• Builder of Month - May 2009

    Welcome to May 2009's edition of Builder of the Month. This month we bring you an unique Builder of the Month, Tony Hill. This one is not into building the usual Airbus or Boeing but a Fighter Jet. Interesting!!

    Click on "Read More" for full interview.

    Thanks for taking the time for the interview questions. Your simulator is certainly an interesting build with an even more important history.

    Thank you for the opportunity. Yes, the Spitty is one of the few, if not the only aircraft, to spend its entire career as a front line fighter and of course it is instantly recognised, even by people who know little about aircraft.

    Would you briefly tell the membership a little about yourself?

    Well, I’ve been married for 20 years, have no children, one dog and run my own Professional Practice. My life in a nutshell really…..

    What is your experience with Flight Simulator? How far back do you go with the series?

    My very first “flight simulator” was the X-Wing video game that toured at the cinemas when Star Wars premiered. Ten years later on PC, I started out with “Falcon”. I came to MSFS quite late, FS4 in 1989 (I had flown FS 3 on a mate’s computer). Back in those days my XT struggled to get 16 FPS in MSFS and my inbuilt speaker sounded more like a bad radio reception than an engine!! I vividly remember my first “Sound Blaster” transformed my PC. Since then I have bought every release and switched to it pretty well straight away. I don’t get sentimental about them as some do.

    What made you decide to start building a simulator of this particular aircraft?

    I’ve always dreamed of flying a Spitfire, since I read “Reach for the Sky” in the mid seventies. I did have an opportunity once but had to let it pass, one of my great regrets. I climbed around in 727’s as a kid and loved them, before the Twin Towers happened I visited the cockpits of 737’s, 747’s, 767’s and A320’s in flight and came into Perth in the cockpit of a 777 in 1999 but I need something with a little less brains and a little more brawn. A single seat fighter seemed the obvious choice for a piston simulator and there was never any doubt which one!

    How long have you been working on your sim?

    I am a very impatient builder. I tend to collect everything I need before I start, that way I don’t have to guess/measure/allow for bits I don’t have or wait during construction. So I started collecting bits in early January 2008, beginning with the Spade Grip and Gun Sight. The actual building phase started with the Type 35 Controller in January this year and has progressed quite quickly. The main structure is now substantially done.

    Had you started building, or thought about building any other aircraft?

    The Spitfire is my second simulator. I spent three years building an F-16, which is now pretty much finished. It is good fun and a challenge to operate but I just felt drawn to the Spitfire. I am a “stick and rudder” pilot first and foremost.

    Where did you get most of the information such as drawings, dimensions, and detailed photographs for your research for this project?

    I have built up a good library over the years. I was also very lucky to trip across a CD of engineering drawings for the Spitfire along with some repair manuals and rigging notes. There were vast grey areas due to missing drawings, wood vs metal construction etc and I had resigned myself to a simple “box” full of a mixture of real and standard PC controls. Events overtook me however and I ended up getting an outline plan from a replica Spitfire which, with some extrapolation and guesswork has turned into something half decent and fairly close to the real thing. The photos came from various books until recently when Westozy, Kennair and I went to Bullcreek Museum and I got to climb over and photograph in detail, their Spitfire 22. The cockpit really did not change much over the aircraft’s many marques.

    Could you give us a brief history of the development and deployment of this aircraft as it relates to WWII?

    The Spitfire began service just in time for the war. The early Mk 1’s were a far cry from where the Spitfire ended up. By the end of the war the Spitfire weighed 50% more. The Mk 1 put 8lbs of shot down range in a three second burst, the last marques fired 40 lbs in three seconds. By the end of the war they were 100mph faster and operated at 10,000ft greater ceiling! The propeller started as a two blade, fixed pitch affair and progressed through three, four and five bladed constant speed props. The 975 hp original Merlin ended up as a Griffon of nearly 2400 hp.

    Although the Hurricane was by far the more numerous fighter in the Battle of Britain, the Spitty captured the public imagination. It has been said that the Spitfire was the more important fighter as, if available in sufficient numbers, it could have won the battle without the Hurricane but the reverse is not true. That is a proposition which could be argued at length but the fact remains that the image most people have of the battle is almost universally a Spitfire banking in the blue. The aircraft which RJ Mitchell designed proved to be one of the most flexible and adaptable aircraft of all time. It was developed and remained at or near the top of the heap all through the war. The Spitfire was deployed in all theatres and in all climates, operating successfully from scorching desert heat to arctic freeze.

    The RAF used them until 1954 and several other countries used them for much longer. Jet technology eventually saw the end of the Spitfire as an operational fighter but not before over 22,000 were produced.

    How do you build parts for your project? Have you located any real parts for your project?

