Introduction and History of the Spitfire
I began a recent review by saying that "it’s not often one gets the opportunity to review a legend." It’s even less frequent to get that opportunity again, and so soon. The Supermarine Spitfire is that legend.
Despite the Hawker Hurricane having been credited with more kills during the Second World War (70% of all Luftwaffe aircraft shot down were done so by Hurricanes), the iconic Supermarine Spitfire was to receive the laurels as the aircraft which won the so-called Battle of Britain in 1940. Conceived and developed by RJ Mitchell in the 1930’s, the Spitfire first flew on 5 March 1936 and was developed over the coming years. A total of 24 different variants or marks were made, with the principle differences being either a Merlin or Griffon engine, ‘clipped’ wings, various armaments and 3, 4 or 5 bladed propeller designs. Highly manoeuvrable, the Spitfire had a higher rate of turn than its German opposite number, the Messerschmit Bf-109, and a faster top speed than the Hurricane. In total, 20,351 Spitfires were built and saw service all around the world in the years prior to, during and after World War II.
This add-on is a rendition of the Merlin 266 engined Mk XVI (Mk 16) which was designed as a low altitude fighter and identical in almost every way to the Mk IV except for the engine (the MK IV had a Merlin 66). It came into being in September 1944 and a total of 1053 were built. The Mk XVI was equipped with a Packard Merlin 266 Inline Piston engine rated at 1,620hp, 2 x 20mm cannon plus 2 x 0.5 inch Browning Machine guns and could also carry a 2,000 lb bomb load. It had a top speed of 404 mph at 22,000ft, a Service Ceiling of 40,000ft and a Maximum Range of 712 miles. The Mk XVI was a no doubt impressive aircraft but how comparable to the real world aircraft was the Plane Design’s (PD from here on in) version was not the first question I asked myself. The question I asked myself was how did it compare against the Real Air Mk XIV (Mk 14) Griffon engined Spitfire which had been a favourite of mine for some time?
The Real Air Simulations (RAS) Spit was a benchmark in many respects, from its fully functional and genuinely flyable VC, to the ultra-realistic Flight Dynamics. With that in mind, anyone who releases a Spitfire needs to bring something quite new and different to the party if they are to have any hope of competing.
Installation and Documentation
As with most add-on nowadays, installation really is very straightforward and nothing to write home about. Download is by using the now common Flight1 wrapper and should take you no time at all.
The Documentation is limited to a 25 page pdf manual, a third of which covers the history of the aircraft. The remainder seems to be a reproduction of the original pilots notes which tells you the do’s and don’ts of piloting the Spitfire. Users of Real Air’s Mk 14 will be familiar with some of this already. You can download this manual from the Plane Design website. Although it’s detailed, I’d have preferred it if the documentation gave a little more guidance on how to fly the Mk 16 and didn’t rely solely on the original pilot's notes.
The RAS Spitfire had a much more detailed manual than this, but that isn’t to say that it’s insufficient, it’s not. I just think there was plenty of scope to produce something more detailed. If you take the time to read it then it will help you gain an understanding and appreciation not only of the aircraft but the accuracy and detail that’s gone into this add-on. Overall the manual was sufficient to help you understand the requirements of flying the aircraft but I think it falls a tad short of giving those new to the Spitfire the best chance of getting the most out of it.
Panel and Interior Model
One of the features of the RAS Spitfire was the incredible detail of the VC, so incredible that they didn’t feel the need for a 2D cockpit. Plane Designs have decided to include a 2D Panel but my initial impression on first load was that they needn’t have bothered! To be frank, it looks a bit ‘plain’ and the VC is the much better of the two to fly from.
The 2D Panel gives good vision of the gauges but if you stick at it, you’ll soon be using the VC gauges to judge your altitude and speed just as readily. As it’s not exactly an aircraft for flying in IFR, the VC mode also gives the best view of the outside world making it the preferred option for flying under Visual Flight Rules.
The claim on the PD website is that “All virtual cockpit gauges have been created in full 3D, making them incredibly smooth and with accurate custom high resolution textures, and authentic luminous lighting effects, they are some of the best WW2 era British gauges yet seen in Flight Simulator.” The gauges are indeed very clear and easy to read and operate in a smooth manner. An often overused term around these parts is the phrase “The VC is fully functional”, but in this case it really is, right down to the gun sight. Even the adjusters for rudder pedal position can actually be operated. Not particularly useful as such, but you can’t deny it’s a fully functional cockpit. The gauges are clear and crisp and the night lighting is very nice, a very wartime red hue engulfing the cockpit and parts of the dials lighting up with a luminous green glow.
