Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Captain Sim 757 Update In Progress

The Captain Sim folks have let slip that they are working on a v4.3 update to their 757. Once that is out, it should support full navigation database updates from Navigraph for the 757 FMS. Yay! I actually rather like the 757, although I know many people (myself included) have had problems with severe bugs (mainly CTDs) in the past. The latest update has worked rather well for me, although I know many people still complain about program crashes due to the FMS. Hopefully they will get more of those ironed out for the 757 in this next update, if you are still getting bitten by this.

The lack of support for navigation updates in the 757 FMS is one of my chief remaining complaints about the product. Glad to see it will be addressed very soon.

PMDG Announces JS4100 Preview

The good Captain Randazzo over at PMDG announced a sneak peak and overview of their forthcoming JS4100 add-on over at AVSIM. Looks very impressive! Some of the more interesting (and controversial) tidbits:
  • The JS4100 will be FSX-only. Sorry, FS9 fans! This has angered some, but I understand and respect the decision on the part of the PMDG developers.
  • The JS4100 will not have a 2D panel, only a 3D Virtual Cockpit. This is similar to the Captain Sim 727 and the Ariane 737 series. I'm not yet sure how I feel about this. I sort of like having a 2D panel around as a quick way to assess gauges in a very small amount of real estate (my one old LCD screen). However, I do appreciate that the 3D Virtual Cockpit is supposed to make it feel more like actually being there. The Captain Sim 727 is really growing on me, and I'll definitely spend a good amount of time in the PMDG JS4100 getting used to the idea once I get my mitts on the product.
Enjoy! Info previously leaked targets a June release date, so we shall see if that actually holds up. I suspect we will all be flying around in our new JS4100s sometime this summer, anyway.

Monday, April 6, 2009

PSS: Back from the Ashes?

Saw this mentioned in one of the AVSIM forums: the website for Phoenix Simulation Software (PSS) is back online once again, with a terse message: "Rising Again Spring 2009." Not sure what to make of this, but hopefully this is some good news.

Apparently they left a lot of customers in the lurch when they disappeared a year or two ago. Hopefully they can get everything sorted out and get back to producing some new planes soon, under better management.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mini-Review: Captain Sim 727 Pro

I recently got hold of the Captain Sim 727 Pro! After playing around with it for a week or so, I thought I would take a few moments to do a mini-review here. If you are into older commercial aircraft, be prepared for a treat.

The 727 series was once a substantial workhorse in American's domestic commercial aviation fleet. It was rolled out by Boeing in 1963 as an economical successor to the 707 for domestic flights. Many airlines had clamored for a twin-engine design -- which would later be implemented as the Boeing 737 -- but Eastern Airlines requested a third engine in order to facilitate their routes to the Caribbean. Regulations in place at the time precluded twin-engine airliners from operating over the water. Thus, the 727 was born.

The base model, known as the 727-100, could accommodate 149 passengers. A stretched version, known as the 727-200, could accommodate an additional 40, for a total of 189 passengers. The 727 is no longer widely used as a passenger aircraft today, having been passed by with more modern and fuel-efficient twin-engine airplanes such as the 737. Production of the 727 ended in 1984, at which time it was the most popular aircraft in service. (This would later be eclipsed by its twin-engined cousin, the 737, which still retains that crown to this day.) While no longer popular as a passenger airliner, many former 727 passenger airliners still see use as cargo planes today. FedEx, among others, still retains a substantial fleet of 727 planes as cargo jets serving mid-size markets. Many small airlines based in developing countries also still rely on older aircraft such as the 727.

The 727's third engine was mounted in the tail fin of the plane, with an S-duct to accommodate exhaust out of back. The 727 originally used a Sperry autopilot, although there have been a number of aftermarket modifications available to give it a more modern flight deck, including a FMS. The Captain Sim version, however, is a pure, classic 727 as they rolled out of the factory.

Here is the plane we will be trying out today: an American Airlines 727-100. The 727-100 and 727-200 once comprised a substantial portion of American's fleet until it was eclipsed by the twin-engine MD-80 sometime in the late 80s. American finally retired its last 727 within the last decade or so. But what if we set the clock back a few years to see would a typical flight aboard an American 727 might look like? Let's find out:

We will take a short flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas. The flight normally takes around 30 minutes, and American still flies this route at least a dozen times each way today using mostly MD-80s. The routing is particularly easy, which makes it an attractive flight for getting the hang of old-school navigation aboard the 727.

