Why Build A Space Flight Simulator Home Cockpit?

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Pablo Edronkin

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Flight simulation is today both a hobby as well as a science; what started decades ago as a training aid for pilots grew to become a technological wonder that serves to advance knowledge and entertain thousands of hobbists. It is indeed, far more than just playing games on a home computer.

Not all flight simulation processes are created equal and the degree of realism in each one varies, but if you supplement your flight simulation software, even those that use a PC with some suitable hardware, the degree of fidelity of the simulation as well as the general sensation transmitted to the pilot grows exponentially. I know this because I have already built a simulator cockpit that attained such a degree of realism that it is currently being used to train real pilots.

That simulator was based on a real cockpit gotten from the junkyard; it belonged to a plane that crashed into a bridge, and that helps a lot. After all, what would give you more realism than an actual cockpit? However, as good as that one is, it is being used day and night to train pilots and being myself a pilot that owns a real plane that is different to that portrayed by the flight sim, I started to thinker with the concept of building another one and that is how Nerkabtu began its life.

The other simulator is amicably know as LV-MLF; there is a story behind that but for now it is enough to say that it simulates a Beechcraft B350m and it is quite good at that. However, Since my plane is a Piper Cub Special and it would be boring to make the same kind of cockpit, I decided to build something more akin to simulating a PA-11 plus, I wanted to run some simulated flights using Orbiter, a space flight simulator that I am especially fond of.

As time passed and I keep thinking about the construction of the new home cockpit, I concluded that being the PA-11 a very simple thing to simulate, as long as I kept the same general cockpit configuration – tandem – I would be able to satisfy both needs but being a spaceship a somewhat more complex thing, it would make more sense to design the cockpit for that primary use, leaving the mighty Cub on the back seat. Another reason was that since space ships are totally custom made down to their instruments and I already have a pretty good idea about what it takes to actually reproduce each existing gadget as opposed to creating new ones, it became apparent – or evident – that it would actually be far less expensive to build a spaceship cockpit, believe it or not. The reason is simple: There are no “steam” gauges to reproduce: instead, a full scale cockpit can be constructed using only some flat screens.

So, by means of this I hope to be able to convey some of my experiences with this new cockpit as well as the old. In reality I have already started to build Nerkabtu a couple of weeks ago but finally I have some time to start writing this. Maybe you can use all this for your own, better or cheaper home cockpit project. The term "Nerkabtu" is almost totally unknown even among specialists. There is virtually no mention to it online, neither there is much bibliography to back it up in any way, but its invention played a vital role in the development of human technology, The nerkabtu was the first chariot in history that moved on spiked wheels. The word is from the ancient Accadian language and describes the military chariots that where cutting-edge equipment thousands of years ago.

Nerkabtus were extremely expensive and available thus only to the very rich or to governments of the ancient world. Building spiked wheels was a costly and complicated task that rose most likely from the need to produce locally some sort of replacement to the kind of wheels that were used in the bronze age. These sturdy wheels made from wooden cuts or conveniently-shaped boards were imported into the Middle East. They were naturally costly and of strategic importance, so locals began trying to produce a replacement from materials found in a region where there are no trees and came out with a kind of wheel that requires less wood and surprisingly, proved far superior in terms of bulk and the speed that could be attained using them. Political and military leaders soon realised that they had attained a competitive advantage, and the development of the first military vehicle was soon a fact. These combat chariots were the equivalent of our present-day fighter bombers.

Oddly enough the development of the chariot precedes that of saddling. That is, people began to move on chariots before thy actually knew how to ride an individual horse. So, the essential thing about the nerkabtu is that it was the first tool that could move people faster than they could walk or run.

Every car, plane and spaceship that we know about owes something to the ancient and almost forgotten Accadian chariot, and its name seemed to me most appropriate to christen a flight sim cockpit that is not just destined to entertain a bit but to toy a little bit with some post-relativistic cosmological stuff.

All the money in the world will not buy you the best simulator

There is a big difference between building your sim cockpit with your own hands, little by little, and purchasing it or alt least buying all the components prefabricated and building it quickly.

To build a cockpit is to enter a long term commitment unless you are ready to commit a significant amount of money at once in order to buy it almost ready or a lot of prefab components that only need to be plugged to a computer in order to work. If you want to build your cockpit you will soon enough find that you can either have it working quickly or save money. But there is more to it than just that.

What does money give you in this regard? Things that you purchase, and even a turnkey cockpit sim will have you flying in just a matter of hours; however, that comfortable thought will not give you an understanding of what the sim does, and neither will give you flexibility for the future. So, at least in the beginning you will be fine; the future is quite another story because you will become dependent on your hardware provider, and if the company goes out of business, you will be left like an orphan.

