A2A Boeing 377 Stratocruiser
By Kevin Glover (17 October 2008)
The Boeing 377 'Stratocruiser' was not, for all of its glamour and luxury, a terribly successful aircraft. Only around 55 aircraft were built as airliners, but military variants were produced in significant numbers. I learned recently that the 377 was not originally created for civil use, but was rather a civilian version of the C-97. With the aircraft being expensive to produce, poor fuel efficiency from the massive P&W Wasp Major engines, and the first days of the jet age, the Stratocruiser became obsolete and was forced out of service. While the record of the girl is anything but prolific, the gleaming aluminum skin and the low drone of the propellers are a monument to the days when people were less hurried, companies were looking more to please and less to gain, and that entire beautiful age of aviation when graceful aircraft winged their way to war.
Please note that this was reviewed with the Accu-Sim expansion pack.
Between the Accu-Sim expansion and the base package, I had a fair-sized download of almost 250 MB on my hands. Both installers ran smoothly, and the Accu-Sim asked whether you'd like to fly with a British or American crew. Afterwards, I checked my FSX folder, and sure enough there was an A2A folder and a group in the start menu. First, I checked the manuals. Both the Accu-Sim and the 377 manual are quite refreshing, and offer sufficient information on both the package and the operation of the airplane. There are plenty of illustrations to keep you interested, and the text is easily understandable unlike some documentation for similar complex aircraft. Booting up the sim, I was confronted by two variations and five liveries total. I like to see an add-on with a lot of liveries, and in some cases it's justifiable only to have a few but in an airliner like this I think we should have seen at least double this amount. Undeterred by the lack of paints, I picked the shiniest, and began my first flight.
The manual was rather good about giving detailed descriptions of the interior of the aircraft modeled, but this actually only pertained to the load manager's configuration. So, when I first booted up, it was in a sort of tunnel vision that I moved back to the cabin to see if any passenger quarters were modeled. Sadly, there was nothing beyond the cockpit.
Going back to my seat, I took in the rest of the cockpit. One of the most eye-catching things, incidentally, are the pilots' seats. They are of a dark, satin blue material, studded with white dots. While this description brings to mind a circus tent, they are actually surprisingly attractive and are modeled well with moving armrests. The cockpit is dominated by the nineteen large windows. The two directly in front of the pilots have working windshield wipers, which can be controlled by the knob on the pilot's side panel. I flew this plane quite a bit in the rain, and like all FSX aircraft (to my knowledge) there were no VC rain effects. The windows here provide a beautiful view, and it would be quite stunning to have rain drops collecting on all of them.
The engineer's station is by far the most complex, and as it turned out I spent more time here than I expected. Looking up from his seat, and engineer is confronted by rows of glass gauges and all sorts of switches. It's a bit overwhelming at first, but you soon acclimatize to the layout of the panel. Most importantly, this is where the engineer would keep an eye on temperatures. With the Accu-Sim pack, this airplane lives and dies on its engine temperature, and you must monitor them carefully in order to maintain peak performance and for that matter to keep the fan turning. A2A showed great dedication here, and all of the many gauges work accurately. On some controls like the cowl flap switches, there is a simple plate which you can pull up or down to move all of the switches at once. This is present on some other systems controls here and on the overhead fire panel.
The overhead panel is beautifully uncluttered, and if there were ever an airliner that I would want to fly this would be it. Neatly arranged above your head are the lighting controls, fire panel, and a few other systems like ADI and the master, battery, and radio switches. I was a little disappointed with the texture quality on some of the labeling here. It's done in white paint, and can look blurry from certain angles. It doesn't impede operating the airplane, but as it's in a prominent location in the cockpit I'd expect more.
The navigator's station never received a great amount of attention from me, as I'll confess that I have little patience with twiddling the knobs while at the same time trying to keep the airplane in the air after take-off. However, the radios from that time are modeled visually in surprising detail, and I'm reminded of when I've seen very similar systems inside a B-17. However, these don't work for the most part, as I doubt FSX would ever permit accurate programming of an older radio like this. Additionally, you can access the map page by clicking on the map at the navigator's desk. This brings up a 2D panel which has the basic map controls of FSX, but tries to be a little more realistic by hiding the airplane icon in the center, and doesn't display a route.
The pilot and copilot panels are nicely done with crisp textures and plenty of detail. On the pilots side panel are the defroster controls and the defogging controls, while the copilot's side panel has the hydraulic controls. The panels themselves are fairly uncluttered, and while providing basic information, it's the guy at the navigator's panel that really gets to know the airplane. The pedestal is also nice, and contains the autopilot, throttle controls, turbo controls, a working control lock, and other systems. All of this works, and again all of it is done with superb attention to detail and high-quality textures.
