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The purpose of FLAPS-2-APPROACH is two-fold:  To document the construction of a Boeing 737 flight simulator, and to act as a platform to share aviation-related articles pertaining to the Boeing 737; thereby, providing a source of inspiration and reference to like-minded individuals.

I am not a professional journalist.  Writing for a cross section of readers from differing cultures and languages with varying degrees of technical ability, can at times be challenging. I hope there are not too many spelling and grammatical mistakes.

 

Please Note:   I have NO affiliation with ANY manufacturer or reseller.  I tell it as I see it!

I use the words "modules & panels" and "CDU & FMC" interchangeably.  The definition of the acronym "OEM" is Original Equipment Manufacturer (aka real aicraft part).

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Entries in ADF Radio (2)

Saturday
Jun302012

CP Flight ADF Radio Modules - Review

CP Flight in Italy is well known for its production of quality simulator parts, in particular their Main Control Panel (MCP) units that work out of the box – literally plug and fly.  This short review is for the ADF Radio modules that I have recently installed into the simulator center pedestal to replace the radios made by SISMO Solicones. Although this short review pertains to the ADF radios, all CP Flight modules are made similarly to the same quality and utilise the same methods of connection.

LEFT: Dual ADF radios, ATC/TCAS module (CP Flight), NAV 1/2 and M-Comm communication module (Flight Deck Solutions).  Note the use of genuine B737 DZUS fasteners.

ADF radios may appear “old school” with many virtual flyers more concerned in learning and understanding the more modern LNAV, VNAV and GPS navigation systems.  It’s important to realize that not all countries comply with the aviation regulations enforced within the United States (FAA).  Many developing nations still use VOR and ADF stations as the primarily means of approach.  Further, knowing how to use and having the appropriate equipment installed to be able to follow these “older style” navigation beacons is often good practice for redundancy and to cross check the results from primary navigation.  Using VOR and ADF navigation is also more challenging, interesting and enjoyable.

Construction and Appearance

The modules are constructed using the same technique that CP Flight uses to produce all their modules and panels.  Each upper panel is made from CNC machined acrylic which produces a very crisp finish and allows any letter cut-outs to be very well defined.  The electronics board, rather than being left “naked” like other manufacturers, is sealed within a lightly constructed metal case.  To allow the user to drop the module directly onto the pedestal rails, each module has overlapping wings that conform to the width of the rail.  To ensure long life, the ADF radio modules incorporate dual concentric rotary encoders with stainless stems rather than plastic stems.

Inspecting the pictures of the ADF radios. you will observe a thin line of light between each illuminated digit.  This is not visible in true life and is only an artifact of using a rather long shutter speed to take the photograph.

High Quality

The knobs and switches, which are custom machine injected, are true to life and are tactile in feel.  As you click through the frequencies the movement is stable and well defined.  There is no catching as the knobs are turned.  The push keys on the units are plastic moulded, backlit and work flawlessly; they do not stick in the down position when depressed, and click back into position when pressure is released.  The frequency displays are 7 segment digits and are very easy to read.  Digit colours are in amber yellow. 

The upper panel of the module is attached to the electronic circuitry within the lower section by a metal backing plate; this increases the strength of the unit and assists in the dissipation of heat.  The modules are a well presented piece of avionics that accurately replicates a real B737 ADF module 1:1 in size.

No System Boards and Daisy Chaining

The modules do not require control boards - they are completely stand-alone.  This minimises the wiring involved and the challenge of finding another location for yet another I/O card.  However, to operate the modules you will require either the CP Flight Main Control Panel (MCP) or the 737MIP board.  Both of these devices provide the power and ability for the modules to connect to and communicate with the main computer and FSX.

LEFT: A light metal case protects internal electronics and two 5 pin DIN plugs supply connection and power to and from the radio and to other CP Flight components.

CP Flight uses what has to be one of the simplest methods for module connection – daisy chaining.  Daisy chaining is when you have several modules linked by 5 pin DIN style connectors and one cable.  The cables connect in relay between whatever modules you are using and eventually link to either the CP Flight Main Control Panel (MCP) or 737MIP board for connection to the computer via a single USB cable.

Boeing Grey

All CP Flight B737 series modules and panels are professionally painted in "Boeing grey".  I’m not sure how many thin coats of paint are applied, but to date I have experienced no problems with regard to paint chipping or flaking.  Although this last comment may appear trivial, the quality of paint is important.  The modules will be used for many years and during the course of operation, you will be placing pens, clipboards, charts, coffee cups, etc on the center pedestal and the modules.  Further, as the units are flat, dust will accumulate requiring dusting and cleaning.  Low quality paint will scratch, fade and wear thin with time.

