Buying Parts for your Home Flight Simulator Cockpit

One of the challenges when building a complex home flight simulator is finding good quality parts. You have two choices. Replica (or imitation) parts and real parts. What are the pros and cons of replica and real parts, what should you look out for, and where should you go to buy those simulator parts? Let’s find out.


Replica Aircraft Parts

Pros and Cons of Replica Parts

Replica aircraft parts are what you’ll most likely use to build most, if not all of your simulator, and it’s mostly what I have used to build mine. They usually look and function pretty close, if not exactly like the real thing.

A replica mid-priced replica of a Boeing 737 Throttle Quadrant by Jetmax
Replica Mid-Priced Boeing 737 Throttle Quadrant by Jetmax

The great thing about replica parts is they are almost always plug-and-play these days. It’s a far cry from the early pioneers who had to figure it all out from scratch. My hat’s off to them! This means it’s much easier today to integrate replica parts into your simulator with a minimal amount of effort.

Replica parts “may” be less expensive than real parts, but that’s not always the case. However, it’s usually much easier to integrate replica parts into your sim than real ones.

Some cons are that replica parts are generally not built to the same robustness as their real counterparts which are meant to withstand heavy abuse. They also may or may not be as accurate looking or functioning depending on how much you spend, and they may be less reliable lacking the robustness of real parts. Since a home sim doesn’t typically experience the same abuse as a real aircraft that’s usually just fine.

Replica Parts Interfacing

Replica part interfacing is pretty straightforward. There are many types of interface boards you can buy that are USB or Ethernet based. They have associated driver software that allows the board to communicate with inputs and outputs to the board. Boards such as those from LeoBoadnar, FlightDeck Solutions, Pololu and Phidgets, for example, can take a physical input, such as flipping a switch, and have it trigger an event on your computer. Or, take an output from the computer to turn on an LED or move a gauge needle.

Other simulation software, like the Prosim Avionics Suite, have built-in drivers that support many different hardware interface boards. All you do is plug the board into your computer via USB and Prosim will recognize it. When you flip a switch connected to the interface board, Prosim will “see” the event and let you assign it to some action within in the software.

Where to Buy Replica Parts for your Home Flight Simulator

If you’re looking to buy replica simulator parts, I would say make sure you do your research. Often it’s harder to mix and match from different vendors due to compatibility issues. Therefore, I recommend you look for vendors with a large selection of parts at the quality you need. I’d also suggest looking for companies nearest to you. This way you can stop by and see the parts before you buy. Also having them close means their support is in your local time zone and language. It’s always hard having to wait a half day before you get an answer for an issue you’re facing.

Since my sim is mostly replica parts, I am pretty familiar with most of the big replica parts vendors. You can find a list on my Links page. Most of them are based out of Europe, and most do a decent job of replicating real parts.

The majority of parts in my sim come from the Canadian company Flightdeck Solutions, which does a very good job of replicating parts from the aircraft they model. I’m not being paid to say that nor receive any special compensation. I just speak from personal experience. I’d say they are 90-95% accurate visually and generally quite solidly built. Their support is usually very responsive and they’ve been around a long time, which is why I have stuck with them. Something that is very important in this hobby. But obviously there are many great replica companies all over the world.

Real Aircraft Parts

Figure 1 - A real fire panel shown at top right alongside FlightDeck Solutions radios in the center pedestal
Figure 1 – Real Parts! A real fire panel at the top right alongside replica FlightDeck Solutions radios

Sometimes you need parts that are more robust than those made by a replica vendor. A good example is the Fire Panel on the Boeing 737 pedestal (see Figure 1). Replica parts may not hold up very long to hard pulls and twists on the handles. This is where real parts come in handy.

But where do you find real parts? And how do you get them to work with your simulator software? Therein lies the challenge with real parts.

First, the Price Dilemma

A big problem we have today is sim enthusiasts will often pay top dollar for real parts.

One reason is because buyers don’t know what the parts are worth, and are therefore easily scammed.

Figure 2 - A real transponder panel that could be adapted for use in a home cockpit simulator
Figure 2 – More real parts! A real Transponder panel

Another cause is demand for real parts that has skyrocketed over the last decade. Newer generation aircraft are mostly still in service today, so when one is retired any parts not re-used get bought up quickly. This has led to a scarcity in high-value items like seats, yokes, and throttles. Something sellers have been able to capitalize on.

The price dilemma won’t be solved until simmers become more savvy about what parts should cost.

Keep in mind, an aircraft salvager has go through a lot of effort to get parts out of an aircraft. They have real costs to pay, and often significant manual labor is involved. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that certain parts will just cost more.

Next, Will it Fit in Your Simulator?

Real parts are usually much deeper than their replica counterparts. They are usually in rectangular housings to protect the interior parts. In Figure 2 you can see how deep a transponder panel goes.

Let me give you an example. Figure 3 shows a real ADIRU (IRS Panel) on the left and a replica on the right. Note the difference in depth. It turns out I didn’t have enough clearance in my FlightDeck Solutions cockpit shell overhead to accommodate it. I would have had to cut open the ceiling panel to make it fit, something I wasn’t willing to do. So I went with a replica part instead.

Real Part Interfacing

This is where it gets tricky. Real aircraft parts weren’t designed to be plug and play with your home flight simulator in the sense we know it. Avionics parts communicate using an aviation standard bus protocol such as ARINC 429 (Aeronautical Radio, Inc) .

Figure 4 - My real fire panel gutted and rewired for USB interfacing
Figure 4 – My Real Fire Panel Gutted and Rewired for USB Interfacing

Without going into a lot of detail, you normally can’t simply connect a real aircraft part to an interface board. Instead, you need specialized communication boards and software, like those from CockpitConcept, to interpret the ARINC commands into something the computer can understand.

You can also try to remove the internals and reconnect the switches, lamps, and dials to an interface board. I had someone experienced at doing this convert my real fire panel for use with USB (see Figure 4). He did a fantastic job and kept everything nice and neat inside the unit. It was a lot of work, however, so this route is not for the faint of heart!

Where to Buy Real Parts for your Home Flight Simulator

eBay is often one of the few places for us mere mortals to look. Builder forums like Cockpitbuilders.com or the Prosim Forums have “For Sale” sections that often have real parts for sale. Other sites, like the historical aviation site Once Aloft, offer salvaged parts for sale.

