The prospect of reviewing a commercial 'Panel Only' add-on for my first piece, as newly appointed AVSIM Staff reviewer, brought mixed feelings initially.
We all have preferences and inclinations within our hobby and mine tends to be for the complex, all in one commercial airliner products from the likes of PMDG, Level D and feelThere to name but a few. So from the perspective of a simmer like myself, where would the need for just a 2D Panel product arise?
However, recognising those same preferences and diversity within the hobby, there are many fellow simmers out there whose fleet primarily consists of mainly freeware aircraft models, that use either the default FS panels, sounds, textures and airfiles, or else additional files (usually picked up in the File Library here at AVSIM).
Now, from the latter perspective, the idea of being able to get a high quality aircraft model, a decent sound file, textures, etc for free, and then spend one's hard earned cash on just the complex part - a high quality Panel - makes very good sense!
Sky-Decks Panel Design started out as one of the first commercial 'Panel only' designers, primarily due to the aforementioned enthusiasts of blending freeware models with a third party high quality panel. Development of the 737NG product commenced almost 4 years ago with a panel that was initially offered as freeware. This panel became immensely popular and shortly after, Sky-Decks Panel Design was born. Since that original freeware panel, years worth of development have gone into the 737NG panel, bringing us the current Version 3.15, which is the final release for FS2004.
What's In The Box?
The 737NG Panel from Sky-Decks is available by Download only (so there isn't a box!) for $19.95. The purchase process uses the Flight 1 wrapper system, which is reassuring to see, being a reliable and generally hassle free way of downloading an add-on. So what do we get for our money?
According to the Sky-Decks team, you get a high quality 737NG Panel with all new gauges for the most realistic flight simulation experience. You get nice touches such as a ND (Navigation Display) that shows all Navaids and the FS Flight Plan. You get a full functioning Overhead Panel with realistic Fuel, Hydraulic, Pneumatic and Electrical systems, and all this glory is presented via a 15 position dimmable lighting system.
The Panel is what you are paying for, and the real intention is that you can drop this Panel Folder into existing 737 aircraft within your simulator. However, Sky-Deck also provides within the download, a freeware 737 aircraft already configured and set-up to use this Panel. Considering this is a Panel Only product, I thought this was a nice touch. It means that if you don't already have a fleet of 737 aircraft that you intend to use the Panel in, you can still be up in the air flying as soon as you've made your purchase and completed the install.
The freeware model supplied is the Kittyhawk 737, and comes in 737-700 and -800 variants, with and without winglets. It has a brand new FDE (Flight Dynamics) and comes with a sound set by Des Braban, plus 16 different liveries. So although all of the above is freeware, and what you are really paying for is the Sky-Decks Panel, the overall package provided is ready to fly and will let you try out your new panel without using the default FS2004 livery schemes or sounds.
Once the download process is completed, two .exe files are supplied. One will install the Sky-Decks panel into your FS installation and the other will install the Kittyhawk 737 package, including sound and liveries. You can run the .exe files in any order. On installation of both, you will have a fully configured set of 737-700 and -800 aircraft, shown in the "Select Aircraft" screen in FS2004 under "Boeing".
Ok, so installation was a breeze, time to load up a flight and take a look at the Panel that we've bought.
Love At First Sight?
When you first select either of the Boeing 737 models from the "Select Aircraft" screen in FS2004, you may think that your system has frozen completely. Due to the high quality images used in the panel, FS will pause on this screen for around thirty seconds (depending on your system specs). To be fair, Sky-Decks do refer to this pause in the accompanying manual, so as long as you have read that prior to flying, you are hopefully not in a state of panic just yet.
When you commence your flight, you will be sitting on the ground at your chosen airport and will be looking at what appears to be a very attractive 737NG panel. In fact, on appearance, the Sky-Decks panel certainly is up there with the best looking commercial panels available for FS2004. The panel and side views are based on photoreal images and contain sharp, clear textures and subtle, realistic lighting.
Now, it's time for another pause - when you select the 2D side views for the first time, using your joystick's hat switch, you will again find that the sim will pause for around 5 seconds on each image (view). Again, this only occurs once, (when each image is loaded for the first time), and all subsequent views are instant.
