High Resolution Geography in Flight Simulation
By Christian Stock (10 July 2006)
still remember my first MSFS experience. I had just bought FS2000 and presumably like most people selected my (then) home town airport - Wellington, New Zealand. "Not too shabby", I thought, "this is roughly alright." However, disappointment soon set in during my following trip to the Marlborough Sounds. In real life a mountain range submerged in the waters where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea - one of the scenic highlights in New Zealand. In the world of FS2000 a flat area with some coastlines that remind of the drawings of a five year old. Luckily, a friend of mine had just build New Zealand's first high resolution digital elevation model and with the terrain SDK I had no problems importing this model into the FS2000 environment. Ever since those days, I knew I had to get the full set of 1:50,000 topographical data into the MSFS series (roads, rivers - the lot). To cut a long story short, three and a half years later, I achieved this goal and the results are spectacular.
|Marlborough Sounds, FS2000: It ain't pretty.||Marlborough Sounds, FS2004 + Red Baron Entertainment 20m mesh, topo, and landclass.|
The idea of importing high resolution geographical data into the FS series isn't a new one. Justin Tyme's FSGenesis pioneering work is well known. FS2004 has a few famous examples, like Holger Sandmann's work or Allan Kriesman's Ultimate Terrain. So what is it that makes geographical data so important?" are common comments from users when a simulation doesn't quite get it right. But apart from the immersion factor, I'm going to argue that high resolution geography isn't just a gimmick, but has some good value as a real world training tool.
|Lake Manapouri, FS2000: An MSFS induced drought.||Lake Manapouri, FS2000 + Red Baron Entertainment 40m mesh, and Southland 260 topo||Lake Manapouri, FS2004 + Red Baron Entertainment 20m mesh, topo, and landclass.|
Firstly, it's a great educational tool to teach a pilot about the local geography and aviation related features such as airspace boundaries. Sure, pilots have maps that show them the same information, but it isn't the same as having an interactive, immersive 3D environment. A pilot can learn to easily match features on the map to the 3D environment, and it is safe to say that a pilot who has experienced an area in FS2004 using high resolution geographical data will feel at home more easily than a pilot referring to a 2D map only. Furthermore, a pilot can develop great spatial awareness for VFR navigation points (such as race tracks), obstructions (such as antenna masts), and airspace boundaries. Imagine the reduced mental workload for pilots who 'know' an area although they haven't flown in this area for real beforehand.
|Centre North Island map: Volcano country.||The same in 3D view. Note the matching crater lakes.|
Once spatial awareness for a local area has been developed it is easy to see the real strength of high resolution geographical data. It is a perfect cross-country flight planning tool. You can pre-study all the geographical features you're likely to encounter. Getting lost is much harder, because you have seen the area beforehand and will recognise features. You can run 'what if?' scenarios that may catch you off guard in a real flight and trial for viable solutions. For example, the New Zealand Topo scenery from Red Baron Entertainment comes with 3500 airstrips (about 95% of all existing airstrips). Knowing where the closest ones are can be crucial in the moment of an engine failure. The pilot can concentrate on important emergency procedures instead of spending valuable time searching the surroundings for a suitable landing area.
|Alpine valleys: Scenery to get lost in.||Icefields and Glaciers: Landscapes extreme.||Volcanic plains: stunning cross-country flying.|
The 3500 airstrips included in the New Zealand Topo scenery include a good deal of gliding strips and strips operated by farmers and other private operators. Having these in the simulator is a great training resource. This allows pilots to practice certain aspects of small airstrip operations, such as flying a low level circuit or landing on sloped or undulated surfaces. Furthermore, pilots can practice approaches to local airstrips they want to use, and when confronted with the real life equivalents pilots already know the lay of the surrounding terrain and how to best fly an approach.
|Banks Peninsula: sloped runways in hilly country.||Mt Tarawera: A volcano with its own airstrip.||Dog Island: An airstrip as big as an island.|
An often forgotten aspect when navigating by maps is the fact that maps become outdated with time - so is map derived geographical data. This is of course a drawback since this means that the simulated environment doesn't match real life 100%. But it also provides another training aspect. It teaches pilots how to deal with outdated maps and how to integrate map errors into day to day flight operations - e.g. "what do I do when I'm VFR navigating using the road system and I've mistaken a road that didn't show on the map for another one that is on the map?"
|Red Baron Entertainment Cook Islands scenery: An island group so remote, not all islands are mapped to the same standards as other parts of the world.||Manihiki Island airstrip: This airstrip is so remote, it does not appear on regular maps, nor on the Cook Island aerodrome charts.||Rakahanga Island airstrip: This airstrip has been destroyed by a hurricane in 1997 and has not been repaired. Relying on outdated maps could be fatal.|
High resolution geographical data can add a lot of value to real-life training using flight simulators. However, there is also room for improvement. One certainly is a weather system that interacts with the terrain. Up- and downdrafts in mountainous terrain, coastal winds, and low level air turbulence are all weather aspects that are very important to flying an aircraft. Another aspect are more detailed airstrips. In the real world they can have potholes, fences going across and even animals grazing on them. The surface can vary - long wet grass behaves differently than short dry grass. If these aspects were simulated, pilots would have an even more valuable training resource. I hope we'll see these features implemented in flight simulators in the near future.Christian Stock