Every flight simulation enthusiast has been asked this rather annoying question at some point – usually by people who do not really care to understand the fascination this hobby holds for us.
I have piloted virtual planes since the early days of PC-based flight simulators. Back then, no amount of goodwill would convince people around me that the crude graphics on the screen of my computer had any similarity with real flight. But I saw things differently. Since my very first encounter with flight simulation I have embraced the possibility of flying whenever I want, and wherever I want – and to walk away from every landing!
Ten years ago, I decided to make a clear case of addiction even worse by starting the construction of a home cockpit. In today’s world, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people out there who have decided to do the same thing. There are now dedicated forums on the internet, specialized companies providing plug-and play solutions, and even sim builders’ congresses. But back in the mid-nineties, home built flight simulators were very, very rare. Their creators were either admired as brave pioneers of leading edge technology, or sneered at for wasting their time on an impossible task.
This is the story of how I started with this hobby. It describes some of the highlights, but also the problems I encountered during the long building process. I may also explain how a project, started a decade ago, still is the source of great satisfaction today.
It happened one day in December of 1995. I was scanning magazines at a newspaper stand. Looking through an American PC Games Magazine, I saw an ad for a home cockpit kit, 3-dimensional and with real panels and buttons. “Fly like the real pilots do!” the title screamed.
I had – for some time already – been toying with the idea of having switches and buttons arranged around my monitor to enhance the feeling of being there when taking off into the virtual skies. But this looked even better: Sitting inside a cockpit, joystick and throttles mounted left and right, and a monitor in front of me. I was infected.
The attempt to contact the makers of that cockpit kit was unsuccessful. It seemed they had gone out of business before even starting it: My faxes and phone calls remained unanswered. So I had to take things into my own hands. I estimated that it would take me roughly one year to plan, design and build my own cockpit simulator. Had I known how wrong I was…
It took months of painfully slow research in the fledging flight sim forums at CompuServe to get first answers. I was told to talk to two persons: Ralph Robinson from R&R Electronics and to a guy whose name I don’t remember at Thrustmaster. Ralph is the mastermind behind the programmable Input/Output card EPIC and Thrustmaster at that time produced the MDF components and fiberglass outer shell of a F-16 cockpit. The trouble was to get all this stuff to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, where I lived in those years. But there are no hurdles too high and no rivers too wide for the dedicated cockpit builder – I already mentioned the infection, didn’t I?
I solved the transport problem and soon enough I was happily joining MFD plates. Within a few days my apartment had one usable room less, but now it contained a construction (my friends called it a contraption) you could sit in and feel, … well … “like the real pilots do”? Not quite – but it was a beginning. I soon realized that the Thrustmaster cockpit concept did not fully suit my needs. The panels were large, flat planes that – even when covered with switches and buttons – would still look rather flat and uninspiring. So I started to extensively rework the whole structure to make it look more like real cockpit interiors. I integrated joystick, throttle and rudder pedals, made space for additional monitors and – anticipating the ever increasing weight of the setup – reinforced all joints.
The Design Process
Next I sat down and started to plan what all those empty spaces inside the cockpit should contain. A glass cockpit was no option – years would pass before Project Magenta became available. So I simply looked at all the flight sim programs I used at that time (MS-FS4, ATP, Falcon3, Flanker and Tornado) and drew up a list of the commands I used most frequently in all of them. I decided to build a generic cockpit that I could use to fly a Cessna, a Tornado or any other plane. As a result, my panels would have a weapons control unit and a King autopilot sitting peacefully next to each other – everything crammed into the replica of an F-16 cockpit.
The panel design process was a flight of fancy. Using Corel Draw I invented what I thought I needed, trying to combine form and function. Since I had no real airplane nearby as a reference, I used photos. But above all, I used my imagination. The result looked like a cockpit, no doubt. But it was the only one of its kind. When I had visitors, I told them: “If I were an aircraft engineer, building my own plane – this is how its cockpit would look like!”
Today, a decade later and after two major upgrades my cockpit is much less generic; many of it’s panels are now quite similar to their real world counterparts. But as a whole, my creation still has little resemblance with any real cockpit out there. And I still tell my visitors the same thing. But let me take you back to those early days…
So far, things had been relatively simple; mainly pleasant carpentry and PC based design work. Progress was fast and the results were visible almost immediately. That changed when a DHL parcel arrived, containing the electronics I would use as an interface between the cockpit and my PC: the EPIC card and modules. While scanning the manual I got the distinct feeling that this was way over my head: diodes, data leads and modrows, binary encoded rotaries, a C-like programming language – to me it all sounded like Chinese.
But people on the net, among them Ralph Robinson, told me it would work and that others before me had mastered the skills needed to tame the EPIC beast. I read the manual from cover to cover, re-read it and than re-read it again. Slowly I started to understand the concept. But now I wanted hard evidence that EPIC really works: I soldered a pushbutton to a data lead and a modrow cable and wrote my first lines of epl code. And yes, it did work! Each press of that button produced the letter “g” in notepad, and only moments later – after firing up Flight Simulator – the same buttonpress raised my landing gear.
