FSLabs A320 Review

Introduction

There are lies, damned lies and the Airbus A320. The A320 is part of that never-ending battle on 'which is best', when compared to the older Boeing 737. Its Blur versus Pulp, The Beatles verses the Monkeys, tea versus coffee. There are no winners, but there many myths and misconceptions that surround both. What the Airbus is, is different.

The A320 story began in the late 1970s. The idea was to produce a single aisle short haul aircraft to compliment the A300 and A310 aircraft. In 1981 the new aircraft was renamed the A320 and work began on an aircraft that would not only compete with the B737-200, but would beat it. The cabin was made slightly wider, it was to fly faster at Mach 0.84, and the wing was to be made more efficient than the old 737. Inside the cockpit though, everything was changing. The standard yoke with cable connections to the control surfaces were completely removed. In their place a state of the art fly-by-wire system flown from a simple joystick mounted on the cabin wall, leaving the area in front of the main displays open. To say it caused a shock in civil aviation would be an understatement.

Airbus were redesigning the whole pilot experience. Another controversial feature the A320 offered was its computers. The fly-by-wire system was designed with protections to stop pilots getting the aircraft 'out of shape.' The pilot is not the last in the chain of command in an Airbus cockpit. It was advanced stuff and during the early years, a lack of understanding of the systems caused many incidents of pilots 'fighting' with the aircraft, as well as a few crashes. Even today, the advanced nature of the A320 (along with the A330, A340, A350, and A380, who follow the same design philosophy) isn't trusted by some Boeing pilots, who see themselves as 'real pilots', whilst the A320 pilot is seen more as a  'skilled passenger'. It's all nonsense of course, and with almost 5000 A320s built since 1987, the A320 is one of the most popular short-haul aircraft of today. That complexity is also one of the reasons that there are so few A320s in the sim world. Airbus isn't keen to share its technology, and working out how a rumoured 900 computers all work to get the A320 flying, is a job best saved for the mad, Flight Sim Labs, the people who brought Concorde to FSX, are just the people then.

Install and Set Up

Available as a 500+ MB download, the A320 comes with a two-step installer. The first installer installs the resources for the A320, the second installs the binaries. An optional third item is the free Flight Sim Labs Spotlights add-on which allows the simmer to import and control up to 20 different fully three-dimensional dynamic spot lights into the VC. As you install the aircraft you'll get an option to install a version with just a 3D cockpit, A 2D cockpit or a mix of both. You can also select the cockpit texture sizes with the default being 2048 px. Personally, I hate the 2D cockpits, so I stuck with the standard 3D VC.

The Flight Sim Labs A320 contains both engine variants, the CFM-56-B4 and the IAEV2500. Both versions are modelled correctly and behave differently within the sim.

Speaking of 'in sim', getting to the tarmac isn't quite as simple as picking the aircraft and off to go. To get flying, you'll need to pick your airport and start position, then load in the good old default trike. Once you're sat on the tarmac with the trike, you can then pick your A320. The aircraft doesn't initialise properly without doing this, and it helps reduce the VAS footprint. Flight Sim Labs suggests that you don't change your livery options once you've loaded the aircraft to save VAS, so choose wisely.

To help you get set up, there are a set of PDF manuals found in the Flight Sim Labs start menu. The tutorial flight will give you a great introduction to flying the A320, whilst the flight Checklists and Normal Procedures manuals will help when you fly solo. Finally, the introduction to the A320 itself will help you tune the aircraft to your unique system.

Model Features

The model features listed by Flight Sim Labs include:

Complete 2D panel set accompanies a fully modeled Virtual Cockpit with high resolution textures;
Features custom ground friction models to simulate proper ground handling (single engine taxi);
Brake models tuned to match real world performance in all weather environments;
Over 60,000 electrical components are simulated and connected via simulated electrical and data driven networks;
Every aircraft component within the Fuel, Hydraulic and Pneumatic systems has been modelled;
Dual FMGS that follows the ARINC 424-19 specification in detail and faithfully simulateslateral and vertical flight path guidance;
Complete flight control system, featuring Normal Law, Alternate Law, Abnormal Attitude Law, Direct Law and Mechanical Backup;
Two variants modeled, thousands of animated parts with custom effects and ultra high definition textures;
Unique and immersive sound experience - utilising hundreds of recordings from the real aircraft;
Both CFM 565B4 and IAE V2527A are simulated to incredible detail; and
Realistic startup times, spool speeds, fuel burn, sounds and effects.

