RealAir Spitfire Mk XIV for FS2004
By Andrew Herd (8 May 2005)
ealAir should need no introduction to FlightSim.Com readers, as they have released a string of superb addons, ranging from a SIAI-Marchetti SF.260, through an American Champion Super Decathlon and Scout, to this present release. The defining feature of RealAir packages is that they are always of very high quality, but the team has a real talent for picking slightly off-beat subjects and turning them into commercial successes. While other developers play safe with endless Cessnas and Boeings - RealAir's newest venture is a Griffon engined Spitfire.
The Spit doesn't need much introduction either, being one of the most famous fighters of all time. This peerless plane had its origins in a 1934 British Air Ministry specification for an eight machine gun airframe, which had to be capable of a speed of not less than 275 mph at 15,000 feet, have an endurance of 90 minutes and an operation ceiling of 33,000 feet. The brass hats were after an air defence fighter, and R.J. Mitchell's team at Supermarine won the contract with a machine that first took to the air on March 5th 1936. At the time, monoplanes were still something of a novelty and the crowd were visibly impressed by the way the gear retracted as Mutt Summers and his shiny new steed vanished into the far distance; but although the rapid expansion of Germany's armed forces had triggered every European nation to begin rearmament, it wasn't until a year later that 310 Spitfire Mk. Is were ordered. The rest, as they say, is history.
Prior to 1943, all Spitfires had a Merlin engine, but Rolls-Royce having developed a new powerplant called the Griffon, it seemed logical to mate this with a Spitfire airframe. Merlins were being used for everything from Lancaster bombers, through Mosquitos, to Mustangs and anything which reduced the excess of demand over supply would be a much needed bonus. But the Griffon was a very different engine to the Merlin and a complete redesign was needed to get the best out of the new engine/airframe combination; however it being wartime, Supermarine compromised by producing an interim design - which is how the Mark XIV was born. The first Spitfire purpose-built for the Griffon was the Mk. XVIII, which didn't appear until after the war, but even so, the Mk. XIV was very different to Merlin-engined Spits; the fuselage being nearly three foot longer than any of the earlier variants and the fin and rudder were also noticeably enlarged.
Although Mk. XIVs did fly over France and Germany, the majority of the action they saw was in the Far East, or in England, where they proved particularly effective against V1 flying bombs. This particular campaign is often forgotten, but thousands of these pilotless weapons were despatched against British cities in the later stages of the war, with the object of causing maximum civilian casualties. Once fired, V1s were notoriously inaccurate and they fell indiscriminately over Southern England, on fields, houses, schools and factories. Though many fell to AA guns; Spitfire, Tempest, Mosquito and latterly, Gloster Meteor squadrons were kept on constant standby to counter the menace - for all that V1s couldn't fire back, it required a high level of skill and strong nerves to fire at a ton of high explosive doing 400 mph from a distance of only a few hundred yards.
The package is a 45 Mb download, which I tested with the 'SP1' patch applied. After installation, I had a new program group, containing links to the documentation, and four versions of the Spitfire Mk XIV including elliptical and clipped wing models, a contra-rotating prop prototype, and a 3000hp Reno racer. As usual with RealAir addons, the documentation is very extensive and even a complete beginner should be able to master the plane with its help. The manuals are all in pdf format and include a 23 page facsimile of the original pilot's notes, a 12 page FS2004 handbook, and a 29 page flying guide - all of these are very thorough and the latter, in particular, contains a great deal of information that you will need to make best use of the addon. The program group includes a control panel, which can be used to customise the sim and to add new paint schemes, and as if all this wasn't enough, a period scenery of RAF West Malling is included, accessed via the ICAO code EG58, and featuring 16 AI Spitfires. All of these are ready for duty and if you wait long enough, they taxi up to the hold and take off.
Nine liveries are included, all of them relatively unspectacular military schemes with the exception of the red Reno bird. The paint jobs may not smack you in the eye, but they are beautifully done and just about all of them show weathering.
All the usual animations are included, together with an opening canopy and pilot's door, exhaust flash and smoke effects, oil on the windscreen if you succeed in blowing up the engine, and wingtip vortices. The smoke effects are the best I have ever seen on an FS2004 addon and I had to suppress an urge to cough when I chopped the mixture and it backfired while I was watching the plane in spot view.
The control panel can be used to toggle on RealAir's custom raindrop effects and to turn the engine failure simulation off, once you have tired of gliding - and should you have to land with the wheels up you will strike sparks off the runway. Off runway wheels down landings result in the plane leaving tire tracks behind on the grass, the pilot's head moves toward the direction of flight and even his arms and legs even go with the controls. All considering, it is difficult to imagine what more a user could want, beyond a 'maintenance mode' with the cowlings off.
At this point, I usually write about the 2D panel, but the Spit doesn't have one, unless you count the mini-panel. Yup, RealAir have dispensed with a 2D panel in favor of a almost completely functonal virtual cockpit (VC).
