AVSIM Freeware Panel Review

Embraer ERJ-145 Panel 

Product Guide
Click for larger image Here is the real life ERJ cockpit seen sitting at the gate.
(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Derden and airliners.net)

Click for larger image Compare to Bill's panel. If you look carefully, you'll see the Multi Func-tion Display (showing the status of the doors) is identical to the first officer's MFD in the picture above.

Panel Developer: Bill Grabowski
Description: A handsome contemporary commuter aircraft paired with an outstanding panel
D/L Size:
8,185Kb
Format:
Zip File (installation is manual)
Simulators:
FS2002/FS2000 (Tested on FS2002)
Reviewed by: Ed Rutledge AVSIM Staff Reviewer
Freeware Review Rating Policy: Freeware reviews are unrated, but may earn an Avsim special award. Please see details here.

 

When Microsoft released FS2002 to an eager FS community last fall, another long awaited flight sim product made its debut. Freeware panel designer Bill Grabowski originally started working on a panel for a Project Freeware ERJ-145 in early 2000 as a follow up to his popular Embraer 120 panel. Little did he know the how ambitious the project would become. After 17 months, thousands of man-hours and the contributions in one form or another of over 40 people, Bill has released a masterpiece. The ERJ-145 panel package has been downloaded over 20,000 times and earned our AVSIM Gold Award.

Bill Grabowski's panels have been on the scene since Flight Simulator 98. While he doesn't create a high volume of panels, each of the panels he's released were state of the freeware art. In 1997 Bill helped pioneer the practice of building the night light effects into the panel bitmap for an A320, his first FS panel. Many of us were introduced to this technique in his EMB-120 panel. I remember being frustrated with how FS2000 panels looked at night and yearning for the old red glowing panels. One flight with the glowing white cockpit light of the EMB-120 made me never want to see a red cockpit again.

So what did Bill have in store for us this time with the ERJ-145?

Reader Survey

This survey is intended for those that have used this product or add-on. If you have used it, please let your fellow simulation enthusiasts know how you rate it by taking this survey. Please, if you have not used this product, do not take this poll (you can view the poll from the "Results" link below).

Review Poll
Have you used Bill Grabowski's ERJ-145 Panel?
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I can live with it
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Embraer ERJ-145 Background

Facing bankruptcy in the early '90s, Brazil's newly privatized Embraer staked their company's future in the budding Regional Jet market. Regional jets let airlines serve short to medium low volume routes in the jet aircraft passengers preferred at costs comparable to turboprops. Embraer rolled out the ERJ-145 in 1995. Since then over 400 over ERJs have been delivered to 22 airlines. There are 3 basic variants, the ERJ-135, ERJ-140 and the ERJ-145 seating 37, 44 and 50 passengers respectively.

Although small in stature, the ERJs take advantage of the latest digital technology. It's a modern 'fly-by-wire' aircraft. The complexity of the ERJ cockpit rivals those of airliners that carry many more passengers. It sports a full Honeywell avionics suite with 5 CRT screens. There are 2 Primary Flight Displays (PFD), 2 Multi-Function Displays (MFD), Engine Instrument and Crew Alerting System, TCAS and a Flight Management System.

Panel Installation and Documentation

Bill's ERJ-145 panel is available as an 8 MB download. The download includes ERJ-145 models in American Eagle, Cross Air and Continental Express liveries by Nicholas Botamer in addition to the panel. The included aircraft feature Sam Chin flight models. There's an alternate airfile from prominent airfile designer Ron Freimuth to use with the previously released Project Freeware ERJ-145. (There currently are two updates for FS2000 and FS2002 versions, respectively. This update, available at the panel's home site (www.fsnordic.net) makes over 30 corrections and refinements to the panel.) Since its original release, numerous other ERJ-135, 140 and 145 liveries have been released.

Test System

Athlon 1700+XP
Windows XP
512 Megs RAM
GeForce 2 PRO 64MB
HP 9100 CD-RW
Hercules Fortissimo II
CH USB Yoke & USB Pedals
KDS 19" monitor

Flying Time:
22 hours over 29 days

The package doesn't have a formal setup program, but it's very easy to install. The user just needs to unzip the downloaded file into the main FS2000 or FS2002 directory (as desired), which places the files in their appropriate subdirectories. [Note that you may want answer 'No' when given the option to copy the FSUIPC file that comes with the package so you don't overwrite a more current version.]

The panel documentation is outstanding. There is a 50-page Adobe Acrobat user guide, a 20 page 'Intro Flight' and a full set of ERJ checklists. Overall there are nearly 100 pages of documentation for the ERJ-145 panel. This is significant documentation for any FS add-on, and almost unheard of for a freeware product.

I can't stress how important it is to read the documentation before attempting to use this panel. Bill did a great job of capturing the realism the ERJ-145 panel. Users who load up this bird on the active runway of their favorite airport, set up the autopilot and takeoff will find out very quickly that the ERJ-145 doesn't operate like other FS aircraft.