Sometimes components inside a sim cockpit fail; perhaps a card, a cable, actuators or whatever fails, and you have to repair the thing. If you have built the simulator, you will know what to do, and despite the inconvenience, you will certainly find your way around even if you have to replace components that are no longer being manufactured. However, in the case of prefab sims you will depend almost entirely on the manufacturer, and if no spares become available or the company no longer manufactures them, you will have to replace them too, but without the comfort that the builder/owner who knows the innards of the machine has. In such situations, owners of prefab sims fare not so well as those who did build their cockpits.

Save some exceptions, manufacturers of prefab sim cockpits are really small shops, and in the long run it is highly likely that most of them will get out of business, so in the end, purchasing a prefab sim for your home is a recipe for trouble.

Do-it-Yourself Modular Things End Up Being Cheaper

One of the most delicate tasks in the construction of a home cockpit is to keep the budget controlled. Sim cockpits are not the most cheap thing to build but even so, it is possible to complete such a project making significant savings just by thinking every step twice before committing your wallet.

There are four fundamental ways to save money in the construction of a flight sim cockpit:

Build most of the components yourself instead of purchasing them: This will depend largely on the rapidity with which you would like to have your cockpit finished and working. In one extreme yo have complete kits and even turnkey systems that will have you flying in no time; they are generally good but inflexible regarding future adaptations and upgrades, and very expensive. Building most of your components yourself could easily reduce your investment to one third of what you would spend by purchasing commercial items.

Designing and building your home cockpit in such a way as to make future maintenance easier: If you plan to keep your cockpit for any length of time, it is likely that one day you will like to make upgrades or you will be forced to perform some repairs on different components. A typical case comes into being whenever you want to upgrade your sim software and then you have to change your graphics card or increase the RAM of your computer to handle the new stuff. If in order to reach those components you have to tear your whole cockpit apart, you will incur in additional costs and time expenses. So, everything that might need to be repaired or changed should be designed in such a way as to allow for easy maintenance and upgrading in the future.

Use standard components whenever possible: Use the leas amount and variety possible of every single type of screws, nails and similar things. Two or three different kinds and sizes would do in most cases. Design and your pieces, plaques, etc. in such a way as to make them compatible and interchangeable. You will save a lot of time and complications in this way, and bear in mind that time is what most hobbyists don't have.

In the case of purchased components, stay with those that are generic: There are many different sorts of special modules and hardware boards that let you connect all your actuators, potenciometers, servos, etc. to your computer and hence simulate the innards of a real cockpit. In the most simple way, a joystick does that, and you can even disassemble one and use this components to make your own pedals, levers and so on. There are some products that are highly specialised and designed to provide the highest possible performance while using some specific simulation software. These are of course, very nice, but only while they work; and let me explain: Unfortunately malfunctions can occur in any component and if by any chance, after your -say- one thousand dollar interface card burns up you find out that the manufacturer is out of business, you will be left with a very expensive, non-working sim for quite a long time because replacing interfacing cards in a home cockpit is like performing a heart transplant in a human being. Changing an interfacing paradigm of one manufacturer by another is no easy feat. Thus, for Nerkabtu I opted for the stuff made by the folks at Opencockpits.com. Their components are among the cheapest in the market and they not only provide you with the required interface cards, but the schematics and construction specifications as well. This adds a layer of security because even in the worst case scenario, I will still be able to duplicate the cards by making them myself or having them made at an electronics shop.

Using What You Have At Home

As I mentioned earlier, building a home cockpit is a costly enterprise, but it is possible to cut a lot in terms of expenditure just with a bit of ingenuity.

And one of the most simple and obvious ways to do so is to start using whatever you have at home and don't need for anything else before actually going to the hardware shop. Your garage or basement could become a gold mine for your project: Just think about how many nails and screws one usually hast there, rusting in a tin or plastic can, You should try to use as much of those as possible before buying new ones and maybe, they can even become your standard.

In fact, as a rule I have been rationalising on the type of screws, bolts and similar stuff that I use for a lot of different projects. So I know that if a dozen screws are left from one of the things I build, I will surely use them in the next thing or as spares. This home cockpit is using the same kinds of screws than the skiing boards that I made myself a few years ago, a robot and a few other things like the Nanotyrannus rifles.

In order to build many cockpit components you should first think a little about the myriad of plastic sheets, rubber pads, and pieces of wood or metal that you might have around. Design things in order to use those before purchasing new materials. You could also ask your neighbours for old stuff that they might be going to throw away, and while this practice might seem a little extreme, consider this: Before writing this post I have already finished the rudder pedals for this cockpit. This entire sub project demanded just the purchase of the electronic components, meaning three potentiometers for the mighty sum of six euros, plus a joystick emulator board for twenty four, and this one will be shared also by the power levers now being built. The rest of the stuff, including wood, glue, screws, nails and paint I already had lying around in my garage. Thus, averaging the costs of the electronic hardware, the whole pedal box meant an expenditure of about eighteen euros; now, you could do the same or thing that removing garbage from the can is demeaning for you and spend between a hundred and two thousand dollars for a set of rudder pedals.

