One of the nice things about Flight Simulator, is that every once in a while somebody decides to adopt part of the FS world and really go to town on making scenery for that particular spot. Such is the case with Daniel Chircop, who is the man behind Malta Scenery Design’s rendition of Malta International Airport and the surrounding terrain, which is quite clearly a labor of love. If you’ve visited Malta in the past, you might know Malta International Airport as Valetta, Luqa, LMML, or even RAF Luqa, but whatever you call it, you can definitely call it done as far as scenery in FS goes, courtesy of Daniel’s efforts.
Here we’ll be taking a look at the shiny new version 2 of MSD’s scenery for Malta International Airport, which is available in both FS9 and FSX flavors. However, since I only have the FSX version for review, that’s the one I’ll be concentrating on. The developer did offer me a copy of the FS9 version, but as far as I am aware, there is little difference between the two in what they include, so you can regard this as a look at the FS9 version if you like. You might also like to note that if you do happen to have bought the FS9 incarnation of this scenery, the FSX version is a free upgrade. So like a lot of other sceneries, you can effectively get two for the price of one, which is useful if you indulge in both FS9 and FSX as many simmers do.
Version 1 of this scenery can be had for free from MSD’s website, but more importantly, many other rather cool files to accompany the V2 Malta International Airport scenery can also be had for the princely sum of nothing. Among these, a replacement land class and scenic update for the entire Maltese islands in FSX, and a nice repaint of the default FSX Cessna 172 in the livery of a local Maltese flying school, which you’ll see a lot in the screenshots for this review. So, if free is the kind of price you like to pay, the MSD site is well worth a visit. Given the upswing in interest for X-Plane, it’s also worth noting that this developer is showing some interest in making products for ‘the other sim’. So if you’ve crossed over to the “dark side”, there’s another reason to give the developer’s website a fly by.
System requirements and pricing…
MSD’s Malta International Airport scenery will set you back 16.66 Euros, which is around 15 quid in the UK, or 21 bucks if you are in the U.S of A. Click a link on the Malta Scenery Design website and you are taken to the SimMarket online store, from whence it is sold in a download format. The file weighs in at 47.8Mb which, considering Malta International is not a massive airport, is a fair indication that this scenery is going to be petty detailed even before you install it.
High levels of detail can often translate into low frame rates of course, so in common with most detailed sceneries for FS, system requirements for Malta International Airport V2 are more a case of how far you can get away with pushing the sliders to the right before the frame rates drop to what you deem unacceptable, as opposed to a specific set of hardware recommendations. That said, there is one slider you cannot mess with too much if you want things to display entirely properly, this being the terrain Mesh slider, which has to be at a minimum 2-metre resolution in order to have the car park in front of the main terminal display at the correct elevation. This scenery corrects how things are in the default FSX terrain.
On the upside of the battle for high frame rates, since this scenery has its own correctly-placed foliage, and is designed to be used in conjunction with the free replacement land class file, also from MSD, there is no need to use autogen scenery at all from the moment Malta heaves into sight. This means that despite the high levels of detail on offer here, it actually runs pretty well on high settings, courtesy of not having to rely on autogen to add pseudo realism, and in fact, if you do crank up the autogen, you’ll find it interferes with the scenery, so you actually have to turn it off. You’ve got to love that.
Installation and documentation
Installation of Malta International Airport V2 is a simple ‘double-click on the exe file affair. Everything auto-configures in FSX via this installer, although as noted, you may need to put that Mesh slider up to the 2-metre resolution yourself if you normally have it set lower than that, although to be honest, it mostly looks okay if you don’t. In addition to setting everything up ready to rock in FS, installation also places a PDF manual on your PC’s Program menu, listed under SimMarket, along with a couple of uninstall and repair options.
