Monday, September 14, 2009

Mini-Review: PMDG BAe Jetstream 4100

First of all, I must apologize. There will be nothing "mini" about this particular review -- it is going to be quite long. However, once in a while, something comes along in the flight sim world that is so game-changing, you wonder how you got along without it. Sure, lots of companies are doing Flight Simulator add-on products for jets of every size and vintage, with anything from good to excellent results. Simulations of turboprops are another story, though. There are so few good ones around, partly because Flight Simulator apparently does not lend itself well to modeling turboprops.

Enter PMDG.These guys seem to pride themselves on doing new and unique products, such as 2008's MD-11, which (along with its sibling the DC-10) is the only remaining tri-jet wide-body still in active service. PMDG's newly-released BAe Jetstream 4100 continues this trend very nicely. Never before has there been a simulation of a turboprop as complete and realistic as this one. Although the JS4100 does not grace the skies over the U.S. or Canada much anymore, they still remain popular in places like the U.K. to this day. PMDG has painstakingly recreated a BAe Jetstream 4100 turboprop for Flight Simulator in excruciating detail. The only other turboprop I own at the moment, the Flight 1/Dreamfleet ATR-72, almost seems like a toy by comparison. (And don't get me wrong, I enjoy that one a lot. No disrespect at all intended toward the Dreamfleet folks, considering the ATR is a 3-4 year-old product that is rather long in the tooth now. It is what it is.)

Once again, by modeling all the quirks of turboprops, and especially the JS4100's own unique set of quirks, PMDG has set the standard by which all other turboprop add-ons from here on will be measured. Take a ride with me, and you will catch a glimpse of what I mean.

For this review, I will simulate a short flight from Pangborn Memorial Airport near Wenatchee, Wash. (KEAT) to Seattle/Tacoma International Airport (KSEA). Horizon Air flies a deHavilland Dash-8 Q400 turboprop on this route daily, so this will be a good approximation of what such a flight might be like. Incidentally, PMDG has announced that the next turboprop product they plan to work on will be a deHavilland Dash-8, although they won't divulge which variant yet. (I for one would LOVE to see a Q400!)

Anyway, the ride from Wenatchee to Seattle only takes about 30 minutes, but there is tons of scenery to enjoy along the way. Buckle up and prepare for a treat!

Our ship for this ride is this Jetstream 4100 below, operated by (the now defunct) Atlantic Coast Airlines in a United Express livery. Up until a few years ago, ACA operated a fleet of Jetstream 4100s primarily along the east coast of the U.S., feeding small markets to hubs for United and Delta Airlines. ACA had its largest base at Washington's Dulles International Airport, where United also maintains a major hub. Here is one of their planes in a United Express livery, parked at Pangborn:



Note that SkyWest actually flies Embraer 120 turboprops as United Express to connect various smaller markets in the Pacific Northwest to larger cities like Seattle/Tacoma and Portland. (With a little imagination, this could almost be one of those planes!) However, Wenatchee is not one of the cities served by SkyWest. Oh well, play along anyway...

Later, I will also include a few shots from another short flight I took from Aberdeen to Newcastle in the U.K. in the PMDG JS4100 in the Eastern Airways livery. (Not to be confused with the defunct U.S. legacy carrier, Eastern Airlines!) Eastern Airways still has an active fleet of JS4100s that it uses to fly between smaller markets in the U.K.

Anyway, on with the show:

The JS4100 uses geared turboprop engines. This presents some rather unique challenges, especially in Flight Simulator. In essence, the JS4100's engines work by spinning around at a constant rate, while forward thrust is modulated by changing the pitch of the propeller blades. As the pitch is changed, the torque produced changes, while the RPM remains constant. Thus, the amount of forward thrust for climb, cruise, and descent is modified accordingly.

