Scenery add-on for Microsoft FSX

"The buildings are entirely custom for the airport and are a very good representation of the structures present up to a point - that point being the Government response to the failed attempt to bomb Glasgow airport in June 2007. I'll come back to that in a short while..."
 

There are two Birmingham International Airports on the planet, just to be confusing. One is in Alabama, United States of America. It has two runways. The other is in the West Midlands, United Kingdom, and also has (or, rather, had) two runways. That's about where the similarities end, however.

If you look at KBHM (Birmingham, AL) in a satellite image, you'll see a horde of GA types, a few airliners and clusters of USAF tankers, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters. If you look at EGBB (Birmingham, West Mids), you'll see hordes of little airliners. If you're into military aviation then sorry, but UK2000's rendition of Birmingham won't be of interest. If you're after somewhere to fly airliners from with destinations as far apart as India and the USA (no direct flights to KBHM, though, sorry), you might want to keep reading.

Opened in 1939, Elmdon Airport was not the first site to be selected as the location of a new airport for the UK's industrial heartlands surrounding Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Indeed the idea had been put forward around 10 years earlier in the late 1920s, but when World War 2 broke out the airport was immediately put into service as a training base, which it remained as until considerably after the war's end in 1945.

Passed back into civilian hands, traffic increased dramatically over the years and soon outgrew the original buildings, resulting in the development of an entirely new passenger terminal to the East of the main runway 15/33. This was further extended in the 1980s by the addition of "Eurohub" for British Airways, who operated Birmingham based aircraft until the early 21st Century. The main operators now are FlyBe and Ryanair, but a number of significantly larger airlines such as Air France, Continental Airlines, Lufthansa and Air India, plus a number of holiday and charter carriers, have a significant presence as well.

With the National Exhibition Centre on one side, the main A45 Coventry to Birmingham Road on another and housing wrapped around the rest, EGBB has pretty much run out of room to expand further now and any suggestion that it does so is strongly opposed by local pressure groups. That doesn't mean that what is already there is static, however, and Gary Summons of UK2000 Scenery has provided us with a new version for use in Microsoft Flight Simulator X.

Being my local commercial airport, I travel through EGBB (IATA code "BHX") quite regularly, so I was interested to see what he has come up with.

Installation

The installation executable for UK2000 "Xtreme" sceneries is actually dual-purpose, as each one can be run in two modes - either a demo, with a large blue box in the middle of the main runway, or, when activated, as the full airport package.

The obvious advantage of this as a purchaser is that you are not limited to other users' reports, the developers statements or "comparable airports" to determine how well a scenery will run on your system. You simply download the entire package, run it and see for yourself in demo mode.

In this instance, the installer clocks in at around 65Mb, with a small update (only a few kb) available as well, from the product page on the developer's website and when run, the installation proceeds very much as you would expect from an up to date installer.

The package expands to 177Mb on your hard drive in a UK2000 scenery subdirectory under your FSX installation and upon completing the installation of files, you are initially presented with a dialogue box informing you of settings that you should use for FSX if you wish the scenery to display as intended, then finally the executable exits, being replaced instead by a Setup program window. This setup application, also available from the Start menu, is used to add or remove the scenery from your FSX scenery database, activate the airport, set up the dynamic vehicles (I'll discuss them later) and also has an option to check for updates. Selecting "Add Scenery to FS Database" inserts the scenery at the end of scenery.cfg and presents a dialogue box showing you the exact entries made, with "OK" and "Cancel" buttons. "OK" confirms the addition, while "Cancel" stops the scenery being added.

The procedure to unlock the product and remove the blue box from the runway is comparatively straight forward. Pressing the "Activate Scenery" button in the setup program window opens a subwindow with a 3-step process. Step 1 is to purchase the product - a button that takes you to the products page, although you can also obtain a license from other sources such as SimMarket. Step 2 asks you to enter this code or your registered e-mail address and to choose whether you wish to activate the scenery on this computer, or via a remote PC.

If you select the "remote PC" option, instructions for how to activate the product are displayed, while if you select to activate on this PC, the application connects to the internet and UK2000's customer database to confirm your license is valid. When this check is completed (using either method), you are presented with an unlock code to enter as Step 3. With your registration confirmed, the airport is unlocked, the blue box is gone and you are free to operate from the airport as you wish.

Should you wish to do so, un-installation of Birmingham Xtreme comprises running the setup application and selecting the option to remove the scenery from the FSX scenery.cfg, which then offers to uninstall the files immediately. If you select no to this option, it can also be uninstalled via the usual Windows Control Panel method. The uninstaller is unique to each UK2000 package installed, so removing Birmingham only removes that airport, leaving others intact.