If you’re lucky, you know someone in the salvage industry who can hook you up with a good deal. That’s pretty rare.

Conclusion

Finding parts for your home flight simulator cockpit can be a daunting task. Most of us will start off buying replica components when building our sim. There are many suppliers, most located in Europe, who make replica parts. When it comes to at least the Boeing 737NG or Airbus A320, replica parts are plenty. See my Links page for a list of vendors.

However, if you’re looking to buy real aircraft parts for your simulator, keep in mind that they are often hard to find, difficult to convert, and may not always fit. eBay and builder forums are likely your best bet at finding them second-hand, but establishing a relationship with a good salvage yard will be the optimal path. And certainly, there’s nothing like the real thing!

Good luck!

Building a Rear Bulkhead

I am now in the process of adding a rear bulkhead to fully enclose the cockpit and add that extra bit of realism with Circuit Breaker (CB) panels, dome lights, jump seat, etc. The rear bulkhead will eventually also contain all the PCs, the instructor station with touchscreen display, a printer, and some storage.

The Bulkhead Structure

The idea was to build a rear bulkhead section extending approximately 2 feet off the back of the shell, allowing me to close off the cockpit with rear circuit breaker walls and a cockpit door, at least one jump seat for a third person to observe (perhaps an instructor?), and also have a place to nicely store all the PCs and networking gear to run the sim. I also wanted it to be movable so it just rolls right up to the sim during normal flying, but could be rolled away for full access to the main cockpit or rear bulkhead during maintenance. This modular approach to the just sim makes a lot of things easier.

Using whatever reference pictures I could find, and MarkusPilot’s helpful cockpit measurements, I started to rough out some ideas on paper, then pieced it together a little more firmly in my Fusion360 CAD program. It wasn’t perfect and down to the smallest detail, but enough to give me a good roadmap to follow, and even though I had to make some adjustments on the fly the overall concept worked fairly well.

I generally went with 2″x6″ and 2″x4″ lumber, some thin plywood, and MDF doors (if you do doors, make sure you use 0.75″ MDF and not 0.5″ which I used…it’s too thin for doors). It’s probably overkill and heavy, but wood is easy to source and work with and more importantly, I have all the right tools. Despite the size and weight, though, it’s still quite easy to roll around.

Once it’s completely done, it will be painted in all white with Boeing Blue paint and stripes in the bottom half, and likely some Boeing 737 decals of some sort.

Circuit Breakers and More!

Now the fun part! My plan was not to have the CBs be functional since they’re rarely if ever used by the pilots, but rather be decorative to add to the overall cockpit feel/realism. So I was originally thinking of making the circuit breaker panels from scratch with 3D printed parts, printed labels, etc. Certainly very doable, but very time-consuming and tedious.

So I started searching around to see if I could find real-world panels for a reasonable price, which would save me a lot of time. But as you can imagine, a full set in good condition is very hard to come by. OnceAloft had an incomplete set of 737-500 panels which I was seriously considering, and then just filling in the missing panels with some scratch building.

However, I just happened to luck out with some really good fortune and timing. A close friend of mine knew someone who worked in aircraft salvage industry and put me in touch. Turns out he was getting ready to pull some parts from a 737-700 about to be scrapped, and he was able to pull a complete set of CB panels with ALL the associated breakers and wiring, along with some other goodies you see, and all are in fantastic shape. Talk about a great guy!

Once these arrive I’ll be having a field day! I’ll keep you posted.

Oh, and one last piece of eye-candy…

So, the same person, as luck would have it, was able to do me a solid and grab both control columns, the cross-bar, and related hardware out of that 737-700, also all in fantastic shape. I have been wanting to replace my standalone ACE yokes with a dual yoke setup and had been looking at SimuJabs as one affordable option. However, I was get these real columns, essentially complete, for significantly less.

Even better, these also have the elevator axis bearings, the bottom covers, and the stick shaker brackets which are impossible to find. No stick shakers, but I happen to have a couple sitting around waiting to go on.

The downside is I will have to now figure out the frame work and mechanics to support these, but I’m up to the challenge. Nothing a little welding and some potentiometers can’t resolve. Stay tuned!

The Devil in the Details – Bringing my Simulated Cockpit to Life

At this point the sim is good shape and very flyable, so these last weeks I’ve been keeping busy by adding some little cockpit details to add some realism, and tying up some of those nagging loose ends.

Little details are starting to get completed now.

Adding Cockpit Seat Handles

Since I added car seat rails to allow my Weber seats to move forward/back and side to side (a cheap J-rail alternative), I noticed it was difficult to reach the two grab handles to activate the seat movement, even though I had bent the rail handles almost 90 degrees upward. The height of the seat plus the tight space just made it hard to lean over far enough to reach them.

To make the grab handles easier to reach I decided I’d add a knob attached to a rod, connected to the car seat grab handles with a clevis and pin. The clevis fits tight enough around the rubberized rail handles that the rod and knob stay in place pretty well.

The downside is that the knob/rod tends does tend to creep from vertical and sometimes you have to blindly search for the knob as you’re leaning over. That got me thinking that I needed some sort of bracket to keep the knob/rod in place.

The solution, at least for the side-to-side movement, was fairly easy. I created a simple bracket out of aluminum to keep the rod in place. Basically just some 1/8″ thick x 1.5″ wide aluminum flat bar from the local Home Depot, cut to size with a metal cutting hacksaw and bent to shape with a “brake”. Nothing fancy but it works. I didn’t even bother painting it, at least for now.

Simple aluminum bar bent to shape to support the seat movement lever.

The front lever, unfortunately, isn’t as easy a solution because of the way I have the car seat rails configured (one on top of the other, 90 degrees from each other). When the seat platform moves from side to side the front handle stays in place and doesn’t move with the platform. It DOES, however, move front to back with the fwd/aft rail. This means any bracket I mount to the seat platform will cause the knob/rod to tilt left or right as the seat moves from left to right. Not a big deal. It just means I have to make a bracket with an elongated hole that will allow the handle to tilt in the hole. It’s hard to explain in words, but when have pictures I’ll post them and it will make more sense.

In case you’re wondering, the two large holes in the seat platform are to allow for the Weber seat vertical supports which stick down a little below the seat bottom, and also allow the wires for the buttkickers to connect to the seats.

In case you’re interested, I got the handle knob and shaft from MSC Direct and the clevis rod end at the bottom from McMaster-Carr.