The PMDG developers discovered that the built-in model for turboprops in FSX was woefully inadequate for modeling this type of engine, so they took great pains to work around these limitations with the JS4100 product. There are two sets of levers in the center pedestal for controlling the engines: a condition lever, which sets the power (think N1 %) at a particular rate, and the throttle control lever, which changes the angle of the propeller blades for controlling thrust. The condition lever can be modified directly in the 3D virtual cockpit, or by holding down the CTRL key and typing F1 through F4. (Plain F1 through F4 will control the throttle.) Part of the problem is that Flight Simulator makes certain assumptions about the throttle lever, which aren't completely valid for turboprops. These are well documented in the manual, and I urge you to read the manual thoroughly.

To save wear and tear on the engines, the condition lever can be set to different power settings. There are recommended settings for taxi (roughly 77% N1), takeoff (100% N1), and cruise (96-98% N1). It is important to use an appropriate setting for a given phase in flight -- setting takeoff power during taxi can overheat (and melt) the engines, for example! Or, setting taxi power during takeoff will make it very difficult to takeoff, and the takeoff condition alarm will alert you accordingly. The engine startup sequence is pretty standard, although there are a few gotchas (e.g. the start latches) that you have to be aware of. The tutorial document is around 100 pages long, and it discusses all of these aspects in great detail.

Does all this sound scary? It shouldn't be. The good news is that once you run through it a few times, the PMDG JS4100 really isn't all THAT hard to fly. It is definitely an expert-level product, though, so Flight Simulator newbies will have a steep learning curve if they try to dive into this one right away. Once you get the hang of it, it's a blast.

There are two major aspects of the PMDG JS4100 that make it somewhat controversial among some flight sim enthusiasts:
  1. The JS4100 product is FSX-only. This apparently has to do with the fact that PMDG relies heavily on features only available in FSX, and modeling the same functionality in FS9 would be very difficult and labor-intensive.
  2. The JS4100 product only has a 3D virtual cockpit, no 2D panel.
#1 is purely a business decision, but #2 is more of a design decision intended to enhance the realism of the user experience. This is not unprecedented; both the Captain Sim 727 and the Ariane 737 series also only have 3D virtual cockpits. I had already gotten used to the idea of a 3D VC only, having done quite a few flights in the 727, which is one of my favorite planes. If the 3D VC is done well, it's not that big of a deal to me. However, a lot of longtime simmers prefer 2D panels for ease of use, and this decision has turned them off. Fortunately, PMDG does provide a few 2D popups, though, for the FMS and autopilot controls. These are a concession to the fact that one person is flying the plane in the sim -- normally in real life, the PNF can work the autopilot settings as needed on approach, while the PF monitors the visual approach and/or instruments. To keep you eyes in front of you, the 2D popup helps here!

Anyway, if the lack of 2D panels bothers you, then I say give this a chance. You might be surprised. In lieu of different 2D panels, the PMDG JS4100 designers have created a series of preset views in the 3D VC. These somewhat resemble the 2D panels seen on other products. You can cycle through these by hitting the A or Shift-A keys. Here is a quick rundown of the preset views:

The Captain's seat, facing ahead:



The Captain's seat, looking toward the center instrument panel:



The FMS, click on this and you get a 2D popup of the FMS for easier operation:



The First Officer's seat, looking toward the center instrument panel:



The First Officer's seat, looking ahead:



The First Officer's seat, looking toward the center pedestal:



The overhead panel, including the lights:



The center instrument panel from between the seats:



The Captain's seat, looking toward the center pedestal:



Now with the 3D VC, you can actually position the viewer, the direction of viewing, and even zoom in from any of these views. These presets are intended to get you to a particular viewpoint quickly. It's a nice touch for those of us who are used to 2D panels for everything.

Switching gears for a moment, PMDG has added a couple of other revolutionary features worth mentioning. One is a built-in load sheet, in which it will automatically carry out all the calculations for you. This is not unlike a simplified version of a spreadsheet:



You still have to manually enter the values for fuel and payload into the FMS, just as a real pilot would. However, I have been on quite a few sim aircraft where I needed some scratch paper handy to work out these sorts of calculations. Very nice of PMDG to offer this convenience!

