Home-Grown Simulators

Nine guys who have raised puttering in the garage to an art form.


JOYSTICK AND KEYBOARD HAVE NEVER BEEN ENOUGH. Your fantasies include a yoke, rudder pedals, a G-suit, and lots of cool knobs and buttons. You want to strap into an ejection seat (not your desk chair), tap the artificial horizon (just to see that it’s not stuck), and bank into cloud-studded turns (rather than the wall calendar). You’re a closet sim geek. here are your heroes.

Garage-kept F/A-18
Brian McKenzie remembers the day 13 years ago when he decided to build his own simulator. “I took a trip on a real F-18 sim when I was in the Royal Australian Air Force and it inspired me. Why should pilots have all the fun?” With the help of library books and the Internet—he wasn’t allowed to take photographs when in the service—McKenzie was able to build one of his own. It runs on a network of four computers and uses Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2002 and a host of specialized add-on programs.

The faux Hornet’s sheet metal-on-wood fuselage is topped with a fiberglass canopy. His ejection seat—an exact replica of a Martin-Baker SJU-9—was fabricated from plywood, and though McKenzie’s work is spectacular to look at, it’s equally capable of impressing other senses. Two monster subwoofers under the seat generate noise and vibration, and a flightsuit donated by a visiting U.S. Air Force officer completes the illusion; an air bladder under the seat cushion inflates to push the pilot against the straps if he pulls negative Gs.

McKenzie purchased the sim’s instruments on eBay—a move that raised suspicion among Australian authorities; his Mullumbimby, New South Wales home was raided by customs officials and police who feared he was importing weapons. After hours of searching and a round of interviews, an inspector called to say, “Great simulator.” members.optusnet.com.au/~brianmac18

Widebody on Wheels
Adelaide’s John Dunkley has transformed an Aussie-model Ford Falcon XF chassis into a three-quarter-scale replica of a 747 cockpit. After four years of construction, he’s ready to take the next step—mounting it on a hydraulic platform that will simulate pitch, yaw, and roll.

Dunkley has long been fascinated with Boeing jumbo jets—the license plate on his family’s car reads “747-400.” “Prior to 9/11, I got a ride in the cockpit on every flight I took,” he recalls. “I produced a booklet about what I was doing and I’d hand it to the chief purser. My sim was my ticket to the flight deck.”

Dunkley admits that his mock 747 isn’t quite on par with the real thing, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling as if he’s really in the jetliner’s left seat, flying to real destinations. “Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport is really my favorite,” he says. “I like to do a full [Instrument Flight Rules] departure and an instrument approach at night. It’s a thrill every time, even though I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

He hopes to have the sim fully operational in a few years, but he knows that projects like this never feel totally completed. “I’ve got a very understanding wife,” he says. “I think she’d rather I was in the sim than down at the pub.” www.senet.com.au/~dunkleyj

Buckle’s Beagle
If Gene Buckle’s simulator looks like an actual F-15C, that’s because it is. Buckle spent the last two years adding authentic and replica components to a nose section purchased from an aviation museum. The simulator—he’s nicknamed it the Beagle, a derivative of the F-15’s official name, Eagle—and the computers that run it fill his Tacoma, Washington garage.

His goal—building an accurate reproduction of the F-15’s systems—has led him on a long and pricey quest. Authentic military instruments can run $6,000 each, and cheaper surplus equipment is scarce. The Air Force’s demilitarization procedures haven’t helped; instruments are often processed beyond recognition or destroyed altogether. “I sometimes get handed a bag of fragments and have to piece them together,” Buckle complains.

The software engineer frequently relies on machinists who delight in constructing replicas of two-inch fuel flow gauges, but there’s often a lot of begging involved (“I talk to a lot of people to make sure they remember ‘that crazy guy who’s building an F-15’ ”). Buckle dismisses the idea that using reproduction pieces diminishes the sim’s authenticity. “It’s mostly theater,” he says. “If I can trick you into thinking it’s real, who cares if it’s real or not?” www.f15sim.com

Most south London sheds house lawn mowers or mulch, but inside Daren Knightsbridge’s, you’ll find a complete 767 flight simulator. Refurbished airliner seats and plastic panels have convincingly transformed the former coal bunker into the flight deck of a jumbo jet. Knightsbridge is proud of his work: “I’m a truck driver, not an engineer,” he says. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve had to learn how to do it myself.”