The manual is clear and concise, being just nine pages long, but with well chosen content. It gives a brief history of the airport, covers the installation process, highlights some features of interest, points out one or two known (very minor) issues - more on these later - and includes taxiway and apron diagrams, as well as a data sheet with all the frequencies and heading information necessary to fly into and out of the airport. There are one or two minor typos in it, but nothing particularly disastrous, so it’s fair to ignore these, after all, everyone can make a typo.
So, simple to install and with pretty good documentation, no complaints so far.
My name is Luqa…
You can skip this part if you just want to know about the software, but don’t come crying to me when you’re about to answer the million dollar prize question on a TV quiz and they ask you: ‘In what year did a nuclear bomber crash in Malta…?’
The real Malta International Airport is, like Malta itself, an interesting place, and its layout reflects the unusual way in which it has grown. Originally named Luqa airfield and built during the 1920’s to supplement two previously extant small airfields at Ta’ Qali and Hal Far, Luqa was in a better location than the other two airfields in terms of climate and favorable winds. And although all three airfields remained operational until the end of the Second World War, Ta’ Qali and Hal Far took a severe pounding during the conflict courtesy of the Luftwaffe’s attempts to subdue the island prior to a planned invasion. So with the environmental advantages of Luqa and its generally better condition at the close of hostilities, it became the focus of post-war aviation on Malta and the other two airfields were closed.
Malta was of course part of the British Empire until its independence in 1964, having become so following the British ousting of Napoleon’s extremely unpopular forces from the islands in 1814. Since ancient times, Malta has been an important strategic base courtesy of its location in the Mediterranean. Indeed it was the island’s proximity to vital shipping lanes which led to such fierce fighting over the place during WW2, and the consequent expansion of Luqa. Being the focus of the Royal Air Force’s defence of Malta, Luqa remained in RAF hands after the war as a Cold War military base and did not relinquish that status until 1979, it being leased from the latterly-independent Maltese from 1964 onwards.
Although having been under British rule since Napoleonic times and retaining generally fairly friendly links with the UK, by the mid 1970’s it was becoming clear that the autonomous Maltese were not happy with the British military presence at Luqa. Matters came to a head in 1975 when an RAF Avro Vulcan bomber crashed on the Maltese village of Zabbar; it had undershot the runway at Luqa, losing its left undercarriage in the process and was going around in preparation for a crash landing on the runway, which was being laid with foam. But the luckless Vulcan exploded in mid-air on the circuit to land, and came down on Zabbar.
Only through sheer luck did it miss killing numerous schoolchildren who were having their midday break when burning wreckage was scattered over their school. Sadly, the villagers did not enjoy that same luck and did not escape completely unscathed; a woman was killed when one of the aircraft’s wings came down in the main street, and around twenty others in the village were injured. The incident proved the catalyst for the departure of the RAF as a result of the dissent it engendered in the Maltese populace. Taking a prosaic approach to matters, the Maltese government gradually ramped up the costs of leasing Luqa. In 1979 the British deemed the price prohibitive, thus the RAF left the island.
Development of Luqa as a civilian airport had already been well underway with the RAF still in residence. In 1958 a passenger terminal was added, and 1977 saw the arrival of a new longer runway and further-improved passenger facilities. The newer runway was in response to the demands of larger wide-bodied aircraft becoming more common and partially prompted by an infamous incident in 1975 which highlighted the airport’s shortcomings on that score.
In that year, a KLM Boeing 747 was hijacked by Arab terrorists and, having been refused permission to enter the airspace of numerous countries, it eventually landed at Luqa. The terrorists demanded that the aircraft be filled with 27,000 gallons of fuel and be given clearance to take off, whereupon the Maltese Prime Minister - who was conducting the negotiations - pointed out that there was no way a Boeing 747 with that amount of fuel and the 247 passengers it had on board would be able to make it off Luqa’s short runway. Having somewhat shot themselves in the foot by already having the fuel in the tanks, the terrorists had little choice but to release almost all the passengers before fleeing to Dubai in the near-empty 747, where the remaining few hostages and crew were also freed. Two years later, the longer runway was built at Malta.
