The Dragonfly: From Paper to Reality in VRChat
There comes a time that, sometimes, your creative side needs to take priority. That time came for both Hueman and I came the moment we realized that we shared a goal: to make a fictional aircraft of our own. It was that idea that led us into one of the deepest rabbit holes that I have ever gone down to, all in order to take this idea and materialize it.
THE ORIGIN OF THE DRAGONFLY The Libélula, or Dragonfly in Portuguese and Spanish, is the original design of Hueman. It was not originally meant to be a VRChat aircraft, but I think that he should be the one telling you this story. Take it away, Hue:
" The story of the Libélula begins in 2019, when one afternoon I was chatting with a professor at university. Looking around his room, decorated with a vast collection of scale models, I spot some unusual silhouettes atop a locker - a bunch of conceptual seaplane designs. One in particular caught my attention: a sleek-looking pusher aircraft with inverted gull wings, the floats sitting under the wings and extending all the way rearwards to form a twin tail boom - It looked awesome. It was a unique and interesting configuration. That started giving me ideas, and being hopelessly addicted to pencil and paper as I am, as soon as I got home that day I knew I had to sketch these ideas out.
Now, I’m a bit of an oddball in that despite studying engineering, I’ve always had a bit of an artistic inclination, for want of a better way to put it. With this design, I wasn’t overly concerned with the engineering aspects of it - it was more of an artistic exercise, because I really liked the way that configuration looked. So, the result was this sketch, originally in a four-seat configuration: Those of you with an eye for aircraft design can probably already see the biggest flaw with this particular design - the propeller sits way too low, which means the blades will be dangerously close to the waterline. This is something which bothered me, but as this was intended solely for artistic purposes, I decided to keep it that way instead of installing the engine and propeller on a raised fairing as one would do if this were a real project, as I really liked the streamlined look of the fuselage.
At that time, I was also playing around quite a bit with SimplePlanes, a game one could compare to Kerbal Space Program without the “space” bit. I decided to have a go at turning this idea into a flyable aircraft in that game. I wasn’t nearly on the skill level of the more advanced players though, and thus the result ended up falling short in several aspects, but I still quite enjoyed flying it around. During this time, it also gained a name - Libélula, or Dragonfly in Portuguese. The large round canopy glazing and wings sort of reminded me of the insect’s looks.
It had a rudimentary animated cockpit - this was done long before the SimplePlanes update which added proper cockpits, instrument gauges and other such features to the game - and as I was making it with the intention of flying around in-game, during that time one of the aircraft’s defining characteristics was decided on: Visibility.
I wanted this to be a sightseeing aircraft of sorts, so excellent visibility was required. It would have a “greenhouse” flight deck, like in a Heinkel 111 or an Edgley Optica. The instrument panel would be small - it would more resemble that of a helicopter than an airplane’s, “suspended” in front of the crew with a central console connecting it to the flight deck’s floor, allowing for plenty of windshield real estate. The massive floats would spoil visibility on the sides a bit, but the wing’s location way behind the pilot would make up for it. Still a bit unhappy with some aspects of the design but overall satisfied enough with how it had turned out for the game’s purposes, I published the design on the SimplePlanes website and didn’t pursue this idea any further. That is, until a fateful conversation with my dear friend Cubeboy. It was late 2021. He had just recently started covering VRChat aviation worlds in articles for Skyward FM, and had this idea about making a flight world in the game. I didn’t know what any of this meant, other than having passing knowledge about VRChat being overall quite the unique experience, in diplomatic terms. Still, it was amazing that players had managed to essentially turn it into a flight game. What really caught my attention, though, was when he started describing the overall purpose and atmosphere he wanted for the world - a scenic island resort where players would fly around purely for the sake of enjoying flight itself - and the necessity of a seaplane to carry players around the place. He was getting into 3D modeling, and the initial idea was to make something like a Turbo Beaver float plane. As we brainstormed, though, it suddenly came to mind - A seaplane, for a game environment with scenic backgrounds, and seating around 4–6 people - this was it. This was what the Libélula was made for. “Hey man, I might have a design I cooked up a while back…” It was a perfect fit. A unique-looking seaplane, with great all-around visibility for the players. It was decided - I would refine the design and turn it into a blueprint which could be worked with, and Cubeboy would do the 3D modeling and integration with the Saccflight environment. For a while, I had considered changing the aircraft’s name to something more palatable to the English tongue - however, since Libélula coincidentally exists as a word both in Portuguese and Spanish (our respective native languages), and plus sounds kinda cool once you know what the accent does to the sound, we decided it was the right name for our bird." That is the moment where this