by Jane Garvey
In the world of computer flight simulation, longevity counts and ASAs On Top has survived in this competitive niche for a virtual eternity. Like ELITE (see October 2005 Aviation Consumer), ASA also markets a line of full-bore FAA-approved PCATDs.
Lest you get confused, ASA also has a computer-based instrument procedures training program, called IP Trainer. We only looked at the proficiency iteration of ASA offerings, On Top. Six years ago, On Top was a solid IFR proficiency package with a some pronounced quirks. It remains a solid program and the quirks have been tamped down, with a couple of notable exceptions. In the interim, On Top has also added several aircraft. You now have your pick of a Cessna 172, 182 (more on these later) or 182RG; Piper Warrior or Arrow; Lancair Columbia 300; Mooney MSE; Beechcraft Bonanza V35, Baron 58 or even a 1900D twin turboprop.
Unlike ELITE, On Tops installation is dead simple. Youre taken directly to the flight control calibration and function set screen and, once cleared, on to the program start. Now pay attention. If all calibration values arent in the green when you hit Done, it will clear you back to the desktop without explanation. That will also happen with older DirectX installations (Windows XP already includes a useable version). Check your system setup before loading. If your DirectX is older than 8.1 (actually, as of this writing 9.0c was the latest), either download the most recent version from Microsoft or let the program install its own.
If you use a joystick instead of a yoke, make sure to check ASAs website for patches and updates. The Microsoft and Thrustmaster joysticks they have tested may have issues which ASA has addressed there. Apparently, the same is true for certain unspecified nVidia-based videocards when coupled with DirectX. They have a patch available for that, as well.
In ELITE, we could assign some function to every button, toggle and knob.On Top only allows yoke programming of trim, gear, flaps, transmit, map, timer and A/P disconnect, together with the look-see hat switch. On the other hand, those are the most desirable functions, so we dont see that as a big knock.
One other point of potential interest: If your desk setup doesnt allow for clamping a yoke in the right place while still accessing the keyboard, On Top may be worth a special look. Absolutely every function and variable can be selected and changed with the mouse. In fact, thats the only way to do so, which could also be a downer if youd prefer to tap a key for some functions rather than grabbing a mouse. To each his own.
One other thing about initialization and startup: Unless youre much more tolerant than we are, the loooooonnnngg start-up voice-over sequence will drive you starkers in short order. Fortunately, you can short circuit all that by tapping the mouse a few times.
When it went all digital, On Top lost the ability to force damping down of control inputs, so you will likely find it overly twitchy, particularly for semi-ponderous aircraft like the 182. Then again, if you can learn to keep the oscillations down on something significantly more sprightly than youre used to, the real deal should be a piece of cake. Most other aspects of flight characteristics we checked werent particularly spot-on, either. For example, select a notch of flaps at the marker and the virtual Skylane will pitch up-eventually-but much more slowly than is correct.
ASA advises that it intends to reintroduce the ability to tone down control input response in the next iteration, but the bottom line for the nonce is that accurate flight characteristics really arent On Tops long suit.
Speaking of which, one of our carps six years ago was that braking on the runway requires you to push forward on the yoke, which hardly promotes verisimilitude. Unfortunately, that quirk has survived and we still dont like it. Perfect practice makes perfect performance and all that, but we just have a deep philosophical aversion to inculcating a rollout habit in a desk sim that all but guarantees a wheelbarrow in the real world.
If you think about it, rendering several square feet of instrument panel on a square foot and change computer monitor will require tradeoffs. ELITEs primary flight instrument faces were 1 5/8 inches on our 17-inch monitor. On Tops were a hair over 2 inches and appeared significantly closer to real world relative size and spacing than ELITEs.
The primary flight instruments were about 6 by 4 inches in ELITE, while ASAs six-pack was a relatively capacious 7 1/2 by 5 inches. This has more significance than you might think at first blush. In the airplane, everything isnt located in the same focal point. (Dya reckon thats why they call it a scan?) Smush everything too close together and you dont scan the instruments so much as just shift central focus. To us, On Tops instrument placement, while still much smaller than the 182s real panel acreage, still felt closer to a real scan. Thats the good news.
The bad news is that On Top was able to enlarge and spread out the instruments in part because they lost completely some things ELITE has such as circuit breakers. Mostly, however, its a function of layering various components under whatever instrument displays you select on the right side of the screen. Select the avionics button at the top right of the glareshield and a nice big navcomm stack appears-right over both OBS heads in a traditional setup. Theres an option for displaying frequencies in smaller boxes above the glareshield, but you cant change them from there.
To get to the knobs on the fly, you have to click avionics and tune while the right hand instruments are covered, which could make for a fun and exciting miss, for sure. Pause to tune might not be terribly realistic, but we still think tucking the nav panel out of sight until needed is a reasonable tradeoff for a bigger, more realistic standard instrument display.
But while were on the subject of realism, some of ASAs choices on what controls stayed and went are, shall we say, eclectic. Personally, we dont really have a problem with losing the CBs. On the other hand, the aircraft selections specify the 172P and 182R, which are both normally aspirated. Cue them up and youll find no carb heat control and a funny little toggle switch labeled FP. When we inquired, ASA advised that they actually modeled the fuel injected Cessnas, designator notwithstanding. If you want normally aspirated, like ELITE, youre limited to a Warrior.