Development of the airport’s improved facilities continued until, in 1989, it was decided that a new passenger terminal was necessary and this was completed in 1992 with the airport being renamed Malta International Airport that same year. Development is continuing to this day, largely out of necessity. The space between the old 1958 terminal (which is now largely relegated to the airport’s growing cargo operations) and the newer terminal facility, and the equally widespread placement of the airport’s numerous aprons which are evidence of their original military dispersal layout, coupled with the right angle arrangement of the airport’s two runways, have meant the airport has to use the main runway as a taxiway much of the time.
With an average yearly increase in flight numbers of around ten percent, it has been determined that new taxiways will have to be built to accommodate the growth in traffic, and these are currently in the planning stages. Given the airport’s unwitting misfortune with regard to criminal incidents, a more reassuring development in recent years is that Malta International is now one of the best-equipped airports in the world as far as modern baggage security screening facilities are concerned. So don’t be put off going there by it’s slightly grim past; it’s actually one of the safest places you can fly to and from these days.
The airport’s growth has also seen the influx of numerous airlines alongside domestic carrier Air Malta and many of these have, or are considering, Malta International as a fixed base of operations. Chief among these is Lufthansa, which is somewhat ironic given that German aircraft tried hard to put the airport out of action in WW2, but are now a large and - happily – a much more agreeable kind of invasion that is seeing it grow more and more.
Lufthansa has constructed a huge aircraft maintenance facility at the airport which provides a good deal of local employment, and is a large feather in Malta International’s cap given Lufthansa’s major links with many European airlines. With only occasional high winds making landings anything less than straightforward, and being blessed with good weather almost all-year-round, the same thing which makes Malta a popular tourist destination has also turned out to be the criteria a lot of airlines look for when training aircrews too. Always with an eye toward business opportunities, this is something the airport operators have not been slow to capitalize on, and a good deal of airline crew training takes place at Malta.
Being both a European Union member and a signatory of the Schengen Agreement - which allows minimal border checks for people traveling between the signatory nations – Malta is a popular destination for holiday makers from all over Europe. But with its hugely interesting historical past that encompasses everything from megalithic architectural relics to crusading knights, Malta also attracts visitors from many other countries.
Air Malta has code-sharing agreements with Etihad and Quantas among others, and for what is not really a huge airport in comparison to other international destinations, all these things mean that there is quite a large and cosmopolitan mix of aircraft to be found at Malta International. You won’t see many in the screenshots in this review, because for most of them I turned the AI down so that aircraft did not get in the way of you being able to see the scenery itself, but rest assured, even the default FSX traffic fills the place up with airliners fairly swiftly.
Well suited to FS operations…
As far as what can land and depart from Malta International from a legal standpoint, the airport is designated a Category 9 facility according to the ICAO – that’s on a scale of 1-10. With 10 being the biggest, the main criteria for this rating being fire fighting equipment and taxiway shoulder weight capabilities - which means that just about the only aircraft not suited to operations from Malta, are the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747-800, and one suspects that is likely to change.
All four runways: 14, 32, 05 and 23 have approach lighting, PAPI lights and VOR/DME. Runways 14 and 32 are ILS equipped, only runway 05 lacks high intensity lights and the airport itself is an ATC centre for the region with full approach and weather radar coverage, meaning that pretty much any kind of approach you want to make into the place is possible in just about any aircraft.
What all that boils down to as far as Flight Simulator is concerned, is that Malta International is a great place to have scenery for in that it is suited to long, short and medium haul flights with a variety of aircraft and airlines. Taking a leaf out of the real airline’s books, with plenty of space, spare aprons, and being at a major crossroads of world travel, it wouldn’t be a bad place to base a virtual airline either. So there are reasons aplenty to have this scenery if you take your simming seriously.