    I have quite a few real parts. Some are antique (Radio Controller, Morse Switch Box, Oxygen Regulator, Gun Sight, Bulbs, KyGas Pump, Supercharger Switch, Warning Lights) others are flying quality rebuilds for the restoration market (Gun Sight Mounting Frame, Spade Grip). The electrical switches are 1960’s vintage look-a-likes. I build a lot too. The Type 35 controller was built from plastic card, a project box and modern switches, along with some extensive help from a mate’s laser cutter. I keep an eye out all the time for “things that look like other things”. It is not uncommon for me to pick up an item of junk just because “that would make a good so and so”. On this project I am only doing that with things that will look very close as the over all realism will hopefully be very high. I don’t, for instance, want to look at a plumbing fixture “de-icing pump” and be unhappy that it is just OK. I will build that sort of stuff out of PVC pipe, plastic card and aluminium otherwise.

    Being a smaller single seat simulator, have you found it difficult working in a more confined space when installing and detailing the sim?

    The F-16 experience really came into its own here. Firstly the instrument panel is fully detachable and the instruments plug back via one USB cable and one power cord. Six screws and two plugs later the entire thing lifts out to work on. More importantly the whole frame joins down the middle. As all of the furniture attaches to the cockpit walls, the halves can be laid on their sides and worked on that way. The wiring will be fixed to each wall and go forward to a switchbox (one per side) in the nose. This makes moving the simulator in and out of rooms possible and helps access for building. Of course once finished, it will be a pig to work on unless it is taken right apart but that is unavoidable.

    What visual system will you use for your outside displays?

    I have elected to go for 3 x 19” square monitors with TH2Go. The increased field of view alone makes TH2Go a great investment. This will allow me to curve them around and use the frames as canopy frames. The worst part of a canopy rather than a cockpit with windows is that you do not have that wonderful roof from which to “suspend disbelief”. Of course a dome is the best way to go but beyond the budget. However, I also use TIR4 and I find that by restricting how far you turn your head it does actually cut down a lot of the outside world’s intrusion. I will eventually put a light blue sheet on a frame over the entire thing. I may even paint some clouds on it! I will say, though, that as a stick and rudder man, convincing visuals are very important. Most of the time your head is out the cockpit and blinking scenery, blurries etc tend to kill the whole thing for me.

    This is obviously not a Project Magenta type of aircraft so what flight model will you be using for the simulator? Are there any outstanding models available for this sim?

    I am using the RealAir Spitfire for FSX as the current platform, which includes the Mk XIV and the Mk IX. I fly the Mk IX exclusively. I like it but the more I fly it, the more faults I find. In the air it “flys” beautifully, so as a fun plane you couldn’t get better. To take her up for half an hour and do aerobatics is pure joy. Ground handling is far too docile. At taxi speed full brakes barely lift the tail, when they should tip you over onto the nose. The steerable tail wheel is flat out wrong. You can also sit for as long as you like, idling or running up and not get close to overheating. In reality the Merlin should be a real challenge to keep cool long enough to get into the air. The performance numbers and fuel consumption once in the air are also problematic. I asked RealAir about these things and they stopped answering my emails!! I would love someone to give this aircraft the attention to the numbers that the airliners appear to get (but then maybe the grass is just greener on the other side?)

    Other commercial sims available are Plane Designs’ Spitfire XVI, Just Flight’s Spitfire pack, and Wings Of Power’s Spitfire 1A.

    Of these I just started looking at the WOP one. It is an early marque and has some different controls that would have to be added (eg radiator shutter control). Initial impressions are good. The ground handling seems to be spot on. The fully castoring tail wheel is a complete nightmare, as it should be and any application of brakes whilst taxiing needs to be very carefully done or over you go. Any more than moderate throttle with the parking brake on tends to tip you straight on the nose. All accurate from my fairly extensive research . The fuel burn is also good as is the whole feel of it in the air. The low speed handling and relatively high power needed in the landing circuit do let it down a bit and it doesn’t sideslip at all well. Overall I am impressed though and will probably build in the radiator shutter lever, landing light switch and a couple of other controls it has that the Mk IX doesn’t. As a PRU Spit of course it will have the severely limited range of the early aircraft. It is early days yet but I can see that it may well replace the RealAir model, particularly if the oil pressure is not as much of a problem. They have also developed a new gimmick called Accusim which is supposed to mimic engine performance at different temperature, different handling by the pilot etc. In fact they claim that it will accurately reflect the vagaries of operating high performance engines under different conditions. When that is applied to this Spitfire it should be great. At the moment it does lack the engine failure model but if the engine operates to the numbers and you fly the numbers, you shouldn’t break the engine anyway! I can’t remember the last time I accidentally cooked the RealAir engine for instance.

