How To Build Your Own Aircraft - A Step By Step Guide For Beginners
Part 2: Finding And Installing FS2002 Panels
By Andrew Herd
f you worked through part one of this series, you should have a Delta Boeing 757 installed in Flight Simulator 2002 in addition to the default aircraft. The 757 is a great aircraft, but like many freeware planes for FS2002, it uses a default instrument panel which looks nothing like the panel from a real 757. If you have been around FlightSim.Com for any length of time, you will have heard people going on endlessly about installing new panels, and you may have wondered what they were going on about. This article will make you a member of that group, because it will show you how to find a new panel for your new 757 and how to install it. The instructions here will not work unless you have already installed the aircraft in the first article.
First of all, just to clear up some terminology. It used to beat me what people were talking about when they were raving on about how good some "panel" or other was. But by sticking around and asking, I eventually figured out that what they were talking about were instrument panels and the mists cleared. As a matter of fact, the term is used to mean not only the instrument panel, but also 2D and even 3D views within and outside the cockpit. Panel packages vary - many freeware ones have just one forward view, the main instrument panel itself, others come with subsidiary panels, overheads, pedestals, you name it.
We are going to go a step further than we did last time, because we are going to look at the configuration files that are part of the guts of FS2002. FS uses config files to set up everything from the way the scenery looks to the way aircraft fly. If you know how to edit these files safely, then the program is defenseless before you. So back things up before you change them!
For now, I want you to start up Windows Explorer and take a look at the folder structure of the Delta 757. If you remember (assuming you used the default setup for FS2002) the aircraft is installed in C:\Program files\Microsoft games\FS2000\aircraft\Delta 757-200 `97 colors. What a mouthful. You can go straight to it by left clicking on the plus sign next to C: - then the plus sign next to Program files - then the plus sign next to Microsoft games and so on until you finally click the plus sign next to "Delta 757-200 `97 colors" and expand that folder. If you look, you will see several sub-folders including model, panel, sound and texture. The sub folder called model contains information about the way the aircraft appears in FS2002; while texture contains the graphics which 'skin' the plane. The panel and sound sub folders are pretty self explanatory. Let's take a look in the panel sub folder by clicking on the word panel in the left hand pane of Windows explorer. You will see just one file, called panel, or panel.cfg, depending on which options you have turned on in Explorer.
What I would like you to do is to double-click on that file. You will get a dialog called 'Open with,' and the purpose of this dialog is to let you associate an application with a particular file type. In this case, we are going to associate Notepad with files which have names ending in .cfg. You will see why in a minute. Use the slider to scroll down the list in the bottom box until you see Notepad, then left click on the Notepad icon and click the OK button at the bottom of the 'Open with' dialog.
Some people will find that this dialog won't appear, by the way. This sometimes happens because of a Windoze bug, and the only way around it, short of finding out which app is associated with Notepad files and fixing it, is to open Notepad manually and do things the long way around. You can do this by clicking on the Start button, then clicking on "Run" and typing notepad in the dialog that appears. That gets Notepad up and running - but you will have to step through the folder structure using notepad to get to C:\Program files\Microsoft games\FS2000\aircraft\Delta 757-200 `97 and you will also have to select "files of all types" on the "files of type" drop down that appear when you hit file\open on the Notepad menu.
Basically, all the panel.cfg file is doing is to point at one of the default instrument panels stored in FS2002. When you select the Delta 757 aircraft in FS2002, it does a quick read of the panel.cfg file and loads whichever panel it is told to. You could set it up to load the Cessna 172 panel if you wanted - this is called making an "alias". It takes all sorts to make up a world.
The point of all this fiddling about is to point up the fact that the modular nature of Flight Simulator makes it possible for an aircraft to load with just about any panel you want - so if it pleases you to fly a 747 with the default Cessna 182 panel, you can, just by altering the panel.cfg to look like this:
This sounds totally wacky, but there is method in Microsoft's madness, for once. While it is rare for aircraft files to get seriously big, panels can trespass over the 5 Mb mark these days (don't laugh if you are reading this in 2005 and panels are a minimum of 1.4 Gb, remember I was writing this a long time ago). So if you are into 747s and you find one panel you really like or want to get familiar with, you can load up the panel once, install six different aircraft, point the alias in every aircraft's panel.cfg file at your favourite panel, and when you are flying no one will know you are cheating (-: Makes sense now, huh? Incidentally, you can do the same thing with sound, but that will be the subject of the next article in this series. What we are going to do right now is to find a new panel for our 757 and make FS2002 load it instead of the default one when we run the plane.
