IRIS Simulations' F-14 Tomcat
By Kevin Glover (10 February 2009)
Remember the last time you were at an air show with an F-14 Tomcat being shown? Well, I'm willing to bet a fairly large sum of money that everyone in the audience, the casual observers and the avid aviation enthusiasts like yourself, recognizes the Tomcat. It's one of the most famous aircraft in history, and landed itself a spot on the national news when its retirement was announced. Both the United States and Iran, whose air forces used the Tomcat, fell in love with the burly aircraft, and I too find the thing alluring.
The download or a whopping 225 MB and the installation went quite uneventfully. I found an impressive fifty-eight liveries spread over a variety of models. In addition to the basic A or B models, we have several different loadouts on the F-14's. These include TARPS role, air interdiction, air superiority, unarmed, and display. Which liveries possessed which models varied immensely, but there are still at least two, and more often four, models per livery. In the FSX folder, one finds a manual and paint kit under IRIS Pro Series. The manual is beautifully done, but, because there is an image set as the background on every page, this can be ink consuming to print. However, the manual explains the aircraft and its systems beautifully, and easily understandably, written. It details all of the procedures and systems; for that matter, you should keep in mind that this is not necessarily an overly complex aircraft, but more on that will come later. Additionally, keep in mind that the package includes an exterior model for the two variations, however for ease of use, the interior is the same for each with the exception of a HUD mount in the B model.
The aircraft's cockpit has always struck me as a little claustrophobic, however I suspect that IRIS' upcoming Vulcan will be even more so. Certainly when you compare it to the bubble canopies of the P-51 or the F-16, it's apparent that this aircraft was built in a very different era than those others. However, the cockpit is also rather dark. After comparing the simulation to the real aircraft, IRIS has done a find job reproducing the interior. The RIO's seat is not modeled as IRIS found it significantly decreased performance, but I hardly consider that a con. In any case, the pilot's space is composed largely of painted black metal, especially noticeable on the side panels and canopy frame. At first, it looks a tad fake, but one realizes that all this is really lacking is some aging effects. After I realized this was a 'new' Tomcat, it didn't bother me.
All of the switches and controls are reproduced, with very few being static. One thing which really strikes me are the analog gauges with glass fronts. Although the Tomcat is equipped two large screens, there are many backup instruments, as well as those monitoring engine conditions, which are covered in this glass. These gauges are very well done and show an evident reflection of the cockpit. They are, perhaps, one of the most realistic that I've seen.
Some great innovation has gone into the cockpit; this includes the air conditioning system. If you have not properly configured this, your canopy will fog up and it's rather difficult to un-fog. I usually had to reload the aircraft to get my vision back. This effect just causes a mottle, dark texture to appear on the canopy and windshield. It's rather nicely done, and makes me notice a system I wouldn't pay attention to otherwise. In addition to this, there is even a glass shield over the wing-sweep control lever. All of the controls are modeled and animated, such as the parking brake, launch bar, pedals, control column, and tail hook. The control column is the only thing which I find unsatisfactory, simply because it looks a little ragged next to the modeling of the rest of the cockpit. It's something of a uniform black which would really benefit from some scuff marks, and the bright red switches (which look rather like the red color in MS paint) are rather incongruous.
On the whole, the exterior is done very well. There a numerous areas which have received beautiful modeling, such as the cockpit when being viewed from the outside, the landing gear struts and bays, and the engine intakes. At first glance, the exterior struck me as, well, a bit dull. Tomcats served long enough to get very dirty, so, like the interior, I don't think that the occasional bit of muck, chipped paint, or soot would harm this aircraft. However, I'm spoiling this section with trifles, because the exterior performs beautifully and looks great. The undercarriage is particularly striking. The spokes of the wheel are 3D, allowing you to see through the gaps. The struts themselves have great texturing which shows all sorts of tubes and wires, and the gear compresses quite a bit when taking load. The payload, flaps, spoilers and control surfaces all are done with great textures quality, and I suspect a good deal of the 225 MB have been spent here. It seems to me, though, that the position lights are very difficult to do correctly on a Tomcat because I've never seen an add-on which makes them look good. These lights are located beneath a shield of either red or green colored glass. The light pokes out from the fuselage, and thanks to FSX limitations with how effects are handled, stray away from that position when you change your views. I doubt that this is something IRIS could have circumvented with any amount of creativity, but it still deserves a mention.
Flight And Systems
The Tomcat is not the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly. It's big, so don't expect it to turn as fast as some of its contemporaries, but man, does this thing have power! That's the thing to remember, though, because you want to take advantage of this power in all stages of flight. First of all, let's get acquainted with the cockpit:
To your left is the side panel. This houses many rather important things, including the stability augmentation system which are necessary for the DFCS autopilot to function, throttle controls, fuel indicators, flap controls, autopilot, landing gear handle, launch bar, and refueling probe. To your right is the right side panel. This holds the lighting systems, generators, caution advisory panel, air conditioning controls, avionics controls (primarily for the HUD) and the canopy switch. To the fore is the main panel, which holds the engine instruments, many backup indicators for things which are primarily visible on the HUD, the VDI (the top display) and the HSD (bottom screen). This instrument, the horizontal situation indicator, can function in manual or TACAN mode.
