• Ralph Tofflemire's MD-83 Panel

    Ralph Tofflemire's MD-83

    The World's Best Panel?

    by Louis J. Betti (8 January 1999)

    Ralph's panel in original form. She's a beauty, but where are we sitting, and what can't we read?


    For flight simulator to evolve, there must be efforts made not just by Microsoft, but by countless payware, shareware, and freeware programmers who break new ground, who innovate, not just copy what others have done.

    Witness the photo real Yugoslavia airport scenery (freeware), Airport 2000 (payware), EFIS (formerly shareware), the incredible Pro Flight 98 (payware) and the FSD moving parts Piper Seneca (freeware), just to name a few. None of these are truly copies of anything else we have seen before. All have broken new ground in some manner.

    A "Da Vinci" and the "gold standard" for hand drawn panels, Eric Ernst's fabulous MD-83. Were it not for the fact that Eric lives in the USA, and Ralph in Canada, I'd swear we had an American Civil War going here; "blue versus grey"!
    Considering that we spend much of our time in a virtual cockpit, instrument panels seem to have lagged behind other areas of flight simulation. The vast majority of panels, despite increasing sophistication of instrumentation and other "bells and whistles", still remain hand drawn. Whether they be the great freeware panels of Eric Ernst, or the payware panels of VIP, hand drawn remains the order of the day.

    Certainly I can understand why this is. Almost any panel for a piston twin and larger aircraft must be a compromise of design in order to work well in FS98. We simply don't have the space to squeeze it all in, and then if we did, we wouldn't be able to read the gauges! I can accept that, but no longer can I accept the need to always hand draw the panel. Computer graphics, and FS98 limitations aside, photo real can work!

    It was a little over a year ago that I downloaded what remains one of the best freeware panels for FS98, Petros Protopappas' 727 photo real panel. Apparently I'm not the only one who liked it, as downloads on it are well over 11,000. Shortly thereafter came his DC-6 panel. Both in a different way put you in the real cockpit. The 727, from the captain's seat, and the DC6, well, sort of from the jump seat. Some months later, Tom Gibson rebuilt that same DC-6 panel, and put us in the captain's seat.

    A bit of the AP, NAV, and switches on Eric Ernst's MD83.
    I've also seen some photo real disasters too, but won't mention them. You know the panels I'm talking about; fuzzy bitmap, switches that look out of focus, etc. Looking at the good and bad of photo real, it's easy to see why many panels are still hand drawn. It can be easier to deal with the view that way, and sharpness is no longer an issue.

    To produce a top-notch photo real panel, you must start with a top-notch photograph, most likely several. Having spent 25 years behind the lens, and in a color darkroom, as an advanced amateur photographer, I know what I'm saying. Trying to use a photo from a catalog, brochure, or magazine usually won't work. You must have incredible sharpness, fine grain, and little else standing in the way of quality. Lighting is also critical, an on-camera flash usually won't do. Lighting must be somewhat diffuse, but still have enough "punch" to keep highlights, shadows, and overall contrast in balance. 35 millimeter film would be only adequate, and I would prefer to see the photo shot on 2 1/4 x 2 1/4" or larger roll film.

    The same area on Ralph Tofflemire's MD83. That glare would not be visible at night, but I would definitely not remove it. The angle of the NAV radio knob gives away the perspective. I believe it should be the opposite, but not necessarily "dead on" as seen in Eric's panel.
    Once that photo or negative is scanned into your computer for manipulation, the reduction in resolution necessary for the photo to work in FS98 will quickly separate the average photo from the great photo. You'd better be going in with a lot, because you're going to lose a lot along the way.

    It is also important to remember that even the best color film, negative or transparency, does not "see" what our eyes do. The human eye is far more capable in processing colors and contrast. One failing of that great 727 panel was a large blotch of glare near the parking break lever. In addition, the bitmap was not as sharp as it could have been. Seriously, we're not looking for a photo real panel to look like a photograph. We're looking for a photo real panel to look like what we would see sitting in front of the real thing!

    Still a photo real classic, Air Team's 727. I changed the HSI and added the RA. The glare by the parking brake could be easily removed, and the bitmap could be sharper. This panel remains my 727 panel of choice.

    The MD-83

    One visit to Ralph Tofflemire's site (www.panelshop.com) will tell you that Ralph's come a long way in panel design over the last year. Ralph used to be a pro photographer, and this certainly shows in his latest panels, the winners of numerous awards for excellence.

    You see the word "best" used quite a bit on Ralph's pages. I'm loathe to use that word to describe anything, as "best" is relative. While I may be splitting verbal hairs here, even I must his admit that his panels probably are the best, for what they are. As to awards, I don't buy things based on them. Let the user be the ultimate judge.

    Ralph's latest creation is the McDonnell Douglas MD-83, consider it an improved version of his old MD-80 panel. Considering the fees for processing secure web transactions, and the cost of maintaining a web site, I would consider its U.S. $18 price to be reasonable.

