Canopy Construction

Canopy Windows | Shock Absorbers

Uusing a cockpit is a vast improvement over desktop based flight simulation. But I soon found out that a major element was still lacking: It was hard to achieve total immersion during flight, when a glance to the left or right would reveal the walls of a room or light on the corridor that leads to the bedroom. That´s not what you want while roaming the virtual skies!

There is only one way to cancel out all visual references that do not belong to the simulation itself - full enclosure. An enclosed cockpit helps to focus all attention on piloting. It is a great help in achieving the "suspension of disbelief" while simulating flight - i.m.o. possibly on par with motion!

With my single seater cockpit the only way to achieve full enclosure was to build a jet fighter - like canopy. But that, as it turned out, is easier said than done. The canopy I had in mind had to fulfill several criteria:

  • it had to be hinged to the backrest of the seat for easy access to the cockpit (and to emphasize the fighter jet heritage of my setup)
  • it should be light weight to avoid strain on the cockpit construction
  • it could not be too high when open - standard room hight in Europe is 240 cm!
  • it needed to be modular for quick and easy disassembly in case of relocation
  • and I wanted it to look "cool". That meant curvy surfaces and as few edges as possible

I did not use Corel Draw for designing the canopy. I would today - if I had to build it again - because it makes the design process so much easier. But at that time I just made a few sketches - see below (and don't laugh!) - and started to build. No photos were taken during construction, so a description of the building process and shots of the finished product will have to do.

 

I decided that the canopy would consist of 6 individual pieces: 2 side walls, 2 curved pieces as "ceiling", a rear bulkhead and a front section that contained neon tubes for lighting the cockpit's interior.

First I build 4 bulkheads that would define curvature and shape of the canopy. I cut these from 4mm plywood and added small pieces of 20 mm wood to have a surface on which to attatch the 3mm outer and inner plywood "skin". Next I installed 20 x 20 mm battons to form a skeleton between the bulkheads, outlining the form the canopy would take.

A major problem during construction was the fact that there are no right angles. As a matter of fact, the angle between the bulkhead and the outer skin changes constantly along the curvature of the canopy. I used an electric saw for cutting the edges of the bulkheads and did a lot of measuring in between cuts - the only way to get an evenly curved surface.

Adjacent pieces are joined in at least two places by 6 mm bolts. The attachment points for the bolts are wooden protrusions, glued and screwed to the inside of the frames.

Once the skelelton was finished, I plated it with 3 mm plywood. Thin plywood is quite flexible and bends into shape easily. Each surface was first cut out from carboard to verify good fit, and only then made from plywood. By using the plywood on both outside and inside of the skeleton, I obtained an extremely rigid yet light weight structure.

Here are close-up's of the 6 components:

Assembly takes less than an hour and requires only a screwdriver and a wrench.

 

The interior of the canopiy front section with the lighting system, locking mechanism, a fan and four ventilation ducts.

The neon tubes provide either white light for daytime flying or red light for night flights. A toggles switch, located on the bulkhead, allows for easy change between day and night lighting. A translucent acrylic glass cover over the neon tubes creates diffuse and largely even lighting conditions inside the cockpit.

Fully assembled, the canopy weights in at around 8 kg.

I decided to paint the interior in a light blue "sky" color - the next best thing to having more monitors and more outside views.

In order to make opening and closing of the canopy smoth and effortless, I installed two shock absorbers. They also define the max. open position and keep the rear bulkhead of the canopy from touching the fiberglass shell. Information on the placement of the shock absorbers on both canopy and seat can be found here.

The canopy is installed on the cockpit. With the glossy black paint it looks rather mean, and it never failed to impress visitors who set their eyes upon it for the first time...
The rear end. What sicks out through the canopy back wall is part of the seat's headrest.

The canopy opens almost 90 degrees, so getting in and out of the cockpit is easy - but there is a certain procedure to it. Since I use my simulator often, I tend to forget this. But I am reminded each time a visitor fights to get inside (no matter how well I had explained the steps...)

One day on Discovery channel I watched a program about the F-16 Falcon. It amazed me to see that the movements the pilots did to get into their cockpit were identical to the technique I have developed to get into my home built simulator!

Yours truly, ready for another take-off into the virtual blue yonder...