In my last review, I looked at the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IA as modeled by Shockwave. It’s fitting, then, that my next review should be of a German fighter from the same era, a Messerschmitt Bf 109G. Before we say anything further, we should explain the name. Bf stands for "Bayerische Flugzeugwerke,” which was the name of the company when it first offered the plane to the German Air Ministry. Willi Messerschmitt, who designed the 109, took over the company shortly thereafter and renamed it after himself, with the result that his famous fighter was forever known by two names, both of them correct, and both of them in use throughout the war: Bf 109 and Me 109. According to the air historians Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, “Me 109” was the term used by most of the pilots who flew the plane (Horrido!, p. 394), so that is what I use too.
When it first saw combat, with the Condor Legion in Spain, the Me 109 was peerless; a master of the skies. By the end of World War II, the 109 was no longer state of the art, but the design did not remain static. As each new model was introduced, it was assigned a letter, and that letter in turn begat a nickname. For example, the E model (which flew in the Battle of Britain) was nicknamed “Emil.” The next model, F, was nicknamed “Friedrich” or “Franz,” and after that was G, which became “Gustav.” To my knowledge, there are currently four payware versions of the 109 available for Flight Simulator 2004, including an Emil by Shockwave. Under review here is the Gustav series from Flight Replicas (which has also done the Kurfürst series, and is currently working on Friedrich).
Why Gustav? The Gustav series has been criticized, because although it was faster than previous types, with bigger guns and better instruments, it was also heavier and less streamlined. Nevertheless, most of the 109s manufactured during the war were, in fact, members of the Gustav family, so it is an important version even if it wasn’t the best version. Or maybe it was: Erich Hartmann, the highest-scoring fighter pilot in history, made almost all of his 352 kills in Gustavs.
You can’t kill anyone in Flight Simulator, but with the Flight Replicas Gustav, you can get a sense of what it was like to fly this classic World War II fighter, the challenge as well as the speed.
Installation and Documentation
Flight Replicas products are distributed by Sky Unlimited using the Flight1 purchase wrapper. You download first, then enter your purchasing information, then an automated installer does the rest -- for FS2004. Installation in FSX is not currently automated, so I asked about it in the Sky Unlimited support forum and got a quick answer back: after you install for FS2004, copy such-and-such files to such-and-such folders in FSX. That worked right away, and the thumbnails for the various liveries were already in place.
Documentation is in English. It doesn’t give much in the way of general background, but there are other sources for that -- I don’t see this as a problem. The bulk of what’s here is checklists and cockpit diagrams, both of which are clear and well written. But there are some things missing.
First, this is payware, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that the checklists be available from the kneeboard; they aren’t in this package. Second, it would be helpful to have even a minimal description of how the various subtypes differ from each other. Third, the 109 had an automatic system for setting propeller pitch. That system is not implemented here (although there’s a switch for turning it on, and a clock-style gauge to show the propeller angle).
Again, I posted some queries in the support forum and got an answer: you have to set the RPM manually, even when the switch says automatic. Fair enough, but that’s something that should go in the manual.
For several weeks now, I’ve been using screenshots of the Gustav for my desktop wallpaper. In the meantime, I’ve also been pouring over photographs and paintings of the real thing. I haven’t noticed any errors. The contours are correct, even small structures are modeled with care, and the colors are well researched. (This last item is not trivial: for example, we know that there was a Luftwaffe color #81, but we don’t know exactly which color it was. The included paint kit suggests a range of possibilities, and heads the list with the developer’s best estimate.)
To put the assessment in negative terms: I have been looking at these models for many hours, both in the sim and in screenshots, and I still can’t find anything wrong with them. In positive terms: I have been looking at these models for many hours, and I still notice new things.
