It could be argued, successfully in the eyes of this reviewer, that the Boeing 747 and London Heathrow are two of the 20th century’s great aviation icons. One reshaped the way we fly in a way only surpassed by the introduction of the first passenger jet aircraft, the other is one of the truly great airports of the world, and through its continuous development, epitomizes the growth of aviation globally over the past 50 years. It’s also worth noting the operational relationship that exists between these two ‘giants’. It was London Heathrow that was the destination for the first ever commercial 747 flight by Pan Am on January 21st 1970.
Neither the 747-400 nor London Heathrow is new to flightsim. At AVSIM you can find a wide variety of freeware add-ons for FS98 through to FSX, and there have been numerous commercially released iterations. As each version of Flightsim has added enhancements, one of the challenges developers face is, do they just ‘patch’ their release for the next version when that is an option, or do they overhaul their products to capitalize on the new features the latest version of flightsim offers? PMDG ‘talk’ about their original intentions to ‘patch’ the 747-400 for FSX and how the project they expected to take a few weeks took 18 months. Aerosoft had already released Mega Airport London Heathrow for FS2004; the question was what would they do for FSX?
For this review, I acknowledged that we already know a lot about PMDG’s 747-400 through Maury Pratt’s excellent review for the FS2004 version that can be found here on AVSIM. Much of what Murray has already identified in the 400 still applies to the 400X, so I will focus on what’s new in the FSX version and why this is a true FSX aircraft. \
Mega Airport London Heathrow X, on the other hand, is a new release for Aerosoft and while the FS2004 version has been on the market for awhile, I will cover the FSX version in detail.
Origins of London Heathrow - How a quiet hamlet roared into history *
London Heathrow started out as a grass strip of land in the countryside and in the 1930’s, was originally known as the ‘Great Western Aerodrome’. Located 24 miles from London, it was privately owned until 1943 when the military took over and it became a transfer base for the Royal Air Force during World War II. The grass strip was replaced with the first concrete runway in 1944 and to make way for the airport, the small hamlet of Heath Row was demolished. The name of this hamlet was retained and the ‘Great Western Aerodrome’ became officially known as ‘Heathrow’, but it wasn’t until May 1946 that the airport was first used for civilian use, having 3 runways in operation by 1947.
The modern parallel runways still in use today were started in 1953 and Terminal 2, as its now known, was the first permanent building to be constructed in 1955, with Terminal 3 following in ’61. The group of buildings at Heathrow’s core has often been cited as an issue in the airport's expansion. It seems that the thinking at the time was plenty of parking for passengers was not going to be required given flying was only affordable to the rich at that time who werequite naturally chauffeur driven!
By the time Terminal 1 opened in 1968, Heathrow was handling 14 millions passengers a year and this number was set to increase given word that the Boeing Aircraft Company had a new aircraft type on the drawing board the likes of which had never seen before. In 1970, Heathrow needed to upgrade its runways in anticipation of Boeing's new giant.
Runways suitable for piston powered aircraft and the early Comet's, DC8’s and 707’s would simply not be big enough to handle this new ‘heavy’, and so it was that on January 21st, the behemoth that at the time made everything look small in comparison, touched down and the age of the 747 at Heathrow began.
The 1970’s saw ongoing expansion and in 1977, the London underground connected Heathrow with downtown London. With passenger numbers having doubled to 30 million by the early part of the 1980’s, it was time for Terminal 4 to be constructed. This would become home to the recently privatized British Airways. In 1987, when the British Airports Authority (BAA) was privatized, Heathrow was one of 6 airports under its control. Since then the proportions of Heathrow have continued to expand with demand, with Terminal 5 under construction and due to be opened and operational by October 2008.
* Historical Source - Wikipedia.com
All Hail the Queen *
Just as Heathrow needed to evolve and expand as it was drawn into the age of mass air travel, so too did Boeing get busy improving the aircraft that was leading this travel revolution. In October 1985, Boeing announced the most advanced version of the Boeing 747 yet, the 400. Notable for its obvious external changes such as the stretched upper deck first seen on the 300 and a few retrofitted 100 SR models operated in Japan, the 747-400 also featured an increased wingspan with winglets. The 747-400 was fitted with a full glass cockpit, replacing the traditional analogue gauges with 6 glass screens; as a result the flight engineer position became vacant and was quite literally replaced with a book shelf. The aircraft featured more composite materials and aluminum alloys reducing its weight, and with additional fuel tanks, its range was increased.