Straight Over One's Head
We are clearly dealing with a fine looking panel but how will it function? Clicking the appropriate sim icon brings up the overhead panel. And what an overhead this is! A hover of the mouse over the panel reveals that this is not just a pretty picture - this is an overhead where the vast majority of the buttons and controls are functional.
I must say up front that for those who are not well versed with the actions required to start an airliner's engines (Electrical, Pneumatic and Fuel configuration), the Sky-Decks panel will respond perfectly to the pressing of CTRL+E to start engines. However, doing this means missing out of the fun and the realism. The overhead has been coded well and supports the realism of this panel.
For example, even on most complex commercial panels, the APU will start upon pressing its starter function. The Sky-Decks panel requires that at least one fuel pump be turned on prior to starting the APU, or else there is no fuel flow to the unit and you'll notice the EGT (Exhaust Gas Temperature) for the APU will not rise. Nice touch! Much of the rest of the overhead follows the same amount of impressive realism and will please those that enjoy real procedures before they push the throttles and reach for the sky.
The rest of the sub panels are similarly accessed from the sim icons and reveal equally pleasant renditions of their counterparts from the real plane. On engine starting, for some reason I experienced a sticking fuel control switch for the right engine (part of the Throttle Pedestal sub-panel), that refused to budge on a couple of occasions where I started the left engine first. This may have been a "one-off" on my system and in any event, the same issue never occurred when I started the right engine first.
Back To The Panel
An initial look around the main panel, and especially the MCP (Mode Control Panel), reveals my first area of disappointment in the Sky-Decks Panel - the functionality and realism of the overhead panel is not extended to the MCP, Autopilot, or FMA (flight mode annunciations), shown on the Primary Flying Display.
The autopilot contains no additional functionality over the default FS2004 737 aircraft. Whilst I would not necessarily expect LNAV and VNAV functionality to be built into a 'non-complex' panel of this type, it would have been very nice to have a LVL CH (Level Change mode), to allow at least a realistic climb phase in the aircraft. You see, although the default FS2004 airliners only use Vertical Speed to manage a climb, this is not how real airliners climb in the vast majority of circumstances. A real 737 captain will set a pre-determined about of thrust (usually using the auto throttle system), and will climb the aircraft in reference to maintaining a certain speed, (i.e. 250kts below 10,000) by adjusting the pitch of the aircraft.
On Boeing aircraft MCPs, this is known as LVL CH mode. It is covered well on complex commercial 737 simulations from the likes of PMDG and feelThere, but not on the Sky-Decks panel. So, although you may have experienced the realism of the overhead panel in initializing the aircraft and starting the engines, when it comes to managing your vertical path into the sky, you will not enjoy the same realism and will be using Vertical Speed mode, just as in the default aircraft.
There is something of a saving grace in the fact that the panel does allow a prescribed amount of N1 to be set (using a knob on the main panel), which can then be maintained by pressing the 'N1' button on the MCP. This is realistic and is over and above what’s provided on default 737's. It means that you can set this mode on take-off and then manually hold a certain speed by adjusting the pitch of the aircraft yourself, although you will have no Flight Director indications to help with this and no means of executing it using the Autopilot.
The FMA (Flight Mode Annunciations) shown on the Primary Flying Display again does not provide the level of realism offered by the Overhead. When following the pre-loaded FS Flight Planner route, the FMA will show "GPS" which is unrealistic. The real aircraft would display 'LNAV' in this type of scenario, and even though the Sky-Decks panel does not include LNAV functionality, I believe it would have been far more realistic to have shown 'LNAV' on the FMA, rather than 'GPS'.
If you are buying this panel because you like an aircraft panel that looks great but is not complex to operate, and you aren't so concerned with realism and comparisons with the real aircraft, then the above points may not concern you at all. If you have bought the Sky-Decks panel expecting a comparison in functionality with the likes of the PMDG 737NG, then you are going to be rather disappointed as the Sky-Decks panel does not achieve this.
To be fair however, I do not think Sky-Decks were aiming for maximum realism for this panel, it's more about good looks and some nice treats along the way! I just find it strange that the Overhead covers such detailed functionality and realism, when the main panel does not.
