Review: Icarusgold Pitts Special S2B

A new old aerobatic biplane has hit the streets folks, and your favourite neighbourhood Eagleskinner has taken it upon himself to give this Little plane the once over – and maybe even twice, thrice and more.
Those who know me, know of my love, affection and experience for and with the Christen Eagle freeware plane that was made by Long Island Classics for FS9. As probably one of the maddest, most addicted aerobatic biplane drivers who cares to admit to it, it is a matter of honour that I take to the air in this new plane for FSX, after all. Turn the page and read on.

So it was less than an hour after discovering about the release of this plane, to the moment I was firing up FSX and raring to go.

Actually I had the feeling that IcarusGold’s Giuseppe was almost as insomniac as I was – he answered my messages almost instantly. After a couple of forum PM exchanges a review copy of the Pitts was crossing the ether and parking on my hard drive. Thanks Giuseppe

So what is a Pitts?

Pitts is a name. Curtis Pitts was born in 1916 into a world that had just entered the aviation era. Growing up in the depression years, one can only guess what the young Curtis Pitts must have felt, as he watched those early “barnstorming years” evolve into the “Golden Age” of aviation. Nowadays people talk of “Pitts” and mean an aerobatic legend who has inspired several generations of aerobatic flyers. During the 1930’s and early 1940’s he looked up to his own legends and was infected by the desire to create a plane of his own.

The result was a small biplane that was designed and built as a purely “one-off” aeroplane that he wanted to win aerobatic competitions with. In hindsight, the name he gave his plane was probably just a whim of the moment – “Pitts Special”. If memory and Google serve me well, his second choice of names was just as mundane – “Little Stinker”. I guess it probably was a smelly bundle of tubes and rags to deserve that name. But now, after more than sixty years of Pitts Specials, if you mention that name to any aviator I can promise you that nearly all of their eyes will mist over as that person instantly connects the two biggest dots in sport aviation and aircraft design.

That is what a Pitts is!


FIRST REVIEW STAGE – THE DOWNLOAD AND INSTALL

In a word: Foolproof! The download takes the form of a 78 MB zip containing readme, installation and instructions. This may differ slightly in the shop copy, but the installer is the Release Candidate version. Click, read, agree, click, acknowledge the EULAs and such, wait a few seconds and installed! That simple. However, I did make one mistake – When clicking through an install process, I didn’t actually look at the offered path to FSX. Installing on Windows Vista 64 bit, you have to be sure that the installer locates the correct folder for FSX.

Other than that, the installer is foolproof – just not quite idiot proof for the likes of me 😉

Full marks to IcarusGold so far!

Once the Pitts is installed, the new aircraft folder in FSX sim Objects / Airplanes folder unpacks to model, panel, sound and texture folders as expected. Also in the main folder is a sub-folder for some “Flight Simulator X Files” and onde called Paintkit (I’ll take a very interested look at that later!). All the other folders are more or less involved with the running of the Pitts – nothing really unusual or unexpected in there.

A read through of the installation instructions is recommended. You will discover that there is a note to tell you that the install has added files to the Addon Scenery folder and that you should make sure your addon scenery is activated in the scenery library. You will also discover that you should move the files in the “Flight Simulator X Files” folder I mentioned in the previous paragraph need to be transferred into the “Flight Simulator X Files” in Windows. These instructions may just confuse some less experienced user, so read through carefully.

What you get for your money here are some pre-saved flights that you can load from the FSX Free Flight setup window.

Summary:

+ No-nonsense download and install.
+ Simple instructions to configure and prepare the Pitts for flight.
+ Paintkit.
+ Pre-saved flights.

– You have to actually move files from FSX to Windows yourself. I would have liked to see that covered by the installer.
– Scenery is installed into FSX’s Addon Scenery Folder rather than a folder of its own.
– There isn’t actually a clue as to where in the world the scenery is.

I must add here, that the “MINUS” points above do not in anyway reduce my expectations or make this addon bad. Just hang around and see. And besides – there may be limitations in the review copy.

