Freeware Focus - The Antonov Group
By Andrew Herd (25 October 2004)
hen I was a kid, the only time you got to see planes made in the Soviet Union was when they were photographed by interceptors high over the North Sea. A couple of times a year, the papers would print a picture of a Tu-95 'Bear-D', caught in flagrente delicto - cruising just a little bit too close to UK airspace for comfort. A pair of Lightnings would be scrambled to formate alongside and the Bear would turn ponderously away, giving, on at least one occasion, the fighter boys a QDM back to their tanker so they didn't run the risk of getting lost on the way home!
But that was more or less the beginning and end of it. Jane's had specs for all the planes operated behind the Iron Curtain and now and again, the odd one would turn up at the Paris Airshow, but by and large, Soviet aircraft had the status of exotica. All this changed when the wall came down. It didn't take long for the sharper minds at the commercial end of aviation to realise that there was potential to make a great deal of money by importing hulls from the CIS countries and a trickle of Yaks turned into a flood - it seems that there are one or two at every airfield in the UK - but that was it. We have the odd An-12, which is one of my favorite classic biplanes, not least because I figure it is the largest aircraft I can operate on my license; the only snag being that the 12 appears to use more oil per hour than most light aircraft use avgas. But apart from Yaks, planes made in the CIS might as well not exist.
The occasional large military transport makes it over to airshows, like the Royal International Air Tattoo, but we don't get see many civilian transports, like the An-24, which went under the NATO codename 'Coke'. When you consider that the plane first flew in 1959 and that the 1250 or so which were built make it the most used short-range transport in the CIS, it makes you appreciate that barriers still exist between East and West, most of them being regulatory and financial nowadays. The reason for the lack of visits can't be anything to do with the plane, because with a cruise speed of around 240 knots and a range of 1300 nautical miles, An-24s can easily reach the western parts of Europe. Most were finished as passenger transports, their capacity varying between 44 and 52 seats, depending on version. The An-24 is the base aircraft of an entire family, which includes: the An-26 cargo transport, which has seen widespread military use, but is enjoying a second life with relief organisations; the glass nosed An-30 geological survey plane; and the potent looking 'hot and high' An-32, much used by the UN, which has more powerful engines housed in massive overwing nacelles.
Captain Sim has carried the flag for the CIS in the most spectacular way, which is how many simmers have gained their introduction to aircraft from the former Soviet Union, but the first An-24 I remember was released for FS2000 by the RF Group. This was a truly excellent addon, which was popular enough to be upgraded for FS2002 and so the appearance of a new version (AN24RV.ZIP and AN24_P1.ZIP) developed by a group coordinated by Dimitri Samborski, caused a great deal of interest - so far it has racked up over 11,000 downloads and a well earned place in the top 100 downloads of the year. This new version is pretty much a complete rewrite and only works in FS2004, the most noticeable changes being that it has a working virtual cockpit, passenger cabin and flight dynamics.
Apart from Dimitri, the team included Nikolai Samsonov, Maxim Mysin, Valery Bocharnikov, Stepan Gritsevsky, P.Yashin, Alexander Rapoport, Gergely Koza and the RF Group. In the true spirit of freeware, there is an upgrade available by "Captain Keith", which adds new exterior textures, a new paint scheme and various other tweaks (AN24SR1.ZIP) - just don't confuse this with the patch (AN24_P1.ZIP).
The file is just under 14 Mb and decompresses to reveal an extremely newbie-friendly automatic installer, which unpacks all the files into the correct folders and leaves you ready to go. There is only one livery, but a lot of repaints have appeared since, so you aren't compelled to fly Aeroflot if you don't feel the need. Having said that, they do operate some interesting schedules in regions that most of us have never heard of, so it could be fun doing a little bit of research before downloading and installing an alternative.
The visual model and textures are good by freeware standards, with all the usual animations, plus a handful of extras including opening cockpit windows and a maintenance mode that lets you admire the engines. However, the main joy of this package is the cockpit, so before we go any further... okay, you clicked on the screenshot just above already. Yeah, we are not in Kansas any more. For all that it is a snap to install, this is not the sort of sim you can just load and fly without doing a teeny bit of homework. Fortunately, there is an excellent manual which will get you off the ground pretty quick, but read it you must, especially if you are planning to fly in IMC. Why? Because in the default state, the artificial horizon is caged and only the flight engineer can release it for you - which sounds easy enough, until you realise that all the legends on the panel are in Russian. Fly into a cloud and who knows what way up you might be when you come out.
Oh oh. Not a single word of English?
Not one. Actually, it isn't that tough working out what does what, because there are only so many types of instruments in airplanes and even Soviet panels have many similarities to Western ones, but figuring out what switches on what is a little tougher, considering that this panel comes from the age before ergonomics had been invented. It is kind of funky and if you were into the Boeing 314 we reviewed a while back, you are going to love this. Maybe Boeing sent an engineer to Kiev, way back when. The real plane has space for a flight crew of five, but can be operated by three, or a single simmer who doesn't give up easily. If you are wondering, in addition to the two pilots, the full crew was made up of a radio operator, navigator and a flight engineer and just in case you are wondering what on earth the navigator gets to do on a short range transport, get an eyeful of this, which is where we get our first introduction to the excitements of freeware, which is that the classy gauge with the brass centered needles doesn't appear in the documentation. This instrument wouldn't look out of place in a steamship, but after a great deal of experimentation, I came to the conclusion that it is the ADF display - and the most wonderful implementation it is too, complete with realistic wandering pointers (real ADFs point more or less wherever the mood takes 'em and it can be seriously tough figuring out whether an instrument is working correctly, trying to lead you into the nearest Cb, or simply kaput).
