Part I – AirfoilLabs’ NG “Study Level” Skyhawk
Airfoil Labs is bringing their latest Cessna 172 Skyhawk to the X-Plane world. Considering this is the sixth Skyhawk variation for X-Plane 11 (including Airfoil Labs first venture for the platform), along with two packages designed to modify the default 172, it probably doesn’t take very long for one to ask “What? Another 172? Why am I going to spend money on something that’s included with the sim and, if I did want another 172, why would I spend that much?”
Airfoil Lab’s “Study Level is what makes the difference” answer will have some saying that AFL has entered onto shaky ground. The reason for this is a search of the internet quickly shows there is no real level of agreement amongst simmers about the definition of “Study Level”. Within several discussions over multiple forums, the only common point seems to be that “study level” means you can’t just jump in, start the engine, and take off. The would-be pilot needs to at least read some of the manual to be able to do that.
So, having said that, I have decided to approach AFL’s Study Level Cessna 172 NG as a student pilot approaching this thing for my very first flight. That will mean going through all the menu options to familiarize myself with the aircraft, completing a pre-flight check, examining the aircraft, and then taking off for a lesson with my CFI.
Since much of this ship seems to be about learning why things break and what you do when that happens, I’m going to break things until my flight instructor gives up, throws the book at me, and kicks me out of school.
The Real Aircraft
The CESSNA SKYHAWK piston is the most popular single-engine aircraft ever built and has achieved a reputation for being the ultimate training aircraft.
With simplistic flight characteristics, great visibility and a sophisticated glass cockpit outfitted with GARMIN G1000 avionics, the Cessna Skyhawk piston boasts a slow landing speed and a lenient stall. These characteristics make it a flight training favorite ideally suited for student pilots and it’s perfectly designed to help you soar. Check out the dedicated Textron Cessna Skyhawk webpage.
Given the above, it seems to be quite logical for AFL to offer a study level version of this iconic airplane. Since its first flight in 1955, the Skyhawk, as the 172 became known, has been through twenty-one model variants. See this 172guide.com website. It is far beyond the scope of this review to dive into a detailed description and history of the model but, for those interested, the Wikipedia article on the Skyhawk is a good place to start.
The specific model that AirFoil Labs has created is the C172S with the Garmin G1000 all-glass avionics suite. The G1000 is a customized version of the default Laminar Research X1000 and bears the name “Garmin” on the bezel. The piston engine is a detailed model of the Lycoming IO-360-L2A rated at 180 HP. The following are the published performance specifications as found on the Cessna Flyer Association website.
Speed – 126 kts max at sea level
Cruise Speed – 124 kts 75% power at 8000 feet
Rate-of-climb at sea level – 730 fpm
Service Ceiling – 14,000 ft.
Ground Roll – 805 feet, 1140 ft. over 50 ft. obstacle
Ground Roll – 960 feet, 1630 ft. over 50 ft. obstacle
Flaps up, power off – 53 KCAS
Flaps down, power off – 48 KCAS
Ramp – 2558 lbs.
Takeoff – 2550 lbs.
Landing – 2550 lbs.
We’ll be looking at how well our version of the 172S matches up with these numbers. However, before we can do anything else, we need to install the airplane.
Installation and Documentation
There have been many complaints about the complicated nature of the installation with no documentation to help people through it. Here your team at X-Plained.com provide you with that absent set of instructions with a step-by-step guide.
The Airfoil Labs Product Manager
Unlike any other aircraft, the AirFoil Labs’ models are all installed through the Product Manager. After your purchase of the model at the X-Plane.org store, you will download, per the clear description on your order page, only the Product Manager which you will need if you do not already have it.
The product manager installs as both a stand-alone module as well as an integrated plug-in if you choose. If you do not integrate the Product Manager as a plug-in, you will need to remember to open periodically open it in stand-alone mode to check for any updates. Installation of the Product Manager will be according to how you install any other program for your operating system.
What you download from the store is an installer that, when executed, downloads the remainder of the Product Manager and sets it up. Note that if you have already used the Product Manager for another AFL product, you do not need to download the Project Manager. You simply open the one already installed and proceed.