Like a lot of add-ons nowadays, there is no 2D panel. However, the VC is frame rate friendly, and if you're using 2D to save frames then I don't think the VC here will be too bad. However, while they didn't include a panel to fly the plane, they did include some incredibly useful and creative little gadgets. For instance, the real time load manage puts weight and fuel onto the airplane and calculates center of gravity. Another great gadget is a small panel where you can select which engines you want to control. It's pretty self-explanatory, but this helps more than you might expect when taxiing the airplane. I don't have the money for a fancy throttle quadrant other than my joystick, so this is a great improvement on having to drag the throttles around. There is another panel which has some basic controls like exits, parking brake, Accu-Sim on/off, and some engine controls like cowl flaps and turbos.
The exterior of this aircraft, while fairly plain in concept, actually holds a massive host of detail and has, for me, the attraction which only comes from a vintage aircraft with aluminum skin. Certainly the most striking feature here is the rivet work. Just as in the real airplane, the sides, wings, and all of the surfaces are covered with row upon row of rivets, which add so much to the airplane. If A2A decided not to model them, this would just be a standard add-on, but because they put in the effort, I recognize this as one of the most detailed exteriors that I have ever seen produced for the simulator.
While the rivets may command your attention, there is certainly a lot more to see. The engines are massive things, with ungainly looking four-blade propellers, jutting from the wing. Keep in mind that this craft, an airliner of all things, set the transcontinental speed record because of these hogs. While they served the purpose of high speeds and high altitudes (with the help of turbochargers) admirably, they sucked up gas at a fair clip. The cowl flaps, ram air intake, and intercooler flaps are all modeled quite nicely, and have some details such as struts to support the cowl flaps.
The landing gear is, again, nicely done, and when you press the brakes while taxiing the nose gear will compress quite smoothly. There isn't a whole lot of detail to be seen here, and the textures on the wheel hubs aren't quite up to snuff with the rest of the model.
There is a fascinating little bug to be found in this package. The jetways will come when called, but the door is located behind the wing where they wouldn't be able to connect anyway. However, the jetway makes its way below the airplane, the wheels and stand fold to the side, and it parks in the middle of the ground. This doesn't affect the airplane much, but it is a bug and should be noted.
I think the lights deserve a bit of a mention here to. The night lighting inside the plane is a little unusual, as the lights are red. Outside, my favorite light is by far the rotating beacon light. It casts a beam of red light from both sides as it whirls on top of the vertical stabilizer. The landing and taxi lights are just big white lights, and shoot downward if the landing gear is coming down of if the landing lights aren't extended. Overall, between the pulsing navigation lights, the beacon light, the bright passing and taxi lights, and of course the landing lights, A2A added a lot to the airplane by including 3D lighting (an A2A speciality). For those who do not know, this effect casts light into the space as it would in real life. The technology could use refining, as you would usually only see this in real life when it's very foggy, dusty, or rainy, but the overall effect is quite nice.
This airplane behaves rather like a beluga whale on the ground rather than a guppy, and can be a bit of a bear to taxi. Keep things slow, and you'll be OK. Generally, I taxied with all four engines, and you have to put the throttle surprisingly far forward to get rolling. At the runway, I lowered the flaps to twenty-five degrees, throttled up, and lifted off the nose at about 80 knots. However, upon raising the landing gear, I heard my copilot's voice calmly telling me that the engines are getting a bit hot. I left the controls and rushed back to the engineers station to open the cowl flaps a little more, then jumped back up to the pilot's seat. The flights are filled with little action scenes like this, as you'll have to adjust your engine temperatures quite a bit depending on what altitude you choose, the weather, and how fast you'd like to go. On that note, I usually cruised at an indicated airspeed of about 200 knots at 22,000 feet. This plane is perfectly capable of doing long hauls, and while she's slower than the jets of today, I found the 377 much more interesting to fly as I gazed serenely out of those great windows.
Landing this bird is really straight forward, and while I did find myself floating over the runway a good amount of the time, the landings were made more interesting by the approval system. This system, as I call it, is simply the sound effects that the Accu-Sim gives the airplane. If it's a bad landing (I did get this response once) you'll hear screams, while a good landing rewards you with applause. The manual says that you'll see the tires bulging when placed on the ground with weight, but I never noticed this. Perhaps it's just too subtle.
Simplicity is, in my own humble opinion, a godsend in an airplane, and I cringe when I see an FMC sitting by my side when I boot up. While the technological advances in airliners have seen fit to eliminate two members from the crew, I think there is something to be said for more crew and less multitasking on the part of the pilot.
Anyway, the systems here are quite nicely modeled, and it all works with just a few bugs. I noticed that when I went through the start procedure, if I put the start selector to engine four, the engine would start turning even if I didn't have the starter switches in. However, the engine start sequence in general is most rewarding to watch and to carry out. This is, after all, a piston engine aircraft, and while today's jets can turn on their engines without much help, this old bird had not one essential starter switch, but three: The primer, which pumps fuel into the engine, the starter, which start turning the prop, and the boost, which is rather like a fitter swinging the prop. With a gurgle and a roar, the engine burst to life in a cloud of smoke, and it's quite rewarding to listen to this start-up audio, as well as the engines throughout the flight.