Here is a view of the cockpit from an airborne flight of the Captain Sim 727 Pro. Note that there is no 2D panel in this version -- only a 3D virtual cockpit:

Our flight plan will have us depart DFW on the JASPA2.WINDU SID, and arrive in Austin on the WINDU.BLEWE1 STAR. On a modern aircraft with a FMS, we would simply plug this information into the computer, and let the plane practically fly itself. However, we have to do this the old-school way on the 727! Checking the navigation charts, we will have to tune the NAV1 radio to the TTT VOR, based near DFW Airport. TTT is on 113.10 MHz. According to the charts, the WINDU fix is located at a point 80.18 nm away on the 175.54 degree radial of TTT. So we will need to set a course accordingly using the OBS on our instrument panel. This is relatively straightforward, fortunately. These are actually important skills to have even for modern pilots. If your FMS should ever go out on you, you need to be able to navigate the plane using the old-school instruments!

Here is a popup panel showing the radio stack:

Now we get our usual clearances, set flaps to 5, and taxi to the runway for takeoff. There isn't anything particularly out of the ordinary here, although I usually set the heading selector bug to line up with the runway heading, so I can switch on the autopilot at around 1000 ft. AGL. Before long, we are airborne!

Here is a side view:

Don't those three engines look great?

Here is a view of the Sperry autopilot panel. It is pretty rudimentary by modern standards:

Basically, you can tell it to roll the wings, pitch up or down, hold the plane at a fixed heading, and/or hold the plane at the current altitude. You can also tell it to follow the VOR radial as programmed into your NAV1 radio and OBS course setting, and have it line up on a glideslope for an ILS landing. That's pretty much it!

The 727 has a typical cruise speed of Mach 0.81, and a top cruise speed of Mach 0.90. Pretty darn speedy. Service ceiling is 36,000 ft, and it can rocket up to that altitude pretty rapidly.

In a relatively short time, we have reached the WINDU fix. WINDU is located in Waco, Texas, which happens to be about midway between Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin in real life. It also marks the point where we transition from the JASPA2.WINDU SID out of DFW to the WINDU.BLEWE1 STAR into Austin. To fly this STAR, we need to program the CWK VOR frequency (112.80 MHz) into our NAV1 radio. WINDU is located at a point 72.72 nm from CWK on the 012.39 degree radial. Since we are flying TOWARD the VOR, we program the opposite direction (180 degress off) into our OBS, or a course of roughly 192 degrees. The airplane will bank to the right accoringly.

Here are a few more views of the 2D panels available on the Captain Sim 727. Conveniently, they have made available the standard FS9/FSX GPS unit available, to further aid your navigation. Though crusty, old-school 727 pilots would probably consider it cheating. :-)

Note that there is no integration between the GPS unit here and the autopilot, unlike in the default FS aircraft.  The GPS unit is purely available as a visual aid to give you an idea of your present location.  You are on your own, as far as navigation goes!

The Captain Sim 727 Pro also has a series of nice animations available from this menu:

Before long, we are directed to an ILS approach on Runway 17L at Austin-Bergstrom. We program the parameters accordingly into our NAV1 and OBS, and turn to pick up the glideslope:

Here we are on final, getting ready to land. One thing to note is that the 727 is a very heavy bird for its size -- that third engine really adds a lot of weight to the plane. When lowering the flaps, the plane will sink like a rock unless you compensate with additional throttle. I made this mistake a few times, and ended up landing short of the runway due to hitting the stall speed.

There is no autoland available for this plane, so you will need to manually take over at around 700 ft. AGL and land the plane. Otherwise, you will end up nose-first in a field short of the runway!

Here we have made a successful landing at Austin-Bergstrom:

Wasn't that fun?

Bottom line: I really enjoyed the Captain Sim 727 Pro, overall. It seems to be a relatively faithful rendition of one of the great classic workhorses in a previous era of commercial aviation. It will truly test a pilot's skill, as it lacks nearly all of the modern conveniences that we take for granted in commercial airplanes of today. Its faults are mostly minor:
  • No 2D instrument panel. This may take some getting used to. Many pilots do not use these, but I like to switch to the 2D view from time to time, as I have a small monitor.
  • I wish many of the instruments had a 2D popup panel, to make them easier to see. This includes things like the flaps display, for example! Same goes for the flight engineer's panel.
  • The manuals do an adequate job of describing the systems, but a walkthrough tutorial would be helpful. If you are not used to flying with old Sperry autopilots, it definitely takes a little bit to get the hang of them.
  • In the same vein, I would like to see a more detailed walkthrough for a cold and dark startup.
  • I ran into a few mostly minor bugs. Hopefully these will be addressed in a future service pack update. In particular, the barometric setting on the altimeter often reads incorrectly, even though it is set correctly. (e.g. it reads "29.92" even when it is set for "29.69") I also experienced one random CTD.
Rating: ***