Related to this, an optional feature of the 3D aircraft model is actual passengers! Based on how many pax you specify on the load sheet, you can optionally have the sim populate the seats with actual people! Here is an example:



Another interesting feature is the Ramp Manager, which is managed via a popup accessed by hitting Shift-2:



The Ramp Manager governs various things external to the aircraft while it is parked at the ramp, such as the baggage cart, the ground power unit, the front wheel chocks, several doors, etc. An area shaded red on the Ramp Manager indicates an off/closed/away condition, while green means on/open/present. Captain Sim uses similar popups to control certain animated features on their 727 and 757 aircraft, but the PMDG design here is much more appealing and functional. For example, you actually cannot start the engines of the JS4100 using ground power unless the ground power unit is attached! Here is what this looks like:



Another nice feature is the animated speed cards. CoolSky uses something similar on their Super 80 Pro, but once again, PMDG does it with flair here. Use these to set your V1/Vr/V2/Vy speed bugs during preflight:



I haven't done a closeup of the FMS in action, but I will warn you: it is rather different than the ones seen in most Boeings, Embraers, Maddogs, and Airbuses. It's not bad -- just different. It actually provides all the features needed for flight, including a VNAV mode. As you might expect with a turboprop, there is no autothrottle, but you can set a target IAS speed, and have the autopilot adjust its climb rate to match based on the current throttle setting. A little time spent in the manuals will help you figure it all out very quickly.

Just for fun, below are some shots of the PMDG BAe Jetstream 4100 in action as we fly from Wenatchee to Seattle.

Here, we have taxied to Runway 30 at Pangborn. It is an uncontrolled airport, so once we get clearance from Seattle Center for takeoff, we are on our own:



And now we are airborne, enroute to Seattle. Looking east, Wenatchee is down below, and the Palouse of eastern Washington State stretches as far as we can see behind us:



Looking west, we will make a scenic trip over the Cascade Mountains toward Seattle. The granddaddy of them all, Mount Rainier, is clearly visible off to the left ahead:



At 14,000 ft. we level off and begin to descend toward Seattle. It's a short flight, so it did not take us long to get up here! Typical climb speed is only 170 KIAS, which seems a bit low. We do have a few minutes to build up to 240 KIAS before we slow for the descent. I am assured this low climb speed is standard for a turboprop like the JS4100, though:



West of the Cascades, it looks like a typical rainy day in Seattle:



We are cleared for approach to Runway 16C at SeaTac. We fly up to Everett to turn south and line up for the ILS:



Here are a couple of cool scenery shots of downtown Seattle as we line up on final:




Boeing Field/King County Intl. Airport (KBFI) is below us, and SeaTac (KSEA) looms ahead in the distance:



Touchdown, and turning onto the taxiway:



And for good measure, here is an Eastern Airways flying the friendly skies of Scotland en route from Aberdeen to Newcastle:



So are there any drawbacks? Well, a few, and they are minor. I already touched on a couple earlier: it is FSX-only and lacks full 2D panels, which will turn off a lot of flight simmers. The learning curve may be a bit steep for some, but time invested will be well rewarded. If you start up the simulation with engines already running (the default FSX mode), it will not take you long at all to prep the plane for flight. Some people in the U.S. might be turned off at flying a plane that no longer sees much active service in real life in the U.S. anymore, but I just consider it a good approximation for a Dash-8-200 or a Saab 340. Techniques mastered with the JS4100 will no doubt apply to future turboprop sims that PMDG does, so again, it is time well invested. And kudos to PMDG for doing something unique!

My only real complaint is that the PMDG JS4100 currently has a tendency to CTD at the end of the flight, or sometimes when I load a previously saved flight, such as the tutorial flight. It was so bad at one point, I had to reboot the computer before I could get a saved flight to load without CTD. Fortunately, the JS4100 has not crashed FSX during flight, which I would consider absolutely unacceptable. As it stands right now, it is merely annoying, but probably not unprecedented for a v1.0 product that has just been released. Hopefully they will clean up these minor sorts of issues with a patch very soon.

Bottom line: get this, you know you want it. :)

Rating: **** 1/2 (would be five stars were it not for the minor CTD issues)

2 comments:

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radar_229 said...

Hello nice review.!!verry good work!! bravo.

My question, is there any way to make it work in FS2004?