The observant will note that there is a difference in colour shade between the modules made by CP Flight and Flight Deck Solutions.  A purist may argue that this is not realistic, however, I disagree.  Through time, Boeing has used several shades of what has been coined "Boeing Grey" and it is not unrealistic to have modules sporting different shades of the baseline colour.  Different avionics manufacturers (in the real world) also use different colour shades of "Boeing grey". 

DZUS Complaint

If you are utilising real aircraft parts in your simulator, in particular a center pedestal, then any module that is DZUS complaint is advantageous as it allows for the module to be dropped directly onto the DZUS rails and secured by the DZUS fasteners.  Unfortunately CP Flight fails in this area as their modules are not DZUS complaint.  Each module has the appropriate holes drilled; however, they only fit replica DZUS fasteners (supplied).  The width of the hole is too small to install genuine DZUS fasteners; you will be required to drill the hole a little larger to accommodate the genuine B737 fastener.

Back-Lighting

The ADF modules are back-lit by several strategically placed LED lights.  This is commonplace within the industry with the exception of some high-end suppliers such as Flight Deck Solutions which use their own IBL back lighting systems utilising real aircraft bulbs.  I have no issue with the back lighting and the module is evenly lit, illuminating all cut out letters.

LEFT:  This picture illustrates the fit of the ATC module when dropped onto the rails of the center pedestal.  This is a genuine B737 center pedestal.  Note the use of genuine DZUS fasteners.  The module above is the Flight Deck Solutions NAV1 module.

CP Flight Module Set-up

The modules are stand-alone and do not requite software to be installed for operation – they are plug and fly; however, to connect the modules (via daisy chaining) to the computer via a single USB cable, either requires the CP Flight Main Control Panel (MCP) which acts as a power source amongst other things, or the dedicated 737MIP board.  Software is required for the operation of the MCP and 737MIP board and can be downloaded from the CP Flight website.  The software is easy to install and to configure. 

Downside – Ghosting of COM Port

I’ve already discussed the simplicity of daisy chaining and the benefits of not needing to use a multitude of wires and I/O cards; but, everything comes at a price and CP Flight’s “Achilles Heel”, is the method they have chosen to connect everything to the computer.

Modules are connected to and from each other and to the MCP or 737MIP board via daisy chaining.  The MCP or 737MIP board provides the power to run the module and allow information to travel between the computer and the module. The MCP or 737MIP board is then connected to the computer via a single USB cable.  To connect to the computer requires that a COM port is ghosted to replicate a serial port. 

Whilst this process is automatic, and occurs when power is applied to the MCP or 737MIP board, many users experience problems with the software ghosting the port.  Usually the ghosting issue is solved with appropriate drivers and once the connection is made once, rarely is this problem again experienced.

Reliability and Performance – Software and Modules

Software

No problems, other than the initial connection problems that “maybe” associated with the ghosting of the COM port.

Modules

There is no time lag when altering frequencies; the digits spin as fast as you can turn the dial.  Drop outs have never occurred.  The tone switch operates correctly and always listens for and connects with the correct marker morse tone.  It’s important to note that the tone switch does operate as designed and can be used to switch off the “somewhat annoying” morse tone which is heard, when in range of the ADF.

Support

Support from CP Flight is either directly via e-mail or by a dedicated forum.  The support provided by CP Flight is exemplary.  Paolo from CP Flight stands by the products he sells and every effort is made to ensure your modules work as advertised.  There is absolutely no problem dealing with this company as the owners are very trustworthy and deliver what they promise.

ABOVE LEFT:  The NDB icon that can be found on charts and approach plates that represents a Non Directional Beacon which ADF radios are used to tune to.

Quick List – Pros & Cons

PROS

  • Well designed & constructed
  • Realistic quality machine-injected switches & stainless rotaries (not plastic)
  • 1:1 to the real B737 series aircraft
  • Good attention to detail
  • Operational morse tone switch
  • Strategically positioned backlighting
  • Very easy to set-up and connect (daisy chaining)

CONS

  • Ghosting of COM port can be an issue when using MCP as connecting equipment (no experience with 737MUIP board)
  • Non DZUS compliant

Overall Opinion

I am very impressed with these modules.  They are solid, well constructed and operate flawlessly out of the box!  The quality of the modules is very high and it’s a pity that they are not made to be DZUS compliant.  They suit the high end enthusiast to professional market.  Navigate to the CP Flight website

My rating for the modules is 9/10

Please note that this review is my opinion only and is not endorsed.