Pretty as a Picture

The first impression of any add-on comes with the eyes. The Airbus isn't that interesting up front, the grey on grey panels aren't perhaps the best things to look at. However, Flight Sim Labs have excelled at producing the best quality textures where they can really shine. All the panels are 2048 px textures as standard with options for other sizes as well, (Selectable on installation) and look great, but it's the little touches that shine the most. Take for example the FCU unit. The lighting is of course spot on, and the indications for speed, heading etc. are all crisp and clear. Look further into those LCD displays though and you'll see the faint outline of the matrix displays, the unlit number segments and named indicators, like Mach and so on.

That tiny little detail wouldn't even be thought about by some, but here, Flight Sim Labs have shown an incredible attention to detail. That detail could have caused issues for FPS and VAS management, but Flight Sim Labs have been careful where that use that detail. The FCU displays have it, whilst the cockpit seats have a lower grade texture to even out the balance. The circuit breakers behind your head are beautifully modelled. So well modelled that you could almost touch them. If only FSX could animate them all. The cockpit carpet has a great little Flight Sim Labs logo woven into it as a nice touch.

Heading into the cabin and things get a little more low-rent. This is fine with me, as having a fully rendered cabin a la Captain Sim is a bit of a waste of resources, especially with a VAS hungry aircraft like the A320.

Outside it's different. The detailing in superb. The various warning labels, instruction labels and so on are not just in the right place, but completely readable and sharp. You can even operate the aircraft's doors from the external handles. Detail is everything, and Flight Sim Labs certainly has an eye for it.

General Characteristics and Performance Specifications

The general characteristics and performance specifications for the Airbus A320 are provided in the table. This is based on data from the official Airbus site and other freely available data from the internet.

General Characteristics

Crew Two
Passenger Capacity 150 - 179
Length 37.57 m (123 ft 3 in)
Wingspan 34.09 m (111 ft 10 in)
Height 11.76 m (38 ft 7 in)
Empty Weight 37,230 kg (82,078 lbs)
Fuel Capacity 24,210 kg (53,374 lbs)
Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) 77,000 kg (169,756 lbs)
Power Plant IAE International Aero Engines V2527-A5. Engine Power (each) 110.3 kN (24,800 lbf) or
CFM Intl. CFM56-5B4 Engine Power (each) 120.1 kN (27,000 lbf)

Performance Specifications

Maximum Cruise Speed 903 km/h (487 kt) at 28,000 ft
Stall Speed 82 kt - Full flap at 80,000 lb gross weight
Max Range 6,100 km (3,294 nm)
Service Ceiling 12,131 m (39,800 ft)
Rate of Climb 2200 fpm

Sounds - Turn it to 11!

Sound sets can make or break any half decent add-on. Until now, sound packs like the one found in Aerosoft's A320 have been considered fairly good. However, without a doubt Flight Sim Labs has moved the sound bar way beyond most sim aircraft. To call it immersive would be a massive understatement. Let's start with the cockpit sounds. Power up the aircraft and switch the external power on. Like all aircraft, you'll hear the reassuring sound of a 400 Hz whine that typifies a powered cockpit. It's nice and all, and most cockpits capture that sound. Flight Sim Labs however have captured everything, so to speak. Switch on the fuel pumps and the electric hum changes tone as the power draw gets bigger. Even better, power up the APU, then switch the Ext Power off and that hum increases in pitch as more power is delivered from the APU than the ground power unit outside. It doesn't stop there though. As the aircraft powers up, you can hear relays trip as they run through a self-test. When the APU becomes available, there's a loud 'snap' as the relay opens.

If the aircraft doors are open, you can hear the outside world with greater clarity, and when you close them, the sound dulls and you hear the sound of the 1L door lock into place. Switch on the break fans and with a window open, you'll hear the deafening roar as they cool the brakes.