All in all, the download and install is 100% and as this plane will soon be on the simMarket shop, that fact alone should reassure all potential owners!

SECOND REVIEW STAGE – BLOW THE MANUAL, LET’S JUST GO!

My fingers were itching by now, even though it’s taken less time to install and prepare than it has to write the preceeding paragraphs. So let’s fire up FSX and see what we have. Go to the “Load” saved flight menu, sellect one of the pre-saved Pitts Airshow flights and wait for the sim to load…

First impressions – a tan coloured runway ahead, plenty of static AI planes, a spectator tribune or two in the near distance, some hangars, some birds flapping around the scenery… “Now where on earth am I?”

Check FSX map – Barber Field (C089), sitting on the threshhold of runway 35 in a cold and dark Pitts. A very swift first glance at the paint – G-BPLY – is reassuring. This model looks good. Let’s jump in and go.

Inside the cockpit we see a typical Pitts/Christen configuration. Altimeter, airspeed, magnetic compass, G-meter, manifold/fuel flow gauge, CHT/EGT, oil pressure and temp and an RPM/hours flown gauge. VEry much familiar stuff – let’s just see if I can start this plane “out of the box”?

But before I do, some plus and minus points:

+ If you’ve got some aerobatic hours already, this is a very familiar kind of cockpit. You won’t get lost.
+ The 3D modelling is very good . Here’s a plane designed over 60 years ago, nothing fancy, just good solid airplane!
+ A spartan cockpit – exactly what the aerobatic doctor ordered – and basically well textured

– A bit too FS2002 for my liking. The textures could be sharper. The gauges are good, but the labels and placards on the panel are way too blurred.
– Didn’t I just say we are in G-BPLY? The Panel label says N29 RG. A minor “oops”
– The controls in the front cockpit don’t move with the joystick

Right… how do I start this thing? I haven’t RTM’d but I think I know what I am doing.

Master switch? Under the panel. ON
Fuel pump switch / primer? Three to the right of the master. ON
Wait 10 – 15 seconds and turn the starter switch – I used the rotary key magneto switch…

WHOAAA THERE! The Pitts lurches under the start-up torque – make sure you have the brakes set and you don’t have the throttle opened too far. VERY GOOD! She started first time. Switch on avionics and alternator, turn fuel pump off. So far so good.

I watched the Ps and Ts rise – no problems there. Switch off magnetos one at a time – magdrop check – sounds right and the instruments don’t complain. Now for a fly. Ease the throttle forward gently… This is a narrow-track biplane with lots of horses under the bonnet (or hood if you prefer western atlantic descriptives)

Take off roll – the power comes on exactly as expected. Push the throttle forward and you will not be surprised. There is noticeable torque reaction as you let the horses free rein, but as long as you do it smoothly, there’s no stampede – although there will be if you don’t treat this plane like a thoroughbred.

The climb out is very “proper”. Ease off the throttle slightly after take off and adjust the trim – I don’t know what the book says yet, so I’ll settle for 85 to 90 knots and see what happens. There’s no rate of climb needle in a Pitts – what the dickens do you want one for anyway 😀 ? So using the stopwatch, I can see that a steady 85 kt climb, slightly off full throittle and just a touch back on the RPM – this Pitts is climbing at a comfortable 700 feet per minute. Not bad considering the start airfield is already 5000′ above sea level.

Start, climb and cruise around is absolutely straight forward in this plane. She’s very responsive to the controls and with ActiveSky real weather in effect, the odd bit of turbulence makes for excellent first impressions.

So… any concerns so far?

Nothing major, but yes:

I’ve flown quite a few lycoming engined models in FS and I have some real world flights with the Lycoming powered aircraft. The fuel flow and exhaust gas temperatures don’t appear to be behaving as expected. EGT is below 800° and fuel flow is very high. I can’t see a mixture lever or a propeller RPM lever anywhere either. Now that is odd, because I can use my joystick controls to move propeller and mixture and I can make things happen. I really must check with Pitts to see if this model has prop and mixture levers.

Unless I have missed something, this could be a fairly big minus. I’ll check back with my Pitts info and get back to you on that.