Models, did you say? As in, more than one? Yes. Gustav was in production from 1942 until the end of the war, and during that period there were multiple subtypes. Six of these subtypes have been reproduced in this package, some of them in more than one version, so that there are a total of thirteen visual models, and fourteen different liveries:
The normal animations are all here -- control surfaces, canopy, retractable gear -- and also some that are seen less often. By design, the Me 109 had a relatively small wing, to maximize performance at high speeds. For low speeds, the 109 had slats on the wing’s leading edge that would open and shut automatically, depending on whether the wing needed more or less surface area.
Behind the wing, there were also radiator flaps that would open and close according to engine temperature. The lower radiator flap was coordinated with the wing flap, and would go up or down in tandem with it. All of these animations are implemented here. In addition, all subtypes have drop tanks under the belly, which disappear when you pull a lever in the virtual cockpit (VC). If you assign a key for this function, you can also watch the tank release from spot view; don’t blink, though, because at cruise speed the tank drops away very fast.
Repaints can be found at avsim.com and sim-outhouse.com, including one from Flight Replicas that omits the political markings (hooked cross) from the tail fin, but leaves the national markings (iron cross) on wings and fuselage. Some repaints are linked within the Sky Unlimited support forum, but there may be others. As of this writing, I counted 16 third-party repaints.
There are no 2D cockpits here. All models are flown from the virtual cockpit, of which there are two versions. Early models (up to G-8) have Revi C/12D gun sights, which can be turned on and off with a switch. Later models (G-10 and G-14) have Revi 16B gun sights, which can be turned on or off and moved out of the way; they also have an ILS gauge and better canopy views.
About the gauges, I do have one complaint, which I state first in order to get it out of the way. Early-model 109s, including the famous Emil, did not have an artificial horizon or gyroscopic compass. Both were standard on the Gustav, and as one would expect, both appear on the Flight Replicas instrument panel. The trouble is that the artificial horizon gauge shares a gauge face with the turn and bank indicator. This was a clever design and very intuitive to use.
Unfortunately, this is one place the modeler decided to cut corners: there should be a little stick with a bauble on it, dipping right or left depending on your bank angle. As modeled here, though, there’s just the bauble, looking like it was painted onto the horizon ball. To my (perhaps too literal) eye, this is slightly disorienting, because it seems like the surface of the ball is moving in two different directions simultaneously; the lower part of the ball seems to follow the artificial horizon, the upper part follows the bank indicator. That shouldn’t be physically possible.
When I saw the same gauge modeled in IL-2 Sturmovik, everything was instantly clear: the bauble wasn’t part of the horizon ball at all, it was mounted in front of the ball on its own little stick! I asked about this on the support forum, and the developer explained that he was trying to simplify the cockpit model -- with the goal, I believe, of achieving better frame rates. This is a laudable aim, but if it were me looking for things to simplify, I would have picked something on the cockpit floor, not one of the primary instrument gauges.
That being said, it is only a bank indicator, and this is an excellent VC.
What makes a good virtual cockpit? Here are some things I look for: a friendly panel layout, readability of individual gauges, and (if it’s a vintage aircraft) authenticity. This one scores well in all three categories.
Pilots on both sides of the war commented on the intuitive way that gauges were arranged on the instrument panel, and Flight Replicas' has preserved that. It helps that the 109 cockpit was extremely compact. Of course, compact can be a synonym for squished, but that’s not the case here: the gauges in this model are ultra-legible. This, for me, is the ultimate test of a virtual cockpit. Up close all of the text is clear and even with a laptop I never have to squint. (My desktop monitor is bigger, and I don’t have to squint for that either.) As for authenticity, most gauges are custom and correct for the period, except for the radio gauge and transponder, which are default. Frankly, this doesn ’t break my heart.
As befits a German plane from this era, all quantities are metric (including airspeed and altitude) and all labels are in German. Don’t read German? Don’t worry: hold your mouse cursor over the gauge in question and you’ll get a tool tip in English. Or consult the clearly labeled cockpit diagram in the documentation.
