Fasten your seatbelts…
If Ariane Design had a quid for everyone who expressed an opinion on them - either good or bad - then they’d probably be able to afford a real Boeing 737 to fly around in. Ariane is a hot topic amongst simmers for sure, but those of you who followed the recent thread on Avsim’s forums will know that I decided to try and cut through all the rumors and hearsay, in order to find out just what the truth is, and more importantly, to answer the question; just how good is Ariane’s FSX 737 NG?
It’s no secret that developer PMDG is currently in the process of making the very same aircraft for FSX, and it was the notion that many people were waiting for PMDG as the only option for an NG 737 in FSX - despite the fact that the one from Ariane has been available for a while – which is exactly what prompted me to engage upon this little venture. Or to put it another way; should we wait, or is the Ariane 737 waiting for us?
So fasten your seatbelts, because we’re about to drive through all the mysterious, turbulent clouds that spew out of the rumor mill. And we’re going at Mach .78, bound for touchdown at Truth City International…
A bit about the real 737…
Before we get going on the Boeing from Ariane, let’s find out about the real thing. You can skip this part and cut right to the chase if you wish, and I promise I won’t get upset – much. After all, I only spent four weeks researching it.
The 737 is an iconic aircraft. It is the most successful airliner of all time, not to mention being statistically the safest one too, and it’s reckoned that somewhere in the world a 737 either takes off or lands every five seconds. But all the quotable facts beloved of Boeing sales reps, belie the fact that the 737 wasn’t always a success; the first 737 model suffered poor sales, with only 30 ever being produced, and hard to believe but nonetheless true, Boeing briefly considered dropping it whilst they were still working on a rival to the supersonic Concorde. The problems and ultimate sales failure of the Concorde - and rising fuel prices - proved the 737’s savior, when Boeing elected to stop working on a supersonic airliner and stay with subsonic stuff instead.
Originally conceived in 1958, the design became more than a paper aeroplane when Boeing secured solid sales orders for it in 1965. First flight of the prototype 737-100 was in 1967 and it went into service the following year with Lufthansa.
However, Boeing realized that the 737 needed to carry more passengers if the airlines were to really desire it. That larger capacity came in the form of the 737-200, and has set the tone for the 737’s long and varied forty-two year life where newer and better versions have appeared regularly over the years, more recently to rival the products of Airbus. The 200 model featured a fuselage stretch and up-rated engines, and since it had been developed alongside the 100 model, it was available quickly. The 200 prototype also made its first flight in 1967, with United Airlines becoming the launch customer, not long after Lufthansa’s debut with the 100 variant.
Three into two won’t go…
Even so, the problems did not end there for the 737 as far as sales went. Airline pilot unions were very powerful in those days, and both US and French pilots deliberately insisted that the 737 be flown with a crew of three rather than the crew of two, the way Boeing had always intended the 737 to be operated. This is one of the reasons why United Airlines was the only major US operator of the type for many years. But one is tempted to imagine that the later - and very similar - Dassault-Breguet Mercure airliner might have at least been partially behind the French pilots decisions to make life hard for the Boeing product.
Air France itself knew how good the 737 was and actually wanted to order it, but knew it would cause outrage with French aircrews, which have traditionally always held a lot of sway. The 737 was indeed certified for operation by a crew of two, but union rules prevented it from being used in that way for a long time. It’s difficult to imagine that scenario these days but those of us old enough to remember the 1970’s will know that it was an era in which strikes by workforces were very common, and as Boeing itself discovered last year, these have still not completely gone away.
The 737-200 model further highlighted a few minor shortcomings in what was generally a good design, and these were addressed in the shape of the 200ADV (advanced) model which featured numerous tweaks to the basic design; most notably, improved flaps and slats, better brakes, a change to the engine mounting pylons and improved short field performance. All this in combination with an increase in MTOW. Most basic 200 models were retroactively upgraded to these standards too, and many are still flying today.
The vast majority of pilots familiar with several models of 737 - including the new NG models - will tell you that the 737-200ADV is the best handling version of the 737. Although that might be subjective to some degree and possibly displaying a touch of the rose-tinted nostalgic viewpoint, it is nevertheless indicative that Boeing pretty much got the design of the 737 right from the very beginning.
Rarely does an airliner remain unchanged when in production for over four decades, and so it was with the 737 which saw the advent of the 300 series model in 1984. Yet it is testament to the original design that even after the 300 model began production, the 200ADV continued to be ordered by customers and remained in production for a further four years, despite there being a newer improved model available from Boeing.
The other next generation…
The 300 model was the first of what is now generally referred to as the ‘Classic’ 737s, with the earlier variants having retrospectively acquired the ‘Original’ sobriquet. The 300 incorporated many major changes, the most visible of which is the inclusion of turbofan powerplants, rather than the noisy turbojet engines which graced the originals. But this outward sign of change was as nothing to the changes on the flight deck, which saw the introduction of the earliest attempts at a ‘glass’ cockpit and more automation of systems including the introduction of the laser ring gyro IRS, as opposed to more costly and less accurate INS systems, not to mention the introduction of FMCs so common on flight decks these days. Much of this was courtesy of the technology developed for the larger Boeing 757 and 767 models. The 737 was, of course, well suited to the then incoming concept of two rather than three flight deck crewmembers because it had been designed that way from the start.
What is not generally realized about the Classic 300 and subsequent 400 and 500 models, is that there were many more very clever changes to the design from all that technology. Materials used in construction were different, the wingspan and chord changed to increase cruise speed too. But even so, Boeing wanted to keep as much part commonality with the original 737 models as they could, to make type maintenance an attractive proposition to airlines with the older models still in service, and so they kept over sixty percent of the parts that the earlier variants used. Additionally, Boeing were keen to ensure the newer 737 handled the same as the 200 models in order to make crew transitions and type ratings simpler, and to do that took some real engineering skill. This is why we see things such as the extended dorsal fillet on the classics - so that their handling mimics the earlier ones - despite these newer models having greater capabilities all-round, the chief ones being the faster cruise speed coupled with a lower landing speed and of course greater economy.
It’s also not often realized that the classic models actually incorporated vectored thrust by having their repositioned engines tilted downwards slightly at the rear which also reduced the temperature the wing was exposed to thus alleviating heat fatigue issues despite the engines having to be mounted much closer to the wing to aid ground clearance. All very clever stuff. Of the improved classics, the 300 model increased the 737’s capacity over the 200 model and later the 400 model did so again with another stretch to the fuselage and, in a clever move, the 500 model harked back to the earlier, smaller 737-100. Its comparable size making it eligible for cheaper landing fees at many airports.
The latest thing…
Despite airlines initially having some growing pains when switching from traditional INS navigation and steam gauges to more modern systems, all of the classic 737 versions sold like hot cakes. This success prompted Boeing to improve matters again in 1993 with what is now known as the NG (Next Generation) 737 variants, evidently with a nod to the then-popular Star Trek TV series with the same title. The NGs further embraced modern glass cockpit concepts and engine improvements, adding FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) capability to the engine management aspect of the 737 as well as thrust vectoring whichn further improved fuel economy, performance and reliability enhancements.
As the NG range has grown, so has the implementation of its flight management system capabilities. This continues to be the case with the very latest NGs incorporating sophisticated terrain displays, the ability to automatically fly curved GPS approaches in IMC, and the equipment and certifications necessary tomeet RNP/RNAV, which will allow continuous descent profiles right to the runway threshold from cruise altitudes. Even so, there are many cockpit variations to be found within the NG series, with some sporting all the latest whistles and bells and some remaining more rooted in the past. Also automated on the NGs, are many things which pilots would have traditionally been quite involved with, such as cabin pressurization and fuel management. Features such as these are taken to extremes on the latest 737-900ER, which has automated cabin pressurization that drops below the standard 8,000 feet norm as the aircraft climbs higher in order to reduce the pressure differential with the outside atmosphere which reduces wear on the fuselage and increases the number of cycles it is certified for.
On the subject of technology, you might be interested to know that when NASA were originally researching the interface for the CDU display that drives the FMC in most modern airliners (research that took place aboard the original 737-100), they were worried that if it was too easy to use. The pilots would not have enough to do and become complacent. So they actually recommended making the CDU more complex than it had to be just to get around that problem. Think about that next time you can’t get your flight plan in properly! So it’s no accident that the CDU looks a lot like the pocket calculators which started showing up in the late seventies. It was a deliberate choice in order to make it look important, but slightly familiar.
