• Flight1 Cessna 172 Skyhawk

    Flight1 Cessna 172 For FSX

    By Andrew Herd (27 October 2007)

    The last time I reviewed the Flight1 Cessna 172 was back in 2004, at which time I thought the developer was pretty brave releasing a plane which so many people had flown, because anyone who does so leaves themselves open to a storm of criticism - which duly arrived. I gave the 172 an AAA gold at the time, which it richly deserved; what the addon did not deserve was to be ripped apart in the forums by people who failed to appreciate that Flight Simulator puts fundamental limitations on flight model design and that the 'aircraft' we fly in the sim can only be as real as Microsoft allows them to be. But that being said, the Flight1 Cessna 172 was one of the best releases ever made for FS2004 - now that we have a new version, the question is, have there been many changes and will it be as good in FSX?

    In 1948, when Cessna ran the first 170 up on its assembly line, it had five airplanes in production, the other four being the 120 and 140, the radial engined 190 and the 195. The 170 was a four seat version of the 140 but although Cessna sold over 5000 hulls it was yet another rag-wing taildragger at a time when every plane was a rag-wing taildragger. Barely a year into the run, the design was updated with metal clad wings and bigger flaps (which extended to an impressive 50 degrees) and given the designation 170A. Though it had its drawbacks - including a poor rate of roll and an eye-watering stall - this plane was to sire one of the most successful light aircraft of all time, the Cessna 172.

    Cessna might have stuck with the170 had it not been for Piper's Tripacer, which was stealing the market. Piper's success was irritating to the conservatives who ran the aircraft industry in those days, the majority of whom believed that real airplanes ought to have tailwheels, despite the fact that many pilots had difficulty taxiing and landing them and ground accidents were frequent. When a successful after-market nosewheel mod for the 170 appeared, a team at Cessna responded by starting work on an official upgrade, but unbelievable though it may seem, they were told to destroy the project by the senior sales manager. Fortunately for the company, the team squirreled their work away, secure in the knowledge that one day it would be needed.

    The call came only a few years later, but though the 172 project went ahead with the full backing of the board, it was shrouded in secrecy and most of the flight tests were conducted out in the boonies at a farm strip. Reworking the 170 was by no means a straight forward task and much work was needed to strengthen the fire wall; develop gear that kept the thrust line low, but high enough to avoid prop strikes; solve the stability problems; and to cure nose wheel shimmy. I guess they succeeded at pretty much everything except that last item.

    The plane that went on sale in 1956 had a 145 hp Continental O-300D driving a fixed pitch prop at a cost of $9250. Needless to say, it was an immediate success and over a thousand were sold in the first year, pretty much canning Tripacer sales in the process. In 1960, Cessna updated the design by the radical method of sweeping the vertical tail, at the cost of somewhat reduced directional stability, although it improved the looks 100%; and a year later, they lowered the gear and raised the thrust line. After that, all that was left was to keep tweaking away, the most important changes being a switch to the Lycoming O-320 in 1968 - rumor having it that this was done to use up thousands of engines left over from a contract after the 177 failed to sell as expected. The dorsal fin extension was incorporated in '72, compensating for the stability lost by the tail sweep and making it more difficult to enter a spin, and in '74 the cowling was redesigned, bringing a welcome improvement in cruise speed. Production ceased in the product liability crisis of 1985, after 35,773 had been built, but true to the promise Chairman Russ Meyer gave at the time, the line was restarted in 1997, producing much the same 172 as before, though with fuel injection as standard and a metal panel replacing the old Royalite. The latest models have cockpits like airliners, with Garmin glass everywhere - a far cry from the 170 that sired them.

    Now that the 152 is no longer in production, the 172 is the aircraft of choice for many flight training schools and with such a long pedigree it is hard to question it as a choice. The 172 is also a favourite tourer, given that it is comfortable and can be operated out of an unpaved 2000 foot strip thanks to that high wing and generous flap area. The downside is that CofG can be marginal with full tanks and seats, the plane really being a three seater, when it boils down to it, and the 172 isn't a mountain pilot's ship and every year it traps a few unwary folk by landing in spaces it can't be flown out of again. But compared to its competitors, the 172 is a safe, undemanding, versatile airplane and that is why it continues to sell, though with nowhere near the market share it once carved out for itself. The only bad news is that a new one will now cost you $194,000 or so, but that's progress for you.

