Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Goodies Coming from Captain Sim, No Holiday Sale This Year

Hot on the heels of the 707, Captain Sim appears to be readying two more "major" releases for before the end of this year, according to this post from Tanya (Captain Sim moderator) in their forums.

One product is known to be the full version of B-52 BUFF. The other? A surprise...

Unfortunately, because of the timing on all this, Tanya has confirmed that the really awesome annual holiday blowout sale (where all products sell for €9.99 for one day only) will not take place this year. So, start saving your pennies...

I'm very curious to see what the new mystery product from Captain Sim will be.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mini-Review: Captain Sim's 707 Captain

First, a little history:

Most aviation enthusiasts are well-aware that the Boeing 707 was not the first passenger jetliner to enter service. This distinction belongs to the de Havilland Comet, which first flew in 1949 - just a few years after the end of WWII. Unfortunately, the Comet suffered from several initial design flaws involving metal fatigue. These flaws led to numerous accidents, including a pair of spectacular plane crashes in 1954 in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy. As a result of these incidents, all Comets were withdrawn from service by the mid-1950s, so that they could be redesigned.

de Havilland's misfortunes during this time created a huge opportunity for its compeitors, including U.S.-based Boeing. In spite of the flaws, people were still clamoring for fast air travel that only jet engines could provide. Thus, during the early-to-mid 1950s, Boeing was busy cooking up the world's first widely-successful jetliner. This project began with a prototype known as the Boeing 367-80. Ultimately, from the 367-80 prototype, Boeing developed both the KC-135 Stratotanker for the military, and the 707 for the general public. The 707, in turn, was the basis for a few other interesting military projects, including the E-3 Sentry AWACS, and the first Air Force One jet, used as VIP transportation for the President of the United States to anywhere in the world.

The Boeing 707 took its first test flight in 1957, and entered service a year later. Boeing continued to produce the 707 until 1978, even as it developed the newer and more advanced 727, 737, and 747 models. In fact, the 707 heavily influenced later Boeing narrow-body aircraft; particularly the 727 and 737. There are still parts of the newest 737 NGs that are unchanged from the original 707!

The 707 went on to become a smash hit globally with the leading airlines of the day, including American, Pan Am, Braniff, TWA, BOAC, Qantas, andmany others. The Boeing 707 was perceived by the public as a safe, modern, and efficient way of traveling - particularly overseas - and passengers embraced flying in 707s like never before. With a range of over 5,000 nm on the 707-320B, the age of intercontinental jet service had arrived. As Captain Sim touts on the ad banner for the 707 Captain: "Europe is only 7 magic hours from New York!" The 707 ushered in the jet age for the masses; while the de Havilland Comet was relegated to becoming a mere historical footnote.

To this day, very few airworthy examples of the 707 remain; almost no airline uses them for scheduled passenger service anymore, except possibly Saha Air Lines in Iran. In its day, the 707 endured as a serviceable passenger aircraft with many airlines well into the 1980s and beyond. TWA was the last U.S. air carrier that flew 707s on domestic routes; these aircraft were withdrawn from service in 1983.

This fascinating blog post from Southwest Airlines features several pictures of Dallas Love Field about a month before Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport opened in 1973. The Boeing 707 was still a popular airliner for American Airlines at the time, with no fewer than four examples featured in the first photo.

While the 707 may no longer grace the real skies above us on a routine basis, the good news is that she will live on in the virtual skies on our computers. Captain Sim recently released their version of the 707 for FSX, known as the 707 Captain. This is their latest release in their "retro jets" line of classic Boeing airliners, following the excellent 727 Captain released last year. So how does the 707 Captain stack up? We'll dive into details momentarily, but suffice it to say, I think diehard fans of the 707 will be very pleased. The 707 Captain appears to be a very faithful rendition of the 707 for FSX, with many important details being modeled. For younger pilots, this will serve as another great introduction to flying first-generation jetliners using steam gauges, without the help of autothrottles or FMS computers. More expansion models are on the way from Captain Sim, including the 300C (convertible cargo variant), VC-137 (Air Force One), and E-3 Sentry AWACS variant. There may yet be other models, such as the 707-220, 707-120, and 707-020 (known as the Boeing 720 for short).