The NG range…
Paradoxically, the numerically out of sequence 700 model was the first NG version to fly, in 1997, with the 600 model making its first flight a year later which was also after the latter-numbered 800 variant had first flown too. It was at this time that another hallmark of the breed starting showing up more often – the winglet – which is now available as a retrofit on earlier 737’s, as indeed are many avionics upgrades. Much later - in 2000 - the 900 model first took to the skies, with the improved 900ER flying in 2006 which completed the numerical sequence of the NG models to date.
Of the NG range, the 800 model is by far the biggest seller. Most NG variants have done fairly well in terms of sales with the exception of the 600 and 900. The 900 model has now been discontinued in favor of the 900ER. Despite a stretch to the fuselage, the 900 was limited in passenger numbers it could legally carry owing to the number of doors it had. The 900ER features the additional doors needed to address that shortcoming and it can now carry up to 215 passengers, in addition to having a massive range thanks to its huge fuel capacity. The 600 model has also been all but dropped, as it is not known for being very stable in flight when compared to the other NGs. Even so, 69 of them are in service so it is still relatively successful compared to many other airliner types.
The other ones…
Over the years, there have been numerous other incarnations of the 737. From executive versions, military versions and all manner of weird and wonderful creations, perhaps the most interesting of all be the United States Navy’s new Multi Mission Aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon.
The Poseidon is based on a hybrid of the 737-800NG fuselage and the 900ER wings. Due in service later this year and with the US Navy having ordered 108 of them, the Poseidon is armed with anti-ship weaponry and sonarbuoys to combat submarines and seaborne surface threats along with a whole host of fancy electronic gizmos. It’s going to be a lot tougher than the 737 you went on holiday in! There will also be a SIGINT (AWACS) version of the P-8 MMA, which loses the weaponry in favor of much more surveillance equipment.
This alone ensures that the 737 production lines at Renton and Wichita will be ticking over for a long time. The production lines themselves are interesting in that they mimic car production, with aircraft continuously moving along the line at the rate of 2 inches a minute, making it possible to build a complete 737 NG in just eleven days.
The end of the line?
The 900ER is, of course, the daddy of the family of 737’s in terms of size and range, but it may just end up being the last of the line. Boeing already has the 737’s replacement in the planning stages, this being the Y1, occasionally known by its codename of ‘Yellowstone’.
Yellowstone will incorporate much of what Boeing has learned from the construction of the 787 Dreamliner. Hold off on shedding those tears for the 737’s passing. With the order books still very healthy for the 737 and the future by no means clearly written, nobody can say whether or not we will see another variant of the 737 for certain. Much of the 787 Dreamliner’s technology is physically too large for a 737-sized aircraft at present, so one thing is certain; 737s will probably still be flying when many of us will be sporting wings of a very different kind.
FSX NG - Enter the Ariane 737…
So now we know all about the real 737, it’s time to look at what Ariane Design has to offer on the 737 front. Ariane produces several different models of Boeing 737NG, for both FS9 and FSX, encompassing the full NG range as well as the BBJ (Boeing Business Jet) variant too. Here we’ll concentrate on the 737-900ER version; being the largest and newest NG variant, with its up-to-the-minute features, it’s a good way to examine at how closely Ariane have emulated the very latest offerings from Boeing.
Since cockpit commonality is quite the done thing with airliners these days - especially where the NG is concerned - much of this review will be relevant to other NG models from Ariane. So if you perhaps fancied the less esoteric 800 variant, you can still read on and find out most of what you want to know. You should note that I will be quoting specific features of the 900ER model, some of which do not pertain exactly to other 737 NGs.
You can examine and purchase the Ariane 737 models direct from the company’s website – www.arianedesign.com – or from several other sources, including SimMarket – www.simmarket.com. Bear in mind that product activation process differs somewhat depending on where you make your purchase.
The Ariane 737-900ER arrives as a 116Mb download, although you can also get a boxed version. For the extra pennies spent on the boxed version you do get some nice printed material if you want specific details of what you get in the boxed version check out Ariane’s website.
Installation of the download version is a simple ‘double click on the exe file’ affair, which then automatically configures itself to put things in the right place, as well as installing the documentation you get in PDF format into an Ariane folder inside the main FSX folder. It would have been nicer to find this on the program menus. You can then fire up FSX and the 737 will appear on the aircraft selection menu and can be loaded up into a flight. However, at this point it is still not quite good to go and few of the systems will not work correctly until it has been activated.
e Ariane activation system is one of the things which the company has received some criticism over, but in practice it isn’t much more complex than any other activation process. It’s just a little unorthodox, so ignore the horror stories you have heard about it being confusing because it really isn’t. The PDF you get in the download explains it all. Here’s what you do…
Up on the main FSX menu bar next to where FSUIPC usually shows up, you will find a pop up menu which gives you two options: ‘Activation request’ and ‘Activate’. Select the first of these, and you’ll find it opens up a small window with simple instructions on how to get your purchase activated. This involves keying in some info from your purchase email receipt and then clicking on an option to save an activation request to an automated email.
By default it will use Outlook Express, but you can select the option to save a file which can then be pasted into a different email if you happen to use Thunderbird or some other email software. Fire that email off to Ariane and they will respond with a serial number. Copy and paste that serial into the other window in FSX which will pop up when you choose the ‘Activate’ option from the FSX menu. Hit return and your product is activated, although FSX might need to be restarted to complete the process. So, unusual, but not particularly brain-taxing and in fact broadly similar to how Captain Sim downloads are activated, amongst others.
In the past, people have complained that it takes a long time to get that Ariane activation email sent to you, but from recent observations it seems that Ariane are on the case and improving, and whilst the serial might not show up instantly, at worst it only seems to take a day or so of late. This is not ideal of course, especially in times where we are used to getting things on demand, but it’s far from the nightmare stories you might have heard about products never being activated. So it does seem that the more positive tales of late which have Ariane attempting to improve their service, have some foundation. Further investigation on my part revealed that Ariane have just put a new system into place with regard to this, which is aimed at alleviating activation delays completely.
That said, I would be less than honest if I didn’t point out here that in actual fact my own copy of the Ariane 737-900ER did take several days to activate, but to be equally honest, that was largely due to a mistake on SimMarket’s part (where I bought this add-on) and not really Ariane’s doing. It is also worth noting that this delay took place over the Easter break when it is at least partially understandable that there would be a backlog at both SimMarket and Ariane.
I can’t say I was thrilled about that delay – trust me, I’m as impatient as the next person - but I do understand why it was so. And if I am again completely honest, I don’t think that in itself would put me off buying something else from Ariane at another time. However, I think I would be inclined to go direct to Ariane rather than through SimMarket, particularly in view of how helpful Ariane were via email. Not to mention being very apologetic about the problems I had experienced.
You can judge for yourself whether you’d be put off by not having the thing up and running in seconds, but in retrospect I don’t think it is that big a deal. You should also note that this was definitely an unusual hiccup at SimMarket, and not indicative of them being a poor place to shop. I have in fact since bought something from SimMarket actually, so it has not put me off shopping with them.
Also to be found on the activation email you get from Ariane, is a link to a support forum which, in a manner similar to one or two other developers, is not actually an Ariane forum run by the company but nevertheless functions as one in many respects. This approach has had its critics too, in not being actually the Ariane people who run it, but then again the same is true of several other developers. The PMDG forum on Avsim is one example, and the Multi Crew Experience forum, which is run by an enthusiastic fan on a virtual airline’s website, is another. So it is perhaps not as unusual as it might first appear and it does seem to work in practice. Although unlike many other forums, you do have to purchase an Ariane product to gain access to it, which is another thing some people have complained about when it comes to learning about the product. But now you’ve got this review, so that’s that problem solved eh?
Once you gain access to the Ariane forum, you’ll find it is quite a friendly and helpful place. So if you were under the impression that it was closed off from people who haven’t purchased an Ariane product because it is full of complaints that they don’t want you to see - as some people suspect - you’d be mistaken. In fact quite the opposite is true of late, with the developers actively engaged in a thread discussing the finer points of VNAV simulation and revealing their plans with regard to that.
Moreover, you can quite happily post suggestions and requests for features you’d like to see added to the products, which is happening on that VNAV thread. You do receive a response from the developers, who despite not actually running the forum, do appear to have close links to it. This forum should not be confused with Ariane’s specific product support however, which is generally conducted via email.
The documentation which comes with the Ariane 737 is pretty good. Two PDFs are placed in a specific Ariane folder inside the main FSX folder; these being the X2 Boeing 737 Flight Ref Guide, and X2 Boeing 737 Flight Crew Training. I think they could improve matters by having these accessible via the Windows Start menu, but a brief search in the FSX folder will reveal their location, so not a big complaint.