journey truly started. MODELING THE DRAGONFLY I want to start this section by saying that, prior to this project, I had not even looked at Blender or knew anything about 3D modeling. This was my first ever model and project, so I had to learn everything from scratch and build up a set of skills that I would use to the fullest. Sacchan and Sagi, two of my friends, were the most involved with helping me so I want t thank them for their support and wisdom. That went for Hueman, who had never designed anything to be used in this sort of way: "For this purpose, it would have to be almost completely redesigned. Decisions and estimates would need to be made with respect to design details such as engine selection and cockpit layout, and at least some of the most glaring flaws would have to be addressed. Again, the intention was never to make a true engineering project - there are far more efficient ways to design a seaplane - but we did want it to feel as if it could be a real aircraft." We put a massive emphasis on the feeling of realism rather than the numbers themselves. That meant that the "ergonomics" of the aircraft were the key element to focus on, which meant that some aspects of the aircraft had to be redesigned on the fly to better translate the feeling we wanted the aircraft to have. That also meant that we had to sacrifice a couple of design elements, either to simplify the model or because some measurements did not fit. Hueman explained the ergonomic aspect in an excellent way: " The “ergonomic” part might sound strange, as it’s made for a game where players will be comfortably sitting in their chairs and having their controllers in hand, so ergonomics look like they shouldn’t be an issue at first - however, despite not having a VR headset myself, I had heard from those who did that far too often you’d see in VRChat cockpits with dimensions that just made sitting in them feel wrong. They were too small, too cramped, and the controls were far out of reach, breaking the immersion of feeling like you’re in an actual airplane." When setting up the aircraft for modeling, the first pieces that must be placed are your references. That is where Hue's excellent design skills started to shine, as the schematics he provided were all "modeling-ready". I threw them in place and went full-speed ahead. These references were replaced several times as the design evolved.
I decided to start by separating the aircraft in multiple, separate sections that would be modeled one by one and then assembled together. That is mostly due to my inexperience dealing with extremely complex meshes, but also because I needed a way to make it easier for both Hue and I to work piece by piece to ensure that both of us were happy with it. The part I tackled first was the fuselage, which in hindsight was not the wisest decision. It took me three different attempts to get it right, as I had to completely remodel it once I had accurate cross-sections for reference. Once it was done, then I prepared myself to work on the wings and their semi-complex geometry. It was kind of refreshing to work on something that wasn't the fuselage or any of its complexities.
I used the airfoil that Hue provided, modeled it and used the top and front view to model the beautiful gull wing that this aircraft has, including its wingtips with anhedral.
Once that one was complete, including the separation of the ailerons and flaps from the main wing mesh, I decided to tackle modeling the floats. This part was both a joy to model but also a challenging experience, primarily due to the complex shape of the hull. The part that curves between the float and wing was a point of debate between Hue and me, but we found a middle ground where both of us were happy. The process of modeling both the tail and the propeller blade was very similar. Hue made sure that I had all the material that I needed to model them appropriately. They took a bit of work, but I am sure that what I did to get them accurate was worth it. This is the moment where I started work on what was the most difficult part of the model: its interior. This is the part that would be noticed the most by the users and one that needed to be as polished as possible. Hueman thought about every aspect before I started this part, though, so here are his thoughts: "The very first thing was to estimate the size and location of the seats, so the size of the cabin could be estimated. This was then used as a basis for the dimensioning of the whole aircraft, and after running a bunch of quick and rough (seriously, very rough) calculations on a spreadsheet, we had basic dimensions and a weight estimate. After coming to the conclusion this would likely have weight and wing loading roughly similar to those of a P-47 Thunderbolt, we decided the obvious and delightfully overkill powerplant choice would be a Double Wasp-equivalent radial engine sitting on the round fuselage. With this at hand, the next step was to actually draw the aircraft, and again the initial focus was on the cabin. Now it was time to detail the seat dimensions and positions, exactly where the controls were, the pilot’s sight line, etc. - while doing this, we realized a seventh seat could fit between the two rearmost seats, so the Libélula became a seven-seater.
Just like with the first “iteration” of this aircraft in SimplePlanes, the biggest goal here was to ensure maximum visibility for both flight crew and passengers. I’m sure those of you with an engineering mindset are probably screaming right now at things such as the lack of headrests in the seats, absolutely terrible for crashworthiness - don’t worry, it hurts me too, but it does make for a much cleaner, panoramic view for the passengers in-game.
