AVSIM Commercial Scenery Review

Lukla - Mt. Everest

Product Information
Publisher: Aerosoft
Description:  Detailed scenery for Mt. Everest, Lukla airport, and the surrounding landscape, including high-resolution terrain mesh, landclass, rivers, lakes, custom autogen, 3d buildings, and photographic ground textures.
Download Size:
32 Mb
Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS2004 only (requires 9.1 patch)
Reviewed by: David Wilson-Okamura AVSIM Staff Reviewer - June 19, 2006

Introduction

The word Everest has become synonymous with "supreme." Thus we now have phrases like "the Everest of whitewater rafting," "the Everest of women's skating," "the Everest of ancient military history," "the Everest of apples," and even "the Everest of rivers." And yet, for a land feature that has existed for millions of years, the Everest phenomenon is relatively recent. The name Everest goes back only a hundred and fifty years (it was originally pronounced with a long e in the first syllable, as if rhyming with "leave nest"), when a team of British surveyors went to Nepal and began measuring the Himalaya mountain chain. Until then, no one knew that "Peak XV" (as it was known then) is the tallest mountain in the world. It was so obscure, even, that until the 1960s there was no name for the mountain in the Nepalese language. (Now it is called "Forehead of the World." In Tibet, which borders Nepal on the mountain's northern face, it is called "Mother of the Universe.")

Now, of course, that has all changed. In 1953, when Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay made the first successful summit, climbing Mt. Everest was a big deal; by the time Hilary got back to Kathmandu, he was already "Sir Edmund Hilary" and didn't even know it. In the half-century since then, climbing the tallest mountain in the world has become--not exactly routine, but something that people "do," like swimming the English Channel or finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle.

I exaggerate, slightly. Every year, people try to climb Mt. Everest and every year some of them die--so don't try this at home.

There's not much danger of that: unless we live in Tibet or Nepal, not many of us have a Mt. Everest in our backyard. With Lukla - Mt. Everest, however, it is now possible to develop a detailed sense of the region's topography and a taste, not of what it's like for the climbers, but for the pilots who fly the climbers in.

Test System

Dell Dimension 2350
P4 @ 2.2 GHz
1 gig RAM
Radeon 9100 w/ 128 Mb (PCI)
TrackIR 3
CH pedals, yoke
Saitek ST290 joystick

Active Camera
Active Sky 6
Flight Environment
Ground Environment

Flying Time:
11 hours

Installation and Documentation

The installation procedure is the same as for other Aerosoft downloads: make your purchase online, get a download link, and when you run the program, paste in a registration key. In my review of Aerosoft's Casablanca scenery, which I liked very much, I complained that there is no log and nothing in the documentation to tell you what files were replaced if you didn't happen to write their names down when they appear at set-up time. The same problem occurs here, though the installer in both packages does make back-ups. (The filenames, by the way, are FL971220.bgl and HP971220.bgl in \Scenery\Asia\Scenery.)

Documentation is 18 pages long, including the title-page and the table of contents. It describes the airports that are covered, provides detailed instructions for landing and take-off at high-altitude airports, and includes a chart. The detail on the chart is minimal, I'm afraid. It indicates the area of coverage and most of the locations that are referred to in the documentation (including the two search missions). But for VFR, you'll need something better. I ended up using a pull-out map from the March 2003 issue of National Geographic, which is excellent.

One thing the documentation mentions is that Microsoft's Real Weather doesn't work here, so you'll need to use a weather theme or start using one of the included flights. That's Microsoft's fault, not Aerosoft's, because it doesn't include a weather station for the area in its database. However, I learned on the Aerosoft forum that ActiveSky 6 does poll the weather station for this area, and can be used to provide real weather; I can confirmed this.