An FS version in detail…
The default FS offering for Malta International Airport can perhaps be best summed up by noting that in both FS9 and FSX, it is still named Luqa Airport – a name which changed before FS95 was the current version of Flight Simulator. Because of the widely-spaced location of the real thing’s buildings, the default FS offerings look entirely lifeless, although they make a decent stab at the taxiways and runway layout.
With that in mind, it’s tempting to think that even a half-hearted attempt at some scenery would be enough of an improvement, but MSD has harbored no such limited ambitions, and instead we are presented with something altogether more impressive. In terms of visual fidelity, there is no doubt that this scenery is up there with the best of them; much of the detail is placed with what can only be described as pinpoint accuracy when compared to photographs.
The 3D modeling of the buildings and ancillary equipment is of a similarly precise standard too, with some excellent texturing which captures the stark contrast between the slightly neglected older buildings of a military vintage and the glamorous newer additions. There’s definitely a sympathetic and artistic eye been lent to the choice of texturing colors too, which really do manage to convey the bright Mediterranean sunlight on buildings made from the local materials. In short, it looks damn good.
Making extensive use of photo-realistic textures and considerable custom 3D modeling, accuracy is clearly the aim with MSD’s portrayal of Malta International. But since what we are talking about is essentially not an airport with masses of gates and aircraft taxiing about all over the place all the time, this is detail that can be enjoyed for the most part, as opposed to viewed once and then forever banished in the search for more FPS.
Most 3D objects make use of several levels of detail, depending on the distance you view them from, so you might be surprised how far you can actually get away with whacking those sliders over to the right. There is one thing to bear in mind with the 3D objects however: in order to ensure that they all display properly, you have to load up another location first to get FS to configure everything correctly. This is only necessary if you want to start your flight from Malta. If you are flying to this airport from elsewhere, you will effectively be performing this tweak anyway, so it’s not really a big deal, and to be honest, I started FS from there on a few occasions without doing that and it seemed okay to me.
With its own custom terrain for the surrounding countryside to blend into, this airport scenery is certainly in no danger of falling into the trap many such add-ons suffer by sticking out like a sore thumb; instead it blends seamlessly into the countryside, making it occasionally tricky to spot from a distance, as is the case with most real life airports in daylight hours.
With all this visual splendor there usually comes a price in terms of frame rates. In the case of Malta International we can benefit from a happy geographic accident in that the widely-spaced buildings invariably means there is less work for your graphics card to do from many viewpoints. Coupled with the smaller number of aircraft movements here in comparison to big international airports, this is somewhere that you can happily shove your graphics up a notch or two and enjoy what is on offer, which certainly makes a nice change if you like to use airliners at realistic renditions of places.
The real test…
Now, I think you’ll agree from the screenshots so far that it’s all looking pretty good, and I could certainly take many more screenshots, stick them in this review and you would be impressed. What you really want to know if you are running FSX is, does all this visual splendor come at 9 frames per second, or is it possible to fly smoothly into the place in your Cessna or Boeing?
Well, there’s one way to find out; take yourself over to YouTube and watch a little film I made of me flying around the place at low level in a helicopter, giving you the grand tour. You should note that I really pushed it with this scenery and was having fun doing so. Flying fast and close to the buildings in a way you would never do when using this scenery seriously, but I did that for two reasons.
First, it gives you a look at the excellent modeling in this add-on and it also demonstrates that you really have to push hard - flying low and fast - to make this scenery go choppy on you. Even then it manages surprisingly well, giving you a good idea of how smooth it can be if you don’t go nuts like I did.
Let’s be honest, if you’ve watched that clip, you’ll have seen that I was ragging that chopper around the place pretty damn fast in a way that you never would when using the scenery properly. But even when being silly like I was there, it’s not too shabby on speed for something with photo-realistic textures in FSX. If you check out the specification panel for the PC I was using, you’ll notice it is hardly a state of the art machine that I was flying on.
