Scotflight Scenery for FSX: Vol. 1 - Highlands & Islands
By Andrew Herd (18 January 2008)
isual Flight have made a name for quality scenery over the years, making a big splash back in 2002 with one of the best photographic sceneries ever released for FS2002, the VFR Photographic Scenery for England & Wales. That particular scenery is still available, having been released for the FS2004 and, more recently, FSX and it is well worth the money if you fly in the British Isles at all. Visual Flight followed that success up with the very impressive RAF Fairford scenery, which depicts the airfield as it was at the time of the 2003 Royal International Air Tattoo, probably one of the most colorful aviation events held in in Europe. Other products from the same stable include the stunning, although CPU intensive Visual Flight London, which depicts 50 square miles of the British capital; VFR Terrain, which improves the default England & Wales mesh out of recognition; and Visual Flight Farnborough, which is at least as good as the Fairford scenery, with the advantage that there is a free upgrade available from FS2004 to FSX. So when their Scotflight Highlands & Islands scenery appeared, it went right to the top of the list for review.
The Scotflight scenery first appeared for FS2000 and FS2004 and enhanced no less than 37 Scottish airfields, as well as upgrading numerous towns and cities, and adding in power stations and other landmarks, as well as changing the coastline to resemble something more like the real thing. The FSX release is derived from the original concept, but has changed in as much as it concentrates mostly on airfields and scenery on the west coast and north of the Great Glen (a line drawn from Fort William to Inverness) and so leaves out lowland Scotland, which is hopefully due for the same treatment in later volumes. You get a mix that runs from small commercial airports like Inverness to island grass strips, like Glenforsa, spread across an area that runs from Unst in the far north of Shetland to Islay in the southwest and out as far as the remote St. Kilda.
If you have never visited the Highlands and Islands, you are in for a treat, because this is a great area to fly around. In real life, it offers quite a few challenges, because the airfields are relatively spread out by British standards and flights between many of them require climbing over mountains that, while not high by global standards, are high enough to challenge the older generation of GA planes. A quirk of the orientation of the ranges means that the area is also subject to some of the best (if you are a sailplane enthusiast), or worst (if you are a GA pilot) mountain wave in the world, and I won't easily forget a flight west from Inverness where we found ourselves going down at a thousand feet a minute in a Cessna 177 when I was climbing flat out. Sadly, the wonderful weather engine built into FSX doesn't generate wave, but with this addon installed you can enjoy flights to a clutch of the most characterful airports to be found anywhere in the world, not to mention the chance to admire some of the most attractive scenery Europe has on offer, including landmarks such as the castle Eilean Donan, which must have featured on the tops of more chocolate boxes than any other building in history.
The package is available from the Pilot Shop as 27 Mb download, installation being even easier than usual, given that no registration code is required. With broadband the download is finished almost before it has started and you should be up and running the scenery in barely more time than it takes to read this review. The only system requirements, apart from a working FSX installation, are 160 Mb of free hard disk space to run the installation and 80 megs to use it. I did the review on a 2.66 Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM and a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX under Vista, using FSX SP1, although the service pack is apparently not mandatory for running the addon. The scenery version I reviewed was given in the readme as 1.0f and the full list of enhancements it brings to the Scottish Highlands and Islands includes:
- twenty seven detailed airfields
- dedicated AI traffic - the suggestion being to set the slider somewhere between 30 and 50%
- new bridges - Skye, Kessock, Ballachulish and Connel
- two oil terminals - at Sullom Voe and Flotta
- two canals - the Caledonian and the Crinan
- six castles and forts - Balmoral, Lewis, Inverness, Eilean Donan, Stalker, Fort George and Luart
- ten ferry ports - Stornoway, Oban, Craignure, Lerwick, Kirkwall, Port Ellen, Scaranish, Scalloway, Aringour and Scalasaig
- two marinas
- a windfarm