The user guide begins with Bill's description of 17-month odyssey to bring this realistic ERJ-145 panel to the community. (By comparison, Bill's EMB-120 panel, which was one of the top freeware panels at the time, took 3 months to develop.) There is a fascinating article by Continental Express pilot Henry Cisneros on his personal experience training to fly the ERJ-145. For those of us who've dreamed (or are dreaming) of a career as an airline pilot—it's amazing to see how much training a pilot must absorb in a short amount of time. The remaining 35 pages, edited by an actual Embraer pilot, describe the operation of the panel.

The Intro Flight manual is an excellent way to learn the panel in real time. It takes you an a sample short flight from Houston Intercontinental to Corpus Christi detailing everything from startup to shut down. If you're like me, it's easier to learn by doing. Several things that seemed a little fuzzy when I read the manual cleared up when I encountered them in the Intro flight. I appreciated the time and effort that went into the Intro flight documentation just as much as the user guide itself.

Reading the user guide, I was impressed by the number of people who assisted Bill, in one form or fashion, in making this panel a reality. This was a team effort. People sent Bill ERJ manuals, real ERJ pilots provided feedback on the panel operation and flight model, FS designers advised Bill on gauge design, beta testers pushed for additional functionality and Bruce Ullyot, who Bill credits as the main motivator, to keep the project pushing the limits.

Let's go Flying

With the panel thoroughly read, it was time to check out the plane. I used the FS2002 ERJ versions. The flight models looked great. They took advantage of the FS2002 night lighting and the visual models were dead on. There are now ERJs available for every airline that flies them. Nick also released a generic repaint version that encourages other aircraft painters to build their own liveries.

Click for larger image A real life American Eagle ERJ-145 at O'Hare
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Derden and Airliners.net
Click for larger image Nick Botamer's included ERJ-145 aircraft

Literally the first thing you notice in the cockpit is the view. You're definitely in the captain's seat (nothing ruins a great panel faster than a jumpseat perspective). As you can see in the comparison shot to the real cockpit (above), Bill did an outstanding job of capturing the details of the panel down to the distinctive yoke.

The ERJ panel is a very functional panel. There are very few 'dummy' switches; several functions unique to the ERJ are faithfully recreated in this panel.

Click for larger image If you take a look to the right you'll see our copilot 'Joe.' Joe is modeled after real life Continental Express pilot Joe Weatherby who provided Bill with pictures of the ERJ cockpit. Joe remained cool under pressure during my first few wild rides in the ERJ.

For example when you turn on the battery from a dead cockpit you'll be greeted by a functioning Aural Alert system. The alert system provides several warning messages in addition to the standard GWPS callouts. You'll also notice the EICAS system provides over 30 different messages. The MFD allows you to enter V-speeds, check the electrical, hydraulic and fuel systems, and environment controls. (The ERJ panel update even includes a working Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) gauge.)

The ERJ autopilot/Flight Guidance Control functions differently than most FS aircraft. It's not difficult in that it's overly complex; it's just accurately modeled to the ERJ autopilot. You will not be able to understand the FGC without thoroughly reading the manual – probably more than once.

While the autopilot provides the basic vertical and lateral navigation modes, you must understand how to set those modes and how they are reflected in the PFD to get the results you're expecting. For example, there are 3 ways for the autopilot to capture a set altitude.

  1. The pilot can set a the desired climb rate in V/S (vertical speed) mode.
  2. The pilot can use the 'Speed mode' to have the autopilot adjust the pitch to maintain the selected airspeed.
  3. Or the pilot can use the Flight Level Change (FLC) mode. The FLC mode differs from Flight Level change modes in other A/Ps in that it uses regulated airspeed and vertical speed to reach the selected altitude.

Click for larger image Here we are on a night time climb out of St. Louis Lambert field. We could several options to get to the 10000 feet set on the FGC. We chose the most fun option available, flying it manually.

Speaking of the speed mode, the ERJ panel does not have an autothrottle. This has confused many users since there is a 'Speed' button on the autopilot. The ERJ pilot is responsible for manually controlling the power settings through all aspects of flight. I'm sure many eager users downloaded this panel, thought they set an autothrottle for 250 knots and were quickly greeted by 'Bitchin' Betty' warning them of 'high speed'. (By the way, Mrs. Grabowski voices Betty. I'm not sure if she uses the same tone when Bill is speeds on the highway.)

The only thing you'll find missing is a NAV display or a dedicated Flight Management Computer. I wouldn't expect either of these on a freeware panel.

Click for larger image Here's an external view of a Trans World Express (one of many liveries available for download) climbing out over St. Louis. As someone who relies on TWE to get to my home town, I'd bet money this aircraft is running late.