Landscape Features

The scenery package can be divided up into two main parts: man-made objects and natural landscape features. I'll start with landscape features. Lukla - Mt. Everest combines several elements to make the coverage area more realistic. In Flight Simulator, the shape of the land--the rhythm of its peaks and valleys--is determined by terrain mesh. The quality of a mesh is determined by several factors, including the skill of the designer, but the most important factor is the data source. The source for this data was a space shuttle mapping mission, supplemented by Jonathan de Ferranti's elevations from topographical maps. This is the same data used in Holger Sandmann's Himalaya mesh, released as freeware earlier this year.

The resolution of the new mesh is LOD9: one data point every 76 meters. It's possible in some parts of the world to get higher-resolution mesh, up to one data point every 10 meters for FS 2002, 19 meters for FS 9.1. Having said this, even a very high-resolution mesh is still going to have rounding at the mountain peaks. There is only one way that I have seen in Flight Simulator to get really sharp-looking ridges, and that is to overlay the mesh with photographic scenery tiles. This is what Aerosoft has done here, using commercially-obtained satellite photos.

 

Everest is usually climbed from the south View from the east: notice where the satellite scenery leaves off at the bottom

The results, as you can see from the screenshots here and on the product website, are extremely convincing. But there are, as the Bible says, degrees of glory. Not all of the coverage area has high-resolution satellite photos draped over it. The places where you will notice the use of satellite photography right away are Everest itself (down to the base camp) and the hillside around Lukla airport.

 

Waterfalls north of Lukla

The rest of the landscape has been improved through the normal methods that Flight Simulator provides. The rivers and lakes have been carved out to follow their real-world contours and the landclass has been redone to display ice, rock, and greenery where, in the real world, there is ice, rock, and greenery.

Man-made Structures

So much for nature. The product web-page claims to show every house on the government maps. I didn't count, but the houses do look different from the rest of Flight Simulator world in at least one, very visible respect: they have blue roofs. Instead of autogen cathedrals, you will also find Buddhist shrines and, on the normal route from Lukla to the Everest base camp, the famed Tengboche monastery. There are animated waterfalls along the Dudh river and, if you hunt around, you'll find another helicopter and the mysterious Abominable Snowman. The main Everest base camp is here, too, marked by flags, dome tents, and a crashed helicopter. If you follow the glacier up to the summit, you'll find four smaller camps along the way and, at the top, a climber carrying a Bolivian flag.

 

Syngboche airport

There are three airport sceneries, four if you count the Everest base camp (which is serviced by helicopters, but doesn't have an actual helipad). There's not much to see at two of them. Syngboche (VNSB) was supposed to replace Lukla, but the project fell through. The dirt landing strip here is marked out with rocks, and it's fun to practice landing on its sloped runway. Phaplu (VNPL) is there mainly in case Lukla is closed because of weather; the landing here is less challenging, but there's a static plane here (in authentic local livery) and spools of cable next to it.

 

On top of the airfield Lukla Hotel

Lukla airport, on the other hand, is downright cozy: colorful, compact, detailed. The detail is dense enough that I noticed a framerate hit, but not so much that it impaired my ability to land (which wasn't that great to begin with). I didn't see anything in photos of the real thing that I couldn't find in the scenery, and I found details in the scenery that I wouldn't have noticed in photos.

Flting In and Out of Lukla

At 9,373 feet above sea level, Lukla is the highest airport in the world with scheduled airline flights. It's busier in the climbing months, October and November, and there are no flights at night. But during the day, the turn-around time for small aircraft is very short, only fifteen minutes, because there are only four parking spaces. (And in this scenery, one of those is permanently taken by a static aircraft.) When you park, you'll also be sharing space with passengers and their baggage. Fortunately, the only thing that moves in this crowded area (other than your own plane) is chimney smoke.

Having said this, Lukla would be a fun place for multiplayer gatherings. You can't fly the pattern here, but you can circle while your friends horse around on the runway, and you can curse them when they bump into you in the narrow parking area.