Stop Press

These queries have been addressed by IcarusGold and the model has already been updated.

There is a sharper aircraft dynamics configuration available.
There is also good reasoning for 3D model issue.

Read on!

Let’S go throw it about and dance on the clouds!

Throttle up, 135 knots, ease back to vertical. Hey, feels good so far, let’s hit the aileron!

Vertical climbing roll – Yessss! Stop the roll after two. Chop the throttle…

After a bit of practice I was doing “Hammerfalls” and really enjoying myself. The “Hammerfall” is just something I invented that is probably common as much anyway – it’S simply flying up and down the runway doing a hammerhead or stall turn at each end of the runway.

Climb up further – stalls and stall recoveries are as straight forward as can be, although perhaps stall speed is low. Again – I will let you know after checking the manual

Spins? Yes – if you keep the controls in spin. As soon as you let go, she’ll level out and recover.

Rolls? Yes. A bit slow if you are used to Extras, Sukhois and the like. Remember – this is one of the older Pitts models. Sophia Loren, not Shakira.

The IcarusGold Pitts does all of the standard aerobatic manouevers. In fact, after a half hour shake out over my desktop I was feeling ready to land. One especially fun aerobatic figure that’s worth doing is this:

Fall of the top of the hammerhead with a chopped throttle. Either way – onto your back or forward. As soon as your nose touches the horizon, hit the throttle and left pedal. Then fly out of the ensuing chaos and do an instant replay. You’ll watch that footage for hours and still not understand what you’ve just done. You have used engine torque, aided with full rudder, to tumble the Pitts simultaneously about all three axes – and a few more that may only exist in some Einsteinian theory.

It’s called a Lomcevak. This end-over-end, wing-around-wing cartwheel was invented by Zlin and Yak pilots and translates into English more or less as “Drunken Bum” – because that’s what it looks like: “You must have been drunk to do that!” It is also one of the most lethal aerobatic manouevers, because that sudden application of full power in a horizontal cartwheel can tear your engine out of its mountings.

On the other hand, it looks great for the crowds.

So now I’d given ourselves a work out, it was time to head back to the airfield for some more ordered display flying.

There was a great big surprise in store for me as I made my first pass along the Barber Field display line. “What on earth…?”

I think I’ll leave that surprise for you potential users to discover on your own. Just bring a smile along!

Although I had a really great fun display session, and I literally threw the Pitts all over the place, I did have a few minor itches. To cut them short and keep them simple though, I could imagine a slightly crisper set of flight dynamics. Four and eight point rolls need a lot of check-stick to stop the part roll crisply. “Thruppeny bit” loops (well – octagonal loops) are also a bit “soggy” and perhaps the airspeed is a tad too high (VNE should not really be possible in straight and level normal flight at 7000 feet up. The Engine and fuel instrumentation is a little behind and either Icarus forgot to model in micture and prop controls, or the Pitts doesn’t have these, in which case the FSX functions should be edited out.

Tomorrow I shall go for some more flying and see how the other 9 paints handle. For now though, my interim verdict is very favourable, despite the last few lines.


THIRD REVIEW STAGE – LONGER TERM FLIGHT EXPERIENCE

In the meantime, I’ve started dating the new GF a bit more. She’s definitely very exciting to be around. As I said a few lines up, this is no young lady. The more you study the lines, the more you see the true age of this design. When you look at her modern successors like the S2C, S2S, S2T and the  and the Christen Eagle, you’ll see what I mean.

At this point I would like to add a good handful of praise for Giuseppe and his team at IcarusGold. I voiced some misgivings about the aircraft performance and dynamics during the initial stages of my reviewing. I am not a real world power plane pilot, so my knowledge of sitting in a tight two-seater is very close to zero. I have flown gliders for real and I have gained many “second seat” stick hours as an aircraft technician, so when I wrote that I felt the performance was a little under par, it was a subjective comment. But IcarusGold took that to heart and listened.

There is a new configuration now available for sim-pilots who like their planes a little wilder. Excellent service there!