Once that is complete, open the Product Manager to begin installation of the C172 NG. When you open the Product Manager, you will see a list of the AFL items you have installed. If this is the first time using it, you should see the XJet Plug-in listed. To begin installation of the C172 NG click the Install New Addon button (1). On the next screen, select the C172 NG from the list of items and then click on Install (2).
The next screen allows you to specify where you would like to install the aircraft. Be sure to select your current “aircraft” folder in your X-Plane installation for a correct set up (3). Once completed, click next to get to the enter the activation screen (4). Copy the registration number from the order summary screen or the email confirmation you received from the store and click the paste button. Click “Next” and you will get a notice that the product is activating. You may, of course, enter the registration number manually if you so choose.
It should only take a moment for it to complete, and you will see the green “Product Successfully Activated” notice (5). Click “Next” to review the download and installation sizes and confirm that you have enough disk space for the product (6). Click “Next” to advance to the License Agreement. (7). When you click “Next” on this screen, you are taken to the following one where the actual download and installation begins (8).
When the installation completes, click the next button (9). Review the release notes as you wish and click “Next” (10). Lastly, you are returned to the installed products screen. Carefully review the list of installed products to be sure the C172 NG and XJet plug-in show are both listed and show as “up to date” (11).
That’s it. You are done. Exit the Product Manager by clicking “Quit” and proceed to launch X-Plane. If there is a problem with your XJet installation, you will be greeted by a bloodied and broken windscreen that you cannot see through because the weather cover is over the airplane.
Regrettably, there is no documentation for such a multi-layered airplane model which is one of the biggest complaints from people that have already purchased this aircraft. As of this writing, AirFoil Labs has announced (not very clearly – I cannot remember where I found it) in the X-Plane.Org support forum that, because the model is as complex as it is, Airfoillabs will be doing a series of video tutorials that can be found on their dedicated YouTube channel.
They began with four videos, one after the other, and then the process came to a halt. As of this writing, there is no indication when the next one(s) will be available. The existing ones take you through the walk-around, towing, and things you can do on the outside of the plane. I hope to be able to provide you with some of what is missing as we go through looking at this airplane.
From Welcome to Boarding
So now we come to the Cessna C172 “Skyhawk” Next Generation model crafted by AirFoil Labs. There are many different aspects to this model and all of them really need looking at. In addition, since there is no documentation for this model, I’m hoping to provide you with a manual of sorts that will at least acclimate you to the model, where to find things, how they work, and, of course, how to start it from cold and dark.
Welcome Screen and Menu Overview
Before we can start studying this C172, we need to get by the welcome screen that you will see the first (and every) time you start a flight with the C172 NG. Personally, I found this screen to be a bit annoying as well as confusing. The first thing I noticed was the notation that I had the “commercial version” of the model.
Somehow, I don’t think this is the case. Secondly, having never seen something like this, it took me a moment to figure out what to do with it. The answer is, somewhat embarrassingly, simple. Click directly on the “Take Control” banner. The good news, in my opinion, is you can permanently disable this. Moving beyond the welcome screen places you in the pilot’s seat. Now, let’s disable that welcome screen, if you’d like.
This option, along with a few others, is on the settings screen. If you intuitively head up to the Plugins menu in X-Plane, you will see an item for Settings under the C172NG menu item. This does nothing. This, and everything else you see on this menu, is available from the icon menu that appears when you move the mouse cursor to the left side of your screen. Before we head over there, note the menu item for Airfoillabs. On the next level of this menu is where you will find the option to open the Product Manager from within X-Plane if you chose to integrate it during installation.
Okay. Let’s get over to the left of the screen.
This is a composite image of the pop-up menus you will see. The first column is what shows up when you move your cursor over this area. The columns to the right of that in each row is what shows up when you click on the leftmost circle of that row. The rows, in order, are start-up conditions, 2D panels, aircraft ground objects, aircraft configuration options, weight and balance, repairs and maintenance, settings, situations, remote control.
Settings, Remote Control, and Situations
Let’s get the easy ones out of the way first. We came over here to turn off the welcome screen. Head on down to the settings gear (7th one down) and click on it. This brings up the settings screen. Options here allow you to choose how you want to start the aircraft for a new flight. You can bring it up in exactly the condition in which you left it, or you can have it start fresh with each flight by use of the first two check box options.
