Review: A2A Simulations' B-17G Flying Fortress With Accusim
By Kevin Glover> (29 August 2010)
The Boeing B-17 could be called the greatest aircraft in history. It was produced and shot down in vast quantities, housed a crew of around eight men, and inspired poems, songs, nicknames, hatred, fear, and love like perhaps no other aircraft. To her crews, she was the Queen of the Skies; to her enemies, she was a metal monster which rained death upon the Earth. Such a venerable aircraft demands respect, and it has finally been given a worthy incarnation in FSX by the talented crew at A2A.
The A2A B-17G can be purchased via an instant download. The download comes in two separate parts, one for the aircraft and one for Accusim, which will install something like 500MB of B-17 onto your hard drive. Please note that this review will cover the B-17G with Accusim enhancements, not the standalone B-17. The Accusim pack offers many realism-enhancing features such as sounds and upgraded textures, so it is essentially a different product entirely. Installation was, as always with A2A, an absolute breeze and I was flying in no time.
Please remember for the following sections that the B-17 was given a facelift with Accusim; that is, the textures were upgraded to current standards. So, once again, note that this review is based solely off of my experiences of the B-17G with Accusim and doesn't necessarily reflect the original base package.
The B-17's cockpit area is modeled in excellent detail and up to the standards set by the best in the industry. All textures are crisp and clean, and appropriate amounts of wear are present in the texturing.
The physical modeling is done very nicely as well. There are a few jagged lines, where a smaller amount of polygons was used on nonessential objects to save performance such as the oxygen tanks aft of the cockpit. However, I'm happy to say that, for the most part, all of the circles appear as such, and not obvious polygons.
Accusim adds a lot to the lives of the gauges that live in the Fortress, so I will discuss this more later. However, rest assured that A2A has used the latest 3D gauges to give smooth readings and 3D appearance when you're moving around the cockpit to reach various controls. The textures are all crisp, but I did find myself having to zoom a little to make out the controls on the FO's (right seat) side.
One idea I might bring up is that, although the cockpit is modeled very well, it is the only thing modeled. I, for one, would die and go to heaven if I could have the full interior of a B-17 recreated for the simulator in A2A's quality. It is, of course, my favorite airplane, but I think that there are legitimate reasons for this desire. On one hand, look at the companies who model an entire deck of the passenger cabin; this is a great feature and provides lots of eye candy and interesting screen shots, but on the whole it's not really relevant in flying the aircraft. However, in the B-17, the crew was spread throughout the entire aircraft and each member played his own critical role in getting his fellows down safely. This is just a pipe dream, but it is something that I would love to see.
When I take in the gorgeous lines of the B-17G, I wonder why people even bother to fly planes nowadays. The gracious curve of the wings as they go from the tips to blending into the fuselage, or the generous swoop that the vertical stabilizer makes as it meets the tail section; all of this harkens to the best days of aviation, and A2A has done a marvelous job recreating the B-17G's architecture in all of its glory.
One of the things our eyes are attracted to in the detailing of this plane is the rivets; A2A has painstakingly placed bump maps which accurately recreate the lines of rivets tracing the airframe. These compliment the panel lines very nicely, and I'm happy to say that, through my own knowledge of the aircraft, this has been done with the accuracy that A2A has made its hallmark.
Aside from these smaller details, the entire structure is quite aesthetic and faithful to the real thing. The landing gear wells are dirty, but not overly detailed to save performance. The landing gear is also realistic, and although there's not a great deal of small, detailed structures, this is just as well because the real B-17 doesn't have a great deal of pipes and hoses running around anyway. On the whole I feel that A2A has done a fine job maintaining the balance between detail and performance on the whole.
Looking into the aircraft from the outside is also a rewarding experience as A2A seems to have outdone themselves by modeling eight crew members in great detail and all of the current technology used to make them look alive. They all fidget and look around, and at your command they can also move to their assigned gun turret and then the turrets will also rotate and move around to the commands of their simulated gunner. Aside from the people, the inside is actually quite detailed compared to today's standards, which is good because there are a lot of windows to look into.
Flying And Procedures
For this review, I will be going from a cold and dark situation. So, to recreate the same conditions, please go to SHIFT+2, then at the bottom of the panel select 'cold start'.
When you first enter the cockpit, the aircraft will be parked and all systems will be off. There should be some ladders appearing on the outside of the aircraft leading to the entrances as well. Naturally, the first step is to bring power to the aircraft.
On the left side cabin wall near your feet will be a black panel. On this panel are all of the electrical controls. At the bottom is a three-position switch, labeled, 'off, inverter, alternator'. Position this switch at the topmost position, which should be 'alternator'. The, at the very bottom of the panel are three two-position toggles which represent the batteries. Position all of these to 'on' which is the top position. They aircraft is now energized.