    What about your computer system(s)? What sort of machine(s) will you be using to run the sim?

    One computer only and that is in a black box with a blue light to let me know when I have turned it on if I forget to also turn on the screen. That is about as technical as I get I’m afraid. I am currently looking at updating. The system I have is a “slow” Hewllet Packard “off the shelf” quad core with an NVIDIA older style graphics card. I will be chasing advice from the members very soon. I am hoping that the simplicity of the model will allow me to get away with one system since there will be no instrument graphics being used and no fancy navigation computers etc. I have only ever set up one network and that did not really function well. Watch this space I guess.

    Will you be using modified real or simulated analog gauges for the instrument panel, or will you be using a display to represent the gauges?

    I have ordered a full set of all the gauges either covered by offsets, or able to be “faked” by some means, from Flight Illusion. I have half of them and have been promised the other half early this month. I have spent over 100 hours so far just on test flying and calibrating gauges. I have a very clear idea, from different historical accounts and modern flying reports , of how I want the engine instruments to perform. So far the Boost Gauge (measuring manifold pressure) is the only one which is perfect. The radiator temp is almost there and actually was “cheated” from an FS2004 offset. 0il Temp is a nightmare. RealAir’s is custom designed and jumps pretty well straight to 60 odd on start-up and then only changes markedly if you thrash the engine. I want the whole range to work ie it takes time to warm up after start. This was a BIG problem in the Spitfire as oil needed to be warmed but the radiator overheated quickly. At present I have two almost working solutions, both compromises. One is based on “N1” and the other a modified radiator temp. Oil temperature offsets just do not perform properly for RealAir Spitfire in FSX. I have experimented a bit with the WOP oil temp modelling and it looks much better but there is much work left to be done.

    Of the “flying” gauges I have the ASI, AH and Turn & Slip so far, all working flawlessly. Still to arrive or be implemented are the DG, RPM, Altimeter, VSI, Fuel Contents and elevator trim gauges and a Collins style radio. The Oil Pressure just shows a constant pressure, so I will just use a “dead” gauge for that. Flight Illusion could not supply a square Spitfire type unit and I was not prepared to go for a round gauge as that instrument is not all that important in FSX.

    If I go ahead with the WOP model, the Voltmetre will be connected to the EGT figure so that the change in voltage can be read off and used to set the Mixture. (the Spitfire 1A did not have an EGT gauge and largely the mixture was set by listening to the engine. This sort of fine judgement is not possible in FSX). I’ll rig the volts to read 0 at engine off and 12 to 35 engine on, depending on the EGT.

    How have you, or will you, be designing the flight controls? I know a lot of members here are interested in the design mechanics and engineering of these systems.

    This was what caused me the most angst in the early planning stages. I hand built the throttle run of the F-16 along with landing gear mechanism etc. The Spitfire presented some special problems however. I originally planned to use a Saitek throttle quadrant, hacked to look a bit like the Spitfire throttle and CH Pro rudders. Then, of course, I had this Spade Grip pivoting top and absolutely no idea how I was going to make that drive a pot. Gwyn to the rescue. A simple “I can do that for you” that he will probably regret for the rest of his life! In the end I ordered an Undercarriage Lever unit, the Rudders, and Throttle unit as well as the full Control Column with switches for radio, differential brakes and Emergency Boost. The throttle should be ready soon and is the last of it. All but the throttle (which will be wall mounted) is on a frame which bolts straight into the cockpit structure. The trims ( a P-51 Mustang rudder and homebuilt elevator) will operate off encoders. The main fuel cock I will make from an old jet undercarriage lever that I have, suitably modified and face-plated. At least I will have built SOMETHING of the controls that way. Downside was, of course, that having seen Gwyn’s work, I could no longer justify a square box full of controls and a seat. I had to plan and build a high fidelity replica Spitfire.

    How is the interfacing going to be accomplished? What input and output cards will you be using?

    Currently Gwyn has based the controls on a “plug and play” concept using a hacked Sidewinder. Any buttons that can be run off a “momentary” will be linked to this. All other buttons will run through a Betainnovations Gamma-Ray 256. That will also handle the two encoders for trims. The axes not covered by the sidewinder ( mixture and pitch) will be set up on a Plasma MM2 card, also Betainnovations (sadly defunct now) There will not be too much on these cards and therefore any failures can be changed out relatively easily for Leo Bodnar cards or similar. Output will be to a Phidgets Led 64.

    How will you go about getting the various outputs extracted out of FS so various indicators will be functional? Many members, including me, are likely to be interested in this when not using PM or another software suite for the aircraft logic.

