Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mini-Review: Digital Aviation/Flight1 Fokker F70/F100

I took the Fokker F70/F100 add-on out for a spin yesterday, and I have to say, I am very impressed. So impressed, in fact, that I am wasting no time writing up a mini-review of it here. It is a very nicely done product.

For our test run, we are going to take a Click! Mexicana F100 jet for a little spin between Mexico City and Havana. U.S. pilots rarely get the opportunity to fly into Jose Marti these days, but plenty of airlines from Latin America, Europe, and even Canada fly there routinely. Fortunately, as a simulated Mexican pilot, the gringos' political problems aren't really any of our concern... :)

Here is our test specimen, parked at the main terminal at Benito Juarez:

Here is a money shot from the air:

As I have said before, I think the F100 bears a strong resemblance to a Douglas DC-9. The T-tail, fuselage-mounted engines at the rear of the plane, and 5-wide (2+3) cabin seating are but a few of the things these two aircraft have in common. However, one unique aspect of the F100 is the design of its speed brake. Rather than being implemented as wing spoilers as with most aircraft, the F100 uses a unique "pop-open" tail design, as shown in the following image:

The cockpit itself strikes me a something of a hybrid between a Boeing 737 classic (-300/-400/-500 series) and a modern Airbus. There are a number of similarities between the FMC of the F100 and the modern Airbus in particular, such as not being able to initialize the performance data of the flight while the engines are running:

As with the Flight1 Super 80 and Super 80 Pro add-ons, this is also a rather technically demanding aircraft. There are no automatic configuration wizards handy to get you up and flying, so you will have to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the startup procedures. Fortunately, these are not extremely byzantine, and once you do it a few times, you can get the aircraft up and running within a few minutes. One other interesting feature of the F70/F100 is the optional "virtual first officer" feature. If you enable the virtual first officer, he will automatically assist you with certain tasks in-flight, such as doing the call-outs during takeoff, raising the landing gear, and turning off the landing lights at the appropriate altitude. This is a unique feature that offers a little bit of extra realism when flying, and not to mention a helping hand when you are learning your way around.

The documentation also comes with a pair of tutorials that will completely walk you through an entire flight from startup to shutdown. I cannot stress this part enough: read and work through at least the first tutorial, if not both! The F70/F100 is a very complex plane, and you will likely be very lost if you do not work through the tutorials. In particular, there is one aspect of takeoff (pressing the TO/GA button) that does not presently appear as a button on the panel, and you would have no way of knowing about it unless you read the tutorial.

The 2D panel is very thoughtfully laid out. In fact, it implements one of the coolest features I have ever seen in a 2D panel. In addition to all the usual keyboard shortcuts (Shift-1 through Shift-9), moving the mouse around the edges of a panel will bring up some blue arrows. Clicking on the blue arrows will bring up the next panel in that direction. In this example, we move from the lower part of the overhead panel to the upper part:

As this is the "early adopter" edition of the Fokker F70/F100 add-on, there is no 3D virtual cockpit yet. This arrow feature somewhat simulates a virtual cockpit by giving each panel a spatial relationship to every other panel. With your mouse, you can move around from panel to panel very much like if you were in a virtual cockpit.

As I previously mentioned, the Fokker's FMC will seem vaguely familiar if you have ever flown a real or imaginary Airbus, such as Wilco's Airbus Vols. 1 and 2 add-ons:

The Fokker FMC can take navigation database updates from Navigraph, so feel free to update it with the latest AIRAC cycles as they become available. It uses the same format as Digital Aviation's Cheyenne product. SIDs and STARs are fully implemented, although ILS approach procedures are not. Generally, this means that you will have to dial in the ILS frequencies by hand, and also add extra waypoints from the ILS charts if you want to give the autopilot additional help lining up on final.

There is also another interesting aspect of the Fokker panel. Each plane in the FS selection menu actually appears twice. The first version provides the view from the captain's seat, while the second version provides the view from the first officer's seat. This leads to one of the really nice features of this aircraft: you can link up with another player over the net and fly the Fokker plane together as a team! I guess you could also just fly the plane solo from the first officer's perspective, if you want.

On our flight to Cuba, we hit a nasty little patch of storms on our descent into Havana. This made for a great opportunity to demonstrate another of the Fokker's handy features: fully-functioning weather radar!

Fortunately, the F100 did a great job of lining us up for an ILS approach into Marti's Runway 6. The autoland feature worked flawlessly. It swung around a little more than I would expect, but I attribute this to the bad weather at the time. In real life, we probably would have diverted to our alternate airport.

It is also worth mentioning that the Fokker product is bundled with a respectable number of liveries, representing a variety of European and Latin American operators of the F70 and F100 aircraft.

Here are a couple more shots of the F100 in action, just for fun. Here we are on short final into Marti. Are they growing tobacco for some fine Cuban cigars down there?

And here is our picture perfect landing at Marti, in spite of the weather:

My only criticism of the Fokker F70/F100 is its relative instability. I encountered several bugs which made it frustrating to fly the plane at times. FSX crashed to desktop (known as "CTD" in the forums) once, and there were some intermittent issues with the takeoff config warning lock and some font problems in one of the panels. I understand the author is working on a SP1 patch to address some of these issues, so hopefully they will improve. Just beware that this is a new release, and as with all new releases, it will take some time to iron out the issues.

Bottom line: Flight1 has published another winner here. For those of us in the U.S., the F70/F100 add-on provides a taste of flying an aircraft that unfortunately, we do not often see flying in our skies much anymore. I would rate this product even higher were it not for the bugs and the incomplete state of the product. With time, these issues should improve.

Overall rating: ****

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