Wilco 737 PIC For FS2004 And FSX
By Andrew Herd (5 April 2008)
ilco's Boeing 737 has been released in an FSX version, developed by feelThere, the good news being that it is the first airliner that I have got to run at reasonable frame rates in the new version of Flight Simulator - or should I say, 'the current version' of Flight Simulator, given that FSX has been out over a year now and we still don't really have a stable environment to run it in yet, or hardware powerful enough to do it justice. 737s are nothing new in Flight Simulator, there is one in the default installation, then there was the DreamFleet 737, which never made it past FS2002, but was replaced in most people's setups by the excellent Aerosoft PMDG 737, and several zillion freeware releases, not least the Project Open Sky 737-700 and eDimensional's freeware 737-200 private jet, which is only a couple of mouse clicks away in the Pilot Shop should you wish to fly it. A point worth noting is that the PMDG addons simulate the third generation of the 737, with Wilco's simulating the second generation - all it would take would be for another developer to release the -100 and -200 series and we would have the set.
The reason the 737 is such a popular target for FS developers has everything to do with the popularity of the real version. Boeing announced the -100 series back in sixty five, as a short range feeder jet with a hundred seats - little can anyone at Seattle have imagined that it would still be in production, forty years later, with up to double the seating capacity and everything else about the design changed out of recognition, except for its comfortable 'don't worry about a thing, let me take care of it all' look. There is something about the 737 that gives you confidence that this plane isn't going to do anything except fly you to your destination, no fuss, no drama, just take you there and back like the winged Greyhound bus it is. True, the 737 is considerably more sophisticated than the average bus, but that is only because most buses don't cruise at three quarters of the speed of sound at thirty thousand feet, so over the years the old analog instruments (which wouldn't have looked out of place on the road) have been replaced by glass and the end result has pleased so many people that the airlines have kept on buying them, which has made the 737 the most popular passenger jet of all time.
Wilco have been associated with a long line of 'Pilot in Command' products, starting with the classic first release of 767 PIC back in 2001, but the 737 represents something of a leap forward for feelThere, who are probably best known for their popular Cessna Caravan addon; a range of feeder jets including an ERJ and a CRJ; and a 777 - all the jets being marketed by Wilco. Wilco have quite sensibly chosen to market two different types of product: the 'fleet' range, which includes Airbus Series 1 and 2 and is aimed at beginners and turn-and-burn simmers; and the Pilot in Command (PIC) range, which are much more complex and aimed at expert simmers who are likely to spend a great deal of time learning how to use the packages concerned. This doesn't mean to say that beginners shouldn't buy the PIC addons, but if you do purchase one, be prepared to do some background reading.
The system requirements for the 737 are quoted on Wilco's site as being a 1.4 Ghz Pentium or equivalent, running XP on 512 Mb of RAM, a 64 Mb video card, 600 Mb of free hard disk space and a DVD drive. This would be slow for the FS2004 version and I would have said that a 3.0 Ghz Pentium with at least a gig of RAM and a 128 Mb video card would be needed to run the 737 comfortably, especially if you intend to visit any complex airports or fly with real weather and much AI enabled. I did the review using FSX SP2 on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM, a 768 Mb GeForce 8800 GTX and Windows Vista and got reasonable frame rates as long as I stuck to the 2D panel on approach and departure - given that swapping to the VC is simply a matter of hitting the A key, it wasn't exactly a hardship running the 2D panel some of the time.
The package comes in a DVD style box containing a single disk and a 60 page manual, most of which is written by Mike Ray, a retired 747-400 pilot well known in the world of aviation for his Boeing Super Guppy Simulator Checkride Manual and more recently in the FS world for his downloadable A320 manual. Mike has an easy and amusing style, which he backs up with copious illustrations and flow charts and his part of the manual contains enough instruction to get you up and running, including a (limited) section on programming the FMC and using the mode control panel (MCP - the wide box in the center of the glareshield) properly. Mike's excellent 290 page checkride manual (available separately) is referred to throughout and might be a wise purchase if you want to get the best out of this sim. The catch with the printed documentation is that there is only just enough to get you in the air, another slight issue being that Wilco have made some changes which aren't reflected in the manual - for example, Mike warns that by default the sim is over gross, but although the -500 was when I originally reviewed the FS2004 version, the -300 and -400 were not and all the planes are under gross in the FSX version.
