Aerosoft PMDG Boeing 737-800/900
By Andrew Herd (18 December 2005)
hen the original 737-100 was announced in 1965, no-one, even Boeing, can have imagined that not only would it still be in production 40 years later, or that it would become the best selling passenger airliner of all time. The original -100 series was conceived as a small capacity short range aircraft with a seating capacity of a hundred, so it must be with some bemusement that long serving employees at Seattle find themselves building 737 hulls with nearly double the capacity.
The -800 and -900 series are part of what Boeing call the 'Next Generation' of the 737, NG improvements including CFM56-7B turbofans, a vastly improved wing, extra tail surface area and a 777-style glass cockpit. Externally, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two versions is the length - both hulls are derived from the -400, the -800 being 9 foot 9 inches longer and the -900 another 8 foot 8 inches on top of that. The other giveaway is the winglets with which some -800s are fitted.
The Aerosoft 737-800/900 comes in a fat DVD-style case containing two printed manuals in addition to the installation CD. Hardware requirements are given as a 1.4 Ghz Pentium with 256 Mb of RAM, a 32 Mb graphics card, 340 Mb of hard disk space and Windows XP - possibly a little optimistic on the processor side, as I wouldn't recommend running an addon of this sort of complexity on much less than a 2.0 Ghz Pentium, unless you plan to fly in clear skies all the time and don't intend doing any approaches to complex airports. Installation was relatively straightforward, inserting the disk in the drive bringing up a neat interface which allows you to install the 800/900, select which liveries you wish to add from the 22 supplied on the disk and to install a patch, this latter option being only for users who already have the PMDG 737 600/700 installed. According to the installation notes, you get a copy of FSUIPC 3.40, and a SID/STAR database and navdata from the 04-11 cycle. On my installation, at least, the version of FSUIPC on the CD didn't overwrite the newer version on my disk, which was great, but do check this if you install the addon on your own system as overwriting of this crucial addon with older versions has led me some merry dances in the past..
The installation creates a program group on the start menu with links to a clutch of PDFs, ten in all, covering everything from where the cockpit click spots can be found to the fine detail of the flight procedures. Before you get this far, check out the the printed manuals, the first of which covers the operation of the sim, while the other describes the FMC, running to a total of 79 pages - these documents are also available as PDFs. The standard of the documentation is excellent, although for some reason Fred Clausen's excellent flight tutorial isn't in there, this being freely available from the PMDG website 800/900 documentation page.
Starting up Flight Simulator reveals a new PMDG menu, with three options, 'styles', 'general' and 'about'. The menu is only operational with the 737 loaded and selecting 'styles' brings up a new dialog, with further options. Top of the list is 'airline selection' which allows you to load a range of preformatted panel setups, mirroring the choices Boeing offer to different airlines. As if this wasn't enough, further options allow you to change between different styles of primary flight display and navigational display - and each of these can be customized further, adding such gizmos as a 'rising runway' indicator, a ground speed display and even an angle of attack indicator, all of which no doubt cost tens of thousands of dollars in real life. Further options allow you to change the workings of the automatic flight director, including adding a VNAV altitude hold function as favored by some operators, and also a 'follow heading select' mode, which will come in handy if you are a fan of missed approaches featuring sharp turns to avoid rising terrain. Someone must have been thinking of me, because among the many other options available is a sounds page which allows you to reduce the volume of many of the internal cockpit effects and there are also options for adjusting such things as the VC gauge refresh rate.
A full installation will give you 23 liveries, including American, Britannia, Continental, Delta, Hapag Lloyd. KLM, Malev, Ryanair, Star Alliance, Transavia, Air Berlin, Air Europa, Lauda, Qantas, South African, Turkish, Virgin, Alaskan, Boeing Dreamliner, PMDG and Jet Airways India. The reason for the mismatch between the total and the number of liveries listed is that there is some duplication of airlines between the -800 and -900 series liveries. But there is plenty of choice and in the unlikely event that you fancy a change, many, many more are available as free downloads from the PMDG website. As is usual for PMDG products, these are self-installing, so once you have got the file on your hard disk, all that is left to do is double-click it.