Tuesday
May012012

NAV 1/2 & M-Comm Radios by Flight Deck Solutions - Review

This short review is for the NAV 1/2 Radio modules and M-COMM communication module produced by Flight Deck Solutions. 

As both modules are similar in construction, I will discuss them together.

The NAV module is a stand-alone USB driven Radio Management Panel. This single channel radio unit is designed to handle NAV frequency selection and management.

The M-COMM, a Multi-Channel Communications Radio is a highly detailed replica of the late model communications radio that incorporates COM 1 and COM 2 within the same module, thereby giving greater application to the crew.  For simulation purposes the M-COM is an advantage for those who only wish to purchase one module rather two seperate COM1 and COM 2 modules.

Construction and Appearance

The modules are constructed using the same technique that FDS construct their Main Instrument Panel.  Each upper panel is made from CNC machined acrylic which produces a very crisp finish and allows any lettering cut-outs to be very well defined.  The modules incorporate dual concentric rotary encoders with stainless stems.

High Quality

The knobs and switches, which are custom machine injected, are true to life and are tactile in feel.  As you click through the frequencies the movement is stable and well defined.  There is no catching as the knobs are turned.  The push keys on the units are plastic molded, back-lit and work flawlessly; they do not stick in the down position when depressed, and click back into position when pressure is released.  The frequency displays are 7 segment digits and are very easy to read.  Digit colours are in amber yellow for the NAV units and warm white for the M-COMM unit. 

The upper panel of the module is attached to the electronic circuitry within the lower section by a metal backing plate; this increases the strength of the unit and assists in the dissipation of heat.  An electronics friend had a look at the modules are seemed impressed with quality of the electronics board.  What this amounts to is a well presented piece of avionics that accurately replicates a real B737 module 1:1 in size.

No Interface Card Needed

The modules do not require control boards or interface cards - they are stand-alone USB devices.  The decision to incorporate all functionality within the modules minimizes the wiring required and the problem in finding space to attach a system board.  This is a very important point that needs to be reemphasized, as finding places for various system and I/O cards can be very challenging within the confines of a flight deck.  FDS’s decision to incorporate most of the electronic components into the actual module, by layering boards within and under the module, is to be commended and seen as a positive step forward in flight deck building.

 

ABOVE: You can observe the very cleanly constructed dual layer (triple?) electronics board and push clip which connects 5 Volt power for IBL.  Note that the electronics board is not flush to the edge of the module; thereby, allowing the module to drop easily onto DZUS rails (drop & fly).  Also note the inclusion of genuine DZUS fasteners.

Boeing Grey

All FDS B737 series modules and panels are professionally painted in Boeing grey.  Rather than one coat of paint which can easily be chipped, FDS utilises several thin coats to increase the durability of the unit’s finish.  Although this last comment may appear token, the quality of paint is important.  The modules will be used for many years and during the course of operation, you will be placing pens, clipboards, charts, coffee cups, etc on the center pedestal and the modules.  Further, as the units are flat, dust will accumulate requiring dusting and cleaning.  Low quality paint will scratch, fade and wear thin with time.

DZUS Compliant

If you are utilising real aircraft parts in your simulator, in particular a center pedestal, then any module that is DZUS compliant is advantageous as it allows for the module to be dropped directly onto the DZUS rails and secured by the DZUS fasteners.  All modules produced by Flight Deck Solutions can be secured using DZUS fasteners.

Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)

IBL (proprietary design) is supplied with all FDS modules.  Real aircraft bulbs are used to illuminate the panels and modules.  One of the main advantages of IBL is the “throw of light” produced from a bulb in contrast to that of a LED.  The area of coverage from bulbs is relatively even; where as the light spread from an LED is minimal– almost pinpoint.  This is because LEDS are a very precise light source.  The only way to achieve a similar light coverage to bulbs is to use several LEDS mounted in close proximity to each other.  One area where the use of bulbs verses LEDS is obvious is the back-lit lettering; bulbs allow all the lettering to be evenly lit.

Other manufacturers of avionics modules use LED lights which do not replicate the same colour temperature or appearance of real aircraft lighting. 

