HOW TO MAKE A NEW 3D AIRCRAFT FOR USAF                
by Tyler McFly - 03/06/02

This is not a tutorial on using 3d Studio Max. Rather this is an outline of the steps involved that deals with the game engine, admin.ini and other files that must be addressed to get a finished new model in the game.

First of all I am no expert but just an enthusiast that finds fun in hacking around at the game architecture. I am assuming that you have a knowledge of navigating the file structure of USAF.

What do I need to get started?

OK, To build or model a new aircraft for the game you must have the proper 3D program. The 3d objects in USAF were built with 3D Studio Max. I think the version was R2.5 but you can use anything from R2.5 to R3.1. The later versions of 3D Max (R4+) does not work with the plugin that is required to convert your new model from the natural Max format of .max or .3ds to the USAF format of .p3d. Finding an affordable copy of Max is not easy. I found my copy on eBay for an unbelievably good price. You should check these types of places first. There are some sites that offer Max for download for free and there are some out-of-country sites that offer complete programs on CD at very affordable prices. Of course, neither of these ways of obtaining the software is legal in the USofA. Otherwise, 3D Studio Max is quite expensive. You will have to decide what you can afford.

So now you have your copy of 3D Studio Max R2.5-3.1. Download the P3D.DLE plugin. Put it in your 3D Max Plugins folder. Restart your computer and youíll be ready to export your new model. (Note: the p3d.dle plugin is only for creating new 3d models. At present there is no way to open or alter existing p3d files).

Next, and most important in building a new aircraft is to remember that you can only have 1 object for your model. In other words you cannot have separate wings, fuselage, vertical stabilizer etc. All of these separate objects, with the exception of your animated parts, must be grouped and saved as a single object. Save this object as f-14, F-5 etc.

Next, the control surfaces that you have modeled for animation like the Flaps, Ailerons, Rudder, Elevator, Speed Brake, Landing Gear etc. must be tagged with the approptiate identification that the game engine recognizes. I suggest you print this list of animation parts for reference in your project. These are the names that must be used to identify the parts. This list was compiled by Demonchild and we thank him kindly.

These animated parts must then be linked as children to the main or parent object. I repeat MUST BE ATTACHED AS LINKS. If they are a separate object, you will not be able to export it.

You will notice that there are many more items on the animation list other than the standard flaps, elevator etc., etc. You can also add lights, cameras, hard points, refuel connector, everything you see in the original models.

As an aid to help you understand how these animations and active areas are used, Demonchild, a 3d guru and mental giant, managed to open 4 original models from the game. (Donít look for any more. He is burned out on that effort.) Download the F16, F22, F15, and F4. This will show you how the originals were built. Study them. They can teach you almost everything you need to know.

"How do I set the motion limits of the flaps, ailerons, elevator, landing gear etc.? I can't see any animation controller on the original models." - Dragon Fly

As you build your new plane you will wonder "how do I set the animation limits? The original planes donít have them either" Well, the animation limits are set in another file. The flight model and the animation limits are adjusted and set in the .atk file. These files are found in the MD folder. I suggest you select an aircraft that is close to the one you are building and use it's profile. You will not be able to change the avionics like the radar range and other things peculiar to that particular aircraft. These areas are hard coded into the game.

You probably noticed a little utility you got with the p3d.dle plugin, called the AME (Animation Motion Editor). Use the AME to open the .atk file you are going to use for your new plane. You will be looking for the tab Control Surface Data and Gear Mechanism Data. This is where you will set your motion limits for the items listed there. The AME is also used to manipulate the flight model. If you feel you are qualified to adjust the flight model be warned. The numbers in the .atk files are of an unknown measure so you cannot directly enter known numbers. Second, altering these numbers can adversely affect other areas of the game such as Artificial Intelligence and Auto Pilot. Unless you know what you are doing . . . leave it alone. That is why it is important to choose an aircraft that is as close as possible to the one you are modeling.

How do I assign or build a cockpit for my new plane?

This is where it may get a little confusing. First of all there are only 13 individual aircraft in USAF or to be more accurate, 13 cockpits with coupled flight model/avionics. We are not able to add additional new cockpit/ aircraft to the game with there own avionics. The cockpits are the planes that we fly. The cockpit has all the avionics and flight model. Unfortunately we cannot create new ones. But we can use one of the existing aircraft and alter its cockpit panel and flight model.

I tried to write a tutorial on changing the cockpits. It isn't that hard but I found it is very difficult to write the procedure. I think that all you really need to know to get you started is that the cockpit that appears in the game is set in the DME under the tab - Objects. And then if you look up any of the original aircraft and then look in the 4th column, Object Sub Type you will find where the cockpit is designated. You can enter any of the available cockpits in that slot and that's what you will see in the game for that aircraft. But now you must remember that the cockpit and your .atk file must have the same name. If you would like to learn more about making cockpits checkout the cockpits page on my site.

You can see that you will probably have to sacrifice one of the existing aircraft for you new aircraft if you don't want to share cockpits and flight models. This could be a hard choice. I suggested some time ago that different versions of USAF could be created so you could have a complete aircraft with it's own cockpit and flight model with completely different aircraft in it. Unfortunately, since we are unable to alter the electronics and radar it's not a perfect solution.

My plane is finished. How do I add it to the game?

You've come a long way. It's time to permanently add the new aircraft to the game. I have previously made a tutorial for adding additional versions of existing plane that applies the same as adding a new one. Adding a new aircraft to the admin.ini. You can see that you can really add anything to the game that your can build. More buildings, vehicles, even figures are possible.

A shortcut to viewing your new plane in the game would be to exchange your new .p3d file with an existing aircraft so you could see how it looks without going through the whole Admin process. One thing with this method is that your animation might not be perfect. You will no doubt use this method as you are building your new model to check your progress and alignment in the game.

Well, that's about it. It's not easy, but it is a hell-of-a lot of fun and a great feeling of accomplishment. Please share your new models with the community and any new tips or procedures that you might discover along the way.

PS: One area that I did not go into is the lower polygon models that are labled xxx_m.p3d and xxx_l.p3d. These are use for the longer shots where a more detailed model would not be neccesary. Also, the xxx_m.p3d file is used for the shadow. So you might want to make a very low poly version of your new plane for this purpose. You don't need to add anything to the admin.ini for this to work. It appears that the game engine looks for the lower poly version by itself. . . as long as they have the proper name.

Tyler McFly

mailto:mcfly@bobsyouruncle.net