good eyesight and a high-resolution screen, you'll also need the 2D for that. I also had a problem with a strange brown colour appearing in the VC night lighting.
Having said all that, for someone moving on from the PSS Airbuses it's great to be able to spend most of the flight in the VC. It's also good that the user interface of the PSS range has been replicated. The Airbus MCP uses the convention of Push-a-knob to give control to the computer, and Pull-a-knob to give control to the pilot; left-click on the mouse pushes a knob, right-click pulls it.
What is not so intuitive is the throttle. I've already mentioned needing to disable FSUIPC control of throttles. Now people use everything from keyboard to mouse to joystick throttle to dedicated controls, so there's obviously a problem catering for everyone, and the Airbus throttle with its clicking detentes is a particular challenge. The manual for this plane recommends use of a joystick throttle, but they do not fully utilize it. In every other jet and turbo aircraft I can use my throttle (managed by FSUIPC) for everything from full forward thrust to full reverse thrust. With this plane, I can use it for all the forward settings and detentes, but to get reverse thrust, it's back to that old-fashioned F2 once more. Even the PSS Airbus was consistent with its use of just + and - keys.
On the ground
As mentioned earlier, the Configurator program allows you to load the aircraft with passengers and luggage, ready for next time you load it into the flight simulator. There's a fuel planner, although it's a bit limited. There's no facility to factor in head- or tail-winds, and whilst it tells you exactly how much fuel to place in each tank, it doesn't do so itself, although it could easily do so via FSUIPC.
Once in the cockpit, there are some number of things to catch out the unwary. Some may result from unfamiliarity with the Airbus, particularly for those used to the Boeing range. For example, you can't enter all the data into the MCDU unless the engines are shut down and the parking brake is on. That's an Airbus rule, and very well-modeled. From what I can see, a great many such Airbus rules (others may call them "quirks"!) are modeled realistically. Now if you're an Airbus Training Captain in the simulation facility of a major airline, you may well spot things that don't work quite as they should according to the manual. However for the average or even expert simmer, these will be hard to spot. But if it's your first Airbus, do please "RTFM" ("Read the Manual").
But even if you think you know the Airbus, other things may catch you out. You may be puzzled why, having switched on the battery, started the APU, and brought the APU generator on-line, why your instrument displays are still blank? Before you look for a non-existent Avionics Master Switch, you need to check the FAQ in the manual, which will tell you that your mouse middle wheel is a brightness control, so twiddle it and all will light up (and if you don't have a mouse wheel, better go out and buy one!). A trickier one is when you use Ctrl-J to get the FSX jetway to dock or undock - nothing happens. If you're forum-savvy and don't mind crawling around the internals of Aircraft.cfg, you'll find a fix for that which works. Hopefully Wilco will make that an official fix in their next update.
So now it's time to get those engines spinning. With Airbus that's almost child's play, it's so automatic. When we're ready to roll, there is unfortunately the usual "sticky tires" problem that is to do with MSFS rather than any flight model. However one thing I did notice (from my one-hour real-world experience of an A320 simulator during the AVSIM 2004 Conference!) was that this virtual Airbus won't taxi at zero thrust, regardless of the load, whereas the real one does.
Cleared for takeoff, we push the throttles forward, hearing the "click" as they go through the detentes, until we have takeoff thrust set. We build up speed. Silence. Silence? Yes, from the co-pilot. Nobody is calling out the V-speeds. Not what we'd expect in a plane released in 2007. Surely it can't be too difficult to add these. Or perhaps they're waiting for an Airbus version of FS2Crew to come along?
No matter. The Good News is that Feelthere have developed an excellent version of "Fly-by-wire", something not easy to do in an MSFS built around direct connections between pilot controls and flying surfaces. So in the climb, we use our joystick to move the little dot on the screen to where the Flight Director is indicating. No trimming, no maintaining the pressure on the controls to hold the bank angle, it just sticks more or less where you point it. Try something silly, like an aileron roll or heading vertically up, and it just won't let you do it, it'll always stay on the right side of the safety envelope. So full marks to the developers for quite a technical achievement and a real innovation for both FS9 and FSX.
As I said earlier, my real-world Airbus experience is limited to an hour in a simulator, so I can't comment on how close the flight model is to "the numbers", but certainly its climb and descent rates and engine settings at particular weights are more or less what you would expect. It's not really appropriate to talk about the "feel" of this airplane, because the "feel" of an Airbus is more or less the same as the "feel" of the joystick on your or my computer desk. But certainly its responsiveness corresponded to my very limited experience. Its behaviour in turbulence and gusts was better in FSX than FS9, but that's one of the upsides of FSX.
So overall, apart from the lack of callouts at take off, the flying experience is very satisfactory, in climb, cruise, and descent. Until we get to short finals, that is.
Now I know from the Forums that this is not a problem everyone has, and the developers find it hard to replicate, but a number have, and I certainly have. I'm on short finals, autopilot following the ILS, flaps out, gear down, all nice and stable. Time to disconnect the autopilot. It's all looking good for two seconds and then - ooohhh - the nose suddenly drops. Leave it like that and we're going to be digging for potatoes somewhere by the boundary fence. It is recoverable, if you're quick off the mark, but it's really scary, like a very bad wind shear. So I ran a few ILS approaches, and called up the Flight Controls display on the System Display. And what is happening is that on the approach the Trim is "Up" somewhere around 4 degrees, but shortly after the autopilot is switched off, it moves to zero degrees. No wonder the nose drops. Come on guys, you should be able to reproduce and fix that!
A final thing about short finals, if you'll excuse the pun. There weren't any callouts on take off, but there certainly are on finals. That's the Good News. The Bad News is that they are Boeing callouts! All until the last one - "Retard" - (which means pull back the throttles, it's not the autopilot insulting the real pilot) - which is the sole Airbus callout. Maybe Wilco should go to the AVSIM library and get a file of the Airbus ones!
In FSX, going from the default A321 to the Wilco / Feelthere version took away about 30% of my FPS in the Virtual Cockpit.
In FS9, compared to the much leaner default 737-400, that figure was nearer 60%.
Obviously caution needs to be exercised around all these figures, because there are so many variables involved.
Wilco certainly got off to a bad start by launching this product prematurely. However the developers have obviously worked extremely hard since than to address the problems, they are probably about 80% of the way there in April 2007, and I have no doubt they will sort out the remainder before too long.
Nevertheless, we shouldn't minimize what they have accomplished. The Airbus is a very different aircraft in its avionics, throttle system and particularly "fly-by-wire", so it was a challenging task to build, and this is an extremely convincing simulation that they have produced. It is certainly flyable, and enjoyable, and I've already spent many happy hours in it. For the Airbus devotee, it's a step up from the worthy but ageing PSS range, with an active VC and more functionality all round, so they're going to want to migrate. However it may not be a sufficiently complete product to tempt across pilots flying some of the excellent Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft out there. Similarly, there are at least two other Airbus products on the way to market that may well offer more than this one currently does. So the challenge to Wilco and Feelthere will be to add those features we have come to expect, like a weather radar, if they want to win over new Airbus pilots and fight off the competition. But fundamentally it's a good aircraft and a potential base for even more improvements.
*To buy this aircraft, go to Wilco Publishing
(Air Malta repaint by Osvaldo Martínez)
What I Like About The Wilco / Feelthere Airbus Volume 1
What I Don't Like About The Wilco / Feelthere Airbus Volume 1
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