The 707 Captain comes with various liveries in two main configurations of the 707-300 series: the 707-320B, and the 707-320B Advanced. The Advanced variant mainly differs by introducing three-section leading-edge flaps on each wing, allowing for lower takeoff and landing speeds. There are also two examples of the 707-338C included, but it is unclear how these will differ from the planned -300C expansion model.

Enough talk - let's get down to business, shall we? Here is sight we will probably never see in real life: a view of the 707 on the runway at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (KAUS):

Here we are at Runway 17R, about to launch our takeoff roll for a short flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (KDFW). This is a 707-320B Adv, painted in a 1970s era Continental Airlines livery. The 707 originally featured four Pratt & Whitney JT3C engines, which are forerunners of the JT3D's subsequently used on many popular aircraft: the Boeing 727, Boeing 737-100 and -200 series, the Douglas DC-8 series, and the McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 and MD-80 series. Later versions of the 707 also used JT3D engines, identified by the "B" suffix in their model numbers (e.g. -320B). These engines are well-known for being loud, and the 707 Captain does not disappoint in this regard! These engines are also well-known for being very smoky, and the 707 Captain faithfully reproduces this effect as well:

Just like Captain Sim's previous product in this series, the 727 Captain, the 707 Captain only features a 3D virtual cockpit for flying. There is no 2D panel view of the entire flight deck. Captain Sim regards this as outmoded technology, and believes only having the 3D VC makes for a more immersive experience. As with the 727, there are a number of preprogrammed views in the VC that one can cycle through by pressing the A or Shift-A keys on the keyboard. This makes it easier to quickly find things like the overhead switches, which mitigates the need for having a separate 2D panel for this.

Here is a view of the front office looking straight ahead:

And another one looking at the center console. Notice the four engine throttles:

There are some very cool aspects about the 707 modeled in this center console here, as well. Notice the round amber screen in the middle? This is a fully-functional vintage, 1950s era weather radar! To the left of this is the original doppler navigation system used by the 707; to the right, a CIVA INS unit. More on these later.

There are a set of 2D panels for some of the more commonly accessed functions, such as the autopilot. These panels are designed to reduce the pilot's workload during flight by making these functions quickly available; as normally, the 707 is piloted by a 3-man crew. Captain Sim used a very similar design with the 727 as well.

As is typical with Captain Sim products, there exists a panel governing all the animations used on the aircraft:

This panel can also connect ground air and power for starting up the engines of the aircraft.

Next, here is a 2D panel version of the weather radar:

And here is a 2D panel displaying a moving map of the plane's current position. This is actually tied into the doppler navigation system; though in reality, it is a stripped down version of the GPS map:

Here is the 2D autopilot panel - very handy to have when you are controlling ascents or descents and need to keep an eye on the horizon. I'm not sure which model this is, but it functions very similarly to the 727's Sperry autopilot. This may be a Bendix PB20, but don't quote me on that:

Seasoned old-school pilots will have no trouble at all picking this one up and setting a course along a VOR/DME radial. One happy note: the autopilot in the Captain Sim 707 appears to be much better behaved than the Captain Sim 727, which was prone to nasty oscillations back and forth before finally settling in on the radial. (Some subsequent modifications to certain parameters in the config file for the 727 reportedly fix this, but I haven't looked into it in a while.) Thankfully, the 707 is very stable by comparison, out of the box.

Here is another 2D panel that we also see on the 727:

Now, we get to one of the more interesting 2D panels. Remember the CIVA INS I mentioned earlier? The Captain Sim 707 does not enable this by default, but they do ship an alternate panel.cfg file as of version 1.2 that enables this. I have gone ahead and enabled this configuration, and here are the 2D popups for the CIVA INS:

The CIVA INS is actually a freeware gauge that is available for adding INS navigational capability to a wide variety of aircraft. The Concorde-X from FlightSimLabs also ships with it.

