AS some of you may know, I like old aeroplanes and one of my criticisms of Microsoft Flight Simulator when it launched in 2020 was that it didn’t have any in it.
Late last year, as part of World Update VI: Germany, Austria & Switzerland, the game developers added a Junkers JU-52 “Tante Ju” trimotor transport plane from the 1930s.
I won’t bore you with the history of the plane (I linked to its Wikipedia page if you’re interested) and while I was pleased to see a vintage plane added to the marketplace, it didn’t quite tickle my fancy enough to warrant spending AUD$22 on it.
As part of the World Update 7: Australia release, however, Microsoft have added the Fokker F.VII trimotor aircraft to the marketplace as an optional purchase (current cost: AUD$22.45).
The Fokker F.VII, along with the Ford Trimotor, were one of the iconic planes of early passenger/mail/freight aviation; licence-built versions known as the Avro 618-Ten were extremely popular in Australia and the UK while the Fokker version was used by several European airlines, often operating on services to their colonies in Asia, Africa and Oceania.
The Fokker F.VIIb variant has an iconic place in Australian aviation history – an aircraft named Southern Cross being flown by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and his crew from the US to Australia in June 1928 (representing the first US-Australia flight) and again in September when they flew to New Zealand, marking the first Trans-Tasman flight.
In light of this local connection (and the fact I like old passenger aeroplanes), I bought the plane from the in-game marketplace with a view to using it for vintage flightseeing.
You get three main versions of the plane – the single-engine Fokker F.VII, the trimotor F.VIIb with 1920s controls/cockpit, and the trimotor F.VIIb with modernised controls/cockpit, along with a variant with skis and another with floats, plus some “bush trips” appropriate to some of the plane’s history.
Given the Southern Cross’s place in Australian history, I figured I would test out its inclusion in Microsoft Flight Simulator by recreating the September 10-11, 1928 flight from Sydney to Christchurch in-game (it was not set up as a bush trip so I manually created the flight myself). Wigram Aerodrome (later RNZAF Wigram) closed down some years ago and is not in the simulator, so I settled for flying to Christchurch International Airport (which is very close by) instead.
Nowadays, it takes about 3 hours to fly that route in a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. It took Sir Charles and his crew 14.5 hours to make the flight, at an average speed of about 180km/h, flying at around 10,000ft and at the mercy of the weather the whole way.
By comparison, a 737 is doing about 830km/h at an altitude of around 40,000 feet – in other words, far above most clouds, storms and related weather issues.
Remember this was in a 1920s aircraft, without any modern avionics or even an autopilot – the plane was literally made of wood and fabric. It’s not like whoever wasn’t flying could just binge-watch Family Guy on a tablet while enjoying full bar service and hot meals as they did so.
I mention all this to not only put the importance of the flight into context, but also to stress how breakage-prone early aircraft were.
Even by those standards, however, the Fokker F.VIIb in Flight Simulator is ridiculously fragile and underpowered. There’s a pretty good chance the plane will overstress and suffer a catastrophic failure during takeoff , especially if you try and manoeuvre too soon after lifting off or clearing the runway.
My initial plan had been to run the flight in “real time”, basically simulating the flight as it happened (albeit with the “Unlimited Fuel” mod turned on to represent the fact the real-life Southern Cross did actually have enough fuel to cross the Tasman, unlike the in-game model).
However, I’m obviously not going to stare at a PC screen for 15 hours (I have a day job and a family, after all) so the idea was I’d do the takeoff and initial course settings on my own, activate the AI pilot for the trans-Tasman segment, speed up time in the simulation, then pick up control again (and slow time to normal) when the plane arrived off NZ’s West Coast and manually handle the flight over the South Island and landing at Christchurch myself.
It took at least three goes before I could get the plane airborne without it suffering some sort of “overstress” related catastrophic failure while I tried to get it on the heading it needed to be (even taking into account its slow speed and need for gentle handling)
Having lined the plane up and getting it more or less to cruising altitude (which took about 30 minutes of real time), I let the AI take over and alt-tabbed out of the game so I could get on with the rest of my work.
