We are happy to present the Builder of the Month for April 2010, "Steve Masters (Steve1970)" for his excellent work on generic light aircraft flight simulator. His work is something which any cockpit builder and more specifically GA builders can aspire. During the course of this written interview and podcast, Steve has shared with us in depth about his flight simulator and also a few tips and tricks which would be useful.
Hello steve, could you give us some background about yourself and how you came to simbuilding?
I first started flight simulation back in the days of FS5, so that would be around 1995, ever since I have purchased almost all releases of Microsoft Flight Simulator. In 2001 I took the plunge and joined VatSim flying the ďBig TinĒ mainly the Wilco 737 PIC and then later offerings from PMDG and the excellent level D.
In 2008 I upgraded to FSX and decided it was time to upgrade my PC to keep up with technology. In doing so I added a few peripheries such as a yoke, some rudder peddles and a few basic items from Saitek and invested in a three screen triple head to go set up from Matrox. This re-ignited my enthusiasm in flying and I began to see the benefit of using mouse and keyboard less and less.
In the middle of 2008 I joined Cix VFR club and began flying more hands on general aviation aircraft. In flying light aircraft in the FSX environment I find it far more engaging than taking off and employing auto pilot at 1000 feet. The hands on flying means that the interface side of things is far more important for a full simulation experience.
In November last year I began my project of developing a generic GA simulator and came across an interesting article from an existing My Cockpit member who had created a Garmin GNS530 replica using basic tools and equipment. I remember contacting him through Facebook and asking his advice as to whether this project would be easy enough for somebody with little or no electronics experience to undertake. As it turned out the member was serving in the army overseas and unable to offer me complete support but did promise to help upon his return. Undeterred I took on the project based on the information he had provided on forums and some documentation and can only thank him that the information was available for me to use to good effect.
From this point on it has been a case of learning by doing but has been an incredibly enjoying and satisfying experience creating my own cockpit.
Sometimes itís a case of one step forward and two steps backwards, I have made one or two mistakes that have cost me along the way. In making my Bendix King COM/NAV2 box, I soldered everything in place but noticed that one of the seven segment LEDS where in upside-down. It took me hours to de-solder it and I almost destroyed the PCB in the process.
Another big learning curve for me has been programming SIOC, whilst this is not something that I have found easy, I have really enjoyed learning about it. The help available on the forum and fellow members is really useful and I can only thank those that have helped me. Nico Kaanís website is a must in starting out, and Nico himself has helped me no end.
Ianís 737 site is also a really good resource, as are his recent podcasts. Iím looking forward to the next edition in which he will discuss the use of PICs.
Why did you choose the cessna aircraft for you flight simulator?
My cockpit simulator is based on no particular aircraft, instead it is a more generic design to allow me to fly a range of add-ons. As a GA pilot I wanted to be able to emulate the use of almost any SEP aircraft basic or complex with variable pitch prop and retractable landing gear as this is what I fly mostly real world.
I tend to do most of my flying online (VATSIM) and there are an increasing number of us now flying single engine piston or twin GA aircraft. In the UK it is very popular largely due to the very active CIX VFR Club, who hold regular online events.
My main objective in creating my cockpit was having the ability to simulate real world check lists in every phase of flight. I consider that flying, and some may disagree, is in some ways like riding a bike the intuitive feel of the aircraft in various phases of flight is something that needs practice but also kind of comes naturally after a period of time. However, the 100+ items of a checklist need regular drilling and for this unless we fly regularly, for instance every week its easy to become rusty and make mistakes.
For most of the testing of my cockpit I tend to use the standard Microsoft Cessna 172, as this behaves reasonably well. I then test it on other aircraft such as the Carenado range. Sometimes it is necessary to make minor tweaks to the aircraft configuration file to suit my needs. An example of this would be adjusting the radio settings to ensure that they match what I have in terms of physical hardware.
Do you have your own CNC?
At present I donít own a CNC machine but I do work in the CNC industry and have done for over 20 years. Our company supplies a range of heavy duty 4 and 5 axis CNC machines for producing a wide range of components. Some interesting projects I have been involved in over the last few years include patented design of specialist 5 axis machining for turbine blades.
