FlightOne Cessna 421C
By Andrew Herd (7 June 2002)
ay back in the dim mists of simulated time, somewhere around the end of last year, I speculated that FS2002 might kick start a renaissance in general aviation among simmers. Now I am resigned to seeing my predictions disproved almost before the hypertext markup language is dry on the page, but on this occasion, I'm sticking up for myself, because I reckon I wasn't far short of the mark. On top of that, it seems to be the season for twins: developers are still trying to take in the remarkable success of the FSD C400, which looks set to become one of the fastest selling GA add-ons of all time and now, hot on its heels, we have a superb Cessna 421 "Golden Eagle" from FlightOne. If you liked the C400, you are gonna lurv this one, because here is a sim for people who like a different kind of challenge.
The Cessna 421 is an interesting airplane. Designed in the late sixties for a US market where avgas was virtually given away, it was based on the well established 400 series. The market Cessna was aiming at were operators who wanted the best possible performance without having to dig as deeply into their pockets as a turboprop would require. So the designers stretched the 400's fuselage and then went looking for a pair of engines to bolt on the wings. That was when they ran into their first problem - because the 421 was effectively trying to square a circle which the turboprop engine had been designed to solve. Their solution was to shoehorn in a couple of turbocharged Continental GTSIO-520-Ls, paired with specialised gearboxes and whacking out no less that 375 hp a side. The trouble was, and is, that running lightweight engines at that kind of output was only just within the limits of what is technically possible and it results in a time between overhauls (TBO) of only 1600 hours, and that only if you read the engines a bedtime story every night and otherwise take exceptional care of them. Initially the TBO was a seriously scary 1200 hours, which, coupled with the fact that overhauls cost over $40,000, meant that you needed to do your sums carefully before taking on one of these beasts. You still do.
The reason the Continentals went in was that their phenomenal power output, coupled with those hi-tech boxes, means the seven foot six inch diameter props can be spun at only 1900 rpm in cruise, which makes for a quiet cabin by anyone's standards. You can sit eight people in back and they can hold a meeting without even having to raise their voices, though at that kind of occupancy, you would definitely need a reduced fuel load. But despite the engine issues, you can see why these planes remain popular, because they have a payload of nearly 3000 pounds, climb at 1900 fpm at sea level, cruise at 240 kias and have a ceiling of 30,200 feet. Range varies from 1000 to 1500 nm, depending on power settings and reserves, and cruise is generally at 1750 rpm, 32 inches and 1500 on EGT (takeoff is 2250/39/full). Fix yourself up with one of these and you can go high and fly far.
There are a few tricks to flying a 421 in real life; all of which revolve around not having to pay for a new pair of engines before it is absolutely necessary to do so. The first, and most important of them all is that you need to plan descents carefully. The one thing you must not do is chop the throttles and idle all the way down, as this shock-cools the engines - so you need to start bringing the manifold pressures back at around an inch a minute from the moment you begin the transition from the airway until you hit 1800 rpm, 23 inches and an EGT of 1400 degrees on the approach.
In effect you have to fly the Golden Eagle almost like a jet, making a 200 kias descent, only slowing to 176 knots on approach (first stage of flaps and gear down), dropping the second stage at 146 knots and then concentrating on keeping the speed at around the 130 knots mark until the runway is in sight. The threshold should be crossed at 100 knots and flare is at 85 kias - bearing in mind that stall with gear and flaps down occurs at 77 knots. This all sounds easier than it really is - just try flying an approach like this, while you juggle the engine parameters. I guess it won't surprise you at all to learn that many 421 owners have their planes flown by professional pilots. The engine management issues alone put them beyond the competence of most PPLs.
So - onto the package. The download is 18 Mb and after you have negotiated the usual Flight1 key verification, the install allows you to chose a refresh rate for the gauges, before it creates a program group featuring an html manual. In a default installation you get three liveries, but since Text-o-Matic is included, the possibilities are theoretically endless and I would expect to see many more; this is going to be a popular sim. I found the installation to be trouble free and the package can be removed using Windows "Add/Remove Software" option, not that you are likely to be exercising it.
