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By François A. ‘Navman’ Dumas
e all have seen the wonders of flight simming – a photo of a person turning around to face us, with a broad grin, sitting in the captain’s seat of a Boeing 747. Only the person is not sitting in a real 747, but in a fully functional, home-built mock-up connected to Microsoft’s Flight Simulator and running on umpteen PC’s, with the outside world visible through the front screen, projected there by one or more beamers. ‘Get a life’ is what we may think when regarding the picture, with a little more envy than we would care to admit. ‘Not for me’ will be the second most heard comment, ‘… way too complicated, way too expensive!’. And you are probably right in those cases. These wonderful cockpits are NOT simple projects to be undertaken lightly. But still quite a few people embark on them each and every year.
With the release of FS2002 and its vastly improved resulting in ‘more fun to fly’ General Aviation (GA) aircraft in VFR conditions, there seemed to be more and more simpilots flying the singles and twins and small commuter planes. And for THOSE aircraft it seems a little bit more feasible to start thinking of actually building a cockpit in your den to ‘play’ with. 18
I know that many of you will now still want to skip this article and turn your gaze to more achievable things, like learning how to fly IFR for instance. But HOLD ON! What Ken Peckham, my cockpit guru and partner and I want to show you in this short story is that nowadays it is not impossible at all to start building a cockpit for yourself. The KEY is to take it easy, not to embark on too grand a scheme and to try and make some of the components yourself. And a little help in advising you how to do some of these things would be recommended, of course. Now Ken and I are writing a book on cockpit building, but unfortunately that is not yet finished. Actually, we’re so busy with a myriad of other things that our friends are just smiling when we talk about ‘the book’! But one day it will be there. Meanwhile Ken has amassed a lot of experience in building ‘small’ cockpits in different ways. And we have also collected information from our network of cockpit builders all over the world. One other thing I need to stress here is that this is NOT a MANUAL on how to build a cockpit. It is an article to CONVINCE you that it is indeed feasible, even for you, because you can choose the complexity and price of any design. Computer Pilot Magazine V8I7
The final College Sim, now with projector for realistic outside view
Another home made console with GoFlight modules
The dark console in its place, another very simple but effective cockpit (start!)
Now, before I run off and tell you what Ken has built, let us take a few steps back and perhaps address the most basic of things… peripherals. That’s a fancy word for stuff that you can connect to your PC! Who is this article aimed at? It is aimed at the many, many people in this worldwide flight simulation community who do NOT even have a joystick attached yet. Admittedly, there are exceptions to the rule, but I bet there are plenty around. Adding a joystick/yoke to your computer is the VERY FIRST step towards a richer flying experience, and towards anything remotely resembling a cockpit. The next best thing to add to your PC/Flight simulator set-up is a set of rudder pedals. This might not be so obvious, but it will add just as much realism to your sim as the first joystick did. It will also allow you to really start to fly helicopters. And it will greatly enhance your taxiing abilities. Pity this is a printed mag and I cannot ask questions to be answered by hand raising. But if I could I would ask ‘which of you good people still have the ‘auto-rudder’ checkbox ticked?’ You will find this option in the Aircraft > Realism window of FS. What it does (should you not know) is ‘co-ordinate’ the rudder movement with the aileron movement and so allow you to move your joystick and rudder (and tail- or nose wheel), at the same time. This is totally UNREALISTIC of course and you would find yourself flattened against the first obstacle on your airfield should you try to drive your aircraft like this! But it is there because so many users do not
have rudder pedals (or a stick with a handle that you can twist to imitate the pedals). So the best advice I can ever give you is to get a good joystick and some good rudder pedals. At the very minimum, ‘untick’ auto-rudder and change your simming experience forever! What’s next? Most (but not all) GA planes do not have ‘sticks’, but have some sort of steering wheel instead, called a yoke. So if you want more realism you might replace your joystick with a yoke. Already your desk will begin to look like a very rudimentary ‘cockpit’, what with the dials on the terminal in front of you, the yoke on the desk’s edge and the rudder pedals underneath. Your partner may start frowning at this stage. The yoke will again change your flight sim experience. It has dedicated levers for throttle, propeller pitch, mixture control and a few extra switches. Again, this is more akin to the controls found in the cockpit of a regular small plane, rather than your joystick, which is probably more like the complicated things you’ll find in a jet fighter! One other thing you need to get yourself to install is a program called FSUIPC. Its current versions are written and being maintained by Pete Dowson of the UK and it is the Swiss army knife of flightsim interface programs. You can use it to just calibrate your controls, or have it ‘run’ your entire cockpit… well… almost. It can be found here: http://www.schiratti.com/dowson.html (there are quite a few other programs to be found there too, all very interesting for cockpit builders). Even if you never intend to build a cockpit, the FSUIPC 19
Solid Copper Wires Common Ground 10X36 KE72
Keyboard Ports KE MM6 Cable
BREAKOUT BOARD Input Terminals
Keyboard Port COMPUTER
Label design, ready for printing on a vinyl sheet. Any graphics program will do.
