FOREWORD: Home of The SR-71 Blackbird
This is what I consider "Part Two" of a series of products related to the SR-71 Blackbird for FSX. The first part was a review I wrote for the add-on SR-71 aircraft by AlphaSim. This review is a look at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), which is a scenery add-on also by AlphaSim. The last part of the series will be a review of the recently declassified Pilot's Flight Operating Instructions for the SR-71.
Much of what I know about this base I learned from studying the SR-71 Blackbird. The Beale AFB scenery can provide the FSX sim-pilot with a suitable home base for the AlphaSim Blackbird, or it can be used without the SR-71 add-on. The AlphaSim Blackbird and the Beale AFB scenery are two separate products, and at this writing are not offered as a package.
INTRODUCTION: Edward Fitzgerald Beale
Beale Air Force Base is a United States Air Force Base close to Marysville, California, north of Sacramento. Its mission is airborne reconnaissance, as it currently hosts the U-2R spy plane as well as the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk It also maintains the sophisticated PAVE PAWS early-warning radar system.
One of this base's greatest claims to fame was that it was the home base for the legendary SR-71 Blackbird on the continental United States. In the wake of losing the Blackbird, the personnel at Beale AFB are challenged to be at the forefront of reconnaissance and remote-sensing technology.
Beale AFB began as "Camp Beale", a base for training soldiers and airmen to fight overseas in World War II. The name "Beale" comes from Brigadier General Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822-1893), who was a prominent figure in local military history during the American Civil War.
After WWII, Camp Beale became Beale AFB, and specialized in training aircrews to use radar. Beale AFB is one of the few American airbases not named after a pilot.
In 1966, Beale AFB received its first SR-71 Blackbird, which brought the base to the leading edge of Cold War reconnaissance efforts. Ten years later, the U-2 spy plane was added to the hangar roster of Beale AFB. For a little over twenty years, Beale Air Force Base was host to two of the most unique jet aircraft ever built in the USA. The Blackbird program was shut down officially in 1998, which created an opportunity for Beale AFB to fly the new Global Hawk unmanned drone.
INSTALLATION & DOCUMENTATION: Nothing To It
This is a small scenery package. It's simple enough that it can easily be installed manually. In fact, there is no automatic install feature. A small read-me file is buried in one of the folders that tells the user how to install the scenery: copy the un-zipped folders into the root directory of FSX and then activate the scenery within the simulator. I had no problems getting Beale AFB running.
There is no manual beyond the read-me file. Airport diagrams and approach plates would have been welcome additions. As well, given the colourful history of Beale AFB, even some mention as to the significance of this base would be appreciated. Even so, one can easily find this information for free on the Internet, even if it is not included in the AlphaSim package.
SCENERY: Not Much To Go On
Originally, the Beale AFB scenery by AlphaSim was designed for FS9. It looks dated and obsolescent on FSX. The basic buildings are modeled, but there's not a whole lot of extra detail. As well, landmarks such as parking lots, roads, and many buildings like the enigmatic, pyramidal "PAVE PAWS" radar site and its attendant "Bull's Eye" are left out.
You do get Beale's single 12,000-foot runway, and the taxiways that join onto it. As far as I can tell, the aircraft parking spots are all accounted for, although they may have been re-arranged since the FS9 version was released.
There are no extra moving parts like jetways or animated ground vehicles, and anything that could be shiny or eye-catching has been kept to a minimum. The only animated parts I could find were a poorly-textured rotating radar dish and a small strange blinking polygon on top of a water tower. Night-lighting is subdued but adequate.
I wish I could say more, but there isn't much to explore beyond the layout of the base immediately next to the runway. I can show you some screenshots of the main features but it may spoil any sense of discovery. If you choose to buy this product, you won't be seeing much more than what I am presenting in this small travelogue.
This is at the northernmost part of the AlphaSim Beale AFB scenery. There are parking spaces for large jets like the KC-135, which is a tanker aircraft used for mid-air refueling. I don't know what the bunker-like construction is supposed to be at the start of the parking spots along Taxi A. Up-to-date aerial photographs show buildings and a parking lot in that location.
South of Taxi A is Taxi F, which runs parallel to both the runway and the tarmac. Blast fences line the outer boundary; the main staging area. AlphaSim has extra aircraft clustered around the most likely places for a sim-pilot to choose as his or her initial starting position.