- three scenic/touristic landmark features - the Cairngorm mountain railway, the Old Man of Hoy and the island of Iona
- a more accurate coastline
- lots of beaches
- more detailed roads
- moving traffic on some of the more major roads
- moving ship and boat traffic - on Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and the Isle of Mull to Iona ferry
- fire practice at 10:00 at every airfield with a fire station
The enhanced airfields are as follows:
EGEF (Fair Isle)
X6KB (Dingwall-Knockbain Farm)
X6IN (Insch - Garioch Aero Club)
X6AB (Aboyne - Deeside Flying Club)
XFES (Feshiebridge - Cairngorm Gliding Club)
EGEO (Oban - North Connel)
ULL (Glenforsa - Isle of Mull)
X6BR (Broadford - Isle of Skye)
X6CL (Isle of Coll)
X6SK (St Kilda Heliport)
If you know the area at all, you will be rubbing your hands together, because there are some real jewels on this list! Take Barra, for example, shown in the screenshot below right. The notes for Barra contain the advice that the landing and takeoff area 'may be considerably ridged by hard sand and contain pools of water which are hazards to aircraft'. This is because the airfield is actually on the beach, most, but not all of it above the high tide mark. If you read on, 'the bearing strength, braking action and contamination of the beach is unknown, variable and unpredictable' and some down draughts may be experienced at the west end of 07/25, which is where the high tension cables foul the approach. Despite this, British Airways operates a service out of there to Benbecula and Glasgow, using Twin Otters, which are regularly seen taxiing with their wheels in the surf, weaving around the cockle gatherers, who are warned to stay clear of the runway by a flashing light on the control tower. At night, the real Barra is used for the occasional air ambulance flight, using runway lighting courtesy of vehicle headlights - it really is something else.
Then there is Wick. Wick wouldn't be exciting if it didn't regularly experience some of the worst weather Scotland has to offer, with howling westerlies causing some of the scheduled flights to crab in at 45 degrees before a kick of the rudder and a chop of the throttles slams their wheels down; or Glenforsa on Mull, which is used for grazing sheep during the week and whose surface varies depending on how hungry the animals are; or Feshiebridge, home to one of the world's most famous gliding clubs. There is plenty to keep you occupied.
The quality of the scenery is generally good, although using my setup I had a few problems with the way some of the custom trees displayed, which appeared to have mirrors behind them. I have seen this in previous versions of Flight Simulator with different sceneries, so it may well be a feature of the video driver I am using under Vista, although it is the most recent available, so GeForce users at the very least should be aware - however, strange though it may seem, the bug isn't that distracting and was really only a problem in spot plane view in some airports, notably Oban. There were a few texture funnies elsewhere, for example, take a look at the doors of the brown hut just above the right hand wing of the Dornier in the screenshot above right. Allowing for this, the addon is best described as default scenery plus, in that the texture quality is roughly equivalent to what you would find in a default FSX installation, but you get plenty of custom buildings and the package does make the Highlands and islands come alive - the improved shorelines alone are almost worth the price and it rids FSX of some peculiar artefacts induced by the new 'round Earth' model that made its debut in the current version of the sim.
On the whole, the best compliment I can pay is that the addon is good enough that it makes you notice what is missing - it would be great to see a custom landclass in the next version and the landmarks have been fairly randomly chosen. For example, as you fly down the Great Glen, there is virtually no trace of Fort Augustus, with its locks on the canal and the town, which is small, but conspicuous from the air (and should be visible in the right hand shot in the middle row where the canal opens into Loch Ness at bottom right), nor will you find much sign of Fort William, yet Inverness is done in quite a high level of detail. Given the name of the package, the inclusion of Balmoral Castle, which is on Deeside and definitely not in the Highlands, is an oddity, while Urquahart Castle, which is on the north shore of Loch Ness at Drumnadrochit has been left out, but all in all, the pack is fantastic value for money and more or less a compulsory purchase for anyone interested in simming in northern Scotland.