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The Flare Path: Propliner Perfection

Tim ♥ Connie

The DLC page for Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition doesn't do the alleged Best Simulation Game Ever Made any favours. Littered with the unambitious, the mediocre, and the aged (the listed 'release dates' are highly misleading) it suggests a third-party development scene short on craftsmanship and almost completely devoid of excellence. I fear there are users out there who assume that the tired selection of admittedly fairly affordable add-ons is it when it comes to enhancing gaming's most rounded and richly provisioned pilot-em-up. My heart's Nagging Nora mutters 'SINK RATE! SINK RATE!' when I picture the FSX aviator destined never to encounter masterworks like A2A's Lockheed Constellation.

It's hard to think of a more deserving candidate for simification than the Connie. As significant in its own way as the Jumbo Jet and the Fokker/Ford Trimotor, Lockheed's first four-engine airliner transformed transcontinental and transatlantic aviation in the decade following WW2 with its combination of speed, endurance, and game-changing pressurised cabin.

Able to fly over troublesome weather and lofty mountain ranges, the L-049 made the pre-war designs and converted bombers that dominated many airline fleets in the late 40s, seem hopelessly old-fashioned and ungainly. Many regard it as the prettiest propliner of all time, and though, being British, I'm obliged to bestow that title on the svelte DH.91 Albatross, it's impossible to deny that the curvaceous, delphine Connie is incredibly easy on the eye.

The aesthetically-minded A2A Simulations have chosen to model their subject in its original form (later variants were stretched and bulged in the interests of greater capacity) which is lovely for screengrabbers and nostalgics but does mean they, and us, their customers, have no way of comparing their flight model with the real thing (the only Connies still flying are two 'Supers'). Fortunately, trusting A2A has always been extremely easy. As with earlier creations like the Piper Cub and Boeing Stratocruiser, the L-049's modelling is so deep and so comprehensive, it's almost impossible to imagine that fundamentals have been fudged.

The Accu-Sim label means FSX and P3D owners (The accompanying screenshots were all taken in FSX) willing to part with $60 get unusually holistic physics and impressively intricate/interwoven fuel, oil, electrical, hydraulic, heating, and pressurisation systems. Fuel mixture settings, air temperatures and altitude have profound effects on the four Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclones dangling from your Lightning-redolent wings, and mean engines can be abused in several different ways. Push your 18-cylinder radials too hard for too long, idle them at low RPM for extended periods, start them on a chilly day without appropriate oil dilution, or cook them with clumsy cowl flaps use and, thanks to Accu-Sim's persistent powerplant concept, they'll remember.

The next time you go for a cloud-canter you may notice that the odd torque or temperature needle isn't quite where it should be. Ignore these telltale I-need-a-service signs while continuing to mistreat your steed, and eventually you may find yourself 20000 feet up with an emergency on your hands.

Realising that while many simmers crave authenticity, fewer yearn for the extra responsibilities and workload that often accompanies that authenticity, thoughtful A2A provide an optional virtual Flight Engineer happy to handle the more esoteric aspects of engine management. Though you never see this invaluable assistant, you do hear him muttering to himself as, seated at his station just behind the second pilot's seat, he runs checks and monitors gauges in real-time (rather brilliantly he doesn't spot issues the instant they develop). On the rare occasions when he does address you, it pays to heed his advice.

The virtual FE is one aspect of 'Captain of the Ship', A2A's largely successful attempt to breathe life into everyday flights through abstracted crew and passenger representations, and a very light career meta-game. The concept, pioneered in an expansion for the studio's Stratocruiser and embellished for the L-049 package, uses dynamically generated audio, and post-landing appraisals to banish some of the loneliness and aimlessness that can sometimes creep into open-world flight sims like FSX. With 'career' switched on, every heavy landing, lumpy turn, and violent pitch change is a potential passenger perturber and black-mark in your airline record. During my last flight, I think because my approach into Exeter was a bit on the steep side, I managed to coax tears from one of my youngest passengers. In an earlier one, an unplanned manoeuvre caused by accidental activation of the 'mouse yoke', provoked an honest-to-goodness scream from some poor sap travelling Air Flare.

The assessments and background audio isn't just influenced by your stick and rudder skills. Rare system faults and medical emergencies test decision making. Customers forced to endure chilly or stuffy cabins, confined to their seats unnecessarily by forgotten seatbelt signs, or made to abandon meals during landings, grumble impacting your reputation. What Lana Turner (now and again during loading the virtual stewardess will report that a celeb or bigwig is aboard) thought of my accidental cross-country taxiing at Gatwick yesterday morning, I shudder to think, but it doubtless contributed to my current less-than-stellar standing.

Talking of film stars and Connies, the history-steeped pdf that accompanies this adjunct is a splendid throwback to an age when sim manuals contained as much contextual colour as helpful instruction. However well acquainted you are with the story of Lockheed's lovely I guarantee there will be passages in Mitchell Glicksman's extensive introduction – passages, like the one relating the tale of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh's L-049-linked brush with disaster in 1946 – that extend your knowledge.

With AI crew available to manage most of its complexities and shortcuts available to truncate turnaround time, the Connie certainly isn't hard work. If you're the kind of time- or patience-poor simmer who no longer wishes to cold start or fuss with fuel mixtures and cowl flaps, the L-049 can be enjoyed purely as a big, evocative, and surprisingly easy to fly Sunday runabout. Relax, point the plane in the right direction, and let the sonorous drone of four genuine R-3350s (A2A sourced their engine sounds from a convenient Skyraider) mingled with the (usually) reassuring utterances of busy crew and contented passengers, send you into a Truck Sim-style reverie. Sometimes being surrounded by superlative sim realism is enough.

The other way of approaching A2A's latest masterpiece - the 'I'm going to spend time learning how every system works, what every switch does, and every gauge indicates' approach - is equally valid and will probably make that sizeable $60 outlay seem less indulgent, but either way you can purchase safe in the knowledge that you're acquiring something very special. As is their habit, A2A have released another amazing vehicle – a vehicle with the depth and charisma to kindle rare affection and withstand long use.

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This way to the foxer

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Tim Stone