Threshold Review: Just Flight Turbo Arrow III/IV and SimCoders REP
March 9, 2021
Piper developed the Cherokee line of PA-28 airframes in the 1960s to compete in the class of low-end four-seaters that Cessna was dominating with its 172. PA-28 types originally released with fixed landing gear, and the Arrow line introduced the retractable gear that allowed the PA-28 to compete with Mooney airframes. Piper developed its Arrow line through four marks, originally, including turbocharged variants of the III and IV marks into the 1980s, the final two of which Just Flight and Thranda packaged together into modules for X-Plane 11.
In this review, I will refer to the Just Flight package of Turbo Arrow III and IV as the “Turbo Arrow” or often just the “Arrow” because the modules both look and feel similar and share a legacy with both prior Arrow marks and the PA-28 family as a whole. Please excuse my imprecision.
The Just Flight Turbo Arrow is cozy, and flying it feels like sinking into a favorite sofa. Dashboard gauges are limited to pure essentials, performance is snappy, and both operation and maintenance are simple enough to entice even those simulation pilots most opposed to checklists and ground operations. In almost every sense, Just Flight have captured the essence of the real Turbo Arrow with their X-Plane 11 module.
The external modeling of the Turbo Arrow is excellent for both the III and IV types. Surfaces are round or sharp where they ought to be. Metal glimmers crisply. The control surfaces, especially, render like solid components capable of steering an aircraft through the air. There is a humility to the Just Flight house style, which seems to favor modest liveries and soft texturing (opposed to the photoreal 4K style currently in vogue), but this humility also gives great weight to their models. The gentleness of their texturing allows for a blending between components; there are no seams anywhere, and thus no uncanny valley to the look of their virtual airplanes. Someone at the company recognizes the difference between the goals of simulation and replication, and thus Just Flight have established itself as a proper simulation outlet.
The Arrow cockpit transports its pilot to 70s suburban America, and decorative trimmings coupled with the plane’s operational characteristics suggest an effort by Piper to seamlessly transition the average American from automobile to the sky. The Arrow is soft, worn, and vintage. There are red (or blue) fabric and pleated window curtains. The floor is carpeted. The dash is cream and contains only essential instruments across a thin two rows. Below the main panel are rectangular half-dials indicating engine health, then a mere handful of rocker toggles for lights, pitot heat, and master systems. A couple of rotary controls manage light intensity. Most of the Arrow interface is unique and hand-designed. Cockpits like this stand out amidst the modular panels of silver toggles and dials common to aviation; they stand out even more when compared to the modern, near-universal Garmin units that now control GA aircraft. The hand-crafted design of the Arrow cockpit makes the plane easy to learn; a pilot's brain quickly tunes to the unique form and function of each display and control. The direct width and vertical shortness of the Arrow dashboard lends itself to simulation on our wide, 2-dimensional monitors. Virtual pilots will develop a couple of simple flows from left to right in operating the aircraft, and in a simulation sense the Arrow requires almost no intense zooming to read labels of uniform, indiscriminate toggle switches (it has none of these).
Packaged with my copy of the Turbo Arrow is a Reality Expansion Pack add-on by SimCoders. The Reality Expansion Pack includes deep pre-flight walk-around features with manual static-element removal (click your chocks, tie-downs, pitot covers) and control surface checks (hold button to jiggle aileron). The simplicity of the Arrow lends itself well to pre-flight checklists as even a sim pilot on a limited time budget (like myself) can still complete them in an extra minute or two. Also included in the REP is a maintenance and economy system that allows an Arrow pilot to monitor and optimize fluids (oil type and fill level), subsystem component health and variants (big chonky spark plugs or fine ones?), and a log of flight income and expenses.
Contracting maintenance on the Turbo Arrow will lock the pilot out of her plane for a quoted real-world amount of time or may be completed instantly for twice the quoted price. I love the SimCoders Reality Expansion Packs in any plane I fly, as they transform my otherwise stale X-Plane 11 modules into a living, persistent aircraft. The REP also includes modified flight dynamics, sound upgrades (though average here, as I disable them in favor of the sounds added by XPReality Pro V2), and improved in-flight engine modeling; the full package serves as a compelling and noticeable upgrade to the fundamentally solid Turbo Arrow module by Just Flight. I need to note that much of the written reference materials provided in the Turbo Arrow REP are useful - power and operating charts for engine and airframe - but the checklists are bad, even incorrect. Buttons are misnamed or possibly duplicated by multiple names within a single checklist and checklists do not flow and seem cobbled together from multiple sources. I don’t know how SimCoders wrote checklists that don’t reference switch names as labeled in the cockpit; it’s odd for an otherwise detailed package. Thankfully the Turbo Arrow is a simple enough airplane for a virtual pilot to work her way through despite bad checklists, either by intuition or tutorials available elsewhere online.