The biggest plus point about the VC is that the frame rates in VC mode are unbelievable and to say "I was quite amazed" is an understatement. I have only one minor negative point to make about the VC and that is on the position it places you upon ‘arrival’ – it’s too close to the front of the cockpit. A couple of taps on your ‘-‘ key though, will place you far enough back to see the instruments and outside world as it should be. It’s true that you can’t better perfection and Ed Walters and his team have conjured up an excellent bit of coding which is the equal of the Real Air effort of two years ago.
The package comes with 10 different paint schemes, each of which is very detailed right down to the last rivet. This is possibly one of the finest 3D models around and in terms of quality, it ranks amongst the very best of the third party commercial offerings available. It is quite simply a joy to look at and will have those of you who like taking screenshots hitting ‘print screen’ for hours.
The pilot changes depending on the model you have selected to fly, period aircraft having a RAF pilot in Blue uniform with yellow life vest and leather flying helmet, ‘current’ era warbirds are seen being flown by a more modern looking pilot. You can select whether or not to carry bombs under the wing and chocks are placed in front of the wheels when the parking brake is set. A further option exists to allow you to remove the pilot when parked and for a starter trolley to appear by the nose. Not very useful but nice touches for those screenshot hunters!
On that note, visit the Plane Design site to see more screenshots of the 3D model. All the usual features you’d expect are there such as rolling wheels, wingtip vortices plus dropable fuel tanks and bombs. Not all Mk 16’s had the clipped wings and two of the models are represented with the full elliptical wing. There is also a Mk IX (9) in South African Air Force colours, the Mk 16 as I said earlier being all but identical. If those 10 aren’t enough, there is a handful of freeware repaints here at AVSIM by Darrin Covington including one in the famous sky blue Photo reconnaissance paint scheme. Overall, this is one of the best 3D models I have ever laid my eyes on. Simply stunning!
The sound of the Merlin engine is almost as iconic as the shape of the Spit itself and this package doesn’t disappoint in this respect. The Merlin soundset is highly authentic and those of you that have read my reviews before, will know what a fan of authentic sound set’s I am. The deep, throaty roar of the Merlin is well represented here and it is quite satisfying to hear when you push the throttle forward.
The growl of the Merlin 266 engine reacts with a change in pitch according to throttle position. The sound of the air from the pressurization system is also represented when operating the flaps and landing gear. The engine backfiring if you throttle back too quickly also adds a nice touch. There is also a clearly audible noise of buffet as you approach the stal,l which adds to the realism. Overall, the sound set is high quality and definitely adds to the ‘atmosphere’ of the aircraft.
Ed Walters of Plane Design told me that some of the sounds were recorded at an air display of a Mk XVI Spitfire, while others were recorded using the Shuttleworth Collection's Hurricane - both internally and externally. In short, it’s a very good example of what sounds should be like.
Having got used to the incredible power and torque of the Griffon Engine using the Real Air Mk XIV, I expected the less brutal Merlin engine to be somewhat easier to keep straight on take off. Applying the throttle fairly gently and in line with the recommended take off settings still causes a lurch to the right, which opposite rudder initially fails to correct. To quote the user manual, this “serious adverse yaw, gyroscopic precession and torque is intentional and is an accurate representation of the forces required in the real aircraft.” All I can say is that it takes some getting used to and in the end I resorted to using very light differential braking, though I’m not sure how those without pedals will fair.
Somewhere between 7 and 9 psi of boost pressure was the recommended take-off setting in the Spitfire but this add-on doesn’t require that much at all. Simply nudging the throttle causes significant yaw to the right and the aircraft is very easy to flip over. You have to feed the power in VERY gently and progressively as you roll down the runway. I fly with all the realism settings at max and found the ground handling, in general, VERY difficult but this is considered to be one of the finer points of Spitfire flying as it needs to be taxied very slowly.
