Threshold Review: JRX Design's SA 341/2 Gazelle

September 25, 2020

The Aérospatiale Gazelle is a scout helicopter developed and produced jointly by Aérospatiale and Westland initially for the French and British armed services and eventually for export around the world in both military and civilian variants. The Gazelle is an evolution of the Alouette family of helicopters known for their easy handling and excellent high altitude performance. Its notable features include a fenestron tail rotor system (it was the first production helicopter to implement a fenestron), an exposed turbine engine perched high on its back, short skids, and a three blade semi-rigid rotor system. 

It entered service in the early 1970s and set a slew of performance records both as a prototype and production vehicle, and despite its fifty year age the type still posts competitive speed, payload, and altitude numbers for its class. 

JRX Design have packaged both the SA 341B (military) and SA 342J (civilian) variants into their X-Plane 11 Gazelle addon. JRX have developed a Gazelle module that, in its simplicity of systems and instruments, encourages pilots to revel in its graceful handling and deceptive power, and one that convinced me the Aérospatiale Gazelle was decades ahead of its time.

The community mod Hughes 500D may be more nimble, the Dreamfoil Bell 407 more precise, but the JRX Design Gazelle is so thrillingly fast it leaves them both in a storm of Anglo-French dust; there is not a more capable nap-of-the-earth (NOE) helicopter in the X-Plane 11 library. 

The real-world Gazelle, praised for being light on its controls and supremely maneuverable, is often compared to driving a sports car, but considering its capacity to loop and roll, its superb mountain climbing, and its optional sand filter (the cockpit switch of which JRX have modeled but sadly not the physical mechanism) a rally car might make for a more appropriate wheeled analogy: maybe an 80s Renault or Peugeot, the decade in which the Gazelle hit its prime? Take your Gazelle to the switchbacks of the Alps, its high-altitude natural habitat, and it might podium in a Group B competition. The helicopter is twitchy and responsive when slow and, when trimmed to a calm attitude, can be whipped around narrow paths with mere nudges of its pilot’s virtual fingertips. The Gazelle is overpowered - it has the payload capacity to sling-load a second Gazelle - and that power margin translates directly to speed and acceleration. If a pilot can tame the JRX Gazelle she will find herself capable of both slow, graceful pirouettes and of thundering rooftop passes at speeds that would rattle most helicopters to bits. JRX Design have built the most captivating Gazelle in consumer flight simulation as well as a standard-defining flying experience among X-Plane 11 addons. 

Piloting

JRX have not provided the ability to spawn the Gazelle with engines running, a damnable sin for any payware I think, but thankfully the Gazelle is an easy start by hand. If you prefer cold and dark aircraft JRX have included rotor blade tie-downs toggleable via a flip-up panel on the main instrument console. Also included on this panel are copilot and passenger toggles, fuel fill levels, tablets, and doors - take your doors off; this is a proper scout helicopter, after all, and the view is magnificent.

A notepad with checklists and reference sheets is clickable next to the center instrument console. I vastly prefer diegetic interfaces like this options panel and notepad to proprietary pop-up menus; they allow a pilot to maintain her immersion in the simulated world and help the aircraft feel alive and physical. Starting the Gazelle requires a few switches, a wait for turbine wind-up, and opening of the fuel flow lever; a studied pilot can raise her skids in 30 seconds. It will take more than 30 seconds to set up your radios if you plan on either communicating or navigating with them; this is standard with almost any aircraft, though Gazelle startup is otherwise so simple it somehow feels notable. Other than turbine ignition, there are switches for windshield wipers, lights, and basic avionics calibration, but the Gazelle is mostly autonomous in its management; you will need all your attention to fly it, anyways.

