• Aero Commander 680 Super

    Aero Commander 680 Super

    By Ulrich Klein (10 August 2003)


    The Pegasus model in the AC680S package which represents a real world 680S purchased by the Magnolia Pipe Line Co. With its highly polished aluminium finish and the awesome reflections on the cockpit window panes it is clearly my favorite plane in this superb package. The Aero Commander 680 Super is already the third of a series of Twin Commanders for FS2002 (both standard and pro editions).

    At a time when the tide is high concerning the controversial discussion about payware versus freeware, or vice versa, it is all the more surprising to see that there are still top-notch developers who publish their amazingly stunning creations just for free. Among these RCS Panels and Milton Shupe, to mention only a very very few. I know I don't do justice to all the others I do not list up here, and that is why I am still waiting for someone to write a hearty Op-Ed to give sufficient credit to them, too. So, recently I was glad to see the public announcement that Milton was going to release just another project, the Aero Commander 680 Super series.

    At first, after some hours of using Milton Shupe's latest AC680S package, I only wanted to write a How To... article about a nagging issue which I detected in the VC version. However, once I dived into it I fell in love with these aircraft just the way I did some time ago when I came across Milton's stupefying DeHavilland Dash 7 version that I downloaded here from the FlightSim.Com file library. I had been waiting for a classic Dash 7 for more than two years, and as it had always been one of my favorite aircraft since the early times of FS4, I was pleased to read Andrew Herd's review shortly after the package was released in late September 2002.


    This is what you see when downloading the two packages from the FlightSim.Com file library. You needn't be a member to be able to do so, but controlled log-in is a must. It's absolutely worth it because the overall impression of what you get in these two packages is really stunning.

    1. First of all, installation is by hand but goes as easy as pie, and is absolutely flawless. For some users, however, it would be a big step forward if, as a surplus alternative, the package came with an auto install routine in the form of an .exe file. As for me, however, I prefer the way of installation as it is.

    2. The visual AC680S models come with a virtual cockpit and no-VC version, each offering three special liveries. The aircraft exteriors are a sight to behold as they show off lots of realistic details, and what is more, there is no blurriness in the textures. None, no matter from which angle and distance you look at the model. Virtual cockpits, rolling wheels, wear marks, opening doors and hatches, flexing struts, nicely animated props, flaps and pitch trim pads, touchdown wheel smoke, working landing lights and more, they are all simply amazing effects that add so much to the whole effect. For example, you will notice smear marks on wings and flaps when viewed from the top. A bit of paint peel is missing, though, which makes the visual models look somewhat too perfect. Also, some (more obvious) scratches and wear marks on the instrument panels would have been appreciated as well. But there are great reflections on the cockpit window panes which are definitely one of the best I have ever seen (see first screen shot on the top).

    "It's the photos that are eye-catchers, not the lines in the reviews", so I prefer to win you over by inserting lots of screen shots here instead of producing thousands of words. The shots are meant to give you a good idea of what you can expect from these models. All the details are mind-blowingly good. Obviously, realism is number one priority. This goes for the visual models as well as for the flight dynamics, the two great era-correct panels, and the sounds, and boy did they do a great job.

      
    What an easy-going feeling it is to shift them thru the air. The flight dynamics are so well done that the handling is absolutely fine: Both climb and sink rate characteristics seem to be perfectly right, as far as I can judge it.
      
    Detailed exterior and seemingly reflexive textures lend the models a superb finish. This goes for all three special paint schemes in the package. The "Ike" (on the left) carries the traditional Air Force 1 blue and white scheme of the first U.S. Presidential aircraft. Especially the highly polished aluminium finish of the "Pegasus" (on the right) was common among early Twin Commanders, as Milton Shupe points out in his public release announcement of the AC680 Supercharged Commander model.
      
    Looking closely at the wings, elevators, flaps, and the side of the fuselage you can see the wear and smear marks which add a lot to realism. To my mind, however, they could have been a bit more intensive, but the overall impression you get is absolutely fine. Note that the AC680 "Ike" on the right is standing still, but in spite of that you are able to pivot the nose wheel. You can't do that with all other aircraft, so it's well done here.

