Iris Northrop F-20 For FS2004 And FSX
By Andrew Herd (1 August 2008)
The F-20 Tigershark is said to have been the largest commercial private venture targeted at a military audience ever attempted and given that Northrop are rumored to have invested well over a billion dollars in the project before it was cancelled, I find it easy to believe. Northrop built three prototypes, two of which crashed during promotional tours, but the survivor has been preserved at the California Science Center in LA. The program was well outside the mould of anything that had been attempted before with such a sophisticated airframe, in the company didn't court government contracts early in the design phase, so that it could make decisions rapidly, unfettered by the tedious committee processes that dogged other projects. Northrop's aim was to design a lightweight fighter that was fast, cheap to maintain, reliable and easy to fly and by all accounts they achieved these aims, but despite the success of the F-5E on which it was based, the F-20 didn't sell. The project began to run into the sand when the USAF failed to consider it and the USN went for the F-16 instead, which made the more attractive foreign purchasers look askance. Given that the F-20 was partly the product of a political process which had decided that fighters couldn't be sold outside NATO countries, Japan and Australia unless they weren't as good as front-line US aircraft, the F-20 was at a disadvantage from the start, and when General Dynamics came up with the F-16/79, the only cards Northrop were left to play were the advanced avionics fitted to their plane and the lower operating costs. GD neatly trumped the avionics argument by proposing an all-digital F-16 and that, coupled with a less than totally compliant US administration and the ill-timed loss of one of the prototypes, led Northrop to cancel active development and although they did continue to promote the F-20 until the early 1990's, they didn't sell a single hull.
So the Iris F-20 is that most interesting of all things, a simulation of one of the most exclusive jet fighters ever built, given that only three were made. For your money, you get a neat simulation of a plane that can climb at 58,000 feet a minute and reach over mach 2.0, which is a step up from the default Cessnas, even if some aspects of the addon are kind of speculative and parts of the panel don't bear a great deal of resemblance to the original, because Iris has designed them to represent what they imagine the production aircraft cockpits might have looked like. It is hard not to be enthusiastic about the F-20, which has a great website devoted to it here - after you have read it, you will want to fly the sim and Iris have done about as good a job on it as we could hope.
The addon is a 156 Mb instant download from the Pilot Shop and installation is an easy matter of running the executable and entering your name and the key code you are supplied with on purchase when asked. When everything was done, I checked out the Start Menu, which didn't feature any new program groups, so I fired up FSX and failed to find the F-20 either. I would be looking for it yet, had I not chanced to break the habit of a lifetime and checked the box on the installer which opened the manual before exiting, and by checking out where the manual was installed, I discovered that the F-20 was installed all on its lonesome on my D drive, which is reserved for system backups, instead of my C drive, which is where FSX lives. I have no idea why this happened, but if you have more than one hard drive listed, keep an eye on the installation routine! The problem was easily solved by dragging the F-20 folder structure over to the correct drive and when I restarted FSX, the F-20 appeared in the aircraft menu and the show could go on. This problemette will only affect some systems, but it would be a show-stopper for anyone who isn't familiar with the Windows folder structure - it would also be good if a link to the manual could be stuck in an F-20 folder somewhere on the Start Menu.
I couldn't find a minimum system spec listed anywhere, bar the fact that the addon requires FSX with Service Pack 2, but for what it is worth, I did the review on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM, a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX video card, Window Vista SP1 and FSX SP2. Given that the F-20 panel is roughly on a par - as far as complexity goes, anyway - with the default Lear, it isn't surprising that the frame rates were comparable to the default jets, so if your system can run FSX, it shouldn't have any trouble with this addon.
You get nineteen different liveries, spread across two main variants of Iris' interpretation of what the F-20 might have become, in the form of the F-20C and the F-20D. There is a sprinkling of sub-variants, in the form of an RF-20C, a T.1 (RAF) and a CF-20C (no surprises, RCAF), as well as some two-seaters. None of the liveries are exactly eye-catching, but they cover a good range of nationalities from the RNoAF, RSAF and RAAF, to a clutch of USAF paints and even a NASA astronaut training plane - NASA used the F-5 for this purpose, as anyone who has read Michael Collins' excellent Carrying The Fire will remember. You haven't read that book? Shame on you. Stop reading now and get a copy.