The aircraft are found under the Boeing-PMDG header in the select plane dialog and you have the option of loading models with either a 2D cockpit only; with both a 2D cockpit and a virtual cockpit (VC); and with both types of cockpit and a virtual cabin. The reasoning behind this is that it allows you to find the most frame rate friendly version of the addon, the 2D only model being the least likely to challenge a PC with a marginal spec for running the 737. One difference you will notice from the default planes is the appearance of a dialog announcing the loading of the PMDG AIRAC cycle before the 737 itself loads - PMDG update the SID/STAR procedures monthly and the latest version can be got from their downloads page. Do note that installing a SID/STAR database with a different version number to the AIRAC navdata cycle can cause 'runway not found' errors, the cure being to download and install matching AIRAC and SID/STAR cycles, the bad news being that the free DAFIF database from which all this navdata is derived is about to be withdrawn for security reasons (its main user being the US military).
The visual models are excellent, as we have come to expect from PMDG, with very finely detailed and believable planes, featuring some of the best texturing in the business. The landing gear in particular is a sight to see and the gear retraction sequence pays watching once or twice, but the developers haven't gone overboard on making things open and shut, so for example, only one of the cabin doors operates. While it is always entertaining trying out all the shift-E combinations on review addons, the only time I ever open any doors is for the purpose of taking screenshots and I can't say I missed having more than one to try out, as the penalty for having lots of moving eye candy has to be paid in frame rates.
Since we find ourselves on the subject, the 737 is about average for addons in its class in terms of the frame rate hit it makes. Giving absolute frame rate figures is pretty meaningless, given that they alter depending on how much cloud and AI traffic is around and are significantly affected by addon airports, I have taken to doing relative readings, which can at least be used to as a rule of thumb to work out how things will pan out on different systems. Standing at the threshold of the recently released UK2000 Newcastle (EGNV) with MyTraffic running 100% AI and the fair weather theme loaded, the default 737 gives me around 37 fps. The 2D panel only Aerosoft 737 gives me 83% of that, which is not bad at all, the VC version gives me around 73% and the VC and cabin version about 60%.
Turning to the interior, PMDG are fully paid up members of the 'artwork panel' school, so no photorealism here, although that doesn't imply any criticism, as what we get is a very believable representation of a 737 NG cockpit. As you can see, in addition to a choice between two instrument families, we get some very atmospheric panel floodlighting and there isn't the slightest hint of jagginess caused by photo image processing. Just above the extreme left hand glass display is an icon bar that lets you open additional panel views, including one with zoomed main gauges, approach and landing views, flight management computer (FMC), overhead panel, throttles, radios and a clock. More thought than usual has been devoted to where these open and as a result the icon bar is always on view, allowing you to switch between panels with a single click - I wish every developer did things this way.
The left hand screenshot shows the Primary Flight Display/Navigation Display (PFD/ND) layout, while the right hand one shows the Electronic Flight Instrumentation System/Map (EFIS/Map) setup. You might wonder what the advantage of the latter is, but it does allow the use of familiar analog gauge representations coupled to modern flight management electronics and I can see it would be an advantage where pilots had to fly in mixed fleets. The other glass panel is the EICAS (Engine Indication and Crew Advisory System), which can be configured no less than three different ways - side by side, over and under and compact mode. However they are configured, all these gauges are capable of just about every mode the originals can display - and you will need every bit of information they have to give you, as this is a complex simulation that can leave you behind in a snap.
Scanning around the panels, the vast majority of the switches and buttons work with the exception of the main panel display unit rotaries and a few other unimportant items. All the legends are crisp, so you shouldn't have any problems finding out what everything does, it being possible to take the plane all the way from a cold and dark cockpit through an engine start should you have the time and the inclination.
