It had been a long spring and summer season up in British Columbia. A friend of mine called me early in the spring and informed me that a small logging outfit was doing clear-cut work and long line out of a tiny airport up in the mountains.
The summer was filled with long hours sitting in an old Jetranger leaning out the door with a load of equipment or fighting my way into tiny logging pads during the days and at night we would medicate our sore buttocks and hundreds of insect bites with a proportional amount of beer.
After the crew was sufficiently lubricated again, we would stumble back to our tents and try to steal a scarce five or six hours of sleep. Our brief reprise would be interrupted by the camp manager and we would stumble out of our tents, shake off a hangover, and attempt to choke down some breakfast and black coffee while wiping the dew off the windscreens and doing it all over again.
Although, all good things must come to an end, and so, as the leaves started to change color and the brisk northerly winds started to turn frigid, we loaded up the helicopters and did our last flight to Campbell River to put them to bed for the season.
We offloaded our gear and the camp equipment, attached the wheels and pushed them into the hangar just as the first flakes of snow started to fall. With the Jetranger I flew all summer, C-FEBG, its blue and white paint and worn, but well-cared for cracking plastic, all tied down and tucked away, I headed to the one hotel in town and got some much-needed rest in a real bed.
Not more than 48 hours later, I was sitting in the Campbell airport terminal, a beat-up canvas bag over my shoulder and plane ticket in my hand waiting for the Q400 to fly me back south. My work visa was about to expire, and I was already starting to rack my brain to figure out a flying gig in the more temperate climates.
I really didn’t want to do more flight instructing and would have preferred a job someplace with sapphire blue waters and white sands beaches. I could think of worse ways to break up the flying than with bikini-clad affections and drinks at some tropical bar.
After getting back home and unpacked, I puttered around the airport and reached out to a few of the helicopter operators I knew in the area. They were just downsizing themselves after fire season and none of them needed a pilot. Just as I was about to resign myself to another winter of cold and soggy 45 minute pre-flights and narrowly avoiding death with students, an old friend of mine in the UK sent me an email:
Hope all is going well,
How’s the flying in your neck of the woods? Did you ever get the turbine transition you were looking forward to last time we talked? I hope so, we just had one of our chaps take a good knackering playing a bit of Rugby and now we’re short a pilot. If you could qualify for a work visa, we could use the help. If you’re interested, let me know.
London would be a good change of scenery from the area I had been flying for years. I blasted off a reply that same afternoon and started the paperwork for the work visa. Within a few short weeks, the same canvas bag stuffed in the overhead, I was comfortably sitting back in a Lufthansa 747 on my way across the pond.
My friend Nate greeted me at the airport and we had a brief reunion as he helped me with my bag. We used the time to catch up on where our flying careers had taken us and the interesting sites we had seen even as we sat in the traffic on the A23, south out of London.
Nate and his company had put me up in a little hotel in Surrey called The Station Hotel near the metro line. It was a short walk from The Station hotel to Redhill Aerodrome (EGKR) where I would be flying out of for the next few months.
Redhill Aerodrome located in the east county of Surrey, was established in the 1930’s. Redhill was originally the host to Imperial Airways before becoming a training base for the RAF in 1937.
Later known as RAF Redhill, the aerodrome saw the adoption of 16 Squadron flying the Westland Lysander and eventually swelling to house five flying squadrons until 1943. After the war, civilian flying resumed and in 1960, Bristow Helicopters established a base of operations at Redhill thereby ensuring its employment.
Redhill itself contains three immaculately maintained grass runways and two short runways specifically for helicopter use. It’s a bustling hub of light civilian helicopters and airplanes, making coming and going on a nice summer day pretty busy.
Sitting just outside the London Gatwick terminal airspace and nestled between the Gatwick and Heathrow “class Bravo” airspace, Redhill is only a 10-minute hop to downtown London and one of the best jumping-off points for most of Southern England.
The next day I woke up bright and early but certainly not recovered from the jet lag. Either way, I had work to do.
Nate showed up early and we took the short drive to Redhill to meet my new employer for the season. EBH Helicopters is who I would be flying with. I had a furious meet and greet with the management; then down to the pilots’ lounge which was downstairs adjacent to the dispatch office.
Only the bravest of souls pass through any pilot lounge without appropriate preparation. Typically the air reeks of stale coffee, overly-sweet donuts, jet fuel and sweat. The unsuspecting can anticipate either a hand chop to the face in exaggerated stories of awry autorotation or bawling laughter at the latest student on the radio or worse yet – the silence that follows on days where the weather is not cooperative enough to shoo these men and women out into the sky.
The usual rag-tag bunch of professionals were moping around, some in business casual (replete with white dress shirts and epaulets - to think - all summer I flew in flip flops and tee shirts) and others, in a smart mix of comfortable casual clothes. This was going to be a change. I quickly made my acquaintances with most of my colleagues and then Nate and I did a quick tour through the hanger.