While the batteries are all well and good and can get your engines started without a hassle, they might get worn out over time and not hold a charge. To prevent this unnecessary drain on the batteries, it is recommended that you turn on the APU. This small engine, located in the tail section of the aircraft, was fondly referred to as the 'Putt-Putt' on the B-29, and I'm sure it had a similar moniker on the Flying Fortress. Once again, by hitting SHIFT+2 and bringing up that handy 2D panel, you can have your waist gunner manually start the APU. You will hear him say 'I'm on it, Captain', or perhaps 'Yessir!'. Shortly after you will hear something not unlike a lawnmower starting and the APU will gradually rev up. When it is ready, you'll hear the gunner say 'power coming on line' and he'll hit the switch to make the APU take load. This will be accompanied by an appropriate juddering on the electrical gauges as the power fluctuates.
So, now you're all powered up. Then next thing to do is get hydraulic power. This is accomplished by going to the red switch on the same panel and holding it in the upwards position until the PSI on the panel reads 200 or more. The spring-loaded switch will go back to the automatic position where it will then maintain hydraulic pressure for the rest of the flight; it just needs to be above 200 PSI to operate.
Generally I open the cowl flaps first and I ascribe to the 3, 4, 1, 2, starting sequence. So, on the center pedestal forward of the throttles, find the row of four silver cowl flap toggles and move the third one to the right until the cowls are open. You can simply look out the window (perhaps by moving your viewpoint) to see when the cowls are open, as, unlike the P-47D, you can't hear the thud when they are fully deployed.
Next, fuel is required. At the forward-most part of the center pedestal lies a row of four guarded two-position toggles. Flip the guard up by clicking it, then move the number three toggle forward. The, just below that, do the same to the fuel pump switch. You will be able to hear this activate and you'll also see the fuel flow gauge jump forward on the FO's panel.
At this point, I usually make sure the magnetos are ready to go as I tend to forget them once the actual starter kicks in. So, on the left side of the center pedestal find the cluster of four mag switches around a bar, which controls the master ignition. Position this bar to 'on' and set the number three mag switch (bottom left) to 'both'. Now you're more or less ready to start.
Double check that the prop and mixture controls are at 'fine' and 'auto rich' respectively. Crack the throttles. Crack your knuckles. Reach (or rather move your viewpoint) over to the far right of the cabin where the FO sits. At the floor is the fuel pump; using the mouse wheel, change this so that it's set on the number three engine. Then go up to the panel mounted on the forward wall and set the fire extinguishers to number three. Then, find the actual starting controls just above this.
The B-17 uses a combination inertia/direct drive starter. When 'start' is selected, the inertia wheel will wind up. When it's at its peak, hitting 'mesh' will engage the starter which will give a bit of a jerk at first and then settle down to spinning evenly. Listening to the engine, give a couple of pumps of primer - more for cold weather, but usually no more than four are necessary. You can detect a bit of a 'cough' if the engine is going to catch, and if you can hear the coughing then you can sort of determine how much primer is needed. Pretty soon, the engine will kick to life if everything has been done correctly. Make sure that oil pressure is coming up; if you don't see a rise, shut her down right sharpish. Your engineer ought to call out when oil pressure is rising.
Repeat this for the four engines and warm them up. Idle at around 1000 RPM, get the oil temperatures to around 40 degrees, and the cylinder heads probably ought to be over 150 degrees or so by this point, depending on the weather.
Next, we taxi. The '17 never had any rudder control, so you have to steer using either differential braking or thrust. It takes some getting used to, but you're aided by one of A2A's innovative pop-up panels, accessible by SHIFT+8. This allows you to select which engine(s) your joystick controls. To make taxiing easier, make sure to disengage the tail wheel lock, which is located on the floor next to your seat.
Once you've lined up to the runway, bring up the Crew Reports panel, SHIFT+2. This is especially useful for takeoff since it has all of the power settings listed. Additionally, at the bottom is a handy checklist to aid your memory. Set the turbo dial on the center console to 8, adjust your RPM, close the cowl flaps to about 30%, and you'll find yourself swept gracefully into the sky by a remarkably easy to fly aircraft.
This ought to be enough of a guide to get you up in the air. The Fortress has always been called a joy to fly and A2A's reincarnation certainly fits that description. For the rest of the flying procedures, I recommend you download the manuals from A2A's web site, which are available for free to anyone interested.
Generally speaking, the exterior lights are the most impressive in an aircraft. A2A has reversed this, but not to the detriment of exterior lighting. As always, we have 3D landing lights which really stand out. Additionally, there is a red passing light mounted in the left-hand landing light bay.
However, on the inside we have a beautiful environment for night flying. The '17 had two types of lighting in the main cockpit. Firstly, there are florescent lights. At the click of a switch, you'll hear an electrical fizzle as the lights warm up, then they will flicker on. These cast light just where it is needed, but sometimes this can still be too much light. For one thing, they create a lot more reflection on the windows which make visibility worse. So, you have another option.