As you can see, the panel is a masterpiece - not only of artwork, but of gauge programming. One peculiarity of the 2D cockpit is that there is only a forward view, but although this is a little unconventional, it has to be remembered that this is freeware and given the amount of time and care that has been lavished on the panels, the lack of windows to frame the side views is easily forgiven - though it would make a nice upgrade if the team decide to do more with this superb simulation.
On the whole I favor panels based on photographs, purely because they look more real, but Valery Bocharnikov has a real talent for graphics and his simulation of the hammerite-like finish on the Antonov is outstanding. Although you can select the sub-panels using the menus, the main panel is littered with hotspots which make it easy to get around without interrupting a flight. As a matter of interest, I did the tests using a flat panel running at 1600 x 1200 and the graphic remained pin sharp even though the bitmap has been saved at a conservative 1024 x 768 - the gauges are no less good. The majority of payware panels fail to meet the standard set by this one and developers should take note.
The flight engineer's panel is a composite which brings together instruments and switches that are scattered around on a real An-24. Its main use is for engine starts, though as mentioned above, it also holds the switches for turning on most of the avionics; by and large, if you start by flicking all the switches in the right hand section up, you won't go far wrong (-: The two non-working switches on the bottom right of the panel are for the RU-19 jet that some An-24s have mounted in the right engine nacelle, but this can't be simulated, because FS2004 only allows one kind of engines in a plane at a time - so we have to do with the turboprops. Given that the sim is loaded to the absolute limit, an RU-19 wouldn't be a bad idea, because taking off in less than 5000 feet isn't easy, even at sea level, using normal power settings.
The autopilot is a basic two axis system which can't be activated unless the aircraft is above 300 m and within reasonable pitch and roll limits - it is possible to slave it to various navigational systems, but in the sim at least, it won't fly an ILS. I can't say I was particularly looking forward to flying an instrument approach using this device, as it took all my time to recall what everything did, so I can't say I am exactly sorry that it won't talk to a localiser!
The virtual cockpit is absolutely superb and loading it is the best way to appreciate the interior layout of the plane. The flight engineer's station is out of shot on the right, but the pic should give you a good idea of what a sociable aircraft the An-24 is to fly. Most of the gauges are active and clickable, so it is possible to fly the sim almost entirely from the VC after engine start, although it would help to have Active Camera installed so you can jump the point of view around from place to place. Readers with sharp eyes will have noticed the approach plate tacked up on the navigation panel and the manual gives instructions on how to substitute your own. This raises some interesting questions about cockpit procedures in these planes, because the navigator clearly has to be in charge of directing the pilot around an instrument approach. Given the relatively low level of sophistication of the nav systems and autopilot, this probably isn't a bad idea, because flying the sim round a procedure turn certainly occupied all my faculties. It probably helps if you can read Russian!
Which leaves the flight model and the sound set. The sounds have been recorded off the real plane, as far as I can tell and so they sound like nothing else you are ever likely to have heard, with a bass drone all of their own. There are the usual FS peculiarities like being able to hear the flaps operate from inside the cockpit (does anyone know of a commercial aircraft where it is possible to hear the flap motors when the engines are turning?) but apart from that, the sounds are great. The flight model is absolutely superb and though there is not the slightest chance that I will ever get to fly an An-24, I find it quite believable, very stable, with a leisuredly rate of roll and the sort of landing characteristics that every pilot loves. Just don't let it get too low and too slow, because with full flap, there isn't enough power to get you out of trouble.
In summary, this is the best piece of freeware I have seen in a long time. My favorite plane of this class used to be the AFG NAMC YS-11, which held the undisputed crown until the An-24 came along. It isn't often that a group of freeware designers manage to develop a product with the depth that either of these two aircraft have and so, without further ado, I am going to award the Antonov an Armchair Aviator Award. Sure, the plane is something of a rough diamond, it isn't completely bug free, it could even be described as a work in progress, but in the final analysis, it is a fine simulation by anyone's standards and I hope the developers are inspired to keep on improving it, because it is a fine example of freeware at its very best.
For those of you with an interest in Soviet/CIS planes, various freeware by different members of the Antonov group is available in the file library. Dimitri Samborski is the most prolific of them all and he has released an An-26 for FS2004, which shares the 2D panel (with modifications), but lacks a VC is generally less polished. Much though I try to resist telling freeware developers what they ought to do, the logical next step would be to do an An-32, because if ever a more work horse-like design took to the skies, I have yet to see it. Notable releases by Dimitri and colleages include an An-22 for FS2002 (ANT_AN22.ZIP); a Yak-40 for FS2002 (YYAK-40.ZIP); the FS2002 version of the An-24 (ANTAN24B.ZIP); an An-72 for FS2002, which was an An-32 fitted with jet engines (ANT_AN72.ZIP); an Ilyushin Il-86 for FS2004 (ILY_IL86.ZIP). Most of the FS2002 addons will work in FS2004, though they are affected by the usual issues relating to flight dynamics - few FS2002 planes seem to handle particularly well in the new version without some kind of flight dynamics upgrade.
So, from FlightSim.Com, thank you on behalf of all our members to the An-24 team. The addon has already won a Developer's Award and I am sure that the designers have had many emails congratulating them on an excellent product, but we think it rates among the best of the best.