Aerosoft – DA-20-100 Katana 4X Review

For a long time, the Katana 4X was the most anticipated product in the Aerosoft previews forum. It has been available for a couple of months now, and I’ve been flying it for just about the same time. About time I tell you what I think about it.

The Diamond DA-20 Katana is a 2 seat aircraft built for training or touring. Characteristics of the design include a composite construction, a tricycle landing gear, low-mounted wings and a T-tail. The first Katana was produced in 1994. The version covered in this add-on, the DA-20-100, first saw the light in 1999, and is a version for the European market, powered by a 100hp Rotax engine. The feature list of the Aerosoft version is nothing short of amazing, as are the screenshots. So, let’s get on with the review.

Installation:

I’m going to keep this very short, as the review will be long as it is. So, the basics: buy it, get an email with serial, download the installer, run it, enter serial and wait…
It’s an Aerosoft product. If you have any other Aerosoft products, that will tell you enough. If you don’t, I’ll just say that their installations are easy and trouble free. One thing left to mention: the Aerosoft Launcher is included in this installer as an option, but isn’t needed for actual activation.
Now, how’s that for keeping it short?

Panels and systems:

This is certainly the most detailed part of this add-on, the systems, and associated panels. Even though the Katana is a small general aviation aircraft, it is incredibly detailed in its system-simulation, and has a lot of 2D panels. But unfortunately, I’m going to have to disappoint the 2D cockpit pilots, as there are no 2D flights instruments in this aircraft. All flying is done from the VC. All the available 2D panels are used for support functions only. But, before I start talking about the 2D panels, I’m going to give you more information about the systems. And first of all, the actual ‘in-cockpit’ systems: what you see and touch in the VC. The most amazing aspect first: everything works! And I really mean everything. Every switch, knob and lever can be actuated or moved, and has an influence on the aircraft. Even the circuit breakers are working, and tripping them actually disables the associated system or function in the aircraft. The radios and transponder unit are custom coded, making them more realistic, but incompatible with hardware. Fortunately for people that control the radios or transponder via hardware, there is an option to make them compatible, although operation is less realistic. The same is true with the flap lever and prop lever: you can choose between a highly realistic simulation, but being forced to use the mouse to control them, or use slightly less realistic animations or systems, but being able to use FSUIPC or default FSX commands to use them. The GPS unit in the Katana is the default FSX Garmin GPS 500, but with a full 3D mask. So, the GPS unit uses the default code, but is perfectly represented in 3D in the VC. If you have the RealityXP GNS530 installed, the same is true: working with a 3D representation. Apart from the above, there’s nothing much to say about the system side of the instrumentation. But, as I said before, the Katana’s strongpoint are systems, so it obviously doesn’t end with what I talked about above.

So, next item: failure and damage simulation. And not just the engine, or the controls, but really everything. And I truly mean everything in the Katana 4X can break. Whether it be through normal use over time, or because you abuse the aircraft, all actions will have consequences. Abusing the engine will wear it down sooner than normal use, eventually breaking it. Overstressing the aircraft will break the controls, and in extreme cases even the aircrafts structure, with all problems that arise from there. Landing to hard will damage your landing gear etc… The list really doesn’t end. Besides just things breaking through abuse, all parts will wear down over time and eventually need repair or replacement. So, even the best pilots will have to repair their aircraft at times. And, just as in real life, repairing or replacing something takes time. Luckily, it only takes a minute or 2 (or less for not-so-drastic repairs), and not hours or days as in real life. Also, everything about your aircraft is saved and taken to the next flight: hours, wear, damage. At least, it is in realistic operation mode.
Now then, 2D panels. There are scores of them, so I won’t talk about all of them, but I’ll make a selection of the most important ones. First of all, you open the 4X Menu with the shift+3 shortcut. After this, there is no need (and actually, no possibility either) to use shortcuts for panels. All panels are opened through the 4X Menu, and closed with a little ‘x’ in the top corner. So, some noteworthy panels. First of all, there’s the workshop, for repairing your damaged aircraft, or the service panel to service your aircraft (as in, change the oil, charge the battery, inflate the tires etc). There’s a fuel panel, with which you can refuel your aircraft by dragging a fuel hose into the fuel tank filler, instead of using the boring FSX way of entering numbers in boxes. There’s a very nice walkaround panel, that gives you a full overview of the preflight walkaround, with items to check. The Oil and liquids panel lets you check (and refill if necessary) your engine oil and coolant.
I think you get the point with the above, but I’ve not even covered half of all available support panels! But there are 2 more 2D panels which I need to talk about, although they don’t really fit in the above list. The first is the settings panel, and the second is the instructor panel.
The settings panel holds several different options you can choose, for example whether you want to use realistic radios, or hardware compatible ones, etc. One function I want to explain in detail though, is the operation mode selector. There are 3 possible operation modes: realistic, simple and instructor. In realistic mode, your aircraft sustains wear and damage, needs to be maintained and everything is saved and continued in subsequent flights. In simple mode, there’s no wear and damage, and you start with a ‘new’ aircraft every time you load the Katana. In instructor mode, the instructor panel is enabled, you start with a new aircraft, but wear and damage are simulated, and failures can be triggered. Although you can only change modes once per FS session, the possibility to change it makes this a truly wonderful add-on in my opinion: I leave it in realistic most of the time, but if I want to go crazy, I turn it to simple (although that happens only rarely), but if I want to challenge myself, I turn it to instructor, and bombard myself with a lot of different problems and failures. So, in this selection alone, the Katana 4X presents itself as a suitable add-on for every type of simmer: from people who like it easy, simple and trouble-free, to people who want to see how they handle the unexpected, and everyone in between.
And this brings me to the instructor panel. The instructor panel is used to change the aircraft’s status, condition and health, to set failures and influence performance. With the instructor panel you can fail parts and systems on the fly, add or remove fuel, oil or coolant, and even fail (parts of) the electrical system.
All available 2D panels are easy to use and very clear, although most will block a large part of your screen. Anyway, most of them will not be used in flight, but for example the instructor panel will, and a second monitor is very useful if you want to use that feature a lot, although you can get by without that second monitor if needed.