The Flight Ref Guide comprises 40 pages of labeled screenshots of the aircraft’s panels and controls with text guides to what everything does, so if you are looking for a particular switch or function, this is the place to find out where it is. The whole thing is very clearly put together and easy to follow although sadly you cannot print this out as the PDF is locked from allowing you that permission. Doubtless your printer cartridge will have breathed a sigh of relief, but before it gets too comfortable, try this: open up the PDF in Photoshop (or some other picture editing software if you don’t have PS), choose which page you want from the pop up menu which appears, and Bob’s yer uncle, you can print that page. You’d have to do that for each page unless you did a batch process in Photoshop, but it does at least mean that it is possible to print the manual with a bit of fiddling around.
The X2 Boeing 737 Flight Crew Training manual is a 117 page guide to flying the aircraft; unfortunately, this cannot be printed either. See the solution above if you laugh at the cost of printer cartridges. Again this is a good manual (excellent actually), which features a ‘quick and dirty’ guide to getting things going, and a much more comprehensive tutorial flight from KSEA to KSFO - that’s Seattle to San Francisco to those of us not from around those parts – so be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
The tutorial flight in the manual is very comprehensive, but for all that, it is not bogged down in technobabble instead relying heavily on diagrams and screenshots, all of which makes a welcome change from the average aircraft manual. So, a good choice if you aren’t massively familiar with complicated airliners but would like to be. It covers absolutely all you need to know in order to pull off the tutorial flight successfully, including everything you need to put into the FMC, how to customize the weather properly for your flight in order to force an FSX ATC arrival on the runway of your choice, and how to fly the thing properly. Along the way it points out some nice features of the Ariane model too, so unlike a lot of other manuals for complex FS bird, I think you’d probably be inclined to read this one all the way through.
At a little over 100 pages, it is comprehensive enough to get you into things but without looking like a huge mountain to climb. This is an intelligent approach to matters that one would hope other developers might perhaps emulate, particularly if you’ve ever looked upon the Flight 1 ATR-72’s 481-page tome with a feeling of dread.
Depending on your disposition, you might either like or dislike the writing style of the Ariane manuals: They emulate a real pilot training course and treat you as though you are a fledgling crew on such a training course, sort of in the manner of how a real (i.e. not for a PC flight sim) manual or instructor might come across. You could either view this as pretentious or immersive depending on how you feel, but either way it gets the job done which is the important thing. Worth noting too is that there are actually a number of additional manuals available for free download from the Ariane design website which expand on certain aspects of the aircraft, such as the FMC and special features.
I would recommend further reading on FMCs if you are not hugely familiar with them. However, despite the fact that the manuals tell you what to do, they don’t necessarily tell you why you are doing it. For example, you can key in 100 on the Cost Index bit of the FMC when flight planning, but if you are not sure about what effect that would have on the economy settings of a climb, then further reading would be wise. See the links at the end of this review for some useful places to look for info on that sort of thing.
Also worth noting is that Ariane sell printed versions of their manuals in fancy binders too, but in common with most other developers who indulge in this sort of thing, these are a bit on the pricey side. Nevertheless, if you must have a printed manual and can’t be bothered with all the above Photoshop trickery I pointed out as a way around matters, then this is another way to go.
There is some stuff in those manuals which is not in the default PDFs you get, but of course, not having bought them, I can’t say whether it warrants the price. Take a look on the Ariane website if you want to know more about those. There is also a massively expensive customized manual package available too, but if you have to ask the price of that then trust me, you won’t want to pay it. Again, you can find out more about that at the Ariane website, just make sure you are sitting down when you see the price!
So with all that out of the way, let’s get on to the bit you really want to read. What’s it like in FSX…?
Texturing and external model
This is the bit you tend to see first on a real aircraft, so we’ll take a look at it first on this virtual version too. With the base package for the Ariane 737-900ER, you get two texture schemes, these being the current Boeing Commercial Aircraft (BCA) multi-toned blue livery, and an ‘unpainted’ look, which shows off the various components and materials used in the construction of modern aircraft to good effect, but is a bit of a bummer for companies such as American Airlines, as it will really put paid to their iconic unpainted corporate look!
Other liveries are available in a separate package, which costs an additional 19.99 (again that’s in Pounds Sterling, but as the Pound sinks without trace in the current credit crisis, is getting nearer to a Dollar equivalent by the second). The additional liveries pack features ten other varieties; like the best repaints you find, these also change the interior trim of the aircraft and the engine specifications in the FMC and aircraft configuration file, in order to reflect the correct options of each airline depicted.
Once again, being a cheapskate (can you see a pattern developing here?), I did not buy these additional liveries, so we’ll stay with the two you get in the default package for this review, although by all accounts those additional repaints are very nice indeed. So, in the default package, both aircraft depictions feature regular interior trim and the CFM International (i.e. SNECMA/General Electric) CFM56-7B27 engines found as standard on all NGs unless a different spec is requested by the customer, so in these default aircraft depictions, engines are rated at 27,300lbs of thrust. This is important to note because the behavior of the FMC’s engine management is specifically tied into the engine rating of each Ariane aircraft.
Singing the blues…
First the Boeing BCA scheme: This is a representation of the same paint job the Dreamliner was rolled out in (note the emphasis on ‘rolled’ there, since the 787 didn’t actually work at the time thanks to that Boeing worker’s strike amongst other things). On the subject of striking, the Ariane 737-900ER looks just as striking as the real thing does in its BCA scheme. However, it has to be said that I’ve seen sharper textures on other add-on FSX aircraft, although on the plus side it certainly does shift in terms of frames per second so this slight drop in image interpolation is most likely a deliberate choice because the textures are not particularly low resolution themselves as evidenced by the fact that you can read all the stenciling on the aircraft. All textures are DDS files incidentally, which means they do mip-map properly in FSX and there is rarely an issue when viewing the thing at oblique angles for a variety of FSX graphic settings. This gives you a lot of welcome leeway on shoving those FSX preference sliders over to the right.
On the minus side, there is a glitch on this Boeing paint scheme. This being that the alignment is off by a little bit on the model where the overwing exits are. Call me picky if you like, but that definitely needs sorting out in a patch and is not really acceptable on a product at this price, especially since it is the only proper paint job you get in the default package. I have been told that this might be down to the way the wing is modeled and how that affects the texture placement, but I have my doubts about that, and even if it is true, it still wouldn’t explain the change in the tone of the colors where they meet.
What is more annoying however, is that this sloppy texture placement needlessly spoils what is an otherwise very nice rendition of the NG, because in terms of shape and details it genuinely does capture the look of the real 900ER very well with its larger tailfin and swanky winglets. Stay at a fair viewing distance out from it in FSX and it can be lived with; there’s little doubt that a repaint would work wonders, but by default, the poorly aligned BCA texturing reminds me of a comment I used to get on my old school reports on occasion – ‘could do better!’ Please patch this Ariane; it lets your product down needlessly.
The other paint scheme you get in the default package represents an ‘unpainted’ 737, which of course benefits from the excellent 3D modeling of the Ariane 737 to a large degree. This texture is interesting in that it allows you to see the various materials - both grades of aluminium and composites - used in the construction of the real 900ER and is an accurate portrayal of this as far as how the real deal looks in this state. For the propellerheads out there, the real 737 fuselage is made from 2024 alloy with a high copper content to resist pressurization expansion fatigue stresses, which is why it has that metallic greenish look. Not being pressurized, the wings are made from 7178/7055 alloy, which has more magnesium and zinc in it in order to provide high tensile strength to resist compression fatigue from the bending forces the wings have to endure.
Thrilling to the curious that may all be, but from the standpoint of FSX it sadly has little utility beyond being briefly interesting to check out. The real 737 typically only ever makes one flight in this unpainted guise, that being when it flies from Renton to Boeing Field so that it can get approximately 50 gallons of paint slapped onto it, which for the fact fans, weighs around 300lbs. So unless you have a burning desire to only simulate flights from Renton to Boeing Field, this texture is destined to remain largely a virtual hangar queen. It’s an impressive texture rendition, of that there is no doubt; it looks authentic and is certainly of interest to the curious but it’s just not that useful for a regular simmer.
At night however, things improve considerably, and the night lighting textures look really atmospheric. They are also affected by sophisticated controls too, including the ability to dim the lights for landing via the cabin crew’s control panel.
Modeling more than the model itself….
