How To...Build Your Own Home Cockpit
By Mike Smith
It was to be the greatest of all home cockpits ever built. (At least in my mind!) When I finished, I didn't want people to think I had lost my mind. I wanted them to be absolutely certain of it. To them, it was just a silly computer game. To me though, it was my escape to the skies when I couldn't really fly for real. (After building this thing, I'm so broke; I may never be able to fly a real plane again.) As a certificated private pilot, I can only wish for those every other day flights to far away places in my rented Cessna 172. It is a real treat if I get to go up once a month just to stay comfortable in the air. The rest of the time, it's Microsoft Flight Simulator to the rescue. I rave to anyone who will listen about how invaluable MSFS has been to me in obtaining my pilot certificate. The realism of the controls, the real world weather, interactive air traffic control, and the realistic scenery make this a program that goes beyond the "gaming" level. It truly helps real pilots stay proficient when they can't really be in a real plane. I lost track along time ago, but I must have 400 hours using MSFS and I am certain I am a better pilot because of it.
Anyway, back to the home cockpit. I spent months plotting and planning every detail of this project. By the time I was actually ready to begin construction, I had already "built" this thing in my mind about five different ways. The planning definitely paid off when it came time to put it together. Think about where you will put this thing since it will invariably wind up quite large when you are finished. Mine wound up being @ 4'W x 6'L x 6'H. I have no idea how much it weighs, but it's fairly heavy. I decided on the basement since it would be the most out of the way place and I wasn't about to give up my parking spot in the garage. (Weeks of begging wouldn't convince my wife to give up hers either.) My biggest problem now is that this thing was built in the basement and is never coming out. It would have to be carefully disassembled and I hope that won't be necessary anytime soon.
With the cockpit now usable I can honestly say that even though I was an avid flight simmer before, this has taken the experience to a much higher level. More comfort, more realistic controls with the use of rudder pedals, bigger display. Now it really is "as real as it gets". In the pages that follow I will try to document the entire process I followed while planning and building my cockpit. I hope that you decide to take the plunge too. It really was a lot of fun. Just to see the look on peoples faces when they see it, especially other pilots, it was worth every minute. Search the web sites I have listed, ask pilots for suggestions until you find the design that fits your needs and budget. Just remember; It's your dream, make it as big as you want!
I broke the entire process down into three phases: planning, design, and construction.
Phase One: PlanningHow far do you want to go? How much money do you have to blow on this thing? Build your own seats or get them from a car? (I would have loved a 46" Plasma Screen TV/monitor but a national search for a rich uncle yielded no results, so I opted for the 20") These are all good questions that will have to be answered before you can begin. Personally, I told myself right up front that if I was going to do this, I wanted to see peoples jaw drop when they saw it. Obviously, I also had to make it as realistic as I could afford to.
Here is a listing of the final product and the approximate costs:
|Materials (Lumber, hardware, paint, etc.)||$325.00|
|Used aviation intercom, 2 headsets||200.00|
|Used 20" monitor||175.00|
|5 pc. speaker system w/ subwoofer||35.00|
|Mini USB keyboard||45.00|
|Handheld trackball mouse||25.00|
|Yoke and Rudder Pedals||265.00|
|Certificate holder (don't want to get busted on a FAR!)||3.00|
|Moldings, door edge guard||20.00|
|Printing (warning labels, graphics, etc.||25.00|
As you can see, even though I kept it fairly simple with instrumentation and gadgets the cost can get up there very quickly! Keep in mind; I started acquiring these things months ahead of time so the cost was split up over the course of several months.
Sources like eBay proved to be invaluable when trying to locate items like a real external PTT microphone like you'll find on a rear plane, and used headsets. They can usually be had at a pretty cheap price too. Otherwise, your local home improvement store, auto supply store, and Radio Shack can supply you with everything else you will need to build your masterpiece.
Phase Two: DesignObviously, I wanted something that would look like an airplane but wouldn't take up the entire basement. I searched the web sites and got some ideas and then started sketching my own designs until I found a good alternative. I wanted a two seater with a "hooded" area for the monitor to focus all visual attention on the monitor. I also decided against anything fully enclosed, too hot inside during the summer months and I sure as hell wasn't going to add the air conditioning option. Instead I opted for the "hooded" area which I made using black fabric (a black bed sheet purchased at a local department store), which can also be pulled tight over the entire top enclosing you in a realistic night environment which makes for some pretty cool night flights. The end result wound up being sort of a fastback design which looks very cool.
The panel design I went with was very simple. I couldn't afford to outfit it with real instruments and gadgets but couldn't resist adding the ignition key lock and master switch. I also made my own labels with the usual warnings found in the real cockpit. Seat and panel placement was done using the actual measurements from a Cessna 172 I fly regularly. The seat height, panel height, distance to yoke, etc. are all true to the original. I have already had several comments from people about how "real" it feels while sitting in the pilot seat. I think so too.