Hangars, Tower & Base Ops:
In the central part of the tarmac are the main hangars. They don't have animated doors. Some of them seem too small to my eye, and a few of them don't sit very well on the tarmac, either. The triangular hangar should be larger in order to fit the front three-fourths of a KC-135 tanker, leaving the tail sticking out. A number of support buildings, as well as parking lots and roads, have been eliminated in the AlphaSim scenery.
In this version of Beale AFB, Base Operations is depicted as a generic building with a dark roof. The control tower stands next to it. A VIP (Very Important Person) can park his or her aircraft in the spots at the base of the tower in the sim.
Recent photographs, as well as the current airport diagram of the real Beale AFB, do not show the control tower to be in front of Base Ops. Instead, there is a small green park with trees and a static display of an SR-71 Blackbird. The real control tower properly sits at the south end of the tarmac near Taxi L.
Fire Station, Tank Farm, & Radar Tower:
Beale AFB has its own fire station and disaster response crews. The station is depicted in the scenery, as well as a simulated practice wreck the crews use to gain proficiency. In the real Beale AFB, disaster drill scenarios are run along Dolittle Drive, which goes south of the fire station. The firefighting equipment in the AlphaSim scenery looks British rather than American to me.
Farther south still, but out of line with the runway, is what appears to be a fuel tank farm. Signs warn passers-by that the tank farm may be flammable, but the real danger to the sim-pilot comes from trying to look too closely at the textures.
AlphaSim includes a radar tower with a spinning dish opposite of the runway to the main base. Again, strange textures make this feature look bizarre rather than realistic.
If there is a strong suit to AlphaSim's Beale AFB scenery, I would suggest that it belongs to the aircraft. As with the rest of the base, these aircraft look to be upgrades from FS9. Some aircraft are merely static displays, while others are able to taxi, take off, and land. Given that these aircraft are meant to be flown by the computer in the sim (AI), they look acceptable.
Sometimes, developers allow AI aircraft to get quite ugly as details are shaved off to save on frame rates. These AlphaSim aircraft are reasonably detailed and textured, and would not look out of place in FS9. At least the landing lights work properly at night.
This is the tanker that was used primarily to re-fuel the SR-71 Blackbird in mid-air. It is a militarized version of a Boeing 707 jetliner adapted to carry large fuel tanks as cargo. It trails a boom that other aircraft can use to pick up fuel in flight. The "Q" designation refers to a KC-135 that is specially outfitted to rendezvous with the SR-71. Externally, it looks much the same as any other KC-135.
At Beale AFB, the common tanker variant was the KC-135R, which took over from the Q after the SR-71 program was dismantled in the 1990's. The KC-135R was flown by the 940th Air Refueling Wing. As of October 1st 2008, however, the 940th will change missions and be responsible for flying the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft.
In May 2008, the last of the 940th KC-135R tankers was transferred to Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.
Since AlphaSim's Beale AFB prominently features the SR-71, there are numerous KC-135Q tankers that fly around as AI aircraft. These tankers make suitable refueling targets if you own AlphaSim's FSX version of the Blackbird.
RC-135W Rivet Joint:
The RC-135 is another heavily modified Boeing 707 adapted for military use. The Rivet Joint specializes in the analysis of electronic signals. It has a longer nose and enlarged "cheeks" in the front of its fuselage. The interior is packed with electronics specialists and their computerized equipment. The RC-135 is normally based in Offutt AFB in Nebraska, and not Beale AFB. These RC-135's are assumed to be "on loan".
Northrop T-38 Talon:
The T-38 is a light supersonic fighter aircraft. It has versions that were primarily used by the United States military as trainers and as an adversarial OPFOR aircraft in war games.
A cluster of black-painted T-38's have Air Force markings at the north end of the AlphaSim Beale AFB scenery. These are static aircraft only, and do not fly.
The U-2 is perhaps the quintessential modern reconnaissance aircraft. The first U-2 took flight over fifty years ago, in 1955. It continues to be used today as a high-altitude reconnaissance platform.
With its long, glider-like wings, the U-2 is quick to take off, but is tricky to fly and difficult to land. Crimson red "pogos" support the wings while the U-2 is on the ground. During take-off, it jettisons the pogos. When it returns to base, it lands on skids.
The U-2R is one of the most up-to-date aircraft of the series. It features large electronic intelligence-gathering pods slung below each wing. Although not very detailed, the AlphaSim version of the U-2R looks exotic, and it makes an interesting addition to Beale AFB.