One very nice feature of On Top is the ability to do significantly more customizing with respect to the panel than is available in ELITE. For instance, ELITEs 182s come as package deals. You can pick either DG or HSI plus DME or GPS, but not both. In On Top, most available aircraft allow you to decide on placement of at least four and frequently five different instruments, including ADF, RMI, two NAVs and a moving map function.
Up-to-date GPS applications are vaporware in the flight sims weve seen so far, but ASA does go ELITE one better with their version of a programmable monochrome moving map VFR GPS. This at least takes a swipe at the GPS installations many (if not most) instrument pilots now have available, which ELITEs text-only units do not. Another feature vaguely like the more capable approach GPS installations is the ability to auto-tune frequencies from the map page and then resume your flight. And ASA tells us to stay tuned on the whole-panel GPS issue as theyre working on incorporating a full bore approach/moving map GPS option into their system. ASA was the leader among the mainstream programs six years ago with respect to out-the-windscreen weather modeling but they may have lost a bit of ground in the meantime. One mile vis on short final looks misty and most of the runway is obscured, but sitting on the runway in whats supposed to be a half-mile produces a nice clear runway and a sharp line with the virtual ceiling.
Breaking out on top is the same: a sharp gray line against a sharp blue one. Which leads us to believe that ASA has intentionally restricted the programs sharper weather modeling resources to within a certain spread above the virtual ground. Again, a reasonable tradeoff of processor power and cost against actual purpose.
ELITE will let you specify three different cloud layers plus transitions.On Top has only one. Then again, soup is pretty much soup for these purposes. Layers and transitions are cool and visually more entertaining, but other than potential distraction value probably not really essential to useful IMC practice.
On Top will let you specify variances for bases, tops, visibility, wind and turbulence. Program a 200-and -half approach with 100 feet worth of variability and you dont know whether youre getting in or not. One interesting quirk of the system is that runway lights wont turn on unless the NAV1 OBS is tuned to within 10 degrees of the runway heading, even for an NDB approach.
As with yoke programming, On Top has fewer options than ELITE but the basics are there. If you want to deal with failure of anything from oil pressure to gear or flap failure, ELITE is the better bet. If malfunctioning primary instruments plus systems, radios and the odd engine are sufficient for you, On Top will do nicely. And dont get us wrong. Failures arent just an on-off phenomenon. Program variations for AI failure allow sensitivity errors both ways, needle sticking and full precession. The HSI (if selected) can overreact or stick in place. One nice feature is the ability to click in the middle of the offending instrument at which point soap holder appears and covers it up for you.
On Tops map view has all the capabilities you would expect or need. The plan view shows just how well you did (or didnt) in that high-wind hold and the profile will show the sword fight down the glideslope. Actually, as sensitive as pitch inputs are, the profile view of VSI readings is downright embarrassing until you get the hang of it.
The critical flight instruments play back along with the profile and plan view and the significant flight data readouts. Back the replay up and refly, lower or raise the weather parameters and youre off to the races again without going through the whole setup routine.
Cost and Upgrades
On Top Version 8.0 is a relatively paltry $124.95. Theres a demo you can download online but it restricts you geographically to approaches within a 75 mile radius of Helena, Montana. As if that werent enough, every five minutes the screen will freeze for 15 seconds or so while they remind you-again-how much you really, really should go ahead and buy. In other words, even if youre happy just practicing a handful of approaches where the deer and the antelope play, theyre going to annoy you into buying the program, which is fair.
The 100+ page manual is thorough but only about 75 pages address the personal-use simulator program itself. The rest is operating procedures for the included aircraft, PCATD setup and troubleshooting. We found ourselves having to root around a bit to find the magic decoder ring for some of the less intuitive button and toggle labels and the like.
There was nothing on the Website as of this writing about the return policy if youre not happy after trying it out, but ASA assured us when we asked that theyre extremely flexible and want happy customers, current or prior. If youve had a different experience, let us know and well note it in the final roundup.
New iterations of the program appear about every 12 to 18 months. Again, we couldnt find anything about upgrades on the Website but ASA responded to our inquiry that $79.95 will bring any version up to the current level with a completely new program rather than incremental add-ons. Fair enough.
The On Top navigational database is updated annually. If your local airport or navaids are changed or added in the meantime, the internal Database Editor can be used to modify the data. By the way, On Top also has a dual monitor capability, but we didnt check that out. Unlike ELITE, On Top has no available ATC scenarios. They say theyre working on it, but its too early in the process to give us any details.
ELITE is slicker and more fully featured in some ways, but we came away from our early hours with On Top with the feeling that this was a program that kept its eye on the IMC practice ball, consciously discarding some frills and furbelows in favor of greater accessibility and generic utility and lower cost. Yeah, you cant do three cloud layers with transitions and the graphics arent as slick, but a bigger and more customizable instrument group for 10 different airplanes for a hundred bucks and change aint bad. Will it win the shootout when alls said and done? Tune in next time for the next thrilling episode of As the Gyro Turns.
Contact – Aviation Supplies & Academics, 800-272-2359, www.asa2fly.com.
-Jane Garvey is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. This is the second in a series of articles about IFR simulator programs. If you have feedback on On Top or any other program, we would be delighted to hear from you at [email protected].