Taxiing is just as good, with the sound of rattling doors and galley equipment. However, on take-off, that's where I got my 'wow' moment. The engine noise at take-off power is an exact recreation of the 'horde of angry bees' buzz that both engine type's exhibit. They growl as the aircraft rattles along the runway. As you leave the ground though, Flight Sim Labs have even recreated the wonderful 'ripple' effect sound that passes through the cockpit and the whole aircraft. I'm not sure if it's the wheels being slowed before the gear cones up, or the reaction to the flaps to the change in the angle of attack of the wing, but its glorious, and a sound that's been conspicuous by its absence in other Airbus. Speaking of absences, the most notable sound missing from the cockpit is the sound of the 'barking dog' hydraulic pump or PTU. This sounds as the first engine starts and the pump energises ready for use. In the cabin, it can be heard quite clearly, however, unlike in the real thing, there's no sound of that pump. I've never been so pleased not to hear something.

Flying through turbulence, once again the aircraft rattles and clatters around, and that sound is timed perfectly with the weather you're experiencing. If you bounce around, it'll rattle.

The cockpit isn't the only place to experience the sounds of the A320. Sit anywhere in the cabin and the sounds you'll hear will be exactly what you'd hear in that position. Likewise, outside. Stand under the APU when its running and the sound will be much louder than if you stand under the nose. The 3D sounds provided area tour de force, and I love 'em.

Depth Charged

Diving in to the A320 is like diving in to a battle. Picture Captain Nemo fighting off a giant squid. The A320 is more than a simple 'push button on' kind of aircraft. It's complicated. I have a full series of FCOM manuals for the A320 that span 7 large ring binders, and condensing all of that into FSX could be an impossible task. Flight Sim Labs have had a go. What they've done though is go beyond the manuals. Those manuals detail the way the systems work, but Flight Sim Labs have gotten into the wiring. Literally. They looked at how the systems work and simulated the delays and interactions of each relay, wire and computer. It sounds like a gimmick, but it's true. Click on a switch and you might find a delay before that switch lights, or before a relay power up or down. That's certainly deep.

Away from the wiring, the main systems of the aircraft are most defiantly simulated. From cool little touches like the automatically tuned VOR's being displayed on the ND display, to huge systems being simulated like the weather radar including the predictive windshear system. Both rely on Active Sky Next or AS16, but they function as the real aircraft.

The engines and aerodynamics are all modelled outside the sim, bypassing many of the inbuilt FSX flight model issues. And the engines both perform differently. A great example of this is comparing the CFM-56 to the IAE2500 at idle. The CFM-56 aircraft will happily taxi at idle without gaining speed. The IAE2500 however goes like a rocket and will happily taxi and pick up speed without the throttles even being opened.

The aerodynamics are also tweaked to be more realistic. Things like ground friction has been modelled so the aircraft rolls correctly. The brake friction is modelled as well, and for added fun, you should try a single engine landing or a crosswind landing. You'll need to hit that rudder. All of this is calculated externally and with a minimum FPS and VAS impact.

Coming from cold and dark, the aircraft performs various self-tests just like the real thing, and it's not something that happens quickly and bang, the aircraft is ready. During the cockpit prep, various 'pips' sound, relays click on and the odd annunciator flashes as the computers 'do their thing'.

The real heart of the A320 is the FMGS or Flight Management Guidance System. This is accessed via the FMS or MCDU in Airbus terms. Almost everything is currently functional here, with the exception the Second Flightplan function and a few other bits and pieces, like setting an Equal Time Point, which is handy for ETOPS planning. These functions are coming, and for now, they don't detract from the usual day-to-day flight experience. The MCDU is around 99% complete. Best of all there are several functions to help pilots out. Things like the entering the Zero Weight Fuel can be shortened with a simple click of a button. The same is true with your Vee speeds, assuming you've entered a flap setting. These little shortcuts are a great help if you don't want to deal with a full load sheet every flight.

In Flight, you'll find the complex fly-by-wire system modelled in full, with both normal and alternative law in place. Pitch the aircraft and she stays put. Bank and she'll do as you ask. It's exactly like the real thing, protections and all.

Plenty of Options

Aside from the aircraft itself, many other functions can be set from the MCDU. You'll find options for the doors, the payload, the fuel and so much more. There are also options for dealing with your controls. You can set the number throttles, and set the steering tiller as well. Finally, there are options to deal with a few maintenance issues, like refilling the oil and other fluids.

These functions are all available within the cockpit, however, Flight Sim Labs have included the ability to run the MCDU and the Refuelling panel (found underneath the aircraft) from a web based device. Simply type in the address of your pc then add 8080 after the address e.g. 192.168.0.20:8080. Here you can access the MCDU and fuel panel. Also found there is a panel for the FCU unit. It's not covered in the manuals, but it's there and it allows you to control the autopilot from an iPad. It's a nice surprise.