I have looked on the forum section for CNC, I find it amazing that so many members are into CNC machines and making their own parts. These machines sure have their uses and must save a lot of money when it comes to panel making. At present I use Schaefer-AG for all my panels, they have a free CAD package where the design can be done, with instant online quoting. I find them a very good service and have had most of my panels made by them.
The main frame for my MIP was also CNC machined from 1Ē thick MDF, for this I used a specialist company who machine kitchen cupboards and doors etc. They were able to take my DXF cad files and accurately machine them. I even had tenons machined in so that the framework was easy to assemble.
For the MIP itself, I used a local company who have CNC laser cutting machines, again they where able to take my DXF cad data and machine out the 1.5mm steel panel.
When I look at the cost of making or buying a CNC machine or router, I would need to have a lot more panels to machine, to make it worthwhile. I think this is something to consider in the future, but could be classed as a hobby in it own right.
Could you tell us about your GPS system you made and why you decided about making one.
All of the aircraft at our flying club are equipped with GNS430 units. They are a superb aid for navigation especially flying in the UK where airspace is very congested. To learn how to use the unit, and get the most from what it can offer, you really do need to spend some time hands on with it. Whilst flying, itís obviously not a great idea to be playing with cockpit instruments, when our eyes should be looking outside. On the ground without the engine running, it is also difficult to familiarize yourself with the unit because it runs batteries flat quite quickly.
The functionality of the Reality XP offering is almost 100% accurate to the real world Garmin GNS series, much more true to life than the in-built Microsoft FS satellite navigation system. Based on the actual Garmin training software and database, the software offers the ability to fly accurate procedures.
I suppose using the GPS in this way is a fall back to my previous experience, flying the big tin on FMC guidance, I still love using that technology. I might look a bit silly though flying a ďHONILEY ONE ROMEOĒ from Manchester in a Cessna!
What do you plan on building next? ... and to what length of realism do you intend to go to on your flight sim. (visuals, panels, motion etc?)
This is really difficult question, because I have enjoyed building the sim so much over the last few months that I canít imagine that I will stop there. I bet Iím not the only person here who enjoys the building as much as flying the simulator (would make a good poll).
I would obviously like to see the final 4 avionics units complete by the end of the summer. I still have to construct my DME / ADF / XPDR / AP avionics units, perhaps one per month for financial reasons. At the moment I am using the Saitek radio panel and autopilot panel, which work well but lack realism. An improvement in my visuals set-up is also something I would like to work on.
At present, the cost of 3 short throw projectors is outside my financial means, however, this would probably be my next big investment of choice to improve the realism level of my sim further. As with most members, I am limited on space as to where I can build my Simulator. At present it is put together in my spare room / study which is about 8ft by 9ft
Full motion will have to remain a bit of a dream Iím afraid, At the moment Iím building a GarSim unit for a friend in Prague who has spent many years developing full motion simulation platforms, I think the biggest challenge in motion simulation is in getting the software development right .
I would also like to build my own yoke, at present I use the Saitek pro-flight yoke, but it has its drawbacks. The spring is a little too strong and the unit itself being constructed mainly from plastic feels lightweight in comparison to the real thing. The bearing on which the yoke shaft runs also needs regular maintenance with silicon spray to keep it free from sticking. If I could find a real yoke on ebay, I will probably have a go at this as a project towards the end of the year.
Another project I may get into beginning next year is a new MIP with G1000 hardware, perhaps based on something faster such as a twin turbo-prop. The general aviation market is definitely going glass cockpit, in years to come the old analogue gauges will be more expensive to manufacture and maintain than the new glass systems. Although I havenít flown an aircraft with a glass cockpit, I think that in the future, this will be something we GA pilots will need to embrace.
What, in your opinion, do you feel is the most essential part for a GA sim and should be made first.