The practical utility of the Ariane 737 in its unpainted guise does bring up an interesting point about the ethos of Ariane though; this being how the entire package is marketed. A novel aspect of Ariane is that they attempt to emulate the real world to some degree by treating the purchase of their add-ons in a manner similar to how the airline customers of Boeing are treated. For example, the airlines see the thing in the construction phases and in the Boeing scheme when trialing the aircraft before finally getting their new 737 delivered in its airline scheme.
Initially this seems like an entertaining notion where FS add-ons are concerned, but you can see the flaw – you don’t get the last bit, i.e. you’re stuck with the aircraft looking like it is awaiting a paint job, or in the Boeing scheme, with its attendant texture glitch. That is unless you buy more liveries from Ariane.
Of course unlike Boeing, Ariane cannot know what scheme each person who buys their 737 is going to want, but I think they’d be better adding a third plain white scheme to the default package too, so at least you can fly around without looking like you are on a Boeing test flight. We may not be paying the 65 million dollars Boeing usually want for a real 737, but for the price we are paying, I don’t think an additional plain white scheme is too much to ask for. After all, you even get that with many of the default FS aircraft.
At the very least they should patch that texture glitch on the Boeing rollout paint scheme so that if you want to fly it in that paint job, you aren’t forced to live with that (albeit minor) glitch. If you know how to tweak textures and do repaints, it is possible to sort that out yourself by the way, but it won’t be a five minute job and then again, for seventy quid, you shouldn’t really have to. Fortunately for me, I do indulge in the odd repaint so this is less of an issue for me personally, but it is worth bearing in mind if you are not of an artistic bent and don’t buy additional texture sets.
Fortunately, the dearth of textures is where the bad news ends in terms of appearance because the model itself is really excellent. All the various details such as pitot tubes, antennas, static wicks, vortex generators and all the other ‘sticky out bits’ you’d find on a real 900ER are present and correct, and all in the correct locations. Even obscure stuff like the vortex generators under the slats and in front of the APU air intake and the rear fuselage turbulators are millimeter-perfect.
That’s not as straightforward as it sounds either. Many antennas and other bits were moved on the NG from their original locations on the Classic 737, and altered shape too somewhat when the avionics changed. They shift about a bit between various NG models too, so this is good observational work on the model itself. What is more, some parts have never been done better - such as the undercarriage - which is noteworthy of some particularly fine modeling skill.
The animations are good too, with some nice touches such as the retractable tailskid which was thought necessary on the 900ER to protect the rear pressure bulkhead from incurring damage should a tail strike occur on take off. These, by the way, were considered to be a distinct possibility on the 900ER due to it having a seriously long rear end, but in practice it turned out to not be that much more of a threat than with smaller 737s. But even so, the real 900ER has a newly-designed, stronger rear pressure bulkhead for just that reason. It’s something that all other NGs will be getting too.
Back with the virtual version’s animations, often something that annoys me on FS models is when the nosewheel is sluggish to react on the external model and fails to turn realistically, so I was pleased to observe that this is not the case here. The Ariane model’s nosewheel emulates real life extremely well and is again indicative of excellent animation and modeling skills. This is not mere eye candy either. It has a practical benefit when it comes to taxiing as the runway turnoff lights track very accurately to your steering inputs and make those nighttime taxiway excursions a much more satisfactory experience.
There are plenty of other nice touches too. The lighting is especially notable for having some cool effects, such as it illuminating the ground and shining through clouds and lighting those up. There is a nice jet efflux effect too if you throttle up in the wet, with blasts of water whisking across the tarmac behind the aircraft. It really is a lovely bit of modeling and special effect implementation and I daresay with a decent paint job it would be a screenshot lover’s dream come true.
Cluttering up the apron…
Texture complaints aside, the external model has some rather neat tricks up its virtual sleeve beyond those already mentioned. Once activated, the Ariane menu in FSX allows access to a whole host of fancy features, and very nice they are too, some are default FSX stuff, but most are custom animations; among these you can call up a fuel truck, call for some stairs to be brought to the rear or front exits, extend the built-in airstairs from the front exit - and unlike the airstairs on the real Boeing 737, these ones actually work faultlessly, being fully animated, so if you watch that complex extension animation, it’ll give you a complete understanding of why they often go wrong on the real aircraft and are studiously avoided by most seasoned 737 cabin crews.
All of these animated accessories appear in a realistic fashion too, so the fuel truck will drive up to you, rather than simply appearing as if teleported alongside your airliner, and the stairs will appear some way off and be pushed into position, likewise when you choose to remove them, they are rolled away rather than simply disappearing. If you are of a more civilized bent, you can call up the jetways via that FS menu too.
In more practical cockpit simulation terms, you can also call up a ground power unit, which is again animated, connect up the power and use it via the overhead in the aircraft (you can hear it too when inside the cockpit, and like the real ones it’s bloody noisy), you can also hear the ground personnel talk to you if you call them up when that is connected, via the ground call button on the overhead. So if you like to spend time preparing the cockpit, you can save some gas and do so realistically without the APU running. All of these audio treats which accompany the animations (and there are many of them) are stereo placed too, so if you slide open the co-pilot’s cockpit window for example, you’ll hear it slide open on the right hand side of your headphones or speakers. We’ll examine the sounds in more detail later on in this review. A nice thing about those windows by the way, is that like the real ones, you can’t open them when you’re pressurized and flying, they’ll only open on the ground. Perfect for negotiating with special forces on the tarmac if you are a hijacker.
But staying with the exterior model for the moment, most of the panels you’d see open on the real 737 when it is preparing for a flight work in the same fashion on the Ariane incarnation too, as do the doors of course. The doors require you to operate them properly instead of simply choosing open or shut, which in reality would possibly lead to the emergency slides being deployed (animations on the model don’t extend to that amount of visual fidelity, but they don’t stop far short of it), so if you are a stickler for realism you’ll like all that stuff. There is a whole host of audio calls and messages you can enjoy when doing all that kind of thing too, which means if you want to simulate welcoming the passengers on board, manning the doors yourself and putting them to automatic before you depart, then you can. It’s worth checking that out if you are a real pilot by the way, because if you don’t know how the airstairs deploy on a real 737 (and a lot of pilots do not since it is generally not their job to work them), then you would not be the first 737 pilot to be stuck on board with no clue how to get off their aircraft, being then forced to make an embarrassing call to the ground personnel for help!
But realism on the Ariane 737 doesn’t stop there, also available via that Ariane menu, you can put the gear pins in, or remove them if you like, which is an eminently more sensible thing to do if you plan on raising the gear after take off, the chocks can be put in place, which again is a plus if you like to do real full-on simulation, since when the chocks get taken off in real life on an airliner, that’s when you start logging flight time, and you keep on logging it until they go back on the wheels. You can also put the covers over the engine intakes if you like, although in practice that is rarely seen on working aircraft unless they are in storage, or possibly a pampered BBJ version. You’ll also find that if you should happen to overload the Ariane 737, not only does it show on the model in both appearance and handling, but you also get a warning flag attached to the cargo door advising you of the fact.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the menu also allows you to tweak the performance of the cockpit instruments to squeeze more FPS out of the thing by dropping the instrument fidelity a little bit, and this works well, speeding things up but without any particularly noticeable detriment.
So, the exterior model is excellent, but slightly hamstrung as far as the textures you get by default goes. You can buy more textures of course, but having just coughed up seventy quid for the thing, you may be reluctant to dent your credit card again right away, as that edges the price to ten quid shy of one hundred notes (well over the hundred mark if you are in the US and paying in Dollars), which it has to be said, is a lot for just one aeroplane. But there’s no denying it is a pretty thing, and it certainly does a lot more than any other add-on aircraft if you like playing with systems beyond the confines of that flight deck door, in that it attempts to simulate more than just flipping switches in the cockpit alone. More on this later by the way, but now it’s time to get into the driving seat.
Inside the Ariane 737, the audio and visual treats continue. Right away you can see that the virtual cockpit is something pretty special on this model, and not just in terms of looks, it’s great on frame rates too. This is just as well to be honest, because it’s the only cockpit you get. Yup, there are no 2D panels at all, with the exception of the CDU, which can be called up with shift+2. Now before you reel in horror at the lack of 2D going on, I have to tell you that this is really no loss at all, the virtual cockpit is very usable indeed and there are several preset views you can call up with the A key on your keyboard that work sort of like 2D panels, although if I’m honest I really couldn’t care less about those myself, because this aircraft has one of the best and most usable virtual cockpits ever.
