• JustFlight Spitfire

    JustFlight Spitfire For FS2002/FS2004/CFS2/CFS3

    By Andrew Herd (15 May 2005)

    Once upon a time, you didn't get to see so many Spitfires for Flight Simulator, now, with the release of JustFlight's new DVD boxed set, we are spoiled for choice - and when I say spoiled, I mean really spoiled. A quick count reveals fourteen different marks, ranging from the prototype shown in the screenshot here, all the way up to the Mk. 22, which came too late to see service in the war, but had nearly double the horsepower of its ancestor and clocked in 100 mph faster. In terms of bangs per buck, this addon gives you an awful lot, because in addition to a library of every major variant of this famous fighter, there is a neat multimedia presentation about the plane and a wartime scenery for Duxford airfield. Plus, five of the marks run under CFS3 and one under CFS2, so it was kind of tough working out where I should start.

    One way to learn about the development of the Supermarine Spitfire would be to buy this pack and fly each mark in turn, but that would only tell half the story. The prototype flew with a Merlin 'C' engine in 1936, spinning a two-blade fixed pitch prop and it represented a huge leap forward, at a time when most of the world's air forces were still equipped with fixed gear biplanes. Stressed-skin, retractible gear monoplanes were something new entirely and 'Mutt' Summers, the test pilot who first flew the prototype, was so impressed with its similarity to Supermarine's S6 racing seaplanes, that he faced it 35 degrees out of wind before opening the throttle, anticipating a left hand swing that might not be controllable even with full rudder until some airflow had built up over the tail. As it was, Mutt needn't have worried and his steed behaved like the lady she was, fading to a speck in the distance with a speed that impressed all of those present.

    It hadn't been roses all the way. At a relatively late stage, R.J. Mitchell and his team had taken a momentous decision to change from the steam-cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk to the liquid-cooled Merlin, an engine which was a temperamental brat at that time, but showing great promise. Reliability issues with the Merlin repeatedly delayed the first flight, but history was to judge its selection to be the right decision. Imagine what might have happened had Mitchell stayed with the Goshawk, a development of the Kestrel which represented a developmental dead-end and would never have been even a pale shadow of what the Merlin became? It could easily have been so very different. Anyone who doubts this should read the story of the Hawker Typhoon, a plane that found its niche in the end, but whose designers very nearly lost their way in a mire of conflicting requirements and engine troubles.

    But I digress. Flying the Spitfires in the pack is fun enough, given the way it demonstrates how each mark improved upon the last, allowing for the slightly confusing order in which the later variants appeared. The story this doesn't tell is why the Spitfire had to be continually improved, a development that was driven initially by the Me 109 and then by the FW 190. The first 77 mark 1s were fitted with wooden fixed pitch two bladed props; following which three-blade, two-speed props were fitted; but it wasn't until June 1940 that constant speed propellors began to replace them and it was early August before the program had finished. Much of the early Spitfire action in the Battle of Britain therefore involved planes with two-speed props engaging Me 109s with constant speed units; the first stage of a five year saga in which the two aircraft design teams played a deadly game of leap-frog, each new mark giving its pilots a hair's breadth advantage, until the development potential of the 109 was finally exhausted late in the war. The FW 190 took up its mantle as a worthy rival to the Spitfire, but by the time the late marks appeared, Germany's production and transport systems had been smashed beyond the point of no return and they made little difference to the outcome of the war.

    Though the later marks weren't as nice to fly, the defining features of the Spitfire were that it could be trimmed to fly hands off; had sensitive controls (although the ailerons were comparatively heavy and became less responsive at higher speeds on the early marks); and was very tough. This latter feature gave it an advantage over early Me 109s, whose main spars didn't always withstand pull-outs after fast evasive dives.

    The disadvantages of the Spitfire were that the forward and downward view wasn't great and it had narrow track gear, all of which made it somewhat tricky to land - but then again, most airfields of the time were big patches of grass with no marked runways, so that pilots could always land into wind. Since the 109 had much the same disadvantages, honors were even in the landing stakes, I guess.

    Before getting on to the review, I often get asked how difficult planes like the Spitfire were to fly. Judging by present day documentaries, you would think a superman was needed to stay in control, but the reality was necessarily different. There was no way that a wartime plane could hope to be a success if the average pilot couldn't fly it, and neither the Spitfire, nor the 109, nor the P51, nor the Hurricane fell in that class. I can't talk for the others, but I know (or knew) pilots who flew all those types during the war, and while they all agree that the planes in question were a good deal harder to fly well than the average club Cessna, they all agree that they weren't an insuperable challenge - nor could they have been. Pilots had to be trained quickly and the supply was never large enough that it was possible to fail too many of them. After all, there was a war to be fought.