    The nice thing about the Spitfire is the relative simplicity. I haven’t played around with outputs yet but I am hoping against hope that the lights I need use a standard offset. I have no coding ability and would like to avoid having to learn as there are too any other things I have to get done. I am sure low volts, low fuel and undercarriage lights are in there but I doubt supercharger lights are. Not sure how I will get around this yet but I am all ears for suggestions and happy to share anything I work out. This is the area that worries me most now. It is one I didn’t have to deal with for the F-16 as Leo wrote full software to work his cards for Falcon. I don’t envy you airline guys trying to get all those warning lights and annunciators working from thin air.

    Since the sim is relatively smaller and lighter compared to an airliner simulator, have you given any thought to a motion platform down the road?

    My pet subject, thank you and prepare to be bored………Actually to put it as succinctly as possible, the range of motion in an airliner allows for motion cues to be very convincing. The same is not true for small agile fighters. Motion platforms here are, in my humble opinion, counterproductive. There is no satisfactory way I can see to accurately cue the sort of g forces and other sensations felt whilst performing aerobatics in a high performance aircraft. Most motion simulators other than for the heavies are a great fun ride but not at all realistic. If they were, the number of people who could stand to use them would be relatively small. There has been some research done that relies on connecting electrodes to your head and stimulating different parts of the brain to induce these sensations but I think I’ll pass for the moment!

    Given the uniqueness of a build of this sort, what has given you the most difficulty to this point?

    Plans. Getting the shape right has been a huge challenge. I could only get a plan with outside dimensions. From there I had to work out the interior dimensions by eye from photos etc. Then I used the instrument panel GA drawings, that I had, to work out the placing of the main longerons. I then used the GA of the fuselage to work out spacing of the fuselage frames. This gave me the rough position of the throttle, undercarriage unit, signal switchbox, IFF etc. The instrument panel height also gave me the positioning of the seat. That was the main problem solved but took a lot of hours and a lot of guesswork. The results will compare favourably with the real thing, especially after looking over the Mk 22 at Bull Creek Museum.

    Gunsight Bulbs

    Is the sim flyable at this stage? If not, do you have another sim or desktop arrangement to keep you going while building? I think it's important to keep flying and not get so wrapped up in the build that you forget why you're building it in the first place.

    I agree, a lot of people get totally obsessed and forget to actually FLY. I am one of them I’m afraid. I have the desktop set up with rudders, saitek throttle, TH2Go and a Cougar. I don’t actually do much flying apart from testing the flight-model and instruments of the Spitfire. I would have logged less than 20 hours total on the F-16 because I got sidetracked onto this project. Some people might think that spending 3 years building a sim then not using it because you are building a second one is crazy (my wife is one of them). I prefer to think of it as saving the fun until I can give it my full attention *G*.

    Where do you see your simulator build in two years? Five years?

    Well, I want to be finished by sometime this year. June was the plan but that is not possible now. Two years, definitely finished. Five years? I hope I am going to Gwyn with controls that finally need some tuning up after 1500 or 2000 hours of hard flying. Given the progress of home sims over the last five years, who knows what goodies await us all in five years time?

    Do you have any other hobbies or activities outside of the simulator that you enjoy?

    I play a bit of guitar and mandolin sometimes. I am also into extreme trekking. The Kokoda Track is well known these days to Australians although the first time I went up there was before the current fad. Four times I’ve crossed the track by the longer (155km) route that includes Eastern side of the valley across from Isurava. One trip was a double, where I came in from Kokoda then turned around and went back out again. I never want to see the hot, wet, steep, treacherous, grinding, insect and disease ridden, mountainous jungle again…until next time. I’ve had jungle rot, a severe concussion, dysentery and a mate choppered out with a heart attack but each time I have somehow made it to the end. It is hard work and just in April two people died up there. But planning and preparation almost eliminates any risk. It is immensely satisfying to complete though!

    My other great vice is real world aerobatics. I’ve been fortunate to have time on quite a few different aerobatic aircraft, the highlight being two sessions in an Extra 300 where I got to fullfill my dream of learning the Lomchevak. I am now looking for a Pitts Special that I can get to fly. I was encouraged to do a low level endorsement a while back but I am too attached to my skin for that! I am not a great pilot and there are many here with much more experience but I have fun and after 12 years still get a thrill every time the wheels leave the ground.

    Is there anything you'd like to cover that I didn't mention or add to anything from the above?

    Just a word of encouragement to new builders : HAVE A GO. Four years ago I could hardly bang a nail in straight or solder a wire. I still can’t but I seem to be able to bumble along anyhow…If I can, anybody can!

    Once again Tony, thank you for the great interview. This is one of the more interesting builds on the site and is surely a very historic and important aircraft. I'm certain the membership has a new appreciation for building a WWII fighter simulator.

    M. Carter