The only real issue that I have noticed in the procedure is that there is actually no "OK" or "Close" button to actually exit the setup program. I achieved the same end by pressing the little red [X] button at the top left of the window.

Documentation

The documentation provided with UK2000 EGBB Xtreme is accessed via the Start Menu and can be found under UK2000 Scenery / UK2000 Birmingham Xtreme FSX. It comprises a 12-page PDF manual, a short readme.txt and links to the NATS (UK National Air Traffic Services) website for charts and the UK2000 website itself.

The PDF file is the "heart" of the documentation and provides you with information about the package, how to use it and lots of information about why the developer dislikes FSX (in particular SP2). Despite the shortcomings of the host sim described, however, the package is developed to work in FSX RTM (the original with no service packs), SP1 and SP2. In particular, there are instructions for how to set up FSX to display the scenery and sim as the developer intended, including the fsx.cfg "MipBias" tweak that you may have seen documented elsewhere to reduce blurred textures in the distance.

The link to the NATS website unfortunately takes you to the site's 'front door' rather than the page for Birmingham International. Clicking on AIP, then selecting "Aerodrome Index - Specific" takes you to a list of licensed UK aerodromes, with Birmingham listed in the first column. Fortunately, I am familiar with the NATS website from real-world flying purposes, but this could be a bit confusing for some people and it might have been nice to provide basic instructions for how to find the charts. Unfortunately, as sites such as this tend to change regularly, providing a direct link to the Birmingham files is probably not practical.

Overall, the documentation provided is perfectly adequate and will be of use to read through at least once.

Scenery

If you have used UK2000 scenery in the past, the first thing you'll probably notice about not just Birmingham, but any of the "Xtreme" sceneries I have seen so far, is the ground texture. Rather than the plain green or brown that is created by an SDK flatten/exclude, UK2000 have chosen with these sceneries to use satellite imagery, giving you a 100% accurate (at the time of the photo) representation of the airport when in the air.

Layered over this phototexture are high resolution runways and taxiways, blended into the photograph at the edges, with very clear markings and signage allowing you to taxi around the airport following charts if you wish, rather than having to follow the guidance arrows from the ATC menu.

The buildings are entirely custom for the airport and are a very good representation of the structures present up to a point - that point being the Government response to the failed attempt to bomb Glasgow airport in June 2007. I'll come back to that in a short while, but there has been a significant airside change to the airport buildings since development of this scenery began as well and the new "International Pier", attached to Terminal 2, is not present. According to the airport's website at the time of writing, construction of this is nearly complete (it's been underway for "some time") and opening is due in July 2009.

Historical factors aside, the buildings as provided are perfectly adequate for the role. Because of the nature of BHX and the flights I have taken to and from it, I have seen quite a lot of the airside of buildings from the inside of Cobus 2000s. This scenery, to me, represents them well, with the signage and gaps in buildings for traffic where I would expect them to be and very good representations of the different windows and wall types. The clutter, such as parked vehicles, cargo cans and mobile stairs are in roughly the right places too.

Talking of the Cobuses, they're the one bit of the scenery that's missing. Not busses, there are plenty of those scooting around, and pushback trucks, and little vans, and Ford Cargo flatbed trucks (airside at British airports must be the largest collection of rusting Ford trucks in existence) - but the busses provided aren't the ones that should be. It's a little thing that doesn't bother me a whole lot, but I know people who find these small details to be important. I'll leave the reader to make their own decision regarding it. After a while of watching the animated vehicles, I did start feeling sorry for one particular little van parked between stands 11 and 12, which was hit by every vehicle that turned behind it, but most of the time the animated vehicles are realistic and effective.

Slightly but not directly related, users who are after the ultimate in realism might be put off by the parking plan - or lack thereof - provided with the package. At the real airport, the Long Stay 1 car park side of Terminal 1 is home to FlyBe regional aircraft and the B737NGs of Ryanair. Between the piers of T1 and T2 are a lot more RJs and DASH-8s on the T1 side, with one or two larger types such as B757s or up to a B777 on the T2 side. The majority of other airlines and almost all the larger aircraft park on the North side of Terminal 2's pier and the remote stands beyond it. Unfortunately, with the plethora of different AI combinations used by customers from default fictional airlines, through freeware FS9 models to the commercial pure FSX models of Flight1's Ultimate Traffic 2 and JustFlight's TrafficX (the latter being used in the screenshots), there's no simple way of assigning gates that everyone will be happy with. If you allocate T1 to just the real world users, most people will never see anything at all parked there (Ryanair and FlyBe don't seem popular with the freeware AI teams). You could create different AFD files for each individual type of traffic available, but that would be getting silly, so the developer has just left everything open to anybody. Unfortunately that's not 'ultra-realistic', but it is probably the best answer with the AI options available.

