By Peter Stark for PC Pilot (Issue 65)
To aviation enthusiasts of any kind, the Piper J3 Cub would have to be one of the most easily recognisable light aircraft produced over the past 70 years. It is renowned for its simplicity and reliability. Coupled with its low purchase cost, it has often been likened to the Model T Ford of the skies. To see such a venerable aircraft modelled by a developer with a high reputation for detail and accurate flight physics definitely had me excited.
A distinguished history
While the Cub has its origins in the Taylor E-2 Cub, which first appeared in 1930, financial troubles saw that company bought out by Piper Aircraft and it was a Piper designer that developed the Cub concept further into the J-3 design we are familiar with today. Production of the J-3 commenced in 1937 and it was instantly successful, and as World War 2 took hold and the United States entered the fray, production of the Cub increased. It saw service in a variety of roles, but particularly in the training of pilots, with a staggering 80% of all US military pilots trained during the war receiving their initial flight training in J-3 Cubs or their military equivalents. Such was the demand for the Cub that at one stage during the hostilities a Cub was produced every 20 minutes and when production of the J-3 ceased in 1947, Piper had sold 19,000 aircraft, an amazing number.
The A2A Cub package with Accu-Sim is available directly from the developer’s website via a sizeable 266MB download and includes the standard ‘classic’ model, plus a tundra tyre, ski and float versions, all in several liveries. A repaint kit is also available via the developer’s forum and devoted Cub enthusiasts are releasing large numbers of additional repaints. Installation is dead simple and you’ll be ready to start exploring the Cub in no time. The Cub is, in the words of A2A Simulations founder Scott Gentile, “born to fly!” So even if you choose not to read through the 160-page manual, the Cub will forgive you and let you play. But the manual is interesting, entertaining and educational, and what you glean from its pages will determine how well you fly the Cub.
As soon as you start to explore the internal and external textures, you just know you’re in for something special. The textures are certainly all crisp and colourful, but as you start to look more closely, the astonishing attention to detail starts to become apparent. The wooden prop displays the wood grain, decals and rivets in its leading edge plate. The engine shows every bolt and manifold in detail. The superb bump maps really do look like fabric stretched between struts and you can even see the extrusion marks on the tundra tyres. For goodness sake, the engine cowling fastening pins even create shadows on the fuselage!
The 266MB download now starts to make more sense. Despite the simple nature of the Cub’s design, the interior is no less detailed, with every nut, bolt and screw visible in crisp clarity. As you would expect from an aircraft of this type, the ‘avionics’ are basic and limited to just five dials – and that includes the compass. However, their simplicity derides their underlying complexity, with the developers, for example, taking more than a week to code the whiskey compass physics alone.
A feature of FSX is the seemingly unlimited number of possible animations and A2A certainly has tested this theory. Not only are there the conventional control surfaces and wheels, but also every control cable (inside and out), vibrating exhausts and tailplanes, flexing shock absorbers, moving fuel level indicator on the engine cowl, multi-position window, animated passenger – and probably many more I haven’t yet found.
Don’t forget the Accu-Sim!
Accu-Sim is an expansion pack that is available for several A2A products and significantly increases the realism of how the aircraft behaves and feels. The term ‘expansion pack’ can be interpreted to mean “add it if you like”, but the impact on the overall experience is so significant, I would strongly urge you to consider it as part of the base package and budget for it when you make your purchase. Let’s highlight the philosophy behind Accu-Sim and look at some specific examples in the Piper Cub.
One of the significant differences between simulated and real flight is the variability of the performance details of aircraft systems in differing conditions. For example, you would expect a small engine to behave and perhaps sound differently on a cold day compared to a very hot one. The oil temperatures will vary a little on each flight or be very high as you run low on oil. You would also expect that a well maintained engine would be more reliable than one that the pilot continually over-speeds the engine or applies full power without warming the engine beforehand. With Accu Sim, these variables and many, many, more become part of your everyday flying.
Another feature of the Accu-Sim pack is the extended range of professionally engineered sounds – an impressive 390! Every conceivable sound has been added: the creaking airframe, wind noise that varies depending on how far ajar the window is, the water slapping against your floats… and even the various conversations from your optional female companion.
Let’s go flying
The experience can begin before you even get into the Cub via the Real Time Load Manager. Accessible from within cockpit, you can check the oil and fuel status, load a passenger (more on ‘Heidi’ later) or cargo at any time. As the Piper Cub has no electrical system and hence no starter motor, you must set the fuel valve, throttle and magnetos before hand-swinging the prop. This is achieved by moving to a specific camera view and using your mouse to ‘grab’ the prop and pull it through.
As in the real world, it may take several attempts to get the engine started and the response will vary depending on temperature, engine condition or how much you first prime the carburettor. If you commence your flight in a float version, you can use a similar series of mouse-controlled movements to remove the oar from the Cub and paddle out into the stretch of water.
The Cub is also packed with clever aircraft physics and this becomes apparent as soon as you start to taxi. Depending on the variant of aircraft you fly, and what surface you are taxiing on, you will see the aircraft react and behave accordingly. For example, taxiing on a hard paved surface will be quite smooth, but as soon as you move on to the grass, your ride gets bumpy. Likewise with the tundra and ski variants – they all have their own idiosyncrasies depending on how you handle them and on what surface you are travelling.
This clever modelling also appears on the float versions with impressively accurate water physics allowing the pilot to apply power and aquaplane onto the floats (‘on the steps’), which allows the Cub to accelerate more swiftly before becoming airborne. The same modelling considers the wind conditions and even the water temperature when determining how the Cub will behave.
Once airborne, the Cub is quite a simple to aircraft to fly – but devilishly difficult to fly extremely well. No 2D panel is included, but the combination of supplied virtual cockpit views give you a very realistic ‘seat-of-the-pants’ flying experience. As you can hear the changing wind noise and airframe creaking, you don’t need to use the gauges very much at all and you spend most of your flight with your eyes taking in some of the splendid scenery FSX has to offer. This opens up a whole new set of experiences that you just don’t get above circuit height.
Say hi to Heidi
There are two seats in a Cub and A2A Simulations have taken advantage of this while also displaying their sense of humour. Heidi is a passenger who can be added to the front seat via the Load Manager and she adds yet another dimension to this wonderful product. You have the ability to control her personality from calm, fun, nervous and, thankfully – silent. Judging by the responses on the A2A forums, many a pilot is enjoying doing their very best to make Heidi scream. Yes, it is possible!
Heidi is also animated and will react to how you fly and land the aircraft, or even how well you maintain the cabin temperature. She is also very useful in other ways. For example, if she spots an aircraft within several miles, she will turn towards it and alert you to its presence. This feature is so well simulated that Heidi cannot see aircraft hidden by the wings or fuselage – only what would normally be in view from her seated position.
For me, the A2A Piper Cub is one of the stand-out products of 2009. The combination of exceptional detail, numerous innovative features and sensational physics opens up a whole new aspect of FSX. With the classic, tundra, ski and float variants in the package, there isn’t anywhere in FSX you can’t explore – preferably at tree treetop height!
This review was printed in a previous issue of PC Pilot and is based on the boxed version of FSX. There may be significant differences between your experience and that of the reviewer.
A2A Simulations’ J-3 Cub is coming soon to the FSX: Steam Edition store.