In the first part of this review, we went over aircraft selection, as well as flight planning, preflight, startup and taxi, finally culmination in the takeoff. In this second part of the review, we’ll be picking up where we left off (immediately after takeoff). I cleaned the aircraft up (retracted the gear and flaps) and we’re now climbing!
Firstly, here’s a link to part one: click!
That said, let’s dive in where we left off…
After cleaning up the aircraft, we start the climb phase. If you use ATC, this is still quite a hectic time, with clearances and frequency changes. The flying however, if you can just follow your departure, is a little more relaxed. The aircraft is configured for flight, the auto throttle handles the engines, and the flight directors guide us over the correct approach. I usually fly manually up to 10000ft. For this flight, I even flew without autopilot until 13000ft. But, on the other side, you can engage the autopilot shortly after takeoff as well if you prefer. Whether you’re doing it by hand, or letting ‘George’ (or whatever you call the AP) fly, it’s basically just following the flight director commands. Although, obviously, you can fly by the numbers yourself as well. Upon reaching the top of your speed restriction (usually 250kts below 10000ft), the flight director commands a pitch down, so you can accelerate to your ECON climb speed. Also, at 10000ft, I turned off the landing lights as well as the passenger signs. As 10000ft is also the transition altitude in Australia, I also set my altimeter setting to STD (standard or ISA pressure, 1013hPa or 29.92 Inches Hg). What stands out to me in the climb, is that the autopilot (or flight director, for that matter) perfectly respects all speed and altitude restrictions. This is something the better part of flightsim add-ons struggle with, but the NGX gets it right!
I’m going to use this section to talk about the Head Up Guidance System as well, although it’s more relevant in the previous section. The Head Up Guidance System (HGS or HUGS) is the name of the entire system and associated avionics, but what matters to us is the actual display unit, the HUD, or Head Up Display. You can use the HUD during taxi, but I only lower it when I’m ready to turn onto the runway. The HUD is very, very useful during the takeoff roll and initial climb, as it shows both a speedtape with the important V-speeds, and an altitude tape. It also features a flight director readout, which becomes useful shortly after lifting off (you shouldn’t look at it when rolling, other things are more important at that time). As soon as you confirmed your engines are running stable, using the HUD eliminates any ‘head-down’ requirement. This way, you keep situational awareness as high as possible. The HUD in the PMDG 737 NGX is superbly modeled. It very clear and very smooth. It ‘s also fully collimated, like the real one, which means that it’s perfectly calibrated against the world you see. Also, the displayed information is always displayed in front of you. So, if you move your head, the HUD stays fixed, but the projected information moves with your head. This also means that if you look sideways at the HUD, you see nothing. It’s just like that in real life as well. This fully simulated HGS is truly a party-piece on the NGX. I’m talking about it in the climb section because the takeoff section was already very long, and I tend to use it quite a lot in the climb as well, until I turn on the auto pilot. I only have a 17” screen, so I take full advantage of the fact I can zoom in on the HUD, and still see all required information (speed, altitude, vertical speed, flight director mode…) while also keeping an eye on the outside. Unless flying aircraft with accurate airline options (and no HGS), I don’t fly without the HGS anymore.
There’s not a lot to do in terms of flying once you’re cruising. You can get the occasional flight plan alteration or altitude change, but except for those situations, you just end up monitoring the aircraft. So basically you end up checking the flight progress, altitude, fuel consumption and keeping in contact with ATC. Because of this, this is the time in the review to focus on some aspects of this aircraft add-on. Let’s do some visuals first.
I already mentioned the 737 NGX virtual cockpit looks awesome. Well, there aren’t a lot of other words I can use. Very detailed, very clean (modeling wise, not talking about the dirt on the textures) and yet very efficient modeling, coupled with ‘top of the class’ textures. The textures are sharp and detailed, and have lots of details. The VC is dirty, dusty and used. It’s not too prominent, this wear and tear, but you certainly get the feeling of flying a used aircraft that I love so much. At the time of writing (and probably a lot of time after that) this is the single best virtual cockpit available for FSX. When we look at the outside (one of those things that make FS so much fun, try taking an outside look of your real world aircraft at FL340…) we again get a very accurate and extremely good look exterior model. The smallest details are modeled, yet the big picture isn’t forgotten either. Once again, very, very good. When looking at the textures, I always get a double feeling. They’re clean and good, no doubt about that, but I can’t shake the feeling PMDG could’ve done more with them. Especially considering they used huge 4096×4096 pixel texture files, and more than one of those. Again, the texturing is certainly not bad, but it isn’t amazing either.
