This is probably THE most asked question and my simple answer is, I’m not telling you. Ok, I’m kidding. But most simmers are hesitant to answer how much THEY personally spent because 1) It’s always too much, 2) They don’t want to be reminded of how much, and 3) They don’t want to be judged for how much (or want their spouses to know, lol). It’s like asking “What did you pay for your expensive car?” The bottom line is that’s usually private so don’t ask, but it also really depends on how far you want to take it. The numbers can vary wildly.
If your goal is just to have a simple display on a monitor with some flight controls, maybe a few switches and knobs, don’t let these numbers scare you. You can do it very affordably. In fact, you probably already have the basic things you need for a basic airliner simulator: A computer and a monitor.
Beyond that, you will want a desktop yoke for Boeing aircraft or joystick if Airbus, some rudder pedals and a basic throttle . If you want to take things up a notch, consider a MCP/EFIS and a CDU next (discussed further down). That should be enough for a reasonably decent beginner airliner setup.
But you probably didn’t come here asking about a basic setup. Most enthusiasts want to know how much it costs to take it further so here is a breakdown of what you can expect to pay for various simulator components, keeping in mind this is based on my personal decade+ worth of experience building a Boeing 737NG simulator. Other airliner variations (such as Airbus) will be similar in cost.
Also keep in mind these are very rough estimates that vary wildly based on how little or much you will likely spend depending on the level of simulation fidelity you are looking for, so as always do your own research.
Main Instrument Panel (or MIP) – Approx $500-3500+ USD
MIP’s are not too hard to build. There are plenty of plans around the Internet. If you build it yourself, you can probably get by with $200-300 (US) in wood, and maybe $200-300 in electronic parts, and then the cost of some monitors to make the displays (let’s say $150-200 if you buy them on eBay). The trade-off with this method is time. You need to research the right dimensions and materials for the parts and figure out how it will all go together. You need to cut the parts (remember, you’ll need the wood tools so if you don’t have a table saw, router, drills, etc them there is an additional expense). Then you need to put it all together. You’ll need to wire and solder. And you’ll need to paint. Etc, etc. There is a HUGE investment in time for every dollar you save. But if you’re up for it, you can “potentially” save a lot of money. Keep in mind that in the end it’s not always as much as you’d think.
Which is why I elected to buy a MIP kit. I chose Flightdeck Solutions (FDS) because I had heard good things about them and they are in Canada which is close to the United States and therefore the exchange rate was in my favor and getting it here was more affordable. I also purchased their associated electronics pack which had all the switches and indicator LEDs. You can expect to spend somewhere around $3000-10000 USD for a functional MIP. Yeah, it’s not cheap, but I’m glad I bought one.
Note that there are many companies that sell MIP kits, most of them in Europe. Visit the Links page for a list of some popular vendors (I am not sponsored…these are just a collection of vendors I have found, and in many cases used, over the years).
Anyway, the advantage of buying a MIP kit is that everything has been designed and thought out for you already. You just need to put it together with simple tools. However, the wiring is where you may be challenged. At the point I built the MIP I didn’t know much about wiring and started to get overwhelmed by how much wiring I had to do so I ordered a pre-made wiring harness from FDS for $300-400 and it was the best thing I could have done (sadly, I don’t think they offer it anymore). Keep in mind that depending on the vendor you go with, the wiring could be as simple as plugging in a cord or two, or as hard as wiring everything individually yourself, so make sure you research that before you buy.
MCP/EFIS/CDU – Approx $500-2500+ USD
You’re going to need to control your aircraft’s flight while on autopilot and you’re going to do this with the Mode Control Panel (MCP), Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) and the Control Display Unit (CDU) which comprise the Flight Management System (FMS).
This is an area where you’re going to spend a little money. MCPs, EFIS’ and CDUs are not all that cheap. You can start out with something like a GoFlight MCP and EFIS which is probably the most inexpensive available at around $500 USD. It’s not terribly scale in appearance, but it works well as does the EFIS.
At some point you’re going to want to bump it up to a more professional looking MCP/EFIS combination and most of the major sim vendors have good ones. I would recommend CPFlight or FlightDeck Solutions versions as the quality and support are excellent. You’ll spend around $1100-1500 USD for a good MCP and around $400 for each of the two EFIS modules.
The same applies to the CDU. It’s basically a keypad with a display that allows you to enter aircraft performance and route information. Most vendors sell these as well and as above, I’d recommend both CPFlight and FlightDeck Solutions. These will run you around $1000 USD each and there are two of them in the cockpit (but you really only need one).
Forward (FWD) Overhead Panel – Approx $500- 8000+ USD.
The FWD overhead is used primarily in startup and shutdown. Once you’re in flight you don’t really touch it except for perhaps the landing lights, and for emergencies. However, it is highly satisfying to have a fully functional overhead and I consider it one of my favorite pieces. It just looks awesome!
This section of the cockpit is significantly more complex than anything else in your cockpit. The number of switches, mechanical gauges, LEDs, and overall parts makes it extremely challenging to build yourself so make sure you think long and hard whether you want to build it yourself to “save” money or just buy one plug-and-play ready from a reputable sim manufacturer.