Various improvements continued to be made, notably the ER model increasing range, the D allowing over 650 passengers in a single class on domestic flights, and in more recent times, Evergreen Aviation has converted two, soon to be three, standard 400’s for Boeing to become the large cargo freighter (LCF) or Dreamlifter to support the 787 program.
The advancements in the 400 design were also integrated into the 747-400F, and it is this version that continues to roll off the Everett production line, all be it slowly. The United States Air Force has been customers for the 400F for their YAL-1A ‘Airborne Laser’ system.
Sadly the passenger 747-400 ceased production in early 2007 after an original order for 4 were switched to the 777-300ER, so the last of over 1350 aircraft built was delivered in April 2005. By this time, the 747-400 had established itself as the ‘Queen of the Skies’, arguably being the most recognized airliner built. There will only ever be one ‘Jumbo Jet’, others will and have been bigger, but they will always live in the shadow of the aircraft that changed modern aviation forever.
* Technical Details Source - Wikipedia.com
Installation and Documentation
Mega Airport London Heathrow X – Installing Mega Airport London Heathrow X was very simple and quick, and given the uncompressed files, filled 150MB of hard drive space. I selected my install language and was then presented with a standard license agreement screen. Once read and accepted, I was then required to enter my email address and the unique license key I received from Aerosoft when I placed my order. Once this was verified, I then selected which version of Mega Airport London Heathrow X I wanted to install.
With the release of SP1 and now Acceleration, which has the SP2 changes imbedded, Simwing’s have had to cater for both given SP2 has made additional changes to those made in SP1. I was quite impressed that Simwing’s had gone to the trouble to make this process as simple as it is for the end user, but it was made very clear during install that SP1 must be installed for Mega Airport London Heathrow X to work properly. On the Aerosoft support forum, Simwing’s have made it clear that failing to have SP1 installed will give you very strange texture results on runways, the fixes SP1 bought in are therefore important to ensure maximum performance.
I’m running FSX with Acceleration installed, so this was my selected choice and once done, another window popped up asking me if I wanted to install static aircraft. I clicked yes to this (I subsequently reinstalled the scenery and selected no to this option, I’ll explain why later) and the installer then went to work filling my hard drive with the data. This only took a few minutes and I received the final notification that all was done. I also got a pop up advising where I could download charts and find the Mega Airport London Heathrow X Manual. The FSX scenery config file is automatically updated as part of the installation, and a back-up of the original is made for safe keeping.
The manual provided by Simwings comes in PDF format and covers all the details you would want to know about the scenery. Strangely, quite extensive information is provided in the documentation about the install process; however you don’t actually have access to the manual until after this is completed. This seems back to front to me, but given the installer is detailed and the information is as rich as it is, it’s not an issue as such.
The manual offers suggestions on performance, discusses the way the various gate docking systems work and how you can interact with the British Airways maintenance base hangar and access barrier. The manual also goes into some detail about the changes currently taking place at Heathrow around Terminal 5, and the support BAA gave Simwings to develop Mega Airport London Heathrow X. I was also interested to note that the scenery will continue to be developed as Heathrow grows and updates will be made available as these changes happen.
I was impressed with the release of a small SP2 patch for approach lighting which went online the same day that SP2 was released. Clearly Aerosoft are committed to providing strong support for their product. I was also impressed to note that the FS2004 version of Mega Airport London Heathrow was supplied free, so those who still run both versions of flightsim can experience it across both platforms. For those who already have the FS2004 version, the FSX upgrade is a free download.
PMDG 747-400X ‘Queen of the skies’ - Installing the 747 was a similar affair as Heathrow. Once again have your product key handy because you will need to provide this as part of the install process. Within a couple of minutes the 747 was installed along with the navigation data it comes with for the FMC, I then had access to the 747 load manager and manual through the windows ‘start’ menu.
The documentation supplied with the PMDG 747-400X is also in PDF format and is best described as extensive. Once again those who have the FS2004 version will be familiar with this, as it remains fundamentally unchanged for FSX unless systems have changed or information is unique to FSX, which has been updated. The documents have been split into 15 ‘chapters’ and covers all aspects of operating the Boeing 747-400 along with checklists. I decided printing it all out was going to be the best option, particularly as I recognized I would need to refer to quite a lot of it as my test flying progressed.