Exterior:

As described above, the Katana is extremely detailed in systems. But luckily for those who also want something for the eye, the exterior model is at least as good. Aerosoft models are generally good looking, but the Katana sets a new standard for small aircraft. To start with the 3D model: it’s nothing but awesome! The general shape of the DA-20 is perfectly represented. Smooth curves on the fuselage and tail, the tell-tale shape of the wings and wingtips, the large canopy… It’s all there. And there’s more, a lot more. Even the smallest details are modeled: brake lines on the main landing gear, the wheel rims, air intakes,  light bulbs, control rods, nuts and bolts, etc. The list goes on. When looking at the smaller details, you can find a couple of inaccuracies if you’re paying (a lot of) attention, and have a picture of the real aircraft at hand, but most things are spot on. And even the things that aren’t, will not make you think any less about the model. At least, they didn’t do that to me. In the end, the general feeling of the model is one of great quality!
Of course, a model alone, how good it may be, doesn’t cut it. You need textures as well. And bad textures will ruin even the best model. But, not to fear here, the textures are on par with the rest of this add-on. The Katana 4X comes with no less than 19 liveries (and more available for download), of which the greater part are German (D-… registration) or Austrian (OE-… registration) liveries. All liveries are based around a white background, but nonetheless, there’s quite some colorful liveries included. The quality of the textures is also very good. There are no blurry parts, no warped sections, no off colors. And even though the Katana is a clean aircraft, realistic wear, tear and dirt can be found on the textures. Especially on the underside of the fuselage, and the undersides of the flaps, you clearly see the amount of effort and detail that has been put into these textures. As far as eye candy goes, the Katana 4X is a real treat!

Interior:

So far, great systems and a gorgeous exterior. Yet, it doesn’t stop there! The interior model is even better than the exterior one. Everything, and I really mean everything, is in 3D. From the circuit breakers, over the flight instruments, down to the seatbelts and the first aid kit in the back! Clean, clear and very accurate modeling, down to the smallest details! And yet again, the textures are on par to support the great modeling. The entire cockpit is covered in great textures, showing lots of details and making every label or other piece of text clearly readable. A nice detail here, is that German and Austrian aircraft will have German labels in the cockpit, while most others have English labels. For the most part though, the textures are clean, having little or no dirt in them. But wait for the next section of this review before you decide your verdict on that little fact. Another fact is that this cockpit feels very real. Unlike many other ‘clean’ VC’s, this one doesn’t feel fake or toy-like. The reason for this is that the textures, although being clean, aren’t flat. With subtle color differences, and very good use of the bump maps, an accurate feeling of depth and structure is created. Even on flat objects, like the instrument panel and the carpet covering the floor. It all comes together to make this VC one of the best available for FSX at the moment. For a VC fan like me this is heaven.