The Home Front

During conflicts and wars, countries have to worry about three different things: The fight itself against their enemies, diplomatic relations with non-belligerent countries, and the state of things within their own borders. This last field of worries is known as "the home front" and it as important as the fight itself in order to win. For the constructor of a home cockpit, what happens at home is equally important.

You are building a home cockpit like in "at home", right? Home cockpits cost money and take space inside your house; they also take your time and dedication, and you tend to talk about the things you do with it at supper. Those are indeed the kind of things that could potentially disgorge your very own home front at home.

Inevitably, what your spouse and kids, or the people living with you think about your odd contraption will have influence in the final outcome of your project. Then, the use of space and resources, the noises made, the dust coming from your work and so on, all matter.

Lack of space is one of the main problems that most hobbists confront during the development in any of their projects; simulator cockpits are indeed, not the exception.

In my particular case I never had problems with the availability of real estate because I literally live in a mansion, so building something like a home cockpit is not problematic in this sense. For Nerkabtu I already have taken a whole room located in what was the horse shed for the builders of this place, about 170 years ago, then a little house for the local caretakers, and more recently, my personal lab, since I was a kid. It is in fact, a house I itself with a kitchen, toilette, two rooms and a gallery. The reason I choose that place despite that I have other available rooms is that flight simulations sessions tend to be long, and some comfort installations like those found there might come handy at times. This will be a flight simulator Petit Trianon style.

But most aficionados to such things do have more limitations regarding space availability. In some extreme cases, the flight simulator cockpit could hardly evolve into something bigger than the space assigned to a computer and a chair, and it is no coincidence that notebooks became so popular these days.

So, assigning space in your home for a project like this one will likely cause some sparks between you and the people living under the same roof unless you deal with the matter well. In order to build your cockpit you should use space that is not for common use unless the folks at home are feverishly backing you in your endeavour, so your alternatives are to build another room, reorder one that you have, clean and unclutter some place or use what you already have for your deeds.

After you found the right place for your project, consider another important rule: You must keep the ability to move your sim around with no trouble. It is unlikely that a full cockpit would go thorough a normal door in a standard room, so start designing your simulator cockpit in such a way as to be able to use your current doors or windows to take it out from where it will stand without tearing it apart. If possible, build it in modules that you can assemble or disassemble at will, but keep in mind that one thing is to disassemble and another quite different to cut or tear apart. Make things easier for you in the future.

Cleaning also matters: You will have to clean the place where your cockpit will stand, and thus, being able to move it a little just to pass the vacuum cleaner beneath it makes a lot of sense, so put it on top of a wheeled structure.

When I built the LV-MLF simulator with my fried Willy Cooke, we got an original Cessna 310 cockpit. We use that for the sim, that ended with a size similar to that of a small car and a weight of about 450 kg. And since we saw the need to be able to make it move around a little, we inserted five heavy-duty small wheels under the fuselage and at the wing root structure.

Above all, always take into account the opinion of the people living with you, especially during the initial phases of construction that will mean for them having something as big, heavy, dusty and useful as an Egyptian sarcophagus right at home. Exotic projects tend to be frowned upon at any home, so make an effort to be nice.

How To Get A Good Reception At Home For Your New Hobby Or Pet Project

These are some suggestions to make sure that a personal project will be well received at home:

If you have kids or grandchildren, gain their support.

Make it as cheap as possible.

Establish a budget and stick to it. If we all hate when politicians make the government go into deficit with our tax money, why would it be any different at home?

Make your family actually profit in some way or another from the project. Nobody protests against what makes them feel better in any way.

Don't push it. Never start your work - at least the big and evident one - without first gaining the support from the others.

Keep your home clean.

Never come home and try to force a budgetary modification of the sort of "I need 2.000 more euros..." when finances are not in the best shape. Unless your wife is the kind of person that says "Yesterday I saw some Vuitton stuff and a Cartier watch and I got them... It was a little less than 30.000 in all, but that's a special price!" you will probably end up in a bitter argument.

Don't embark into a project taking for granted that it will gather your level of enthusiasm among your family members.

Don't be selfish and allow your wife and kids to develop their own personal projects. If you don't do that and protest whenever they try to do something, why would they feel any positive empathy towards what you do?

Never compromise your family's finances with your projects and ideas.

If you are spending more time with your hobby than with your family, stop. That's not how it should be.

Before starting a new project, finish those that you left unfinished in the past.

Don't get into really big projects in areas or topics that you know nothing or very little about. Start more modestly, with smaller and less costly enterprises.

Never forget that aesthetics do count: Save for its creator, no rusted structure looks nice in a living room or house front.

Don't make noises during the night: Hobbists frequently work in their passions during the night, when it is likely that they have some spare time for such deeds. Make sure that you don't wake your people and neighbours with the bangs of your hammer, the hiss of your drill and such tools

Always clean your workplace afterwards: Besides being this a good habit, dust is perhaps the single most frequently used pretext against any sort of hobby by jealous wives.

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