The FMC is an extremely good example of its kind, no doubt due to the experience the developers gained with their 600/700 series 737. For once, all the pages work, so once you have the computer initialized and a route loaded, you can while away the hours in the virtual airways by plotting fixes and wondering what the N1 limit data means. You can enter place/bearing/distance and lat/lon waypoints and holds are implemented with the few I tried working tolerably well. I was entertained to see that intercept courses are also possible, although just about the only time you are likely to be asked to fly one of these is if you use online ATC and encounter a particularly sadistic controller - although they are requested reasonably often in real life. So next time you are asked to fly 330 until you intercept the 360 radial of some VOR out in the boonies, you will be able to comply with a couple of mouse clicks. One neat improvement on the real unit is that you can enter the aircraft weights simply by clicking on the relevant Line Select Keys (LSKs), a feature which saves the embarrassment of discovering you have entered a wrong value when Vr is long gone and the plane is still hugging the ground. One thing you cannot do is to load an FS2004 flight plan, but since the FMC uses AIRAC nav data which differs from the FS2004 database this is probably just as well. The only remaining major subpanel, apart from the throttles, is the radios, which are very nicely presented although the frequency numerals are darned small, even on a 20 inch monitor. Needless to say, there is a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TACS) and when you can't find where to turn it on, the switches lie just above the transponder.
I could go on and on about the avionics, but suffice it to say that they all work extremely well together. I test flew the addon on several flights between Newcastle and Gatwick (EGNT and EGKK) and had no problems whatsoever, which isn't surprising, because this package is very popular and has been extensively debugged and field tested. In common with all aircraft fitted with this type of avionics, once you have a route programmed into the FMC, you can throw away the yoke and fly the 737 from the Mode Control Panel (MCP), which is the generic term for all the dials and switches in top center of the panel under the windshield pillar. Once the flight direction system is engaged all the modes become functional - in testing the system didn't show any faults and flew all the plans I threw at it without complaint; not even so much as committing a speed infringement. Autolands are possible using a single Nav radio as long as the correct inbound course is selected, but in real life both Nav radios are tuned to the ILS frequency and the second (CMD B) autopilot engaged - you can do this in the 737 should you wish and it will even warn you if there is a frequency mismatch between the radios, so top marks to the developers.
The VC is a thing of great beauty and there is no reason why you shouldn't fly the plane in this mode the entire time as everything that I tried seems to work exactly as it does in the 2D panel. Using TrackIR, I was intrigued to discover that the VC overhead is far easier to use than it is using a hat switch, as you naturally crane your neck to get a better view and - of course - TrackIR follows the movement. As you can see, the only real problem with the VC is that the knobs and dials have a slightly 2D appearance, but the graphic is very good otherwise and it worked without any problems.
How does the 737 fly? Wrong, the 737 800/900 has a perfectly benign stall; you have a streak of badness in you a mile wide. The flight model is about as representative of the handling of a plane of this class as you could hope to get, without any of the common problems you see in 'heavier' FS aircraft, such as an exaggerated tendency to skid in turns. On the whole, the 737 stayed where it was pointed and flew as predictibly as I gather the real ones do, so another mark to the developers.
The sound set is fine, with the exception of incredibly noisy cockpit click sounds. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, you can reduce the volume of these using the PMDG menu on the FS menu bar, but I wish developers would get out of the habit of ramping these noises up to such ear splitting levels. Real airplane switches make no sound worth mentioning and I cannot for the life of me imagine why programmers persist in attaching such loud sound effects to them - and, for good measure, the spoiler noise is over the top too, but at least you won't be able to forget you extended them (-:
Verdict. Very good, I am not surprised that Aerosoft went ahead and boxed this product, because they deserve to shift it in large volumes. There are a number of other 737s available from developers such as Ariane and Wilco, in a sector dominated by the shade of the magisterial DreamFleet 737, which was not developed further than an FS2002 version, but the PMDG plane is a solid piece of code that brought me a great deal of enjoyment, hence the Armchair Aviator Award. Aerosoft have done a good job with the packaging and the presentation and all in all, you would have to look a long way to get better value for money. Lets hope Aerosoft put PMDG's 747 in a box too.Andrew Herd