My Flight Sim Setup by Michael Collins                                               June 2008 issue of PC Flight.

 
 

Aside from a couple of efforts for friends and the Club, this is the third cockpit I have built for my own use. Each model has evolved from the previous one, taking advantage of improved availability and affordability of components and systems. The main change is usually the outside view. The first cockpit used a Fresnel Lens in front of a single 19" CTR monitor for the outside view. It ran on one PC with three graphic cards. The second cockpit had an enclosed cabin that ran on 3 networked PCs with a back-projected external view onto a 1.5m x 1.2m screen. Like the previous model, it was designed so that it could be quickly altered to be a single engine, twin prop or commercial 2 engine jet, simply by changing the gauge panel fronts. Although it was comfortable and very pleasing to fly, it was a rather large piece of kit that took up a lot of my basement room. It required the lights to be dimmed in order to get the full effect. I had been considering a change for these reasons for some time and was also spurred on by some of the new kit that became available last year.

Flying a B737 around Europe on line with Squawkbox and VATSIM is my favourite flight sim pastime and it was a requirement that the new cockpit would be provide for this. The desire to incorporate a B737 Flight Management Computer (FMC) and full Mode Control Panel (MCP) meant that I could no longer realistically maintain the “quick change” panel format to a single engine or twin prop set up. Finally, as a reaction to the previous rather flamboyant waste of space, it became a challenge to see how small a space I could get it in to.

The success of any flight simulator can be measured by the degree to which you are deluded into thinking you are really flying. It is not easy. Everyone has, at some time, had the experience of sitting in a stationary train when the train on the adjoining track starts to move off. For the first few moments, it is hard to convince yourself that it is the other train that is moving and not the one you are sitting in. The reason is not that complicated. People tend to believe what they see more readily than signals picked up by any of the other senses. Even though you will not have felt any movement, or noticed any noise increase in your train, you will temporarily dismiss those signals in favour of what you see. When the whole of the outside scenery is passing by, the brain “knows” that the outside world is stationary and therefore you must be “moving”.  In order to be convincing however, the view should be as close as possible to the full spectrum of normal vision, including peripheral vision, normally close to 180 degrees. Short of using expensive technology, it is very difficult to reach that degree of vision.  The use of projectors or multiple screens does however increase the angle of vision and helps to increase the illusion as well improving the peripheral vision, which is so important when approaching a runway from a wide angle.

The most important decision in the design of any cockpit is the external view which, in my view, has the greatest impact on the success of the cockpit. I decided that in the new cockpit I would change to a Matrox Triple Head to Go (where in the name of all that is holy did they get the name?) with three 19" TFT monitors for the outside view. It has a few attractions. It takes up a lot less space than the previous back projected screen. It is very quick to get going and it provides a very bright and sharp picture on multiple monitors that work in full daylight. On the down side, I don’t think it is as effective in creating an illusion as the projected view, even with only one projector. The three monitors are built into a framed windshield with the glazing frames located to mask the monitor bezels, which were selected for their small size. The pictures in the two outer monitors have been offset inwards to match the width of the bezels. This means the horizon lines in the three monitors are properly lined through in a banked attitude. For me this is important as I find it difficult to be convinced by a horizon that jumps up or down in the three monitors.  

The remainder of the cockpit is designed around the equipment that I decided to install and the use to which I intended to put in the cockpit. It is clearly based on a B737-700 and has the flight dynamics, avionics and other pieces of kit of that aircraft.  However, it is not a replica of a B737 cockpit. Furthermore, it is designed to be flown by a single pilot sitting in the middle and so everything is laid out to be convenient for that arrangement. It is an “abstract”. Rather fancifully, I liken it one of Picasso’s paintings of some of his favourite women and scenes. Most of the main bits are there but they are not necessarily in the right place. It may be missing the odd eye or leg but the essence of the subject is captured.

The system comprises of 2 networked PCs running FS9 on Windows XP. Other hardware includes a SimHard (Austria) motorized throttle quadrant, CP Flight (Italy) MCP, EFIS and Radio Stack, Engravity (Netherlands) FMC and Gear Lever, CH (USA) Yoke and finally a set of Saitek Rudder Pedals. There are three 17" monitors for the gauges and Squawkbox windows in the main panel below the glareshield. I avoided Project Magenta Avionics solely because of the ridiculous cost of that software and chose instead the PMDG B737 for its systems. I have FSUIPC on the main PC and WideClient on the second PC. This allows me to run a number of programs on the second PC and takes the load off the main PC. These programs include, Squawkbox, FSXpand and FSClient (EICAS, Standby Gauges etc). The second PC also runs Squawkbox and Active Sky.  In order to get all the hardware and software running, a total of 11 programs have to be started, in the right sequence - easy when you know the sequence.

 

The whole thing is contained in two boxes, which together measure 1.5m x 1.2m. The main box encloses the PCs, outside view monitors, glareshield, panel, yoke and pedals. It has a partial cabin roof, which helps reduce peripheral distractions. The smaller section contains the seat - this one is from a Fiat Punto and the last one was out of a Fiat Cinquecento – it’s a brand loyalty thing! It also has the throttle quadrant and the pedestals, sadly with no avionics. The box is made from 15mm Birch Plywood painted in Boeing grey which, for anyone who is interested is RAL 7011.

I had a lot of fun building this cockpit but also a lot of frustrations, mainly in getting the various software packages to run together.  This is the biggest area of difficulty in a project like this. Information on compatibility of the software packages is very often non-existent, or worse still misleading. I could not begin to count up the wasted hours of frustration trying to get the systems to work without conflicts. It is a common complaint of all cockpit builders and we all swear that we will definitely never, ever do it again. Ever! 

The future? I see on Avsim that there are two new avionics systems about to be launched for cockpit builders and what about triple projectors with wrap around screens and floor mounted yokes and overhead panels…. ?

 

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