• Captain Sim's C-130 X-perience

    Captain Sim C-130 X-perience Pro Pack For FSX

    By Andrew Herd (16 March 2008)

    'Fat Albert' to the RAF, the 'Herky Bird' to everyone else, the C-130 is a plane without which certain pieces of history would have turned out quite differently. For all that Lockheed's Kelly Johnson thought it was ugly, the portly C-130 is a classic design and it has written its own story across virtually every theatre of conflict for five decades. There have been many fine moments, the best, perhaps, being the seige of Khe Sanh in 1968, when in the face of determined attacks by the Viet Cong, 6000 US Marines were kept supplied for ten weeks by C-130s, which had to make almost vertical approaches in order to get in without being shot down by intense AA fire. At one time there were fifteen squadrons of C-130s in Vietnam and the last plane to make it out of Saigon, was - guess what? - a Hercules with a reported 475 people on board.

    The origins of the C-130 lie in a 1950 USAF requirement for a plane that could shift thirty thousand pounds of payload nearly a thousand miles and land and take off from unprepared strip. At the time no aircraft existed that could be conceivably modified to fulfill the role and the specification left most designers scratching their heads, not least because of the two month deadline that was attached. The plane had to be able to carry 92 infantrymen or 64 paras two thousand miles for tactical missions, thirty thousand pounds of vehicles, had to be capable of being flown at 125 knots for paradrops, and to maintain performance over the DZ with one engine cut. Nonetheless, four proposals were put forward, the winner being the Burbank Model L-206, which took the radical step of being powered by four turboprops at a time when piston engines were the rule. Art Flock was in charge of the design team and his decision to choose four 3750 shp Allison T56-As to power the plane was something of a gamble, given that it increased the unit cost quite considerably and that there was virtually no track record of producing turboprop transports in the US at the time.

    Flock called all his shots right and many of the design features he built into the C-130 proved to be extremely far-sighted. The cargo hold is vast, nearly 42 feet long and approximately ten feet on a side, with an inward-opening top hatch that allowed air drops and a bottom ramp that was attached to a cargo floor set at truck floor height. Despite having many doors, the fuselage was pressurised to allow the Herc to bring back battle casualties at a safe height and it had a huge tail so that pilots could drag the plane in and kick it straight as they scraped over the threshold. Sure, the C-130 cost more than the competing bids, but it also did more, was ten thousand pounds lighter, much easier to service than any of the other designs and it bettered the specification in many areas.

    When you build a plane for fifty years, you are liable to end up with a few modifications being made and the C-130 has a wide range of models, beginning with the original C-130A. The B has more fuel and more powerful engines; the E even more fuel and the port side forward cargo door deleted; the H has derated engines, extended wing life and better brakes; the K was a special RAF variant; and the J was built for customers who had worn out older variants. Within these major variants, there are many others, including the AC-130 gunship, tankers, the NC-130 airborne early warning ship and versions on skis and even floats - not forgetting civilian hull types, which are operated by the US coastguard among others.

    The Captain Sim C-130 was originally developed for FS2002, the first mature release being for FS2004, which we reviewed almost exactly two years ago, as a boxed Just Flight product which contained the E, H and K versions and no less than 52 liveries. I use the word 'mature' advisedly, because the C-130 addon had a slightly shaky beginning and it took some time for Captain Sim to get it completely right, but there is no doubt that once they had all the bugs out, it made a terrific addon. Now the developers have released the C-130 for FSX, so let's take a look.

    If you check out the C-130 list in the FSX aircraft section of the Pilot Shop, you will find four different packs available (or there were at the time of writing) and all of them can be got as instant downloads. The first is the 'base pack' which brings you seven C-130E liveries; then there is 'extra pack 1' which has a mix, mainly of Js and Ks, with a float version thrown in and a total of nine liveries; then there is 'extra pack 2', which adds a stretched J, various Hs and an AC-130 among other goodies and yet another nine liveries; and finally, you can save a few dollars and buy the Pro pack, which has all the planes and is one of the most expensive FS addons you are likely to buy. But you want it, believe me.

    The FSX version isn't just a port of the FS2004 C-130 and if you go for the Pro, it contains nine new models, an updated visual model, corrected and improved textures, better lightmaps and lighting, improved systems, a better flight model, more sounds and a new aircraft configuration editor. Download sizes vary, but the Pro pack is 110 megs. System requirements are given as a 1.5 GHz processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 64 MB DirectX 9 video card, 500 Mb of free disk space, Windows XP SP2 or Vista, FSX or FSX Acceleration and Internet access, which is vital, because otherwise you won't be able to install the product.

    I shall now fall over howling with laughter on my office floor for several seconds.