    A detail I almost overlooked: unlike many other planes, and first of all unlike all default FS2002 aircraft, it is now possible to pivot the nose wheel even while the plane is standing motionless on the apron. Wow! I wonder how they got this wheel work just the way it should. By the way, all the planes in the former AC560 series can do so, too. Now, if I was going to really nitpick, I'd like to say that the pilots' faces could and should be more realistic. I tend not to believe that improving their bodies and faces to some extent will affect frame rates too much. I think they will stay smooth enough even on somewhat slower systems such as mine (see system specs below). But call me a kook if you want, if my judgment is wrong here, then I am willing to give up some realism to keep frame rates higher up and backup the designers in doing so. Avoiding stuttering has always been top priority to me.

      
    The heads of the two gentlemen are still too square and angular, and in fact I have seen far better guys sitting in virtual cockpits than these (Phew, I hope I'm not insulting anyone now as some designers have the habit of perpetuating themselves in the cockpit of the aircraft they have created), but maybe this is too much nitpicking. Personally I consider that the night lighting of the "Pegasus" panel (on the right) is a bit on the dark side, but in spite of this I fully enjoyed the night scene which is still a sight to behold. Note that the angle of the nose wheel landing lights is narrower than in similar default aircraft, which also adds to realism.

    3. Flight dynamics turn out to be fine-tuned to a degree that, within the limitations of FS2002, appears to be truly awesome. From the very beginning I was sure that when airbound this plane gives me the right feeling of flying thru light air and that the handling is fine. Rudder, elevators, and ailerons may be a bit too sensitive, but I am almost quite certain that this is due to my Sidewinder stick. And to top it off, what pleases me most is the fact that the aircraft loses altitude reasonably fast when the engines are shifted to idle position (thank God it's not a perpetuum mobile). I have flown lots of third party aircraft in the past few years that stayed in the air almost endlessly even after completely shutting off the engines. Not so with these aircraft: you quickly get a sinking feeling if engine power is too low. Well done indeed. Taxiing is easy and precise as well.

    4. The package comes with two era-correct panels which pleasingly represent their real world counterparts. Some newly programmed gauges help create this good atmospheric impression while readability is excellent in 1024x768 res. A panel zoom for the primary flight instruments largely increases readabilty in lower resolutions (e.g. 800x600), which is an excellent idea and reveals sound and innovative panel management. You can find this feature in all of Milton's recent creations. And boy did it help me a lot, especially when flying at night because the night coloring of the panel is a bit on the dark side (I am sure that the gamma of my monitor is all right), but this is not a big deal and can easily be changed. If you want to know how, click here. Instead of the original values for NIGHT= I suggest filling in higher values. The night command should read: NIGHT=90, 45, 15 , which largely improves the overall readability.

    In the "Ike" panel the position of the OHP switches is difficult to define, even at daylight, as their color does not differ much from that of the background. Another slight problem is that the trim pitch indicator on the OHP lacks a fixed white marker line or point. This way I find it impossible to see if and how much the actual trim position may be offset from neutral. I don't think this should be too hard to fix, but it would be nice to see it done. If you want to have it fixed right now, click here.

    Apart from this, the panels are user and mouse friendly, as useable parts will yield a hand on your screen to manipulate the knobs or switches.


    The lower half of the mixed screen shot displays the "Pegasus" OHP panel where the position of the switches can be distinguished more easily than in the upper "Ike" OHP panel. This may not be a real drawback at daytime, but at night you have no chance of managing it.
      
    Both panels have a zoom feature that enlarges the size of the primary flight instruments, which is especially useful if you run flight simulator in lower resolutions such as 800x600. The "Pegasus" panel on the right shows the three conflicting gauges highlighted in the yellow box. The panel comes with its own era-correct radio stack which is a real treat. The cockpit zoom factor has been set to 0.80, which certainly does add to the feeling of realism.