The first preserves all switch settings, throttle, and mixture lever positions, aircraft equipment options, and selected ground item choices. The second option allows you to maintain the wear and tear level of the various parts of the aircraft so you can experience the cumulative effects of use over time. The next section allows you to choose when pilot and passenger figures are visible. Then we find what we came in looking for: the check box to disable the welcome screen. Clear the box to disable it, leave it checked to keep it enabled.
Under the sound section, the only active choice is for Environment Sound. Apparently, any speech options are reserved for future use. You may also fine speech options for the checklist in the settings for the checklist itself that we will be looking at. Disable Aural Warning refers to the sound you hear whenever a warning or caution message appears on the PFD of the G1000. It is a sound like the one you hear in many automobiles when the door is open with the key in the ignition.
Remove the check if you do not want to hear it. User Interface is the pop-up menu we are currently investigating. Increasing the delay is useful if you want to use your mouse at the left side of the screen before the interface has a chance to get in your way. That’s it for settings. Let’s close this window and return to the icon menu.
The second menu option we’ll deal with quickly is the last at the bottom. This pops up what looks like a keychain remote control. This remote supposedly works with the Airfoil Labs hangar that is supposed to be part of their KAWO Arlington Area scenery package. I have that scenery package and it is not there. Inquiries on the forum about the hangar continue to lack a reply by AFL. So, for now anyway, this item is inactive.
Between the settings and remote menu lies the Situations menu from where you can load pre-defined situations or save ones that you create. The predefined situations show the aircraft in the AFL Hangar at KAWO if you have that package installed.
As mentioned, I have not seen this hangar. Selecting the option here loads my plane in a grassy area behind a chain link fence. I assume this is where the hangar should be. Choosing the ramp situation loads my plane inside a fixed object aircraft in the same spot. The usable option here is the ability to create your own situation and save it.
Now, on to the more complex menus. The top row is the available options for how the aircraft loads when you start a flight. Your choice will take effect immediately and will remain in effect until you change it if you have the option to remember your aircraft state selected in the settings menu. So, if you want to jump in and take a quick flight by using any of the options other than cold and dark, the C172 will start in that same mode the next time you want to use it.
Cold and Dark: All external remove before flight objects (tie downs, chocks, etc.) are in place.
Before Start: Externals are removed, pre-flight is completed, start and go.
Before Taxi: Aircraft is started, internal and external lights are set as necessary. Before selecting this option, you may want to be sure your mixture axis, if assigned, is not set to cutoff because an attempt to move it once the aircraft is started will cause the mixture to move to cutoff and the engine to stop.
Before Take-off: adds strobe lights, landing lights, flap position, and full rich mixture to the Before Taxi settings.
The second row is a series of icons that allow you to open a variety of 2D versions of the various panels seen in the 3D cockpit. Additionally, there is a display for the electrical systems and one for the engine. There are a couple of notes regarding these panels that I discovered by getting into a bit of difficulty with them. The first problem is that all the panels are resizable to you can fit multiple ones on your screen at once. However, if you resize them too small, you may not be able to expand them again.
The second issue occurred when I displayed the panels on a second monitor. The panels do work correctly on a second screen. I do not regularly use the second screen so, after testing the panels, I disabled the screen in X-Plane. The next time I attempted to access the panels, they did not display. I had to re-enable the second monitor and drag all the panels back to the main screen. At that point, I was able to turn off my second display and have the panels appear on the main one.
The 2D renditions of the 3D cockpit operate just as the 3D panels do so I am not going to cover them in detail here. The two special displays are unique to this model. Opening the electrical systems display presents a schematic diagram of that system. This display is interactive in that it will actively show you what happens when you press any switch in the cockpit that utilizes any part of this system.
The second specialty panel is the engine display. This display is an animated rendition of the operational engine. It displays cylinder and exhaust gas temperatures that correspond to those we will see on the leaning screens of the G1000. At the top are gauges for spark plug fouling and priming.
This last gauge may be the most useful of all since this is the only place to get this information and it has everything to do with being able to start the engine. If the engine is under or over-primed, it will not start. This gauge will help you get used to how long it takes to properly prime the engine for starting. Lastly, you can see the oil temperature at the top left.