Feeling the Vibration – Buttkickers in the Seats

To add to the sensation of flying, I added some Buttkicker MiniLFE’s to the seats. If you don’t know what these are, they’re Tactile Transducers designed to vibrate whatever they’re connected to. They’re not speakers, in that they do not put out audio, but rather contain a small piston magnetically suspended inside that vibrates up and down during low frequency sound. That vibration translates to whatever it’s mounted to.

You’ll often see them added to home theater seats to add some “punch” to the subwoofers which makes you feel the sound effects of movies more.

For a simulator, it can help emphasize the rumble of the turbines, the bumps in a taxiway, turbulence effects, and even spoiler effects. If you’ve ever been on a commercial jet and they deploy the spoilers you can feel the shake of the plane.

The Buttkicker MiniLFE’s are small enough that they nicely fit in the back and bottom of the seats as you can see below.

I connected the transucers to a 50 Watt, 4 Ohm per channel automotive amplifier running off a 12V industrial power supply. I just connect the speaker output of my PC to the inputs on the amp and the MiniLFE’s to the outputs. Easy peasy.

Map Lights

I’m also working on adding some Grimes map lights a friend gave me. These match the ones used throughout the 737 cockpit. The part number is 34265-8. They’re 28V but you can replace the bulbs to get it down to a more reasonable 12V. You can find them come up on eBay from time to time. While they’re not wired up yet, they will be eventually.

Map Clips

I purchased these PSCCO 10CM binder clips on Amazon that closely match the side window panel clips found on the 737, just behind the window handle. I painted them with some Rustoleum semi-gloss black and they came out quite good.

PSCCO 10CM binder clips from Amazon

Side Panels, Side Vents and a Fake Ashtray

I wanted to add a little more detail to the interior sidewalls, just to add to the immersion a bit. The Flight Deck Solutions cockpit shell interior liner kit I’m using included some side panel cover pieces that I hadn’t gotten around to installing so I figured it was time.

While the interior kit included a fake vent louver, it was flat and not realistic looking. That’s understandable since it’s not a critical piece of the cockpit that you spend a lot of time looking at, but for the fun of it I decided to make my own 3D printed louvers in Fusion360 so they look more similar to the real aircraft. They are even linked, so moving one moves the rest in sync.

I also added a fake ashtray I made in Fusion360 and 3D printed because I just couldn’t find any real ashtrays that matched the 737-800 ones. Maybe one day I’ll get my hands on the real shiny chrome ones but for now this will do.

Cockpit Ambient Lighting

A project I had been thinking about for a long time was how to brighten up the cockpit interior when flying the sim, relative to the outside view. In the real world, on a sunny day normally a cockpit is bright inside, but at night it’s dark. How can you recreate that in the sim?

Recently I came across some guys who were experimenting with Philips Hue color LED strips that can color change depending on what appears on the screen. Here’s the link. It’s quite interesting.

So I decided to give it a try, with just one LED strip mounted in the back of the cockpit which you can see below.

Basically you install a Windows app on the PC you’re wanting to use as your source for the ambient lighting color and brightness, and then the software communicates the colors and brightness to the LED strip. It’s a pretty cool idea.

My testing is ongoing but I’ll post more later on my findings and results.

What’s Left to do?

I still have a lot of things I’d like to get around to eventually. Like…

  • Wiring the map lights
  • Adding a swing-out rear bulkhead with faux circuit breaker panel on the inside and bookshelf on the outside
  • Add working Grimes Circuit Breaker sidewall lights
  • Add a linked yoke setup
  • Add linked F/O rudder pedals
  • Add force-feedback to the flight controls
  • Replace the TQ
  • Pretty up the outside of the sim so it looks more professional and enclosed
  • Always tweak the sim software and how it operates from a central instructor station
  • And lots more, no doubt! All it takes it time and money, usually lots of both!

You’re such a Knob! 3D Printed Map/Chart Light Knobs

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love my 3D printer. I use it regularly to quickly make small parts I need using just a little imagination and creativity.

A part I’ve been wanting to make for a while is the Boeing 737 Map/Chart Light knobs on the forward sidewalls. No one seems to make them correctly so I decided to try and make them myself.

Oddly enough, the N1 SPD REF knobs aren’t found properly made anywhere either (the center knob is thinner and longer than the average dual concentric knobs), so I’m going to make some of those too following the same steps I lay out here.

Boeing 737 Map/Chart Light Knobs

Designing the Knobs

I was able to get some accurate measurements and photos of the real Map/Chart Light knobs from a friend. From those I was then able to re-create the knob fairly closely in my CAD program, Fusion360.

3D Printing the Knobs

Once I created the 3D CAD file I was able to print out the replicas on my Creality Ender 3 printer. I used a .2 mm layer height which still leaves some obvious lines that will have to be sanded smooth, a down-side in general to 3D PLA filament printing. I’ve tried going to a .1 mm layer height which would reduce the visible layers, but haven’t quite got that perfected yet so this will have to do for now.

3D Printed Knobs. The print lines are visible and will need to be sanded smooth.

Sanding

Next step was to sand the knobs smooth to remove the 3D printing lines. I started with 120 Grit sandpaper to roughly remove any print lines, then a finer 320 Grit, and lastly 2000 Grit to really smooth the surface. I usually wet sand under a slow running sink faucet, which I think gives me a little smoother finish and reduces dust, but it’s not necessary. Wet or dry works fine.

Priming

Once sanded smooth, I primed the surface with around 10-12 coats of Rust-Oleum Automotive spray Filler Primer to fill in any remaining imperfections. I have also used Dupli-Color Automotive Primer Filler which works great too. It usually takes a LOT of coats of primer to get rid of most of the 3D print imperfections, but this primer dries very quick so you can lay down a lot of coats pretty fast. Make sure you buy several cans.

Below is what the primed parts look like, ready for final painting:

Primed Map Light Knobs

Note, in my CAD drawing I added 3mm threaded holes so they were “pre-threaded”. In theory it should work, but because these are small holes and 3D printing sometimes has trouble with small holes the threads didn’t turn out quite perfect. So, I made sure to screw some grub screws into the holes to make sure they were properly threaded before final painting.You could probably also just drill a hole, or use CAD to make a perfectly round hole and once you run a grub screw through the hole it will self-tap. Either way works.