    In this panel, his Dash 8 panel, and very soon to come, a 737, we can, perhaps, see the future of FS panels. Whether we're talking payware, freeware, or shareware, Ralph has raised the bar several notches, but has yet to raise it far enough to truly replace a fine hand drawn panel, and that has nothing to do with any limitation caused by the panel being of photographic elements either, read on.

    There's little doubt Ralph started with a great photo of the MD-83 panel. If I recall, his MD-80 panel came from a poster, and most likely so did this one. The panel has been near-perfectly lit. Sharpness and contrast are superb, considering the limitations of the environment it is in. When you see this panel in FS98, you'll feel that you are not looking at a photograph, but that you are in the cockpit! Although I did not have a real MD-83 photo for reference, I would dare say that we are looking at a high degree of authenticity here.

    Instruments on Ralph's original panel. Nice, but a bit hard on the eyes.
    Along with registering and downloading the panel, you will also want to download the two beta gauges, airspeed and altimeter, that replace the stock ones that come with the panel. These two gauges give you a virtual co-pilot, with airspeed, altitude call-outs and much, much more. Yes, Ralph admits that they are beta, and at times the voices will overlap, but overall they are excellent as to the sounds they provide, and you simply must have them with this panel (they are available at no extra cost). The airspeed gauge also features speed bugs, but setting them can prove quite difficult, owing to the somewhat nebulous location of the click spots on the altimeter's face.

    In addition to the "talking" airspeed and altimeter, the panel includes an incredible EHSI, which will display between VOR, ADF, and LOC, probably more than your brain will care to process. It's one "helluva" gauge. The EADI is also quite nice, and includes flight director, RA, and settable DH, in addition to the usual features.

    I don't know if all MD-83s have an RMI without DME readout, but this panel has one, and so does Eric Ernst's, so perhaps I have my answer.

    The same area on Eric's panel, clear and legible.
    Move further to the right, and there are substantial and realistic fuel readouts; total fuel, fuel used, etc. There are even two separate, fuel consumption gauges that can be reset at any time, without effecting the other fuel readouts. Want to know how much fuel you've used just during climb? Well, just reset these gauges before takeoff, and note the figure as you level off. Reset them again, and note the figure before you descend, and so on.

    The autopilot includes all the usual commands, including auto land. However, I found that APR mode kept me consistently below the glide slope, and auto land was "auto crash". I'm still investigating this to see where the problem may lay. The MD-83 model I use never had GS tracking problems with other panels. The jury is still out. Switching of functions on the panel is accompanied by a tone, a "ding" sound if you prefer--very nice.

    Looking above, while hitting shift 2, brings down the overhead panel, with APU start and engine start sounds. Sadly, the engine start sound plays over the engine running sound the moment you fire up, but it is still an improvement. The APU start sound (don't forget to start the APU first) plays on its own, and I'll miss it on my other jet panels. While the panel will default to engines running if you create a flight with it, you can save a flight with engines shut down, and actually have to flip quite a few switches to get things running again. One disappointment is the click sound heard when flipping a toggle switch. Rather than a positive "click", one hears a "click-clock-click", strange indeed. Otherwise, the overhead is a slightly simplified version of the real thing, but is none-the-less quite realistic in appearance and operation, though switch labels could be a bit larger.

    Shift 3 brings up the center console panel, just below the throttle quadrant. Actually, this panel is in between the throttles and main panel on the actual aircraft, and putting it here is an understandable and quite realistic solution. The console contains ADF, transponder, and COM 1 on the left, simulated weather radar in the center, and a blank area to the right, where one could insert a small GPS. Shift 4 brings up the yoke.

    The install of the panel and beta gauges is automatic. Ralph says this was done for beginners who did not know how to install a panel. Actually, my first problems with installing a panel revolved around modifying the panel configuration file to "point" it to the appropriate panel, not putting gauges in folders. This problem still remains with the auto install, as all it does it put everything where it belongs, and creates the panel folder in the FSFS Conv folder. You still must modify your panel .cfg to point it to the panel. I just as soon do without the auto install, as it adds approximately 1 meg to the download.

    Documentation is relatively good, some is included with the panel, but additional information must be downloaded from Ralph's site. It is in Word 6.0 format, which is compatible with Word Pad.

    ...and again on my version. A marriage made in heaven? The green button is Chuck Dome's auto coordination switch.

    Reality vs Compromise

    All right, this is a great panel, and compared to others perhaps the best MD-83 panel extant, but remember what I said about best being relative, and compromise being necessary? Well, here goes my "song and dance".

    The reality of Ralph Tofflemire's MD-83 panel, with its excellent bitmap, accurate gauges, and sounds, certainly puts you in the cockpit of an MD-83. The problem is, Ralph didn't compromise much in his search for reality, and thus you are seated almost in between the seats, and with that expanse of panel in front of you, gauges are small, and often hard to read. "Is that VOR1 or VOR2 I have the EHSI switched to? 12,000 or 14,000 feet I'm passing through. What's this? Am I climbing at 2000 fpm or am I straight and level?" It seems that Ralph used a floating needle over the real panel's VSI, on the bitmap, but forgot to remove the original needle!