If you aren't connected to the Internet already, fire up your connection and point your web browser at FlightSim.Com. I want you to log on, and then go to the 'search file libraries' page from the Main Menu, just like we did last time. Pull down the slider in the 'search only file section' drop down until you can select 'FS2002 panels' by left clicking it, then type '757' (without the quotes) in the 'search for text' box. Now left click the 'start search button.'
You will get a list of panels to choose from, each with its own description and picture. Browse through the list using the right hand scroll bar and the 'next 10 files' link down at the bottom of the web page.
We are after a particular file, so I want you to go back to the search page (use the back arrow, or the 'exit list files' link on the web page. Once you are at the search page again, make sure that the 'search for text' box is empty by deleting '757' and type 'mz757pnl.zip' in the file name box. Check that 'FS2002 panels' is still selected and then click the 'start search' button.
You should get a one file search result, showing an 2.9 Mb panel for a 757-200. I want you to download this to the download folder you created in the last session, by clicking the download link above the file description, then clicking 'I accept, start download' on the download copyright page, and selecting your download folder as the destination. Once the download is complete, close your web browser and shut down your Internet link.
If you take a look in your download folder now, you should have two files there. The first is your 757 (n604dl97.zip), the other is the file you just downloaded, mz757pnl.zip. If you can't see mz757pnl.zip there, you downloaded it to the wrong directory and you need to use the finder to locate it.
If you are wondering why my directory shows only mz757pnl.zip, it is because I have temporarily misplaced the aircraft file.
Next I want you to go to your 'Junk' folder and delete everything in it (that's why we call it 'junk'). Then go back to mz757pnl.zip and double click on the icon. WinZip should show the contents of the file. There should be many files, in there as shown in the illustration. Scaaareeey, huh?
Make sure you have 'use folder names' checked in WinZip or the files will decompress in an unholy mess which even I will not be able to sort out. Hit the 'extract' button and unzip everything into your junk folder.
Now go check out Junk. All the files should be there. Depending on how you have set up Windows Explorer they may appear in a different order to the illustration. The first thing to do in these circumstances is to RTFM (this being a family web site I can only reveal what this means by private email, as long as you can guarantee to me that you are over the age of 35. In general, this means being familiar with the early works of groups like Fleetwood Mac) by double clicking the file labelled readme. This panel was written by Mario Coelho and while it is a terrific piece of freeware, the readme is concise.
Close the readme file for now and stop talking in the back there, you are ruining my concentration.
Some panel files unzip to show folders like this one, others contain folders and zips (that's right, you can put a zip inside a zip), but in either case, the principles are the same. Now and again, you discover zips withing zips within zips, which always makes me wonder if the developer enjoyed pass the parcel as a kid.
First step, I want you to open the folder called "757-200_gauge". Double click on it to open (apologies again to everyone with single click set-ups, it's my age, you know). You should see something like the illustration. Use the scroll bar on the right just to show how many files are in there, if you are curious. What you are looking at are the files which create the gauges you see on the panel - if they aren't copied into the right folder in your FS2002 setup, your panel will have holes in it where the gauges should have been.
If you come across a panel where the gauges are in a zip, don't panic, just open the zip called "gauges" and follow the instructions below.
Now we need to find the folder where FS2002's gauges live. Assuming you have a standard setup, this means left clicking the little plus sign next to C:, then using the scrollbar to find program files and clicking the plus sign next to that, then scrolling down again to find Microsoft Games and clicking the plus sign next to that, then clicking the plus sign next to FS2002, and then left clicking on the folder you see called 'gauges,' - see the illustration. Resist the urge to click the plus sign next to gauges, or it will become a habit.
Take a second to look at the left hand pane, which shows the FS2002 folder tree expanded, the gauges folder being about halfway down. This is where FS2002 expects to find its gauges, when it loads a panel.
Choose "edit" then "select all" from the window menu, then left click on one of the files in the right hand pane, hold the button down, and drag the files across to the left pane until the highlight is over the \FS2002\gauges folder - then release the button.
If the gauges are in a zip, then the procedure is to open the zip by double clicking on it, go to the WinZip icon bar and click 'extract', use the dialog which appears to find and select the \FS2002\gauges folder and click the 'extract' button in the dialog. There will be a burst of activity. In all probability, WinZip will quietly extract all the files and then go about its business, but you may see a message like the one below, if you have installed any other panels besides the Microsoft default set.
If you get asked about a file overwrite, you will have to weigh it up yourself. In general, I look at the dates and press no if the file I am overwriting is newer. In this case I would press 'yes' since the file I am overwriting is older.
But as I say, hopefully this won't happen to you. When WinZip is done all the extract dialogs will disappear and the green light will come on again at the bottom right of the WinZip window. You can close WinZip and breath again.