One thing you won't find anywhere is a set of plans to build one of these. I looked everywhere! Unless you want to spend $50,000.00 or something on a manufactured simulator, you're on your own. Once you have a visual idea of what you want and some drawings, you start making everything from scratch. Not to fear though. With a little creativity and hard work you'll have a simulator you can show off with pride.
The most important thing to remember is plan, plan, plan. As mentioned earlier, you will practically have it built in your mind before you ever start construction.
Phase Three: ConstructionThe construction phase had several segments and I tried to list them in the order I actually completed them:
* Preparing the seats and seatbelts
Lucky for me, I am in the car business so finding seats and seatbelts was easy. The main thing to remember is that the seat width can't be more than @ 22". Space is pretty limited so seats out of an old Buick Roadmaster just ain't gonna fit. I used a pair of reclining bucket seats from an old Mazda Protégé that fit perfect. I think any compact size car would work. If you have no connections in the car business you can always try picking up an old junker in the classifieds or try the salvage yards. Once you find them, their gonna need a good scrubbing first.Whatever seats you find you will have to be modifying them on the bottom so they will sit flat. The rails are normally all different shapes to fit the contour of the cars floor where they bolt in so this will take some work but it's not that difficult with a hacksaw and lots of muscle.
The seatbelts took some real creativity. I needed something that pulled from between the two seats like a real Cessna. The post had to be mounted and braced so it would not loosen after repeated use of the seatbelts. A 4X4 porch post proved the perfect start.
(See what I mean about getting creative!)
* Building the platform base/installing the seats
The platform was a piece of cake. Just a basic 48" X 72" rectangle with evenly spaced studs in the center. 3/8" Wafer board was used on the top and the bottom making it more than strong enough to hold the weight of everything. I added heavy duty wheels to the bottom also in case I needed to move it around the basement. I also thought if I got really bored my wife could push me around to practice taxi instructions. (For some reason she didn't see the humor in that!?) Anyway, once the platform is built just use cheap flooring adhesive and cover it with your gray carpeting. I mounted the seats on top of pieces of 4X4 which gave me the perfect height based on my actual Cessna 172 measurements. (see diagram #1) Your placement depends on your actual size and the fact that you want to be able to slide the seat forward and back. This takes a few tries before doing the final anchoring but you'll get the right fit. Once the seats are anchored you can then mount and brace the seatbelt pillar in the rear center of the platform.
* Framing the monitor shelf
Framing of the monitor shelf is pretty simple. Just use 2X3's to form three rectangles with one being anchored at each outboard edge and the final one centered. (see diagram #2) Once they are completed just install a piece of the 3/8" wafer board as a shelf and use your adhesive and carpeting again to cover the shelf.
The panel was simple, just use 1X3 to make an outer frame and then a piece of luan plywood for the panel itself and attach to the top of the three monitor shelf studs. The foot hole board was cut from the 3/8" wafer board according to diagram #3. The panel board is painted gray while the foot hole board is carpeted. Be sure to paint any exposed wood surfaces with black paint before you proceed with the next step. Otherwise, you'll need a chiropractor to straighten you out after you have to crawl inside the belly of this thing to paint it.
The exterior panels were cut from Luan plywood using a simple saber saw. After a few measurements to figure out the angles and curves you're ready to cut. I actually used an old round serving tray to cut the curved areas where you step in. (Hey, that's all I could find.) Mark everything out on your 4X8 sheet of luan then cut away as soon as you're happy with the look of things. The left and right sides are the time consuming parts. The front and back are just straight cuts. After your finished cutting, get the gray paint out again. You'll need to coat all the interior sides with a couple good coats and let them dry before you can proceed. Don't worry about the exterior sides for now. Well get to that later.
Framing the hood was just a matter of building two identical
side pieces (see diagram #4) that anchor to the top of the monitor
shelf. The fabric is then stapled over the top of these pieces and
they also serve as another anchoring point for the front panel.
Again, paint the side pieces black and let them dry before you tack
the fabric on.
* Painting and detailing the exterior, striping, etc.
I went around the entire exterior edge with basic door edge guard from the local auto supply store. One roll did the trick. This turned out to be a nice touch and will keep the slivers to a minimum. I painted the exterior with three coats of gloss white and true to the Cessna Skyhawk SP, I used the blue, gray, and yellow striping colors found on newer 2001 models. Striping was done using my eyeball and a roll of masking tape. Having nothing to go by except a picture from the internet the striping took awhile but looked awesome when it was done. The N-number is done professionally in vinyl lettering. I went with the number of the plane I passed my private pilot check ride in. It seemed the obvious choice. A few quick measurements to insure both sides would be even and sticking it on was a breeze. For the final touch a couple of US flags on the tail and that was it, perfect. There were few other little touches I had to add. The real scanner antenna on the back, the phony plate, etc. Why not...we live once!