The biggest difference between GA Sim and Big Tin is that GA Sim involves far more hands on flying. In starting out it is important that a GA Sim pilot invests in a good quality yoke and rudder peddle set up, and good quality add on scenery to fly under visual flight conditions. I am using add-on scenery from Horizon, and at 3000ft and 100kts, it is very true to life. This enables me to fly by reference to ground features it really is that good.
Another important point to make is that whatever level you wish to take your project to, I think that it is essential that you plan it so that Flight Simulator is useable along the way. I only had a couple of weeks downtime whilst re-organising my spare room and integrating the yoke within my MIP. During this downtime I was unable to use Flight Simulator. A couple of weeks isnít too bad, but if you are down for months or more, then this would be a problem.
I would invite any Boeing or Airbus pilot to take out the Cessna, file VFR on VATSIM or IVAO and go and give it a try, the stress levels really do start to rise, especially when online you really need to know where you are and what time you will be at your next waypoint destination without that wonderful Honeywell FMC. When landing at a busy airfield, with lots of traffic, we have to fit in with other traffic and make overhead joins, base leg joins, or downwind joins, so it can get quite challenging.
How long have you been working on the sim to date, and could you give a rough cost indication for other GA simbuilders with a similar aspiration.
I began very recently. With absolutely no prior experience of cockpit building, I took the plunge in November last year. I have practically no electronics experience, so everything I have learnt is from going through the forum, asking questions and basically learning by doing. Sometimes I have made mistakes and its been a case of one step forward and two steps back.
The cost of the simulator can be measured in time as well as money. When embarking on any cockpit building project, its worth noting that it can be extremely time consuming. I spend a lot of time planning out my project first, in 3D CAD, and using FreePCB I create the circuit board design.
To give a rough estimate of financial costs, my MIP cut from 1.5mm steel cost me £70. Each specialist PCB costs around 60 Euros with shipping, I try to order a couple at a time. A typical Schaeffer faceplate costs around 60 Euros again with shipping. For the gauges I used a second hand monitor from Ebay for £40. The software used for the gauges is from Project Magenta, but there are alternatives available, from around £30.
In terms of tools, I purchased a good quality soldering Iron, some automatic wire strippers and cutter, and a crimping tool. I also purchased a Brother label maker for marking the cables.
Are you a pilot in real life/ hold a PPL?
Yes, I hold a PPL for single engine piston aircraft. No fancy ratings, just a basic PPL so I fly mainly Piper PA-28s out of Wellesbourne EGBW in the UK
Since the credit crunch has hit, I have reduced the number of hours I am flying real world to the absolute minimum, so to compensate the simulator is a really good alternative for me
With things now looking up, I plan to fly more real world, and am looking forward to flying to Bournemouth very soon to experience an hour in a full motion Level D 737 simulator which my wife and family paid for as a 40th birthday present in February.
And finally, any advice you could give for new builders embarking on a General Aviation simulator in the near future.
My advice would be to dive in and have a go, its great fun, as a cockpit builder we are constantly learning new skills, CAD design, electronics, metalwork, wood working, programming, the list is endless. The skills needed are very broad based but with all the help available on Mycockpit.org, nothing is unachievable if the will and enthusiasm is there.
Before embarking on your project there are a few things that you should ask yourself. For instance, how much time you can dedicate to the hobby, how much money do you have to spend, what tools and equipment do you have at your disposal, how much space is available to put your simulator in once complete. Plan your project carefully using freeware CAD software, ask others here on the forum if you have questions or things youíre not sure about, and join in some of the interesting forum discussions.
Whether you intend to start small with a simple yoke and rudder set-up, or commit a large budget to a more detailed project, building a cockpit simulator is hugely enjoyable and rewarding and I hope you have as much fun as Iíve had so far.
Many thanks to all that have offered there help and support here over the last few months, Iím sure I will have a thousand more questions as I progress my Sim further. Thanks to All.
I would also like to thank Steve for such a fantastic detailed interview! His simulator is not only an example to others but his interview sets to bar for the information and detail steve gave us. I'm sure many of you will find this interview along with the podcast very useful and hopefully learn something you didn't know before for your own sim!