One instrument that’s not mentioned in the documentation, but which I learned about (again) from asking questions on the support forum, is an RMI needle that points to VOR stations. (Stations are tuned using the default radio gear.) This seems to have been an afterthought: the needle points backward, and the developer hasn’t fixed it. But it means you can fly in bad weather -- which counts as an important feature in my book, because a lot of these old fighter models can’t.
Something else that everyone likes in a VC, even if it doesn’t contribute to usability, is good-looking detail. There’s a lot of that here, not just on the panel but also on the floor and sides. I do have one query about the throttle. As on most aircraft, you open the throttle on this model by pushing it forward. However, when Mike Spick describes the Gustav in his book Luftwaffe Fighter Aces: The Jagdflieger and Their Tactics and Techniques (1996), he says “back to accelerate was standard continental practice” (p. 199). I was all set to jump up and say, “Aha! I know something you don’t know!” I know that’s childish and bad manners, but what really stopped me was reading yet another book, The Fighter Pilots: A Comparative Study of the Royal Air Force, the Luftwaffe and the USAAF (1967) by Edward H. Sims. Sims was an American fighter pilot who, after the war, became friends with some of his opposite numbers in the Luftwaffe, and he always describes the German pilots as throttling forward to accelerate -- which is how the throttle is modeled here.
There is one other thing that should be mentioned about the virtual cockpit. If you don’t have TrackIR (either version 4 or version 3 with the vector expansion module), it’s a little tough to read the boost pressure in the early models because the left side of the dial is obscured by the Revi C/12D gun sight (In later models, the gun sight can be moved out of the way.) With the recent versions of TrackIR, this isn’t a problem; you just move your head half an inch, and look around the gun sight. But without TrackIR, setting the boost pressure requires you either to guess a little or manually move your eye point. This isn’t a flaw in the model: in the real 109, the gun sight was placed slightly right of center, and the Flight Replicas version reproduces this.
The startup sounds are excellent: I compared these with a recording I found on YouTube, and the match was quite close. By this time, I’d been flying Flight Replicas' kite for about two weeks, so when I heard the real thing, it sounded like an echo. But for engine sound after start-up, I prefer the Me 109E from Shockwave, because it’s richer, with more nuances.
Sooner or later, anyone who decides to model the sounds of a 109 has to confront two questions. First, what are you going to do about flaps? In this aircraft they were cranked by hand, so the motor sounds we are used to aren’t appropriate. The Flight Replicas solution is to do nothing: through the cockpit window you can see the flaps move up and down, but you won’t hear anything. The Shockwave solution is only slightly better: when you activate the flaps on its 109E, a creaking sound can be heard, like a rusty door hinge. That’s not very satisfying either, but at least you know the flaps are working.
The second question is how to handle sound for the leading edge slats. In the real aircraft, you could apparently hear them popping in (as you transitioned to higher speeds) and also popping out (for more wing surface at low speeds). Here, you can see them moving (which is impressive in itself), but there’s no sound to go along with the animation. To be fair, I don’t know of any Flight Simulator model that has sound for leading edge slats, and it’s quite possible that if we did have sound, we would find it unbearably annoying.
According to the product web page, the Flight Replicas Gustav “flies nicely in FSX.” That’s a good way of putting it. There’s one gauge that doesn’t work correctly in FSX, so the start-up procedure has to be abbreviated: just press control-E. Visually, there are thumbnails of the various models and liveries, but that’s the only new feature of FSX that’s been exploited. E.g., there is no bump mapping, self-shadowing, or built-in wing views.
The main thing is it flies nicely. Almost all of my testing was in FSX, and I never noticed any anomalies -- except for the propeller, which disappears in front of a cloud when you are in spot plane view. But the Shockwave models have this problem too.
I would not recommend this model for pilots with low-end hardware. For mid-range hardware and above, frame rates are lower than one might wish for in a fighter, but still good. When I noticed a dip, it was usually panning in the virtual cockpit with TrackIR. The dip was more pronounced in FSX than in FS9, and after I installed SP1, the difference dwindled to where I no longer notice it.