All of the dials and most switches are painted with a special substance that will react with ultra-violet light. At another turn of that same rotary switch, the florescents will shut off and you'll find all of the gauges and switches glowing gently in the dark. It's really difficult to capture this with screen shots, but the effect is so good it's almost surreal. Not only that, but it really makes you appreciate the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which this aircraft was designed.
All aircraft accumulate damage over time, and that's something that A2A has spent a good bit of time modeling. This mostly comes into play in something called the Maintenance Hangar, available by pressing SHIFT+7. This is your window into your aircraft; you can find reports from your mechanics, the status on any damaged systems, and detailed cutaways showing the more crucial parts of your engines. By clicking on any effected systems, you can restore them to a new state. You can also set the time between overhauls. If you don't have much time to sim, select '300' and you'll see what the life of an engine is like, albeit over a shorter amount of time than normal.
Generally speaking you won't have to worry about this particular section as much as I did. As a reviewer, I had to thrash the B-17 to see how the systems would react. After several flights in Death Valley to test the effects of heat, and more flights in Switzerland to test cold weather characteristics, I also did a few belly landings to see what would happen. The result was predictable; failures and breakages across the board. The B-17 can take a remarkable amount of stress, and the engines are nowhere near as testy as the Boeing 377 or the P-47, but they can break. I do rather regret not being able to baby my favorite aircraft as I would have liked, and it always rankles to see such a small amount of time since I last overhauled.
In summary, you can break just about anything. Flaps, flap motors, wheels, gear assemblies, hydraulic pumps, fuel tanks, propellers, turbos, starters, cylinders, etc. While this simulation could not possibly incorporate all of the things that could go wrong in a B-17 (considering all of the things simply not found in the flight simulator that a real B-17 has), there is still a lot to stress about, so don't worry. You won't be bored.
Here we go. The big one. This is the largest aircraft A2A has blessed with Accusim since the release of their Boeing 377, and there are interesting parallels between the two aircraft. However, it is apparent just how much they have advanced with the B-17, and although I still love my 377 and fly it often, the B-17 has simply out-classed it. This is, as they say, not your granddaddy's Accusim.
Naturally, we have the golden oldies which Accusim first brought to life; the gauges. All of A2A's gauges respond realistically to various external forces. For instance, the entire panel of the B-17 was mounted on springs to control vibration. This is apparent during engine run-ups and the like as there is less bouncing around of the needles than in other aircraft. The whole panel will jiggle up and down quite rapidly.
Sounds are another staple of Accusim. The B-17 is brought to life with a plethora of custom recordings made from the real aircraft. Literally every knob, pulley, and switch has a custom sound assigned to it, and the aircraft resounds with squealing breaks, creaking airframes, and wind rushing by the windows. This last one is especially noteworthy, as the sound of air through the window will vary depending on how open the window is. You can position it nearly anywhere in its normal path of travel and hear the subtle differences in the wind. Engine noise will also be affected.
Another great feature pertaining to the sounds is that you can put on a headset. This will reduce background noise and let you hear radio transmissions more clearly. This can be found by pressing SHIFT+2, which will bring up a 2D panel with other controls.
Accusim applies not only to the few things I have listed here, but it literally becomes integral to the aircraft and you cannot fly for one moment without being affected by Accusim. So, as you read the following paragraphs, keep in mind that every realistic detail or nuance that I talk about comes from Accusim.
Accusim Sound Features
Accusim has always been deeply rooted in sound effects. This, however, does not adequately describe how tightly integrated the sounds are with delivering a realistic experience. Sure, there are more common sounds like the fuel pumps running up, or a the whirr of electronics coming online; the 'other' sounds come from your engine and your airframe, and these are certainly most important. Accusim is intelligent enough to sense when you're going out of normal parameters and delivering an appropriate sound, such as squealing breaks in a pivot turn. More subtly, you'll gradually begin to notice nuances in engine noise. Paying close attention to this gives you an insight into how your powerplants are running and if there's anything you need to be concerned about. This, along with keeping a close eye on your gauges, can usually keep you out of trouble, and certainly will help you get on the ground safely in the event of an emergency.
The engine noise in and of itself is simply marvelous. Having been fortunate enough to fly aboard a real B-17 (without ear protection, which is a mistake), I can speak for the power of the engines and the absolutely tremendous amount of sound they produce. It's as if your heart and ears have switches places; it feels as though you're hearing the vibrations of the engines in your chest, and feeling the beat of your heart in your head. I cannot describe the joy of hearing those massive engines, and although I dare not crank up my speakers that loud, after fiddling the bass and treble controls I rather fancy that this is the most true soundset I have ever heard. I can't describe the sound of the B-17's engines; the pure, unmitigated power in them is simply flooring. I wish I owned those big industrial speakers and a subwoofer, because I think that I could crank up the volume, close my eyes, and feel no difference between the sounds. That is how good they are. My personal thanks and congratulations to A2A for achieving the best soundset I have ever heard.