    OK, I feel better now. Don't even think of trying to run this addon on a 1.5 Ghz processor. I have seen some hopeful system specs, but that one, which I gleaned from the Captain Sim website, is looking for some kind of miracle to occur, unless you actually enjoy watching slideshows. I would suggest, politely, that you should not bother trying to run vanilla FSX on much less than a 3.0 Ghz processor with at least a gig of RAM and a 256 Mb video card and that if you want to run the C-130 on FSX and be able to appreciate it, rather than tear you hair out, you go for a couple of gigs of RAM and a 512 Mb video card and the fastest processor you can lay your hands on. I did the review on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM, a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX video card, Window Vista and FSX SP2 and was surprised by how good the frame rates were with the addon loaded, but all the same, they never really made it out of the low twenties until I was well away from the ground and if I had run more than a token amount of Autogen, FSX would have frozen to a halt. However, the good news is that on a system at least as good as the one I used, the C-130 works and it returns better frame rates in VC mode than many addons do in 2D panel mode - which shows that Captain Sim have really put some work into the code where it counts. Kudos to them.

    The one potential problem with the installation is that you need Internet access to register the product. In the face of rampant piracy Captain Sim have experimented with all kinds of copy protection, including one that was so secure that I was unable to review their 757 addon because it wouldn't install on Vista, but in the case of the C-130, registration was painless and the app installed without any problems at all - although I should point out that I had User Access Control disabled. Do note that when you run the C-130 for the first time under Vista, the OS will query the safety of what feels like at least a dozen .gau files that the product needs to load in order to display the panel - say yes to all of these.

    Checking out the Start Menu, I found a new Captain Sim program group, with a link to the Aircraft Configuration Editor (ACE), an uninstall menu and the Captain Sim website, from where you will need to download the manuals. Yip, for some bizarre reason, the manuals are not packaged with the sim, but they aren't hard to find and are a fast download. There are four, starting with a 49 page User's Manual, which explains how to use the ACE, how the C-130 variants differ from each other and how to do stuff like opening the doors. The second manual runs to 123 pages and covers the functions of all the panels, gauges and systems; the third 'Normal Procedures' is the checklists; and the last has 21 pages of flight and performance data - this is the place to go if you like graphs.

    Okaaay. After a lot of experimentation, I have discovered that the best way to load FSX on my system is to start the sim, load one of the default planes at a default airport - and only then to load an addon plane. If I do this, nine times out of ten I avoid FSX hanging. The reliability of my setup has deteriorated somewhat after installing Acceleration, which appears to have fixed some problems at the expense of creating others, but the C-130 ran like a lady and I didn't get any of the unexpected crashes that I have learned to live with.

    The ACE is a utility that allows you to do everything from applying new paint schemes to loading the plane and setting up the panel - when I checked there were already more than thirty liveries available for FSX on the Captain Sim website. This process works extremely well, as long as you follow the instructions in the manual and remember to save the plane using the 'preflight' section of ACE - the 'aircraft' section of the same tab lets you toggle engine smoke/start effects on and off and ajust the level of the specular highlights. Using the 'cockpit' section of ACE you can setup each livery to load with you sitting in either seat; with 'steam' gauges, or the more modern EICAS; run with the VC off to save frames; to select any one of three different interior lighting colors; and to toggle glass reflections on or off. The last section of the aircraft tab lets you fool around with the payload to your heart's content - it is possible to load tanks, guns, Hummers, containers, paratroops, ground troops, or casualties (although these don't actually appear in the virtual hold). If you excess gross, the takeoff weight flashes on and off at you, so in theory you can't go wrong.

    If Captain Sim say they have improved the visual model in the FSX version, I am sure they must have done so, but the original was so good that it is hard to think of anything that might have needed fixing. All the variants look imposing and convey not only the size, but the potent feel of the plane extraordinarily well - for some reason some Flight Simulator heavies don't look 'big', but the C-130 has the ominous squat of the real thing. The liveries are top notch and all the textures are crisp without any problems with blurring. Animations simply abound, which is one reason why I can't quite believe the frame rates I get (the other is that the sim has a virtual interior, which is normally a sure-fire way to reduce FSX to a crawl). Forget using the keyboard, the best way to open the doors on the Herc is to use one of the many pop-up panels, which allows you to open all the doors, the pilots' windows, the cargo ramp, deploy a ground vehicle, turn on the wipers, lower the landing lights, open the oil cooler flaps, hinge up the radome and attach a GPU. On top of that, all the control surfaces move, the gear flexes and the cat pukes if you pull too much G in the turns.

    I flew the C-130 most of the time using the virtual cockpit (VC), although I did use the 2D panel enough to make sure it worked. In 2D mode, you can fly the plane from either seat and occupy the navigator's panel, look at two different overhead panels and fool around with more than a dozen other pop-ups. The pop-ups include a radar control panel and the radar itself, the radios, throttle quadrant, co-pilot aux panel, ramp and door panel, autopilot, notes clip, flaps, SSF/IFF panel, control wheel, a simicon panel (which is a convenient way of accessing all the others), an animation control panel, and the VC engine instruments panel.The main panels are sized at 1600 x 1200, which means that they look fantastic at just about any resolution you might care to try. Just in case you are wondering, the pair of shots immediately above show 2D panels, the panel shots that precede them being of the VC. One potential gotcha here is that in order to ensure that the systems initialize properly, it is essential to cycle through the 2D panel view, then the VC and finally external spot view.

