Fishbreath Plays: SimplePlanes

I’m a fan of sandboxes.

Many of my favorite games are sandboxes, or have a sandbox element: StarMade is altogether a sandbox, Rule the Waves gives you plenty of latitude to build your own navy and your own history, Falcon 4 lets you play with someone else’s castle or kick it down as you please, and Command Ops, though less open than the rest of this list, still gives you the chance to do largely as you please inside whatever scenarios you can find or make.

So, when I saw that SimplePlanes, an aeronautics sandbox by Jundroo, who made one of my favorite physics puzzle games on Android, was now on Steam, I had to give it a whirl. We’ll get the bad out of the way first: it’s a port of a mobile game, and so the interface is not as powerful as, say, Kerbal Space Program’s (which is the natural comparison), and the parts list isn’t quite as lengthy as I’d like. That said, the flight modeling is excellent for a wee building game like this, and as with any building game, there are some superb examples out there. For another downside, there isn’t a lot to do; as far as I can tell, there isn’t a way to add new maps or new challenges, which is a shame. Either one would add a ton of longevity to the game. Finally, the combat bits could be expanded upon a little—damage is very binary right now, and hitting a plane with anything will usually pop it.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the good. I’m going to do this by discussing some of the things I have built; namely, the aircraft carried by the zeppelin Inconstant, from Skypirates: the Kestrel, Falcon, Vulture, Albatross, and Gorcrow. All are based off of real-world designs. The Kestrel is a riff on the XP-55 Ascender, the Falcon is based on any number of (generally French) twin-boom pusher designs of the immediate prewar and postwar periods, the Vulture is a recreation of the Sh-Tandem, a Russian ground-attack design, the Albatross is a Blohm & Voss-inspired asymmetric design, and the Gorcrow is more or less every medium bomber between 1930 and 1945. (Note that I made a few modifications to fit my zeppelin-borne aircraft requirements and restrictions, which you’ll find at the end of this post.)

The Kestrel is one of my favorites, owing to its handling characteristics. The twin coaxial engines, with a total of 1,500 horsepower for only 6,000 pounds full load, push it to speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour. It fields an excellent anti-aircraft punch, and has superb maneuverability at high speeds. Its weakness comes mainly in its low-speed handling: its vertical stabilizers are small, to limit the drag they add, but this creates a prominent tendency to yaw instability at landing speed. As such, it’s a design that’s likely very prone to landing mishaps, and requires a steady hand on the stick and active feet on the pedals to put onto the skyhook. Though the design is unusual, it flies very well, responding smoothly with little adverse yaw or other undesirable handling characteristics. At the edges of its envelope, it can sometimes get the pilot into trouble; unrecoverable flat spins are a possibility.

In design, the Falcon is much more conservative: it treads on no unusual aeronautical ground. The twin-boom design provides some added damage resistance; losing the back of one boom isn’t immediately fatal. It’s powered by a 1,250-horsepower engine, about the largest single engine we can expect to find in the world of Skypirates, and has a maximum takeoff weight of about 9,000 pounds. (The version posted is overweight, and needs to be slimmed down.) With rather a lower power-to-weight ratio, it only reaches about 320 miles per hour, significantly slower than the Kestrel. Although its gun armament is less heavy than the Kestrel’s, it makes up for that loss in firepower by mounting several racks for air-to-air and air-to-ground rockets. Its flight characteristics befits its character: rugged and dependable, with very few surprises, although it does have a tendency to stall the lower wing in tight, low-speed turns.

The Vulture is probably the one whose looks most closely match its intended purpose. A light bomber and ground-attack plane, the Vulture is the usual aircraft of choice when Inconstant needs to make a show of force. Its unusual design gives it a great deal of lift for its footprint, and permit all of its hardpoints to be placed along the same axis as its center of mass: dropping weapons doesn’t change its balance at all, making it a forgiving platform when carrying large weapons. The centerline mount supports an aerial torpedo, but only when the plane is air-launched—aerial torpedoes are too long otherwise. (Note that Inconstant doesn’t carry Vultures equipped with landing gear.) To my surprise, the Vulture’s handling is docile in the extreme, even when fully loaded, and turns downright peppy when empty, even though it only sports a 1,000-horsepower engine. I ran into no surprises anywhere in the envelope.

The Gorcrow, powered by a pair of 700-horsepower engines, is a conventional medium bomber, with all that implies. Its handling is ponderous, but it can sling a heavy load of bombs or rockets, or three aerial torpedoes, making it Inconstant‘s heaviest hitter by far. Three gun positions, one at the back of each engine nacelle, and one atop the fuselage, round out its weapon fit. Again, an unsurprising performer—not spritely, and predictable in its handling. Unlike the other aircraft on the list so far, its bringback weight is somewhat less than its full fuel empty weight. Inconstant being fairly light on avgas stores, her Gorcrows are generally only launched when absolutely necessary, to avoid having to dump fuel overboard before landing. The in-universe version has a glazed nose, but I haven’t figured that out yet.

The Albatross, powered by two 800-horsepower engines, is a long-range transport aircraft, and also one of my favorites for its sheer unlikeliness. Although Herrs Blohm und Voss built similar aircraft for the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, I was a little concerned that the flight engine wouldn’t handle it well, given the presumably-complicated aerodynamics at play. To my surprise, it worked fine, and isn’t even particularly touchy. Anyway, the 1,600 combined horsepower pushes her to a good turn of speed when empty, nearly as fast as the Falcon, and pegs her total cargo capacity at just over four tons. The asymmetry does mean she has some slight balance concerns, but in-universe, it’s easily trimmable. Low-speed handling is good, thanks to the fat wings. Even with the asymmetric nature of the pitching and yawing forces, owing to the offset position of the empennage, it has surprising maneuverability when empty. Same remark about the glazed nose.

Now, I didn’t even get into the built-in challenges, or into serious modding. I was just messing around, and in the course of learning how to build airplanes, building these, and coming up with my flight reports, I got more than my $10 of fun. I also got at least $10 of storytelling value out of it: I now have quirks and flight characteristics in mind better for each of these planes than I did before, and I can work that into stories.

If you’re looking for a plane construction sandbox, look no further.

Fishbreath’s Zeppelin-Borne Aircraft Construction Rules for SimplePlanes

  1. Airframes should range between about 3 tons and 12.5 tons full load.
  2. Aircraft must be shorter than 70 feet and have a wingspan less than 110 feet.
  3. No single engine may develop more than 1250 horsepower.
  4. Aircraft must have a bringback-weight stall speed of 110mph or less. (The other 20-30mph to get down to zeppelin speed is assumed to come from flaps.)

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