The visual model is good, catching the dramatic lines of the F-20 very well and making you want to get out there and fly it. There is a reasonable amount of detailing - although Mach 2 fighters have really smooth skins, so there aren't any rivet lines and all you get to see are panel edges, vents and painted warning notices, but most of the planes show some weathering and they look real enough for this reviewer. Animations are limited to the control surfaces, gear, pilot's canopy, the pilots themselves, a flight refuelling probe and the jet nozzle and efflux, unless you count the weapons, which can be attached and detached using the elusive 'ordnance manager'. I say elusive, because although ordnance manager is mentioned a couple of times in the manual, the developer doesn't actually tell you where to find it or how to use it and in the end I discovered the manager accidentally, while I was figuring out how the panel worked. If you load one of the F-20Cs and hit the A key a few times with the virtual cockpit (VC) loaded, you will arrive at a form at upper top left of the screen, which allows you to equip the F-20 with pylons and then to load them with weapons. Clicking in any of the boxes puts a tick in there and either hangs a pylon on the wing or a store on the pylon and although this works OK, it sometimes took a couple of clicks to register a tick.
There are a couple of catches to the ordnance manager, the first being that if you try to load more than one weapon on the same pylon, nothing will appear, leaving you with an empty position instead; and loading weapons doesn't change the aircraft payload, which means that you can load an awesome collection of virtual weaponry without any penalty, but this is a simulation intended for fun, after all. Very reasonably, you can't reload pylons while you are in the air and the F-20Ds and the T.1 only have a center-line pylon for a drop tank, but you can drop the weapons in mid-air - doing so isn't easy, given that you have to fly the plane while you click around on the VC somewhere between your virtual knees, but it works and that bit is described in the manual.
There isn't a 2D panel, the F-20 being flown entirely from the VC - I would do the panel a disservice by describing it as 'default planes plus' (although that is how it appears at first glance), because most of the gauges and switches are operational, unlike Acceleration's or even Xload's F/A-18s, where the reverse is the case. Given the shortage of good quality military jet addons for FSX, it is kind of surprising that no-one has come up with an all-singing, all-dancing jet fighter panel yet, but Iris' F-20 is the nearest I have got to it, on the reviews I have so far been sent, at least. The panel lives up to the spirit of the real F-20, with an EADI and EHSI, so big iron simmers will be at home at once, even if they most passengers they get to carry is one and the plane goes three times as fast as anything that cruises the airways. What you don't get is a virtual rear cockpit and if you pan too far back from the panel things get kind of messy, but it all goes towards keeping the frame rates up.
The developers have put quite a lot of thought into the panel in terms of making it usable for ordinary simmers who want to fly fast from place to place, so it has enough nav instruments to keep you going and an autopilot that will automatically load an FS flightplan. What it doesn't have is any panel views associated with the A key, which is a pain in the butt, as the POV means that it is quite hard to do achieve some tasks without hitting pause while you adjust the view - if these were built in to a future update, it would be a much appreciated enhancement, I am sure. Some of the gauges will be familiar if you own any other Iris addons, but I confess I like the style and they are perfectly usable - although some zooms of the primary flight display gauges, particularly the EADI and the EHSI would have come in useful for cross-country navigation.
The flight model must be about right for this kind of plane, which is to say it is very like an F-5, only a little bit quicker. Most pilots who have flown 'em seem to have a soft spot for this Northrop series, which for all that they aren't twin-engined, are fine things to fly as long as someone else is picking up the tab for the gas. This means that simmers who have cut their teeth on the Lear and would like to try moving up to something a little more challenging now have the choice of passing on Acceleration and buying the Iris F-20 instead. You don't get the missions that Acceleration provides, nor do you get a carrier, but you do get a much better jet fighter than Acceleration provides, along with a suitably raunchy sound set. Okay, so the panel is something of a work of fiction, but then again, it is a believable work of fiction and this is an addon that definitely grows on you - I can see it staying on my hard disk simply because it is fast and fun and great for touring.