Flying the ‘Queen of the skies’
Being an owner of the FS2004 version of the PMDG 747-400 and 400F, I was already familiar with the lady. What I was really keen on seeing was what differences she would have in the external model, animations and ‘feel’, if any. To give myself that opportunity I decided to set myself up on a short hop between Paris Charles de Gaulle and London Heathrow, which would tie in very nicely for the second part of this review. For this flight I decided on the passenger variant.
While I had downloaded many of the free skins PMDG have made available on their website, all being of a very high standard I would add, I decided to go with the default PMDG livery and also selected the RR powered model. One thing to note here is while all three engine types have been supplied (Rolls Royce, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney), along with their unique sound sets both externally and on the flightdeck, ‘under the bonnet’ the aircraft's performance is set with GE engines. PMDG explained that while a few minor differences can be found on the flightdeck between engine types, in general, aircraft performance is similar between all three and I personally felt the balance provided was fine.
I have to be careful here as I might get carried away with lots of gushing pros to describe how the ‘Queen of the Skies’ looks once she is parked on the ramp. Sitting at the gate at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport during my pre-flight for my short hop to Heathrow, I have to say my impressions were this model is nothing short of spectacular.
I am a regular aircraft spotter and have been lucky enough to spend many hours observing 747 aircraft operating in and out of Auckland Airport in New Zealand; some of that time has been up close and personal at the Air New Zealand maintenance base. PMDG have built a real Boeing 747-400 for FSX. Now that may seem a little over the top, but I really feel that what they have achieved is as close to real as you could ever get, and from an external model perspective, the 400X is a step up from the original FS2004 version.
The bump mapping adds depth to the fuselage and other surfaces. Improved night lighting allows for a more realistic look at night, and the way FSX allows animations to be handled comes into its own when you observe the smooth flex in the wings during flight, and particularly when you encounter turbulence and the wings start to jiggle.
Everything about this model is highly detailed, and I was unable to observe anything that was out of place. The quality of the animation on both sets of gear and flaps is very smooth and realistic. Looking closely at the flaps there was no overlay and each piece fits snugly against the next as it should. Clearly the attention to detail achieved in the FS2004 model has been replicated and advanced in FSX. The only issue I did identify was the baggage unloading truck.
I’m not quite sure where PMDG have placed their contact points for the cargo hold, but the baggage ramp kept going forward until it was in the middle of the fuselage, the Jetway on the other hand moved, into position at the correct location. Pictures speak a thousand words, so before we look at the 747’s systems, feast your eyes on these shots of my taxi, takeoff and flight across the channel; I think they say it all really.
I have to admit here that my pre-flight at Paris consisted of turning on lights, and then using Ctrl+E to get the engines going. I know this is as close to heresy as you can get with an aircraft like this, so please forgive me. In my own defence, I really wanted to focus on the external model to begin with and then take a closer look at the inside once I was airborne.
Systems and panel wise, the 747-400X is no different than the FS2004 version, at least at face value, and Maury’s review covers this nicely so I won’t go there other than to say everything is very crisp and clear on both the VC and 2D panels, so you wont need to squint to try to read small text. One of the enhancements in FSX is additional views in the VC, namely the co-pilot seat (bring on multiplayer flying) and close ups of the FMC, overhead panel and the throttle/comm's panel.
I particularly appreciated the clarity in the overhead panel, I have struggled with some aircraft in being able to read what’s on buttons etc, but the textures are a high enough resolution to ensure that’s not an issue, and if you hold your mouse pointer over a switch, you will get a help tag. I will note a few switches on the VC did not operate, but these did not detract from the experience. PMDG say that over 1,200 items are animated on the 747-400X, a large proportion of those items are in the VC.
Reading the supplied manual helped to maximize my flying experience, and paid huge dividends once I was ready to immerse myself in the flightdeck. So if you are considering a move to this bird, I would encourage you to take the time and study. There is nothing worse than trying to find the ignition key for the 747, only to discover it doesn’t have one *blushes*. Of course I’m joking, but you get the idea.
It’s what’s behind the scenes with the way the panel works and integrates with FSX where things have seen a radical change. PMDG explain in their Introduction document that the real work has been done in the way the 400X ‘talks’ to the FSX engine. The way PMDG have built the model allows a very high level of realism and functionality to be possible because the 747 and FSX are talking directly through sim connect, and this is done in such a way as to make the 400X as lean on system resources as possible.