    It doesn't matter which panel type you use, both are outstanding examples of FS development and it is easy to forget that you aren't in a real plane when you are using them. I have reviewed at least 300 addons over my time with Flightsim.com and I haven't seen anything better than this. The C-130 cockpit is kind of interesting, because the versions in the pack all come from the period before glass became the rule and so they are equipped with the most fantastic selection of late analog gauges, ranging from an attitude direction indicator (ADI) to a horizontal situation indicator (HSI), together with an RMI and a radar altimeter - basically, if you can fly the King Air, you can fly this.

    Where the C-130 differs from the King Air is in all the additional systems, the controls for the majority of which are concentrated on the overhead. As you will have gathered, this is split into two panels, the 'lower' overhead, which has the fuel and engine start controls on it, among other things, and the 'upper' overhead, which houses the controls for the electrics, the lights and the air conditioning and pressurization. The pair of screenshots below show the 2D lower overhead panel on the left and virtually the entire VC overhead on the right. One panel that you won't find on a production Hercules is the animation control panel, which can be used to do anything from opening the radome and all the doors to showing a flag and sticking chocks under the wheels. Most of this is pure eye-candy, but it is good eye-candy.

    There is no doubt that the C-130 X-perience is one of the most complex simulations around, but inexperienced simmers needn't worry, because the addon lets you load it on the threshold, firewall the throttles and head for the clouds without having to bother about much more than the flaps and the gear. You wouldn't get away with this in a real plane, but of course, this isn't a real plane and although the developers have simulated the systems that matter in considerable depth, they haven't left us with an addon that requires forty hours of night school to operate. If you want to do things by the book, the manuals await and, based as they are on real C-130 documents, they go into tremendous depth about how to get everything to work as it should - if you want to know about the fuel enrichment switches and how to operate the bleed valves, just turn to page 31 and you can read all about them. There are five whole pages on the fuel management system alone, but suffice it to say that this simulation will disappoint no-one and there are many happy hours to be spent figuring out how to start the C-130 from cold and dark, or how to air start an engine; the icing on the cake being that because this is a military plane, everything works differently to the way most big iron simmers would expect.

    One of the smarter items on the panel is the radar, which features a traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS) and can be toggled between 2.5 nm and 15 nm ranges, but my favorite is the autopilot, which appears to have been designed by someone who really missed the idea of thermionic valves and decided that he would take it out on aircrew instead. Being a proper autopilot, there isn't an autothrottle and if you set IAS hold, the unit controls the speed by adjusting the aircraft's pitch. Yep, they really do work like that and the main use of IAS hold is to maintain a given airspeed during climb or descent, given that the unit cannot maintain altitude and speed simultaneously. I know it sounds wacky, but that is why they retire military pilots as soon as they can grow a proper beard - they get worn out otherwise. You will be cheered to hear that the autopilot does have approach hold, nav and even GPS mode, so it does have a place; just don't forget that to use it, you need to attend to the Flight Director, or the plane won't have the faintest idea that the AP is trying to control it.

    The flight model wasn't the best thing about the first incarnation of the C-130 I saw, in fact, it was so bad I decided that the politest thing to do was not to review it, but since them a great deal of work put has clearly been put into the code and the best way of describing the way the addon flies is to say that it feels absolutely real. It is difficult to make large planes look big in Flight Simulator, but it is a damned sight harder making them 'fly big' and Captain Sim have gotten this one just right. The Herc is ponderous without being numb, it can fly a Khe Sanh approach (top right screenshot) with aplomb and if you know what you are doing, you can squeeze it into improbably small strips, just like the real thing. From the moment the engines fart black smoke as they kick into life, to the second that big wing suddenly transforms you from an accident waiting to happen into a flying machine reaching for the sky, this one is pure joy and I can honestly say, I haven't enjoyed flying many addons this much - ever. And the sound set is just great.

    Verdict? Captain Sim have transformed what was once a sow's ear into a silk purse. As a developer Captain Sim went through something of a thin patch a few years back and I thought they were going to struggle to make the transition to FSX, but the C-130 X-perience rekindles my faith in them. This is one of the best FS addons of any description that I have ever had the privilege to review and I would go so far as to say that I doubt anyone will better it as far as military sims go - the Herc just is pure pleasure and as if that wasn't enough, it runs much faster than I would expect on FSX. The Pro pack gives you a phenomenal selection of planes and liveries and with ACE you can just keep on adding them as fast as the repainters supply 'em. A tour de force. Yeeeeeeeeeeeee haaa!

    Andrew Herd
    andy@flightsim.com

    Learn More Here (Base Pack)
    Learn More Here (Extra Pack I)
    Learn More Here (Extra Pack II)
    Learn More Here (Pro Pack)