Each November, a roster of enthusiasts, including the managing director of London’s Gatwick Airport and several airline pilots, fly his simulator non-stop for a week to raise money for children’s charities. They follow the schedules of British Airways, Virgin, and EasyJet airlines, among others. “We try to plan it as realistically as possible,” he says. “British Airways provides the routes and supplies approach plates.” Legions of other supporters log on to his Web site to become air traffic controllers or fly along from other computers. (An online group of supervisors makes sure nobody is flying recklessly. See www.vatsim.net for more about virtual air traffic control.) Ever dedicated to realism, crew members even eat airline food donated by Knightsbridge’s employer, Gate Gourmet, while they fly. www.world-flight.org

Captain Cardiologist
Joseph Maldonado has spent the past year restoring the front section of an ex-TWA 727-200—flight deck, galley, lavatory, and 15 feet of the first-class cabin—and refurbishing it with airline paraphernalia such as in-flight magazines, silverware, playing cards, pillows, blankets, life vests, and barf bags. The Hatillo, Puerto Rico cardiologist plans on re-creating the entire flying experience; when the simulator is finished, passengers will be able to watch scrolling terrain from their windows—or opt for an in-flight movie—as pilots fly the jet on a simulated route. Maldonado has prerecorded cabin announcements and even outfitted a mannequin with a flight attendant ensemble. He’s also acquired a refreshment trolley. “I’m looking forward to having friends come over and eat a meal in the back as they await their turn to fly the jet,” he says—and he doesn’t just mean soda and a bag of peanuts. “We will serve full-course meals, as in the golden years of first-class.”

Special challenges await those, like Matt Ford, who try to turn real aircraft into simulators. One is integrating monitor displays and converting avionics to respond to simulation programs and the multiple computers that drive them. Another is developing “flight loading,” which determines the behavior of controls and governs force feedback—the yoke’s resistance when pulling out of a dive, for example.

In 1998, Ford bought a 737-100 flight deck from a tear-down facility in Oklahoma, but for several years, it languished in pieces in his parents’ Dallas garage. Once he got started, he put nearly $25,000 into the sim before he made his first flight, in February 2002.

Like others in the hobby, the Los Angeles lighting designer (who’s earned two Emmys for work on the 1998 and 1999 Oscars) strives for authenticity. “I’m really committed to having every component be either a real part or an exact replica,” he says. “I want a 737-NG [next generation] pilot to come in and see no discernible difference between my sim and the real thing.” He’s even acquired authentic “Boeing Gray” paint. “I love having friends come over and fly the thing,” he says. “For them, it’s like a ride at an amusement park.” www.737sim.com

Analog Amalgamation
Because digital displays easily interface with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, most sim builders use computer screens for primary flight displays. Their absence makes Matt Wietlispach’s sim unique; he refuses to use anything but analog gauges and dials.

For the avionics systems engineer, work and play are nearly identical. “I pretty much do the same thing at home as I do at work, but on a smaller scale and for much less money,” he laughs. Working for an aerospace firm does have its rewards—Wietlispach uses discarded sheet metal scraps, instrument components, bolts, and lights for raw materials. Without them, he couldn’t have built his simulator. “This stuff is beyond expensive,” he says.

The sim in his Cedar Rapids, Iowa basement is a military hybrid. “There’s probably at least 10 different aircraft in there,” he explains. “If I tried to build a single aircraft type, I’d have to get parts only from that type,” he adds, revealing the telltale compulsiveness of sim builders. “I have to have a drink before I fly it; otherwise I get obsessive about every defect.”

Though the simulator can be rigged to fly combat missions, Wietlispach prefers the realism and terrain displays of the civilian-minded Flight Simulator 2002 program. “Flying in Chicago between buildings on Michigan Avenue at the speed of sound is quite a bit of fun,” he says. Still, Wietlispach admits that building the sim is much more fun than flying it. He’s recently added a pressurized G-suit and installed instruments to measure windshield temperature, engine nozzle position, and oil pressure. “It’s an obsession. Sometimes I’ll work on it all day without eating. Basically, I’m going to keep doing this until my hands break.” members.aol.com/wietlpachm/howto/

Flight Simulator Technology
Hardcore hobbyists’ simulators rely on elaborate combinations of hardware and software, but three elements—Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, the extended/programmable input controller, or EPIC, card, and add-on software designed by Enrico Schiratti—are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine the hobby without them.

Flight Simulator is the glue that binds most simulators together; it generates through-the-windscreen views and the flight-dynamics data used to run instruments, replicate an aircraft’s flight envelope, and create an external environment. The program is also popular because Microsoft makes a software developers kit available to enthusiasts who want to design airports, cockpit displays, or entirely new aircraft.

While Flight Simulator can replicate views seen from cockpit windows, Enrico Schiratti’s software is used by enthusiasts around the world to mediate internal displays: instruments and other flight management and electronic information systems. Schiratti is considered the guru of the flight sim community; he wrote software for F/A-18 cockpit displays in the film Behind Enemy Lines and managed to incorporate Boeing’s enhanced ground proximity warning system into simulators before Boeing could equip its own simulators with the system.

EPIC cards serve as the interface between Microsoft’s or Schiratti’s software and hardware such as LED displays, joysticks, toggle switches, dials, and lights. Without them, home-built simulators wouldn’t be as realistic.

For very complex simulators, as many as six computers may independently govern the pilot’s instruments, the copilot’s, the engine indication and crew alert system, an autopilot, hardware drivers, and lastly, the Flight Simulator software.

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