Adding the Final Paint Color

I applied several coats of gray Tamiya hobby Acrylic paint. I couldn’t find an exact match for the original gray so mine came out a little more on the tan side. I probably could have spent more time mixing some different grays to come out a little closer, but eh, it was close enough. Sorry, I don’t have a picture of the painted knobs at this point, but you’ll see the overall final result below.

Adding the Markings

I still needed to add the markings to the top of the knob. I debated masking the lines and painting by hand, but I knew I’d never get it quite perfect. I also thought about buying some wet transfer decal paper (like you find in plastic models) and printing on that, then transferring to the knob using typical modeling techniques. But I would have had to order the paper and it would have taken time, so…

I happened to have some white Vinyl sticker paper lying around and decided to see if I could get that to work. Bingo! First, I created a drawing in Photoshop with a bunch of circles of the exact millimeter diameter of the knob. I then approximated how the lines should look in Photoshop based on the actual photos. And here’s what I ended up with:

Photoshop Graphic Used to Print the Line Markings

I printed that onto my Vinyl sticker paper using my InkJet printer, then used a ruler and an X-Acto knife to perfectly cut around the outer rectangular indicator line so that I ended up with a small rectangle with a white center and black border. I then stuck this in the right location on the knob head and Voila! Again, sorry, no picture, but you get the idea (I hope).

Sealing Coat

To prevent the sticker from coming off over time the knob now has to be sealed with a clear coat sealer.

With some clear gloss Tamiya acrylic hobby paint spray, I sprayed the knobs with multiple coats to seal the paint and markings, and give the knobs a glossier appearance. The final result is below. Not bad.

Final Thoughts

If you have the skill (or are willing to learn it), 3D printing is a great way to quickly make small parts that are hard to find or will take too long to get. The downside to 3D printing with PLA filament is that you’ll notice visible layering as this is an additive process (each layer builds on the layers below it). This means there’s quite a bit of finishing work that still has to happen (mostly sanding and a lot of priming) before the final product.

My next endeavor might be to experiment with Resins by making a rubber mold of the sanded 3D printed parts, then create the knobs by pouring in liquid resin to molds. You would need to drill the holes as there isn’t an easy way to make them with a resin cast, but the final product will come out smoother, from what I’ve seen. There are also affordable Resin 3D printing machines now available as well, something that may be worth looking into at some point.

Wet Compass and More 3D Printed Parts

I have to say, I’m really enjoying my 3D printer. For less than $300 for a Creality Ender 3 printer, coupled with Autodesk Fusion360, I’m able to make just about any component I need on a small scale. Comes in really handy when you’re willing to put in a little extra money and time to save a few dollars out of pocket. It’s also nice because I can put more detail and make my parts more realistic than many of the off-the-shelf components.

Wet Compass

I just finished designing a replica working Boeing 737 wet compass to add that nice “finished” touch above the instrument panel. Note the compass deviation card on the window post behind it Just a simple 3D-printed holder and a laminated card. Together, it all adds just another level of immersion.

My final Wet Compass design installed above the Instrument Panel

Creating the Compass

In order to create a fairly accurate wet compass, I borrowed a real Airpath wet compass from a friend of mine. These are used in older 737’s but it’s close enough. There are a number of variations of wet compasses used in these aircraft. The newer 737’s have a round bezel that curves inward with an adjustment knob on the front as seen in this photo.

Using a Micrometer I measured all dimensions and translated them to a Fusion 360 model. It takes time and patience but once you get the hang of it, it’s not too hard.

You’ll notice I used a LCD screen rather than an internal rotating mechanism. I did this because it’s simpler…no motor, gears, lighting, driver board, or custom programming. The Prosim avionics software already has a functional Wet Compass display output which makes it easy to throw the image on a LCD.

The challenge, though, was finding a color LCD screen small enough and bright/clear enough to use. I settled on a 2.5″ LCD and driver from Adafruit (https://www.adafruit.com/product/912) which was about as good as i could find at the time, then designed the frame around it to support the LCD and associated driver board mounted behind the LCD and within the barrel of the compass to keep things nice and concealed.

I then purchased a MINI HDMI to RCA signal converter (just search Google for AV2HDMI) to connect my computer’s HDMI display output to the RCA jack on the LCD.

The only downside is the LCD is set back a bit since it’s not small enough to fit within the bezel, but in the end it still looks pretty good.

Final Product

Here’s what the final product ended up looking like. I later realized the NG’s have a gray bezel, not a black one, so you’ll also see the updated re-painted version below. I also designed a 3D-printed mount with slots/channels near the top to allow the entire thing to slide into the gap in the Flightdeck Solutions frame without the need for bolts or screws. Easy to remove later if needed but nice and solidly mounted otherwise.

Miscellaneous Parts

I’m in the process of adding some other 3D-printed parts to finish out the sidewalls a bit more. A cup holder, map holder, and some window handles as you can see. After a lot of coats of primer and some airbrushing these are going to look great!

I can’t take credit for these models as I got them for free from Thingverse. They’re made by the talented Mr. Karl Clarke from 737DIYSIM, so props to him for making us a bunch of cool (and free) models to use!

I am, however, working on a sidewall vent that is a bit more accurate than any I have seen so far. Stay tuned for more!

Last Words

So, is any of it absolutely perfect and 100% accurate? No, of course not. Home sims often have to compromise a bit, usually due to lack of good real-world reference material and measurements, material costs, parts availability, and skills of the builder. So we approximate as best we can.

My end goal has always to be to get things as close as I can, within reason (and for everyone it’s different) so that I can sit in the cockpit and it looks and feels about right. And that’s not a bad thing.

Stick It! – Making Placard Stickers/Decals For Your Flight Sim

I’m starting to work on smaller details of my sim now that most of the major things (at least, those I can afford) are mostly complete. One of the areas I wanted to enhance was cockpit placards (or decals, stickers, whatever you want to call them).

I looked around on the Internet and there were a few folks I found selling pre-printed, pre-cut sticker sheets. None of them had the stickers I really wanted on them, so being a hobbyist and knowing enough how to use a photo editor I figured, hey, I can just make them myself! But where to begin?! How do I make those perfectly cut sticker sheets?

Home-made stickers are quite popular in the craft world, so there’s fortunately a lot of information online on how to make them. None, of course, were tailored to the simulation enthusiast, but the concept is the same.