Diagram of the Hagstrom KE72 Encoders (2 in this case)
program will still add a lot to the realism because its calibration routines are much better than the default Windows ones.
Okay, you have flown with stick/yoke and pedals for quite some time, seen all the pictures in mags like this and on other builder’s websites, and you’ve decided to build a cockpit of sorts. There are three more decisions to make: 1. How do you tell your wife? 2. Will you BUY all the necessary parts (ummm…. are you rich?). 3. Or will you try and make (much of) it yourself? We cannot really help you much with the first one, but the other two are relatively easy. If you ARE rich, then you can now just buy the whole caboodle and subsequently HIRE someone to install it for you (you could hire Ken, actually). That is exactly what a college in the US did and Ken Peckham built the sim up for them. Just buying ALONE is not the solution, because you still need to know what you are doing and install/connect many parts, no matter what some of the companies tell you. Even if the parts come with a USB connector attached to them, you will need to know where to plug it in… and what to do with that FIFTH USB connector (you only have 4 in your PC, right?). You will also have to understand how to link the functions to the various buttons and switches etc. 20
We can also help you with the third. Ken and many other people we know have built cockpits constructed from everyday materials such as switches from RadioShack, left-over plywood, old car seats etc. This may sound a little odd, but when you see some of the results you will agree with me that the results are nothing short of stunning! We’ll have some pictures for you too.
Let’s have a brief look at some of the components you can buy off the shelf, shall we? Cockpit building is on the rise, and so then are companies making parts for them although many are still geared towards the 737 and larger market. Some very interesting and good equipment can be bought from GoFlight. They make all kinds of digital ‘modules’ that can be used to serve as your NAV or other radios, they have switch panels to be used for just about anything, and they have a complete autopilot panel for you too. The range of products is growing by the month almost and although not cheap, they are very good and can be used in combination with other products. Another major player on the market of GA cockpits is TRC (The Real Cockpit), an outfit from The Netherlands, building essentially a Cessna cockpit with gauges connected via USB to MSFS and powered by little servo motors. They also have added a whole range of ‘kits’, so you can now buy their products piece by piece and assemble the gauges yourself. Not cheap either way, but looking very nice. Computer Pilot Magazine V8I7
Transponder assembly of the switches on the metal plates
The components of the transponder.
Labels applied on a switch panel... looks pretty real huh?
The finished ‘product’. Note: the ‘display’ is printed, actual values still on the monitor.
Complete transponder and switch plate built into the console
Then there is Aircraft Simulators, selling all kinds of fighter and airliner cockpit parts. And CPFlight. And Command Fliteware. And Flightdeck Solutions. And Itra CockpitBau. And Cockpit Simulations. And Project Magenta. And APC. And PFC. And many more... but most of these companies make parts for airliner cockpits. Not too many GA cockpit parts around. But since all these often beautiful products are great to have and include, they are also expensive. Two things I haven’t mentioned: Epic cards and Project Magenta. These are for another time. (search the Net if you are curious).
Of course you’ll have to decide what sort of plane you will be building, but for now let’s assume a simple, universal one. A ‘real’ copy will take a lot more effort… perhaps for your second cockpit. The first thing to do is to acquire some room for a proper set-up. And find a chair without wheels... the first time I played CFS2 on my office chair I got shot down all the time because the chair rolled backwards when pressing my rudder pedals! The setup will change depending on whether you are using a yoke or a stick. In most planes (except the Airbus and some fighter aircraft) the stick will be between your legs, NOT on a desk in front of you. So that’s the first thing to build, a stand for the stick and throttle, perhaps a middle console. There are a few pictures of such ‘contraptions’. These can be easily made from plywood. The very MINIMUM of a ‘cockpit’ could be just the pedals, yoke, (possibly a throttle) and perhaps one or two ‘modules’ from GoFlight. That would be mostly ‘buy items’, but not too expensive. The next step would be more ‘work’, making some sort of panel or console and building a few switches. That was the easy part. You can make your cockpit pedestal(s) as nice as you want them, paint them, spray them, whatever! Or just leave them ‘raw’ for now. The next thing is more exciting. What is the most unrealistic thing left, apart from the monitor? Right, your keyboard. 21
You decide to make it, but where do you start?
So let’s take a step back and see how we can start building something that might or might not evolve into a fully-fledged cockpit of our own. One of the first things you have to do is to raise the monitor to your eye-level, if you have not already done so. Many people are staring slightly downwards to their monitor screen, and that is not very realistic. In a real plane you look ahead, not down… well... most of the time. With some real cockpit instruments in front of you, your view will be out-of-the-window more often, and not looking at instruments. It would also be very nice to have a second monitor. Most graphics cards these days have a second outlet (DVI or regular) to attach a second monitor, and Windows will allow you to position your ‘desktop’ on it in many ways. Once you are accustomed to using a second monitor you will not be able to live without it (not only for simming).