More examples of Accusim sounds include flap motors; these are whining electronic motors and their 'whine' will vary in frequency with how fast you are going as you lower the flaps. For instance, if you are going fast while retracting flaps, the whine will be higher, as the wind is pushing the flaps which is pushing the motor to move faster. Your waist gunners will comment when the flaps are raised or retracted fully. Keep in mind, these flaps can jam if you fly too fast with them down.
The airframe itself will groan with strain if you pull too many G's or overspeed. Your engineer will usually alert you to an overspeed, and if you get the docile '17 to complain, something's wrong.
Wind rushing through the windows is another neat feature. This one isn't as unique as the others, but since you can position the pilot and copilot windows at any position you want to, there's a lot of potential for varying sounds; even more variety is added if you have the engines going. If the wind or engine gets too loud for you, you can put on 'headphones' via the 2D panels, which will increase radio volume and blot out some of the engine noise.
Lastly, we have all of the regular Accusim goodies. All of the switches will 'click' with their own unique sound; hydraulic lines going to the cowl flaps will 'wooosh', pedals 'squeak', control columns 'thud', and the whole cockpit is quite alive.
Once again, A2A has taken an old concept and revolutionized it. For a long time we've had engineers calling out speed or altitude on landing. However, A2A took it to a completely different level with a crew that feels like it's alive and individual members with their own responsibilities. For instance, the engineer is always watching the gauges over your shoulder. If the carbs get a bit too warm he'll let you know. Same thing with speed, or a reminder that we need to turn off the air filters at this altitude.
What's more, they will interact with their environment. Somebody might comment about the windows being foggy, or that the guys in the back are freezing and that we need to add some heat. If you drop your payload of bombs, you can watch as the ball turret gunner will swivel so that he can watch them plummet to earth.
If you decide you'd like some APU power, you select it from the 2D panels. You'll here a 'right away, sir' and after awhile you'll hear something a bit like a lawn mower warming up. Once the APU is up to speed, you'll hear 'power coming online' and the needle reading AC volts will jump as the APU comes into service.
This is all done by your waist gunner at your command. You are the captain, they are your crew; you may tell them to enter or exit their gun positions, manually raise or lower the flaps and gear, etc. A2A has created the first truly interactive aircraft in that they have given you a crew which responds to you, as their commander, and their environment and all of the factors which go with that.
Occasionally, your radio man will mention that he's found something on the radio. If you choose, you may listen to whatever it is. Sometimes it's a war time broadcast by Churchill or Wilson, or just a radio clip of a song coming in over the wireless. Ever listened to 'Sentimental Journey' while flying the Sentimental Journey? It's quite the experience. I haven't actually yet discovered whether or not that song is included in the audio clips, but there's a good chance.
These are all done quite tastefully to recreate the atmosphere of hearing them on the radio; you will hear static as your radio operator tunes to the channel, and more static as the program eventually begins to fade out as you get out of range.
I mentioned this earlier, but one of the neat features available on the 2D panels is that you can tell your crew to enter or exit their respective gunnery positions. By clicking a button, you can make all of the turrets come to life. The B-17G's usually carried around fourteen .50 cal machine guns and each man had one to fight with when the time came. The cool thing is, you can even see the crew members (especially the engineer) moving over to his new position.
This brings me to a related note; the view inside of the aircraft from the outside is simply marvelous. The details seen through that large nose cone are quite remarkable, especially considering how reasonable A2A was able to keep the performance.
The Sperry C-1 Autopilot
The C-1 was a remarkably advanced autopilot for the time. It uses two gyroscopes to sense changes in the flight of an aircraft, and then will try to correct them as per the desired course. It is important to properly trim the aircraft before engaging the C-1 because it uses the actual flight control surfaces, not trim, to make its adjustments. The 2D panel, SHIFT+9, can also help you interact with your bombardier by telling him what course to fly and the PDI, or pilot directional indicator, which tells the bombardier which course to fly. The C-1 is a tricky little thing in my opinion, but A2A offers a very useful guide of its use in their user's manual.
The B-17G from A2A Simulations is undoubtably one of the finest aircraft I have had the privilege to review. It comes loaded with innovation and creativity and I have never had a flight in it which I have not enjoyed. Part of this package's success comes from the aircraft that it is modeled after - the B-17. She has always been called a joy to fly and a real legend in her own right. B-17's are a rare and valuable part of our history, and I can think of no reason that you should not buy this package to experience this airplane. I generally refrain from actually encouraging anyone to buy a product, but if there ever was one that I did, this Flying Fortress would be the one.
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