The manual states that this add-on is designed to mimic the fuel system on the real Mk 16 and as such, with the Rear fuel tanks and Drop tanks in use, the longitudinal stability is very poor. This is certainly the case on this add-on with it being nigh on impossible to trim, which is mentioned in the original pilot notes and it will get away from you very easily in turns. I found that reducing the fuel in the main tank to 60% and emptying all others made the plane easier to handle (or select one of the IFR Warbird models which have no drop and rear tanks), but still possessed ground handling characteristics which at best can be described as difficult and at worst impossible, especially on commencing the take off. Furthermore, a 60% fuel load in just the main tank won’t give you much time in the air before the engine coughs and splutters to a halt (seriously). On that note though, I did like the fact that the prop continued to rotate until I’d landed and there was no longer air flowing over it to keep it turning.
The Flight Dynamics have been tested by some fairly esteemed pilots, namely Dudley Henriques (if you say “who” just do a search on the AVSIM forums or a search engine – and then feel suitably humbled!), Andy Sephton, who is the chief pilot at the Shuttleworth Collection, with around 200 hours on various Spitfires and former chief test pilot with Rolls Royce, and Dave Mackay, who is also a Shuttleworth Collection pilot, and will be the chief test pilot for Virgin Galactic. Any one of them is better placed than me to tell you that this aircraft flies and handles like the real deal. So if that’s what they say, who am I to argue? Ed Walters told me that “you have to remember that it's a 3 ton, 1600 hp machine, so it's got a certain bite to it!” Amen to that is all I can say.
There is no doubt as to the time and effort PD has put into making this package detailed. I was amazed to see that under the Payload tab, the weights of not only the pilot can be changed, but also the Weapons, Oil, Oxygen, Radios, Gun sight and even the K Type dinghy! In terms of how useful this is, the honest answer is not very, but its fine detail nonetheless. My overall impression of the Flight Dynamics was one of frustration. It is not an aircraft that you will just hop into and be dog-fighting a make-believe enemy straight away, nor will you be doing much in the way of aerobatics either, unless you want to be flipped upside down unintentionally. However, if, like me, you stick with it there can be no doubt that a great deal of satisfaction can be had from flying this glorious machine around the skies.
My ‘test flight’ of its capabilities came with a jaunt from RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, England to RAF Valley in Anglesey, Wales via the Machynllath Loop and Ogwen Valley area for some low-level flying. Despite bad weather and lots of turbulence (incidentally this add-on reacts in turbulent air VERY realistically) I can easily say that the hour and a half spent hand flying (no autopilot obviously) at 500 ft and above was amongst the most enjoyable I’ve had in a while.
Ed Walters is confident that this add-on will be FSX compatible once he’d had the chance to get to grips with the nuances of FSX and the upgrades that need to be made. He seems to be making good progress in this respect. For those of you who currently have no intention of upgrading to FSX this shouldn’t be a concern but it’s still nice to know that your hard spent $30 (US) won’t be wasted if December comes and Santa suddenly brings you FSX! If it transpires that the RAS Spitfire is not FSX compatible (or won’t get upgraded) then this is the only real option you have for a realistic and highly-detailed Spitfire in FSX.
Overall, this is a nice package. The sounds are great, the VC and 2D functionality is good and the performance on my machine was most agreeable, capping out at the locked 25 fps with VFR Real Scenery and Active Sky 6 running.
The 3D models are simply excellent but the flight model lets it down just a touch, in my opinion. I am however, going to stress the point that it is my opinion and that I have the grand total of ZERO hours (or even minutes!) in a real, live, look-you-can-even-smell-it-Spitfire. What I do have though, is over 100 hours on the Real Air Mk 14 Spitfire and that is a much easier and predictable aircraft to fly and yet it was released in 2004 and was supposedly ultra-realistic.
Maybe some will feel it’s unfair to compare the two as I’m reviewing the Plane Design Spitfire, not the Real Air Spitfire, but as I said earlier in the review, the Real Air Spit really did set the bench mark and this package needs to be quite special to better it. The PD Mk 16 certainly has its merits but for the beginner I’d recommend the Real Air Mk XIV before this one, simply because it’s easier to handle and the documentation is more thorough. If however you already own the Real Air model or you think you’re up to a little part of the challenge faced by ‘The Few’, then I’d suggest you try this.
an absolute joy to fly although the ground handling characteristics
a pain. It’s not for the novice that’s for sure
but the advert does say, “Any more real will cost
you a few mortgages.” If
you’re a genuine Spitfire fan then you’ll want
it in your hangar regardless and it’s worth it for the
sounds, but the flight dynamics will take some mastering.
|What I Like About the Spitfire|
|What I Don't Like About the Spitfire|
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