SkyUnlimited B-17 Flying Fortress
By Kevin Glover (18 June 2009)
The B-17G holds a very special place in my heart; if you ever were to ask what my favorite airplane is, 'B-17' would be out of my mouth before you'd even have finished the question. I've long searched the annals of the major download sites looking for a B-17, and I've bought one notable payware add-on, but none of them had the features which I was looking for: weapon effects, bombs, realism, and a complete virtual cockpit. Please do not think that this review is biased towards the B-17 since it is my aircraft of choice, but rather consider that because I'm so attached to this craft, I wouldn't take lightly to an add-on which made a mockery of my beloved bird.
After paying a very reasonable $27.95 USD, I installed the aircraft and nothing went awry. There is a new folder in the start menu which contains the manual. This document is concisely written and amounts to some forty pages. I found general information about the B-17's history and more data on some of the systems, checklists, and how to operate some of the unique effects included in this package. Upon first booting up the flight simulator, you're confronted by three liveries from two models. The liveries for the B-17G are 'Bit o' Lace' and 'Queenie'. Also included is an unarmed search-and-rescue model, which, as the name suggests, differs only from the others in its lack of guns. This paint is of a Brazilian SAR B17G. Naturally, I selected the shiniest, and went off on my flight.
I have looked far and wide for an add-on which reproduced my favorite aircraft's innards. This product is the first that I've found which does this, but it has some flaws which could not be overlooked by me, infatuated with the B-17 though I am.
For the most part, I will divide this discussion into two parts: the cockpit itself and the rest of the interior.
The cockpit is absolutely typical of what you'd find in a WWII bomber; unerring simplicity, the distinctly (olive) drab feel, and a profound, blessed lack of digital displays. I have been fortunate enough to have explored the B-17G "Sentimental Journey" on several occasions, and I found that SkyUnlimited faithfully reproduced an aspect which I've scarcely seen on comparable vintage add-ons; this is simply the green, diamond-patterned insulation which offered crews so little protection. Additionally, there are some excellent details such as moving chains which go to the rudder, a beautifully modeled seat complete with 3D belt buckle, and a very nice rendition of the B-17 logo on the control stick.
For the most part, the cockpit is divided into the instrument panel, the pilot's side panel, and the pedestal.
The pedestal is the most crowded panel, with the engine, landing gear, lighting, and flap controls being located here. There are some dummy lever-locking switches here and while these do nothing for the product they still do not detract from flying this aircraft. It's a good thing that this aircraft has mouse-over labels, as the textures here aren't always clear enough to tell what the switch or lever does.
The panel as a whole is uncluttered and graceful. Again showing their attention to detail, SkyUnlimited chose to give animation to the oxygen blinker gauge. I was pleased to see this, and this gauge realistically opens and closes. The panel definitely bears testament to the B-17's all-encompassing flyability and has a simple layout which offers little opportunity for confusion. The pilot's side panel is where you find the rest of the lighting controls as well as the electrical switches.
The developers chose to take an unorthodox step in their placement of the radio. In a real B-17, the radio equipment not only had its own operator but a room in the craft all to itself. Instead of this, this model has included a vintage-looking radio in the place of an overhead panel. This did not bother me, and I think it a sound move towards maintaining the aircraft's ease-of-use.
The rest of the B-17's spacious interior is rather disappointing, partially because it has so much unused potential for improvement. The interior models the entire aircraft from the nose gunner's station to the tail gun. The inescapable truth back here is that the textures need improvement. Most of the fuselage is coated in a dark olive green which is something like a repeating grid pattern. Additionally, I found a small patch in the radio operator's room which, at certain angles, allows you to see to the outside of the airplane. It seems that the floor and the side of the airplane don't match up entirely. For another thing, in the real airplane the area which the tail wheel pokes into the fuselage is covered with a zippered canvas. Here it was only modeled with a block of the omnipresent green. Lastly, the horizontal stabilizers protrude into the fuselage. From the cockpit, you descend down to the lower level of the aircraft where the navigator's station, bombardier's station, and provisions to operate a total of at least four .50 caliber machine guns are located. There are enough details here for an acceptably satisfying representation, such as the control column which the bombardier would use, some blocky seats, and a desk for the navigator. More than the rest of the interior, this area smacks of FS98 to me. However, I won't dwell on these issues as I've already discussed them. Except for the glass in the cockpit, there are no glass textures or reflections, and this is particularly evident here.
Proceeding back up to the cockpit level, you pass the top gunner's station, which is, for whatever reason, constructed of what looks like a blue-and-white plaid blanket. The fun begins when you enter the bomb bay, however. The small catwalk is present as in the real B-17, and it's quite amusing to open up the bomb bay doors, stand amidst the rows of bombs, and watch the landscape drift by. Further back is the navigator's quarters, side gunners stations, and the tail gun position. Unfortunately, the ball turret's interior is simply grey.
Have I exhaustively detailed the interior? I hope so, but one must keep the following in mind. This is the only B-17 for the simulator (to my knowledge) which chose to model the rest of the interior other than the cockpit. So, remembering that you can visit the bombardiers's station, the tail gun, and the bomb bay, is it worth it to you to have a fairly mediocre interior (other than the cockpit, which is fine overall) over no interior at all? For me, being able to access these places is a definite plus, and because SkyUnlimited chose to model the weapon effects (detailed later) we have more than an aircraft for flying here, but a platform of entertainment the likes of which has scarcely been created for the flight simulator. Since the cockpit is modeled well enough, I can forgive the poor quality of the rest of the interior simply because no other add-on has it.