A final point I want to draw attention to was the instrument panel layout. Not only was this the part I personally had the most fun doing, but it was also the one where the challenges of integrating this into a game were most apparent. Here’s the basic layout as originally designed: If you look at the aircraft in-game, you will notice several differences between this layout and the final product. Throughout the whole project, compromises had to be made due to modeling challenges, time constraints, and limitations of the game itself. Cubeboy had to warn me that several things I wanted to do were either impossible or unfeasible in the game, and it was a truly humbling experience to realize these challenges and work together to figure out the best way to adapt and tackle them. " Thanks to the amount of effort that went into the design, I had a much easier time modeling everything necessary for the interior. It took me way too much time, but in the end I made progress at a very steady pace. This meant that I modeled the yoke one day and the base for the dash another, with breaks in between. The seats took the longest to model from scratch as I had to do it without any real references, same goes for the yoke and most of the instruments. The interior was a royal piece of work, but I sincerely had fun making it. I felt like I was giving life to a place that many people would use to fly, the place where they would spend most of their time while visiting my world. That was my main motivation while I was working on this aspect of the model. The instruments and the consoles were extremely difficult because we used real instruments with true-to-life dimensions which forced me to be extremely precise with my models. As soon as all the models were set, the empties placed and the normals fixed; it was time to tackle what most 3D modelers fear the most: UV unwraping. I had to unwrap around 16 meshes with consistent texel density to make sure that the model looked right regardless of the area that you looked at.
I started by unwrapping the instrument panels, the switches and the flight controls. Those were the easiest since the geometry was not as hard, it was mostly composed of flat surfances and simple curves. Then came the extremely complicated job of unwraping the exterior of the aircraft.
This task was difficult not because it was complex, but because I had very high standards that I set for myself when it comes down to this. I decided to separate the exterior in 5 different textures: Main fuselage outside, main fuselage inside, left wing, right wing and floats. This way I could guarantee the highest texel density possible while keeping textures to the minimum.
At last, the most annoying part was done. That meant that the fun part could begin: texturing.
This is the part that I found to be the most satisfying as it felt like putting the cherry on top. Texture always tie everything together when it comes to models, at leats that is how I see it. As an artist your task is to make textures that fit the model and where it will be used, so you have to follow an art style.
I am not going to lie, the moment I saw the complete Libélula for the first time I got a fuzzy feeling that I hadn't had in years. That type of feeling that is indescriptible. But the work wasn't over; in fact, it was just begining. TO MAKE A DRAGONFLY FLY It was not difficult to make this aircraft fly, if I can be completely honest with you. It was much more challenging to make it fly the way I wanted it to fly in VRChat. Sacchan and RaptorItasha alongside Riko, VTail and NON were invaluable as they taught me everything I needed to work with Saccflight and the physics behind it. There is not much I can say from this part of development as it was all a blur. Everything from me setting up the float script to Zhakami Zhako helping me set up proper gauges and systems for the aircraft just became one big continuous event in my memory.
After a lot of testing, I decided to give it a makeover with a proper livery. That is when I had the idea of showcasing this plane, alongside with my ASK-21Mi glider, in an airshow. I am also a member of the VRChat Black Aces, so I brought up the idea to the owner of that group, Riko. That ended up materializing in the January Showcase where both KOSMOS and RibbonBlue flew it in a spectacular airshow in front of a full instance. We flew three different types of aircraft there: T-38A, ASK-21Mi and the Dragonfly itself!
The display was a success and everyone involved did an amazing job. If you want to take a look at the work that went into the display, then you need to watch this video.
FROM PAPER TO VIRTUAL REALITY I want to end this article by quoting Hueman:
"...we both had to deal with our lives as we worked on this project. Real life and university takes priority, and coordinating efforts on the Libélula was sometimes difficult. I had a lot of fun doing it though, and now with everything said and done, I believe I can confidently say we worked pretty well as a team and managed to overcome all these challenges, and our reward for doing so is being able to see an airplane which started as a whimsical idea in a college room, nothing but a napkin drawing, turned into a blueprint and then into a three-dimensional flying machine, even if only in a game. I truly hope players will enjoy the experience of cutting through the skies in our Dragonfly." You will be able to fly it yourself in the Skyward Island Resort world for VRChat next month! Be on the loookout for that and I'll see you in the skies.
About the author Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as the co-founder and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord : Cubeboy#9034