I won’t pretend to understand the technicalities involved with this, but the end result for you and I means complex external model and flightdeck systems that typically hog system resources, which in many cases make using the VC a challenge, are not apparent in the 400X. From a performance perspective this means the 2D panel and VC offer similar performance levels, and I certainly found moving between the two to be seamless with no delays. Given I was using the 747 at Simwing’s London Heathrow scenery, I was actually expecting things to slow down significantly. The fact I had bloom on most of the time was also asking for trouble, but performance remained relatively constant with only the occasional dip or texture catch-up if I swapped views a little too quickly.
I was suitably encouraged to then add British Airways AI to the mix to see what would happen, and I was very impressed that I was able to maintain double digit frame rates, with the occasional dip to 5 but with the average lowest being 11, things were still very flyable. This applied to whether I was moving between views in the VC or getting the various panel components to ‘pop up’ in 2D view.
What’s on the menu
The installer also adds a PMDG submenu to the FSX in-game top of screen menu. The 400X is nothing short of flexible, and pretty much anything and everything about its operation from what keys you want the main passenger door to open with, to what system failures you would like to happen and when, are configurable.
Initially I wanted to open the forward left passenger door and it wouldn’t work. After scratching my head a little and investigating, I learnt that I needed to go through the PMDG menu system to specify key combinations for most of the advanced animations. From here I could pretty much determine most things, with the depth of customization available being quite extraordinary. I certainly haven’t looked through everything in detail, but several hours flying experience and close attention to what’s in the manual is required to ensure an understanding of what effect the changes will have, but it's an aspect of the 400X package that allows layers of depth to be added as you become more familiar with the aircraft systems and how things work.
One of the areas I will highlight is the ability to set up system failures and engine fires. Chaos reigns when you are trying to work through the unusual procedures checklist (UPC), and as I found out, if you do something wrong when responding to an emergency you can do more damage to systems and things can quickly go from bad to worse.
This is a real selling point for the 400X, and an area that simply must be explored. But don’t be surprised if a big open sky seems to become very small quickly when you are dealing with multiple failures. The 400X is very forgiving, but the law of physics are not if you have managed to lose all 4 engines with no 6000 foot runway within gliding distance.
Speaking of gliding, the flight dynamics of the 400X feel great and users who are familiar with the FS2004 version will notice no difference in FSX. Once again the magic is behind the scenes, and according to PMDG, the config and air files have been reworked to maximize the FSX experience. Personally, I found the aircraft to feel like I imagined a 747 would. It's heavy but at the same time sprightly, surprisingly so at times. I found her very responsive to yoke inputs but had to manage my thrust inputs on descent as I found that initially I was over speed quite a bit, spoilers managed that nicely, and if I got a little low on approach she responded quickly when thrust was applied.
I certainly got a nice sense of weight flying her, and with visual cues available if you are in external view, reinforcing that. Seeing the wing flex change as weight is transferred to and from the landing gear is awesome, and while this type of animation isn’t new, seeing the smooth clean flex as opposed to a more jutted leading edge line was very impressive. The 747 flew nicely to flight plan’s loaded into the FMC, and I found the aircraft held the Heathrow ILS approach well. Load factors influence your flying experience, so if you are empty, expect a rocket ship to the moon kind of flight, but if you were like me on my trip from Paris to Heathrow during the Christmas peak season, my flight was full.
The load manager, that is part of the install, is a very easy and quick way of managing loads for both the 400 and 400F aircraft. One of the neat features here, which highlights the way the 747 ‘talks’ to FSX as mentioned above, is you can change loads while the sim is running and the changes will take effect without a restart being required.
You swap between passenger and freighter versions via a drop down menu in the load editor, then passenger and cargo numbers can be set seat by seat or cargo pallet by pallet. You can also get the load editor to randomly populate based on a % filled method. It’s a very handy feature, simple to use and because it’s done in real time, it means you can do a turn around between flights very quickly without having to quit FSX to activate the changes.
Sound Sets - Raw power and ambience alike
As mentioned earlier, unique sound sets are provided for all 3 engine types and the quality of these was very good and once again reflect the standard that PMDG first presented in the FS2004 747-400. Having flown all three aircraft types during this review, I kept coming back to the Rolls Royce RB211’s, as there is a sound quality to these engines I really like.