Sounds like no big deal, but all who have gone through this – or a similar process – will agree: Success in making these first steps with a new and almost alien technology creates a feeling of euphoria and achievement that is hard to describe – and even harder to relay to others: Imagine that freshly soldered button hanging in the air over my workspace, suspended from its two wires. And me, with a sparkle of elation in my eyes (and looking more than ever like the mad scientist), pointing happily at a simple letter on the screen.
But now I had my proof: the buttons worked, and after some more soldering, so did the LEDs and the 7-segment displays. It was time to get serious…
By now, more parcels had arrived, containing different flavors of pushbuttons, toggle switches, rotaries, displays, diodes and of course wire, lots of wire. I just had to put it all together.
What followed was hard labor. Making all these panels I had dreamt up kept me soldering for months, many months (remember, only 12 of these make a year!). It often left me cross-eyed, tired and sometimes wondering if it all was worth the effort. Progress was small, often imperceptible. I think it is at this stage where so many cockpit projects fail. No matter how big the enthusiasm in the projecting phase, it is during the panel building when builders have to muster all their determination and patience to keep going on and to finish the job.
It became clear that my original one year estimate for completing the simulator was obsolete. 18 months had passed and I was nowhere near the end.
In those days, there was clear and present danger for my project. But I was determined not to end up with a room full of useless scrap. To ensure long term motivation I started to take long, planned breaks. During these, I dedicated all my time to other activities and cleared those panels from my mind and the soldering vapors from my lungs.
And once I finished a panel, I connected and used it. I drew fresh energy from flight testing each new component. It really helped to renew my determination when I felt the new buttons click under your fingertips and something happened in my cockpit that – only weeks before – had required keyboard interaction.
Unfortunately, wires and switches are only one part of the story. In order to make them perform their function within the simulator, programming is needed. I had never written a single line of coding before. For all I knew, Basic, C or FORTRAN could as well have been the names of Saturn’s moons. So I was off to a rather difficult start.
I already knew that the EPIC stuff worked in principle; now it was time to go deeper. Using the cryptic EPIC manual and more than a little help from friends on the net, I made my first attempts to write real code. And the old saying proved itself again: “You can do it, if you put your mind to it!”
Weeks later, after many sleepless nights and countless moments of total frustration, I began to see the slow but steady development of my programming skills. Suddenly, the press of a button could do more than just produce a character on the screen. After discovering variables, flags and “If – Then” functions (and the fact that they can be nested), there was no stopping me. I happily programmed the nights away and my code became so intricate that I was usually unable to understand the next day what I had written just one night before. But I started to program my own logic into my panels, and I found that to be a very enjoyable creative process.
The convenient thing about programming is that it can be done everywhere, as long as there is a computer around. I found myself writing code for my cockpit on airplanes or sitting in my hotel room in the lonely evenings of business trips.
The Never-Ending Story
It took me 3 years to finish the cockpit – the first stage of the building process, to be precise. There it was in my workroom, with an imposing footprint of six by six feet. I had built all those switches and displays into their panels. I had three monitors in front of me, displaying a synchronized view of the outside world. 4000 lines of EPIC code (no pun intended) made it all work. The stage was set for happy flying…
But it did not take me long to realize that I was not done yet. I wanted a full enclosure. When flying at FL35, few things are more distracting than turning your head and looking at your neighbor mowing his lawn. I decided to construct a jetfighter-like canopy and to enclose the three monitors, using plywood. Again, I underestimated the time this would take, but one year later it was done.
Then Project Magenta with its true to life glass cockpit instruments came along and I knew that another upgrade was about to happen: More PC’s, more monitors, and a completely reworked cockpit interior. Throw in a new EPIC card (USB now) and the rewriting of my EPL code, and the inclined reader will understand how another 2 years came to pass.
In 2004 I moved to a new location, so the simulator had to be disassembled. After arriving at the new place I was about to put it all back together again – but then I hesitated… With everything taken apart – wasn’t this the perfect occasion for some long due upgrades?
Only 12 months later it was done. New instruments and panels grace a cockpit that looks more sophisticated than ever. It was during this year when I noticed with a mixture of shock and nostalgia that none of the first generation panels had survived the various upgrades of the last decade. But aviation is changing, and so is the technology behind homebuilt cockpits. The temptation to make yet another modification is always present.
But for the next couple of years I plan to spend my time using this amazing piece of equipment sitting in my workroom. No more upgrades. Or maybe just some very, very small ones.
Here I will end the account of my cockpit building endeavor, and it is a good moment to make a point: For those who get into this hobby, it is not only about enhancing the flight sim experience – it is also about the creative act of building something unique . . . and to find out how far you can get.
So, are there better ways to spend my time? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as using my time…