I consider the SR-71 to be one of the most visually striking aircraft ever designed. Its silhouette is an icon of supersonic high-altitude flight. You can purchase an authentic fully-featured SR-71 model for FSX from AlphaSim. The AI version looks similar to the full model. Although the AI version does lack some texture and cockpit features, it does have some fine details like silver-coloured rear wheels.
The flight plan of the AI Blackbird is fast and hard to follow. I took off in the AlphaSim SR-71 and tried to follow it in formation. Although I could keep up with it in terms of speed, I had trouble maintaining a safe angle of attack, and before I knew it, I was spinning out of control while the AI Blackbird soared into the heavens.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES: The Gripe List
Beale AFB by AlphaSim is just a small scenery add-on, so there should not be much that could go wrong. If you use it as a home base for an SR-71, then you won't be spending a lot of time looking at things close-up. Unfortunately, when I did look at the scenery up close, I found problems.
Since this product was designed for FS9 and ported into FSX, there are a large number of texture issues. Some textures that look fine in FS9 will cause problems for FSX, especially with Service Pack 2.
The biggest culprits are things like fences and railings which need to have transparent see-through holes in the texture to look realistic. If these textures are not handled correctly, there are problems with a type of visual bleed-through that looks unpleasant.
Chances are, if you don't look all that closely you won't be bothered much by this problem. However, if you like the idea of exploring a virtual Beale AFB, this issue pops up all over the place.
I also had to keep Bloom turned off because otherwise I would see a white screen. My computer will show a white screen if I am viewing certain aircraft that have been ported into FSX from FS9. This is not an issue that comes from AlphaSim products exclusively.
It happens with FS9 aircraft from any developer. The problem seems to be related to how FSX Service Pack 2 handles bloom on certain textures for aircraft that have been imported from FS9. It also seems to depend on certain video cards. I wish I could be more specific, but without more information, I cannot tell. I will just say that if you get intermittent white screens with other products, you will get them with the AlphaSim Beale AFB, unless you turn off Bloom.
CONCLUSION: Executive Summary
Beale Air Force Base by AlphaSim is a small add-on for FSX that will give you a few enhancements around its military-grade runway. The package was originally made for FS9 and was ported into FSX. AlphaSim's intent seems to be to use Beale AFB as a home for another product, the AlphaSim SR-71. You can have Beale AFB on its own, or you can also buy the SR-71 and use Beale AFB as a staging point for reconnaissance missions.
AlphaSim's Beale AFB comes with four flying AI aircraft: the SR-71 Blackbird, the KC-135Q support tanker, and the RC-135W and U-2R surveillance jets. Some black-clad Northrop T-38's are included as static aircraft. You might have to pretend that you have gone back in time to the 1970's when you visit AlphaSim's Beale AFB, as most of the aircraft that are included with the scenery have in the real world either been dismantled or redistributed to other bases. Only the historic U-2 spy plane has resisted the budget cuts and reallocations.
After the loss of the SR-71 program, the real-world Beale AFB faces new missions. It is host to the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and the massive pyramidal PAVE PAWS radar array. Unfortunately, the AlphaSim version of Beale AFB does not include these features.
The buildings I found with AlphaSim's Beale AFB seem to be few and unimpressive by FSX standards. There are a couple of token animated pieces that I feel would have looked better had they been omitted. Features like parking lots, most roads, and trees have been left out. Landmarks like the PAVE PAWS site are totally absent. Even the control tower is in the wrong location as far as I can tell.
Despite the simplicity of the buildings, I found that AlphaSim's Beale AFB was harder on my frame rate than I would have liked. Dialing down the traffic percentage (AlphaSim recommends 100%) as well as turning off Bloom helped.
AlphaSim's AI aircraft fare better than the buildings. Although they probably would look more at home in FS9, the aircraft have a decent amount of detail and look attractive enough. I had a bug where looking at the aircraft from certain angles with Bloom on would generate a white screen.
Overall, this Beale AFB scenery is okay if you don't expect too much from it. Detailed exploration rewarded me with a host of small, disappointing faults. I think it's a fair base of operations if you own the add-on SR-71, as the AI aircraft are handy for mid-air refueling if you want to perform a realistic Blackbird flight.
Unless you are a hard-core SR-71 enthusiast, though, I would suggest giving AlphaSim's Beale AFB a fly-past and nothing more.
What I Like About Beale Air Force Base
What I Don't Like About Beale Air Force Base
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