I certainly appreciated a good sound system and plenty of volume during my flying, particularly on the flight deck. From start up, applying take-off thrust, through the cruise, landing and finally shutting down, you appreciate the range of sounds supplied and the way the different thrust settings merge into each other to give a very smooth effect.
In some packages I have noted a distinct step between sounds; this wasn’t the case with the PMDG 747-400. As you would expect of a package of this quality, sounds on the flightdeck are also excellent. Unless all power is off there is always ambient sound to be heard, whether it’s the gentle roar of the APU running or hum of the electronic systems, the ‘bing’ of the fasten seatbelt switch, or the ‘clack’ of the flap lever moving into position. Your actions on the flightdeck will be rewarded with audio feedback in most cases. This also applies to alarms and quite often I found myself scrambling a little to turn off the main alarm as I checked systems in response to their warning.
Externally it is the same. Naturally the predominant sound is the engines, but I also noted a roar when I used speed brakes to slow my descent. So not only does the aircraft pitch up slightly and the spoilers physically deploy, you also get audio feedback just as you would in the real world to tell you the air flow is being upset. It’s these types of touches that separate excellent packages from the good.
Being safely on the ground, the 747 was taxied to its assigned gate and shut down and prepared for the return flight to Paris. Sadly, for the time being at least, my time with the ‘Queen of the Skies’ was over, and I was now ready to start exploring the vast expanse that is Mega Airport London Heathrow by Simwings, but not before I took a few more shots of her departure. The PMDG 747-400X, if you own no other aircraft add-on for FSX, this is the one to get!
From Default to High detail, London Heathrow
London Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world if you believe the official BAA Heathrow website that is, covers around 3000 acres. This behemoth operates 2 parallel runways, 09L/27R which is just over 12,800 feet, and 09R/27L which is 12,000 feet*. It has a third runway, 23, though how much use this gets these days is unknown, and certainly does not appear to be operational within the Simwings rendition.
In the supplied manual Simwings points out that Mega Airport London Heathrow X has been developed with the support of BAA, the management business responsible for Heathrow and 6 other major UK airports. It certainly appears that this package is the beginning rather than the end for Heathrow, as the real world airport grows and has terminals and facilities added, so too will Simwings update the scenery to reflect this.
FSX comes with Heathrow as one of the default ‘high detail’ airports, so it’s always interesting to use add-on scenery and see what the differences actually are and how accurate the final result is. I’ll say up front that Simwings' version of Heathrow leaves the default in its dust many times over, yet the question I was always going to be asking was around performance, detail is fine but it adds no value if it’s not flyable.
Scenery & Textures
The quality of the buildings and other scenery objects throughout London Heathrow X is excellent. It's clear a lot of time and effort has been spent researching and then making the various airport structures, and given some are based on buildings that have yet to be completed, the final result is very effective and realistic. This is true around the gates in particular, the level of detail is relative to your settings somewhat, but I was very pleased I set mine to the max so I could enjoy all the eye candy available. The texturing was also of a very high standard throughout, I didn’t experience any blurriness around the gates or other airport buildings and facilities. Simwings have had to find the balance between detail and performance, so it was good to see they had made the buildings and taxiways the focus of attention, with the outlying areas lower res.
Looking at the textures in the scenery folder, they varied from 512 to 1024 pixels depending on location. You can see in the second image from the left above where the hi-res and low-res ground textures meet on the airport boundary. I was also pleased to see the photoreal textures fade/merge with the default FSX textures around the airport perimeter, it’s a small detail but in my view an important one and shows the developer was thinking about FSX and what it offers.
On this aspect of the scenery, Simwings have included FSX effects in some of the buildings. Terminal 5 has the reflective glass effect, and at the right time of day when you catch the sun just right, the glory of bloom can be seen across most buildings, and even the radar. I was a little surprised to note not all the buildings had this effect included, this may well be something Simwings are working towards in a future update, but this didn’t seem to effect the bloom at all.
The more I explored in and around the terminals, the more the depth of the detail that has been included revealed itself, and many times I was struck by the detail that Simwings had managed to get into the scenery. Cross checking between photos and site maps from the internet, everything seemed to be in the right place with the use of photoreal base textures assisting with this, no doubt. I really enjoy high levels of detail and I was not disappointed in any way with London Heathrow.
One neat feature I will mention, is the animated access gate to the British Airways maintenance hangar and also the doors of the hangar themselves. Using the tried and true method of NAV freq’s, both can be opened and closed from your aircraft. This kind of interactivity is always fun and adds a layer of depth and realism to a scenery.