There's one other thing that bugs me about this scenery, which is that while it looks very good in summer and will probably look even better with the Horizon or Just Flight UK photo sceneries (I don't have either to check), it looks totally out of place against default MS autumn (fall) and winter textures. ACES, for some reason, chose to make the British Isles go brown in those two seasons, so the bright green phototexture under EGBB stands out like a sore thumb. If it starts snowing and the entire country but the UK2000 Xtreme airport goes white, it stands out even more. It is, however, not at all easy to recolour custom ground textures to fit in with the seasonal changes and believe me, you won't find a full set of aerial photos for the UK covered in snow, so that's not an option, either. It's a pity, but as a design decision, it is understandable. Replacement textures (available free) and landclass (available, but not free) minimise the differences, when it isn't snowing, and it doesn't snow very often in the UK either. It should usually be very green, so the photo texture should blend in perfectly, in reality.

While discussing the photo texture, it is also worth noting that the area of photoscenery does not only cover inside the aircraft fence, either, but extends slightly outside and ground textures plus buildings are provided covering the National Exhibition Centre and Birmingham International rail station between the two. The railway station is very representative (that's somewhere else I know better than I'd like) but unfortunately the NEC complex is missing a number of the details that make it completely accurate. There are also a number of factory buildings which should be offices, particularly around the station area. Another error, which is actually visible in the photo (but not easily, if you don't know it is there) is the massive grassed bank that shields the housing estates of Marston Green from the noise of running jets. Finally, I said I'd come back to the Government's response to the failed Glasgow Airport bombing? Well the phototexture here shows vehicles dropping off and picking up passengers right outside the terminal. The road closest to the terminal is now closed off with solid bollards and the next road across has access controlled by the Police, with only taxis and certain buses allowed to use it.

Apart from the bank, possibly, these things will only probably distract people who know the area around the airport very well. For the vast majority of users, what they are interested in is what's inside the fence and that's accurate, well presented and doesn't seem to hurt frame rates that much, either. The difference the increase in gate numbers makes to the number of AI aircraft there may possibly mean you need to nudge the commercial AI slider back a notch or two, however.

Integration With Other Add-ons

As you might have guessed, given that the background image is from the Horizon photoscenery, Birmingham Xtreme is designed to be compatible with that package and, indeed, using it as such will remove the problem with the snow, as I discussed earlier, simply by the very fact that you will only ever fly in mid-summer when using the photoscenery.

I have also tested the scenery with both the default unmodified FSX UK and Flight1's Ultimate Terrain Europe as part of this review. In both instances, there were no issues other than those already discussed. One advantage of UTX Europe is that the roads and railways continue outside the immediate area of the airport - the default MS scenery is considerably less accurate in this regard.

Conclusion

No airport in the real world stands still for long. Whether it be demolishing buildings no longer in use, construction of new ones or simply repainting the tarmac to move remote stands around, a flight simulator scenery is only ever a snapshot in time of where an airport is.

OK, so the airport has changed since this scenery of it was designed, the airlines park in the wrong places and the trucks have a worrying tendency to disappear or collide with each other. Does any of that truly matter? In reality no, it doesn't and this scenery does a very good job of representing Birmingham International to both those who know it well and those who just want more places to park a B777 or an ERJ-145 at the end of a flight. There are a few minor issues, but minor is exactly what they are and with the option to run the airport as a demo before parting with your cash, there's nothing at all that would stop me recommending this package.

For more information on Birmingham International, visit the product pages at the web site or simMarket.

If you'd like to comment on this review, please use our forum to do so.

All images are Copyright � screenshotartist.co.uk

Ian Pearson is a real world CAA PPL-IMC qualified pilot (IMC unfortunately now lapsed) who has been hooked on civilian flight simming since Mail Pilot on the Commodore 64 and Thalion Airbus on the Amiga. He joined the MS Flightsim world with FS4 and almost immediately FS5.1CD, which was when his first attempt at designing aircraft went seriously pear shaped and he gave up. He has Beta tested for a number of well-known organisations and teams from FS98 through to the present day, but still hasn't found a way of making his addiction to Flight Simulation pay for itself, so officially works in the railway industry in the real world.

Nick Churchill has been providing images for marketing purposes of Flight Simulator products for several years and claims that staring at a virtual cockpit for too long can make you go blind. .

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