There is a basic autopilot in this plane, which is a life-saver on long flights. It's quite simple, but well modeled overall. When in a steady climb, turn on the autopilot on and it will hold your direction. When you've reached your altitude, click the altitude hold switch to maintain your altitude. If you need to turn while in autopilot, swing the lever to point whichever direction you need to travel. Let got of the lever when you're facing your new direction.
While this is a fairly old airplane, it does have some of the amenities of the modern aircraft. For instance, you can pressurize this bird to fly at 25,000 feet while your passengers feel that it's only 5,500 feet. There's an APU, autopilot, air conditioning, and the other things that separated this from aircraft like DC-3's.
One issue that proved quite nearly fatal to me was the fuel systems. Before this ill-fated flight, I thought that all of the fuel tanks and engines were interconnected, and this notion was encouraged by the diagram on the engineer's station. However, it turns out that each of the four wing tanks fuels fuel one engine respectively. It's possible that I've done something wrong, but when two of the tanks were drained, I thought I would continue happily on my way with the remaining wing tanks and the center tank. However, it was not to be. The two and three engines quit and wouldn't feather, so I was forced to make my descent into Dublin on two engines. I was doing fine until I ran out of fuel in the number one engine, and made my unhappy way into some houses just a few miles outside of the airport. However, this did afford me a nice chance to see the A2A damage effects. When you belly-land, a plume of smoke is thrown behind you as you slide through the countryside. Whenever a wingtip touched the ground, it threw up sparks. As you can imagine, this unplanned test of the effects did little to boost my esteem. After I saw the effects in action I must say I've been much more careful with my fuel planning.
The Accu-Sim expansion pack, in all honesty, quite simply makes this airplane. I had little time for testing the 377 without Accu-Sim for the simple reason that without it, it's nothing more than a run of the mill add-on with a nice exterior. However, with Accu-Sim installed, the add-on is boosted from the mass of standard add-ons to the really classy ones with not only good looks but good plumbing. There are a number of features in the expansion, and I'll try to go through what I feel are the most important ones.
The crew audio is nicely done, and sounds realistically annoyed, bored, or even slightly frantic; all in lovely British or American accents. I suppose I shouldn't say crew, as it's only one voice doing the talking. You'll hear verbal reprimands for gunning the throttles on the ground without flaps down, the state of your engines and whether they are too hot or too cold, warnings for high speed with landing gear down, fuel warnings, and my personal favorite of the copilot frantically exclaiming, "we're running on fumes!" and then telling me to get this bird down somewhere.
The engines programming is quite possibly the system that will give you the most grief. A2A provided a 2D panel which has some of the basic controls of the airplane, and all of what you need to manage the engines while in flight. I insisted on hopping back to the engineers station, but the sane, non-vintage freak will probably be wise to use this handy little panel. Getting back on topic, the engines are highly realistically modeled. If the temperatures get too low, the spark plugs will foul, and when you raise the throttle later you'll see black smoke from the carbon being burnt off the plug. When you turn on your limited Anti Detonation Injection supply, you have little fear of the engines burning up beneath you. However, there's not much in this supply, and I usually was done with half of it before I switched it back to auto after takeoff. When you turn this system off, close all of the engine cooling, and simply gun the engines for awhile, you'll soon hear the copilot informing you that you have an engine fire. So, you switch the fire controls on whichever engine to 'fire', and push the switch to release the CO2. This action is accompanied by a 'whoosh!' of sound as the chemical is channeled to the engine.
Accu-Sim is most notable in the engines, but there are some really incredible details which A2A had the ingenuity to program. For instance, (and this, to my knowledge is unprecedented) if you fly for awhile the windows will fog up (your copilot will mention this too). So, the pilot reaches over to his side panel and cranks up the defroster. This soon clears the windows, and you'll hear the air as the switch is first turned, though it later fades to nothing. Additionally, if the windshield wipers are going when there's no rain, they'll squeak. You can also realistically control the speed of the wipers with a rotary dial, again on the pilot's side panel. When you turn in flight you'll hear the airplane creaking around you, and if you brake on the ground, you'll sometimes hear the brakes squeaking.
The A2A Boeing 377 Stratocruiser is, in my mind, a marvel of ingenuity and dedication to perfection. Many companies would have happily released the base package, then an Accu-Sim containing some fancy engine failure algorithms, but A2A went beyond that and modeled some aspects which I would never have dreamt of. The price is reasonable, but I urge you to by the Accu-Sim with the add-on, as it really is half of the simulation. This model has it all: a beautiful exterior, decent interior, attention and devotion to detail, and the all-important systems programming. I cannot describe this plane as anything but a winner, and in stark contrast to the real aircraft's history, A2A has certainly experienced a wonderful success.