The IBL is superb.  The only downside of IBL (if there is one), and this really doesn’t deserve mention, is that the bulbs generate quite a bit of heat.  The life of a bulb is also less than a LED. FDS claim their bulbs have a life span identical to that of real aircraft bulbs which is ~40,000 hours.

To view a good video of how FDS install IBL into the modules, check out the FDS IBL video here.

Set-up of Modules & Software

The modules require software which can be downloaded from the FDS website.

The software is very easy to use and installation self explanatory.  Configuration of the modules is done via the software and involves indicating which NAV module is operated by which pilot (Captain or first Officer).  The M-COMM module uses the same software and you check the option for this module during set-up.

LEFT: FDS IBL Panel Power Distribution Unit - the size of a credit card.  red wire connects to 12 Volts and coloured wires connect to 5 volts for IBL.

Once installed, a sub menu will be created in the FSX menu visible on the main screen.  This sub menu identifies the FDS modules you are using, facilitates module set-up (which radio handles what frequency) and allows a method to restart the module should a failure occur with the Tekworx software during flight.

Connection to the computer is via USB.  Back-lighting requires a 5 Volt power source and installation of a FDS IBL Panel Power Distribution Unit (FDS IBL DIST).  This small card is needed to share the power between the various modules.  It’s all pretty straightforward and involves connecting some prefabricated wires with clips to the rear of each module and to the card.  The card is then connected directly to the 5 Volt power supply.  I secured the card I have within the innards of the center pedestal.

Reliability and Performance – Software and Modules

Software - Instability Causing Module Disconnection (Drop-Outs)

The software that FDS uses (Tekworx) to operate the modules, for the most part, operates well. 

However, I do have issues with the software maintaining contact with the modules via USB.  For some reason, the software will drop out and the modules require re-starting.  I worked with Steve Cos in an attempt to solve this issue, and despite not discovering the reason for the drop outs, a new release of the software (V 1.9.9) appears to have partially rectified the issue. The issue still does occur, but not as frequently.

If the radios do drop out, it’s easy (but annoying) to re-open them by "mousing" over the FSX menu and selecting the FDS radio and multi-radio sub menus.  This will re-start the radio software.

Steve Cos has worked tirelessly with me over a period of 12 months to solve this issue, however, a solution to the drop outs and disconnection of the software has not yet been found.  I doubt that the problem is being caused my particular computer set-up and specifications, as I've installed the modules on another computer running different specifications and the same issue occurs.  It maybe a Sim Connect issue or a an issue with Tekworx software (?)

If the problem is not rectified by the time the simulator is completed, I will replace the FDS modules and move to another vendor to supply the various radios for the center pedestal.  Instability (no matter what the cause) is an annoyance and becomes intolerable after a considerable period.  It's a pity that the software that FDS uses to control the modules "appears" to be unstable (at least with my system) as their product range is beyond reproach when it comes to quality.

Modules

I've used modules in the past that when altering the frequency there is a very slight time lag for the frequency digits to catch up with the turning rotary. This time lag may well be system dependent and/or a response to the limitations of USB.  This delay is not evident with the FDS modules.

As mentioned earlier, the frequency digits are super sharp, well lit, and the knobs and switches very well made and tactile.

Comparing the modules I've used over several years (open cockpits, CP Flight, SISMO Solicones and Go Flight), those produced by FDS are probably the best on the market - second to the real thing.

Support

Support from FDS is either directly via e-mail or by a dedicated forum.  The support provided by FDS is outstanding and all e-mails are answered in a timely manner.

Quick List – Pros & Cons

PROS

  • Well designed & constructed
  • Excellent workmanship
  • Superior product in many ways
  • Realistic Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)
  • Realistic quality machine-injected switches & rotaries
  • 1:1 to the real B737 series aircraft
  • Very high attention to detail
  • DZUS compliant (drop & fly)
  • Easy to use and set-up software
  • M-COMM radio ideal if space is limited in pedestal

CONS

  • Expensive price (subjective)
  • Tekworx software (V 1.8.8. & V 1.9.9) causing module disconnection (drop-outs)

Overall Opinion

I am very impressed with these modules.  They are solid, well constructed and the attention to detail is as you would expect from Flight Deck Solutions.  The quality of the modules is very high and suits the high end enthusiast to professional market.  I's a pity that the software FDS use lowers their reliability (at least on my system)

My rating for the software is 5/10  (V1.8.8. & V 1.9.9)

My rating for the modules is 10/10

Please note that this review is my opinion only and is not endorsed.