The next row in the pop-out menu allows for the selection of ground objects that you would like to utilize. The options available are generator, remove before flight covers, wheel chocks, tie downs, engine heater, and weather cover. If you are not using the walk-around mode (covered shortly) this is the only way to turn on/off these various items. The engine heater and the weather cover are not selectable in walk-around mode, so you need to turn them on or off through this menu.
The next row allows the pilot to outfit his or her aircraft in a style of their choosing. Your choices here do affect the flight model of the aircraft. The default 172 NG starts with normal tires and no options. You may choose to add fairings, change default wheels/tires for more glamorous wheels or larger bush tires, add vortex generators and, finally, flap gap covers. The next two items turn on or off the angle of attack indicator and the tablet. The last item is currently unused.
Weight and Balance
The next row of icons is for setting up your weight and balance parameter. This icon itself is an active one in that it opens the weight and balance window where you set your fuel, passengers, and baggage weights. Clicking on the larger section at any seat location will install a pilot or passenger and the pre-assigned weight will show in the smaller section.
You can edit this weight directly if you want to use a particular character but don’t want the assigned weight. The baggage weight is determined by the number you enter in either or both baggage A and baggage B sections. This weight will also change if you click inside the baggage compartment to add luggage visually. Fuel weight is set by entering the weight directly or by using the slider.
Lastly, at the bottom, are instant settings if you want the preset amounts assigned to them. The left side is strictly fuel. The right side will alter passenger and baggage configurations. On the weight and balance flyout menu, there are four icons marked 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. These icons, with one click, will set both fuel and passenger options you see here.
The Failure and Repair Icon
The first icon is again active. Clicking on it will bring up the Failures screen where you can find anything that might be wrong with your Cessna. Completely failed items will appear in red. Every other item will appear as green and show you the percentage worn that particular item is. From this window you can load the predefined scenarios that AFL has provided.
These scenarios will create failures of various types that you, as pilot in command, will have to deal with. Each one is basically a test of how well you know the emergency checklist and your skills at implementing it. If you want to get an idea of what is coming at you, you can go through the items in the failures list to see what has a red lightning bolt near it. These are the items that are scheduled to fail.
The other thing you can do with this list is go deep into the workings of the Cessna 172. Clicking on any part will show you what that part does and what causes it to fail. You can schedule the failure yourself or repair the part if it has failed. You can also get to some of this information for the engine parts by clicking on the engine part on the model. We will look at that on our walk around and pre-flight inspection.
We have finally arrived at the end of the popup menu. We have seen, through this examination of the menu, that this C172 has many things “under the hood” that makes it significantly different from the default C172 or any of the other Skyhawk models available for X-Plane.
The C172 NG up Close
The Walkaround Function
If you are an owner of any other AFL airplane, you are likely familiar with how this works. If not, I will direct you to this AFL “How to walk around the aircraft” video for further explanation and tutorial. A video is a much more efficient way to cover this as you will see when you watch it.
There are many things that you can do while outside the aircraft. This includes individually removing or setting tie downs, covers, and chocks. It includes opening and closing doors, checking fuel, filling fuel, and towing the airplane. Fortunately, AFL has covered this in their last posted tutorial as of this writing. You will find it here.
Let’s look at what the video has not covered: examining the engine. While doing that, we’ll also take a walk around the aircraft for our pre-flight inspection and check out the model up close.
The Engine and Exterior
Walking up to the C172 NG, the model quality becomes apparent even at a distance. Surface reflections and detail are responsive to light conditions from bright sun to shade with less reflectivity where the skin is in full sunlight. External features as lights, fuel drains, rivets, and seams visible as well. The details only become clearer and more impressive as we move in closer. One can almost feel the bumps and grooves
Before we begin our pre-flight check, let’s look at the modelling of the engine. To access the engine, we must remove the upper and lower cowl. In order to do this, you must be in the walk mode as you must be for any exterior plane objects you want to manipulate. The objects are simply not selectable in any of the native X-Plane camera views.
To remove the cowls, you move the cursor along the lower edge of the top half until it changes to a hand and the top edge of the lower half. You will hear a hammering and drilling sound and the covers will come off and lay on the ground in front of the plane. A little note here: you can start the engine with the covers on the ground.
There is not much sense in doing so since there are no animated engine parts and, with the engine running, you cannot put the cowls back on. If you move the plane, they move with it and they vibrate on the ground as if they were on the plane. A rather amusing sight if you care to try it.
