My cockpit project goals

My 'pilot chair' - not quite the real thing

My 'pilot chair' - not quite the real thing

UPDATE 30/08/10: Things have moved on a bit since this post was written. When you’ve read it, you might want to head here to start catching up.

It’s pointless starting a project without knowing what you want to achieve. A project manager taught me that once. Still, I tend to have a more, um, organic view of things. During the few months I’ve been building already, I have done and re-done several fairly fundamental aspects of the work until I’m happy with it. So clearly I’m not the blueprint-making kind. That said, I’m not slipshod either. Much.

When I set out on the road to cockpit nirvana, the very first question I had to ask myself was – how far was I going to go? Up to that point I had played every version of Flight Simulator, and many of its competitors, obsessively; but solely with a joystick and keyboard combo. Last year I had the bright idea of tarting up my experience by buying a few bits of useful hardware: a CH Products yoke, throttle quadrant and rudder pedals combo; and a Pilot Chair which promised to make the whole thing that much more real. What I can say, after having tried all of them, is that they don’t make it all that real. They do make it easier to fly without having to learn x million keyboard shortcuts, and the throttle quadrant in particular jazzes up that part of the experience, but you’re still sitting in a chair with a yoke and throttles arranged on various metal arms, in front of some kind of screen. It’s just not, well, convincing.

So my starting point was that I wanted the experience to be more convincing, not just better. That told me that I wanted a full enclosure, projected displays, and realistic interior controls, not dissimilar to a commercial simulator. I decided early on that going for a motion platform would be a bridge too far. I also realised immediately that I could not achieve a full enclosure and project displays in my current home and with the space available. Since I live in rented accomodation and am more than likely planning to move in early 2010, the first major decision I made was to split the project up into phases:

Phase 1 – the main console (MIP, glareshield etc); the pedestal; some kind of chair. I would couple this with a 46″ LCD display that I happened to have spare, which avoided the need to have huge amounts of depth of field (or a complicated system of mirrors) and thus lots of space. I could squeeze this much into the half a room I had available, and it would be small enough and modular enough to be disassembled quite easily and moved to my new flat or house, whenever that time comes.

Phase 2 –  basic enclosure; a deck (in phase 1, the console and pedestal rest directly on the floor), a surrounding frame with panels, side screens to complement the main display.

Phase 3 – projection display system, enhanced enclosure (overhead panel, engineer station, other bits and pieces). Will need lots more space, probably a dedicated room or garage.

The second major question I had to ask myself was – what do you want to simulate? This is a really, really important question for any cockpit builder, because it dictates the approaches you can take. Most builders – probably 8 of 10 at least – look to replicate, or approach a replica of, a real aircraft cockpit. The Boeing 737 is by far the most popular, probably because in its glass cockpit 737ng-800 variant it has a relatively simple MIP, and there are several aftermarket vendors selling clone 737 parts. Indeed, if you’re not bothered about the DIY experience, you can buy the entire MIP, glareshield, instrument panels and all necessary components for a 737 sim off the shelf from outfits like Engravity.

Only a very few people go for the less mainstream option, which is to create a unique cockpit inspired by various different aircraft. Needless to say, since I’m a masochist, I decided to go down this route.

In point of fact, freeing yourself from needing to duplicate a particular cockpit is a real boon. You aren’t doomed to hunting down obscure switch types, trying to replicate cast metal parts with badly-carved bits of wood and MDF, desperately searching the internet for the precise dimensions of the A320 glareshield or the exact pantone shade Boeing paints the 747 MIP. You can decide exactly what instruments your flight deck will posess, what switches, what goes on which screen and where. It makes the build a little easier, and I’m all for an easy life.

The Diamond D-Jet glass cockpit

The Diamond D-Jet glass cockpit

I envisaged a design not too dissimilar from one of the current range of light jets (in particular I drew inspiration from Diamond’s new D-Jet) crossed with a more traditional glass-cockpit airliner. The idea is that I should be able to fly anything from a small prop to a heavy jet and be able to get at the majority of the controls you need to fly the thing without having to touch a keyboard or a screen.

I would have a full console, though, with a four-engine throttle assembly and radio stack like current Boeing and Airbus aircraft, and a full MCP with autopilot controls and displays. No overhead in phase 1; I would consider if I needed one later.

To make life easier on the controls front, I decided to go mainly glass, with three main displays (rather like the D-Jet) capable of being a Garmin setup, a set of Boeing or Airbus screens, or a custom analog-gauge panel for props and classic jets.

Finally, for those many controls of larger and heavier jets that I would not have physical knobs or switches for (fuel feed, various engine functions, etc), I would either acquire or build suitable glass screens. Here my background as a software developer will come in handy. Using the FSUIPC API it’s possible to interface custom panels or displays written in .NET (or possibly Silverlight) directly with the simulator, and I’ll be putting two touchscreens into the sim (possibly more) so the keyboard shouldn’t have to make an appearance in everday use.

The overall effect should be something like a sophisticated, futuristic airliner, not unlike the new 787 or A380 although rather less complex.

That’s the plan. The execution is a very different story. Next up, we’ll talk materials and tools.