Upon entering the cockpit, I always use the checklist included with the manual. First of all, one turns on the generators which supply power. Then you check that all of the avionics are functioning. You probably will find that this product hasn't delved into every nuance of the systems, so, as David Brice of IRIS put it, "This isn't the Aerosoft F-16". Quite bluntly, why would we want it to be? I have that aircraft, and it is most definitely good, but I have no qualms with how IRIS has portrayed the Tomcat's systems for the sim; besides this, many systems which were not implemented have no meaning in the simulator. However, once the avionics are functioning, there are still some items needed to start the engines. I always start mine with the inlet ramp switches in auto. These things control how air enters the engine. If you are nearing the sound barrier with these to stow, then the engine will find itself starved of air, and fail. So, I always do this as one of the first things before I forget. Check the proper lights are lit, parking brake engaged, canopy locked, and you're set.
Engine start is rather straight forward. Simply drag the starter switch to either the left, right, or center depending on what you'd like to do. When the engine has reached 20% RPM, open fuel flow to the engines via the huge switches on either side of the main panel. I did, however, encounter difficulty in dragging around the switch. It sometimes would not follow my mouse correctly and getting it back to center position can be a pain. Now that engines are started, it's time to taxi. Taxiing is rather easy and this thing could be a Cessna 172 if it weren't for the massive engines. Just a bit of throttle is required, otherwise you'll just look stupid. I did notice one issue, however. At some speeds, generally fairly low, if you try to put the yaw axis to either the extreme left or right, it's like it slips into the opposite direction, so you'll start turning the other way.
Takeoff is quite straight forward--well, it should be if there isn't any wind. Simply extend the wings, lower some flaps if the situation requires it, and put the throttles forward. One of the issues of this aircraft is very noticeable here. The visual effect of the afterburners will come into effect at full throttle, but you won't get the change in thrust or sound without pushing Shift-F4. This is a bit of a pain, but I survived without the additional thrust just fine. There is talk of a hotfix to address this issue for Acceleration Expansion Pack users, and I rather hope that this comes into effect. Takeoff roll and speed will, of course, vary immensely depending on conditions, but the manual provides all of the necessary information.
As I'm sure you will find, climb is really quite easy, and upon reaching cruise we have some decisions to make. First of all, the aircraft is equipped with a DFCS autopilot. This allows you to allow the autopilot to control NAV hold, heading hold, altitude hold, and some other functions. I personally had little time for this system, as flying hands on is just too fun. You can also decide whether you want manual or auto wing-sweep by simply using the Shift+E, then number 3 keyboard shortcut. The developers originally had this function operated by a switch in the virtual cockpit, but due to incompatibility issues between FSX SP2 standalone and SP2 that was bundled with Acceleration, the ability to click the switch was removed and a keyboard command now controls the function on or off. Whilst not an ideal situation, it does the job.
The manual wing sweep is controlled via the propeller lever in the FSX controls section, or by dragging the small sweep position lever in the virtual cockpit, whereas automatic will adjust wing position depending on your speed. Remember that you can't retract your wings if flaps are deployed. Additionally, IRIS has come up with a rather ingenious way to discourage any quests for fresh air. Should you decide that you want to open the canopy in flight, the aircraft will become uncontrollable and slowly pitch down and to the side. Just don't open the canopy. The afterburners are modeled quite nicely, and, rather than just popping into existence, 'light' and grow larger. They also seem to flicker a bit, I'm unsure as to whether this is intentional or just FSX mishandling effects.
Upon landing, as I said before the most important things is to keep your speed up. When wings are extended with flaps, there's a surprising amount of drag and I found myself plummeting onto the threshold more than once. I generally kept about 30% throttle throughout approach and varied my speed using the spoiler rather than the engines. Upon landing, remember that this is built to land on carriers, so don't feel too poorly if you set her down a bit hard. I thing that the best way to land this aircraft is to fly it on to the runway, rather than settle it down. According to the developers, pilots routinely land at between 600-700 feet per minute descent rate--don't try that in an Airbus! This way, you can keep comfortably away from the rather sudden stalls, so, until you've had some practice, better safe than sorry.
In real life, this aircraft is meant for carriers. This aircraft utilizes all of FSX's carrier functions. It will even kneel and extend the launch bar if you're correctly positioned on the carrier. This obviously adds a lot, but I personally think it's even harder to land on a carrier than the F-18. Practice, practice, practice...
The developers have obviously put a lot of work into the cockpit. Via the controls on the right side panel, you can make all of the labels in the cockpit appear in red night-lighting, or have a green or white light. All of the inside really looks great at night. On the outside, you can control everything just like the real aircraft. All of it functions accordingly, such as how the position lights will respond differently depending on the position of the landing gear. Also, this product is Shockwave/A2A's 3D Lights compatible, which is a nice touch.
On the whole, performance was not as good as I expected. I noticed a conspicuous lag the more I switched views, and the performance in the cockpit was rather choppier than the outside. However, I'm not really complaining. There isn't really any add-on which performs poorly, just people who don't adjust their settings properly. I had to reduce some autogen and traffic, but, quite honestly, it's a fair price to pay.
David Brice, the founder of IRIS and the designer of the VC, has recently provided a small conversion utility and instructions on the IRIS forums to convert the current 32-bit textures to 16-bit which effectively halves the texture load on the aircraft. This will definitely decrease texture load times for those willing to sacrifice some quality. As to how it effects FPS in the aircraft remains to be seen though.
It's funny how some very famous aircraft manage to be overlooked by flight sim developers. However, in a brilliant flash of afterburners, IRIS has provided us with a beautiful package which, even if it were riddled with issues, many would probably still buy simply because it's a Tomcat. Fortunately this is not the case, and all of the liveries, effects, and extras are sure to keep this aircraft at the front of the hangar. I enjoyed it a lot; it's an absolute kick to fly and that's enough for me to be happy.
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