    All this acute realism does not come without a few glitches, though. My major gripe is what I would call the throttle issue. Let's load the AC680S Ike VC or the AC680S Pegasus VC (both from the AC680SVC.ZIP package) models into FS2002 Pro. The trouble now is with the throttle sliders. If you are lucky to see the engines running right from the beginning (which isn't always the fact), both sliders move parallel up or down when hitting F3 or F2 in the usual way. However, once you have selected e.g. the left engine by pressing the E+1 keys, you cannot make the throttle sliders move at the same time again. From then on it's always the left slider that moves only. Trying to select both engines again by pressing E+1+2 has no effect at all. You can no more select engine 2 separately either from then on, and you will have to load another aircraft first and then reload the Commander aircraft to have both throttles working at the same time again. The bug has a terrible habit of doing this routine again whenever you select a single engine.

    The same problem occurs if we start the engines by the Ctrl+E routine. When both engines are running in idle position, we press F4 but only the left throttle slider moves to full. We have the same problem with the AC560 aircraft both in VC or w/o VC version. However, if we use the mouse to move the sliders, the problem does not exist.

    Personally, I do not have this problem with any other default or third party aircraft or with Milton's Dash 7 -- they all work flawlessly -- but I have heard of reports about such problems with some multi-engine aircraft. This is a really nagging problem as it renders emergency approaches with one engine shut off due to failure almost completely obsolete. Of course, I contacted Milton and asked him for advice, but unfortunately what he had to say did not sound promising indeed. He stated he was quite certain that it is a sync problem which causes this issue, and that it is related to using XML gauges. "The best way to get around it is to assign a hotkey in FSUIPC to the resync process. It works very well."

    Yes, it works, but the basic problem cannot be solved by this: you still can't deliberately select engine #2 as a single engine; it's always only engine #1 which can be addressed as long as the bug is active.

    I simply have no doubts that Milton and his crew know what they are doing, and if they say the issue cannot basically be solved at the time being, then it can't be solved. But I did not want to wait for FS2004 which might possibly solve the problem (or not), and so I decided to do some testing concerning the issue of the throttle sliders in the mean time. What I found out is that at least the problem can be traced back to some conflicting gauges. My basic idea was that if the "panel.ikenovc" and "panel.pegasusnovc" of the AC680SV1 package work perfectly fine without the above issue, it should be possible to find the culprit in the VC versions of the panels. Well, this is what I found out as a workaround:

    That's all there is to it. If I can do it, so can you. Make no mistake though, Milton may be absolutely right in what he says about the XML gauges. But if some of these XML gauges (see list above) do not work properly and even cause sync conflicts behind the scenes, then I strongly believe we had better do without them. The deactivated gauges are not desperately needed for full functionality (the radio stack is fully operationable all by itself by mouse clicks), so I think we do not lose much if we deactivate them until a better or final solution is found. Additionally, this throttle issue is a really nagging one, which makes me think that this is an acceptable workaround for now.

    The virtual cockpit of the "Ike" and "Pegasus" panels is certainly quite good, to say the least, although the quality of the VCs is still slightly poorer compared to their 2D counterparts, but I have to admit that our expectations may have risen too high in view of the rapid progress flight simulation has made even in recent months. As usual, the 3D cockpit view is especially breathtaking while in flight at lower altitudes or during approaches.

    A nice little feature that I have seen only with few other aircraft is that the pitch trim pads on the visual models are fully animated, and what is more, they move as they should. In the screenshot the white marker point of the trim pitch indicator is in its utmost upward position whereas the pitch trim pads are in a lowered position that will force the aircraft to raise its nose because the elevators are slightly deflected upwards by the increasing airflow as soon as the aircraft is gaining speed and gets airborne. In contrast to this the trim tab of the default C182S works in the wrong way because trimming the Cessna's nose-up, the trim tab on the trailing edge of the right elevator moves up, decreasing its lift and thereby causing the elevator to move down a little, which then results in lowering the nose of the Cessna instead of raising it.

