FAQ #1 – Why build a home cockpit?

(Originally posted 25/04/09 on the now-defunct Sky High Dotnet blog)

What motivates otherwise sane people to attempt to create a home cockpit? The answers are many and varied, I suspect. You’ve got to be fairly keen on flight simulation, for one. Which means you’re likely to be pretty keen on flying, and possibly even do the real thing as a hobby or a profession. At heart, it’s all about realism. You can ‘fly’ a PC-based simulator using a keyboard and mouse, though most people choose to add a joystick at least. But that gets you nowhere near the sensation and experience of flying, which is what simulation is really all about. Professionals need to simulate flight so they can learn and practice; hobbyists want to simulate flight so they can enjoy the experience, or maybe so they can begin to study towards eventually getting a license themselves. The more real your experience, the better any of these aims can be achieved.

There are several ways you can improve the realism of your flight sim experience. Better flight controls is the most common starting point. Companies like CH Products and Saitek produce a range of specialised joysticks, flight yokes and throttle controls for budding simulator pilots. Using a yoke and throttle combination certainly makes for increased realism; add a set of rudder pedals, and you can control a simulated aircraft in flight without touching the keyboard or mouse. That still leaves a huge number of operations – setting flaps, raising and lowering landing gear, speed brakes, autopilot controls, radio controls – that need to be done using a keyboard interface, or by clicking on a virtual switch or knob on screen. Some people who like to imagine themselves flying heavy jets like the 747 will start their flight by running through the full pre-flight checklist for that aircraft, opening fuel valves and manually starting engines and so on, rather than let the simulator take care of it for them. That’s a lot of virtual clicking.

A 737-style TQ from Symulatory

If you care enough to go to those lengths, you’re going to want as much realism as your bank balance will allow. Thankfully there are any number of nutters out there who will show you how to spend your hard-earned cash constructing all kinds of complex stuff out of MDF and parts from Maplin, or sell you a replica 737 throttle quadrant accurate down to the last detail, complete with motorised levers for when you’re running on auto-throttle. Just like the real thing.

And so some people in the cockpit-building fraternity – and believe me, there are more of them out there than you might think – aim for nothing less than totally real. Every gauge, dial and switch faithfully replicated and in its correct place. Fully functional as on the real aircraft. Some put their cockpit enclosure on a motion platform, which simulates the movement of the aircraft in anywhere up to six degrees of freedom. Done properly, this lets you experience a highly convincing sense of motion in all the directions that the real aircraft is capable of in normal flight. Just like a multi-million-pound commercial simulator.

You have to be fairly nuts to even consider starting down this road. It’s going to cost a fair bit of money, be a never-ending quest for perfection, disrupt your home life (if you’re lucky enough to have one), and swallow time like a big black hole. But then you could say that about a lot of hobbies.

Let’s put it this way – if you ever find yourself tempted, when at the local games emporium, to buy a copy of MS Flight Simulator X and play with it, you have maybe a 1 in 10,000 chance of ending up sweating over the best way to replicate a genuine Boeing 737ng Korry switch.

And if you end up taking it all the way, then your name is likely to be Matthew Sheils.

I have no idea just how far down this road I’ll end up going. But it’s going to be fun finding out.