• Things-To-Come Lunar Pilot

    Things To Come: Lunar Pilot for FS2004

    By Andrew Herd (30 September 2005)

    The normal run of reviews for FlightSim.Com extends to planes, trains and occasionally automobiles, but very rarely to outrageous one-off projects like a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) simulation. The story of this extraordinary piece of kit is worth telling, because the lunar landings would hardly have been possible without it - in the days before computer simulation, a hardware simulator like the LLRV was the just about the only way NASA could train astronauts how to handle the lunar module. If this seems incredible, remember that it was all being done forty years ago, when computers were young, although it didn't stop the Agency looking at the idea of an electronic simulator in parallel with the LLRV. In the end, the electronic simulation didn't progress much further than a variation on the standard blind flying trainer, which isn't surprising given that even with the most sophisticated IT available, the engineers in Mission Control did not know which way the spacecraft was up once it left earth and had to rely heavily on verbal reports of what was happening much of the time. Computers of the power of the machine you are reading this on only existed in people's dreams.

    So the LLRV became a key part of the moonshot project. NASA were fortunate in that Bell and Rolls Royce, in the UK, had done research in the fifties on so-called 'Flying Bedsteads' in order to test the principle of whether aircraft could be built that could take off vertically under their own power. These devices - you could hardly call them planes - relied on one or two jet engines for power, using a complicated arrangement of vertical thrust from a main nozzle and smaller puffer units to control pitch, roll and yaw. After some hair-raising experiments, Bell had more or less given up on the idea, the British project, after many adventures, leading to the design of the VTOL Harrier/AV8A.

    Bell built two LLRVs in 1964 as proof of concept, before building three Lunar Landing Training Vehicles (LLTVs) for use at Houston. After the controls had been tested by 'flying' the LLRV tethered to a special table, the first flights were made to heights of no more than ten feet - if this seems a little cautious, wait until you try flying the sim. The LLTVs were delivered in 1966/7 and all five vehicles were used as part of the training program, three them being lost after they developed such severe oscillations that the pilots had to eject. The remaining two have been preserved, one at the Dryden Flight Research Center, the other in the Johnson Space Center's visitor area. Once you have tried the Things-To-Come LLRV simulation, I gaurantee you will not be walking past them if you should chance to visit.

    The LLRV's main power unit was a vertically mounted General Electric CF-700-2V turbofan, which could be adjusted to maintain 5/6 of the vehicle's weight at a selectable throttle setting, the other sixth being supported by two hydrogen peroxide rockets, similar to the units used on the Lunar Module, whose exhaust was fed through sixteen controllable nozzles in order to allow the pilot to maneuver using a control stick and pedals. As if that were not enough, six lift rockets were fitted for emergency use and the contraption had a zero-zero ejector seat. A typical mission consisted of an ascent to 100 meters, selection of the 5/6 thrust setting of 'lunar mode' and a descent to the selected landing site under the control of the rocket thrusters. It wasn't easy - one pilot commented that flying it felt like balancing on top of a ball, which is a serious understatement - but the astronauts agreed that without the LLRV/LLTV program, the chances of a successful lunar landing would have been considerably lower. Flying the LLRV was an interesting experience, not only because of the strange control system, but also because the pilot sat so far forward in the open cockpit that 95% of the machine was out of his view. Top speed was around 70 mph and in straight VTOL mode, the LLRV flew like a chopper - the problems began when it was switched to 'lunar mode' because controlling the attitude demanded a great deal of anticipation.

    Things-To-Come (TTC) are a new developer on the flightsim scene, so I was intrigued to see with what they could do with an off-beat subject like the LLRV. What we have here is a very inventive presentation of one of the most challenging flying machines ever built, which TTC have packaged in a masterful blend of fact and fantasy. I guess once the idea had taken hold of them, TTC just couldn't stop themselves, but once you have flown the LLRV around Spaceville a couple of times, everything else in FS2004 is going to look just a little tame.

    The package is an 60 Mb download and I had no problems with the installation. Recommended system requirements are a 2.5 Ghz processor running Windows XP with 512 Mb of RAM and 120 Mb hard disk space, although the 48 page manual states that the sim will run on any system capable of running FS2004. Once the installation was done, I found a new 'Things To Come' program group under the start menu containing links to the documentation and the LunarCam app. The package contains a simulation of the Bell Aerosystems LLRV, a North American P-51D by Shigeru Tanaka, a 'LunarCam' by Gunnar Daehling, and some scenery - 'Spaceville' (KNAD when it is installed), within the Kennedy Space Center and including a Lunar Terrain Simulator. Given that the LLRVs were effectively prototypes and that they were subject to continual changes during their working lives, the developer has chosen to simulate a representative panel layout from one of the 1963 builds. This has a basic set of instruments, including an altimeter, VSI, radar altimeter, various engine and pressure gauges, the start switches and - you will find out why if you fly in any weather - an anemometer. While we are staring at the panel (there are 2D and 3D versions), we can go through the start procedure, which is: press the master, flick the green switch to establish air bleed pressure, push the yellow switch to bleed air to the turbofan and then press the red switch to light the fire. The Lunar Sim mode switch is on the control stick - activating it will cause the LLRV to sink at around 5 feet per second.