Even though I am irrationally partial to the aesthetic and sentimental appeal of the B-17, the skill and devotion with which the beautiful skin of this lady has been rendered is undeniable. Chief among the pros of this model is the bump mapping. This is a true FSX aircraft, and the rivets made of good American steel are portrayed here in all of their modest glory. On the camo-schemed 'Queenie' livery included with this model, there are occasional moments where the sun catches the light of these facets at just the right angle and the effect is just stunning. I find it difficult to convey this in words, but hopefully the screen shots will mitigate my illiteracy.
While the bump maps on this aircraft hold the definite 'awe' factor, don't think that the detail is lacking elsewhere. When the bomb bay is open, you can see the rows of bombs painted with a yellow stripe. The engines, for that matter, have plenty of detail when viewed from the front. The first row of cylinders are 3D and are of surprisingly good texture quality. However, the cowl flaps seem to be 2D things composed of perhaps three sides each. This is particularly evident from the cockpit. One thing which I found lacking is the characteristic way with which the B-17 and other comparable aircraft raise their gear, with one wheel a little before the other. The entire exterior is visible from the cockpit if you move your viewpoint around, so this gives rise to some great screen shotting opportunities. What's more, if you should attempt a belly landing, the props will realistically appear bent backwards. This effect is nicely modeled, and, having seen images of B-17's in similar situations, I can say that this is quite skillfully modeled.
I won't press the point, but the B-17G has the controllability of a glider; albeit a glider with some 4,800 horses. The only real difficulty in operating this aircraft is in taxiing. As in real life, the SkyUnlimited B-17 has no connectivity between the rudder and the tail wheel. Therefore, you need to use either differential thrust or braking. I'm fortunate enough to have a yoke which has multiple throttle levers, so I used a combination of the two.
Engine start using the checklist is very simple. For the most part, you're able to work left to right: batteries, mixture, magnetos, cowl flaps, intercoolers, and then the starters themselves. The real B-17 uses an inertia starter, but this isn't possible in FSX so the engines are started by clicking the zones above or below the starter switches -- then you're treated to one of the best startup sequences that has ever been seen for the simulator. From the outside, you see the B-17's vast props turn slowly, so slowly, and then a gout of flame and smoke erupts from the engines and soon the engines are up to speed, the whole process taking only about twenty seconds.
After lining up with the runway (which takes some practice to get it right the first time), you engage the tail wheel lock, ease the throttles up, and rather sooner than you expect you are gracefully, gloriously winging into the blue. Even fully loaded, the B-17 is as gentle as a lamb and will go wherever you wish. The B-17 used a tactic called getting 'on step' to achieve cruise speed. Simply put, you fly about five hundred feet above cruise altitude and descend back down, gaining speed as you do. Descent is uneventful, and landing is fairly simple also. The B-17 may need a little bit of throttle to maintain speed with full flaps, and you can choose whether to do a two or three point landing. Both are fairly easy and require a relatively small amount of study and practice to master.
I speak of flying this bird as though it is easy, and, for the most part, it is. However, you wouldn't really do the B-17G justice without something going amiss -- simulated flak hits, engine fires, oil leaks, hydraulic failures, etc. Then it gets interesting.
Lights And Sounds
The lighting on this aircraft is fairly standard. When lit, only the radio room and the cockpit receive light. The only unusual aspect with the lights are the formation lights. These are large, purple things which cast a large amount of radiance on nearby surfaces. They look a little odd, so for the most part I flew with these off.
The popular opinion on the SkyUnlimited support forum is that the sounds included are far from satisfactory. I don't entirely agree with this. Admittedly, the start up audio could use some coughs and chokes, but when I turned up the bass all the way I felt a huge gush of nostalgia to my first flight on a B-17. However, the flaps announce themselves with just clicks of sounds, so on the whole, this could use improvement. There is talk about an upgrade which would include this.
Here, I saved the best for last. The B-17 was not just an airplane, but an undeniable instrument of war. Very, very few designers choose to model weapons effects on any sort of military aircraft. Therefore I am always incredibly pleased to find a product which models this well. This aircraft has dropping bombs, moving guns, and shooting .50 cals. By pressing Shift+2, you can bring up the weapons panel. From this, you can control the angle of every single gun and turret. Then, press a button on that same panel, and you can make any of the guns or turrets fire. Additionally, by opening the bomb bay (via the spoilers key) you can cause the bombs to drop. None of the weapons create damage, but these really offer some great opportunities for screen shots. These work flawlessly, except for when in DX10 mode, where this is an unavoidable FSX bug which causes the gun effects to not be visible from every angle.
SkyUnlimited has created what I consider to be the most complete B-17 package for any simulator hence. Admittedly, the interior could use an overhaul, but when you consider the exterior and the unique effects, one cannot deny the attractiveness of this unique package. This is just a beautiful reproduction of the most beautiful aircraft to ply the skies, and the special combination of all of these great features (and this being my favorite aircraft!) combine to make this my new favorite add-on for the simulator.
Intel Q6600 at 2.4 GHz
Windows Vista Home Edition 64 bit
MSI P35 Neo II
ATI 4850 512MB
2GB Corsair Dominator
Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Acceleration
Postscript: This review was completed prior to the release of the A2A P-47D and thus some items which would benefit from comparison to the A2A P-47D were not made.