Vinyl Sticker Paper

The first step is to find the right sticker paper. After some research online, it seems Vinyl sticker paper is the most popular paper to use for this purpose. So I went down to the local office supply store and bought some vinyl sticker inkjet paper in standard 8.5″x11″ letter size. All my store had was Matte (no shine) vinyl paper, which is ok, but ideally from what I’ve read, a gloss finish is better in terms of the quality of print you’ll get since it doesn’t absorb the ink and dull the finished product as much.

You can find vinyl sticker paper aplenty on Amazon if you do a search for “Vinyl Sticker Paper”. However, my Matte finish paper still worked out just fine as far as I’m concerned.

Creating the Placards in Photoshop

Next, using Photoshop I designed the placards I wanted on a 8.5″ x 11″ sized background using references from online photos at Airliners.net and other sources I have to approximate the size, shape, and lettering. This will take some trial and error, of course. I have not found a source for exact dimensions of the placards. Even the Boeing references I have seen only provide the verbiage and placement of the placards, not the actual dimensions. So unless you know someone who has regular access to the cockpit you’re trying to replicate, you’ll have to settle with approximations.

As I designed my sticker sheet I made sure to leave left plenty of space around each decal for cutting ease, and laid things out to make the best use of the paper for the decals I wanted to print. It ended up looking like the following:

The Photoshop Placards Ready for Printing

Printing the Placards

I have a simple Brother Multifunction Inkjet printer. First, I printed the sticker sheet on plain copy paper in draft printer settings as to not waste ink while I made sure everything came out sized and looking right.

Once I was satisfied, I printed the placards on the sticker paper using my printers Photo quality setting and they ended up coming out perfectly.

NOTE: Make sure you test your print first on plain paper to ensure your Inkjet doesn’t leave lines or gaps due to blocked printer heads. I had to clean my printer heads several times before it was ready to print perfectly.

The final result on the sticker paper came out quite nice, and the matte paper, in my opinion, looks quite good:

The Printed Placards on Vinyl Inkjet Sticker Paper

Cutting the Placards – By Hand or Machine?

At first I tried cutting these placards by hand. I used a straight cutter for the straight lines, but even with a modelers knife I could never get the rounded corners and circles just right to where it looked good. And hand cutting all these stickers one by one was tedious. Perhaps you have a steadier hand, but being “obsessive” as I am, that wasn’t good enough for me.

I decided, instead, that I wanted to have each placard perfectly cut like you see on most commercial sticker sheets. This way I could peel the pre-cut stickers right off the backing. To do this, however, requires a dedicated robotic cutting machine.

Researching online and watching some more YouTube videos, there seemed to be two major players in the craft machine cutter world: Cricut (pronounced Cricket) and Silhouette Cameo. Neither is cheap, running around $250-300 USD, but I figured my wife could use it for making her own custom crafts so it was a win-win! (keeping your significant other happy is critical to our success in this hobby!)

The Silhouette Cameo 4, shown below, was my choice as the included software seemed much better for my purposes.

Silhouette Cameo 4 Robotic Cutter

I won’t go into detail on how I used the software as there are plenty of tutorials online on how to do it. But essentially you import your image file into the software and it will allow you to quickly identify all the outlines of what you want to cut. You then print the image from the software and it will add some additional alignment markings. Then, you load the previously printed sticker paper into the machine and using the alignment markings the printer knows exactly where to cut the shapes, allowing you to peel the perfectly printed and cut stickers right off the backing! Very cool!

Final Result

The final result is exactly what I was hoping for. I am now able to print custom placards for any purpose easily. While the overall cost is a lot more than perhaps buying a sheet or two of pre-printed decals from an online flight simulation store/hobbyist, I am now at liberty to create exactly what I need when I need it, and the cutter will be used for other crafts as well, so I feel it was a good investment for me personally. Perhaps I’ll even make a business selling stickers in the future, we’ll see 🙂

Scotty, I need more power! – Powering Your Sim

DISCLAIMER: I am going to start with this…I’m not an Electrical Engineer nor an Electrician. So what I’m posting here is what I’ve found works for me. It may not be the best way, or even the right way. Therefore, I am not responsible for any consequences as a result of using what is mentioned here. As always, do your own research!

Introduction

Power. It’s the life-blood of any sim. Not enough and you’ll end up with random disconnects, brown-outs, and potentially damaged electronics. Put too much in and you’ll fry your electronics. Worst case, you’ll start a fire.

5V, 12V and 28V power supplies feeding power to my overheads

As you build your sim, always keep in mind how you’re going to provide power. Try to plan your power needs in advance, if possible, and make sure you have a good understanding of Volts, Amps, and Current as your power requirements grow.

Typically, a home-built simulator requires plain old 5 Volt and 12 Volt Direct Current (DC). If you’re using real aircraft parts you might find you need 24-28 Volts DC, and possibly even Alternating Current (AC) at 400Hz. And of course, if you’re building a full motion platform, you may see even higher power demands in the neighborhood of 240V and more than one phase.

The number of Amps, or current draw, is based on the load. If you have a 40A (40 Amp) rated power supply, but your connected devices only require 2A, then 2A is all that power supply will output. As the demand increases, it will increase its output up to 40A. However, if your system is trying to draw 10A and you only have a 5A power supply, then the power supply won’t be able to deliver what you need and you’ll run into problems, so I typically try to buy power supplies that will have plenty of headroom for the things I’m connecting to it so there’s never a shortage of power. Having more Amps than you need it better than not having enough.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Be careful with variable loads such as adjustable back-lighting or using high Amp loads.  For example, increasing the brightness of back-lighting using a variable resistor (like a knob) causes more current to be drawn from the power-supply.  If you happen to have any other devices connected to that same power supply, then they would also receive the higher current, potentially burning the device out.  You'll therefore need make sure you have a resistor for attached items that have a maximum amperage rating so you don't overload them.  OR, you could use separate power supplies based on load types.

Power Supply Options

Starting with a good power supply is essential. There are many affordable options out there where you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars.

Using a Converted PC Power Supply

If you have a spare computer power supply lying around, you can convert it for sim use which will give you 5 and 12 Volt outputs. There are many videos on YouTube that explain how to “Convert a PC power supply” that will work just fine for simulator use. In fact, I have done that for my Main Instrument Panel and Center Pedestal power and it works just fine.

