Tag Archives: Flight Simulator

North Shore – Day 27

After all these years building scenery, today was a first for me. I made an airplane! A glider, to be precise, the Schweitzer 2-22 that lives in the grass at Plum Island. It turned out to be simpler than I expected, although it’s a lot less detailed than an actual FS aircraft would be, using photo textures masked the simplicity of it and made it acceptable as scenery.

First, some background. Here’s the real thing parked at 2B2:

I found a small, low-res 3-view drawing that worked okay in Max and started building…

After about 5 hours work (hey, I never said I was fast), the sim version was ready to roll onto the grass at the sim 2B2.

Next up: tractors!

North Shore – Day… 18? 20?

How long have I been working on this project? Seems like it must be over three weeks now, but I’ve lost count. The last couple of days have been spent mired in building the deceptively complex fuel pump at Plum Island airport. I probably could have short-circuited the process by simplifying it, but this is exactly the kind of detail people are looking for in a small airport scenery and besides, it’s what I enjoy doing. So here you go, after two and a half partial days of building, I give you the cheapest Avgas on earth… virtual 100LL at 2B2.

Three more complex models await; the Schweitzer glider, a Simplicity lawn tractor, and an old beat-up Ford farm tractor. I might have to take tomorrow off and tend to some real-world stuff, but I’ll jump on those after that.

North Shore – Days 14 & 15

Objects! Now that the base photo scenery, buildings, and hard surfaces are in, it’s time to add the objects that make an airfield come to life. On Thursday and Friday I added the rail fence, concrete barricades, a few custom trees, some concrete-filled tire tiedowns, an outhouse (yes, an outhouse), and the plastic-covered fence enclosure. Next up: the fuel tank and pump, some odds and ends, and perhaps the Schweitzer glider that seems to grow out of the grass there. Here are some shots of the most recent additions:

North Shore – Days 11, 12, 13

One often overlooked feature of really immersive FS scenery is detailed groundwork. Flight Simulator has two methods for displaying the ground natively; either through the terrain tiles (or custom photoscenery tiles as in this case), or the stock hard surfaces that you find in default airports. Though the resolution of the terrain tiles has improved markedly in FSX, even the highest resolution ground using this technique looks blurry and indistinct from ground level. That’s fine for grass or dirt, but with hard surfaces such as asphalt or concrete, it isn’t very convincing. On the other hand, the stock hard surfaces such as default runways and taxiways are razor sharp. They use repeating textures scaled down to the point where they deliver detail, but at the expense of easily recognized patterns and a generic sameness to their look.

What I wanted for Plum Island airport was to get as close as I could to the real grass and asphalt environment, which includes cracked and broken pavement that’s been heavily patched. To get there, I had to do a couple of things.

The photoscenery for all of Plum Island and Newburyport was downsampled to 1m/pixel for the sake of file size. Even at that resolution, the terrain for the area takes up a healthy 125mb or so, and at the original 50cm/px resolution of the images, it’d be more like four times that. Now, 1m/px looks fine from even a few hundred feet up, but it starts to get fuzzy at ground level. Here’s what the groundwork on the airport looked like at that res:

Stock 2b2 photoscenery at 1m/px

Stock 2b2 photoscenery at 1m/px

Since virtual pilots are more likely to be on or near the ground at the airport, I’d like to make the ground there a bit more distinct. Using my original 50cm/px imagery, I made another patch of terrain for just the airport that overlays the overall photo. Doubling the resolution (and darkening/greening the grass) has this effect:

Airport with 50cm/pixel terrain overlay

Airport with 50cm/pixel terrain overlay

Okay, better. As far as the grass goes, that’s convincing enough even while sitting on the ground. But what of the asphalt? You can probably see from the shot, even at 50cm, it’s blurry. This is where it gets dicey, as I had to rely on FS8 technology to get the resolution I needed on the ground. I made a polygon containing repeating asphalt detail textures, much like the stock aprons. Then I added layers of cracks, stains, and patches. This is something you cannot do using stock methods for FSX. The result is this:

Apron ground poly with texture, cracks, and stains

Apron ground poly with texture, cracks, and stains

It’s starting to look a lot more like the real Plum Island now. Still, it’s not that much more convincing than the stock asphalt, except for the cracks and stains. This is where the final magical layer gets added. Using the aerial photo of the airport, I enlarged the apron section to 1024 x 1024 pixels. Yes, making a smaller image larger did soften it some. However, what I’m after isn’t sharp detail – I have that with my base detail and crack textures – what I want now is to simulate the changes in the color of the pavement that gives it that worn, patched look. I made a top ground poly layer consisting of this aerial photo, with partial transparency so you can see the detailing layers below it. When added, the airport really starts to look alive.

Ground poly with aerial translucent overlay

Ground poly with aerial translucent overlay

Check this out: here’s a shot I took at the real airport, side by side with one from the sim scenery in its current state.

real vs. FSX with custom ground

Comparison: real vs. FSX with custom ground

It took me three days and a couple of new techniques to get the ground to this point, but I think it’s worth it. Seeing these two shots side-by-side, I see things I still want to tweak. Will this madness never end?

North Shore – Days 9 & 10

It’s been hot here in Portland this weekend. Beastly, in fact–so much so that I decided to pop a cold one and stay inside to model little buildings. The other structure at Plum Island airport came into being yesterday; the “terminal” (such as it is). It’s one of those weathered old New England buildings that looks appropriately wind-battered and salty, and it was a lot of fun to model it.

One of the challenges when using even good photos for 3D model texture sheets is that you can’t always get the angle you need. Case in point: I had a clear shot of the back porch of the building when I photographed, but it’s got a deep overhang, and was cluttered with lawn furniture, a grill, etc.

To get a clean version of the back wall minus the flotsam, I had to do a lot of Photoshop cloning magic and blending of textures. The final texture sheet for the back wall looks like this:

You’ll notice that I left in the lawn furniture and grill reflection in the window. I’m planning on adding those items if time permits, and I thought it’d be fun to have them reflected for just that little extra bump of reality.

I’m almost done with the building, just need to add some vegetation, a big tree, a flagpole, and some assorted bits around the perimeter. This is how it looks at this point, in FSX:

It’d be really easy to get lost adding every little detail, and since this is a very small field, I’m delving farther into the fiddly little bits than I usually do. Hopefully this little building will be done in the next day or so.

North Shore – Days 7 & 8

Having put the bulk of the phototerrain to bed, it’s time for some modeling! This is in many ways my favorite part of every project — seeing a collection of photos become 3D objects that bring the digital world to life. I’m not planning on building too many custom objects outside of the airport itself, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a better version of the Rt. 1 bridge over the Merrimac river. So, my first object is just that – a recreation of the auto and railroad bridges.

Modeling the bridge presented a challenge: do I create a high-res version of the road surface that looks good on the model but doesn’t match the surrounding terrain, or do I cut a chunk out of the photoscenery and use the softer, blurrier surface that’s guaranteed to blend nearly perfectly? This is the sort of decision a modeler faces constantly. I applied the distance test to come up with a solution – at what distance is this model intended to be seen in the sim? With the exception of nut jobs who enjoy flying under them, most people will see this bridge from a thousand or more feet as they approach or leave 2B2. In the end, I decided that the blend was more important than a crisp texture up close. Notice as well that the bridge deck is hardened, so the default AI traffic can actually use it. Seeing little cars zipping over it adds that little extra jolt of reality.

When the bridges were done, I moved to the airport itself to begin building. First up: the most prominent structure on the field, the big shiny dome of the hangar. I got great shots of it during my visit, so modeling wasn’t too tough. There are so few objects on this field that I decided I could spend more polygons than I normally would to build each of them, and by so doing atone for that blurry bridge deck. Ordinarily, I might just use a section of a cylinder for the hangar, but I decided to model the actual ridges in the metal.