An assembly of 3 Hagstrom Encoders with red wires to the switches
The throttles on Ken’s console look very professional.
A work of art, Ken’s own throttle quadrant.
Even with ‘professional components’ there is a lot to be assembled and connected
Although some flight computers in airliners have keyboards of sorts, and many GA pilots carry their notebooks in the cockpit nowadays, you usually don’t see such a thing in the cockpit. So this is where the building begins.
There are two important things you need to buy at this stage in order to replace (part of) your keyboard clicks: 1. Pete Dowson’s excellent FSUIPC utility (covered in another of my articles last year, which allows you to interact with the sim in many ways) and; 2. A Hagstrom Encoder card FSUIPC will help you ‘communicate’ with MS Flight Simulator’s innards. There is a wealth of information contained in its documentation, and also on Pete’s web pages. The Hagstrom Encoder is the heart of Ken’s cockpits and it is the interface between regular switches and your PC, replacing keyboard and mouse signals. You can find the Hagstrom here: http://www.hagstromelectronics.com/index.html The card Ken uses is the KE72 and costs about US$120. There is now a new cheaper version called the KE-USB36. Having USB connections means that it has less capabilities, but is easier to use. That one will set you back some $80. As examples of building your own, I have included pictures of Ken’s Transponder project on the previous page which shows you how he built a simple transponder (without a working display at this time) out of a few sheets of metal, some cheap switches and a vinyl sticker on which he printed the transponder ‘face’ with his own inkjet printer. The end result looks pretty good eh? Computer Pilot Magazine V8I7
Get rid of that keyboard!
What I want to show you here is a way to do away with the keyboard and mouse (at least for many functions… don’t throw it out the window just yet!). There are the usual ways of course, like buying GoFlight modules with pushbuttons and switches, or the APC stack. But you can make switches yourself relatively easily and then link them to your Microsoft (or other simulator) functions via a simple electronic components. This is where my friend Ken Peckham comes in, and most of what follows is from him. Ken discovered that he could cheaply buy regular flip-flop and toggle switches at local electronics stores such as RadioStack and others. There will probably be something like that in your location. Or even cheaper... go to the local car parts store and buy some cheap switches there. Then build yourself your first little switch panel out of plywood, plastic or metal, depending on what you can process the easiest. Ken has provided some nice pictures that show how to possibly build such a panel yourself. We’ll be covering this in greater detail in our book of course, but the pictures rather speak for themselves. 22
So much more real, ‘pressing switches’ instead of clicking on a monitor image with a mouse
Rudder pedals made more comfortable and more realistic
Another ‘bare bones’ home cockpit flying more real with minimal investment here
The beginning of the console for a home cockpit
Now here is something to think about when trying to decide whether to buy or build, or a combination of both. As Ken says "…adding a slight incline to the CH rudder pedals adds a HUGE increase in realism in their operation. This wooden "tray" was screwed right into the desk and cost about $12. Next item to add is some Bungee cords for added resistance. These pedals are way too easy to move compared to a real plane. I'll get them right with enough time to experiment. Instead of spending close to $500 for a set from PFC I can move the mounts and add resistance for less than $18, add that to the US$120 for the pedals and I saved over $350! Enough to buy all the switches and the Hagstrom Encoder, and still have some money left over, OR enough to buy two GoFlight 166 radios, to have all your NAV/COM radios at your fingertips. Good trade off if you ask me!”. I will let the pictures tell the story of desk, consoles, switches, dials, leds, throttles, and yes, even a projector to get a better view of the world outside the windows. The small monitor will eventually limit the sense of reality and with digital projector prices coming down, more and more cockpit builders add such a device to their setup. Still some US$999 though! Now a little about the price. Switches cost a few dimes, wood, a few dollars, screws, wires, other stuff, a few more dollars. In fact, when you look at Ken’s cockpit, you are looking at something that
costs less than US$1,500. And the simplest form of a cockpit would be something like $350 to $400 (just the pedals and yoke plus some ‘woodwork’). Distribute it over a year of tinkering and the cost per month is really not that much ! Of course the 3000 words allotted to me are not enough to explain exactly HOW to build a cockpit. For that I’d need a lot of articles really. But I hope we have showed you that it IS possible to build something that looks like a cockpit, with not too many difficulties and at a relatively low cost. How much you want to have your setup resemble a real cockpit is up to you. Just making your simming experience a whole lot more enjoyable can already be achieved by adding just a few small touches, such as a few switches, or one or two GoFlight modules, the pedals and yoke and perhaps a better placement of your throttle. You can then build on that basis and you may wind up with the ultimate cockpit for you, one that you really know and feel at home in. And guess what... we bet you that once you have done that, you’ll want to build a NEW one, better, bigger and more realistic!
Happy flying and happy building. Q
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