Cabris, R-44s, 22s and 407s sat gleaming under the sodium spot lights, the hangar doors closed tight against the continuing bout of English weather. The charter aircraft had lush and beautiful, albeit worn, interiors and smelled of re-conditioned leather and slightly of flux. The trainer fleet, comprised of various materials and aircraft, reeked of Jet A, AVGAS and fear.
Next week I would take my orientation flight after my American pilot’s license was approved by the CAA.
ORBX just recently released TrueEarth Great Britain South for X-Plane 11. It features 42,000 square miles (107,349 square kilometers) of hand-corrected and meticulously placed details most of which match the precise aerial imagery where they’re based (including our pokey airfield, Redhill Aerodrome). ORBX developed a revolutionary auto-gen (130 million trees and 13.2 million buildings – but I’m not going to count them) specifically to enable the exact placing of the UK-themed environment with as minimal impact on frame rates as possible. How suitable the scenery is for helicopters is yet to be seen but for your average VFR pilot, there is tons of landmarks to enhance the scenery alone. Ten meter mesh hosts this canvas which will ensure excellent terrain relief. Water masking and night-lighting cap off the scenery to ensure a beautiful flying experience.
Installation was relatively straightforward. The ORBX interface to install scenery has been pretty consistent although this file was huge.
Many people had issues installing the scenery only to load it and find nothing except the base textures/mesh scenery with no auto generated scenery. My initial installation found me with the same problem. I compounded the problem by attempting to split the installation onto an external hard drive and then stitch them together using HeliSimmer’s amazing “Shorty” tool.
Although, I think that only exacerbated the issue. I did an uninstall and then simply re-installed the scenery and that (magically?) fixed it. I fortunate to have a fast internet connection so that was a viable option although, I know for some, that is pretty frustrating.
After finally receiving my CAA license, the day of my orientation flight had arrived. Although, this was not going to be a walk in the park.
The day was chilly and a mist hung-over the aerodromes grass, the last bit of green struggling to fight off the impending fall weather. Skies were clear though and that guaranteed some good flying. Nate would be doing my orientation flight and after some cursory small talk, we hunkered down on one of the tables in the pilots’ lounge, I with some hot coffee and Nate with some tea, and a large sectional spread out in front of us.
“Okay,” Nate explained, “Like any sector of airspace surrounding two busy airports, this jaunt is not easy to look at initially. But it will start to make more sense as we fly it and you get used to it.
There’re seven primary routes we utilize. Today, we’ll take the H7. First, we take-off out of here, head north over the M25 toward the Epsom track, that puts us right in the Heathrow control zone. Controllers are usually pretty polite unless they’re properly busy. Then they might tell you to sod off. In which case, we just dog-ear east until we’re clear.
We’ll go to Banstead and Nonsuch Park then track the A3 past Wimbledon and Richmond (this park here), towards Wembley, you can tell Wembley by the big arch. We’ll report Barnes and then joint the H4 over the Thames. These areas are prohibited unless we’re specifically over the Thames so we’ll adjust our airspeed as necessary to stay with the route. We pass Craven Cottage just before the private gardens at Buckingham Palace and as turn left over the river, Vauxhall Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
Trafalgar Square, Tower of London, HMS Belfast and the Olympic Stadium are all sights you’ll typically be picking out to passengers. We follow that to the O2 Dome and Thames Barrier where we’ll turn south at the Isle of Dogs (people like it if you slow down here because you can get a cracking photo of the city) and then we’ll scamper back down south to home. The whole trip should take about 35 minutes. Any questions?”
I stare blankly at Nate. “Erm….Can you explain that part about – well,” I indicate the entire map, “All of it, one more time?”
Nate laughs, “Nah mate, you’ll do alright, let’s get in the wind.”
We went out to the flight line and did a quick pre-flight of the helicopter. Our ride today would be the Bell 407. It was the helicopter I was most current on and used during the London Tours because of its passenger count and comfort.
Pre-flight complete, we chucked the map on the dash board and climbed aboard. Within a few minutes we were up and running and with a call to tower, we were on our way, climbing into the early morning sky.
As we climb out of Redhill, we contact Heathrow on 119.72. Nate handles the radios so I can get a feel for the flow and who we’re talking with rather than fumbling around with the route structure. Right now, he just wants me to absorb. “Heathrow approach, morning, Bell Golf Echo Tango Whisky Oscar, 1,000 feet at Morden on the Hotel seven for Barnes and the Hotel four over Thames.”
Heathrow is busy so the response is professional but curt. “Echo Tango Whisky Oscar, maintain 1,000 report Barnes.”
“Report Barnes Echo Tango Whisky Oscar.” Barnes is one of the compulsory checkpoints that litter the London Center helicopter routes.
We follow the H7 up to Barnes, report Barnes and then hang a right East over the Thames. There below us, the massive city of London sprawls out. Although it’s visible for some miles approaching, the mist did a convincing job of hiding the enormity of the metropolitan area until we’re right over head.
Already, we can see the thick lines of traffic bustling into the city center and kayakers paddling along the various estuaries in the early morning. Boat traffic meanders along the Thames corridor underneath the hordes of traffic. Even from 1,000 feet the bright red Routemaster Metro line buses can be seen weaving in and out of traffic.