An area of realism that does mirror the actual NG aircraft is the fact that you can choose to fly with Boeing’s Full or Compact layouts for the Primary Flying and Navigation Displays. On loading an aircraft that uses the panel, you are presented with a pop-up option box where the selection is made. This is a carrier option on the real aircraft and a nice touch within the panel that can add variation to using the same panel with a number of aircraft.
Putting The Panel To The Test (…Flight)
For my first flight of eight that I made with the Sky-Decks 737NG Panel, I decided to replicate a real life 737NG flight from my local airport, Newcastle (EGNT) to Bristol (EGGD), a flight operated by easyJet, using a 737-700. I chose the FULL option for my PFD and ND display. The first thing one notices while setting up the cockpit for a flight is that there is no ambient sound until the engines are started. But this - being parted of the supplied freeware package - is not a criticism of the Sky-Decks Panel in itself.
I turned on the main Battery switch and the overhead panel came to life with various amber lights illuminating just as in the real aircraft. After setting electrical, fuel and pneumatic configurations, I started the APU, set the exterior lights and, having loaded a flight plan into the FS Planner, set up the Mode Control Panel for my take-off and climb. The lighting options for the Sky-Decks Panel are delightful and you may well find yourself wanting to fly at night to see how wonderful the lit panel looks, courtesy of the lighting options available.
The loaded flight plan is shown in the Sky-Decks Panel’s Navigation Display (ND), which is a marked improvement over flying the default 737. It provides situational awareness without needing to pull up the FS2004 GPS, which is far more realistic. Next I decided to play the first of the announcements that are built into the overhead panel. This is a really nice touch and realistic sounding announcements are provided for various flight phases, both from the Captain and Flight Attendent. Setting the flaps for take-off, I noticed that the flap indicator built into the main panel shows flap movements that are far quicker than in the real plane. This is a common fault on airliner add-ons and although mildly disappointing, certainly does not spoil the enjoyment.
With the engines started and having taxied to the runway threshold, I decided to check out frame rate performance. In a quick benchmark with the default 737 aircraft, I noticed slightly better frame rates with the Sky-Decks Panel from the Panel view, and only slightly reduced frame rate performance from the exterior view. (Impressive considering the freeware Kittyhawk model is considerably more detailed that the default 737).
I used the N1 button to set the thrust for take-off and climbed at V2+15, retracting the flaps from 1,500’ AGL. Engaging the Autopilot, I set NAV (FS GPS) and an initial Vertical Speed of 2,400 feet per minute. During the flight I noticed that the EFIS display is of a high quality and includes realistic functions such as the ability to view altitude in meters as well as feet. One feature of this panel, that I have never seen before on a 2D Panel, is the fact that a moving yoke can be displayed, as a pop-up. The yoke will move in accordance with flight controls movement, both manually and via the Autopilot and this is impressive to see in a 2D panel, thus improving realism and the feeling of motion during flight. There are other nice touches on the panel including the fact that the Operator and aircraft registration that are set in FS2004, are displayed on the Panel.
As I descended on the ILS into Bristol’s runway 27, I was able to set both autopilots for a dual coupled approach. On doing this, I found that the panel takes over the setting of the autothrottle’s prescribed speed and this can’t be over-ridden. However, as the speed shown was very close to the VAPP (approach speed) that I was expecting to use, this didn’t cause a problem. Although no flare indications are shown on the PFD, the aircraft did perform a reasonably smooth autoland.
At the end of the flight, I was treated to a final nice touch which is integrated into the Panel - Air stairs, which are controlled via a switch on the excellent overhead panel.
The Sky-Decks 737NG Panel gives the virtual flyer a stunning looking panel to fly from, along with some nice touches such as an announcement panel and highly functional overhead. Main panel functionality is not on par with the most advanced complex simulations but as an upgrade from the default FS2004 airliner panels, or for use with freeware models, this add-on packs a punch and represents good value for money.
|What I Like About Sky Decks 737NG Panel v3.15|
|What I Don't Like About Sky Decks 737NG Panel v3.15|
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