and a bit of History
During 2010, Bob Sidwick, of R.C. Simulations, and Darren Vincent, of Earth Simulations, were approached by the Joint Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury, who wanted a number of P.C. based, classroom simulators for basic training. While Bob worked on the cockpit hardware, Darren used his scenery development skills and experience to produce the simulated environment of Shawbury and the surrounding Shropshire countryside. The EScape3D - Shawbury Fields add-on is the FSX version of this software, which, happily for us simmers, the MoD have given permission for general use.
Whilst RAF Shawbury is the centre piece of EScape3D, the scenery area extends to a rectangle of approximately 45 nm by 30 nm (3500 sq. km). In addition to the 3 RAF Air Bases (Shawbury, Ternhill and Cosford), EScape3D includes detailed renditions of the other operational airfields at Sleap and Welshpool. Gliding enthusiasts are catered for at the Long Mynd, and history aficionados can find the remains of at least another 12 WWII RAF stations.
But it's in the spaces between these airfields that you'll find the magic ingredient that makes EScape3D unlike many other scenery products. As with their previous sceneries for Alderney and The Scillys, Earth Simulations have brought nearly the whole of Shropshire to life, with virtually every private house, farm and industrial building, bridge, and electricity pylon placed accurately on the photographic scenery base.
Anyone who knows Shropshire will find this feature an incredible incentive to get up in the air - those who aren't have an equally good opportunity for getting to know this beautiful county.
Well, down to business - first some installation details before we get flying...
Download and Installation
EScape3D Shawbury Fields, comes as a single installation from the Earth Simulations website. At approximately 375 MB, it does need a reasonable broadband connection. As with all Earth Simulations products, the download and installation procedure is straightforward, the Manual explains each stage in great detail, however, you will need to know details like where your Horizon Generation-X or Just Flight VFR Real photo scenery is located, so that you install the files correctly.
After installing EScape3D, it is vital that you check your computer system's FSX Display Settings so that you can achieve the optimum frame rate in relation to your system's graphics processing capacity. If you have already installed Earth Simulations' Treescapes package, then you will have gone through a very similar procedure. But don't worry if you haven't as you're in good hands because the Manual takes you through the each of the 5 Display Settings one by one:
- Graphics - filtering and global texture resolution;
- Aircraft - cockpit views, tool-tips and shadows;
- Scenery - LoD radius, mesh complexity, texture resolution and water effects - this section then deals with the most important feature of Treescapes - the density of the autogen tree objects;
- Weather - clouds and visibility (20 miles or less);
- Traffic - can be resource intensive.
"Even with the highest specification computers available today, you will not likely be able to maximise all of these settings and maintain acceptable performance. Therefore you must choose which features are most important to you and then make adjustments to the appropriate settings in order to optimise the performance of FSX given your systems specifications. Having made the adjustments to the settings described below and attained good performance with the combination of photographic scenery and Earth Simulations Shawbury Fields, you might then like to experiment with increasing the detail of some of the features you would like as well, to test their impact on the performance of your system."
Compare your own system with my Review System Specification (see below). Many of you will have more up to date, and faster CPU/GPU set ups, in which case, you can look forward to running EScape3D nearly 'flat out'. For the Review, I had to experiment a little with the settings, particularly Autogen Density, to get acceptable frame-rates - more on this later.
First Impressions - a short tour of Shropshire
We live about 20 miles south west of Welshpool airfield, so that seemed to be the best place to start.
Whizzard Helicopters obliged again with the loan of their Bell 206, and we were off on our tour of Shropshire. Initially, we headed towards Newtown and then turned south to Montgomery, with its castle on the hill above the town.
Shropshire's wide valleys lend themselves to livestock farming - grass grows well here for beef and sheep enterprises. You get the occasional intensive pig units amongst the dairy farms. Here, we were heading towards the Long Mynd on the skyline. Turning east along the Long Mynd, we had to keep our eyes peeled for gliders from the Midlands Gliding Club, and the odd paraglider or two - bandits at 10 o'clock!
Church Stretton, a small town nestling between the Welsh hills and The Wrekin, was next, and we were soon flying over the coal fired power station at Ironbridge, south of Telford - the town named for the engineer who pioneered the use of cast iron. And, looking carefully in the coal yards of the power station, we were able to see the excavators loading the trucks.
RAF Cosford then came into view, with the Museum's unique exhibition hall and external exhibits, set behind the WWII hangars. Here, we turned north, towards Market Drayton, and were soon heading towards Harper Adams Agricultural College, with its array of crop trial plots and college farm buildings.
The next airfield we saw was Ternhill, the third RAF base in Shropshire and shared with the army's Clive Barracks. Approaching Whitchurch, we passed over the disused runways at RAF Tilstock, or Whitchurch Heath as it was named when opened in 1942, home to 1665 HCU and, later, to glider towing crews training for Arnhem.
