Aerosoft Mega Airport London Heathrow For FS2004/FSX
By Andrew Herd (31 January 2008)
he title of 'world's busiest airport' is as hotly contested as a heavyweight boxing championship and has led to just as much confusion over what the designation actually means. In the final analysis, it all depends on which way you do the numbers, because there are as many ways of defining airport busyness as there are airports, but whichever way you look at it, Heathrow has always been in the top rank. It also has a claim to be one of the world's oldest airports, because parts of the area that constitutes the present airport were in use for flying training in 1914, on what was then Hounslow Heath. By the end of the First World War, the airfield was called Hounslow Aerodrome and the first international flights were made from there to Paris in DH-4As, but that service didn't last long, chiefly because the airfield turned into a bog in winter and was socked in with fog in autumn. But the site was too tempting to ignore, given its proximity to the capital, so by 1930, it was operational again under the ownership of Fairey Aviation, being known variously as the Great Western Aerodrome, Harmondsworth Aerodrome and Heath Row Aerodrome, the latter names taken from nearby villages which it would eventually consume.
In 1944, the British government stepped in and requisitioned the airfield, ostensibly for the reason that it was needed for transport flights to support the war in the Pacific; however, it subsequently became clear that the politicians had a very different long-term plans for the place, their intention being to see it operated as a major passenger center after the war and relatively few military flights were made. The nature of the purchase meant that a public enquiry was avoided - a wise decision on the government's part, given that Heathrow would be no stranger to controversy in later years - and proof of their intent was 9000 feet of the first new runway had been laid as early as 1945 with two more in the pipeline. The first commercial flight was made sometime between 1st January and 31st May '46 and a year later, 9000 flights had been completed, which is quite an achievement, given that the first proper terminal wasn't built until 1955, prior to which the accommodation was in a motley collection of tents and huts.
By 1968, Heathrow had grown to near its present acreage, with three terminals and the management was facing a major problem. The piecemeal enlargement had failed to anticipate the tremendous increase in automobile use, with the result that the buildings were clustered at the center of the airport inside the runways, in an arrangement that was incredibly hard to alter and which left little space for parking or expansion. The high demand for real estate in the area had led to housing being built right up to the perimeter and was space at a premium, but there were rising protests about noise levels. Because of this, when the fourth terminal was built on the south side '86, the other terminals were also upgraded in a program which separated arrivals and departures - and which might have solved the problem had not there been such an enormous increase in the number of passengers transiting the place. Heathrow is still playing catch up and after a long and costly public enquiry, a fifth terminal is now under construction on the west side, which will allow the number of people using Heathrow to double, growth being anticipated to reach 80 million passengers as early as 2011.
Aerosoft's Mega Airport London Heathrow has been developed by Simwings in partnership with the British Airports Authority and depicts the airport as it will be when terminal 5 opens next year. System requirements for FSX are Microsoft Flight Simulator X (with either Service Pack 1 or the Acceleration Pack installed), a 3 GHz processor, with at least 1 GB RAM (2 GB recommended), a graphics card with 256 MB of RAM (512 MB is recommended); while for FS2004, you need FS9.1, a 2.8 Ghz processor, 512 Mb of RAM and at least a 128 Mb graphics card. The hard disk space required is 130 Mb for FSX and 300 Mb for FS2004; and the addon will run under either XP SP2 or Vista. I reviewed the boxed version in FSX using a 2.66 Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM and a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX running Windows Vista.
Installation is relatively straightforward and fast enough that it didn't leave much time to read the manual and charts - you are reminded on two occasions that the addon should not be installed without either FSX SP1 or the FSX Acceleration Pack, so the developers must really mean it - the only choices other choices being about language and whether you want static aircraft installed or not. I opted not to install the statics and when the installation was done, found a new program group with links to the manual (French, Spanish, German or English) and to 'charts', which takes you straight to the NATS website. This only merits the briefest of mentions in the manual, but if you create a new logon to this site, you can access, amongst a vast amount of other information, an up-to-date version of every approach chart for the UK, although the menu system on the site doesn't make 'em easy to find.
The manual has a few recommendations to make about running the scenery, one of them being to limit AI traffic to 30-50%, another being to reduce scenery complexity settings if your system is struggling, although doing so will obviously result in some scenery elements failing to appear, negating some of the reason for buying the addon in the first place. One of the most interesting sections of the manual relates to future updates, which will apparently keep pace with the building work which is planned at Heathrow - over the next few years, terminal 2 and parts of terminal 1 will be demolished and the scenery will be updated to reflect this.