You may be wondering why we have installed the gauges first. Well, in my experience the most common problem people face when installing new panels is forgetting to put the gauges in the \FS2002\Gauges directory, with the result that when the panel loads for the first time they are faced with a bitmap with a series of black holes where the instruments should be. If you install the gauges first you won't forget them.
Now the next step is to install the rest of the panel files. This is a little more complicated than installing the gauges as we are going to have to make a new folder to put them in, deep within the folder structure of FS2002 - but if you have already worked your way through the first article in this series, you should have done this once already. Just make sure you read this carefully, and keep double-checking.
Find your FS2002 directory using Explorer (it should still be open from when you last used it). I want you to click on the plus sign next to the 'aircraft' subfolder in FS2002 - OK, I've had it with saying 'click the plus sign,' from now on I'm going to say 'open' or 'expand,' right?
We are going to create a new folder within the \aircraft folder called fsfsconv. Why? Well, tradition mainly. Every version of Flight Simulator until this one had an fsfsconv folder and I don't see why Microsoft should spoil our fun by leaving it out.
Fsfsconv is where all the panels used to lurk in previous versions of Flight Simulator, and if you can now create a folder called fsfsconv, by highlighting the \aircraft folder and then using Explorer's "File", "New", "Folder" commands from the menu, I would be obliged.
What we need to do next is to create a folder inside of Fsfsconv called 'panel.757' excluding the quotes of course (and from now on, I'm not going to remind you about that anymore, either!)
So let's go. With fsfsconv selected, click on 'file' in Windows Explorer, then highlight 'new' and finally, slide the pointer over to 'folder' and click on that just like you did to create the 757 aircraft folder in the last article.
Incidentally, the pic in the right hand pane is what a panel looks like in FS2002 when you forgot to copy the gauges over. Once seen, never forgotten.
The next thing we need to do is to go back to the Junk folder, and select the panel folder. I want you to select all the contents of this folder and copy it into C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\FS2002\aircraft\fsfsconv\panel.757.
I can hear some sharp intakes of breath out there, so I'd better do some explaining. C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\FS2002\aircraft\fsfsconv\panel.757 is simply the full 'path' name of the folder you just created, the one called panel.757.
If you imagine that every single one of those backslashes represents a plus sign you have to click on in Windows Explorer, you can see that this is just a shorthand way of referring you to a particular folder, without saying 'click the little plus sign' six times.
Select all the files in the \junk\panel and copy them across to the \fsfsconv\panel.757 folder.
If you are installing a different panel and the gauges are in a zip, hit the WinZip 'extract' button and go through the directory structure in the dialog that pops up just the way you did before. We'll go through it one more time in detail, expand by left clicking the little plus sign next to C:, then using the scrollbar to find program files expand that, then scrolling down again to find Microsoft Games and expand that, then expand FS2002, then expand 'aircraft', then expand 'fsfsconv' and finally, left click on the folder called 'panel.757' so that it is highlighted and hit the extract button. You will almost certainly find that you need to use the horizontal slider to see what you are doing at some stage, because this is a deeply nested folder structure.
We are very nearly there, except that our Delta 757 is still blissfully unaware that we are going to all this trouble on its behalf. We need to edit its panel.cfg file to let it know which panel it is going to use.
So use Windows Explorer to go to the "Delta 757-200 `97 colors" folder (which is in C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\FS2002\aircraft if you get lost.) If you created the association between files ending in .cfg and Notepad, panel.cfg should have a little Notepad icon, and you can just double click on it to open it automatically in Notepad. If you didn't, go to the back of the class.
We are going to do a small hack to this file - because it points to the default Microsoft 777 Panel and no one wants to be seen dead flying with that. Instead we are going to point it at our new file.
Delete everything in the original panel.cfg and type this instead:
Make sure it looks exactly the way it does in the screen shot. Then click on file, then save and close down Notepad.
Okay… now the Delta 757 knows which panel it is supposed to be flying with and we are set, but one thing you might come across is a folder, or a zip called 'sounds' as part of a panel installation set. If you do find something like this, it is a sound set which is linked to various actions on the panel, like switches and other stuff.
If you see something like this, open it up in Explorer or WinZip as appropriate and you should see something like the illustration.
Those files belong in C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\FS2002\sound and this time, you are on your own getting them there, because you ought to know how to do it by now.
We should have the show on the road now, so start up FS2002, select the Delta 757 and… was it worth it? Well if you don't like the result, there are plenty of other panels out there. Be my guest and try 'em all!
The next article in this series will be on installing a custom sound set to complete this aircraft.Andrew Herd