The first and perhaps most important decision that a scenery designer makes is what region to reproduce. Will it be exotic, like Mt. Everest, or domesticated, like central Germany? Tongass Fjords falls somewhere in between.
Set in the Alaskan wilderness, it is marked everywhere by natural grandeur, steep cliffs and long channels of water. You cannot go far, however, without finding signs of human habitation. For the pilot, there is a lot here to occupy the eye. For the designer, though, there are all kinds of challenges: terrain mesh, landclass, waterclass ground textures, shorelines -- and that is just for the natural landscape. For the human landscape, there will be a need for roads, logging trails, marine signals in the water, airports, town buildings, and cabins. And that is just the static scenery. Without moving objects, a well made scenery can feel lived in. But to feel alive, there has to be motion: sailing boats sailing, cruise ships cruising, airplanes taking off, kayakers paddling, birds circling.
Creating a scenery package that combines all these features can be done: this product is proof of that. The problem is doing all of them well. It helps if you have done some of them before. Holger Sandmann is, with Bill Womack, the creator of Tongass Fjords and if you search the AVSIM file library for his name, you will find pieces of it in freeware form: coastlines and floatplane traffic for Glacier Bay, landclass for Innsbruck, moving boats for the Columbia River, AI helicopters for Honolulu. Over the years, Sandmann has mastered skills (and invented new techniques) in several different areas of scenery design, and in Tongass Fjords he brings them all together.
Tongass Fjords is the third in a series of Sandmann sceneries published by FSAddon, the first of which were Misty Fjords and Vancouver+. Bill Womack is now listed as a co-author for his work on the airports, but these have always been team projects: in this instance, landscaping and AI traffic by Sandmann, 3D buildings by Womack and Manfred Herz, custom ground textures by Ruud Faber, watercraft models by Mitsuya “Hama” Hamaguchi, Larry Sillsbee, and Bob Langendorfer, and aircraft models by Milton Shupe, Jun Kazama, and Ronald Zambrano. Then there’s the documentation by Bryan Kirk and François Dumas and the installer by Ken Peters. I could add more names, but the point is made: this scenery was a major, collaborative undertaking and it builds on skills and techniques that have been developed over a period of several years.
The total result is uniformly satisfying: there is nothing half-hearted about anything in the whole package, whether it is natural landscape, man-made structures, or moving vehicles.
Installation and Documentation
Installation presents few difficulties. After you run the installer, you will need to inspect the Flight Simulator scenery library and perhaps make one or two adjustments. The procedure for doing this is clearly explained in the PDF manual.
The manual is 50 pages long and is written in English. So far as I can tell, most scenery manuals are written at the last minute. This one clearly wasn’t. It is by far the most comprehensive manual I have seen yet for a Flight Simulator scenery. Since you can download it from the Tongass Fjords website -- without purchasing the product -- I won't describe it in detail, except to say that I wish all scenery developers would study it and vow to do likewise. There are detailed descriptions of how things work, what to look for, and what the various files do (in case someone needs to tinker).
In addition to the PDF manual, there is also a linked series of clickable maps for the whole coverage area. The basis of these maps is the Juneau sectional chart published by the FAA (scale 1:500,000). Unlike European charts, most FAA charts are not restricted by copyright, so there are no royalties. These charts have been enhanced, moreover, to bring up additional data when you click on them. Click on an airport and your web browser will retrieve the current information, including weather and radio frequencies, for that airport. Click on a forestry cabin and you will get information on that, as well.
In addition to the installer, Tongass Fjords also comes with a configuration program. You won’t need to run this often, but you can come back to it anytime. If you have other add-ons that affect this area -- namely, Ultimate Terrain, Misty Fjords, Freight Dogs, or Sandmann’s own Glacier National Park -- the configuration program will make Tongass Fjords compatible with them. (FSX compatibility will come later; for current information, see the customer service forum).