Yes, it really is that good. Either with Track-IR or using spacebar and the mouse, the virtual cockpit is a delight in this aircraft. It’s obviously helped considerably by very frame rate-friendly texturing and the previously mentioned and very useful ability to tweak how the instruments display to a large extent. There certainly are more photo-realistic cockpits out there, but perhaps none so well thought out in terms of optimized texturing and ‘clickability’.
It is worth bearing in mind however, that you can really put some pressure on Track-IR’s panning abilities when tilting your head right back and around to tweak the IRS, so you might find yourself resetting Track-IR with the F9 key once or twice, or shifting about in your seat, although in doing so you’ll in fact be emulating what the real NG drivers have to cope with on occasion.
Although you only get a virtual cockpit, that is not the only part of the interior that is modeled. With either the A key on your keyboard or by walking up the steps from outside, or going out of the cockpit via the door, you can get to the cabin crew galley, and that’s modeled with a lot of features too. The control panel found in the real NG is correctly depicted and most of it works too. So you can make cabin announcements, play music to the passengers (some music is included in the package), operate the airstairs, open and close or lock the main entrance, control the cabin lighting and dim it for landing at night and speak to the other crew members. Basically, if you like simulating everything on your virtual airline flights, this will probably be your idea of heaven.
But, what most people want to know about is what it flies like and what is the cockpit system modeling detail, so take off that fetching cabin crew stewardess outfit for the moment will you, and lets take this thing for a spin. Well, maybe not a spin, they’re prohibited at most airlines - spoilsports.
Sure got a lot of switches and stuff…
Park yourself in either the pilot or co-pilot’s seats and you can see why this aircraft has quite a few fans. It’s really impressive looking, right up there with the very best. Being picky, I could point out that there are very minor mistakes in the cockpit model, such as the fire extinguisher appears to have been stolen from its mounting location behind the co-pilot on the circuit breaker bulkhead, and one of the panels is not what you find in the real standard 900ER NG (specifically that would be the AC/DC electrical bus bar panel, which has a couple of extra switches on recent version of the 737NG). But that seems a bit churlish in comparison to all the visual grooviness that surrounds you in this VC.
Incidentally, some 737NG pilots (of the real thing that is) have pointed out to me one or two very minor inconsistencies in the way certain things display on the instruments, most of this depending on what software the aircraft has in its systems. I checked all that out via the Boeing technical manuals and what we are talking about here really is stuff that you’d have to be an experienced driver of several versions of the real 737NG to know were incorrect for sure, and they don’t actually affect its usability in any way, so lets not get too picky shall we?
Now, I’m just going to point out here that not absolutely every single little switch does something in the Ariane 737’s virtual cockpit, although most of them are at least clickable - it’s not the real thing after all – but it’s pretty damn close to it in most respects and you have to look about pretty hard to find a switch that doesn’t work to be honest. But even so, don’t expect the SELCAL to be chiming in with a message from your boss telling you to divert to Ulan Bator to pick up survivors of an earthquake, or the circuit breakers to start popping loose when you land a bit hard, but for most other stuff that matters, you can fool around with it to your heart’s content.
That said, there are one or two things which might disappoint the extremely hard core types, these being the cabin pressurization controls, and the DU source selection, which are pure eye candy and do not let you fiddle with the settings. I can’t say that breaks my heart personally; most of the pressurization on the latest NGs is an automated process anyway and pilots don’t normally screw around with the DU source switches either, since they are a no go item on a real 737NG if there is a DU source malfunction. In any case I bought this thing for Flight Simulator, not Ground Engineer Simulator, but I know some people like all that stuff, so I thought it worth mentioning all the same.
If you really must play with the cabin pressure setting by the way, the extremely likeable Feel There/Wilco FSX PIC 737 Classic (300/400/500 models) will let you do that, because pressurization is less automated on a Classic 737. Once you’ve played with it and realized that you don’t normally have to do very much, you’ll realize you’re not missing much on this Ariane 737, or even the default 737 or the PMDG FS9 737 for that matter, which don’t have that fully functioning either. There was one PC-sim 737 it really worked on years ago, and that was the Wilco 737 for Fly! If you failed to pressurize that correctly, the screen blacked out when you climbed too high.
To be honest the radios could be more complex than how they are implemented in the Ariane 737, but they are nevertheless perfectly serviceable for anything you typically want to do in FS, if perhaps a little on the spartan side for an NG. So, this is not an error, more of a wish that there were a few more of the funky things an NG can potentially have equipped. Although what is interesting about the Ariane 737 in general is that even the buttons which have no sim function in FSX do still respond to a click rather than simply being mere textures, which is indicative of the built-in potential for it to expand its capabilities without too much trouble.
Let her rip…
To give you a better idea of the Ariane 737 in FSX, let’s run through a typical flight. So, first up we need to get some power. You can do this two ways initially, ether start off with the batteries, or connect up a ground power unit and work from that. Either way functions just like the real thing does, i.e. you’ll need to select the correct settings on the overhead to get that working right, so that bit is just like the real thing. Next you’ll probably want the APU running so that you can tell that noisy ground power unit to sod off and be able to hear yourself think.
The APU starts up like the real one and uses fuel like the real one does too, and from the correct fuel tank, so that’s handy if you are a real stickler for realism. The real NG’s APU is typically much more robust than the ones found on earlier 737s, and so there is no attempt to simulate the need to wait for a bit until you can restart it if you find yourself having to. Beyond that, it does exhibit the delay the real one has in shutting down to save wear and tear on the moving parts. So it’s about as realistic as you’d probably want, beyond walking to the back opening up the ventral access hatch and checking its oil levels, and no you can’t do that by the way, and even if you could you wouldn’t see much, the APU is concealed within a fire-proof shroud on the real 737.
The APU display is pretty much like the real thing too and for the nerds among us, that would be an Allied Signals APU as opposed to the Garrett or Sundstrand ones that are also sometimes fitted. If you are a real 737NG pilot, the Sundstrand or Allied Signals are the ones you want, because they have either a higher or even no EGT limit marked on the dial and can be abused a bit more without bursting into flames, which is always nice. Unless you are insane enough to want to start an APU fire, in which case you are largely out of luck on the real thing and completely out of luck on the Ariane version. In short, the standard Allied Signals APU on the NG these days is fairly idiot proof, and so is the one on the Ariane version, and they both work right up to very high altitudes for most power services.
Having got the APU running, and selected the thing as the power source on the overhead, next up you probably want to align the IRS (no, not the tax collecting IRS, the Inertial Reference System). Like the real NG, you’ll find that located up at the back of the overhead where you smack you head when getting onto the 737’s flight deck for real.
To line it all up so your aeroplane knows where it is, you stick the co-ordinates into the CDU on the position page and then select Align on both switches and PPOS on the other switch, or you can manually key in the coordinates if you like. So pretty much like the real deal, although you’ll be pleased to know that it aligns a lot quicker than it takes in real life, and like the real NG is also better at doing it at high latitudes than most other aircraft. Once aligned, you stick the switches into the NAV position and your panel Display Units should burst into life and display all the correct info, although you do have to turn some of them on yourself with the switches on the panel.
Options and other stuff…
So, with all your laser gyros merrily spun up and aligned and the APU running, you then want to switch on all the various bits and pieces you need. The big thing with the NG of course is that it has a row of nice Display Units (DUs) instead of steam gauges, which on the more modern NGs are no longer CRTs but lighter more reliable units akin to a TFT computer monitor in many respects, notably requiring less equipment cooling. With everything aligned, these can then be messed about with to display whatever your preference is.
The Ariane 737 does have most of the typical display options you get on an NG, but stops short of some of the funkier customer options it is possible to have these display, so there is no ‘round dial’ option like you can have on the real thing instead of the combined PFD, and there’s no vertical situation display either, which I was a bit disappointed about, but not all NGs have these options, so their omission is not an error. You can dim these displays for night flying if you like and there is a wide range of brightness settings they can display, so that’s a big plus, as is the lighting of the cockpit in general.
Typically you would have the PFD on the left, the HSI next to it, the engine N1 gauges in the middle and the other control setting display parameters on the DU in between the two CDUs, but you can swap it all around if you prefer, and that’s handy for starting the engines up since you can have the DU right next to the engine start levers display the N1 rotation and EGT, meaning that you don’t have to shift your view to do a ‘proper’ start on the right settings, although to be honest, as with most FS aircraft, there’s little danger of getting a malfunctioning start up if you ignore these settings quite a bit and you could cheerfully crank the engines up in a100 knot tailwind and still not get a hot start. You can’t ignore things completely however; it will refuse to start if you get things drastically wrong.