    The Flight1 172 for FSX comes in a DVD-style case that proclaims it to be compatible with FSX and FS2004 and 'Windows Vista ready'. Minimum system requirements as given on the box are: XP or Vista, a 1.6 Ghz processor, 512 Mb of RAM, 500 Mb of hard disk space and a 128 Mb video card - a spec that I wouldn't even attempt to run Windows Vista and FSX on, although you might get away with it with XP. A more practical spec for FSX and this addon would be a 3.0 Ghz processor, at least a meg of RAM and better still two and a 512 Mb video card. I did the review on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM and a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX, running FSX SP1 and Windows Vista.

    The box contains a 19 page black and white manual with a colour cover and a single CD-ROM. Installation is straight forward and offers you a choice of installation under either FS2004 or FSX and of installation language between English and German; as part of the process you are asked if you want to install Text-o-Matic, which is Flight1's repaint installer, the other app that is installed with the 1172 being a configuration manager. The first few pages of the manual deal with potential installation issues including the inevitable discussion of User Access Control under Windows Vista - Flight1 don't exactly tell you to turn it off, but the implication is there. The remainder of the manual consists of checklists.

    Checking out the Start menu showed up a new Flight1 172 group, which links to the Skyhawk manual, which comes in the form of a Windows help file, rather than a pdf; the configuration manager; and Text-o-Matic. Attempting to run the configuration manager on my setup produced an error message telling me that I did not have an appropriate license to use the software, so I can't comment any further on the applet - though it worked well enough when I reviewed the FS2004 version. If you can get it to run, configuration manager lets you choose between high and low res VC gauges, stable or spinnable flight dynamics, wheel pants or no wheel pants, and load the sim in pounds or kilograms. There is also a rather good tutorial flight, but this doesn't work with the FSX version.

    Having loaded FSX, I made the usual search for the new addon in the select aircraft dialog and discovered that some things never change and you still get precisely one livery for the Skyhawk. When it was released for FS2004, the standard of the addon was so much ahead of most of the competition this didn't matter, but it is a little unusual, to say the least, to offer a single livery for modern addons.

    The visual model is outstanding, right down to a remarkably realistic join between the cowling and fuselage and convincing panel lines, rivets and wheels. A close look at the door locks and hinges should be enough to convince anyone that the many hundreds of hours which have gone into the plane have been well spent. There are all the usual animations, plus opening cockpit and baggage doors and the textures are damn near perfect.

    The 2D panel and graphics don't appear to have been altered from the FS2004 version, but are of such outstanding quality that it doesn't really matter. The pair are so similar that if you load the VC first it can be easy to mistake it for a 2D panel, given that you get a photoreal view that stays crisp sharp up to 1600 x 1200. As usual for sims developed under Jim Rhoads' direction, the point of view is the same as a real pilot would get, allowing for limitations of monitor format; too many sims confront you with a 2D panel view as seen from somewhere around the pilot's navel. I guess it all depends on the height of the pilot (-:

    The avionics are fitted out for single pilot operation, which means that the right hand side of the panel is empty, although you will only see this if you use the VC, as the 2D panel view is cut off at the near edge of the avionics stack. This is realistic - the only aircraft I have ever flown that have had duplicated instruments have been twins, the reason for this being that these things cost and even the most unsophisticated artificial horizon will set you back the thick end of $400. What Ed Struzynski, who did the gauge programming, gives us is a standard fit plus some, which means that in addition to the basic six and engine instruments, you get two VORs (one with glide slope) and an ADF. The latter only appears in the 2D panel and then only as a partial crescent and the radio doesn't handle the fractional frequencies which are common in Europe, but then NDBs are fast disappearing and will soon be of historical interest only.