The Gazelle becomes light on its skids with the slightest collective input and it hovers at just over 30 percent torque; a raise from 30 to 40 percent torque will jolt it into an uncomfortable vertical ascent, so the level of finesse required around the hover zone will surprise most pilots. Helicopter dynamics are exaggerated in the Gazelle - JRX is modeling an aggressive airframe and helicopter collective and cyclic inputs do not map well to table-top joystick and throttle controls to begin with - and pilots new to the Gazelle, especially pilots new to helicopter flight simulation, should not feel discouraged if hovering and low speed maneuvering are a struggle or even immediately unattainable. Had I no experience with the DCS Gazelle (I had over 50 hours), which controls similarly in a hover, I would have found this module challengingly spry. Pitch forward from a hover with only cyclic control and the Gazelle gains startling speed; this aircraft can achieve 90 knots with little-to-no collective lever increase from its hover state. As speed increases the rotor disc flaps backwards and forward cyclic input is required on standard joysticks with additional pressure to overcome their centering springs. JRX have provided a stick trim function that allows the simulation pilot to hold a button and return their joystick to its spring-centered location without the simulated cyclic moving place. The real-world Gazelle has a strong hydraulic system in between the cyclic stick and the rotor head, so a rotor that has achieved equilibrium, in most flight conditions, will remain stable without the pilot’s hands actively holding the stick. For this reason the Gazelle is considered easy to fly in the real-world, and it is the same reason such a thoroughbred of a machine can dual-role as both a trainer and a front-line military platform (it did so for the British). This stability does not, however, translate to most home flight simulation control setups as our typical joysticks recenter themselves (fundamentally different from most real helicopter cyclics), so X-Plane Gazelle pilots should learn to make liberal use of the provided trimming system. The Gazelle wants to fly around 125 knots, its smoothest speed and one where it is quick but weighty in pitch and roll, but when using 80+ percent of its turbine torque margin it is capable of 160 knots or more.

At its maximum speed the airframe jostles with wind disturbances and its response in righting itself to level is so mushy that these speeds are dangerous at low altitude. Flying the Gazelle at the edge of its performance envelope feels, again, like ramming a rally car through a cluttered dirt road on its edge of stability; it is exhilarating and irresponsible - the type of edge we ought to tiptoe in a simulation rather than real life. 

The Gazelle’s power can be put toward more than raw speed, too. Pilots will find two “cargo” switches on the center console; JRX Design have included a standalone (no additional plugins required) sling-load system that simulates a 400 kg palette of artillery shells dropped below the Gazelle belly hook on a 20 foot line. This cargo system, while not at as high a fidelity as some slung-load plugins, feels great and is a notable addition to a module that would have been perfectly competent without it. 

Visuals

The Gazelle has a lovely profile. Being of Aloette heritage it has an oddly exposed engine on its back, but besides this utilitarian protrusion it curves sweetly from cabin to tail boom; all the excesses of the Alouette III are shaved off, its components blend smoothly together as if designed generations later rather than a mere decade. When viewed beneath and slightly offset from the front, its canopy dominates and its engine fades from focus, its tail and fenestron appear to drive it, firmly, into the wind. 

From angles like this the Gazelle is a slick, natural predator, and with missiles or the greebles of war attached it feels primed to pounce; it may have been more aptly named, in the British fashion, after some dominant cat. JRX Design have done justice to this exterior profile; from a distance my Gazelle photographs better than most aircraft in my library. In and outside of the Gazelle I am impressed by the 3D modeling. The rotor hub is especially beautiful, as it replicates at a high fidelity the meaty elegance of the real component’s engineering. 

The textures, universally, are too smooth; on the exterior they are too shiny and on the interior console too flat. JRX have provided a bunch of great liveries for both the civilian and military variants, and I wish the material depth could do justice to their resolution and detail. At close zoom, the Gazelle can look out of place with the rest of the X-Plane world - shining brightly as if emitting light itself. I like to fly this module with a narrow field-of-view to help with depth perception as I zip between trees, which means I am inevitably zoomed in close to some portion of the main console; the console gauges are crisp and readable from any distance, but the space in between instruments is lifeless and sometimes distractingly bland as the rest of the world zips by in a scatter of color. A bit of roughness, a scratch here and there, any detail to suggest this aircraft is something other than a precise CAD model export, would evaporate these criticisms, especially since the underlying geometry itself is of such high quality. 

Conclusion

In reviewing this aircraft I barely took the Gazelle on point-to-point flights; the addon is so tempting to divert close to the ground that I struggled to stay on route when flying FSEconomy contracts. I rarely used the Gazelle’s plethora of radios, its GPS, or the full INS in the military variant. We all have our natural piloting styles and since tweaking my personal X-Plane environment and building my library of modules I have learned to appreciate radio navigation, route planning, and map reading, but with the Gazelle I regressed back to my roots of reckless NOE flying, mountain tourism, and pure VFR scouting. 

Why fly above unpredictable terrain when you have the control authority to ride its contour? Who cares if you lose twenty minutes on a timetable if you trade it for the thrill of skimming the surface of a snaking river? Piloting the Gazelle this way demands my full attention - I descend into a flowing stream of consciousness and the room around me disappears - and with my simulated doors off and my volume cranked, it’s about as close as I get to piloting a real aircraft from my home office. 

The SA 341/2 Gazelle by JRX Design is available for sale on the X-Plane.org store.

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