Finally, a word about failures. The A320 features plenty of systems that you can set to fail via the Failures menu on the MCDU. From Engine failures and fire to ADIRS issues, systems can be set to fail either immediately, or at a set time. For added fun you can set any failure to fail at a random time. Even better you can set a random failure to randomly as well, both options can be set by using the Overfly key on the MCDU.

In Conclusion

It's not easy to sum up such a complex aircraft. I could simply cover it in superlatives, metaphors and sound bites but they still wouldn't cover how good this aircraft is. With metaphors in mind though, the one that springs to mind the most is 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'. Actually, I'd describe the A320 as exactly the sum of its parts. From the wiring, up, Flight Sim Labs have built a real A320 within the sim. The aircraft lives and breathes as you fly it. There are service based failures hidden away as well, and they aren't documented in the manual. On one flight, I got an 'ENG 1 oil temp low' Warning with a 'Delay Take off' instruction on the ECAM display. So, for those who say the Flight Sim Labs A320 doesn't simulate such failures, you're wrong.

In flight the aircraft feels heavy, and on approach it's easy to feel the weight of the aircraft as you line up to land and the aircraft drifts too far left because you didn't roll out just right. Combine that with a set of sounds that it is by far the best set of sounds I've ever come across, and you've got one of the best complex airliner add-ons around. The whole experience is immersive at a level beyond many add-ons available today. It's an aircraft that you'll find something new almost every flight, things like the animated jet exhaust that you can barely see, but it's there none the less.

Its only Achilles heel is the cost of all that complexity. VAS usage is a major issue. Even with the engine and aerodynamics calculated outside the sim, the A320 is still very VAS hungry. Flight Sim Labs do offer advice on how to best handle the issue, with suggestions that 3rd party clouds be set to 512 px and scenery complexity turned down, but flying into a large Orbx sized area is a bit of a no-no. Flight Sim Labs recommend that FSX users use the DX10 fixer to mitigate some issues, as it handles VAS better, and using FSX-SE also helps. I've come close to the limit with flights into Aerosoft's Heathrow on three screens, but I've yet to get the dreaded 'Ding of Death'. Come the day of the 64-bit P3D sim, then the Flight Sim Labs A320 will be ready.

The VAS issue aside, I found general performance to be, well excellent. At Heathrow in wet conditions, my FPS was hovering around 15, but for most flights, my frame rates remained decent. For single monitor use, frame rates were even better. If you're using the 2D panels only, performance along with VAS usage is even better again.

Summing up, the A320 can be described in just a single word. 'Exceptional'. There's little more to say on the subject.

Technical Requirements

Flight Sim Labs advise the following:

Minimum: Quad Core CPU, 8 GB RAM, 512 MB dedicated Graphics card running Windows 7 (64-bit) Flight Simulator X SP2/XPack or Steam.
Recommended: Skylake CPU, 16 GB RAM, 1024 MB Graphics Card, Win10 64-bit. DirectX 10 with Steve's DX Fixer.
Minimum settings allow the aircraft to load and operate but you'll need to make certain compromises in scenery settings to get adequate performance..

Review Computer Specifications

The specifications of the computer on which the review was conducted are as follows:

Intel i7 4770K @ 4.4 GHz;
2 x Nvidia 680 GTX 4 GB GPUs;
16 GB DDR3 memory @ 1866 MHz;
Windows 10, (64-bit); and
Microsoft Flight Simulator FSX Acceleration.


Verdict and Scores

Verdict

You will not find a better Airbus A320 for any sim - period. It's simply...exceptional.

Scores

For
Against
Category
Score
High quality Textures and attention to detail Complexity comes as cost to VAS Internal Model 10
Near full simulation of the aircraft systems At $99, it's not cheap External Model 10
Good documentation Flight Characteristics (does it fly by the numbers) 10
Flight Dynamics (does it feel like what it looks like) 10
Sounds 10
    Documentation 10
    Value for Money 10

Overall Score

Flight Sim Labs A320-X is awarded an overall Mutley's Hangar score of 10/10,
with an "Exceptional" and a Mutley's Hangar Award for Excellence.