You can also turn off certain features to improve frame rates: static boats, marine lights, and four separate types of AI traffic. I recommend leaving them turned on; or, if you need to dial down the AI traffic level, doing it from inside the sim with the traffic slider. Finally, the configurator can freeze all of the rivers and lakes, using a special “lake ice” texture. You wouldn’t want to do this in summer, obviously, but in winter it can be fun to take a ski plane and land on a lake. This isn’t possible with the default scenery, but with Tongass Fjords you can do it.
How Good Is It?
I’ve already mentioned the primary ingredients of Tongass Fjords: detailed terrain mesh, custom landclass, waterclass, and ground textures, AI traffic of various kinds, realistic roads and shorelines, forestry cabins, enhanced airports and floatplane bases, and two detailed towns (Sitka and Petersburg). Now let me say a few words evaluating each.
Sandmann has been making terrain mesh for several years now. The main virtue of the new mesh is it matches perfectly with the rest of the scenery. Rivers, for example, stay at the bottom of valleys.
For land and waterclass, there are two ways of making it. One is to generate it from existing data (usually from someone’s government). Sandmann works from satellite photos instead and the result is more precision than you can get from data alone. Town density matches the real world more closely and so do seasonal snow lines.
What does landclass do exactly? Here’s a simplified explanation. Landclass is what tells the sim rendering engine where to put a city and where to put a forest, where to put a glacier and where to put a regular valley, where to put autogen suburbs and where to put autogen high-rise buildings.
What the forests and town actually look like is dependent on ground textures, and Tongass Fjords bypasses the standard ones in favor of custom ground textures based on designs by Ruud Faber, the developer of FScene. The use of custom textures has two consequences. First, because the ground textures for Tongass Fjords aren’t used anywhere else in the sim, they don’t interfere with ground texture replacement products such as BEV, Ground Environment, or FScene. Second, and for the same reason, the designer is free to create landclass types that don’t normally exist in the sim: specifically, muskegs, gravel bars, and logging areas. (What’s a muskeg? I didn’t know either until I looked it up. It’s a kind of bog that you find in northern latitudes.)
The only custom texture that I do not like is the one used for frozen rivers and lakes; the repetition of elements is too obvious and it looks artificial.
To my knowledge, there is no real place called Tongass Fjords. There is a Tongass National Forest, though, and it is riddled with fjords, lakes, and rivers. These different water types are carefully distinguished in the waterclass. Glacial lakes are turquoise, and rivers are brown (because of silt). Even more striking, to my eye, is the way the shorelines have been carved out. In the default scenery, shorelines are crude and angular. Most rivers are just brown crayon-scrawls. Thanks to add-on products such as Ultimate Terrain, this is getting better. Once you get used to sinuous rivers and naturally curving coastlines, it’s very distracting to fly in areas that haven’t been enhanced in this way -- they seem so primitive.
Not all coastline products are equal. At the high end is the Ultimate Terrain (UT) series of products by Allen Kriesman. I don’t think Kriesman will mind, however, if I say that Tongass Fjord’s coastlines are even more naturalistic than those of UT. In fact, this is what you would expect: Kriesman’s products cover very large areas and necessarily rely on automation (though there’s still a lot of correcting by hand). Sandmann is working on a much smaller area: a fraction of Alaska rather than all of Alaska and Canada. The scenery covers about 70,000 square kilometers, and all of it is custom made. This isn’t to say that UT is bad for this area, just that Tongass Fjords is noticeably better.
How much better? There are two ways of answering this. One is with pictures. Go to the Tongrass Preview site and you will see very clearly the difference between the default coastlines, UT coastlines, and Tongass Fjords. (You’ll also see what a difference custom landclass makes, distinguishing various land types.) Let me try to characterize the difference verbally: UT coastlines have a kind of mathematical smoothness, whereas the coastlines of Tongass Fjords are pitted and craggy. Both are pleasing, but the Tongass Fjords coastlines match the irregularities of the real thing.