    5. If it comes to the sound I believe that the custom sound package by Aaron R. Swindle does sound nice. But this is perhaps the weak point in my review: I cannot fully judge how realistic the sound is, but as we all know Aaron Swindle's high quality products in the past I daresay I truly trust in the correctness of this one too, saying that the in-flight-audio is dang near perfect.

    Again, if I was to find fault with something it would be that you do not clearly hear the rumbling while moving down the runway, after flaps are down, and after wheel touchdown, which normally is a real boost for us noise nuts. Touchdown noises are too low also. But this is my opinion only, and whether you object to this or not largely depends on your mind-set.

    However, when we balance such nitpicking out against the breadth of this package, these little quirks are certainly easy things to forgive. The overall impression is simply great!

      
    Frame rates are quite acceptable even with two cloud layers, rain, and almost full max detail and vis. Swapping out to spot plane view and panning your field of vision around does not cause any significantly critical drop of frame rates either. Quite enjoyable indeed. Needless to say where these two shots are taken: in the course of years the view of Meigs has almost become a nostalgic classical experience to most flight simmers around the world.

    6. Since the release of FS2000 I have always been worrying that a new aircraft or scenery add-on might dramatically affect frame rates. Wow, SHIFT-Z'ing is not really frightening on faster systems. On my P3 1 GHz with an old-fashioned nVidia Geforce 2 not even the VC version of the Gmax AC680 degrades frame rates below 12 fps, not to speak of the lucky 2.6 GHz'ers. On the average you can fly the AC680 Super VC version with straight ahead full cockpit frame rates on a P3 1000 of around 18 to 24, depending on which scenery areas you are flying in, with almost full max detail and vis. The resolution of your screen also matters, but the overall change in frame rates from 1024x768 to 1280x1024 is a whopping 3. Hmm, so why bother run in anything less? Enough on the frame rate topic right now.

    7. The packages come with some useful information which are contained in the folder documentation. It contains both common and technical data of the AC680S aircraft, but I won't enter into this here.

    System Specs
    • Intel PIII 1.0 Ghz
    • FSB 133 MHz
    • VIA chipset Apollo Pro 133A
    • 384 megs of SD-Ram PC-133
    • ASUS AGP-V7700 32MB (nVidia GeForce2 GTS) video card
    • Creative SB PCI 128 (WDM) onboard
    • DirectX v8.0a
    • WinME v4.90, Build 3000
    8. Final résumé: The packages are excellent. They are not 100% bug-free however. The few problems are small and easily ignored and despite them AC680S is so enjoyable. They have done a fine job that probably took more than 1000 hours of work, not to speak of the VC versions which must have cost more than 2000 hours of laboring efforts to get things right, to present a package as fantastic as it is. After the release of their fabulous Dash 7 little more than half a year ago Milton Shupe and his crew have done it again (Oh, I almost forgot to mention the award-winning AC560A(HC) package. Shame on me there!). Now, I simply love flying the AC560 and AC680 series aircraft and I have spent hours and hours doing so. It's great fun and as real as it gets. If you haven't downloaded these aircraft yet, go and get them. They are waiting for you to take full command of them and to enjoy your flights with them. And I bet you will.

    It almost goes without saying that there is also a valuable support site which you can check for any known issues so far.

    A BIG thanks to Milton Shupe, Scott Thomas, and André Folkers, and all the other guys in the background who helped pushing this project forward, and I'm still wondering how they manage to find enough time to keep up their good work. They really deserve credit because they have provided thousands and thousands of avid flightsimmers around the world, me included, some outstanding add-ons matched by only few others.

    This is definitely my last review or how to article on add-ons for FS2002 now that FS2004 has been released. And as they took me to hospital after the crash (see last picture), it'll take some time until I can hold a pen in my hands again, right? :-).

    Ulrich Klein
    huki.klein@t-online.de

    Download the AC680SVC (VC version)

    Download the AC680SV1 (No-VC version)