…and that also serves as a good reminder to tell you about the market this model really is aimed at. This particular FS model is primarily aimed at someone who wants a good solid practice plane. Something to learn aerobatics in, but something with a little bit of realism. As you trundle around on the ground, you get the rocking feeling that you really are in a small plane with a narrow undercarriage. The wings can – and will – bounce on the grass if you aren’t too careful. Once in the air, this plane will handle most aerobatic manoevers with ease and more or less by the book. It is an early S2 design, not one of the later real custom built show jobs such as Sean Tucker’s Oracle Challenger. You won’t get a climing torque roll out of her for instance. Nor will you get killer roll rates.

Also, the missing animations in the cockpit weren’t forgotten as such. This is an aerobatic plane! If you are flying aerobatics, you will not have your head down inside, looking at pretty animated levers. You’ll have a TrackIR hat on your head and you’ll be using a hardware throttle quadrant or the keyboard commands to set trim, mixture, prop etc. This is not a touring plane. This is a short duration sprinter, where you will need your eyes focussed on the world outside, beyond the edge of the cockpit.

If you don’t know where your controls are by now, then you’ll be spending a lot of time in hospital…

So whilst I had some misgivings initially about the detail of the cockpit, these were indeed purist misgivings. I was looking for things to complain about. The truth of the matter is, I have my controls on the desktop, not in the screen. So the lack of visible controls in the VC is not really a lack. I can see my own hands operating the controls on my desk and the display on my PC monitors is adjusted so that I can see outside. If I want to see the dials and buttons, I can glance down and see them. In the real Pitts your throttle hand is at thigh/lap level and not twenty-four inches in front of your eyes.

Why waste PC power by displaying something you wouldn’t be focussing your eyes on in real life anyway? And in that sense, IcarusGold have done a good thing. Which reminds me. In many aspects I am not an “FPS Junkie”. Everytime I hear some addon user complain about this or that addon having low FPS I can only shrug in disdain. As long as the sim visuals are smooth, then I don’t even look at the FPS counter. The visuals for this addon have been extremely smooth, so I hadn’t even looked at the counter until last night. I hadn’t even given the matter a second thought! All that flying was so smooth, despite the rough and tumble of aerobatic flight.

Now you can imagine my surprise, when I finally did turn the counter display on and discovered that I was getting frame rates in the high thirties. “That’s not that brilliant” I hear you say… well on my PC it’s a miracle! I have set my FSX settings for high visual quality, I fly with ActiveSky and Xgraphics enhancements on. I have the FSGenesis scenery meshes installed and a lot of visual improvements added. MY PC is no slouch, but the CPS is three years old, never the less. Most of my flying lately has been at around 20 FPS and I am very happy with that.

Aerobatic flying is a lot more demanding on your PC than point to point cruising. Even on FS9 setups you have to ideally fly aerobatic flights away from heavy scenery areas so that you can replay your flights and still see reasonable motion as you flick through countless different attitudes.

This, then, is one of the very few occasions you will always hear me asking for “more FPS please”… and the IcarusGold Pitts delivers! Throw this plane around as much as you like, and the instant reply will display your flight with all the spins, tumbles and twists that you flew. Even the mistakes…

FOURTH REVIEW STAGE – THE PAINTKIT

Aerobatic planes are the most colourful creatures. There are a few larger aircraft that give the painter something to do, but aerobatic planes offer painters the greatest number of real world variety you could wish for. Take a look through websites like airliners.net and you will be rewarded with enough different repaints for the Pitts to keep all the sim-flight world’s painters painting for years to come.

My first glance at the textures that came delivered with this plane was therefore somewhat of a disappointment. The textures are not even as good as the Microsoft default textures that come with FSX. See for yourselves; the screenshots so far have been taken using the include textures. From a slight distance, the artifacting fades into the anti-aliasing and the planes do look presentable, but take a viewpoint any closer than wingtip distance and you will see grainy textures.

What more of a challenge could an ‘Eagleskinner’ want? The paintkit comprises of a single layered PSD texture for the exterior paint details. What is more, there appears to be quite a large part of the sheet unused, as you can see in the accompanying screenshot.