Nothing worth remarking upon happened during the installation, bar the fact that if you aren't concentrating, it is possible to miss the opportunity to install something like 57 - no kidding - additional airline liveries via a separate option on the installation banner. Some airlines have liveries for all three versions of the 737 included in the installation, although most of the ones on the list only operate one or two types. The choice is phenomenally wide, ranging as it does from Aer Lingus to Siberian Airlines and browsing through them all is quite an education; one thing is for certain, if you buy this package, you need never get bored of the paint scheme.
Checking out my PC revealed a new Wilco program group, containing links to configuration utilities for each type of panel and a checklist in the form of a jpg. The config utility is best described as sparse, though it works well and lets you fine tune almost everything, including gauge refresh rates, as well as configuring the panel for any state between cold and dark and hot to trot, and setting the sim up to pause 20 nm before your descent point. There is no load or configuration manager as such, any alterations being done the usual way via the FS menus.
In the orignal FS2004 install, the -300, -400 and -500 series 737s each had a 'full' version; a 2D panel only version; a 2D panel and wingview version; and a virtual cockpit (VC) only version. In the FSX version I reviewed, only one version of each plane was supplied, equipped with both 2D and 3D panels. For those of you who are interested in such things, the -300 was the first variant of the 'second generation' CFM56 powered 737, although it shares 80% airframe spares commonality with the -200. The -400 is a stretched, longer range version of the same airframe; while the -500 is shorter, with slightly less range. You might ask why anyone would buy the -500, given that it carries most of the weight penalty of the -300, but airlines operating a mix of 737 'Classic' variants needed little persuasion given the crewing and spares commonality between the three different versions.
Loading the plane for the first time brings up the 2D panel, which is a truly excellent graphic, staying crisp right up to 1600 x 1200, without so much as a hint of stepping anywhere and not a bad edit in sight. In this age of digital photography there is no excuse for payware developers delivering any less and the days of charging $30 or more for an addon with a badly edited, blurry panel are officially gone. In one of my other lives I edit an angling magazine and we don't accept sub 8 megapixel camera graphics any more, with many publishers setting a higher bar than that, so I am always slightly amazed by the low quality shots that some FS developers regard as adequate. Anyway, suffice it to say that feelThere have done an impressively good job on this one, although if you use the 2D panel only version of the 737, the other seven cockpit views are 'missing' in as much as you get a completely unobstructed view in whichever direction the hat control takes you, without any framing. I find this a bit unnerving, but to be fair, it is how Microsoft does things. With the VC version loaded, or under the FSX install, the situation changes and the 2D panel side views are framed by stills from the VC, with the inevitable graphical mismatch that results from this approach - personally I prefer to see custom 2D graphics used, because the higher resolution makes them look much more realistic.
You get seven subpanels including forward and aft overheads, CDU, throttle quadrant, pedestal, flaps, gear and the EFIS control panel, plus zooms of the primary instruments. The zooms can be dragged to truly enormous dimensions without losing any definition worth mentioning, which is a huge plus, but what you do not get is a first officer panel, so you are doomed to fly the plane from the left hand seat - nice work if you can get it. The unzoomed gauges are all extremely well presented, with virtually faultless graphics and very believable glass reflections, the only possible criticism being that the EFIS control panel plays old Harry with your eyesight if you run FS2004 at the higher screen resolutions that this addon demands.
The main attractions are the Electronic Attitude and Direction Indicator (EADI) and the Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator (EHSI), which are the two screens stacked in front of the pilot. As far as I can tell these units display all the modes that the real ones are capable of showing and if Mike Ray is happy with them, then I guess the rest of us can be content. Unusually for a sim of this type, the panel doesn't appear to have many hotspots, navigation around the subpanels being done using a nest of simicons positioned upper left in the 2D panel view, but the instrument click spots are generously sized and consistent in operation, it being possible to alter radio frequencies using the mouse wheel, which is a nice touch. While I am on the case, the radio panel is one of the best bits of the 2D cockpit and from the look of the graphic, came from a plane which had seen a good deal of honest use. The overhead is very neat too, and although a few of the switches and knobs don't work, all the useful ones are active. All the displays and LEDs are clear, readable and centered in their bezels.