The visual model is by Roger Dial and the moment I loaded it I knew that without any shadow of a doubt, I was looking at the best GMax twin I had ever seen. Actually, I will go further than that, I think it is the best GMax plane I have seen, beating even Captain Simulations' MiG-21. This says something for Roger's design skills, because as the trickle of early GMax designs swells to a flood, it has become clear that a lot of perfectly competent developers are having trouble getting their heads around the new design tool. But get to grips with it they must, because like it or not, GMax is here to stay. I have seen some creative excuses over the last few months about why visuals don't look like the real thing, but having seen the 421, I ain't listening any more, because this package makes it crystal clear that a really good developer, given enough time, can capture every curve, bump and grind of an airframe, even on a sophisticated hull like a 421.
Look closely enough at those engine cowlings and you will see what I mean - get an eyeful of those louvres, and the detail on the gear. Drop the split flaps and you can see just how far the team has been prepared to go, because Roger has modelled the trailing edge of the ribs where the lowered flaps make them visible; there must be hundreds of hours of work in there. This mother is so good I spent about twice as long as I normally would checking it over, and I couldn't fault it - even the gear compression is right and the way the landing lights unfold and track when you hit the slash key is something else. Looking this sim over only serves to reinforce in my mind the hard fact that if we were prepared to pay more, we could have really good FS sims, rather than the anodyne pap that all too often gets pushed as the real thing. The 421 is about as close, from a pilot's point of view, to reality as you can get, and the fact that to do so it has to break the mould of what is conventionally accepted as the convention for FS add-ons is kind of interesting to say the least. Maybe we are seeing something new happening here.
The flight model is one of the best Steve Small has ever done. Again, I get the impression here that the reason it is good (apart from Steve's enormous experience and natural talent for this kind of thing) is that the developer has had the courage to back off and give him time to get everything right. The relatively short FS product cycle means that far too many projects end up being rushed through, with the flight model tacked on as a low priority extra right at the end. And yet, the flight model has to be the heart of any simulation, far more important than any amount of eye candy - because if a plane doesn't fly right, it ain't right. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good a panel looks, or how well the animation is done, because the reason we all got into FS was to fly planes (right?) and a visually perfect Piper Warrior that flies like a Cessna 172 shouldn't cut it - yet a while back we saw one of the trailing edge developers get away with doing exactly that, and with a pirated .air file as well.
Steve's FSD C-400 file remains the best turboprop air file I have seen, but his 421 dynamics are the most realistic conventional twin I have seen, without question. No doubt part of the reason for this is that Jim Rhoads, who project managed the package, has more hours in a 421 than I would care to say, and from the way the sim flies, it is clear that he has had a lot of input into the model. Not only does it lack any of the vices that FS air files often seem to inherit (the ubiquitous rolling out of turns, "pop-off" take offs, nose wheels that crash down a second after you land, too much inertia, too little inertia, pitching the wrong way when you drop the flaps, I could go on...) but it is right there on the numbers. So enjoy; and incidentally, do not worry about slowing down. The 421 was built in the days when planes were built to be operated by real men, so you can stick the gear in the wind at 176 kias and if that doesn't work, you can crank out the first stage of flap at the same time.
The 2D panel bitmaps are incredibly sharp and offers a wealth of features that aren't immediately apparent when you first load the plane, so I would advise reading the manual carefully after you have gotten over the excitement of the first couple of circuits. In keeping with the "real aviation" theme of the 421, the 2D panel function and coding are very advanced and the whole thing is rock solid - it is normal to find bugs in version 1.00 releases, but though I did my best I couldn't find any in this one. The design was done in collaboration with Tom Main and Roger Dial - who have brought some excellent ideas along with them.
The most interesting thing about this panel is that it stands far enough away from what has become accepted as the high end FS "look" that I know some users are going to raise their eyebrows. Don't be one of them. Appearances can be deceptive; what we have here is a flying panel, not a buying panel. In an attempt to present instruments which are as large as possible, FS panels have started to rear up so high on the screen that they blot out the sun. Bucking convention, this package goes against the trend and shows the gauges as they appear in life, which means that they look slightly small by comparison with what simmers have come to accept as the norm - and there is a "landing view" panel included as well. The last package I can remember trying this "pilot's view" approach was Ralph Tofflemire's Boeing 747, a few years back. I don't seem to remember sales of that being too bad either.