With the cowls off, let’s take a closer look at the Lycoming engine. The modelling detail in here is top notch and parts are easily discernible one from the other. Views of the engine can be from any angle or position and the level of detail and expertise does not change. The detail remains even when the engine has abused and is now on fire!
The only niggling complaint, if any, would be that the texture of the dirt on the engine block is just a little to blurry to feel convincing. I would like to see the kind of grease and oil here that would make me want to pick up a rag and wipe it off. There is always a tradeoff between texture quality and performance, but I don’t think high resolution textures here would make that much difference since it is not visible in flight.
As we saw earlier, the failure screen is one way that you can select parts to get a description of them and what makes them fail. The Lycoming engine is interactive in that you can click on a part, that part highlights, and an information and it will highlight and present an information screen for you to review.
This certainly adds to the claim that this aircraft is “study level”. These descriptions are brief but to the point. There is the occasional missing space between words, but otherwise the text is clear and understandable.
Exterior Walk Around
In order to begin our pre-flight walk around and examination of the exterior features of the model, we need to pop into the cockpit for a moment to retrieve the checklist. Look to the pocket in the pilot’s door and click on the book in that pocket. This is something that I found only by accident due to the lack of documentation provided by AFL. It would have been nice if they had at least given us enough documentation to tell us how to find this and how to use it.
I am wondering how many people have looked at the handbook and put it down because it looked like a two page description of the aircraft (I have seen this stated in a forum at least twice…). Make sure you look carefully and do not miss the labels across the top that serve as tabs for each section. It would be nice if they used a representation of tabs to make the interface a little more intuitive and noticeable.
The next thing you want to do is click on the settings gear at the very right of that top border. This allows you to set the available options for the handbook / checklist to your liking. Here you can set the window transparency (as you can see, I have set it to some transparency because the camera does not always focus where it should), specify how the checklist function should flow, and determine if you want hints to display within the checklist. Hints are the yellow blocks with description text in them that you will see as you work through the list.
For the flow options, I have chosen to use the manual option. This gives the time to do things at my own pace: spending time where I want or moving through quickly. I have assigned a keystroke to the next item function since, in my experience, clicking on the checklist item to move forward did not always work.
The semi-automatic one will move through the list for you after you perform an action. Where there is no action to actively perform, the list moves itself to the next item based on the speed you specify with the progress speed slider. Once started, you cannot click the list to jump through parts any faster than the assigned speed. Set it too fast, and it will skip past items calling for checking or inspecting something where there is no required clicking action.
The automatic option moves through the list and does everything for you – flipping switches, removing covers and tie-downs etc. The progress speed slider determines how quickly it does this. The last two options are non-operational as of this writing.
So, we are still trying to get in the air. I hope you are still with me because this is certainly a long journey. We are now going to start the normal procedures checklist by clicking on the word “normal” at the top edge of the handbook. This will take you to the page that lists sections of the checklist that are active links to the corresponding section.
This arrangement allows you to do two things: start the checklist, finish one section, and come back where you left off or simply go through only the section you are interested in covering if you don’t feel like going through the entire list.
The limits option at the top edge will take you to a four page section that covers the various limits you would find in the real world Pilot’s Operating Handbook. The Emergency link takes you to that checklist which is something you’ll want to be familiar with prior to jumping into one of AFL’s situations. Lastly, the Performance link will take you to three pages covering the capabilities of the Skyhawk and an interesting short field take off calculation section on the last two pages.
Okay. Let’s begin our pre-flight check. Click on the “Preflight” link on the “Normal” page. At the bottom of the page are the control arrows that let you page through, jump to another section, play, and pause progression through the checklist. At the top right are the words “start checklist”. Unfortunately, this is not in a link color but it is, in fact, an action link that starts the interactive mode of the checklist.
As you complete a required action, you either click on that item, or use the assigned key stroke, and the checklist will move forward to the next item. In semi-automatic mode, if there is no action for you to complete, it will automatically move to the next item, move the camera to the area the checklist item is referring, pause briefly so you can observe the item for proper functioning and continue doing this until it stops at the next interactive item. Here is where the pause button can be useful. This is especially true if the camera is not properly aligned to where you are supposed to look.