Night lighting throughout the scenery was very impressive and looked about right to my eye, with enough light splash across buildings and terminal ramps to give a very good effect. This was particularly impressive on approach at dusk or evening, seeing the airport appear fully lit up was very impressive and flying the ILS approach certainly gave me opportunities to take a good look. I found no real increase or drop in performance at night.
One of the ways Simwings addresses the performance issue in FSX is distance triggers for certain textures and scenery items. From a distance, the main buildings such as terminals and hangars are visible as are the lower res photoreal textures Simwings have used for a scenery base. As you get closer, the detail starts to build, so things like runways, taxiways, jetways, fences and the various items you expect to find on the ground in a major metropolitan airport, start to appear. Once close to the gates themselves, I started seeing cargo containers, parked vehicles and animated ground service vehicles moving around.
The animated traffic run on predefined loops, and while the loop is not perfect, an example is a security vehicle that runs a short loop and when it reaches the end point it disappears and then suddenly reappears a few feet away to start again. These are not big issues as the overall effect the animation adds to the scenery is very good.
An Aerosoft staffer on their support forum for the Heathrow release claimed he was getting 20FPS reasonably consistently. Certainly without bloom, shadows (on scenery or self shadows on aircraft) all improve performance, so naturally I was keen to run some tests and see what performance I could get from my system, which to be honest, is reasonably hi spec.
I selected a set location and view that would not change for the duration of my test and then looked at 5 scenery density settings and ran two sets of tests, one with bloom and one without. I installed some freeware British Airways AI and set this to 20%, and used the Cessna C172 as my camera ship. The following table outlines the results I observed, and indicates the average FPS. While these findings are in no way scientific, they do make for some interesting observations.
One, the performance of bloom fluctuated little, but its effect was clearly obvious. And two, the difference between sparse and extremely dense was not huge from a performance perspective; however from different vantage points, I may well have seen the difference more profoundly. Hence, these figures are just one way to gauge performance.
In use rather than just testing, which I always find is a much better and more reliable way to understand actually performance, I found the scenery very flyable, with my FPS fluctuated between a low of 5 through to the mid 20’s, and like all things, this was influenced by what aircraft I was using and the display settings I had set up, weather and AI. In the end I found a sweet spot around the 16 FPS mark that allowed smooth performance and enough traffic and visual effects to bring Heathrow alive for me. To get this, I made sure I used real world weather and kept autogen to normal and scenery to dense.
I do believe users need to think carefully about their system when considering this as an add-on, while Simwings have worked hard to make London Heathrow as performance friendly as possible, they also acknowledge you need reasonable system specs to get the most from it. They recommend a 3GHZ dual core CPU, graphics card with 512MB to 2GB of ram. If you have no problems flying in and out of the current ‘high detail’ airports, then you should be ok. You will get a hit in performance to some degree, and that’s simply because the detail Simwings have included with Heathrow adds so many more objects, so I would recommend anyone considering Heathrow to check your specs before you purchase.
Static vs. AI, its your choice
As I mentioned when outlining the install process, you have the option of including static aircraft. These are very low polygon models designed with performance in mind, and like the rest of the scenery items are triggered by your distance away from them.
While the principal was a good one, particularly as Heathrow looks pretty quiet if you are not using AI, the models were less than appealing. My main gripe with them is the texture quality. While the rest of the scenery sets a very high standard for textures, even the static airport vehicles use photo textures, the static aircraft looked out of place and to be blunt, ugly. If Simwings had applied the same principals to the static aircraft that they did for other scenery items, the low polygon nature of the models would be fine. However combine poor textures and simple models and the effect is simply not up to it in FSX.
When using AI in the scenery, the airport takes on an entirely different feel. So whether its default AI or a third party add-on, if your system can handle it, I would encourage anyone to think about including this. In general, the AI behaves itself very well which says plenty about the AFCAD supplied with Heathrow. I did note a few parking issues but these were isolated to heavies parking too far forward on the ramp stands. Minor issues that if you’re flying, you most likely wont see.
As something for a bit of fun, one of the things I really enjoyed doing when the wind was coming from the west was sitting to the side of 09L and just watching the aircraft movements. By the rental car agency on the southern side of the airport is a great place to sit and watch arrivals, especially the British Airways heavies as they tend to move towards Terminal 5 regularly. The other place is a car park just to the left of 09R.