Doing away with the 2D panel has been a trend in FS2004 warplanes ever since the Captain Sim Yak 3 was released and although in general I am not a great fan of VCs, it works extremely well in this case. The Spitfire's gauges are very crisp, very smooth and nicely lit, so at no stage did I miss their 2D equivalents; and the graphics are sophisticated enough that you can even see the instrument reflections on the cockpit canopy. The control panel applet lets you choose between a military panel with a civilian one with a better radio fit and I used the military one for the review. On a twenty inch monitor at 1600 x 1200, the virtual cockpit looked absolutely superb.
The last few RealAir releases have included 'RealView' effects, which mimic the movement of the pilot's head relative to the panel. I was sceptical about these to begin with, but RealView has been steadily refined and the Spitfire includes a special gauge which is accessed via \view\instrument panel and which allows you to adjust the magnitude of the effect. The easist way of explaining what RealView does is to say that it simulates head lag due to G, so if you pull a tight turn, the panel tends to slip away from you while your virtual neck muscles fight the force. Personally, I think the developers have got RealView just right and I left everything as it was, although I was intrigued to see that a new 'stall buffet' effect has been added, of which more anon.
The flight model is absolutely first class. My father's friend, the sadly missed George Martin, flew several different marks of Spitfire during the war and used to say that it was best to think of the Merlin and Griffon engined lines as different airplanes. The wing loading of the later marks like the XIV was much greater than the first of the line, translating into higher stalling speeds and generally different handling; finesse and refinement being overruled to an extent by sheer horsepower. I guess this was as inevitable progression forced by changing requirements as the war progressed, but the Spitfire never ceased being a pilot's airplane. There is an undefinable sweet spot which a design either hits or misses, expressed by a formula known only to the sky, but it seems to be defined by some arcane combination of power loading; rate of roll, climb, acceleration and general handling - and the Spitfire definitely hit the spot. Although the later marks lacked some of the subtlety of their forebears, they were still as exciting to fly as all got out.
The defining feature of fighters is that they should be relatively unstable about all axes, which means that they don't make good touring planes; when you think about it, you can't combine a high rate of roll with pussycat-like handling, which is why the Cessna 172 has never made it in the warbird stakes (-: Combine responsiveness with plenty of horsepower and you end up with a plane that demands to be flown - take your eye off the horizon to look at the sectional and who knows which way you will end up. Equally, warbirds of that era were never that hard to fly, otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to train thousands of young recruits to operate them.
The sim flies very much the way the real thing is described, swinging if power isn't progressively fed on takeoff, climbing like a scalded cat and being easily capable of any aerobatic figure you can think of; including snap rolls, which are usually beyond the capabilities of FS air file designers. The plane can achieve nearly 450 mph in level flight and over 500 in a dive - just make sure you watch the temperatures if you have engine failure mode checked.
The stall is worthy of a special mention as it feels much more realistic than any other FS plane I have tested. Despite steady advances in the FS flight 'engine', it has never been good at modelling the extremes of flight and mushy stalls are about the best you can expect. While this is fine for modern trainers and tourers, which do stall like that, it is definitely unrealistic for a powerful fighter with a high wing loading - such aircraft tend to have a sharper break and are much more prone to dropping a wing if the rudder isn't used appropriately as the stall develops. RealAir have clearly done a great deal of work on the stall, which is much enhanced by RealView; and if you push the Spit near to its limit, visible and audible buffet warns you of the approaching break, letting you ease off the back pressure until the buffet goes away.
Buffet is one of the reasons why many real aerobatic planes can be flown so near to their limits, because it provides a vital clue about how far the pilot can go. It had never occurred to me that it could ever be modelled in Flight Simulator, because it is a largely tactile experience (felt through the stick, though sometimes the whole aircraft trembles), but RealView manages the neat trick of simulating it well enough by other means to make it convincing. Hats off to RealAir and attention Microsoft - perhaps this is something that will make it into FS10? It would be really great to see the FS flight model improved so that stalls and spins weren't the preserve of leading edge teams like this one - speaking of which, the Spitfire can also be made to spin without too much provocation. The real plane would flick straight into a spin if the wing stalled during certain high-G maneuvers, and RealAir have managed to beat FS2004 into a corner so it will do this pretty convincingly. Just make sure you have the P-factor (under \aircraft\realism on the FS menu) turned up at least half way, or you will wonder what on earth I am on about.
The sound set is, well, Griffon-like, and includes all the usual startup and shutdown sounds in addition to dynamic wind noise, canopy sounds, overstress and ground handling sound effects. No disappointments here.
As I mentioned earlier, a scenery of RAF West Malling, as it was in 1944 is included. This airfield is 20 miles south of London and includes hangars, blast proof dispersals and a squadron of remarkably realistic AI Spitfires parked about the place. From time to time, these planes start up and conga off to the active before doing circuit practice or fading away towards the horizon. Bill Womack, of Antelope Simworks did the scenery and it is a very nice extra indeed. If you have the RealAir Scout's 'Bear Gulch' scenery you will know Bill's work, one of his best known sceneries being the version of Reading International Airport was included with the MAAM-SIM B-25.
Verdict: Class simulation. Fantastic, if I ever get to fly a Spitfire, I know what it will feel like now. Fun. Great value. Automatic AAA award, there being no faults worth mentioning. Just buy it.Andrew Herd