About two hours later, I alt-tabbed back in to check on things and the game froze when I went to look around the cockpit. I restarted the flight, and time-skipped to “Cruise”. The plane suffered a catastrophic failure due to overstress within moments of me turning control over to the AI, as it was trying to get the plane to a lower altitude.
I restarted the flight and this time kept manual control as I got the plane down to a lower altitude – then when I went to speed up time, the plane suffered another overstress failure before I could reactivate AI control.
Then I went into the settings and disabled the overstress damage, which made an enormous difference. I was able to get the plane airborne and heading towards New Zealand myself (although it still took ages to get up to altitude), set the autopilot, skip ahead to a waypoint closer to NZ, speed up time, then go and do some work for a bit while the plane flew over the Tasman.
I timed my return well, coming back to the controls just off the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island (between Hokitika and Greymouth). From there, I was able to fly the plane over the South Island (including a simultaneously beautiful and hair-raising crossing of the Southern Alps), making my way over Western Canterbury before managing a successful landing at Christchurch Airport.
I can only imagine the relief the crew of the real Southern Cross must have felt on their successful and safe arrival – I was pleased enough to have made the trip virtually, and the worst I had to contend with was resetting the simulation a couple of times and literally skipping over the boring bits of a 14.5 hour flight, all while sitting comfortably at my computer in the 21st century, so obviously the two experiences aren’t exactly comparable.
To round out the aeroplane testing, I took the “modernised” Fokker F.VIIb on a flight from Jakarta – known as Batavia back when KLM and KNIL (Royal Netherlands Indies Airways) were operating the planes in the region – to Singapore via Palembang. This was a real route flown by KNIL with the Fokker F.VIIb, and I figured would be a good chance to test the plane model with a mid-journey landing and take-off too. In the interests of adding a historical aura to the experience, I went with the KLM livery which was near enough to suitable for the purposes of this exercise.
The modernised version of the plane had better handling but still required a gentle touch and was irritatingly prone to overstressing and breaking as a result; I was able, however, to get the plane to Palembang, land, refuel, take off again, and fly to just off the eastern coast of Sumatra before something overstressed and the plane broke, ending the flight.
One thing it does make you appreciate is just how slow travel was back in the old days, and how precarious it could be if things didn’t go according to plan too.
I’m not convinced the F.VII model in Flight Simulator is quite right – it seems prone to overstressing and breaking easily, and it feels like it has almost no weight in the rear of the plane (meaning it can tip over if you brake too suddenly and for too long while landing on the runway).
Is it worth $22? That depends how much you like old planes. I like them a lot, and the Fokker F.VII is iconic enough for me to want to add it to my hangar, especially given it comes in a number of versions as well as several liveries.
The “Bush trips” you get as well are a nice touch, but things like the recreation of the 1928 Byrd Arctic Expedition really aren’t very exciting from a gameplay perspective – take off, line up compass with “N”, fly in straight line over hundreds of kilometres of ice until you get over north pole, turn around, come back. There’s also a recreation of Sir Charles & Co’s US-Australia flight, but given the headaches I’d had recreating the Australia-NZ one, I didn’t feel like tackling it.
If you like vintage aircraft and want an example of an iconic early passenger/freight plane with an Australian connection then the Fokker F.VII in Microsoft Flight Simulator comes with just enough novelty and extras to get airborne as a potential purchase – although it’s still not 100% perfect (among other things, you have to use keyboard shortcuts to get the engines started, due to an issue with not being able to set the fuel mixture manually in the cockpit).
If you’re not a vintage plane enthusiast, however, you’re likely to find flying the F.VII to be too different to a modern aircraft to be enjoyable – even leaving out the “prone to catastrophic failure” aspect, it’s slow, it’s not particularly responsive, and it’s underpowered.
If you like to take things slow and yearn for a simpler time in aviation, then the Fokker F.VII in Microsoft Flight Simulator will have some appeal – and if the bugs get ironed out, it’ll be even an even better addition for a (virtual) classic aircraft hangar.