The real Piper Arrow must be competently piloted - it is not as inherently stable as a high-winged aircraft - and this simulated Arrow captures the same spirit with its dynamics and systems depth; it too must be piloted, and the Reality Expansion Pack ensures this Arrow must be managed and maintained, though only lightly. For piloting, the Arrow cockpit has been laid out kindly; while the engine must be primed for as long as 30 seconds in cold weather, there is a chronograph built into the yoke to make priming easy, even pleasant. The Turbo Arrow has a primitive roll-only autopilot that can turn the craft to hold heading, follow a course to a VOR, or capture an ILS localizer signal, but the pilot is left to trim in pitch and yaw for altitude, speed, and turn coordination. Flaps are notched, fuel is contained in just two tanks that must be manually switched to maintain balance in flight, but that is as complex as the aircraft gets. The Turbo Arrow includes an exhaust gas temperature gauge for precisely optimizing fuel mixture as well as a fuel flow meter pinned below manifold pressure for constant gauging efficiency. The Turbo Arrow has every gauge I would want to monitor and manage my airplane and no gauges I’m inclined to ignore.
The “Turbo” bit of the Turbo Arrow makes climbing a joy. I have spent time flying my Turbo Arrow in Montana, the New York Hudson River Valley, Brazil, and Spain, and in every case, I can confidently outclimb the hills and mountains in my path while retaining manifold pressure. The whine of the turbo is audible through a lot of the range of manifold pressure, so throttling up to takeoff power is a treat. The airplane cruises at moderate speed for its class - 120 kts to 140 kts IAS depending on load and fuel burn - but it feels powerful. The plane both gains and dumps speed willingly, making short takeoffs and short finals easy. The landing gear is forgiving, the landing speed is low, and control in flare is sharp. The Arrow is small, so it jostles around in the wind; turbulent altitudes are unpleasant, but this response is common for small planes. A placard on the dashboard indicates a maximum crosswind rating of 17 knots, and any crosswind above four or five knots requires a significant sideslip angle on the landing approach.
When flying lightly or moderately loaded the Turbo Arrow rolls comfortably and holds roll angles without much stick pressure. A fully loaded Arrow wobbles heavily in yaw if rolling uncoordinated, and generally the plane is sloppy when heavy. The Turbo Arrow III has a standard horizontal stabilizer in line with the fuselage centerline, while the Turbo Arrow IV has a high horizontal stabilizer in T-tail configuration. If you told me the III and IV airframes fly identically I would believe you without digging, however, thorough testing of the two variants showed the Arrow III with a low tail to be generally calmer and more stable. The T-Tail Arrow configuration feels like it digs into the air harder when maneuvering in pure pitch, but any maneuvers outside of the pitch plane require increased coupling of aileron and rudder inputs to maintain coordination. Historically, Piper abandoned T-Tail configurations less than a decade after they entered the Arrow line as pilots preferred the more docile nature of the low tail during takeoff and landing. Sim pilots may find a preference between the two, but the differences are subtle enough that visual preference between the Arrow III and IV feels more likely to be the deciding factor.
Driving the Arrow is as comfortable as its suburban cockpit suggests. Arrows are not approved for aerobatics, but the plane is nimble enough to perform mild ag turns and sharp turns to line up tricky approaches. The trimmings of the cockpit in their reds and blues and the low sitting seats and low riding gear remind a pilot that flying planes is, indeed, cool, and inspires more carving through the air than the Cessna 172 with which it was designed to compete. I’m reminded of the timeless automobile axiom, “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow” when flying the Turbo Arrow. I haven’t yet mentioned the retractable gear of the Arrow - the feature that sets it apart from other Pa-28 lines - but stowed gear is yet another attribute that sells Arrows as sportier than they may be.
The Just Flight Turbo Arrow is inviting and unassuming, prototypical in appearance and operation - general aviation idealized - and with the Reality Expansion Pack add-on mimics the real-world airframe in quality and personality. Just Flight have published a visually pleasant module with well-built meshes, detailed textures, and vivid colors; both mesh and texture resolution appear a bit below the state-of-the-art, but even that detail of the Arrow module feels tonally appropriate to the unremarkability of Arrows in real life. Piloting the Just Flight Arrow is complex enough to sell the illusion of operating a machine, and simple enough to make a simulation pilot wonder why she doesn’t own a plane in real life (money, of course). The Turbo Arrow has become my favourite four-seat cruiser, and maybe my most familiar GA aircraft in the couple of months I have flown it. Just Flight and Thranda have built a fantastic simulation module that will fit virtual pilots like a glove. The Reality Expansion Pack by SimCoders adds further depth to procedures and maintenance to keep pilots interested indefinitely.
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