But now onto something I’ve not talked about in my previous NGX reviews: cockpit interaction. It’s something that applies both in 2D and 3D cockpits, although I mainly use the 3D virtual cockpit. To make using knobs and switches easier in the NGX, PMDG included a lot of custom mouse cursor shapes. The meaning of these shapes in explained in the manual, and even if you don’t study them, and can’t remember what they actually mean, they’re of great use in the sim. This is because they clearly tell you that you have several functions available, and you don’t have to look for them or guess. If the cursor changes, the function you can activate is different. This is not so trivial as it may sound at first. In the beginning I thought that I wouldn’t notice the difference, but I’ve learned that those different cursor shapes really help you along the way. They tell you how to actuate a switch, they tell you whether it has more than one way to actuate, you can even notice when you touch a ‘secondary’ command on a switch. Although not visible in screenshots, nor advertized on any product page, it’s details like these that make the NGX so much easier and more fun to use. A related feature is that, when using 2D panels, you don’t have to (although you can) use the ‘shift+number’ keypresses that FSX normally uses. All 2D panels have discretely labeled clickspots that you can use to open or close 2D panels. Awesome job, PMDG!
When reaching the end of the cruise, you can enter a STAR if you haven’t already done so. I enter the expected STAR (or other approach procedure) at the time I enter my flightplan in the CDU, but still, this is a good time to double check this, and check the weather, and make sure you’re not going to use another approach. In real life, ATC will assign a STAR and approach if I’m not mistaken. In FSX (unless you’re using VATSIM or IVAO), you have the freedom to chose one yourself. In this flight, my flightplan ends at the ELW VOR. The weather in Melbourne is basically the same as that in Coffs Harbor, so from this VOR beacon, I’ll be flying direct to the LIZZI intersection, and then the LIZZI 5 Uniform arrival followed by an ILS approach into YMML’s runway 16.
Obviously, at some point, you’re going to have to stop cruising, and start descending. At this time, 2 things happen in the PMDG NGX. First, if enabled in the options menu, FSX pauses a couple of miles before top of descent. Of course, the real 737NG doesn’t do this, but it’s nice to have as an option in FSX. The second thing does happen in the real bird, and that’s the CDU notifying us to lower the MCP target altitude, if we have not done so already. When this is done, the aircraft will start descending once we reach the top of descent. If VNAV is still engaged, that is.
At this time, make sure the landing field elevation is set in the pressurization panel (if set incorrectly, you will hear some warnings and alarms eventually…). Descend requires more attention than cruise. Also because the aircraft sometimes tends to overshoot its target speed at times. Be ready to use speedbrakes when the CDU asks for it. Or, you can use speed intervention to dive below the descend path, and intercept it again from below while slowing down. When descending through FL110, I turn the landing lights on along with the passenger signs, and I turn the altimeter setting to the local QNH. For the altimeter setting, you’re often (unless transition level is quite low) too far away from your destination to listen to the FSX ATIS (which has a ridiculously short range). In that case, I use the FSX map to get my altimeter setting. During this flight (due to the FSX weather I set up) the local QNH in Melbourne was the same as that in Coffs Harbor: 1025 hPa. Below 10000ft, the 250kts speed restriction becomes active again. The FMS has no problem with this. The aircraft starts pitching up (or less down, to be precise) and slow down in time, so it is around 240kts (standard, you can change this in the CDU) at 10000ft. A nice thing is that the deceleration points are marked on the flight path in the navigation display. Not only these ones, but every time you bump into a speed restriction, they’re there.