 

Animations and effects:

As for animations, as my might expect already, the Katana 4X raises the bar once again. Obviously, all the normal animations are there: moving control surfaces, opening canopy, rotating wheels, etc. The same in the VC: smoothly animated needles, moving controls, opening windows and canopy. But it doesn’t stop there. Not at all. One of the most notable things in the exterior, is the shaking and buffeting of the empennage, caused by the turbulent prop wash. When on the ground with the engine running, the entire airframe shakes and twists. This is most noticeable at the wingtips and the entire tail assembly, and looks very good! When airspeed increases, this effect decreases. Looking good in the exterior views, this is also very noticeable from interior views as well! Airframe vibrations, be it because of the running engine, or because of the terrain your taxiing over, or landing and taking off from, also have an effect on gauge needles. You can see them shaking and moving under influence of those vibrations. This makes it look good, but is of course extremely realistic, and makes the Katanas VC so much more immersive! Another very nice feature is that the aircraft, both exterior and interior, will actually get dirtier over use. Dust and dirt will accumulate on the cockpit floor over time, and you might even stumble upon a living (moving, and full 3D) fly in the cockpit on hot days. Your choice whether to live with its presence, or kill it. Same goes for the windshield: over time it will get dirty. When you forget to close the oil filler cap, oil might spill onto the windshield, visible in both exterior and interior views. And of course, you can clean your aircraft. So, although the base textures are quite clean, you will have a dirty aircraft on your hands if you don’t take care of it.
Another set of animations of note are related to the damage model. If you break your aircraft, it will not only act broken, but also look it. For example, you can overstress the airframe, which will impair flight characteristics, but will also be visible. Very, very nice feature. More basic and less unique stuff, although still nice, is the ground equipment you can turn on: tie downs, a pitot cover, a toolbox, etc…

(take a look at the tail in the picture above: something is clearly wrong)

As for effects, the Katana is a daytime VFR aircraft, so don’t expect any fancy lighting inside the VC. There is some, but it’s very limited, although it does look good. The exterior lighting is also limited, but there’s something to say about it. The navigation and position lights are very basic, but there’s an option in the ‘settings’ panel to enable some effects for them, which actually translates into a small halo around the actual light bulbs. Nothing to fancy, but nice nonetheless. Especially the fact that you can choose what you like yourself (halo or no halo) is something I like. The landing and taxi lights are also special, as they actually light up the scenery, and not only the ground. Although this can be very  nice, I’m not particularly impressed by the implementation on the Katana. Mostly because strange ‘artifacts’, namely the lighting, are sometimes visible in places and situations they shouldn’t be visible at all. For example, a strange white triangle among the clouds in mid air… Promising, but I’m just not convinced by the current implementation.

Sounds:

If it makes noise on the real aircraft, it will make noise on this virtual representation. From the engine sound, over the flaps to individual switches and knobs. Each has its unique and realistic sound. The sound of the wind over the canopy will even change if you open or close the ventilation windows, and depends on how far you open those windows. I’m not going to note any highlights here, as I don’t think there’s anything better or worse than the other. The soundset in the Katana 4X is just that finishing touch: looks, though nice they may be, only get that truly immersive feeling if the right noise is there to accompany them. The Katana does this perfectly.

Flight dynamics:

And that brings us to the final chapter of this review: about flight dynamics. As with every other aspect of this add-on, great care has been taken in getting it right. And in my opinion, they did indeed get it right. Just to make it clear, I have never flown a Katana in real life. But the Katana flies just as you’d expect it to fly, yet it is clearly not some simple flight model. The Katana is a light and stable trainer aircraft, so it’s easy to fly. But this FSX version is not ‘flightsim-easy’. What I mean by that, is that it isn’t as simplified as the default FSX Cessna, or some other GA add-ons available. It does feel very realistic. A good (and simple) example of the detail in the flight model is the taxi-behavior. The Katana has a free turning nose wheel in real life. So, to turn you use either differential braking, or the rudder if airflow over the rudder is high enough. This is represented just perfect in FSX. You can even notice that the rudder efficiency is improved if you open the throttle. The same amount of detail is found everywhere: extending the flaps, clearly increases lift, but also drag, and causes a nose down action. Although spins aren’t simulated, accurate stalls are, within the limits of what FSX can do.

Conclusion:

I can honestly say this was a hard review to write. Not because the add-on covered wasn’t convincing enough, but because it was too convincing. The Katana 4X, in my opinion, has set a new standard other add-ons in the future will aim for. And, I think, it’ll be king of the hill for quite some time. Although I haven’t touched every aspect and every feature of the Katana 4X, this has become quite a long review that should give you quite a good idea about what you can expect in the Katana. But, let me say this: if you decide to buy it, you’ll discover some features and details that I haven’t touched, or aren’t even in the feature list. Yet, despite all its detail and completeness, it’s not hard to use. To finish, I want to tell you about a peculiar effect the Katana 4X has had on me: it makes every other add-on suddenly look a lot less appealing.

Like:

  • Amazingly detailed in just about every possible aspect
  • The right thing for any GA fan, whether you like eye-candy, detailed systems, or a combination of both
  • You do not only fly the aircraft, you also have to maintain it on the ground
  • Good framerates in both exterior and interior

Don’t like:

  • Lighting ‘artifacts’
  • Having to choose between realism and hardware functionality concerning some systems

Useful links:

Aerosoft Product Page

SimMarket Product Page

(One of the features I didn’t talk about: icing!)

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