Other extras in the panel include a rather nice working weather radar - the switch for this is built into the EFIS control panel, below the range selector, in case you can't find it. Well, it works OK in FS2004, but it behaves a little strangely in FSX, on my system at least, producing a 'fringe' of weather backed up by radially colored blocks. You also get a TCAS, controlled from the usual position on the pedestal, a ground proximity warning system with aural and visual alerts, and co-pilot call-outs.
If you start from cold and dark, you will have the joy of aligning the Inertial Reference System (IRS). If you elect to stay with the most realistic option, that means the plane can't be moved for at least ten minutes, but feelThere have made allowances for the fact that the average user's attention span is roughly nine minutes shorter than this and so you can reduce the alignment time using the configuration applet (-: The virtual cockpit follows the lines of the 2D panel and if you can use a control on one, you can use it on the other. As you can see from the screenshots, the standard of the graphics in the VC is as good as it is with the 2D panel.
Although using Mike's documentation will please experienced simmers a great deal, it will raise some problems for newbies. The trouble with addons of the complexity of 737 PIC is that you need two domains of knowledge to operate them - one about how real world planes are flown and one about how to use the simulation. Traditionally, high level simulations fix this with a tutorial flight coupled with a 'pull the stick back to go up' systems manual that explains in fine detail about how every single instrument and system works - but the 737 PIC manual dispenses with this in a handful of pages (by comparison the PMDG 737 has 82). The result is that when it comes to programming the CDU, you had better have a good idea what you are about, because Mike only has just enough space to explain the basics, before launches into how to get the bird off the ground. Beginners will face this lack of detail at every stage, and for example, explanations of how to calculate and enter the zero fuel weight and even what a cost index might be are completely lacking. To make matters worse, there is absolutely nothing about route programming - sure, this kind of stuff is burned into the brains of the space cadets, but I think it is unreasonable to expect the average simmer upgrading from the default Boeings to know it. It also lets a very good simulation indeed down, because substantial numbers of users are going to be completely floored by the almost total lack of information about how to use the panel to carry out Mike's excellent instructions. I just wish his brief had been a little wider, or that someone could have made the time to write the missing documentation.
The visual model is good, with plenty of detailing and all those dozens of liveries. feelThere have been fairly restrained about animations and moving parts, so that although you get all the expected stuff, including opening passenger and baggage doors. You do get some nice detailing in the flap and gear bays and for once the flap deployment timing appears to be on track; many FS planes drop flap in a fraction of the time their real world counterparts take, but this one does it like a lady. I played around with all the different versions and the frame rates on the 2D only panel versions were pretty good for an FSX airliner, although they hovered in the low teens with the VC loaded when maneuvering near buildings at complex airports and there was the occasional hesitation.
The flight model is very 737-like - in particular, feelThere
have got the rotation right and for once we are treated to an addon
which actually feels as if it is flying off the ground, rather than
suddenly coming unstuck from it. The handling in all the normal
phases of flight was excellent, with none of the exaggerated
tendency to skid in turns that curses so many FS airliners and the
737 flew well on approaches, both by hand and on the autopilot,
which has been particularly well simulated. The sound set was
convincing and didn't exhibit any cycling - the sim feels and
sounds like a 737.
Verdict? A great sim, with a fantastic 2D panel, an inspired ops manual and more liveries than you can eat. The only downside, apart from the lack of a 2D first officer panel, is the lack of a cockpit manual to help get newbies up and running - as it is, you can get the plane in the air just by firewalling the throttles and dropping some flap, but to do misses out on 90% of the point of buying the package. Given the amount of competition, I was quite hard on the FS2004 version and the lack of documentation lost it an award, but this is the first complex airliner I have tried that is usable in FSX, so it gets one this time around. if you know how to program a CDU and have experience flying other sims of this type, the existing manual will be enough and I can recommend the package, though newbies might find it a little overwhelming. Good fun.