An airfield of my own

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The airfield at which you learn to fly will always be special.

In my case, it was Rockledge Air Park, aka X65 or (and this was news to me) 21FA, an airfield so small you could blink and miss it. It’s in Florida, a stone’s throw from Merritt Island and within NASA-bothering distance of Cape Canaveral. It’s also very close to the coast and Cocoa Beach – so if you get lost, and providing you know whether you’re north or south of the field, all you have to do is follow the beach and you’ll see it. You can find it on the Jacksonville sectional chart.

Rockledge is indeed an air park. The FBO is on one side of the runway and on the other are private houses, owned (I presume) by pilots whose gardens have access to the field.

By the way, I’m describing Rockledge Air Park was it was in 1989, when I was there. (I also had to revisit briefly in 1990 to take my check ride, for reasons that aren’t important here.) I can see from satellite imagery that things have changed significantly. In my day, there was a single hangar, a two-story FBO building, a prefab building out the back with the flight simulator and a row of Cessna 150s sitting on the grass. Now, there appears to be a new row of hangers, a taxiway in front of them (with a row of bushes) and more buildings crowding in on all sides.

But I don’t care about those. My interest is in how Rockledge was in 1989 – because, you see, I’m rebuilding it.

Lacking detail

The default scenery for Rockledge in X-Plane 11 is very basic – just the 2,000ft long by 40ft wide runway (which always felt butt-clenchingly narrow) and a tower with a beacon. That won’t do.

Although very fresh to X-Plane, I decided to dive in and start adding my own scenery. For this, you need the WorldEditor (WED). This is what allows you to add scenery to X-Plane. It’s used to create scenery files that you simply drop, as a folder, into the Custom Scenery folder wherever you have X-Plane installed on your machine. In fact, when you start WED, you tell it where X-Plane resides and it will put the files in the right place.

I’m not going to provide a manual for WED here – there’s lots of documentation online. I’m just going to relate a few experiences.

It’s easy enough to use, but watch out for scrolling the centre window. When you’re zoomed in to the location you’re editing, touching either the horizontal or vertical scroll bars will instantly move you miles – maybe hundreds of miles – away. The resolution of the scroll bars is geared to the entire planet. If you want to just nudge up, down or sideways a bit, you need to use the arrows at the ends of the scroll bar sections. I keep forgetting this. It’s annoying. However, so long as you have something selected – say, the runway – you can get back again by going to View -> Zoom Selection.

Adding libraries

You’re going to want some objects to work with, especially if you’re just starting out, and this means adding libraries.

Installing libraries is simple – download them and drop them into the Custom Scenery folder.

At the very least, you’re going to want to install OpenSceneryX, if it’s not there already. This is regarded as something of a baseline, from what I gather.

I had a bunch more libraries installed because I’d downloaded airfield scenery packs for EGSG Stapleford and EGTR Elstree, and these required certain libraries. Programmers will be comfortable (if not happy) with the concept of dependencies. If you create code that makes use of certain libraries, those libraries need to be available on any machine that wants to run that code. Libraries give you fast access to lots of objects you can drop into your scenery, and prevent you having to reinvent the wheel.

First solo

One great feature of WED, which I discovered early on, is the ability to use map or satellite imagery as a background while laying out your airport.

Just go to View -> Slippy Map -> OpenStreetMap to place a map behind your scenery objects, or ESRI Imagery for satellite photographs. I found the latter more useful because it shows the positions of buildings, woodland and so on.

This solved something that had been puzzling me. The map coordinates for the default airfield for Rockledge in X-Plane did not match what I was finding online. When I brought up the map and satellite images, they confirmed that X-Plane’s Rockledge is in the wrong place. So I moved it.

The satellite image also gave me precise locations for the hangar, FBO, access road and parking lot.

So, first I moved and properly aligned the runway. Next I added a hangar that appeared roughly right, and deleted the beacon that was in the default scenery. The FBO is proving elusive. The one I have in there at the moment is completely wrong, but I haven’t yet found anything that even approximates Rockledge’s two-storey building. I’ve left something there as a placeholder for now. In X-Plane, you can create blank objects around which you wrap graphical ‘facades’, but that’s above my pay grade for now. This is a work in progress.

I also added a few houses and decided I’d take a look at how things were going in X-Plane. I was in for a shock.

50ft obstacles

If you’re a pilot, you’ll be familiar with the concept of the 50ft obstacle. This is something you factor into things like take-off performance. In the case of my first attempt at building Rockledge Air Park, the 50ft obstacle was in the middle of the runway. Along with some bushes and a fence. Uh-oh.

Hmm, well that ain’t right…

Trees springing out of runways are the stuff of dreams, and not something you train for. True, in X-Plane 11, you can taxi or fly right through this stuff without it even slowing you down. But still, not ideal…

A bit of research introduced me to the concept of ‘exclusions’. You simply draw a polygon over an area and tell WED what kinds of auto-generated scenery you want to ban from this area. I selected a rectangle somewhat larger than the airfield and its immediate neighbours (to prevent tall, auto-generated trees from popping up on short finals) and banned everything.

I used an asphalt surface file with the polygon tool to create the access road and parking lot and placed a portakabin behind the FBO. Then I added some aircraft parked on the grass and a few cars in the parking lot.

I also added a police car, as a slight nod to the time when I finished a night cross-country flight but neglected to close the flight plan. We’ll get into that in a future post.

Next, I added some buildings just north of the airfield. There’s a small industrial area there, and I vividly remember the experience of coming in low over the factory rooftops when landing on runway 18.

Low approach to runway 18. That building on the right shouldn’t be that tall, but whatever…

Even though the FBO building is still all kinds of wrong, my version of Rockledge is starting to take on the feel of the real thing. I keep tinkering with it, adding a fuel bowser and fuel station, more bushes and trees.

If only I could sort that FBO building I’d be happy. Oh well, time to read up about facades, I guess…

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