    The visual model of the LLRV is very fine indeed, and conveys the skeletal nature of the machine absolutely perfectly. As you can see from the screenshots, the vehicle has nothing in common with conventional planes and essentially consists of a frame whose function is to keep the engines and the pilot in formation. Animations include the pilot's visor, which can be close by pressing the period key and opened by pressing ctrl+; the ejector seat, which activates by clicking on the tiger striped handle; and the engine, which puffs smoke like a 40 cigarette a day man.

    I loaded the LLRV at KNAD and set out to do my usual circuit to get the feel of the way the thing worked prior to doing the review. After checking out what passes for the cockpit, I advanced the throttle and the vehicle lifted smoothly into the air before turning upside down and crashing - there may have been a bit of spinning round and round, but it happened so quickly I can't be sure. Okaaay, so you want to play hard to get, huh? I turned my FlightSim.Com cap the wrong way around, took a firm grip of the yoke, cautiously fed in some power, pushed the nose firmly down to kill the pitch up, pulled back hard to correct the subsequent dive, overcontrolled the yaw that bit at that moment... and turned upside down and crashed again.

    Tcha, as we LLRV pilots say.

    I turned to page 33 of the manual, which is entitled 'LLRV Flying Techniques' - bound to be some help in there, thought I, thinking guiltily about doing the entire review using slew mode - an idea which seemed quite reasonable after I had read all five paragraphs in their entirety. According to the writer, the trick is to use smooth throttle inputs, kill any unintended changes in attitude early and not to panic.

    Back to the ramp. Smooooothly in with the throttle, kill the pitch... jab of left rudder, right rudder, left rudder, eject. Like the animation.

    Read page 33 of the manual again. Page 32 describes how to operate the hot seat, glad I read that before the last flight. Page 34 talks about refuelling the beast. By a process of elimination, page 33 is all there is about how to fly it. I read it again, noting especially the box at the bottom of the page which told me it was possible to 'fly out' of critical situations without problems, assuming I had the nerve and the required altitude to do so. Nerves have never been a problem for me doing these reviews as I found out long ago that the critical difference between Flight Simulator and a real plane is that the sim can't kill you, so my problem had to be insufficient altitude.

    Sooooo, I slewed up to 5000 feet and smoothly applied the throttle. After the tenth consecutive backflip I hit the pause button and reconsidered my situation over a cold beer. There had to be a trick to this - after all, I had my lucky hat on and everything. Three nights and many resets later, I found one method was to trim the sim nose heavy on takeoff and wind it back a little after getting airborne - that way I could use enough throttle to lift off and get some directional control without going into one of those high speed low level rotations. The trouble is that you only need to get the LLRV a little out of balance and the excursion will keep on developing until you are unable to stop it, unless you get lucky. Using the Herd patent method of flying the LLRV, together with a lot of practice, you should be reasonably proficient after about thirty flights. By proficient, I mean that you will be able to take off, rise to a reasonable altitude, reduce to a hover and land again without mishap - I would suggest making the flights at KNAD, because apart from anything else, it is one of the most fascinating pieces of scenery I have ever seen for Flight Simulator, the best way of describing it being that it has a little piece of everything, right down to functional advertising boards, some of which flip as you watch them and most of which are lit at night. Actually, the one thing you must not miss is a night flight over the scenery, because it is as neat as all got out... just don't fly into any of the masts.

    After you have got to grips with takeoffs and landings, the next challenge is taxiing to the refuelling bay, which is difficult. After that, a tour of Spaceville is on the agenda, including a landing on the NADA LTS tower and a flight into the Lunar Terrain Simulator. Entering the latter is mind-bogglingly difficult, as you have to position the LLRV precisely within the arms extending out from the eight segment door and wait there for the green arrow to light. Since the LLRV behaves as if it has a mind of its own, positioning it within the embrace of two spidery arms several hundred feet up in the air is a serious challenge and I have yet to do it successfully, but once inside, you have a square kilometer of simulated lunar surface to land on - that completed, you can either fly out the way you came in, or leave via the tiny emergency escape tunnel and land on the pad outside. I did use the slew mode here, or the review would never have got written and when I did this, I ran into a problem, which was that when I when I killed slew and tried to land on the lunar terrain, the LLRV dropped straight through into the ocean below. Incidentally, any resemblance between the interior of the LTS tower and TMA1 in 2001 A Space Odyssey is entirely coincidental, but the inside really is full of stars. That ad in the first screenshot may not be coincidental...

    I nearly forgot about the P-51, which is a Shigeru Tanaka original, spiffed up in NADA colors (to match the Lunar Terrain Simulator) in case you need a rest from the LLRV to get your head straight. By freeware standards it is very good, as payware, it is average, but the plane makes a nice extra, although quite what it has to do with the rest of the package I do not know. A Bell 47 sim would have been a more logical companion for the LLRV and it would have had the advantage of giving users a chance to practice with a similar control system in an easier machine than the LLRV - if you are one of many simmers who have never tried your hand at the FS chopper, you will probably find the LLRV even more challenging than I did. The other extra is LunarCam, an app that has to be started before FS2004 is loaded and which provides a customisable fly-by viewpoint.

    Verdict? Lunar Pilot is definitely different and it did something few others sims have ever done, which is force me to think outside the box. Beyond the problem I had with the LLRV dropping through the ground at the base of the LTS, the package appears to be extremely well coded and it is great fun to play around with - every time I fly around Spaceville I find something new. Things-To-Come get top marks for inventiveness.

    Andrew Herd
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