PC Power supplies also have built in short protection so they should automatically disable power output if there is a short. When the short is removed, they’ll resume power output automatically. A nice feature you should always make sure your power supplies have.

A PC power supply nestled under the Main Instrument Panel (note the fan) and broken out to multiple distribution blocks

Using Dedicated Power Supplies

Over time, I have found it’s easier to buy power supplies specifically designed for industrial applications and such. eBay usually has a wide assortment, but you can get them almost anywhere with varying voltages and amperage ratings. Below is a sample of some industrial style power supplies, which I’m sure you’ve seen before.

You’ll notice the top power supply in the above picture has outputs for 5V, 12V and even 24V all on the same power supply. That is very convenient as those are all the typical voltages needed in a sim, so you can minimize the number of different power supplies you need.

These power supplies are usually quite affordable, anywhere between $20USD to $50-60 USD. I would always make sure you look for power supplies with circuit protection so if you do happen to have a short it’ll cut the power automatically, preventing a fire.

Bench Power Supplies

I have a couple of bench power supplies I purchased for testing purposes that allow me to adjust voltage and amperage based on what I need to test. This is nice to have available while you’re building components and need to test something with a specific voltage. Like LEDs, magnetic switches, etc. There are tons of options out there and most will work perfectly.

Source Power – How Much do you Need/How Much are you Drawing?

Remember that all of these power supplies have to draw power from somewhere. Usually it’s your power outlets in your house. Most modern houses in the United States typically allow a draw of 20 Amps per circuit (sometimes less), and you can easily have many outlets on one circuit. So as you’re adding more and more power draw to your sim keep an eye on your circuit breakers. While things are running, feel how hot the circuit breakers are getting. If they’re warm, there’s a good chance you’re starting to overload them.

I purchased a power meter called a Clamp Meter that is designed to measure power draw by running a power cable through a ring on the meter. The meter senses the current running through the ring and can tell you how much you’re drawing. There’s also something called a Kill-0-Watt which plugs into your wall outlet, then you plug your device(s) into it and it tells you what you’re drawing. All useful tools to help you determine how much overall power you’re drawing.

In my case, my simulator is in my garage and there was one 20 Amp circuit for the entire garage. With 5 PCs drawing power, a dozen or so monitors all powered up, and all the LEDS, lamps and circuit boards, I was starting to blow the fuse regularly, especially if I needed to operate a power tool at the same time. That’s when I had to hire an electrician to break out the plugs in the garage to four separate 20 Amp circuits, allowing me to distribute the sim across three circuits, and still have a fourth circuit for other garage functions. Since then I haven’t had any issues with power. Something to think about, especially if you’re building a house with plans to have a dedicated sim room.

Some Final Things to Consider

As you work with adding power to your sim here are some other things to keep in mind.

When using multiple power supplies, I would make sure all connected components share the same ground of the power supply they are using. I would not create a common ground across all power supplies. While you would think a ground is a ground, if I recall it can set up the potential for noise to enter the system or shorts to affect multiple power supplies. That’s what I remember reading, but your mileage may vary so make sure to research this.

You’ll also need properly sized wire to carry your power. Too narrow a gauge and you run the risk of melting the wire or starting a fire. Too large a gauge and you’ll waste money and end up with thick, unwieldy and inflexible wire. Typical wire for smaller components is 22-24 Gauge. For main power arteries, like from a power supply to a distribution bus bar, you’ll want a thicker wire, like 16 Gauge.

For reference, the lower the Gauge number the thicker the wire and therefore the more current it can carry. Also, keep in mind if you’re running voltage across a longer distance you’ll want to use a thicker wire to prevent loss of power over that distance. So, for example, if you’re running from a power supply behind the Instrument Panel to your overhead, use thicker wire to carry it there.

Lastly, make sure you solder all your connections to prevent them from coming lose and maintaining a solid connection. Use shrink tube to insulate the wire connections where possible to prevent shorts. And make sure you’re using good terminators such as spade connectors, wire ferrules, etc. That will ensure a solid connection to your components. The last thing you want is any wire touching a metal surface or another wire and arcing or short circuiting.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: ALWAYS have a fire extinguisher close by. As your sim gets larger and requires more power, the greater the chance of a short or potential fire and you definitely don’t want that. And if you EVER smell electrical burning, unplug everything immediately and figure out where the problem is. There’s a good chance a fire is about to start, if it hasn’t already!

Chip On Board (COB) LED Light Strips – Perfect for MIP Lighting

The traditional 12V LED light strips I used for my Main Instrument Panel (MIP) lighting were starting to go out. Sections of 3 LEDs were starting to regularly flicker and it was slowly getting worse, driving me crazy.

As I was looking to buy replacements on Amazon I came across some LED light strips called COB (or Chip On Board) LED light strips. I had never heard of them before. Rather than a light source every inch or so with traditional strips, COB LED strips have a light source at much smaller intervals. In my case, every 1/10th of an inch! That really piqued my interest so I decided to give one a try. Wow, they’re way better.

These LED strips come in various voltages and color temperatures but I went with 12V and 2700K temperature. That worked out perfectly, even if the color still wasn’t quite as warm as I was expecting.

The lighting is uniform and even. They cut in sections just like the traditional strips and you solder wire to them the same way. They also dim down well without any noticeable flicker and get very bright. Plus, they look great, too, since you now have one solid strip of light like the real aircraft.

If you’re looking for great under-dash lighting consider taking a look at these COB strips. Note, they’re a bit more expensive (2 to 3 times the cost), but worth the money based on my experience so far.

Progress Update – January 2021

The last few months have seen the sim out of commission while I tore down and re-built my overheads with a FlightDeck Solutions (FDS) overhead kit I purchased from someone earlier this year, still un-built. The kit came with the overhead FDS swing-down frames and FDS integrated back-lighting panels (IBL) for forward and aft overheads, and had just about all the switches and knobs, electronics, etc. Since I already have a FDS cockpit shell, interior liners, MIP, and many more of their components, it just made sense. Even better was that it was for a good price so I had to jump on the opportunity.

Out With The Old (Overhead)

My original overhead panels were from CockpitSimParts. I built everything else from scratch. Just about everything worked and looked great. But the back-lighting wasn’t as good as I wanted because the panels were backlit by LED strips from behind rather than integrated bulbs in the panels so the panel lighting wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked.