Turning back westwards, we passed Ellesmere and the town's many old gravel pits, now used for sailing and water sports. We then followed the Shropshire Union Canal to its junction with the Llangollen Canal passing the Kronospan timber products factory at Chirk on the site of the old open cast coal mine.
On, westwards, to Llangollen, past several railway viaducts and canal aquaducts, before heading south, back towards our start. On the way, we saw the Montgomery canal and the, now, disused railway line to the slate and lead mines of mid Wales.
The tall chimney of the lime works at Llanymynech, was the next landmark to come into view as we continued up the Severn valley to arrive back at Welshpool airport.
So, what were my first impressions of Shawbury Fields? Well, I don't think I could have been more impressed, unless I'd been in a real helicopter flying above the Shropshire countryside.
With Treescapes, Earth Simulations transformed the relatively featureless landscape of Gen-X/VFR photo-scenery with an abundance of natural objects - hedges, copses and woods. Shawbury Fields takes us one step further towards total realism by adding houses and farm buildings, and other man made structures. Most importantly, these objects are placed in exactly the right place and orientation on the photo-scenery, fulfilling the objective of ultimate immersion for the flight simmer. Earth Simulation's attention to detail is almost unbelievable, and, yes, I was impressed!
O.K. - let's look at the airfields in more detail, starting with the RAF bases.
Shawbury has been involved in training since 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps established a Flying Training Wing there. During WWII, Shawbury continued its training role, using mainly Airspeed Oxfords, particularly for pilots from overseas. Then, in 1944, the Central Navigation School, equipped with Wellingtons and Stirlings, moved to Shawbury from Cranage. Later that year, a converted Lancaster B1, with a nose fairing similar to the post war Lancastrians and the name "Aries", made the first round the world trip by a British aircraft. Some 4 years after the war, Shawbury became the Central Navigation and Control School, equipped with Lincolns and Ansons, for navigator and ATC training.
Helicopter training commenced at Shawbury in 1976 with Westland Whirlwinds and, subsequently, (Aérospatiale) Gazelles and Wessex search and rescue rotor-craft. Then, in 1997, the Tri-Service Defence Helicopter Flying School was formed, using the Eurocopter Squirrel and Bell Griffin HT1 (based on the B412EP)
In EScape3D, the airfield has been replicated in minute detail, from the hangars, training school and residential buildings, to animated activities around the perimeter. A revised AFCAD introduces a number of helipads, together with static helicopters in their Tri-Service livery.
Exploring Shawbury is great fun - with surprises around almost every corner.
Just a short helicopter ride away to the north-east is Ternhill airfield, not strictly an RAF base since the army established Clive Barracks there in 1976, but still used by helicopter pilots in training. Like Shawbury, Ternhill was formed during the Great War as a training station using Sopwith Camels and Handley Page bombers. Re-opened in 1938, Ternhill played a threefold function during WWII: home to fighters - Hurricanes, Spitfires and Blenheims; pilot training with Miles Masters; repair and maintenance (24 M.U. from 1939 onwards). In the early 1960's, helicopters arrived from the Central Flying School.
I found the same attention to detail at Ternhill as at Shawbury. Again, an interesting airfield to arrive at by air and, subsequently, to explore.
And you'll find the Clive Barracks behind the main hangars - with the main accommodation block fully repaired after the IRA bomb attack of 1989!
Founded in 1938 with the storm clouds gathering over Europe, RAF Cosford played an important maintenance and storage role during WWII. Spitfires were assembled here and Horsa and Hotspur gliders prepared for the D-Day invasion. With all the aircraft in transit, an all-woman ferry pilot pool was formed in 1943 and, at the end of hostilities, Cosford became the gateway to home for thousands of returning P.O.W.s.
Since the last war, RAF Cosford has become the largest ground training establishment in the RAF. Cosford's training includes all aircraft related engineering trades, RAF PE Instructor courses and a school of photography for all three services. Pilot training continues with UBAS Grob Tutors replacing the venerable SA Bulldog. It is also the base for the Midlands Air Ambulance Service, who use Eurocopter EC135T2's.
But the great attraction, for me, at least, is the RAF Museum at Cosford. With a specially designed building for the National Cold War Exhibition, 2 large hangars and external exhibits, Cosford must be the most comprehensive collection of RAF aircraft anywhere in the UK.
As you'd expect, the EScape3D scenery for Cosford comes complete with Cold War Exhibition building. Unfortunately, the exhibits themselves are not included - you'll have to visit Cosford personally for that pleasure!