    So are you up to the challenge? The JustFlight Spitfire addon was created by Aeroplane Heaven, well known as designers of CFS addons and who have lately made a move over to Flight Simulator. We reviewed their La-9 a while back and did a developer showcase on them last year - I guess we ought to do some more of those - so having seen what this Australian team can do, I was extremely interested to see how they would tackle as complicated a project as the Spitfire pack. The addon requires a 1.4 Gb Pentium or equivalent, with 512 Mb of RAM, 1.5 Gb of hard disk space and a 32 Mb video card. As I mentioned at the beginning, the software is compatible with FS2004, FS2002 and CFS2 and 3, although CFS2 users might question the value they get for their money, since the only plane in the pack which will run on this version of Combat Flight Simulator is a Mk VC.

    The DVD style case contains two CDs and the automatic installation was straightforward, apart from the fact that you have to run it again if you want to start the multimedia presentation from your hard disk. Apart from the two CDs, the box contains a rather appealing 'period' manual, which will be instantly recognizable to British users as a facsimile of one of the Air Ministry pilot's notes series. These are still available from the better aviation booksellers and make great bedtime reading if you are into such things. The pilot's notes provided with the JustFlight pack are a hybrid between a software installation manual and notes on the aircraft involved, the latter section being a straight reprint of the original Air Ministry notes for the Spitfire IIA and IIB planes. The actual pilot's notes for the marks concerned were loose leaf bound with string, whereas JustFlight have gone for a stapled binding, but they are such a brilliant recreation of the real thing I guess we will forgive 'em, this once (-:

    The interactive tutorial is a something you will either love or hate and features nine mulitmedia presentations on various aspects of operating the simulation, triggered by clicking on a set of 'collectors cards' laid out on a desk. The tutorials are done 'Pathe News' style right down to a passable imitation of a Highly Received English commentary (anyone who wants to see this done properly can visit Pathe's site, which is a real treat, with vast amounts of free footage available - if you do so, reflect on the fact that my much-loved mother-in-law still speaks like that).

    Moving on, the visual models are very good, as one would expect from such an experienced developer. Everything that might be expected to move does and extra animations include an opening pilot's door and canopy, as well as pilot figures that look around from time to time. This is quite an eye catching effect in the trainer, because it isn't uncommon for the two pilots to be looking in different directions.

    The FS2004 set of planes includes the prototype; two color schemes for an early Mk. 1 with a wooden prop; four schemes for a three blade constant speed prop Mk. 1A; one scheme for a cannon equipped 1B; four schemes for a IIA; a total of six schemes for VB and VC's including clipped wing variants; eight schemes for the Mk IX, including clipped wing planes; two paints of a Mk IX trainer with dual cockpits; four paints of the Griffon engined Mk XIV, including high and low backed versions; two Mk XIX schemes; and finally, three Mk 22 paint jobs. I don't care which way you look at it, that is quite a list - and you don't just get RAF liveries, because I spotted a couple of Belgian Air Force Mk XIVs and some RAAF Mk VCs, not to mention Swedish, Czech, Free French, Netherlands and Norwegian schemes. The Spitfire was operated by a very wide variety of nations not represented in the pack, including the US and Eire, so there is plenty of scope for repaints, should anyone wish to add to this already amazingly comprehensive list.

    Besides the 'full' and clipped wing planes - a modification which deleted the wing tips to increase the rate of roll and top speed, eventually leading to the L.F. variants, which had engines specially adapted for low altitude work - there are tropical and bomb-equipped versions. Scanning the list, we aren't left wanting for much; although a few marks have been left out, they are mostly the less interesting variants, though it would have been nice to see a photoreconnaissance Spitifire, perhaps a Mk VIII, as this would have allowed some really eye-catching schemes. I jest; there is already so much here that it would be hardly fair to ask for more.

    The 2D panels are good and display well up to 1600 x 1200 without any blurring or pixellation. The shots above show, left to right, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Spitfire Mk II panel; a panel from a wartime Mk IX; and the panel from the Mk 22 - alert readers will spot the similarities between them. Comparing the Mk IIA panel to a photograph of the BBMF original, it is clear that the developers have taken the decision to leave some stuff out in the interests of saving space, so for example, the ventilator gauge and ammeter are missing from the right of the radio and there should be three indicator lights below it. The oil pressure should be shown on a round gauge to the left of the boost pressure gauge and the cockpit light dimmer switches are missing. As it happened, wartime IIAs had paired tape-style fuel and oil pressure gauges, similar to the fuel pressure gauge used in the simulation, which can be confirmed by taking a look at page 45 of JustFlight's manual. A look at the panels across the marks shows that, faced with having to deliver so many different variants of a single plane at an affordable price, the developers have - entirely understandably, under the circumstances - decided to roll the differences between the cockpits together into a few generic layouts. Although this decision detracts from the realism to an extent, I don't see how else Aeroplane Heaven could have delivered what they have done here without making economies somewhere, and for what it is worth, the generic cockpit does have the advantage that the user instantly knows where everything is when changing from one mark to another. In the final analysis, Aeroplane Heaven have captured the spirit of the Spit's cockpit - but if you want ultimate realism, the panels may be a problem for you.