In the era prior to GPS and FMS systems, the INS was a major boon for overwater flight, especially when going over the Atlantic Ocean from New York to London. The old doppler navigation system used on the 707 was only capable of following a track and a distance, before switching to another track and distance. Obviously, this was not very accurate. One old 707 pilot reported that it was common practice to issue separations of 120 nm between aircraft flying overwater, just to allow for navigational errors! Pilots typically looked for contrails from planes ahead of them to determine if they were still on course.

The INS, while still primitive by modern FMS standards, was a major improvement. The INS could keep track of its current position, with periodic recalibration, and automatically track the aircraft to up to nine waypoints ahead on the route. Pilots continually have to add more waypoints to the INS. There is no onboard database to correlate fix JASMO with lat/long coordinates; the pilot must enter these into the INS directly from the flight plan on paper.

The CIVA INS is one feature that Captain Sim added since the 727. It turns out that it is also possible to add the CIVA INS to the 727 as well, and many sim pilots may find this preferable to navigating from VOR to VOR. Practically speaking, there is less need to have an INS on a 727 as compared to a 707, as the 727 had only half the range of the 707, and was very rarely used for overwater flights.

Moving right along, let's cycle through some of the preset views of the 3D VC. Here is the copilot's seat:

Notice the flight yoke here. You can click on the flight yoke to make it disappear, so you can see the instruments behind it. Clicking on the hole in the floor where the flight yoke used to be will make it reappear again.

Here is a better view of the center console:

One other thing about the CIVA INS here: it is not operable from the 3D VC yet. Captain Sim claims that they need some unspecified "technical details" from the CIVA INS developers in order to make this work. For now, the 3D VC version will display the current position of the plane, but the only way to control the CIVA INS is through the 2D popup panels.

Here is the overhead panel:

And here is the flight engineer's panel, directly aft of the copilot:

Here is a passenger lounge area in the cabin. Wouldn't it be nice if planes still had these?

Here is the view from coach. Wonder what the tickets for a ride cost?

Here is the galley. What is today's inflight meal?

One more view from the captain's seat, with the flight yoke unhidden:

Here is the spot view from outside, directly behind the plane. The 707 looks very distorted and unnatural at this angle:

Here we are on final approach to land at KDFW:

I've spent many lines above talking up the pros of the 707 Captain. So how about the negatives? It turns out, there are very few. This is an astonishingly well-done, polished product from Captain Sim. I didn't even encounter a single CTD during all my test flights. However, nobody is perfect; not even PMDG. There are a few minor issues with the 707 Captain:
  • It is a beast, graphically-speaking. If your graphics card is not up to snuff, you can expect to wait a bit for your GPU to render views inside the 3D VC. Sometimes, even artifacts or other oddities appear. You may want to dial back the graphics a bit on this one, if your GPU is outdated.
  • There are a few incomplete details, such as the integration of the CIVA INS into the 3D VC. Hopefully they can get this resolved in a future release.
  • There seems to be a glitch on the 2D autopilot popup where the elevator pitch control wheel just stops rolling after a while. The plane still remains controllable up and down, so it's obviously working, but the graphics are just not working right for some reason.
  • It's a little spendy: even though Captain Sim recently slashed the price by €10, €49.94 (approx. US $71) is still not cheap. If the price is too high, customers may want to wait until Captain Sim runs their annual holiday sale in December to rack up some big savings on this one.
All in all, you could do far worse than to add the Captain Sim 707 to your virtual hangar this holiday season!

Rating: **** 1/2

Saturday, October 23, 2010

PMDG Lifting the Veil on the NGX

Slowly, but surely, the PMDG gang is giving us tasty morsels of the NGX!

Their latest preview takes a look at the Virtual Cockpit, along with some side-by-side comparisons against their previous 737NG product. You can really see the big leaps forward in the 3D modeling with the new version. Very, very impressive realism.

I want one with a big red bow on it in my virtual hangar for Christmas this year... :-)

I'm Back...

And look who's got a new toy:

Expect a mini-review soon!

Sorry for the quiet period recently. Been very busy with my day job, and other duties in real life. Haven't had much time to sim lately. Progress on the PMDG 737 NGX and Aerosoft/Digital Aviation CRJ seems to be crawling along; hopefully we'll see both of these great toys by Christmas. However, Captain Sim's new 707 is proving to be a very fun aircraft for simming in the meantime.