You can use the paper checklists to preflight your aircraft and set your v-speeds. Methodically following checklists each and every flight is the sign of a responsible pilot whether they're flying a Cessna 150 for a Boeing 777. Unfortunately checklists are overlooked in most panel releases. These checklists are so good it would be a waste not to use them on every ERJ flight. The panel not only models everything on the list to the letter, but the plane flies spot on the reference numbers.

You'll find the ERJ a joy to handle from startup to shut down. While it probably requires a little more power in FS2002 to start rolling than real life, once your moving, it handles well. The real fun of the ERJ is in the air. As I mentioned earlier, the ERJ doesn't have an autothrottle. Something funny happens when you start manually controlling the power. All of a sudden you have an urge to hand fly to altitude and the entire decent. And when you do hand fly, you're in for treat. The plane is an absolute joy to fly, stable, predictable – plenty of power and a lot of fun.

Click for larger image Here we are on final approach to Central Illinois Regional Airport. Notice the TCAS gauge that's available with version 1.1 of the panel. Click for larger image A perfect end to another fun flight in the ERJ.

For a lot of complex aircraft it's way too easy to turn on the autopilot before the gear is fully retracted and not turn it off until you're on short final. If you're one of those pilots who routinely let the autopilot handle 99% of the flight, you'll miss the joy of this aircraft. In automobile terms, the ERJ is a "driver's car." While you could put it in drive and cruise down the highway, it's a lot more fun to shift the gears yourself and see how it handles on a winding two-lane road.

Panel Performance

This panel is very complex and is going to take a frame rate hit compared to the default panel. But given the improved graphics handling of FS2002, my FPS decrease was barely noticeable. I lock my FPS at 24. There were only a handful of times it fell below 24. I probably wouldn't have noticed if the counter wasn't on. I don't know how this panel performs in FS2000. Your mileage may vary.

About the author

Bill hit a home run with the ERJ-145 panel. In the last 3 versions of Flight Simulator, there have only been a handful of freeware products that are so polished that they could be released as payware. This is one of those panels.

An unprecedented amount of time and effort went into this panel; I wanted to find out more about Bill and what inspired him to take the ERJ-145 panel to this level.

You'd be surprised to know that Bill's (other) full time occupation is a radiologist in Washington. He's a man of many talents who's enjoyed computer flight simulators since Flight Simulator 1. He's also a licensed pilot with an instrument and commercial rating.

When Bill started developing panels for the Flight Simulator platform for FS98 he ran into a roadblock that's hampered many designers, the ability to program custom gauges. Between studying the SDK, relying on some previous experience programming in the C language and with advice from other FS gauge developers, Bill has become a top-notch FS gauge designer in his own right.

Bill had a lot of assistance from many circles on this panel. He'll be the first person to tell you this was a team effort—In the ERJ user guide, Bill graciously thanks everyone who helped him along the way.

Since this is freeware, neither Bill nor anyone who assisted him made a dime off this panel. I had to ask Bill what motivates him to make freeware panels.

"Creating art that is useful. The cockpit is where you work, so why shouldn't it be the best it can be? It's fun making something I can enjoy, but also for others too. In my opinion, of all the components that go into making the personality of a simulated airplane, the order of importance is: 1 - Flight model (if it doesn't fly well, what's the point?); 2 - Instrument panel (that's where you spend "quality time;" and 3 - Airplane appearance and fidelity. People are very appreciative of those who create tools to use for their hobby, and it's always a thrill to hear from them."

Bill also enjoys the creative flexibility freeware gives him. He can solicit help from other designers without contract or legal issues and not be hindered by the level of support that's expected from a commercial product.

The evolution of panel creation over the last 3 years is mind-boggling. It used to take just a few weeks for the highest level of panel creation—now it takes months. What used to be a solo effort literally takes a team to develop. Some in our community think that quality freeware is a "right." It's easy to forget how fortunate we are that people are so generous with their time and talent. If you enjoy this panel, I encourage you to take time to thank Bill and his team.

Future Projects

I think all of us are anxious to see Bill's next project. After considering a Boeing 717 or a an MD-11 for CSI, Bill and his team decided to stay in the regional jet arena and develop a Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) package. I can't wait!

You can download the panel and latest updates, and visit the ERJ panel support forum at the FSNordic website.

 


What I Like About the ERJ-145 Panel
  • The panel strives for ultimate realism. The autopilot, different functions of the MFD and aircraft subsystems immerse you in the ERJ experience.
  • The documentation is outstanding
  • The aircraft model is gorgeous and is perfectly aligned with the numbers in the charts
  • Plenty of liveries and ERJ variations available for download

 
What I Don't Like About the ERJ-145 Panel
  • Can overwrite a more current version of FSUIPC. (This may have been caused by my using the Windows XP compression utility instead of another program.)
  • It may cause too much of a frame rate hit on lower end systems, especially in FS2000

 


 

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