Excellent views are afforded of departures and I spent quite a bit of time at both locations just watching. It was fascinating to say the least and it gave me a real sense of what this airport must be like on a day to day basis. From this vantage point you also begin to appreciate the sheer size of Heathrow, and given you are just watching AI movements, performance tends to be at the higher end allowing AI settings to be increased.
ILS and Approach
With both 09L/27R and 09R/27L having Cat III ILS capabilities at London Heathrow in real life, I first flew a number of sorties to test the capabilities of both runways in Simwings' version. I’m pleased to say that once locked, my aircraft flew straight down the line touching down nicely in the zone, all be it a few feet to the left of the centreline on 09L.
From a flying perspective 09L was my favourite approach, the new terminal 5 building, as it comes up and passes to your right, is certainly impressive. Full approach lighting guides you down, however I did find the PAPI lights to the left came into view quite late from the VC, but were visible further away in external view. The same applies with the main runway textures; Simwings relies on the photoreal base to supply the visuals until you are just less than 1 km from the fence, that’s when the higher res textures kick in. While this wasn’t a major issue, in bad weather you might want to see the approach lights a little earlier to help with your height, particularly if you choose to fly visually rather than using the ILS.
Parking, it’s all done with mirrors you know
There are something like 250 parking slots at London Heathrow spread across the currently 3, soon to be 4, terminal and cargo areas. These vary from free stands to those set up for the latest wide body aircraft with multiple Jetways.
In Simwing’s Heathrow, each stand or gate used by FSX ATC has a system to make lining up and parking your aircraft easier and to ensure you end up in the right spot for the various ground services available. Three docking systems are employed, the first is called Safe Dock, the second uses a Mirror, and the last is the Agnis Papa system. Of the three, the Mirror is probably the most innovative. As I approached the gate, I kept an eye on the mirror and soon enough my nose gear came into sight allowing me to stop in the correct location. While this feature does not use an actual mirror effect as such, it’s actually all done with graphics; the final effect is excellent and is a great addition to the scenery particularly given this is the type used at Heathrow.
The other two systems were also easy enough to interact with, however, I did find it difficult to see some of the Agnis Papa boards. This was mainly due to my location in the cockpit, not being able to lean forward or back meant I needed to adjust my position manually in the cockpit to be able to see and get my nose wheel gear lined up. This is certainly not a fault of the scenery, and those who are use to using the keyboard to make adjustments to their eye position will have no problems.
For me, the big disappointment came when I discovered the Jetway’s were not animated. When I visited the Aerosoft support forum, where this issue had already been raised, at that time the question was not one Simwings were prepared to provide an answer for. So it appears, for now anyway, that one of the cool animation functions included with FSX won’t be seen at Heathrow. This is a real shame but overall I can’t count this against this scenery, the level of detail Simwings has managed to include more than makes up for this, that’s not to say I personally wouldn’t be delighted if they added this feature in a future update.
Summary / Closing Remarks
I come away from just over two weeks of flying the PMDG 747-400X in and out of Mega Airport London Heathrow X, and feel I have experienced two add-ons that truly start to show what FSX is capable of.
The 747 is nothing short of a must buy in my view; it captures the physical presence of the 747 magnificently with an external model and VC that is truly second to none, and a sound set that puts you in the left hand seat and keeps you there. It has all the bells and whistles for those who enjoy working complex aircraft systems, but is also easy enough for the average flightsim aviator to access and get flying quickly.
The ‘Queen of the skies’ requires attention and time to understand exactly what she has to offer, so as an add-on, it will keep you coming back to learn the systems and understand how such a glorious flying machine operates.
My initial concerns about Mega Airport London Heathrow X and its performance ended up being unfounded. Very clever scenery design means you won't get many fully realized simulations of a real world airport this size that are much more FPS friendly than this. It is important to view this package with the recommended PC specs in mind, or it could be a disappointment. So if you can’t meet them, then think twice in my view. The overall quality and attention to detail are certainly highlights of this scenery, and if you can manage some AI, then its just as much fun spending a day watching as it is flying.
I wholeheartedly recommend both these packages. The PMDG Boeing 747-400X and Simwings Mega Airport London Heathrow X are worthy additions to any FSX flight simmer's collection.
What I Like About The 747 and Heathrow
What I Don't Like About The 747 and Heathrow
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