Also worth noting as you look at the DUs on the panel, alongside them you’ll see the shiny new Integrated Standby Flight Display instrument (ISFD). This was introduced on 737s from around 2003 onwards, although some models retain the more traditional steam gauges. Where the Ariane 737 is concerned, you can have either option, because like the option to select either the later or more recent MCP, you can also choose whether you want the new digital ISFD or the steam gauges version. Unlike the real ISFD, the Ariane one switches off when you don’t have power, whereas on the real aircraft it is powered by a separate battery source, in order to ensure you have some instruments if you suffer a catastrophic power failure in flight. The real ISFD battery charges itself and is good for 150 hours too, so it’s about as close to the light that never goes out as you’ll probably ever come across, unless you believe the light stays on when you close the fridge door. This means if you are extremely picky, the fact that it switches off is a minor error on the Ariane 737, but in fairness it may possibly be due to a limitation of FSX, so not a deal breaker and if something like that would put you off buying, you’ll never be happy.
Crank it up…
As with most high fidelity add-on aircraft for FS, you do need the overhead set up properly to get the engines fired up, so, APU bleed has to be correct and you might not have enough compressed air for a start up with the packs running. All the fuel pumps and taps have to be properly set too, thus, you do have to follow the correct procedures for that aspect of getting the engines running. Once the engines are running you can knock off the APU, swap over the bleed and switch over the electrical bus bars all in the manner of the real deal. So for those of you who like to do proper start ups, this is what you want. If on the other hand you are a Control+E merchant (unlikely if you’ve just spent 70 quid on an add-on 737), then you’re out of luck, because that will not start the engines properly, although it will at least partially do it if you are a bit ropey on the procedure.
With the engines cranked up, we get to see the engine fan rotation animation, and this is perhaps the only animation I am not keen on with the Ariane 737. I think it’s been done better on other add-ons. That’s probably a matter of taste more than anything and not the end of the world since they don’t look bad. I simply prefer the way the fans are animated on the Wilco 737 for example, in comparison to the way they look on the Ariane, but maybe that is just me.
Of course in reality we’d be unlikely to crank the engines and then sit there with them running while we do a flight plan, but since we’re not paying for fuel, who cares? We’ll do it that way! So, here we come to the getting a flight plan into the FMC via the CDU.
What Ariane have planned…
You can load an FS flight plan into the CDU via a menu option up top where all the other Ariane options are available, or you can import one as a ‘Company Route’ on the CDU, and most flight plan types appear to be supported from what I could discern, although don’t quote me on that because I did not try every single flight planner there is (for one thing, I have not got every single flight planner there is). Nevertheless, whatever flight plan you import will not show up until you have properly set up the Departure and Arrival page and stuck a few other parameters in, and it is important to do that bit right, because like the real Boeing, the Ariane FMC bases its calculations for navigation on all of this data, so it is not mere eye candy.
Despite what you might have heard, all the navaids you find in FSX are recognized in the Ariane CDU, but like a lot of other FMCs (including the real thing), it can sometimes go a bit insane and stick similarly named VORs into your plan that are miles off your route in the flight plan, usually because it picks one off the top of a list with similar names, so it is important to step through the legs of your flight plan and watch it on the DU flight plan track to ensure you have the right navaids in there and no silly ninety degree turns toward a VOR on the other side of the planet.
Just like every other realistic CDU, you can change and correct plans and you have to close up discontinuities and all that realistic malarkey. Despite what you might also have heard, you can quite happily key in VNAV data such as speeds and altitudes, economy settings and predicted winds aloft at these waypoints, although it is true that VNAV on the MCP will only follow certain parts of this data in automated flight mode, because like many other FS CDUs it lacks some of the pages and features of the real VNAV. It will happily track speed modes in VNAV and descend with them right on the money, but it is less happy with VNAV path modes and only has limited implementation of economy and engine out settings for VNAV. More on this a little later in the review when we get to flying.
As you may know, the Ariane 737’s SID and STAR database is somewhat limited. Some airports are well served (approximately 9,000 of them in fact), but since that is not the entire number of airports in FSX, there are obviously a lot of airports with no preset SIDs or STARS in the FMC. You can of course plot them manually if you like as part of your flight plan though, and this is simple enough to do.
You may also have heard that the Fix page on the CDU is not implemented, and that’s also true. However, you can manually place what mostly amounts to ‘fixes’ on the legs page of the CDU and have these as part of an impromptu SID, STAR or general flight plan, simply by typing in something along the lines of HON090/50 in the scratchpad, banging it into a discontinuity gap and then putting an altitude in. Doing that for example, would put a waypoint on your flight plan ninety degrees away from the Honiley VOR at a distance of fifty miles, so you can see that it is possible to pinpoint any location via that method and thus possible to put any SID or STAR on a flight plan, with a little effort.
Whilst this is not like a real NG’s fix page, and not strictly a fix, it can serve the same purpose, and both LNAV and VNAV can navigate to such a point, so in practical terms you can fly any flight plan you like and create what can effectively be used as ‘fixes’, just not exactly like you do on a real NG’s CDU. This is not quite as flexible as fully-fledged Fix page of course, but mostly adequate whilst we await a patch which is supposedly going to address this.
Fixing the Fix…
Yes, word is that the missing/limited functions of the CDU are something Ariane are in the process of addressing, and a free patch is on the way shortly I am told. Informed speculation has it that the reason that some VNAV features are not there at the moment, is apparently by virtue of the fact that the FMC genuinely does employ all the parameters you put in it for how the flight modeling uses it, rather than simply taking the data in a very basic fashion, so it is reportedly taking a bit of working out to get it to use it in a genuinely realistic fashion that meets with the developer’s approval. Presumably adding the Fix aspect is fairly simple by comparison.
The prospect of a patch to address and fully utilize the missing parameters of VNAV is obviously good news, as of course is adding the Fix page, but that is not all that is on the horizon for the Ariane 737; a special database editing tool for the Ariane 737’s FMC is very shortly to be made available too. This editor – the NavDATA Manager (NDM) - will allow you to update shortcomings and omissions in the Ariane FMC’s library of SIDs, STARs and other navigation profiles, by creating and dumping your own data into the FMC from it, which will then be available in the sim. It will also apparently be able to use data from other people too, via an online shared library, which is Ariane’s ultimate hope for the thing. Quite apart from the fact that things of that nature are a nice way for users to share knowledge, it could potentially be a very cool toy to play with too, since that is effectively akin to what happens on the real aircraft via the Data Loader port on the flight deck, which incidentally, is actually modeled in the virtual cockpit on the Ariane 737 and even opens up so you can see the disk drive and airborne data loader PCMCIA slot. Of course you won’t be sticking that data in the FMC via the Data Loader port in the virtual cockpit, it ain’t going to be that realistic, but the capability to emulate it certainly will be realistic in terms of how airline technicians and indeed Smiths Industries (who make the real 737 CDU) create and place data into the 737’s FMC.
So whilst I hope the patch is not too long in coming, the database editor sounds like a really interesting concept, and I look forward to seeing that with perhaps even greater anticipation than the patch. For the curious, there is a tantalizing screenshot of this tool in the News section of the Ariane website, although apart from the fact that you can see it has a GUI with dialogue boxes where evidently a lot of parameters can be filled in, you can’t really discern much about how it will actually work. Somewhat understandably, Ariane are playing their cards very close to their chest as far as what exactly it will do is concerned.
At the time of writing, Ariane’s NDM was going into beta testing and the manual for it going through copy finalization, so hopefully it won’t be too long in coming to us mere mortals, and it may even be available by the time you are reading this. You should bear in mind however that this tool is not to be confused with the patch, and unlike the patch, the NDM is not going to be free, but if it can indeed do what is claimed, nor should anyone reasonably expect it to be free. Ariane have apparently been perfecting and tweaking it for two years, with I suspect an emulation of the several memory databases the real FMC has featuring in some way, although I can’t actually say I know that for sure.
We can only trust that it won’t be prohibitively expensive, but all I could glean from them on the price was that they were ‘hoping to make it affordable’. I’m hoping that their ‘hoping’ means affordable by my cheapskate standards, anyway, we shall see…
The wheel in the sky…
Back with our review flight, when we’ve got all the data we need for our flight into the FMC via the CDU, we can set up everything else ready for the pushback and taxi to the active runway. Selecting the TCAS mode on the EFIS panel and the radio stack, we see it appear on the DUs alongside our flight plan route and we set up the Mode Control Panel with all the required data. This comes as a surprise the first time you use it, because you’ll find that rolling the mouse wheel to change MCP settings works ‘the other way’ i.e. you’d expect rolling the mouse wheel up to increase values, but it decreases them and vice versa. It throws you at first, but now I am used to it and it doesn’t seem odd at all, but it took a couple of hours for it to become a natural response.