    Checking out the radios, you get a Bendix King stack with twin Nav/Coms, an ADF, DME, a transponder, autopilot and a speaker select panel. I shudder to think what a setup like this would cost in real life, but one of the joys of simulation is that financial constraints are also virtual and so you really can have it all. Owners of the 441 will recognize the stack immediately, but it is one of the best sets of FS radios I have ever seen, both from the point of view of looks and of functionality - if you check out the manual, you will find that the radios do virtually everything their real world counterparts can. Being a light aircraft, the autopilot is a two axis unit, leaving you to look after the throttle, but it is very nice indeed.

    In addition to the radio stack, there are sub panels for the switches; trim; throttle, mixture and flaps (no carb heat, remember the fuel injection); the fuel selector - normally left on both; the default GPS; and the checklist. To save having to hunt through the menus, all of these can be accessed via a pop-up 'panel manager' which itself can be pulled on-screen by clicking the second panel screw up on the right. To facilitate starts, the switch panel also includes a tachometer, which is not realistic, but if the developers hadn't put it there, there would be no easy way to work out when to push the mixture fully rich - and yes, this is one of the few FS addons I have seen which allows you to use the correct procedures for starting a fuel injected engine. It is true that the addon doesn't object to fully rich hot starts either, but the fact that Flight1 have worked out how to simulate doing a lean start at sea level is a feather in their cap.

    There is only one 2D view, which is straight forward, but as the developers point out, that is exactly what you get from Microsoft. So if you look left, right, back, or sideways, you get views taken from the VC, only they are fixed and your view is limited, particularly to each side. Call me hard to please, but I think I preferred the last version of the sim, which left the extra 2D panel views out completely, following Microsoft's lead.

    As you can see from the screenshots, the VC is pin sharp and bright even if you are headed up sun, and everything in it is fully functional. I tested the addon in VC mode most of the time in FSX and it returned very good frame rates, which were broadly comparable to the default planes. What you do not get, of course, is any of the fancy glass G1000 gauges that you can load in the default Cessna 172 and that will put off some, although I should point out that those gauges reduce all but the fastest systems to their knees. Another interesting point is that hitting the A key cycles you between the VC and the 2D panel without bringing up any alternative VC POVs, which would have been useful.

    How does it fly? About as much like a Cessna 172 as it is possible for an FS plane to be, is my assessment, unless you can actually get configuration manager to work in FSX and choose to use the 'more stable flight dynamics'. Bearing in mind that 172s are designed to be easy to fly, most simmers should find the more advanced dynamics within their capabilities, the best test being to check yourself out on the tutorial flight. Stalls are polite, unless you use power, in which case a violent wing over is a possibility, and like a real 172, the sim doesn't spin unless you really encourage it - part of the reason why Cessna put that fin extension on being to stop spin entry being too easy. On the other hand, if you do a steep turn and then let go of everything, the sim enters a very realistic spiral dive, overspeeding in very short order.

    The rest of Jerry Beckwith's flight model is pretty much as it should be, with the plane stable in all axes and climbing and descending at more or less the expected speed and angle for each flap and rpm setting. You need a good flare to kill the float and set it down, especially if you do a proper 172 dive bomber glide approach with full flap, but that is half the fun of these aircraft; you can set them down almost anywhere. Of course, with a climb rate of only 700 feet per minute, the 172 isn't exactly the ideal choice for taking off from short strips surrounded by high trees when you have full tanks and three football players as passengers, but you pay your money and take your choice with these things. MeatWater's sound set matches the rest of the sim, in that it is a big improvement on the default 172. I am pleased to be able to report that the switches can't be heard over the noise of the engine, so kudos to the developers for not following what must surely be one of the most annoying FS traditions ever.

    Verdict? The Flight1 172 isn't quite as outstanding as it was three years ago, the competition having caught up some over the intervening period, and the single livery and the configuration manager bug under Vista lose it some marks. What we are looking at is a fairly straight repackaging of the FS2004 version and the default Cessnas do give you the opportunity of running a glass panel, but... I have to say I still think the F1 172 is one of the great simulations of all time, so it gets an AAA silver for the FSX version.

    Andrew Herd
    andy@flightsim.com

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