Also, the clam-shell frame I designed wasn’t as strong as I would have liked and the frame supporting the panels, switches, and knobs, tended to sag a slight bit when closed due to the weight of all the components.

Still, it was a fantastic first version of overheads and overall I was quite happy with them.

The New Overhead

I’ll talk about some of the changes/improvements I made for the new overhead below.

New Overhead Frames, Better Swing-Down Design

My old overhead design was made from wood. It was bulky, heavy, and not as rigid/strong as this new FDS frame. Being metal, this one is stronger, lighter, and much less bulky. Not to mention all the right holes and spaces are built-in so it’s a no-brainer to put together. I love it.

This frame is also an older MX frame which does not have the DZUS rails which would allow you to mount real panels if you have them. That’s fine as the FDS panels the kit came with just screw on with fake DZUS screws and you almost can’t tell the difference. If you’re trying to save money, then this is a perfectly fine frame. If you’re going for total realism and want to mount some of your own real panels, then the DZUS rail version is a better bet, but comes at a higher cost.

I also separately purchased the FDS overhead mounting kit which I used to easily and correctly mount this overhead onto my existing FDS cockpit shell, and allow me to easily swing it down to do work as needed. Much better than my old design where I had to guess dimensions and figure out how to get it mounted and situated in the shell properly.

Wiring Again from Scratch

As excited as I was about the new overhead, I wasn’t thrilled about having to start the wiring from scratch again. There wasn’t a good way to salvage what I had already done so I had to start over, but I figured this time I had more experience so it should be easier/neater. Nah. It didn’t really matter. There is just so much wire that it’s nearly impossible to make it all nice and neat unless you attach everything to circuit boards (I’m thinking that will be the next version).

Mounting the Interface Cards

I had seen others mount their interface cards to the roof of the cockpit shell facing down and then a bunch of long wiring comes down from the cards to the components on the frame so you can swing it down without pulling wires out. I prefer a more integrated approach where all the cards are mounted to the swing-down frame so you use less wiring and when you swing it down everything is right there and you’re not trying to work upside down with a lot of heavy wire hanging in the way.

The downside is there’s a lot more wiring compacted on the frame itself. To get around this a bit, I designed some 3D-printed supports with hinges to create a raised shelf to mount the interface cards to. This way I can swing the shelf up and out of the way when I need to work on components underneath, but it keeps everything nice and compact.

There are so many ways to skin this cat that I’m sure there are better ways. Unless you’re mounting all the components to circuit boards, I think they’ll all have their challenges with the amount of wiring you’re dealing with.

New Magnetic Toggles

This time around I also decided to add in magnetic toggle switches for the yaw damper and anti-ice switches. I did some research and sourced some really good condition used OEM Honeywell magnetic toggles on eBay (model 25ET61-S). They run on 28 volts, which meant I needed to add a 28V power supply for just those two switches. No problem though. See images below.

Upgraded FlightIllusion Gauges

I also chose to go with FlightIllusion (FI) PRO gauges this time. I really liked my CustomSimParts gauges, and they served me well. But FlightIllusion gauges are more precise, much quieter, and smoother since they are stepper motor driven. The downside is FI gauges come at a steep price, 5x the cost of the CustomSimParts ones, so they’re not for everyone.

I chose the PRO line, which for some reason isn’t really advertised on their site, because for a slightly increased cost over their standard gauges you get a lot more: enclosed tubular gauge that is back-lit (the regular FI gauges are not back-lit but rather front-lit), glass bezel rather than plastic, and more accurate markings/design compared to their standard line. They’ll also make custom mounts to fit your overhead.

I think you’ll agree, they do look pretty sharp!

Updated ELEC panel

For this new overhead I updated the ELEC panel LCD I’m using to display the digits. In version 1 of my ELEC panel, which was on my old overhead, I used a 5″ LCD I found on eBay which had a separate controller board connected by a long ribbon cable. It worked fine but long ribbon cable and external board created some placement and routing concerns. My latest version, which has the controller board integrated on the back of the LCD (also found on eBay), is a much more compact and a better way to do it. I only had to create a couple of 3D-printed mounts and you can see the end result is neat and works extremely well.

FYI, I’m not a fan of using 7-segment displays for the ELEC panels. The real aircraft has dot-matrix-like displays, so even though I got a 7-segment display as part of my overhead kit I chose not to use it. You can see why in the pictures above. It just doesn’t look as good. An LCD is an simpler, more elegant way to get a display that looks much closer to the real thing in my opinion.

Updated IRS panel

Even though you rarely use the IRS Display panel, I still wanted it to be fully functional and have a working back-lit keypad with light-up ENT and CLR keys. I had originally planned to use a real 737 IRS module I bought used a while back, interfaced with CockpitConcept ARINC boards and Cannon plugs, until i found out it was too tall to put in the overhead. And, unfortunately, no one I could find sells a fully functional, back-lit keypad.

Since I couldn’t get the real IRS Display panel to I decided to stick with the panels that came with the overhead kit instead. I found I could take the keypad off the real IRS module quite easily and after a little research I was able to convert it for sim use pretty easily with a Pokeys 57 card using a switch matrix. The back-lighting is 5V so I tied that into the FDS back-lighting dimmer card, and I tied the ENT/CLR button lights to a Phidgets relay card. The end result is everything works as it should!

The next issue was the display. I couldn’t make use of the OEM display (I didn’t try because it looked too complicated) so I decided to use a 5″ LCD in its place. That worked out fairly well, other than the LCD display sits a bit too far back from the bezel glass. I figured it’s good enough for now. I also created a custom Font set to match the real aircraft display fonts and used a program developed by Trygve Nodop-Schreiber called Prosim737_IRS_Panel_TNS to connect to Prosim and display the IRS data on the LCD.

The final result is quite good. Now I need to create some custom knobs to match the real one (the OEMs don’t fit the shaft size properly without drilling them out).

Updated Seat Cushions

After patiently waiting a LONG time, I finally got my seat cushions back from the upholstery shop. The Capt seat is done and looks and feels great. I just need to cut some 4″ foam for the F/O seat base, but the coverings are done. Once that’s done I’ll mount the F/O seat using the car seat rails I discussed in another topic. These are old Weber seats from a 747 so eventually I’ll replace these with the real 737 IPECOs and J-Rails. Not in a rush to do that.

I’m also working on devising some easy-to-reach pull handles to release the seat track rather than having to reach all the way down to grab the standard car seat releases which are low to the floor. More to follow.