On the subject of changing MCP settings, this is really nicely emulated and gives the feel of the real thing in a very convincing manner, the sound of dials clicking and switches being pressed is excellent and the rate at which values change is very intuitive, which is of course important in a virtual cockpit’s controls. It’s also remarkably easy to change the values even when bouncing around a bit in flight, and the ease which this lends to the virtual cockpit’s usability will definitely put a smile on your face if you have struggled with this aspect on other FS aircraft. It’s hard to get over the really positive facet this lends to the Ariane 737’s virtual cockpit experience in a written review, but trust me, you’ll certainly like it for the practical functionality it imparts.
As briefly mentioned, another thing that will get you smiling is the cockpit lighting in the Ariane 737. This really is second to none and builds the atmosphere well, especially on night flights of course, where there are settings to allow everything from blindingly white dome-lit fluorescence, to moody coming in for a landing switch the lights down low and put the Barry White on bedroom lighting. Well, maybe not that moody, but you get the drift; it’s quite simply never been done better in terms of usability, and again this is something which is more than mere eye candy.
The real Boeing pilots among you will know that although the overhead might look random, it is logically laid out in terms of urgency, from front to rear in tandem with the master caution light top to bottom priorities which appear next to the EFIS panel; the color of the lighting is also prioritized in that way too, with red for urgent, amber for needing attention soon, and green for okay/good, with blue generally being for electrical systems that need some kind of attention.
So a realistic emulation of all that lighting and how it contrasts with various panel lights is no ergonomic accident, but an important aspect of how the real aircraft is operated. Real 737 pilots will also know that Boeing use a ‘dark cockpit’ concept to speed up overhead scans, in that if all alert lights are off, you should be in good shape, however, they slightly dropped the ball by having the window heat lights glaring away when operational and the electrical bus panel also having a bright green LED display permanently lit, which kind of ruins the effect they were going for. It’s a measure of the accuracy of the Ariane 737 that it does that same thing when you fly it at night and we are fortunate in the knowledge that bulbs do not burn out in FSX, so unlike the real 737NG, you won’t be changing the bulbs on the window heat panel as often as real flight technicians have to. Nor will you have to tap the panels to sort out the odd dodgy connection, which, in case you were ever curious, is why Boeing put that little white cross on many overhead panels – that’s the bit you are supposed to tap, because the connectors are directly underneath it.
On the subject of the window heat lights and switches, the FS9 versions of the NG from Ariane can actually ice the windows up if you turn those off, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s been implemented on the FSX versions, which is a disappointment. I can’t seem to get that confirmed by the way, so I might be wrong, but I did make quite a few flights with the window heat switched off to try and get the windows to ice up, without success, so sadly I think I might be right on that score. That’s a shame actually, because I’ve been told by several real 737 pilots that you can use the severity of window icing on the real 737 as a good guide to when the airframe will be picking it up; apparently when the glass in the middle of the windscreen starts getting some ice, that’s when you need to get concerned. Icing is apparently a more serious issue on the NG than previous 737s too, because it has the fuel tank moved closer to the upper surface of the wing to make some room for the bigger main undercarriage legs; the cold fuel can increase the chances of ice forming on the wing, especially when on the ground, and that can be a hazard on an airliner that flies multiple sectors at fairly short intervals. Anyway, on with our test flight…
Let’s get physical…
With us all set up and cleared to taxi, we release the brake and push the throttles forward a little to get moving and… nothing happens. And that’s a good thing, because it shows us an aspect of the Ariane 737 where it really shines, and that is how well the aircraft’s inertia has been modeled, both in flight and on the ground. At full pre-take off loads, you will really have to give it some juice to get rolling, but once you are rolling, don’t expect the thing to stop the moment you hit the brakes, this thing behaves as though it really is rolling with some weight behind it. The first time I discovered that, I damn near rolled past the hold point onto the active runway, and I’m still getting used to it!
So even taxying the thing takes a bit of skill - as it does with a real aircraft - and it’s about at the point you discover this aspect of the Ariane 737 whilst sat in that lovely well-lit cockpit that is still somehow managing a decent frame rate at your fancy add-on airport, that you realize why the Ariane 737 didn’t cost you 35 quid. Take a look on the external view as you taxi and you’ll see plenty of nice visual effects which further confirm that too. For example, if you overload the thing or have a bad centre of gravity, you’ll see it on the model, and you can be damn sure you’ll feel it in the way it handles in the air too. Ariane have come up with some fancy marketing-speak name for all this inertia behavior – Newton Logic – which I thought was a bit pretentious to be honest. But pretentious name or not, it makes the thing very believable when steering it around the taxiways, and that’s another thing that you have to watch out for, the 900ER is a bloody great big aircraft for a 737, so careful how you steer with all that inertia to worry about!
Cleared for take off…
So, cleared to enter the active, even though we were nearly on it anyway thanks to my crappy taxiing and late braking, we line up on the runway. This is always an exciting time when trying out an FS add-on aircraft that is new to you, and the Ariane 737 doesn’t disappoint. Making sure we dropped the flaps to match what we put in the CDU, we open up the throttles (yes I know I could have used the TOGA switches on the throttles, but I like driving the thing myself, so there), and start rolling. There go those fancy physics again and the thing builds speed in a most convincing way. If you’ve ever been on an airliner flight deck for the take off roll (something fairly rare these days unless it’s your job), or even if you have watched one of the many ‘cockpit videos’ you can buy, you will know that the take off roll is a noisy affair, with trim clicks, rattles and all manner of rumbles and creaks emanating from all over the place. The Ariane 737 gets this exactly right and the audio ambience of the cockpit is very convincing. Even if you’ve got a fair few FS add-on airliners, you can’t fail to be impressed by that bit.
The rudder inputs easily keep us lined up, courtesy of that huge NG tailfin, and steering sensitivity drops away as speed builds. In deference to the fact that most people tend to use their own co-pilot add-on gizmos for things of this nature, there is no airspeed alive or eighty knots call out, nor any V-speed calls, so you’d better make sure you put them in properly in the FMC as you watch the bugs on the PFD (incidentally, you can manually place them too if you like). Lifting off, the thing again reacts convincingly, with no tendency to be overly sensitive providing you have the trim and centre of gravity all set up right from what the CDU told you to put in (and you’d better make sure you have). The sound of the engines as they build power is very nicely done, and speed builds believably as the wheels come up, with none of that silly ‘rocket ship’ acceleration which some FS aircraft exhibit. You do get a ‘gear up’ audio cue from the invisible co-pilot, but this is one of the few ‘co-pilot’ audio files there are in the Ariane 737, which since I use a co-pilot add-on, I was pleased about, as it means you don’t get audio clashes. Remember to turn the gear lever off too, which is another nice cockpit touch you can indulge in.
Also a nice touch, is the aid memoir checklist thingamajig, which you get on the control yoke. Both on the co-pilot and pilot’s yokes this is movable down all the checklist notches and is very nicely controllable. The Ariane 737 is not the only FS add-on that can do that of course, both the PMDG 747-400 and the Suranov Yak-40 have yokes where things work on them for example, but not as well emulated as we find here on the Ariane 737. Additionally the text is extremely clearly rendered, making the yokes very usable indeed, although like early real-life 737 NGs, one item on the list doesn’t reflect the very latest Boeing directive about the engine selector switch positions for flight. Nevertheless, it’s one of many seemingly simple features on the Ariane 737 that make things more realistic and more practical for being so well implemented.
Straying off the path of righteousness…
Passing a safe height we ease off the throttle, dip the nose and then pop on the auto throttle (remember, I didn’t bother with TOGA and the A/T for take off). Stick on LNAV and VNAV and settle back to do the Daily Telegraph crossword – nope only joking. With VNAV, LNAV and the auto throttle engaged, this is where things depart a little from the real deal. LNAV works fine, in fact it is excellent and anticipates turns very nicely, keeping the bank angle smooth and the rudder well coordinated, the auto throttle too will work flawlessly and track the speeds you enter on the Climb, Cruise and Descent pages of the CDU and the time to specific points with various economy and N-speed settings as per the real thing (although not absolutely all economy modes of the real NG are to be found on the CDU’s pages).
