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Supplement: Plane Maker

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Plane-Maker Description

Plane-Maker is a program bundled with X-Plane that lets users design their own aircraft—nearly any imaginable aircraft can be built! Once all the physical specifications of the airplane have been entered (weight, wing span, control deflections, engine power, airfoil sections, etc.), the X-Plane simulator will predict how that plane will fly. Airplanes are saved in Plane-Maker just as one would save a word processing file. These files are then opened in X-Plane and flown. Users can create a .zip file of all the components of the airplane and distribute that ZIP on the Internet for others to fly. Planes created by others can also be downloaded and used in the simulator. X-Plane.org’s "Download Manager" page is currently a good place to upload and download these planes.

Note that information on how to add aircraft to X-Plane is found in Chapter 7.

This chapter will cover the basics of both the creation and distribution (likely over the Internet) of aircraft using Plane-Maker.

Licensing of Planes Created in Plane-Maker

Users are free to do whatever they like with planes they have created.

The end-user license agreement (EULA) of X-Plane is pretty simple. It begins, "You can use X-Plane for anything you want!" One excellent use for Plane-Maker is to create the airplane of one’s dreams, fly it in X-Plane, and then upload it to the Internet for others to fly! Even better, if a company has an exciting airplane, it can be built in Plane-Maker, test flown in X-Plane, and then put on the company’s web-site for customers or potential customers to download! Anyone that has X-Plane will be able to download the virtual version of the airplane and fly it in X-Plane. This is great because it will first teach more people to fly the airplane (creating potential customers) and then improve the currency of those that already fly it (creating safer customers). Of course, Plane-Maker can also be used to enter an aircraft that a user already has and flies every day, simply for the purpose of keeping up the pilot’s stick-and-rudder and instrument skills.

Using Plane-Maker to Make a Plane

We may, at some point, write the 200-page book needed to explain every detail of entering a user’s own design in Plane-Maker, but the following are the basics, which are enough to get users started and working on their own.

First, open the X-Plane 9 folder and double click on Plane-Maker.exe to get Plane-Maker running. Once it opens, go to the File menu and select Open. Select the Instructions folder and then select one of the Example Plane airplanes. One of the example planes has a 2-D instrument panel which is easiest to customize, and one of them has a 3-D cockpit which is harder to customize but provides an example of a 3-D virtual cockpit if the user decides to make one.

Once an airplane has been opened in Plane-Maker, the key to mastering the software is to simply go to every menu item in Plane-Maker, noting the hundreds of parameters of the airplane that can be changed. (Want to try flying with twice the power? Twice the weight? Half the wing-area? Try it!)

Once a few parameters have been changed, it is time to save the plane and fly it. To do this, go to the File menu and select Save Aircraft.

Now, launch X-Plane and select File > Open Aircraft. Select the airplane that was just saved in Plane-Maker and voila! The newly-modified airplane loads, ready to fly. This is the process for creating aircraft and flying them in X-Plane.

Adding Airfoils to a Plane in Plane-Maker

It should be pretty self-explanatory how to enter all the data into Plane-Maker (all the buttons are clearly labeled), but one question that comes up a lot is, “How do I attach various airfoils to my aircraft, particularly at different Reynolds numbers?”.

Like everything in X-Plane, this is pretty easy once the basics are mastered.

First, note that X-Plane does not look at the shape of the wing and then decide how much lift, drag, etc. the foil will put out. X-Plane is not a computational fluid dynamics program. Instead, X-Plane uses pre-defined airfoils that list the performance of any airfoil (lift, drag, moment) to predict how the plane will fly with that foil. To learn how to enter that performance, see the Airfoil-Maker supplement of this manual, as it details how to enter the lift, drag, and moment of any given airfoil at any given Reynolds numbers.

Now, let's imagine that you have just created two foils in Airfoil-Maker, one for a NACA-2412 at Re = 3 million, and one at Re = 9 million. You might save the foils with names like "NACA 2412-Re3.afl" and "NACA 2412-Re9.afl". The Airfoil-Maker manual explains how to do this.

With this done, launch Plane-Maker and open the airplane. Then go to the Expert menu and select the Airfoils menu item.

In the window that opens, tab over to the area containing the various different wings that the airplane has. Let's take the Wings tab, for example. You will notice that there are 4 airfoils listed for the "Wing 1" box. How could one wing have four airfoils? Easy! There could be one type of wing at the tip, another at the root, with linear interpolation in between! There could be one airfoil file for low Reynolds numbers, and another for high Reynolds numbers, with X-Plane interpolating in between. That comes to four airfoil files—two Reynolds numbers at the root (on the left) and two Reynolds numbers at the tip (at the right). The lower Reynolds numbers go at the top of the box, the higher Reynolds numbers go at the bottom. Just hold the mouse over the gray box to the left of each airfoil name to get a reminder of this if needed.