    Taking a more detailed look, down at bottom right there is a group of simicons which can be used to pull up various subpanels, including the engine controls, the compass, the FS GPS, the map and the ATC window. Overall, all the panels work very well and they have been nicely 'aged' with dints and scrapes and all, although the gauge reflections are a variable and the needles appear to have been drawn by two completely different artists: for example the ASI, the turn coordinator and the temperature gauge are beautifully done; but now look at the artwork on the tacho and the VSI. The radios show a similar contrast, the military radio subpanel being a very convincing simulation of a wartime set; while the unit on the BBMF Mk IX panel has a non-working radio simicon pasted on it and the click spots are kind of tough to find.

    Much the same comments can be leveled at the virtual cockpit (VC) which are of the FS2002 active variety in as much as every animation you could expect is present, and most of the controls can be worked by clicking on them from within the virtual cockpit - but only if you don't move the POV too far back. In practice, to get the clickable VC controls to work, the viewpoint has to be set a little too close to the panel for comfort and it would be nice to see this fixed, because it gives the impression that you have your nose squashed against the panel.

    The graphics are more than acceptable and given that very few key commands are needed to fly the plane, the only other problem with using the VC is the eternal one of perspective – it isn’t possible to move the point of view far enough back to get a panoramic view of the panel without the seat getting in the way. FS designers deal with this issue in different ways, but the ultimate problem lies within Flight Simulator and the way it displays the VC; Il2 Sturmovik handles the point of view (POV) much better and despite the latter game’s lack of active cockpits, Microsoft have a lot to learn from Maddox. Once again, the VCs are mongrels that broadly represent Spitfire layouts of different periods, rather than closely duplicating individual variants, but in no case are they too far off the mark and as with the 2D panels, they capture the spirit of the cockpit well.

    There are different sound sets for the Merlin and Griffon engined planes, though these sound fairly alike from inside the cockpit and are quite quiet. Although some fairly concise startup sounds are provided, chopping the mixture killed the noise almost instantly on both sets, which isn't totally realistic, given that both the Merlin and the Griffon chunter and splutter on for a little while in real life, almost as if they are reluctant to stop. I tested these sets with the plane loaded on the Duxford scenery, which looked great, except that my plane was sunk about so deeply into the grass that only the nose and the canopy showed. Having carefully uninstalled any other scenery which might have caused this, I was still left with the problem, so it may well be a bug. Beginners will appreciate having the scenery, because it shows Duxford in its days as a big grass field on which you could land any way you wanted, providing it was into wind.

    The flight models are good, although with so many different marks to test it was a daunting task working out how to do it. In the end, I flew them all briefly and what follows is a general summary - suffice it to say that the majority of simmers will be happy with the way the planes fly.

    All the basics are right, the Merlin engined planes swinging left, while the Griffons go right. Most of the v-speeds I checked were fine and the aircraft felt the part as far as general handling was concerned, but as soon as they were pushed hard the flight models felt less responsive than they should be. Though the Spitfire wasn't that difficult to fly, but most marks were sensitive to elevator and prone to memorable high speed stalls if their pilots pulled too hard in steep turns; and for all the rate of roll wasn't that great in the early variants, it was still brisk. The flight models in the sim are just a little too docile in these respects, and athough the planes can be persuaded to spin if the stick is held back and some pro-spin rudder is applied, they come out fairly quickly if the controls are released.

    The Verdict: there is absolutely no question that despite having its share of flaws, this is one of the most ambitious Flight Simulator projects I have ever seen. The Spitfire was virtually unique among Allied fighter aircraft in remaining in production for as long as it did, which was a tribute to Mitchell and Smith's genius in taking a great design and turning it into a legend. Most airframes are only flexible enough to support a few different variants before their potential is exhausted; very few run to twenty-two, and that is leaving out the Seafires, the Spiteful and the Seafang. So it doesn't surprise me at all that no-one has boxed such a complete set of Spits for Flight Simulator before, because it takes balls to even think of taking on such an enormous project.

    JustFlight have made a good choice in Aeroplane Heaven, because those guys have done something I would previously have said was impossible and have turned out a convincing package that covers every significant Spitfire mark at an affordable price. But what makes my jaw really drop is that they haven't only done these planes for FS2004 and FS2002 - they have made as many as possible compatible with CFS3, at the very time when most other developers have abandoned it.

    I guess if R.J. Mitchell had been into flight sims, he would have had to hire them.

    Andrew Herd
    [email protected]

    Learn more here


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