Pic8: Overview of the overhead panel in descend. Note the pressurization panel left bottom. You can also see the wing anti-ice is turned on. We’re flying through the clouds at temperatures lower than 10°C.
What I remember from this part of the flight is once again the accuracy of the flight directors and the smoothness of the entire operation. A VNAV descend is the single hardest part to program in FSX (at least, that’s what I heard) but PMDG appears to have done a very good job. The NGX isn’t perfect here, but apparently (again, that’s what I heard) the real aircraft isn’t either. Either being too fast or too high in the descend can be solved with the speedbrakes. Don’t expect miracles though, the speedbrakes on the 737NG, especially the heavier models, aren’t very effective.
Holding and Approach:
The PMDG NGX fully simulates holding patterns, so I wanted to use one in this flight. I took out my approach chart for Melbourne and entered the relevant information in the HOLD page in the CDU. For this approach, I’ll be holding at the BOL NDB, at 4000ft, the outbound leg of the pattern lined up with the ILS approach and one minute long legs. After entering this information, you have to execute the changes to the flight plan, and a new entry in the LEGS page is made that says: ‘hold at BOLNB’. The fix before BOL had a 6000ft or above altitude restriction, so once I confirmed the aircraft would keep to that restriction, I dialed down the MCP altitude to the holding altitude of 4000ft. The aircraft performed nicely, joining the holding pattern as it was supposed to, exactly as was on the map I had in front of me! Very nice!
My fuel reserve was already quite tight, and holding at BOL made me go into my reserve fuel. Not a huge disaster, that fuel’s there for a reason, but I made a mental note to take more fuel on subsequent flights. After flying a couple of laps in the racetrack, I was ready to (or cleared to by ATC, your pick) start my approach. I did my approach checklist before leaving the holding. Leaving the holding pattern is a simple matter of selecting ‘exit hold’ in the CDU, and let LNAV do the rest. At this time, I was ready to fly the ILS approach: ILS frequency and course were set, MCP altitude was set to the missed approach altitude and I was ready to start lowering flaps when the speed called for it. I immediately armed VOR/LOC on the MCP, as leaving the holding pattern would immediately put me on the correct course.
As I was using VNAV on approach, the aircraft did the decelerating for me. So, when the speed dropped low enough, I started putting down notches of flaps. First flaps 1, then flaps 5 (skipping flaps 2), when the glide slope came alive (the needle started moving), I lowered the landing gear, set flaps 15, and armed APP on the MCP, so the aircraft could do an autoland. As the aircraft started descending along the glide slope, I kept adding flaps until I had them were I wanted: flaps 40. With the landing checklist completed, I decided to continue the landing. After a while, but a good time before landing, the PFD announced a green ‘LAND 3’ indication that everything was good to go for an CATIII autoland in this fail operational aircraft. This was quite a simple approach, but even so, the smoothness I managed to fly it is good credit to Boeing’s design of the 737NG, but even better credit to how good PMDG recreated this aircraft for FSX.
Pic13: An exterior shot, showing the aircraft ready to land. Gear is down, flaps are in the landing position…
Pic14: Established on the approach, the PFD gives us a ‘LAND 3’ indication. Also note a feature I didn’t comment on before: you can bring up an enlarged, 2D, version of the instrument displays. Take a while to see how much information is displayed on this single display in this stage of the flight.
Once the aircraft descended below 2000ft, everything was good to go. Gear down, flaps 40 set, speedbrake armed, autobrake 1 set. I forgot one thing: the HUD. This is an IFR approach, and using all automation available for me, I had been ‘heads down’ for the better part of the flight. When I realized this, I pulled down the HUD. Not because I needed it, the aircraft would be landing itself, but because it’s so good looking and I like it so much. And because of the screenshots, of course. One thing you can see in the screenshots, is the one downside to the HUD: if you have it on, and the landing and/or taxilights are on as well, the part of the HUD symbology that’s over the glareshield, disappears. I didn’t in this flight, but because of this, I usually keep the landing lights off when flying in the daytime. The HUD appears just fine when the landing lights are off.