    Like his previous MD-80, I found the panel difficult to use for serious IFR flying. I can not understand how one could use the panel on anything smaller than a 21" monitor. Now, I have 20/20 vision, and a superb 21" monitor, and Ralph says he designed the panel on a 17" monitor, but something had to give as far as I was concerned, or else the panel would join his MD-80 panel, sitting in the "old panels" folder! I found my focus on the panel falling upon the standby ADI, and while the size of the EADI was okay, that beautiful EHSI required too much of my concentration due to its small size.

    Well, Ralph gave me a beautiful, capable, and realistic panel, but with little compromise. I would need to provide the latter if I was going to continue to use this wonderful panel.

    Thank goodness for two programs I have: Panmake (see my review of it), and Adobe's incredible Photoshop. After some twelve hours spent between the two, I reproduced Ralph's MD-83 panel as it appears here.

    My intent was to keep the panel as close to the level of realism it had before, while making the primary flight instruments easier to read. Sadly, both the beta airspeed gauge (which actually I found to be both unrealistic looking and hard to read), and the beta altimeter (again, hard to read) had to go. Replacing them, of course, would mean losing their sounds. The solution here was simple; I reduced their size by some 90%, and hid them on the panel. Where? You find them! I then replaced them with the gauges from Eric Ernst's MD-83.

    My twelve-hour rush job. Not ideal, and I've already started on another version in order to deal with the engine gauges. In order to enlarge them, the thrust rating panel may have to go.
    The numbers on the VSI were nearly illegible, so I kept the bezel, and replaced the VSI with one of Eric's. The standby altimeter and airspeed to the right of it suffered similar, and was replaced with one by Andreas Jaros. I wanted an RMI with DME readout, so I replaced the original with one I "dug out" from my gauge folder.

    All of the above instruments, including the EADI, EHSI, and RA were increased in size by about 20%. The only gauge on the panel that remains exactly in size and position is the AOA gauge, just to the left of the clock, which was forced from its home by the new RMI. The throttle quadrant was moved over, along with the gear lever, engine gauges, etc.

    I'm not happy with the size of the engine gauges, as I did not have the space to increase their size. Only one gauge, an inactive ("eye candy") fuel gauge had to be removed from the panel.

    I added a small digital trim readout next to the actual trim controls, not any failing in the panel, but as my AETI yoke has built in trim, I must assure absolutely neutral trim on the sim, and this digital trim gauge (thanks again, Eric) removes all doubt.

    Finally, there were the inactive fire handles, just above the EPR. Well, I had an easy solution for them, and this solution spoke well of the accuracy of Eric Ernst's MD-83 panel. I took his "working" fire handles gauge, and put it in place. Once sized for this panel (size only, not proportion) the gauge fit perfectly over Ralph's bitmap. Yes, Eric's panels are highly accurate.

    My version again, but with all panel windows visible. They remain un-altered.


    Frankly, I think Ralph Tofflemire's panel, even in original form is fantastic, and I challenge freeware and payware panel designers and gauge programmers to rise to, and better yet, above the "bar" Ralph has set. His panel in original form may work quite well for many of you, but I would suggest that panel designers that attempt their own similar creations to consider what I have done, and think of those of us who must fly behind the panel. Do not be afraid of compromise. There is compromise in Ralph's panel; I just felt there should have been more, and acted upon that feeling. Even my modified panel is not ideal, and I just as soon take my Bronica and a few rolls of film and shoot the real thing from the correct perspective.

    There is little doubt that the majority of panels will remain hand drawn for the foreseeable future. From a freeware standpoint, dragging thousands of dollars worth of photo gear into a cramped cockpit, and even getting the hour-plus of time one would need to make the photos is not always practical (especially with a jet airliner). Fortunately, the price of a good scanner has come down, but Photoshop, the best application for photo manipulation is now a $600+ item!

    By the time you read this, Ralph may have introduced his new 737 panel, and I will probably also get his incredible Dash 8 panel. I can't wait to get my hands on them both! If you like what I have done to Ralph's MD-83 panel, don't ask me, it's a "one off", and due to its origins can never be shared. Even if you own the panel already, I must decline sharing the bitmap and configuration file, sorry.

    I would like to make it clear that this review/article/editorial is not intended as a comparison in order to ask, "which is best". Again, "best" is relative, and I included comparison photos so you can judge for yourself. Obviously I like what I did to Ralph's panel, but that does not make it the best. The "best" is the panel that works best for you.

    Finally, I'm looking for a freeware gauge programmer to collaborate on a panel with me. I figure that it is only right that I accept my own challenge, and put my theories and all that photo gear I have to the test!

    Louis Betti
    [email protected]

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