* Wiring it all up
Wiring will vary based on what you decide to put in your cockpit. I chose to install an AC cord through the side panel that went to the keyed ignition switch and then through the master switch. The two switches, when on, supplied power to the two power strips inside the belly where everything would plug in. I encountered two problems though. First, after hours of wiring up the two switches my son came to the basement (His mother probably sent him down to make sure I wasn't going to blow up the house.) and immediately saw the cool ignition lock with the key. He grabbed hold of it to turn it and got shocked. Of course he was barefoot on the damp concrete floor while I had been sitting in the cockpit the whole time I was working on it so I never got zapped. After calming him downing and convincing him his mother needed to know nothing about this little "incident", I disconnected the metal ignition switch and will leave it there for show. Secondly, the very first time I had some people over to "unveil" the flight simulator, a pilot friend of mine was in the middle of the flight when he looked down and said "hey look, this thing even has a real master....." click. Well, I'm not sure what happened but after he killed the power to everything by turning the switch off, it took an hour and a half and a full reinstall of the game make it work again. Anyway, that switch is now disconnected as well. Basically I have two cool looking switches that don't have any functional purpose anymore. I now have everything safely wired and grounded so no one needs to worry about getting shocked.
Next came the sound. No problem there, just hooked my audio switch to the computer sound card, plugged the speaker system into one side of the audio switch and the intercom system into the other. Now, with the push of a button you can have booming external sound or put the headsets on and talk to your passenger while all the game sound gets piped through the headsets as well. The sound thing was a little confusing to rig up. I actually had all the components about a month before I started building and hooked it all up to figure out how it worked so there would be no surprises later on.
* Constructing the center console
The center console is crucial for realism. Other pilots
instinctively reach down for the trim wheel before they realize
there really isn't one there. To give you an idea on difficulty
building the console, it took me one day to build the platform, the
monitor shelf and foot hole. The console took me three days to
build, install the intercom and mount in the cockpit. All the
graphics and labels were created right on my PC and printed out
with a color laser printer. (Courtesy of Kinko's) I carefully
trimmed them out and stuck them on using ordinary lamination
sheets. It worked great and the visual effect "suspends
* Installing the yoke and rudder pedals
For budget reasons I opted to start with a single yoke and rudder pedals. Due to the control wheel shaft that goes through the yoke I had to install it directly into the panel. I used great patience and time measuring for this cut. Remember, we are now working on the finished product and a screw up here means re-doing a whole lotta stuff. Nonetheless, the yoke installed flawlessly and I used another item from the auto supply store to finish the edges, wheel trim molding. The pedals just sit on the floor. I installed a block of 1 X 3 in back of them so they can't slide anywhere while being used. One little flaw was the fact that once the yoke was installed It was off center by @ 1 1/2" to the left. This may not sound like a lot but trying to fly this way was very uncomfortable. So, there goes another Sunday. Both the seats came back out and I moved them both the proper distance to the outboard edge to fix the problem. Thank god I had the space to work with; it would have driven me insane to look at it like this.
* Computer selection and setup
Computers, what can I say. When they work we love em'. When they don't, well you know. Deciding on the right computer for this project was easy. Get the best. I worked too hard up till now to use some old computer or skimp on a new one and hate the way everything worked. Having said that, my plan was to get enough computer to make this thing work great today with every display setting maxed out and have enough for when the next version of MSFS comes out so all I'll have to do is install the discs and keep right on flying. So, I scoured the classifieds for weeks waiting and finally, there it was. This is what I wound up with:
- Athlon 1300 processor
- 512 MB Ram
- 64 MB GeForce 2Video
- 20 GB Hard Drive
- 52X CD Rom
- 10/100 Ethernet Card
- Windows XP Home Edition
It works great, smooth, great scenery. The goal was to stay ahead of the curve as best I could afford and I think that has been achieved. Other computer details to consider:
Windows XP & USB: A must have. With Windows XP I don't think there is a device invented that this wont detect and install automatically. No drivers to fool around with, stuff just works as soon as you plug it in. This was especially important to me since I was using a USB Keyboard, USB Mouse, the yoke and the rudder pedals all hooked into a cheap $15.00 4 port USB hub. No bother though, I turned the computer on and plugged in the hub and that was it.
Anti Virus Software: Another must have. I don't know about you but I download a lot of aircraft, panels, etc from the internet and I sure would hate to lose it all because somebody gets into my computer.
Back Up Files: I always keep a backup folder with all my aircraft, gauges, and flights in it. In the event the game crashes and you need to do a reinstall it takes just a few minutes to get yourself right back where you left off. Well worth taking a few minutes to do this.
Broadband Connection: If you don't have it, get it. Downloading real world weather or an aircraft online takes seconds instead of hours. Worth every dime.
Well folks, that's about it. There are dozens of other details and comments I could share but let's do this instead. Email me at [email protected] with your comments, questions, suggestions, or criticism. I truly had a great time building this thing and I know you would too. I'm not sure I'll ever really be finished. My future plans include: adding inter-connected yokes and rudder pedals, and adding a multiple monitor video card. I'm sure I'll be the first in line for Flight Simulator 2022 when it comes out so I hope this thing lasts. Until then, think big and go for it. The skies the limit!
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is to be used at your own risk. I make no claim of fitness for any product, service, website or endorse any manufacturer, company, product, or web site. Use all proper precautions when using power tools and don't drink and fly.