How does the Flight Replicas Gustav compare with the Shockwave Emil? For frame rates, Shockwave has the edge. I don’t know why, but if I were forced to make a guess, I would point out that there seems to be more 3D modeling in the Flight Replicas version.
Shockwave’s approach, so far as I can tell, is to generate fewer 3D surfaces, and then to compensate for this with very rich textures; this technique gives the illusion of depth, but without the performance penalty.
That doesn’t mean Gustav is a frame rate hog; he isn’t. But Emil is leaner.
We have now reached what is perhaps the most important part of any aircraft review, and the one I am least qualified to write, because I have never piloted a real fighter, or even a real plane. Still, we do what we can -- which in my case is read books, study web sites, and watch videos on YouTube.
Designed to strike first and get away fast, the Me 109 was not the most maneuverable fighter of World War II, but it did make the most kills. Its main strength, relative to Spitfires and Hurricanes, was in the vertical plane, of climbs and dives. This encouraged a hit and run style of fighting: attack the enemy in a firing pass, and then extend for another pass if necessary; but don’t engage if you have other options. Of course, if it comes to that, the 109 can certainly hold its own. It doesn’t turn as well as the British fighters, but it doesn’t spin as readily either; that’s an advantage in a dogfight.
All of these qualities are on display in the Flight Replicas Gustav. Whereas, in testing the Spitfire for my previous review, a steep turn after takeoff would sometimes produce a fatal stall. I never had that problem with the 109. I don’t mean that it’s invincible, but I could push it farther without losing control.
In the air, the 109 is very responsive. On the ground, though, it’s sulky. Werner Moelders, perhaps the war’s greatest air tactician, described some captured British fighters, a Hurricane and Spitfire, as “childishly easy to take off and land” (Spick, p. 51). -- Which, in comparison with the Me 109, they were.
No doubt the problems have been exaggerated, but there are too many stories of botched landings and take-offs, to dismiss entirely. This morning, I came across an anecdote about a group of 109 pilots who served on the Eastern front, where they landed on grass strips, and were then transferred to Austria, where they landed on bitumen. “Out of forty-two aircraft, thirty-nine cracked up on landing due to the sensitivity of the Me-109 to its brakes and the strange feel and response of a solid runway. Only the first three aircraft landed safely. The strip caused us more damage than the Red Air Force” (Willi Batz, qtd. in Horrido! by Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, p. 255). That didn’t happen all the time, of course, but these were veteran pilots and they still had trouble.
It took then, and it takes now, a lot of practice to land the 109 without bouncing. This was my experience in the sim (landing on concrete), and I noticed the same thing on YouTube, where a restored 109 can be seen landing on grass. Of course, with the sim you can practice all you want, and eventually I did get better. In this respect, learning to handle the Me 109 was like learning to land at Lukla (the Mt. Everest scenery that I reviewed last summer). It’s frustrating for a long time, but when you start to get it right, there is a feeling of accomplishment.
I like IL-2 Sturmovik and its sequels, but this is one area where the “other” sim is grossly misleading. Before I had any experience of the Flight Simulator versions, I went up in IL-2’s Gustav and scored a lucky hit on an enemy bomber. Feeling very pleased with myself, I found home field, entered the traffic pattern, and made a successful landing on the first try. “Hot dog,” I thought, “I am a natural pilot! Apparently all those years in Flight Simulator have paid off, and I can fly anything with wings!” Then I got the 109 from Flight Replicas, and reality set in.
Gustav sells for $22 (US). I’ve mentioned some things I would like to see fixed in an update, but what we have now is good-looking, serviceable, and authentic. Two months after release, repainters are embracing it, and I look forward to flying the next model from Flight Replicas.
What I Like About The Messerschmitt Bf 109-G
What I Don't Like About The Messerschmitt Bf 109-G
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