Another thing that sets Sandmann’s sceneries apart is moving objects. I commented on this earlier, when I said that some landscapes look lived-in, but Sandmann’s look alive. Other sceneries (though by no means all) have AI traffic, but Sandmann’s are the only ones I know of that feature floatplanes and helicopters. These two vehicle-types aren’t normally available in FS9, so over the years Sandmann has developed various workarounds to make them possible. There’s boat traffic, too, of various kinds: cargo freighters, tourist cruisers, coast guard vessels, even little kayakers. All are animated, and all leave wakes trailing behind them in the water. Boat traffic is also synchronized with the scenery’s marine lights. These lights mark the water ways, but they also direct traffic, and the boats are scheduled to coincide with their directions.
As I recall, there were two complaints when Misty Fjords came out not quite two years ago. First, it was more expensive than FS9, the platform it runs on. Second, the airports hadn’t been enhanced (though Bill Womack did create a new airstrip, Antelope Ranch). For a lot of customers, that didn’t matter: they were bush flyers and they were used to landing on mountain lakes (if they flew float planes) or gravel bars (if they favored tundra tires).
To what degree has Tongass Fjords improved on its predecessor?
It’s not any cheaper. The price tag for Tongass Fjords is 34 euros, plus VAT if you live in Europe. There’s no special upgrade price for current owners of Misty, though if you purchase both products at the same time, there is a discount. I’ll say more about price at the end.
There are, however, more airports. Here’s where Bill Womack leaves his mark. Womack was on the Misty team as well, but on Tongass he shares the credit line with Sandmann as a full co-author. Wherever there is an airport or seaplane base on the VFR sectional chart, Womack has enhanced it with some kind of 3D structure. In some places, it’s just a windsock and a dirt strip (like the abandoned airfields at Bronson Creek, Scud River, and Bradfield River). An additional four airports and 28 seaplane bases have been enhanced with hangars or, in the case of the seaplane bases, custom docks, marinas, animated birds, and floatplane traffic.
Finally, there are two airports, Sitka (PASI) and Petersburg (PAPG), that have been given the full beauty treatment, including ground vehicles and tire smudges on the tarmac. Apparently, Womack traveled to Alaska in order to take photographs of the real airports. Nothing’s animated, but the level of detail is very high. Everything looks clean. I don’t mean that it’s sterile -- there is dirt where regular use would make things dirty, and organic material growing up around the fences -- but the joints and placement are all craftsmanlike. Womack evidently took his time making these, and the result is we accept them at face value. When, for example, you approach an Alaskan Airlines luggage truck, you don’t think, “Oh, there’s a GMAX model of a luggage truck.” You think, “Oh, there’s a luggage truck.”
Womack’s real triumph is Sitka harbor and the surrounding town. It’s not big, but it’s very densely populated with custom 3D objects: sailboats in the marinas, docks of several sorts, marine signals, breakwaters, a low bridge (which is not too low to fly a helicopter under), and various town buildings (which I’m sure a native would recognize, but which this observer can only enjoy as objets d’art). Again, the adjective that I would like to use for all of this detail is “cleanly.” Everything is well executed and, despite the number of objects (and there are quite a few), there is always a sense of proportion or, better, harmony in their placement and disposition. And in the middle of it all, there’s Sandmann’s AI traffic -- boats and aircraft both -- bringing it all to life. The circling birds add to the effect.
The problem with detailed airports and towns is performance. More objects usually equals lower frame rates. When Tongass Fjords was first released, there were complaints in the customer service forum about low frame rates and stuttering around Petersburg and especially Sitka. I was curious to see how Womack and Sandmann would respond. It’s natural to be defensive, but Womack and Sandmann weren’t. They asked questions, took suggestions, and promised to issue a performance update -- which they delivered in about two weeks' time.
Developers, take note: this is the right way to do after-sale service. Yes, sometimes the customer is doing something wrong, or has unrealistic expectations (meaning ones that weren’t fostered by misleading ads). But sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, problems do slip past the beta testers, and when that happens it’s reasonable to expect that the developers will go back and fix what’s fixable. That’s not “going the extra mile,” it’s finishing the job.