Now, for the example of the hypothetical plane above, you would select (by clicking on the little gray box to the left of the airfoil names) "NACA 2412-Re3.afl" for the upper left, and "NACA 2412-Re9.afl" for the lower left, assuming the wing uses a NACA 2412 at it's root and X-Plane needs to give accurate performance at Reynolds numbers of 3 and 9 million, with linear interpolation in between.

The same goes, of course, for the wing tip, and all the other foils on the plane.

Finishing the Plane with Custom Cockpits, Paint, and Sounds

We’ve covered how to create, modify, upload, and download airplanes for X-Plane, but an aircraft has been created in Plane-Maker, the discerning user will notice that the instruments are all X-Plane standard, the sounds are all X-Plane standard, and the airplane is simply grey.

To take the aircraft to the next level of customization, with custom paint, instruments, and sounds, let’s look at some examples.

In the operating system, open the X-Plane 9 folder. Go into the Instructions folder and find the “Example Plane-Basic” folder. This is the example craft with a 2-D cockpit only. We will use this to see what sorts of things can be customized on the airplane.

The Example.acf file in this directory is the actual aircraft file that contains all the data that defines the airplane. This is what is saved in Plane-Maker.

Custom Paint

Open the various Example_paint.png files. These are the paintjobs for the plane. They can be painted any way a user likes in Photoshop (or even MS Paint) to make them perfect for a particular design. The files may be saved as either .bmp or .png. Notice the Example_prop.png file. Its name is self-explanatory. Of course, the prop images can be modified as well.

For any plane, simply follow the naming convention seen in this folder: name paintjobs as “aircraft name_paint.bmp” and “aircraft name_paint2.bmp.” Each bitmap may currently be up to 1024x1024 in size. All bitmaps must be powers of 2 in size (that is, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, or 1024 pixels in width and height). To control what part of the plane lives in what bitmap (since you have up to two bitmaps), go to the Expert menu in Plane-Maker, and select the Texture Region Selector window.

Custom Panels and Instruments

Now look in the Cockpit folder within the Example Plane directory. In this folder are just a few custom panel and altimeter files. Needless to say, these particular custom files are just the tip of the iceberg. Look in the X-Plane 9\Resources\bitmaps\cockpit\ folder to see the approximately 750 instruments that can be added to an airplane. Each of the instruments seen there may be copied to an aircraft folder and customized just like the few sample cases seen in the Example Plane folder.

When opening the example craft in X-Plane, the instrument panel and altimeter will be stunningly ugly. This is simply to make it obvious at a glance that they are custom, non-standard instruments.

In conclusion, simply follow the model seen here, using the instrument names and folders as in the Resources\bitmaps\cockpit\ folder, and customize all of X-Plane's instruments for an airplane.

Custom Sounds

Look in the example plane’s Sounds folder to see some custom sounds associated with this plane. All it takes to add a custom sound is to make a WAV file and name it as "Aircraft name engnx.wav", where the x is the engine number (1 for left, 2 for right). Drop that file into the Sounds\engine\ folder and it’s ready to go. For a complete list of all the sounds that can be customized, look in the X-Plane 9\Resources\sounds\ folder. Just like the Resources\bitmaps\cockpit\ folder is a list of all the instruments that can be customized, the Resources\sounds\ folder contains a list of all the sounds that are customizable by placing them in an aircraft’s folder! Follow these simple conventions and add whatever custom sounds are needed.

Custom Weapons and Slung Loads

Plane-Maker can also be used to create missiles and bombs for an aircraft. In Plane-Maker, go the Expert menu and select Build Weapons. There, users can make and save a weapon. You will be saving a .wpn file that should go in the aircraft’s Weapons folder. For example, look in the example plane’s Weapons folder. This is where the users would save weapons. The Example_weapon.bmp file is simply the paint that goes on the weapon. Note, of course, that one can have a good handful of weapons on a given plane.

The Weapons window can also work with slung loads (a Jeep carried by a Black Hawk helicopter, for example). These objects can be selected as a slung payload in the Weight and Fuel window, selected from the Aircraft menu in X-Plane. These objects can be saved in the 3-D editor AC3D. A custom texture for the slung load can be created by specifying an image to use in the OBJ file.

Custom 3-D Cockpits and Bodies

Now we come to the pinnacle of aircraft designing—making custom 3-D cockpit and bodies for an airplane with a 3-D editor. This goes beyond the basic 2-D cockpits and the simple shapes of the standard airplanes and up into the level of total customization and accuracy.

Look at the example plane’s Example_cockpit.obj. This is the 3-D virtual cockpit, if you want your plane to have one. By default, pressing Ctrl + O (that is, the control key and the ‘o’ key) in X-Plane will send the cockpit into 3-D mode. From there, use the a, s, d, w, r, and f arrow keys and the mouse to move around in the 3-D cockpit. Look at the example plane’s Example_cockpit_texture.png. This is the texture that will be used in the (totally optional) 3-D virtual cockpit, if one exists.