Sleap and Welshpool airfields
Opened in 1943, Sleap was used by the RAF's 81 O.T.U. with Whitley bombers and, in the following year, this was extended to training on towing Horsa gliders. By the end of 1944, the Whitleys were replaced by Wellingtons. The station was closed by the RAF in 1964 but is still used for hover training by helicopter students from Shawbury. The popular Shropshire Aero Club operates from the field today, and you can see some of their GA aircraft parked by the hangars.
Welshpool airfield, or Mid Wales Airport, is home to Whizzard Helicopters and is one of the bases for the Wales Air Ambulance Service, who also use the EC135T2. I know EGCW quite well and, believe me, the EScape3D version is as exact as you could want - just the ticket! The Midland Gliding Club at Long Mynd Founded in 1934, M.G.C. is one of the oldest in the U.K. and, at 1400 ft ASL, it's the highest. The west facing ridge of the Long Mynd makes it an ideal place for gliding as the predominantly westerly winds deflect the air upwards. Amy Johnson, the pioneering woman aviator, was a keen gliding enthusiast and was a member of the club before WWII.
Taking off from the Long Mynd is an exciting experience as the land drops away so rapidly, particularly if you choose a high powered tow-plane like the C47!
Shrewsbury, Telford and other scenery highlights
I have to admit that reviewing Shawbury Fields has given me a most unusual introduction to Shropshire. I live in Powys, just a few miles from the border with Shropshire and I've been to Shrewsbury many times by car. I've been to the railway station, the pedestrianised shopping centre, Park & Ride, so forth, and I've studied the O.S. map and town guides. But it wasn't until I flew around the town using EScape3D that I was able to build up a model of the place 'in my head', as it were. Now I can 'see' how the main arterial roads link with the ring road, where the malls and industrial estates are, and so on. Whilst the detail of each building may not have been reproduced exactly, the Autogen models displayed by EScape3D, and their careful placement on the photo-scenery, create a totally believable 3-D picture of Shrewsbury. And the same may be said about Telford and Shropshire's other, smaller towns.
In addition, EScape3D has enabled me to locate more than a dozen dis-used RAF airfields from WWII. This was an unexpected pleasure and rounded up the Review research really nicely. You can find more info on these airfields in Toby Neil's book on the subject.
Frame Rate discussion
I think it's fair to say that EScape3D Shawbury Fields is probably the most complex scenery package thus far for FSX, from Earth Simulations or any other source. However, unlike many other developers, whose 'extreme' sceneries can bring many systems to their knees, Earth Simulations have used the Autogen Density function in FSX to compensate for potential computer power deficiencies in the user system.
With the Review system (see below for detailed specification), I identified 3 main bands of Frame Rate associated with different areas in the EScape3D scenery:
- Rural - countryside, farms, villages 25 fps or higher
- Airfields and industrial locations 15 to 20 fps
- Large towns like Shrewsbury and Telford 10 fps or less
For the third band, i.e. in and around the larger towns, I had to take greater care with my air speed. Reducing the Autogen Density to Dense, or less, brought the Frame Rate back up to the 20's, however, as this results in sparser scenery objects, I preferred the speed reduction alternative.
It's fair to say that if you can afford a top notch GPU, then this high Autogen Density problem with Frame Rate doesn't arise. I was quite happy to reduce air speed in order to maintain Frame Rate when necessary. And, anyway, if you're speeding across Shropshire in a turbo-prop or jet, you'll have no time to enjoy the scenery!
The EScape3D Manual (pdf format) is most comprehensive, covering all aspects of installation and tuning.
As with the manuals for their other products, Earth Simulations take great care in ensuring that the system is correctly prepared before installation (defrag advice, etc.) together with taking the user step by step through the FSX parameter tuning necessary to achieve optimum performance.
Pluses and Minuses
I think you'll agree with me that EScape3D Shawbury Fields scores exceptionally well in terms of depicting the airfields and countryside of Shropshire. Personally, I haven't come across as good a combination of photo-scenery and Autogen models as this in any FSX add-on.
The only drawback will be with the user's cpu/gpu combination - as I've tried to explain, you will need to be aware of your system's limitations and possibly pare down your Autogen Density or air-speed to avoid low Frame Rate problems.
I've spent more than a few hours exploring Shawbury Fields and can honestly say it's been a most pleasurable task. The main airfields are spot on - just what a trainee helicopter pilot needs to build up their flying experience in and around RAF Shawbury. And the depiction of Shropshire's towns and countryside is really excellent.
The Earth Simulations team must be congratulated for producing yet another great product.
And the Score? Well, it's got to be 9.5!
Review machine Spec: Q9400 2.67 GHz | 4Gb Ram |nVidia GeForce 8800 GT 512 Mb |Windows 7 64bit