Now we’re talking! I love this kind of detail. Matching the texture perfectly took a bit of futzing around, but it was worth it. I also included semi-transparent windows in the hangar doors, through which can be seen the wooden 2×4 supports for the door frames. This addition caused me some grief with transparency, until I figured out that I had to use a separate material for the windows in order to prevent draw-call confusion and z-ordering problems. Now that it’s sorted, things are good.

Don’t worry about the ground, by the way. I’ve got plans for much more realistic hard surfaces. This is just the stock apron texture here.

North Shore – Day 6

I’ll say this once (again) and then I’m done: I hate autogen annotating. It’s tiresome, boring, unrelenting work. At least when I’m done the result is fun to look at, though. I spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 hours today with my head down, drawing thousand

s of little rectangles on the screen. The result (below) is the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. For my money, you can’t beat a nice high-res aerial shot with carefully aligned autogen overlaid. Anyway, I’m too strung out to say much more. Think I’ll go have a beer and celebrate the birth of a town.

Newburyport autogen 1

Newburyport autogen 2

Newburyport autogen 3

North Shore, days 3 & 4

Things are moving along nicely with the aerial shots. Having finally worked out a good set of summer textures, yesterday and today was all about creating the fall and winter sets. Normally, I skip spring textures and just use the summer versions, as they’re very close to summer for a project like this.

Fall was fairly straightforward. I replaced some of the greens with tan, generally desaturated the entire image just a little, and replaced my masked-in summer trees with fall variants.

Winter is always more challenging, and this time was no exception. In this part of the world, the stock winter and hard winter textures depict a snowbound landscape. To insert snow into my shot, I copied my base fall layer and renamed it winter. Then I replaced more of the greens with tan, and desaturated all the colors except the sand a bit more than fall to give everything that dormant vegetation look. Then I created a white layer over the top of my base image and gave it a mask. Stepping to the layer below, I copied the image and pasted it into the mask, then inverted it. This made the dark areas in the base photo appear snowy, with melted spots for the light areas. (see below) Finally, I added noise to the mask until the snow had a grainer look. Then I played with the brightness and contrast of the mask until I had what I thought was a pretty decent blend of ground and snow.

The resampling process took over 3 hours for this set of files with seasons included. Once I was done, I turned to the autogen annotator and added swaths of forest where appropriate, and the beginnings of the beach community on Plum Island, which you can see especially well in the winter shot below.

The pics I’ve attached are of the base photoshop files for fall and winter, and in-sim screenshots of the same. Now that I’ve got the seasons in hand, it’s time for the mind-numbingly dull task of adding in all those autogen buildings for the beach town and Newburyport itself. It always looks great when I’m done, but man is it ever fiddly work do to.

A Date from Hell

Nothing pleases me more than when two of my favorite pastimes come together. I’ve been writing for several years now, and have managed to turn out one novel manuscript and start on another. In addition to my fiction, I’ve written a few FS aircraft reviews for my good friend Nick Churchill’s website, ScreenshotArtist. Nick and I were chatting recently, and I mentioned that I was growing restless with the standard pro/con review format, and wanted to try something a little different. The result is the Flight Stories series, reviews with a fictional slant.

Blind Date

The series began with Joyride, a tale of a reluctant plane thief and his gung-ho sidekick who liberate a restored B17 from her moorings for a jaunt over the Oregon coast. This weekend, Nick and I posted another entry. Blind Date is a story of lust gone wrong in the sky above the Idaho/Canada border. The star of the show is Eaglesoft’s lovely Columbia 400, showcased against the backdrop of a libidinous encounter that proves the old adage be careful what you wish for. As usual, Nick provides the stunning illustrations. If you haven’t gotten hooked on FS fiction yet, now is an excellent time. Check it out!