The 3-D panels are created as object files with a .obj extension. These OBJ files are simply 3-D objects that X-Plane can draw. To create them, users will need an editor that can create 3-D objects and save them in the OBJ format. AC3D (downloadable here) is one such editor.

Full documentation on creating object files is found at scenery.x-plane.com, but a brief description follows.

Creating Objects for X-Plane

Users sometimes mean different things when asking how to create objects to be used with X-Plane—some may mean the aircraft themselves, some the scenery objects, and some the 3-D cockpits. The answer as to how to create them varies depending on what is being discussed.

First of all, for the aircraft itself, there is only one answer—the X-Plane .acf file, as saved by Plane-Maker (bundled with the simulator and located in the X-Plane 9 directory). X-Plane looks at this file to determine flight physics, mass properties, engine power and limits… the works. As such, it is highly customized to X-Plane and could never be any sort of “all-purpose" format. This means that you can only use Plane-Maker, and nothing but Plane-Maker, to make the aircraft.

While Plane-Maker is perfectly adequate for entering the design of the plane (it is bug-free, easy to use, not too fancy, and reliable) Plane-Maker is not a 3-D model editor. Instead, it is used to lay out the basic aerodynamic shapes and properties which result in an airplane that looks okay, but would certainly not knock anyone’s socks off. As such, it can not make the complex 3-D model that is needed to make a cool 3-D cockpit, or to make a highly detailed aircraft model that might overlay the basic Plane-Maker model from which flight physics are calculated.

These 3-D models can also be used to create buildings and other custom objects—not just plane overlays and cockpits.

So, to repeat:

1. Plane-Maker can be used on its own to make a model for X-Plane. It will look okay and will fly fine. It will be pretty good.
2. In addition to this Plane-Maker model, you can make a 3-D cockpit to sit inside the plane, or a highly detailed aircraft model to overly the basic X-Plane model, which could actually be made with transparent textures to be invisible, if you desire.

Clearly, users can use Plane-Maker, which comes with X-Plane, to do part 1 above, but not part 2.

See the "Example Aircraft" in the "Instructions" folder for a very simple example.

So, what editor does one use for part 2?

To do part 2 of the above, you will need a 3-D editor capable of saving an object in the X-Plane OBJ format. Note: This is not the same as the Alias OBJ format.

The following file formats can be used to create X-Plane OBJ files:

  • 3DS (Autodesk 3D Studio)
  • DXF (Autocad)
  • OBJ (Alias Wavefront)
  • AC (AC3D)
  • MD2 (Quake model)
  • WRL (VRML)
  • LWO (LightWave)
  • TXT (Milkshape)

With each of these file extensions, users need to convert the objects to ones usable by X-Plane. This is often done by opening the file in AC3D, then using the X-Plane plugin downloadable here to export the file as an X-Plane OBJ.

Alternatively, after an object has been created in 3DS or Autocad, ObjConverter may to be used to convert it. ObjConverter comes in the Scenery Tools pack, downloadable here.

Alternatively, direct export to an X-Plane OBJ file is available in the two free 3-D editors by Jonathan Harris—both Google Sketchup and Blender.

Note: All of these exports are limited by file format issues:

  • 3DS doesn't feature lines, only meshes.
  • DXF/Autocad has no texturing info.
  • Lightwave's texturing model doesn't correspond to ours very well.
  • VRML conversion between programs doesn't usually work well.

There may be other issues, too, in converting between formats.

In all cases, though, the file needs one texture per object.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of ways to get objects into X-Plane from just about any 3-D editor imaginable. If it isn't on this list, and the 3-D editor is decent, it can probably export to one of these formats such as 3DS, Alias Waverfront OBJ, or similar.

For pure "meshes" made with one texture, no tricks, 3DS seems to be the most reliable conversion format for simple work.

Distribution

Once an aircraft is complete, it's time to get it out there! Go to X-Plane.org and create a free account. Then, make a single folder that holds your airplane, and a folder within that folder that holds any custom airfoils you may have made (if you have not already). People often upload airplanes but forget to upload their airfoils. That doesn’t work!

Be sure to give the .acf file inside the folder a recognizable name. Put any custom airfoils you made inside a folder called “airfoils,” which lives inside the main folder for the airplane, and put the whole thing into a .zip file. Windows users can use right click on the folder, move the mouse down to “Send to,” and select “Compressed (zipped) folder.” Mac users can option-click on the folder and chose "Create Archive." All that’s left is to upload the plane.

This is a great way to let others see your design, especially for commercial purposes, like letting the world test-fly your company’s plane virtually... at zero cost to you!

Summary

We have now discussed how to make, modify, and upload custom airplanes to fly in X-Plane. As well, we’ve talked about customizing the paint, instruments, sounds, weapons, slung loads, and even 3-D cockpits.

Now it’s time to get to work!

Post-script: Plane-Maker Video Tutorials

X-Plane.org member danklaue has created an exceptional video tutorial series detailing virtually all aspects of aircraft creation and customization. These can be accessed via the Plane Maker Video Tutorials index page on this Wiki.

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