Asobo Studios have released the first post launch aircraft into the Microsoft Flight Simulator marketplace and they have done it with a new aircraft type for the sim – an ultralight. The Top Rudder 103 Solo is a tiny aircraft with a small engine, an exposed airframe, and almost nothing separating your virtual pilot from the satellite streamed, AI parsed, autogenerated world around you. What’s it like? What does it add to the sim? Is it worth buying? Let me try and answer!
About the Top Rudder 103 Solo
According to the company website, Top Rudder wants to “create a ruckus” in the aviation market with their 103 Solo and Ruckus ultra light aircraft. Intended to be used in back country flying, these ultralight aircraft pack a Polini Thor 250 liquid cooled engine with 36.5 horsepower on tap – that extra .5hp really make a difference! It’s not much, but for an aircraft that weighs around 300 lbs, it’s all that’s needed to get this aircraft up in the air and flying around.
The real aircraft can be purchased through the Top Rudder online store for $15,500 USD. By airplane standards, this is a cheap and affordable purchase. But if you don’t have $15 grand lying around for an airplane, maybe $9.99 on the Microsoft Flight Simulator Marketplace may do the trick for you.
A few firsts
As I mentioned in the introduction, this is Asobo Studios’ first aircraft to be sold on the marketplace. Everything else that they have built previously is in one of the three versions of Flight Simulator. I see this as a unique moment for the developer and for the sim as a result. It’s also one of two aircraft that the studio announced recently and I’m pleased to see that their aircraft team will continue to make new types as time goes on.
Asobo Studio’s aircraft have all been excellently crafted when it comes to the visuals. Indeed, the appeal of the whole sim has been with its graphics and this aircraft is no let down. The Solo 103 is a simple aircraft but I’m sure it was a challenge for the 3D model team as there are a lot of details on display. Most of the aircraft frame is exposed and so is the engine. In this way, the 103 Solo is a very visceral aircraft and I think Asobo’s art team has managed to capture that well.
The aircraft comes with several liveries as well, with some bright, vibrant colour schemes. Having this many is good to see and I wish that Asobo’s art team would take a crack at making a few more like these for their default aircraft.
It sounds good, well… sort of
Asobo has done a great job with audio in the past and once again they are scoring high marks here. The aircraft has a detailed set of sound effects. Wind noises, owing to the exposed cockpit, are custom programmed for this aircraft and you hear the woosh of the air changing depending on your speed and attitude of the aircraft.
There are the usual creaks and groans from this aircraft too. In a lot of ways those sounds are magnified because of the diminutive stature of the aircraft and you may not actually hear them this loud in real life but they do communicate to flight simmers what the aircraft is doing and I appreciate that.
Now, let’s talk about the engine sounds. If you were expecting a dignified roar from this aircraft, you may, need to readjust your expectations. The Polini Thor 250 is more akin to a lawnmower engine and much less a Lycoming Continental or Rolls Royce Merlin. To be clear, Asobo’s sound work here is at their usual excellent level but this aircraft does not have a beautiful engine sound. Still, I still hand them high marks here too because of the really good work they have done with the change in engine noises as the RPM increases and decreases. It’s believable and it keeps me in the moment which is great.
Checklists and start-up procedures
This aircraft makes use of the sim’s interactive checklist just like all of the other Asobo aircraft. I love this feature and I think it makes learning the aircraft easy.
The checklist is more fully featured than some of the release aircraft with a good number of pre-flight checks prior to starting the engine. This aircraft is also simple to learn so walking through those steps is a breeze. Aside from a few checks such as holding the brakes and keeping the stick pulled back, all you really need to do is throw the starter switch and the engine putters to life.
More developers need to make use of this sim’s interactive checklist system. It’s easily the best that I’ve seen in any sim.
A lot of character in a very small package
I want to start with the one negative with this aircraft’s handling characteristics. The thing that did irk me the most about this aircraft was the ground handling. This, like other tail draggers in Microsoft Flight Simulator, seem to have controlled tailwheels that are not free-castoring. Slight corrections on the rudder pedals make this aircraft easy to steer and easy to taxi. This is more of an overall issue with the sim rather than just this one aircraft so take it as you will. That was really the only real negative thing I found with this aircraft so prepare yourself for a few superlatives.
Takeoff in this aircraft is a delight in good conditions. Light winds are no problem but throw in a cross wind and things do get interesting. If the live weather is too much for your diminuative aircraft, you may need to either change it, fly somewhere else, or cancel those flight plans because it is a supreme challenge to pilot this in a storm.
Assuming the conditions are good, it rarely takes much to get the 103 Solo airborne. On my first takeoff run I hadn’t even had a chance to advance my throttle all the way to 100% before we were already, quite suddenly, airborne. That happened to me several more times and any takeoff into a pronounced headwind will allow the aircraft to almost float up off of its wheels. It’s not quite a helicopter but you can definitely takeoff in a minimal distance.
The Top Rudder 103 Solo is not a fast airplane. At various points I looked at the speed indicator and it said I was doing 55 or 65 miles per hour. It might go a bit faster than that in a dive, but this is not an aircraft that’s going to cover a lot of territory quickly. That isn’t what this aircraft is really about and going more slowly allows more time to take in all of the details of the world around you.
My flights over places like London in the United Kingdom, San Francisco in the United States, Crater Lake in Oregon, Mount Fuji in Japan, or over the Pyramids in Egypt are all examples of the kind of places you want to take this aircraft.
Asobo has also done a pretty good job with the flight dynamics. This aircraft is easy to fly, light on its feet, and you can easily do a 180 degree turn on a dime if you want to. A little ruder coordination is all that you need.
Stalls are surprisingly well modelled. I performed both power off and power on stalls with the aircraft shuddering and then rolling off to either side. A quick stall recovery procedure and the light weight of the aircraft means that you recover quickly but I was a bit surprised at just how quickly the stall happened.
I feel like this aircraft is also making me better at crosswind landings as even light winds across the field will require you to dip the appropriate wing and try and bring the aircraft in for a smooth landing. It’s a bit of a challenge as ultralights tend to get blown around more. You’ll also feel turbulence around mountains and over cities much more than you would in other types. It really shows off the wind modeling of the sim to great effect.
Ground effect seems over-modelled in Microsoft Flight Simulator and that does lead to unnecessary float during landing. But it’s a small gripe at best and not one limited to just this aircraft.
Asobo Studios tends to be very strategic with the aircraft types that they have worked on prior to release of the sim and I think they are being strategic with this aircraft too. The Top Rudder 103 Solo is maybe not the first ultralight in the sim but it’s definitely the first that the chief developers of Microsoft Flight Simulator have put together and that suggests to me that there are not only releasing their own aircraft but opening the door to more types of aircraft in this class with engine and flight modeling tweaks both now and in the future that should help out other releases.
Top Rudder 103 Solo is in essence a really well polished testbed or benchmark for them to compare against in the future. I should be clear, however, that this isn’t just a science experiment and Asobo have pulled out all of the stops to make a fun, sporty, fully featured ultralight. There isn’t a lot of depth to an aircraft like this but Asobo have ensured that everything you need to have a good ultralight experience is present. The detailed flight model, wide variety of liveries, full featured interactive checklist and superb sounds, all show plenty of polish where it could easily have been glossed over.
With a low price of $9.99 USD in the Marketplace, this is also a low-cost purchase if you’re looking for a sporty sightseeing aircraft that takes ages to get wherever it’s going but which lets you appreciate where you are right now to the maximum. I can easily recommend it!