How does it all look now?

So after all that, here’s where we are as of January 2021.

What’s in store for 2021?

I still have a lot planned for 2021. I’m looking for some dual-linked yokes. Right now SimuJabs is looking like the best option for my setup. I still have to get a second set of FSC rudder pedals, and hopefully I can replace my motorized TQ later in the year. I’m hoping to upgrade my video cards to GTX 3090’s if I can ever find some. And I’d also like to add some working air vents as it’s starting to get warm in the cockpit now that I have some plexi windows in. Then lots of little detail work to come like oxygen mask panels, map pocket and cup holders, etc. It’s always a work in progress so keep checking back. I have lots more to post. Just have to find the time.

I wish you all the best of luck with your own simulator projects in 2021. Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

To See or Not to See – My Flight Simulator Visual Displays

Visuals are one of the most important aspects of a flight simulator. Some would argue THE most important. When done right, visuals can immerse you to the point you actually “feel” movement where there physically is none. Add realistic force feedback to the controls, proper audio placement, and where possible, a high fidelity motion platform, and you start to really blur the lines between what is real and unreal (Matrix flashback, anyone?). So it’s no wonder we all want the best visual system we can get.

My Ultimate Goal (or so I thought!)

If you’ve ever used virtual reality goggles you know how incredibly immersive it is. Unfortunately, wrapping a set of VR goggles around my cockpit shell probably isn’t going to happen (or is it?…more later).

So to reach a visually immersive experience AFFORDABLY I knew I had to build a 180-220 degree wraparound projection screen with multiple projectors. This would allow me to look out any window in the sim and see the outside world around me, creating a high level of realism.

Then, something fell into my lap that I never thought could happen and I couldn’t refuse.

Where it all started

I have been through quite a few iterations of visual displays since I started way back in the late 1990’s. When I got into this hobby I had just a desktop computer and a single monitor like most of us. Over time it evolved to three 27″ monitors, and later three 27″ monitors with a head movement tracker.

Then things started to really accelerate in 2008 when I added a Boeing 737 instrument panel from FlightDeck Solutions and combined that with my three screens.

Three 27″ LCD’s, FlightDeck Solutions Instrument Panel, GoFlight Autopilot (MCP) and PFC Saab Yoke

This worked quite well but as time went on I felt like three LCD’s just wasn’t immersive enough for the full-sized sim I was building and I was lacking a feeling of “presence”. So I decided to try two 55″ 4K curved TV’s. Adding a few more pieces like the throttle, rudder pedals, and center pedestal, it was starting to make a big difference in the immersion factor.

As my setup grew, I changed to two 55″ curved TV’s which added more immersion.

At that point I moved to a bigger house (and no, not “just” for the sim!) so now I had room to expand. So I added a full-sized cockpit shell and a single projection screen as I started planning how I was going to build the wraparound visuals.

My full-size simulator shell from FlightDeck Solutions along with a large projection screen.

The Wraparound Projection Screen

My ultimate goal, as I said, was to build a 180-220 degree wraparound projection screen something like what I envisioned in my CAD drawing below.

My original vision for a wraparound display

That kind of setup gives you a seamless out the window view. And with high resolution projectors having come down quite a bit in price these days, it looks really good and is quite affordable. It’s also quite immersive since everywhere you look out the window you see the outside world and without reference to the real world, it’s enough to give you the sensation of realism and movement.

There are a couple of drawbacks to note.

Depth Perception

As good as this kind of setup is, a standard projection screen provides the viewer with no sense of depth. The projection screen always looks close not matter what you’re seeing on the screen, so it’s difficult to suspend your belief that what is show as far away far is really far away.

Parallax

According to Wikipedia, “Parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight, and is measured by the angle or semi-angle of inclination between those two lines.”

Parallax in non-collimated displays
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collimation_1_-_short_focus.svg by Wikipedia. Licensed under Public domain

So with our projection screen, what this means is that if the outside view is adjusted correctly for the Captain’s design eye-point (in other words, the out the window view is such that the captain is sitting slightly left of the runway center-line and everything looks right), the First Officer will actually see a view that is offset at an angle as much as 15-20 degrees and thus it feels like the aircraft is crabbing. It’s enough to make the view nearly useless for judging takeoffs and landings if you’re trying to fly the plane from the right seat.

Enter Collimators

The only current way to create depth perception is by using Collimated views, which uses a glass/mirror system to straighten incoming light rays and effectively tricks your eyes/brain into thinking things are near or far.

Single Eye-Point Collimators

Older collimated displays were called single eye-point displays. This comprised a spherical mirror at the back of the collimator, a one-way piece of glass/mirror called a beamsplitter in front, and a projector/monitor at the top facing downward. It had a distinct focal point.

This meant that for one to see things being displayed on the mirror correctly the viewers eye-point had be at the exact focal point or the image distorts, grows, gets blurry, etc.

To get a “wraparound” view, you had to use multiple single eye point collimators, typically one straight ahead, one at 45 degrees and one at 90 degrees such that each collimator was positioned so the location of your head is the focal point of each collimator. You then just turn your head to look into each collimator and the view would be correct. But lean in any direction and the views go out of alignment.

Another drawback is that the captain can’t look over at the first officer’s collimators and see the correct view because his or her head would not be at the right eye-point so they’d just see an enlarged, distorted, blurry image.

Cross-Collimated Displays

Modern airline sims now use cross-collimated systems, which are wrap around spherical mirrors that focus the light in parallel rays from all angles such that the out the window view is correct no matter which seat you’re in or how you move your head. The Captain can look out the First Officers windows and vice versa and still see a proper view.

To create a perfectly spherical mirror of the size needed would be VERY heavy and difficult, if not impossible, to make in one piece. When mounting on a full motion platform, it becomes prohibitive. Instead, to get around the weight and size limitations, Full Flight Simulators use a thin mirrored mylar film stretched tight around the spherical frame, then sucked against the backing to create a perfectly smooth spherical surface. Combined with a curved overhead back-projection screen, the image reflects off the mylar similar to the single eye-point mirror and creates perfect collimation.

Mirror, Mirror on the Sim…My Visuals

And so we come to my current visual system. I’ll give you a sneak peak…can you guess what type it is? Hint: this section’s title should give it away 🙂

For more about my current visual system, head on over to my Visuals page.