When you consider all that, it’s obvious how usable this scenery is. You’ll also notice from the video that Malta International is a sprawling place with aircraft using widely dispersed aprons, so there are some interesting taxi movements from AI aircraft too. There’s no denying it did go choppy on the video clip, but by the same token, it was remarkably smooth when I was flying around the place at a more sedate pace in that repainted Cessna whilst taking many of the screenshots you see in this review. So I’d have to say that this is a pretty smooth piece of work for normal use, so unless you make a habit of whizzing around airports like a maniac in a Huey, you’ll be fine on frame rates.
I did discover one minor fly in the ointment with this scenery, however. It doesn’t seem to like MyTraffic very much, and in fact the AFCADs cause a bit of a clash which is difficult to correct. I had a few email discussions with developer Daniel Chircop about this, and he is not only aware of it but was also helpful when it came to getting it sorted.
The issue sees MyTraffic AI aircraft misaligned with the airport by about 50 feet to one side when using both the runways and the taxiways. In fairness to MSD though, it is actually MyTraffic that’s at fault. There is no such clash with add-on traffic if you use Traffic X (which is what was in that video clip and is also the AI traffic you see in a few screenshots), nor is there any problem with the default FS traffic. So that’s further evidence of MyTraffic having something amiss.
It’s not unfixable, but it is worth bearing in mind if MyTraffic is your weapon of choice because you might have to indulge in a bit of AFCAD surgery to get it working properly with this scenery. As noted, emailing the developer when I discovered this mismatch in MyTraffic confirmed what a very helpful chap he is, and I was pleased to note that he was willing to help with any other queries I had too. Help can also be found on the excellent Malta Scenery Design website where there is a dedicated help forum. The support for this product is a very big plus point indeed, especially in view of the developer’s intimate knowledge of the real place.
Two further minor issues are noted in the PDF manual, both of which occur because of the way the scenery has been made. The first is that the PAPI lights only display on one side of the runways, which is hardly a major disaster. The other is that the runways will not display the wet look FSX offers when it rains. Again, since we are talking about somewhere that airlines pick to use for training because it has such good weather, this is not really a big problem. To be honest, there’s a good chance you’d never experience this if you use real world weather downloads, where it is mostly blue skies and fair winds.
Back on the plus side, this scenery has some rather funky stuff going on which you don’t see very often in FS. The old military visual runway in use ‘T indicator’ on the field actually works for runway 14/32, and the old military beacon flashes the morse code identifier letters L and U (for Luqa) like the real one does. Both of these items are relics from the airport’s military past, but since they still work at the real airport, they also appear in the simulated variant. This gives you an idea of the attention to realistic detail this scenery indulges in, but this isn’t mere frivolity, you really can use those things in bad weather or if your radio goes unserviceable.
This is a great add-on for FS and for all the right reasons too, especially if you like replicating airliner flights: It is slap bang in the middle of a huge variety of destinations. It looks absolutely like the real deal right down to all the minutia of detailing and is set to receive regular updates too, if and when things change at the real location.
Since the developer is a controller at the actual airport this scenery depicts, and there is a dedicated forum for this add-on where you can ask questions about stuff, it’s one of the few add-on airport sceneries where you can pick the brain of someone who really knows how aircraft operate from the place.
It’s certainly true that there are fancier add-on airports than this one, and ones with a good many more impressive buildings to be found in them. But when it comes to usability from a hardware standpoint and good frame rates, fidelity to the real thing and its ability to accommodate a variety of flights to and from other interesting destinations, then there really can’t be many better choices for an airport add-on, and I really mean that.
Virtual airline fans should not miss this one, and nor should fans of add-ons such as Cargo Pilot and Air Hauler, as it is well suited to these titles with its location and excellent navaid facilities. Real world airlines love this place for a whole lot of reasons, and I’m willing to bet that you will too. I wholeheartedly recommend you take a look at Malta International Airport V2.
What I Like About Malta International Airport
What I Don't Like About Malta International Airport
Tell A Friend About this Review!
All Rights Reserved