The first thing to say about any complex scenery addon for Flight Simulator is that you have to pay for eye candy and that the currency is frame rates. It doesn't matter which way you cut it, the more polygons you put up there on screen, the more processing time it takes to deal with 'em and unless you are reading this a few years from now and have more powerful hardware available than I do right now, you can expect large airport sceneries run with all the sliders maxed out and 100% AI to result in frame rates of 10 fps or less - and Aerosoft's Heathrow is no surprise in this respect. My first attempt to run the addon, with 50% default AI and using the DirectX 10 preview option that Acceleration makes available resulted in just under 10 fps with the default 737 on the runway - but it also caused various display oddities, inlcuding a double runway centerline, so I abandoned that and ran FSX in conventional mode, which lost me about 1.5 fps, but fixed all the funnies. Then Vista displayed an 'out of memory' dialog and shut FSX down. To be fair, I make a point of not running FSX on a particularly 'clean' system in order to duplicate what the average user is likely to experience and I didn't experience any out of memory problems as long as I ran FSX immediately after restarting my PC. But with all the scenery display sliders maxed, bar shadows, the only way I could get more than 10 fps anywhere near the airport was with autogen set to zero; and that was assuming I ran the default AI traffic at 50% and ground vehicles at 0%. I didn't dare try the addon with a third party AI traffic package, because on the review system it would surely have ground to a halt. So if you want to see planes on the pan, install the statics and whatever you do, don't try flying an approach with real weather using a complex third party addon airliner. Just to put this into perspective, loading the same aircraft onto the threshold at the default KLAX actually gives me one fps less than it does at Heathrow, which is either a tribute to how well the Heathrow addon has been programmed, or how badly Aces have done Los Angeles International (-:
As you can see, the addon transforms Heathrow. The default airport is one of the better ones in FSX (and FS2004), but the screenshots tell the story and there isn't really any comparison - once you have installed the addon, you won't want to go back and to be fair, you don't need to nudge the frame rates too far above 10 fps to make a scenery like this usable in FSX. All the important buildings are there and the replacement ground tiles make a tremendous difference to the way the place looks, but the real glory of the addon lies in the runway, taxiway and building textures, which are among the best I have ever seen. Taxiing with the addon installed adds a new element to an otherwise boring activity, because with the scenery complexity slider set to 'extremely dense' there is always something to see, ranging from jet blast fences, through all the usual signs, to the most extraordinary variety of ground vehicles. The textures hold up until you are too close for comfort and night textures are included, so you can fly at all hours.
I didn't count the number of gates, but can easily believe that every single one is there; on the other hand, while every type of docking guidance system found at Heathrow is included in the scenery, not all the gates have active systems. A first for the scenery (as far as I am aware) is the inclusion of the mirror system, which eschews any kind of fancy electronics in favour of providing the pilot with a, er... mirror... which can be used to check that the nosewheel is tracking correctly to the parking spot. Dead clever and no batteries required. What you do not get are any animated jetways, but unless I am having a senior moment, I haven't reviewed any other FSX third party sceneries with them either, so one can't complain. By way of compensation, you can open the doors of the BA maintenance hangar by setting Nav1 to 112.00 and you can open the barriers on the taxiway in front of the hangar by setting the radio to 113.00.
Verdict? The fact that the addon doesn't deliver 25 fps is hardly the developer's fault, given that most current systems struggle to run vanilla FSX, but the frame rates have to be a consideration when purchasing a complex scenery like this - I would also raise a query about whether a patch will be needed when FSX finally gets running on DX10, but many addons are likely to be affected; I have noticed that many third party addon planes skin properly, for example, so I would expect to see a few problems in an airport scenery of this size. I didn't get a chance to take a look at the FS2004 version, but I suspect that it would run fine on a dual-core system with adequate video memory and would be usable on a 3 Ghz single core system.
Mega Airport London Heathrow is terrific and the developer has done a fantastic job on it, but unless you have an absolutely stacked PC you will have trouble with frame rates under FSX if you have the sliders maxed out enough to display the scenery in all its glory. Therein lies the rub - I must have written those words about just about every version of Flight Simulator - we all want to fly complex third party airliners into complex airport addons, but the truth is that if you are using the latest version of FS there is seldom enough processor overhead available to do so in comfort. The good news is that the review system was just adequate to make the addon flyable using the default jets as long as there wasn't too much AI traffic around, so if you have a similar or better PC, take a look, because as long as you can live with the frame rate hit, this is the best airport addon for FSX that I have reviewed to date. When you bear in mind that despite being about three times as complex, FSX can run the addon slightly faster than it can the default KLAX, you have to take your hat off to Heathrow's developers.