That said, all I had to do for a good landing, was monitor the aircraft. And everything appeared to be going fine, so we continued. At 50ft radio altitude, the pitch mode changed to flare, bringing the nose up for a smooth but steady landing. By the way, the goal of the autoland system isn’t to make a very smooth landing (a greaser) instead, it aims to make gentle yet clear positive contact. As soon as the aircraft touched down, a lot of things happened. Luckily, all of them were supposed to happen. The autopilot roll mode changed to ‘rollout’, where the autopilot uses the rudder servo to keep the aircraft on the centerline. Also, autothrottle switched off, the autobrake system started applying the brakes, and the ground spoilers went up. All I had to do manually was put the engines in reverse. Deceleration through 60 knots, I stowed the thrust reversers. A little later, I applied manual braking to turn the autobrakes off, and I disengaged the autopilot. I’m now firmly back in control, but all there’s left for me to do now, is take the runway turnoff, do the after landing procedure and checklist, and taxi to the gate. What’s to remember about the NGX here is once again very high level of systems simulation, and a perfectly working autoland and all associated systems.
I started the APU shortly after taxiing off the runway, so by the time I reached the gate it’s ready for operation. So, at the gate, I set the parking brake, switch electrical power from the engines to the APU, and shut down the engines. All there’s left to do is go through the shutdown procedure. If startup is fully simulated, you can expect shutdown to be fully simulated as well, and so it is on the NGX. I want to take the time to look at the ground connections here though.
As with all custom menu’s on the PMDG NGX, the ground connections menu is integrated in the CDU. The way I work most of the time with all these custom menu’s, is keeping the captain’s CDU for flight related tasks, while keeping the first officer’s CDU for PMDG NGX specific tasks: options, fuel, payload, ground connections… The ground connections menu starts with wheel chocks. You have to set these to enable any other option. When you set the wheel chocks, PMDG keeps the NGX in place by forcing the parking brake on in FSX, although you can turn off the actual parking brake in the NGX. FSX just thinks it’s still on. When that’s done, you can connect the other connections you might need: ground power, ground air and ground air conditioning. Pitot covers are also available. Nice to see: the relevant ground equipment appears in FSX when you enable an option. Going through the final shutdown, without anything else running, you can truly appreciate those knob and swith click sounds once again.
What didn’t happen:
Thorough as I may try to be, I can’t give you a full picture of the NGX without going through (and writing about) at least 10 flights like the one above, each time with different options, different situations and introducing failures. And it’s that last part I want to bring up again. In my first NGX review I mentioned the 3 ways the failure system operates: service based failures, user triggered failures, and random failures based on user inputted ‘fail ratios’. Next to that, there are of course problems arising from improper handling of the aircraft. Apart from checking them out briefly for review, I haven’t really touched the failures yet. I have experienced some problems because of improper handling of the systems by yours truly, especially during my first few flights in the NGX. What I remember from those experiences, is that all abnormal procedures and equipment in the NGX is working just as well as the normal stuff. Failed display, inop IRS, broken FMS, no problem, you can work around those problems as real NG drivers do. Something more serious happening, like an engine fire or pressurization problems, just the same. The Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) which PMDG shipped with the NGX in pdf format, is your best friend when battling failing systems.
Whatever failures happen, the NGX is ready to handle them. The only question is: are you?
Personally, I learned 3 things from this flight: double check your assumed temperatures, abort the takeoff if it doesn’t seem right, and take more reserve fuel. One reason I didn’t take much fuel though, is because my alternates were so close by. But still, I would’ve felt better if I had a little more.
As for the aircraft, well, this is my third review for the PMDG 737 NGX. I did the base pack first, followed by the 6700 expansion pack, and now this ‘in flight’ review. I think it’s quite clear how I think about this aircraft add-on: I love it! It makes every other add-on airliner bite the dust, and hard. This is the single best airline add-on I’ve used so far, and believe me, I’ve reviewed (and liked) several, but good they may be, the ‘overall package’ of the PMDG 737NGX manages to beat them all.
I have a gut feeling this add-on will be taking a lot of flightsim prizes and awards when they’re handed out.