The goal of this particular update was to improve performance without removing detail. So far as I can make out, this was achieved by making the experience of the scenery more scalable. Small details only show up when you are close enough to actually see them, and the reduction of detail is more gradual when you back off the scenery slider. The same technique was already in use for AI traffic: pulling back somewhat on the traffic slider cuts the AI traffic by a proportionate amount, but not all the way. What’s more, the manual explains what kind of traffic gets cut at what level, so there’s no guesswork: if you want to keep the Beavers but can live without the more framerate-intensive Twin Otters, the documentation tells you how.
Outside of the two cities, however, performance is simply not a concern. The landscapes of Tongass Fjords look beautiful, but there’s nothing here that taxes the system too much. Autogen trees can be dialed back in density, though I didn’t find that necessary.
The one thing that can degrade performance, even in rural areas, is clouds, and these are a feature of the real-world environment, not a failure of craftsmanship. One of the great pleasures of flying in Alaska, apart from the magnificence of its terrain, is the tremendous variety of its weather -- much of which is gloomy (or if that sounds too grim, “atmospheric”). Some days it’s white clouds and blue skies, as you can see from screenshots on the product web page. But if you go out every day (as I tried to in reviewing this product) a lot of it is going to be marginal VMC (visual meteorological conditions), with low clouds and low visibility. Even when the weather isn’t gloomy, exactly, it is moody -- and this was in the summer before snow season.
Of course, you don’t need an add-on to experience bad weather. But Tongass Fjords complements the bad weather and gives you something to do about it. The terrain corresponds more accurately with the maps, so you can learn the landmarks and use them to navigate. On some routes, you can follow even the flashing marine signals that line the waterways. This last is probably not a recommended practice, but it’s been done; you can read about it in Harmon Helmericks’ book Last of the Bush Pilots (1970).
Tongass Fjords is expensive. I said that already. Expensive, though, is not always the same thing as overpriced. For what it is, Tongass Fjords is reasonably priced. Quality costs, and this is premium quality scenery. (Freeware, by the way, is no exception: it’s free to use, but the good stuff is not free to make. Someone paid for it, with time if not with money.)
Developers, don’t get too comfortable: if you are going to charge this much for a scenery package, it had better be this good.
Thing is, most consumers can’t afford this level of quality all the time -- we have to choose, and reviews like this one are supposed to help us make educated choices.
If it’s a choice between buying this scenery or getting school supplies for the kids, then get the school supplies (or take your spouse out to dinner, or buy your brother a birthday present, or whatever it is you really need to do with that money). That’s obvious. What’s trickier is choosing between the flightsim add-ons that we can afford.
Some products enhance the whole flightsim universe: notables in this category include weather programs such as ActiveSky and texture replacements such as Flight Environment, Ground Environment, BEV, and FScene. Other products enhance large areas, such as FS Genesis terrain mesh or Ultimate Terrain. Finally there are some products -- mainly airport sceneries -- that focus all of their attention on just a few square miles.
Sandmann’s products cover more area than that, but less area than UT or FS Genesis. They include some airports, but the experience doesn’t stop when you leave the airport. Eventually, you will leave the coverage area (about 27,000 square miles). While you’re in it, though, you’ll be flying over scenery that’s handcrafted at every level. That’s the Sandmann compromise: the scenery doesn’t go on forever, but until it stops, everything will fit perfectly.
can benefit from this degree of fit and finish. Like many of the
products I’ve reviewed this summer, Tongass Fjords
is squarely aimed at VFR pilots. If you only fly the big iron, don’t
bother: it’ll be over before you know it. Instead, get ActiveSky
or Flight Environment -- anything to do with clouds (which, in a
Boeing or Airbus cockpit, is most of what you’ll be looking
at anyway). However, if what you like is low and slow, Tongass Fjords
will not disappoint. There is no better VFR scenery, in this price
range or any other.
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