We don’t have to go very far in the list before we direct our focus to the switch panel. This will give you a good idea of the modelling quality and level of detail. There is an excellent use of textures with a bit of wear showing on the switches. Reflections, highlights, and shadows are well defined. Text, labels are sharp and legible. The switches and panel edges reflect an accurate sense of depth. This level of execution carries throughout the interior and exterior of the aircraft as you will see.
When our check directs our attention to the pedestal area, we can see a continued masterful use of texture on the fuel control knob, the cord to the radio, and the carpeting that seems to need some cleaning. Airfoil Labs seems to have done a pretty good at finding a balance between the totally brand new, showroom clean aircraft, and the beat up, very worn-out bush plane. The 172 NG shows signs of use and wear that you might expect from a used but well-maintained aircraft.
We now step outside to continue our check and, as we turn back to close the door, we can’t help but notice the well-executed fabric textures on the door and the seat. The areas of wear around the door frame, the screws, rivets, and joins are all very well done. It is difficult to find fault here. By the way, if you have any passengers, or the pilot, sitting in the plane and you have the feeling they are watching you, you are correct. The faces will follow you as you walk about the exterior of the plane whether you are in walk mode or some other external view mode.
Moving along, we check along the sides of the plane, the wings, flaps, elevators, trim tabs, rudders, drain fuel, check fuel levels, remove covers and tie downs, and make sure to close and secure the baggage door. The key animation for the baggage door is clever.
Speaking of animation, checking the fuel levels provides for a unique experience in the X-Plane world. AFL did not include this in the video covering activities outside the aircraft so I will attempt to step you through it. Once on top of the wing, click on the fuel cap to remove it.
Click on the open fill to call up the fuel level gauge that will dip into the wing and come back up showing you how much fuel you have. Click another time on the open fill tube and a fuel nozzle replaces the gauge. At the same time, a fuel information window displays where you can rotate the knobs to set the price of fuel and set the fueling rate.
I have found it necessary to turn down the fill rate because you click on the squeeze handle of the nozzle to start filling and click it again to stop. You can end up with more fuel than you want if the fill rate is too fast. Finally, click on the opening once again to remove the nozzle and click on the cap to close it up. Lastly, close the fuel info window and jump off the wing.
Finally, with a final check of the propellor and window conditions we are pretty much ready to board. We have had the opportunity at each step to see the work put into the accurate modelling of many parts. The external lights on the aircraft are some of the most detailed and realistic ones I’ve seen.
The light diffuses as it should, is bright enough to be useful, and does not bleed through the surrounding wing or wing tip. The use of clear text where important continues right to the inside of the cover over the dipstick. Checking and filling the oil as needed along with pumping fuel into the wings adds to the immersion and the sense that this is not just another X-Plane aircraft model.
A couple of notes about things learned the hard way: make sure you check for that rudder gust lock; it’s not always there but, if it is and you don’t remove it, you’re not going to be very happy. Once you start the engine, you cannot enter walk mode therefore you cannot open the door.
If you do not latch the door before you take off, you will have to try your best to get it to close while flying about 75 knots or so or you will need to land and shut off the engine. Lastly, the checklist does not have you remove the chocks – you need to remember to do that on your own. Once the engine is started, only the use of the pop-up menu can remove them.
In Part 2, We will climb on in, finish our pre-flight, start up, taxi, and take-off. We will then put the Cessna through its paces and try out a few scenarios to see what they do and how they work. Finally, we’ll bring it down to land and wrap it all up.
Angelique van Campen
|Add-on:||Payware Airfoillabs C172 Next Generation Skyhawk|
|Publisher | Developer:||X-Plane.Org | Airfoillabs|
|Description:||Realistic rendition of Cessna C172 Digital|
|Software Source / Size:||Download / Approximately 3,12GB (unzipped)|
|Reviewed by:||Paul Beckwith|
|Published:||January 12th 2021|
|Hardware specifications:||- i7-10870H CPU @ 2.20GHz
- Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 Laptop GPU
- 16 GB DDR4 3200MHz RAM
- CH Products Fighterstick
- Dual Saitek Throttle Quadrants
- CH Products Pedals
|Software specifications:||- Windows 11
- X-Plane 11.55 (64 Bit)