We overfly the Thames at 1,100 feet and Nate points out all the pertinent Landmarks. We discuss air traffic congestion points (in addition to tours, there is quite a bit of private helicopter traffic) and the best ways to set the helicopter up so the customer can get pictures. In addition, he points out the most viable landing sites should we experience an engine failure over the congested city. With the brief tour complete, we turn south and head back home.
I was a bit disappointed honestly. London is the real center-piece of this scenery and there is no question that even the most die-hard Britain would still probably cruise through here at least out of curiosity to see how well the area is executed.
I feel like ORBX could have done a bit more work on London ensuring that textures were consistent, and auto-gen really fit into the area. There were instances of several buildings were textures were masked oddly or just too incomplete to really make a coherent looking structure from 1,000 feet.
Parts of the auto-gen would pop up over landmarks (such as Kensington Palace) and ruin the experience. I know this scenery is not custom-tailored to helicopter pilots, but I feel more work could have been put in at the London Downtown Heliport (EGFH) where the mesh simply didn’t do the area any credit.
Additionally, the objects didn’t sit well, and textures were disappointingly low. I understand that creating a scenery of this size is an immense project but, that is one of several area’s where I might have dedicated an artist just to make that section really pop out. I wish developers would put as much work into heliports as they do international airports.
Over the next three months, I’m fortunate enough to tour most of South England in either an R44 or the 407. Charter flights took us out to Land’s End (EGHC), Wales, to the west and even to the cliffs over Dover and Lyde (EGMD) out to the east.
My absolutely favorite area to fly in would have to be Wales. We did a short hop from Redhill, out to Welsh pool (EGCW) to deliver some paperwork and grab a bite of lunch at the Fuel Stop Café. After lunch, we headed south over the gorgeous rolling hills of Wales to Swansea (EGFH) to drop off a helicopter we had sold to a new customer.
ORBX has been in the business of making scenery for awhile and their expertise shows. Flying around the south of England is an absolutely breath-taking experience.
I’m pretty certain this country is made specifically for helicopter flying. Knolls, Ridges and hills are all beautifully set within the terrain and the custom auto-gen creates some extraordinarily believable scenery that is meant to be flown around at 500 feet.
Any higher than 1,000 feet and you will simply miss all the nuances to the terrain that the mesh and auto-gen creates. ORBX does an amazing job of color-matching the scenery as well so that the product is a literal piece of art. Parts of the country-side were vibrantly green and transitioned into beautifully ochre up in the highlands.
It’s really a phenomenon one must see to appreciate. Conversely, in some area’s such as Dover, the auto-gen did some weird things. I think I counted six lighthouses present at the ferry inlet and some, awkwardly set majestically in the middle of the inlet.
I’m not sure who approved the building of (three) lighthouses there, but I feel that its in error. The cliffs themselves were masked poorly and I’m not sure if this is something that ORBX can fix or if it’s the result of using a texture over the 3D mesh. Although, in some area’s the coastline was masked beautifully.
As winter came to a close and just as the grass started to turn green again, my short stint flying helicopters in the beautiful South of Britain came to a close.
My work visa was quickly approaching its expiration date and I was soon back at Heathrow, boarding a plane to be whisked away back home and to another season of logging out of Canada. Nate tried to get me to take the summer off, extend my visa and stay in Britain a bit longer to take a break but I was already getting e-mails asking when I would be back up North to start logging.
I really enjoyed flying around Britain and I was guaranteed that it wouldn’t be the last time as Nate and his friends at EBH Helicopters promised me I would have a cockpit open for a full-time position should I ever need another change of pace.
So, I waved goodbye to the beautiful rolling hills and red metro buses as the Airbus climbed up into the overcast clouds. Already my head was racing through the process of heading north again to do more logging as I lowered my window shade and reclined my seat. It’s going to be another busy summer...
With the propensity of people that utilize VR now (myself included), I felt this was a pertinent topic to discuss.
With most of the scenery I didn’t run into any issues using VR. The exception would be parts of London. My computer runs a GTX 1080Ti and I rarely have issues in X-Plane with the exception of area’s where there is a lot of auto-gen to create.
London was no exception. I noticed a considerable impact if I was running the Garmin 750 or the Avitab in these regions. Outside of London, I consistently logged 30+ FPS and dipping down to 24 around the outskirts of the city center. Once in the city, I saw area’s where my FPS dropped as low as 20 but that wasn’t common.
Other areas, such as Wales, where there are wind mill farms, I saw another frame rate drop but I fully expected that.
There’re tons of videos of people flying around the region so most of the screenshots I included didn’t really focus on the quality of the scenery because it really is beautiful and well executed.
Rather, my screenshots highlight some of the areas where I found weird anomalies or auto-gen issues, so you can see the issues rather than just the bright packaging. Despite the few problems, (there really are not that many), Great Britain South is amazing and a must-have for VFR helicopter pilots. I really hope ORBX continues to stretch its artistry into more area’s for X-Plane (such as the Pacific Northwest – hint, hint).