The engine instruments are the key to flying the 421 and the overriding philosophy of the sim's panel is to present the gauges in a way that makes them as real and as easy to use as possible. See the arrow to the right of them? If you click it, a further set of instruments appear, chief among which are the exhaust gas and cylinder temp gauges, which if you haven't skipped through to here, you will realise are a vital part of the 421's engine management. The primary flight and engine instruments can be zoomed for closer monitoring and I found myself using the feature more and more as I became used to the operating procedures - once you find the hot spots you can pop them up and zap 'em back with two clicks.
Nav-wise, the 421 is very well kitted out; airways equipped, as it happens. In addition to an HSI and a VOR2 indicator, there is a simulation of a box which bears an uncanny likeness to a Garmin GNS 530, a G340 audio panel, an S-TEC System 55 two axis autopilot and a GTX 327 transponder. Below the 530 there is a (non-functional) GNS 430, and there is also a bitmap for a weather radar - the reason it doesn't operate being that FS2002 doesn't support radar functions. Clicking on the stacks pops up enlarged versions and if you haven't used these top end devices before, you are in for a treat.
The 530 may only be a partial implementation of the original, but given that a real one costs near enough $10,000, that isn't entirely unexpected - the nearest I have ever got to a proper one is gloating over photos in the catalogs, so it was fun working out how it worked. But while these boxes are most definitely fun to have, they aren't really what this sim is about, though I daresay that won't stop them being extremely popular. The real GNS 530 provides not only point to point navigation from take-off to touchdown, but also a huge range of other functions, varying from a worldwide nav database, through airport data (you can look up frequencies in flight), a moving map, approach procedures, airspace warnings, you name it. So far it doesn't make coffee, but give them time. On the real instrument, you can save up to twenty flight plans, each with up to thirty one waypoints - on the version of the GNS 530 that I tested in the 421, the FPL key was inactive, though the GNS did offer a "direct to" navaid mode. While it was kind of frustrating only being able to use the instrument to hop from one waypoint to the next, I find it hard to imagine that we won't be seeing more of this baby in other FlightOne packages, and the TCAS sure is fun to play around with.
Flying the 421 on autopilot isn't for the faint hearted, but it conveys very well what real pilots have to cope with. First off, you have to turn the autopilot on, using the switch hidden in the group bottom left on the main panel; then you pop up the S-Tec selector, hit the DTA key with ALT selected and dial up whatever flight level you require. Next step is to select your heading, either by using the bug on the HSI, or by using the GNS 530 "direct to function"; and finally you hit HDG and ALT in the System 55 panel to make it all work.
The virtual cockpit (VC) is very neat. Near enough everything works and a look down to the left of the pilot's seat should be enough to convince you why the 421 isn't in the low hours GA ballpark. There is enough switchgear down there to keep a couple of flight engineers happy, never mind a pilot. Although the yokes and levers are animated, you don't get moving pedals, but then again, you can only spend so much time on this type of navel gazing. Swing around and you can take a trip into the virtual cabin and even take a look out the windows, but I would recommend switching the autopilot in before you do this.
Mike Hambly's sound set certainly does it for me, Cessna was careful to keep the levels down in the cabin, bearing in mind the kind of market they were pitching at; so don't expect to have your ears blown off or anything. But it is the most incredibly resonant set I think I have heard in a while and probably one of the most distinctive too.
Conclusions? All in all, this is the best balanced FS add-on I have ever seen - every part of it is developed to the highest standard, which makes for a truly great package. In my experience this is a rare thing in flight simulation, because it is rarely possible to assemble a team with such well matched abilities as Flight1 have clearly managed to do. In the process they have put together a challenging product - this is a sim that walks alone, not only in terms of the quality of the visual and flight models, but also in terms of the philosophy and functionality of the panel. Sure, you could buy it and then go blasting around the skies with the throttles on any old setting and a goofy smile on your face, but to do that would be to miss the point - used properly, the 421 could represent the watershed between playing around with Flight Simulator, and playing around with reality.Andrew Herd
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