Gary Summons' London Airports
By Andrew Herd (24 August 2001)
K I'm going to have to admit it: I am a scenery junkie. One of the reasons I have stuck with Flight Simulator all these years is that there are more add-ons available for it than any other package in its class, and some accident of fate has given the UK more than its fair share of talented scenery designers. The names of Barry Perfect and Iain Gallacher spring to mind, but if I had to name my present favorite, it is Gary Summons. Since his first freeware post in 1998, Gary has consistently stood out as one of the most innovative designers around, and a number of scenery "firsts" can attributed to him. Over the years, his products have grown steadily more sophisticated, and London Airports is no exception to the trend - very seldom has a product captured my attention quite the way this one has.
London Airports is a collection of the five main airports serving the London area: Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton and London City. The first thing to say about the scenery is that it takes no prisoners where frame rates are concerned and the minimum spec is a Pentium 400 with a 3D card to run the scenery in dense mode. There is no doubt that such a setup will work after a fashion, but you will get single figure frame rates if you have any cloud or use a complex panel. Gary's recommendation is for a 800 MHz Pentium and a 32MB AGP Graphics Card, and a machine of at least this performance would certainly be my preference as it will allow you to run the scenery in "very dense" mode so that none of the features are left out. A gigahertz plus Pentium would be better still.
If you take a look at the screenshots you will see why the specs are so relatively high; there is an immense amount of detail, with all the stands and air gates modelled at each airport, including all the double stands at Heathrow, and most of them have aircraft waiting at them. On top of this, there are no less than 44 active gates at Heathrow (8 with a dynamic catering truck, of which more later), 10 at Gatwick (6 with truck), 8 at Stansted (3 with truck), and 3 at Luton (all with truck). London City is the smallest and least detailed of all the airports, but even so, it still has 3 free stands.
Unlike many sceneries where the stands are deserted, these airports are absolutely full of statics and there is so much dynamic scenery that I switched FSTraffic off and sat back and enjoyed it. To some examples, the airgates at the free stands are animated and a minute after the airgate has docked the catering truck will move towards the plane, and after a short pause, lift its ramp. Three minutes prior to departure (determined by the gate timing) the ramp goes back down and a couple of minutes later the truck will backup. At some stands at Luton you even get moving airstairs which dock with the plane at the same time as the catering trucks. In addition, after you have docked at an active gate or stands, three cones are placed around your aircraft in line with the new collision regs. The whole process is quite magical, and the screen shot which shows it happening is one of the most enjoyable I have ever set up.
Docking boards are provided at many of the gates and can be identified by their flashing green lights. When the board displays 'stop', the airgate will dock with the plane, adjusting its height, depth and length to suit the aircraft type - and when the departure board says it is time to leave, the gates swings right back out again. I guess you learn new things all the time, because Gary points out that due to a bug in FS2000 the view is in the middle of the plane when you first load an aircraft. This problem can make the docking process fail, and the work-around is to look out of a side window as soon as you load an aircraft.
The departure boards are extremely neat. After the plane is docked the guidance system shuts down and and a "minutes to departure" display lights up. This is randomly set at between nine to twelve minutes, a trifle fast for loading a real plane, but ideal for simmers who don't have to cope with real passengers. At Heathrow, passengers inside the 'Europier' terminal even gather to wait for the departure!
The textures are very good indeed, the pavement being among some of the best I have seen and extensive use of custom tiles means that the runways (which have proper British taxiway and stand markings) blend into their surrounding much better than the default scenery. Many simmers would be amazed just how hard it is to spot even the biggest airport from the air - if real runways lit up the way Flight Simulator makes them I wouldn't spend so much time flying around wondering where I am.
As you can see from the screen shot alongside, the terminal
buildings have had the full treatment and they are all extremely
detailed, with full night lighting, transparent terminal glass and
interior detail. Judging from my airport charts, the majority of
the buildings that you would want are in there, and the scenery
density setting has been fairly well managed, with "pop-ups" kept
to the minimum compatible with maintaining frame rates. As far as
the taxiways are concerned, the vast majority of the holding points
seem to be included and some even have timed wig-wags, so be
prepared to have to hold until the greens show.
There is a lot to see as you taxi around, so much that even after a couple of weeks of use I am still coming across new stuff, like detailed perimeter fencing, and the fact that the static aircraft actually move position depending on which day of the week it is, as far as I can tell. This has to be one of the cleverest ideas I have ever seen in a scenery, because it means that the airports appear to be in a state of constant change, and you don't get too used to the idea of making turns on the ground when you see a particular aircraft, a practice which is hardly realistic - although tempting, at some quieter airports I can think of.
If you don't like the idea of using the dynamic aircraft, Gary has included FS Traffic tracks for all the airports. I didn't test these as part of the review, but assuming that the tracks are the same ones he has used in the past, they should work fine.
The scenery is available as an 18 Mb download, and self-installs from the .exe file. Apart from the need to enter a registration key, the install was a total no brainer, and the program located my FS2000 folder automatically and modified scenery.cfg, so a complete novice ought to be able to get it up and running. Gary says in the documentation that even his dad can understand the install, and he is telling no lies - I wouldn't have any hesitation in recommending this package as a first add-on for a newbie.
Criticisms? I don't have any, really. Yes, it is true, every single building isn't present, and the third toilet block on the left in the European terminal at Heathrow is definitely missing, but if absolutely everything was in there, FS2000 would grind to a complete and utter halt. As it is, this package does hit the CPU pretty hard - and I know that a lot of users with sub 800 MHz systems resent this, because they find low frame rates a problem with detailed scenery. The trouble is that the frame rate issue isn't easy to resolve where FS2000 is concerned; the more detail you include in a scenery, the slower everything goes, and there is a limited repertoire of programming tricks available to speed things up. Rumour has it that FS2002 will solve the problem, but we won't know for sure until it appears, and even then, sceneries will probably need to be updated to be compatible with it. So for now, we are stuck and the only solution if you want to run detailed scenery at high frame rates is to upgrade your PC - and this one is worth upgrading for, believe me. Definitely one of the best packages I have seen.Andrew Herd
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