There really isn’t much you can do with a single sheet texture for an entire aircraft. Here’s a twenty foot wingspan that takes up aout 700 pixels on the texture sheet. In PC terms, a pixel is still a pixel, and the Pitts weighs in with barely thirty-five pixels per foot or about three per inch. Put quite simply: of course the standard textures will look grainy.But I wouldn’t be a critic if I didn’t have the answers.

The layered PSD itself is good – all the necessary layers are there. The texture is relatively simple to follow and the parts of the plane readily identifiable. There is even a wireframe layer. Shadows, panel lines and rivets are separated out and there’s even a separate ‘lighting’ layer to give depth to the finished paint. All in all, this paintkit is something that even a beginner can attack with gusto and get satisfactory results with. So now it was time to get the paintbrushes out. Even I am satisfied with the efforts of making vector graphic images and logos for this plane. The paint you see here depicts the Road Angels display team Pitts that flew many displays in England in recent years. I’ll let you be the judges. I am happy so far and the prospect of doing many more skins for this plane is very high.

Yes, of course your favourite Eagleskinner went and painted this plane! Gow could I resist? My fingers had been itching since the moment the Pitts arrived on my PC – this is the plane I have been waiting for…

FINAL SUMMARY AND VERDICT

For Against
+ Good price – US $ 19.50
+ No-nonsense download and install
+ Simple instructions to configure and prepare the Pitts for flight
+ Easy paintkit
+ Pre-saved flights
+ Flight model that beginners can fly without losing patience and Experts can appreciate as well
+ Easy on the framerates
– Some cockpit 3d parts missing
– Some animations missing (second joystick)
– External textures could be better
– Dynamics could be sharper
– No real handbook with performance data
– You have to actually move files from FSX to Windows yourself
– Scenery is installed into FSX’s Addon Scenery Folder rather than a folder of its own
– There isn’t actually a clue as to where in the world the scenery is


But then who’d fly her?
All in all, the pluses far outweigh the minuses – and that is why I even left the text small 🙂

Product Info Test System
FS VERSION – FSX-sp1-sp2- Acceleration
INSTALLATION – Activation Code + Setup & follow instructions

DOWNLOAD FILE SIZE – 78.1 MB

Hard Drive Space: 178 MB

Video Card: 256 MB (512 MB recommended)

DirectX 9.0 or later

Processor: 1.500 MHz (2.400 MHz recommended)

Windows: 2000/XP/VISTA

BUY HERE

AMD FX62 based PC3GB DDR2 RAM

nVidia 8800GTS 512 MB RAM

Sound: onboard 8 channel

Many software addons ranging from meshes, through scenery enhancements to weather and landclass.

FSX Settings “High” to “Ultra High”

Here is an FSX addon plane that has a niche and a purpose. Maximum performance for your PC display to fly aerobatics smoothly and with a maximum of enjoyment.

Minimum requirement – if your PC was happy to fly FS9, that’ll do!

Verdict – Despite the critical comments, the fun factor far outweighs any gripes I may have voiced here. A winner across the board. I could fill a few pages with gripes and grumbles, but the “Yahooo!” factor is more than enough to counter this – and what’s more: the price is right too. Even though the dollar is recovering…

BUY!

About Eagleskinner (aka Chris Brisland, CBris, ChrisB or even “Oi, you!”):

You don’t really want to know, do you? Oh, OK…

Lives in a place called RAIN

Mid-fifties, aerospace engineer, quality assurance manager, flight sim since the early eighties and I once thought simulated flight ought to be cheaper than real world flight.

Real world glider pilot, a few hundred hours on helicopters as “ballast in control” – the pilots liked my work in setting their choppers up to fly smooth, so I always got told “you have” while the pilot dozed, smoked, read his paper or did the shopping list.

Four dogs, three children, two sets of wheels and (let’s hear it now…) a partridge in a pear tree…

You could of course visit Eagleskinner dot com or Brisland dot aero and be amazed…

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