But where things come unglued is with VNAV Path, this will not track the altitude of waypoints in the FMC with a high degree of accuracy (specifically, it is VNAV Path that is not fully implemented on the Ariane 737), so if you want to fly the FMC vertical profile exactly, you’ll have to ditch LNAV, monitor the progress page, and either work the pitch yourself in CWS mode, or use the Vertical Speed options on the MCP. This is the one real disappointment with the Ariane 737; it really should be able to track that vertical path aspect of the FMC flight plan better than it can. But, as previously noted, Ariane are currently burning the midnight oil to patch this, so even though it is a slight disappointment, it might end up not being the case for long.
But at the moment that’s a bit of a bummer right? Well, maybe, but read on and see what else I’ve discovered. Carrying on with our virtual test flight we find the thing cruises along beautifully and keeps surprising us with nice little features all over the place, such as the in flight cabin crew announcements and the wipers that work properly – i.e. they have independent settings and intermittent modes (sort of like the real 737NG wipers in fact, which unlike the previous 737 variant wipers, were notoriously noisy and not very good at wiping either).
If there was ever a plane you’d be happy to hand fly a SID or STAR with, or even part of the cruise phase, this has got to be a good contender, it really is very nice to fly and all the more so for that frame rate friendly performance, and all too soon it is time for the descent phase of our little test ride. Despite some VNAV functions not being fully implemented, the Ariane 737 will nevertheless pick up the top of the descent and drop down if you have VNAV engaged, and again although you will have to manage some aspects of the descent yourself (as is often the case on the real aircraft). It will most definitely track your preferred speed profile (which again is why it is important to get everything in the CDU correctly), and this is in fact is probably the more useful VNAV option if you use FS ATC and get vectored off your planned route, particularly if you have to get the speed down late in the proceedings, which is a scenario we are all familiar with in FS. Nevertheless, the limited VNAV Path aspect is not quite so great if you are on VATSIM and get asked to do a stepped descent to specific points, so it is worth bearing that in mind if this is a big part of how you fly, although you might find you like hand flying the thing anyway, I know I certainly do.
Hold your head up…
Picking up vectors for an ILS approach we capture the localizer and glideslope, but we also have the advantage of seeing exactly what is going on courtesy of the fancy head up display that is a feature of the real 737 NG, and of the Ariane version. And very useful it is too in IMC, with you able to easily fly a manual approach and be completely aware of all the necessary data whilst still zoomed in to 100 percent on the view out of the windshield. The related panel on the centre pedestal will allow you to select various options on the HUD and the control next to where the HUD retracts will allow you to change the HUD text color through various shades of green and white, in order to suit numerous lighting conditions, so it’s a lot more than just a novelty.
Following another aircraft in, the TCAS starts giving us audio cues to steer around things. This works really very well indeed and out to quite a long range too, but we have him in sight and so choose to ignore the TCAS audio’s urgings. As he lands ahead of us and slips off the runway in the distance, the TCAS announces we are clear of the conflict, which we already knew, but it does at least tell us that TCAS is working, which is reassuring to know with the wacky ATC that FSX sometimes throws our way.
And so we come to the final test, landing the thing. Autoland with both CMD buttons down is very good, and will do everything up to the flare and retard as per the real deal, but we want to see what the thing flies like by hand, so it’s off with the autopilot and bring it in manually. Again we find that it has a very convincing feeling of inertia and requires you to keep ahead of things in view of the fact that the 900ER is a big aircraft for a short haul airliner. It’s nice to see that useful aspects of the real NG’s revised instrument software show up on the Ariane 737’s PFD, such as the different altitude indicator speed tape, ensuring there’s plenty of instrumental assistance if you don’t use the HUD.
We have to watch out for the flare on touchdown with that big-assed overhang, bearing in mind that the tailskid is only to protect the fuselage on take off, not landing. I must admit I was thinking the 900ER was going to be tricky to flare with that big tail, and that’s what Boeing thought too before they test flew it, but in practice and as Boeing also discovered, we find it’s not the nightmare we were expecting to get it down in one piece and the very first landing I did by hand was a perfect greaser, in spite of my initial concerns. The spoilers pop out and we hit reverse thrust to check out the sound, which is again very nice indeed, as is the animation of it, revealing the well textured bypass thrust reverser vanes. So all we have to do now is remember that Newtonian malarkey for the taxi to the stand, and we’ll be in business.
Now I’m not going to deny that it was a disappointment to learn that it won’t do a full-on VNAV Path, and I’m sure you’ll be thinking much the same thing too if you desperately want an NG for FSX and would like it to be a carbon copy of the real 737 NG. But do you know what? The limited VNAV doesn’t bother me too much. I know that sounds weird considering I paid 70 quid for it, and trust me, I’ll be the first one downloading that patch when it shows up. But until then, I can live with things as they are and not get too concerned by it because the truth is that it doesn’t really affect the way I generally fly the thing anyway, which is to use the MCP altitude as a clearance ceiling rather than to leave everything up to the FMC.
I actually had a real 737 NG driver tell me that’s what they do too incidentally. So whilst I will like it having VNAV Path when it gets patched, I bet I might not even use it as I’ll probably just like the fact that I could if I wanted to. The same is probably true of fixes if I’m honest, and in the meantime it is great having an NG for FSX even without those things.
However - and this is a very important point - you may not be similarly disposed where VNAV Path capability is concerned. It certainly could affect being able to follow strict descent profiles in fully-automated flight. So if that’s your thing, you should think carefully about that aspect. At the moment there is little need to follow RNAV procedures in FSX, but that may change.
The same thing goes for the missing Fix page. Again I can live without it considering that I can mostly get around it by other means and it is similarly slated for a patch. But in the meantime, if you really want to do fixes absolutely like the real thing, you’ll need that patch too. Although with PMDG breathing down their necks, it’s worth considering that Ariane have definitely got reason to get a shift on with sorting stuff.
This brings me to here. I thought long and hard about all this and wondered why I was not thoroughly outraged by the thing not performing exactly like an NG when I’d paid good money for one. After all, surely I have every right to be ticked off don’t I? In thinking about all that, I did briefly consider that it might be some sort of Pavlovian response in not wanting to appear foolish for having possibly been ripped off.
After all, nobody likes to think they’ve been suckered. But after giving it a good deal of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really isn’t the case and I don’t feel in the least bit ripped off or ticked off for that matter. The simple truth is that I really like it for all the positive things it has, which may indeed be a ‘glass half full’ way of looking at things. Nevertheless, that’s how I feel about it. So how can I put that in a succinct fashion?
How about… It pushes so many of the right buttons, I can forgive the fact that pushing a couple of its buttons doesn’t do much at the moment. Yup, that works. Just don’t make me wait too long for the other features guys, it needs those to truly justify the price.
Useful 737 links:
The Boeing 737 Technical site: Run by Easyjet’s current 737 Fleet Captain, Chris Brady, this is an invaluable resource for both real and virtual 737 drivers and is a mine of useful information and links to further useful stuff. Chris Brady is also the author of The Boeing 737 Technical Guide, which was an invaluable resource for this review, being one of the best books you can find on the 737. Chris asked me to point out to all you simmers out there how useful you would find it too. So here I am doing just that, because he is right, you would.
The Boeing Company: Makers of the Boeing 737 NG of course and, somewhat obviously, a great source of info on the 737 and other airliners, and not just Boeing ones either!
NASA: Despite the space connection, their more Earth-bound aerospace information on testing equipment and technologies for glass cockpits and digital systems on aircraft is another useful source of information. And if you want free pictures, all theirs are in the public domain and a few of them feature in this review, so if you like those NASA pictures, knock yourself out, because they have loads more!
Dassault: Although their Mercure was beaten to the draw by the 737, when searching for information on that aircraft I discovered their website is well worth a look, and there is an English version of it too. Check it out for some great, fun stuff.
A very special thank you to Jane Rachel Whittaker, former Boeing 737NG pilot and now Deputy Editor of PC Pilot magazine, who tirelessly and patiently answered my many stupid questions about the Boeing 737 and how to drive the thing properly, going well above and beyond the call of duty in doing so. An absolute star.
Also thanks to Proflig8tor, Avsim’s very own jet pilot/reviewer, who also kindly offered assistance and information. Not forgetting Sargeski, whom you will find on the Avsim forums, for assisting with info on the Ariane 737-800 and matters relating to its purchase via Ariane’s website, also for being a welcome kindred spirit when we were both awaiting product activation on that release weekend.
What I Like About The 737-900ER
What I Don't Like About The 737-900ER
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