• Just Flight/Wilco Airbus A400M

    Just Flight Airbus A400M for FS2004

    By Andrew Herd (6 October 2006)

    This addon is an interesting case of a simulation taking to the virtual skies before the prototype of the plane it is based upon has flown, the first flight of the A400M being scheduled for 2008. At the time of writing (September 2006), design is in full swing, the cockpit mockup is being finalised by Airbus and next year should see a test rig taking to the skies, but the A400M as such doesn't exist yet and the all-new TP-400-D6 engine that is going to power it won't be delivered for a couple of months yet. Any package seeking to simulate the A400M must by definition be speculative, but variety is the spice of life and one of the big themes behind flight simulation is that it lets us test the boundaries and live a little, so Wilco deserve a pat on the back for looking to the future, rather than the past, as so many sims tend to do.

    The A400 project began way back in 1982 when an international group of aircraft manufacturers put their heads together to devise a replacement for the C-130 and the C-160. The Herc being a tough act to follow, progress was slow and in the late eighties, Lockheed, the only US partner, left the consortium and began work on a second generation Hercules, the C-130J. The group has gained and lost some members since, but at present consists of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, South Africa, Spain and Turkey - in theory they will place 180 orders for hulls between them, but the situation remains fluid. The new design will double the lifting capacity and range of the planes it replaces and will feature extensive use of new tech materials, fly-by-wire control surfaces and a glass cockpit much like the existing Airbus airliners; and it will be multi-role, with variants capable of troop and cargo transport, paradropping, elint, medevac and even air-to-air refuelling.

    The spec is certainly ambitious, given that a new hull, using new engines is being developed to lift over 80,000 pounds and deliver it nearly 1800 nautical miles away. Maximum range has been set at over 5000 nm and the plane will have to be able to take off and land on a soft runway 3000 feet long and cruise at M 0.72, which is a tall order, but if everything works out as planned, the A400M will be a world-beater.

    I reviewed Just Flight's boxed version of the A400M, which was developed by Wilco and is compatible with FS2004 only. By the time you read this, FSX may well have been released, but as of now I have no idea if it will be compatible or not. Given that Microsoft have worked hard to make the new version 'FS2004 addon friendly' there is room for optimism, but if FSX treats FS2004 addons the way FS2004 did FS2002 addons, a patch may be necessary. One of the curses of moving up a generation of FS is that developers of complex addons often end up breaking the rules set by Microsoft to squeeze the last ounce of performance out of a package and this can lead to trouble. But we shall see.

    The box declares that the A400M requires Windows XP, a 1.7 GHz processor, 512 Mb of RAM, 1.2 Gb of hard disk space, a 64 Mb video card and a DVD-ROM drive, because the addon is not supplied on CD. Yup, it is part of the increasing trend to DVD installs and when FSX arrives, you won't even be able to install Flight Simulator without a DVD drive, so if you do not possess one, now is the time to do something about it. Without even opening the box, I can tell you that although the package will run on a 1.7 gig processor with 512 megs of RAM, more power and memory won't go amiss. How do I know that? Ahhhh, grasshopper, I know because it is the way of FS addons, just as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and FSX will demand a faster processor than either of us own.

    The DVD comes in the usual plastic box, which contains a flyer for other Just Flight products and a 36 page manual in English. The manual is well written and contains everything you need to know to get started, as well as some general advice about how to operate the sim, but given the relative complexity of the panels, more words would have been helpful. Installation is completely straight forward and once you have put the DVD in the drive, all you have to do is follow the prompts. Once everything was done, I found a new entry under the Just Flight group with a link to a load manager applet and an A400 entry on the FS menu with a dozen different liveries, including the Belgian, French, German, Spanish, Turkish and Royal Air Forces, the Red Cross, Unicef, a basic camo livery and (rather hopeful, this one, I suspect) the US Coast Guard.

    The visual model is good, which is what we would expect from Wilco, who have a long history of developing FS addons. The first variant I looked at was the USCG one and - in as much as you can say anything about a plane that only exists on paper - the A400M certainly looks the part, squat, purposeful and very imposing. The textures are all very crisp and the panel lines have been neatly done, although apart from the general shape of the plane, just about everything you are looking at is an informed guess. Much the same can be said for all the other liveries, even the RAF one, which is a minor miracle, as this is a shade of green that Flight Simulator usually renders incredibly badly, but this time, it looks great. The real issue I had with the textures was that from some angles the matte black spinners appear to wobble slightly as they rotate, but this is a problem with many FS addons and to be fair to Wilco, the A400M has the spinners from hell, very long, bulbous and tough to get right in FS2004. All the usual animations are present, you can open all the doors in virtual cockpit mode, although the controls take a bit of finding, and the external front side door and main cargo door can be hotkeyed open and shut.

    The 2D panel is comparable in quality to the ones in the default planes (Wilco have done better) though it is also something of a mixed bag - the A400M being one of the few addons I have seen where the main panel graphic is less convincing than some of the sub-panels that open from it. Part of the problem is that whoever designed the panel tried to squeeze in a panoramic view that takes in all of the left hand side and most of the middle panel, which necessarily puts the point of view very far back by comparison to the virtual cockpit view. You can make your own mind up from the screenshots, but the 2D panel could be better in terms of clarity and some of the displays give the impression that they don't belong where they sit, the way glass instruments tended to look in FS98 panels. On the plus side, the gauges are readable at every screen resolution I tried, even if some of the fonts look a bit unlikely. Once again, it is impossible to comment on how the panel compares to reality, because there isn't a real panel to compare it to yet, unless the mockup is ahead of schedule. The best of the sub-panels are the electrical and the overhead, the pedestal and the RTUs being more like the main panel in quality and if there are any hot spots to open and close the subpanels, I didn't find them, although each panel does have a simicon strip which does the job. All the major instruments can be enlarged by clicking on their faces and closed again using the same method, and there is a headup display and a functional MCDU, which allows you to enter reasonably sophisticated flight plans; but the documentation for the latter is sparse, although simmers who are used to FMC programming shouldn't have a problem. The only real issue I had with the 2D panel, other than the fact that the graphics could be better, was that the RTU popup appears without a keyboard, which made changing frequencies kind of interesting.

    The virtual cockpit is much better than the 2D panel and I used it to fly the sim for most of the period of the review, but the perspective Wilco have used means that the point of view can't be moved too far back without the seats obscuring the view. This means that looking at the right hand side of the panel involves large movements of the POV and gives a pretty oblique view which highlights an oddity of the panel graphic - most of the knobs and switches are 'flat' and lack much sense of perspective, detracting from what you can see would otherwise be a rather nice cockpit. One of the reasons why the frame rates are so good becomes clear when you try walking through the VC door - there isn't a virtual cabin.

    The flight model is in keeping with the size of plane and the type of engines it will be fitted with, but beyond that, it isn't possible to say much as only Airbus know anything about the specifics of the finished plane's flight model. The same applies to the sound set - we are dealing with an engine that is barely at the prototype stage yet.

    Verdict? Lightweight but fun. If you are a military simmer looking for something a little different to pass the time until FSX comes along, this could be it, though do be aware that at the time of reviewing much of what you see in the addon is speculative.

    Andrew Herd
    andy@flightsim.com

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