Mostly I'm a GA flyer, but for Lukla I decided to go native. The main aircraft that serve this airport are Dornier 228s and De Havilland Twin Otters. I chose to use the freeware Twin Otter by Eric Dantes (dhc-6_air_madagascar.zip in the AVSIM file library) and the "Shangri-La Air" livery by Halfdan Abrahamsen (twin_otter_shangri-la_air_repaint.zip). I won't say this was a mistake—the Twin Otter really is the right airplane for this region, and is very forgiving—but it probably steepened my learning curve. I was trying to learn a new plane and a new flying environment simultaneously.

My first thought, on loading up Lukla and seeing the colorful buildings clustered around the parking area, was "This is going to be fun." My next thought, as soon as I taxied out of the parking area, was "This is going to be hard."

 

The "hard" starts as soon as you leave the parking area. The ramp down to the runway is, for once, really a ramp that you can fall off of. The runway is sloped, too, which makes it extra tricky to line up on without using up any of the precious space in front of you. I say precious, because the runway is short: only 1,706 feet. Normally, this wouldn't be a strain for the Otter, but at this altitude your engine doesn't produce as much power and you won't reach rotation velocity until the last piece of the runway. Happily, there's a steep drop-off at the end, so that once you're airborne you can drop your nose a bit and pick up speed.

Take-offs require extra care, but landings require practice. It took me about fifty tries, spread out over two weeks, before I started to get the hang of it. I have to admit, it's still not a sure thing.

 

Airport on the Canyon Wall

If you are the kind of person who is easily frustrated, save your money and buy something else. Lukla is for pilots who actively seek out extreme challenges and won't quit until they master them. The challenges here are several. First, there is the altitude and therefore the thin air. Your engine wants more air, your flaps want more air, and if they can't get it at least they want a longer runway. This is because, at high altitude, you fly the landing at the normal indicated airspeed (the airspeed the wings think they are flying at), but your groundspeed is higher so you use up more runway. At Lukla, you don't get any of that. The air is thin, you have to land at a higher-than-normal groundspeed, and your runway is short, because there isn't room to build a longer one in these narrow canyons.

 

You expect me to land on that?

I've included a screenshot from the cockpit which shows (a) that I'm already too low on final approach and (b) just how little runway there is.

That's why the real airport has a sloped runway: at Lukla, you can only land in one direction, and that direction is uphill. This is what allows you to land a fast-moving aircraft on a short runway. Very clever! Normally, Flight Simulator doesn't let you have sloped runways, so Aerosoft has modeled one as a kind of rooftop. It works. If you land too hard, you'll fall through the roof instead of splatting on the tarmac, but that's a limitation of the simulator, not a flaw in the modeling.

 

Does this count as flaring?

Sloped runway or not, it's still very difficult landing here. You don't have a lot of room to set up for your final approach, and because the runway is so short you really have to touch down just after the numbers or you won't make it. The documentation gives some suggestions--the most important of which is keep your airspeed up all the way down--but getting it right is just hard. The range of acceptable angles and speeds is very narrow, and unless you know your aircraft--and how it operates in slow flight at high altitude--extremely well, you won't make it the first time. You probably won't make it the tenth time or, if you are like me, the twentieth time either.

It can be done, though. The runway at Lukla has been paved for five years now, and there have been several accidents--including, most recently, a crumpled landing gear and an aircraft that skidded off the runway. But none of the accidents has been fatal so far. Apparently Lukla attracts some very good pilots.

Conclusion

The latest Aerosoft newsletter tries to entice buyers with the following boast: "For only 17.20 Euro you can't buy a better looking place to crash!"

That gets it about right. If you're interested in extremes, both of natural landscape and of aviation difficulty, this is a fun environment to explore. But know yourself before you buy: if you have a short temper and you aren't already a past master of STOL techniques at high-altitude, do your loved ones a favor and stick with something closer to sea-level.

 

What I Like About Lukla - Mt Everest
  • Detailed airport, good use of satellite photos for Mt. Everest proper
  • Challenging landing at Lukla

 
What I Don't Like About Lukla - Mt Everest
  • Included chart lacks sufficient detail for VFR

Printing

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Lukla - Mt Everest

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