You could make a simple overhead for probably $500-1000 USD. That’s if you just take a simple MDF wood sheet, cut to size, punch a bunch of holes in it in the right places for some toggle switches and knobs, maybe add some LED lights, buy an inexpensive interface card to connect everything to (LeoBodnar BU0836X, for example), and maybe use a printed/laminated background from a print shop to replicate the panels. No back lighting, nothing fancy, but it will be functional. Remember, you still need to design it, have tools to cut the frame and such, buy all the electronics, wire everything (so you need to buy lots of wire, solder, etc), and interface it.
If you want to build something more realistic it’s very possible thanks to the many parts now available. I chose to build mine using affordable CockpitSimParts panels and initially their elecronic components/gauges kit. Keep in mind with a higher fidelity overhead you could easily spend anywhere from $1000 USD on up to $3000+ USD depending on how accurate you want to be. You can use my FWD overhead wiring picture above to get an idea of what a very accurate, fully functional overhead will look like. In total, that was around $4-5000 USD and at least 2-3 months of work.
There’s also a lot you need to ask yourself before going this route like:
- How accurate/detailed do you want to go?
- How much time and interest do you really have? (or will your significant other tolerate!)
- What kind of frame are you going to build?
- Will the frame be strong enough to support a LOT of weight without bowing, flexing or breaking?
- What will you mount the overhead to?
- How will you maintain the overhead once it’s in? Swing down design? Remove the entire thing?
- What power supplies will you use to power everything?
- What voltages will you be running?
- How will you run the wires?
- What wire color scheme will you use?
- What wire gauges do you need?
- How much wire do you need?
- How will you avoid electromagnetic inteference?
- Can you solder? Do you have a good soldering iron?
- How will you distribute power?
- How will you backlight your panels?
- Will the backlight be consistent brightness?
- How will you deal with wire/cable management?
- How many external connections do you want (one power, one USB, or multiple?)
- What interface boards will you need?
- What kind of gauges will you use and how will they be connected?
- If you’re adding solenoid starters, what relays should you buy?
- Based on the level of realism you want, will this really save you money?
These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself before you take on a project like this because you will hit a point during your build where you’ll wonder what the heck were you were thinking?! Especially when you go down a certain path then realize it isn’t working and have to re-do a bunch of work (it WILL happen!).
A real example. I originally opted to build my own overheads to save money. I thought I’d be happy with the basic components I started with, but as I was building I quickly realized I wasn’t happy with just basic components. I also didn’t want to come back and rebuild or add more later because once the overhead was in it would be a real pain to take back out. So I decided to just go all out ($$$).
I decided I wanted locking toggle switches like the real aircraft (there are 29 of them, if I recall) so I ordered the real ones and they weren’t cheap. I decided I didn’t want plain rotary starter switches, I wanted the solenoid-driven ones so I bought some from AndersSimParts (they’re excellent quality, by the way!). I didn’t want average gauges, I wanted more accurate-looking ones with back lighting so I bought a complete set from CustomSimParts. Each upgrade added a significant level of wiring complexity and cost.
“If I had taken a real hard look at what it would take to meet my true goals I would have waited and bought a pre-built overhead and saved myself a ton of time, avoided a lot of trial and error, and saved a lot of headaches along the way”
After looking back at all the components I needed to realize this goal it rose to almost the cost of a good manufactured overhead by a reputable sim company. If I had taken a real hard look at what it would take to meet my true goals I would have waited and bought a pre-built overhead and saved myself a ton of time, avoided a lot of trial and error, and saved a lot of headaches along the way (fitment issues, design issues, back lighting issues, power and USB issues, etc). So just keep that in mind when you consider going this route.
That said, I am quite proud of what I created and I think you’ll agree it looks pretty good. My overhead is fully functional (except for a couple of solenoid-driven switches…the yaw damper and anti-ice) and I get great satisfaction when I use it knowing I built it.
Buying a Pre-Built FWD Overhead
If you choose to buy a FWD overhead pre-built (highly recommended…see above) you can expect to spend at least $3500-4000 for a base model overhead, and $5000-10000 USD for a fully accurate forward overhead with the proper locking switches, smooth gauges, proper backlighting, etc. It sounds like a lot, but when you think about what I talked about above, it’s not unrealistic. There is a TON of engineering that goes into these overheads.
There are a a handful of sim manufacturers that build good overheads, including Flightdeck Solutions, CPFlight, Simworld, OpenCockpits, etc. Most of them are in Europe so if you’re in the US, remember shipping and customs. If you’re in Europe, remember VAT.
Let’s get real
You can always try to source real components for your overhead. These can be very hard to come by, especially for aircraft still in service, and when you do find them they can be in pretty bad shape. But occasionally you come across a gem if you watch the for sale forums, eBay, and aviation parts suppliers like a hawk. For this, though, it’s best to know someone on the inside who can hook you up.
If you’re shrewd, you there’s a good chance you can save money by buying real parts, though many suppliers jack the prices up knowing sim enthusiasts will pay more for even junk parts, so you have to know what the parts “should” cost so you don’t get ripped off. Once you have the parts in hand you have to figure out how to convert them for simulator use. Simple panels and switches/knobs aren’t that hard. More complex devices (like an IRS unit) may require intimate knowledge of how they work to wire them correctly. It often requires disassembly and re-wiring for a sim which means you need a wiring diagram, and there’s always a lot of elbow grease to go this route. Still, many opt to go down this path because honestly nothing is more real than real.
A fully-built overhead is large, bulky and very HEAVY so make sure whatever frame you plan on mounting it in will accommodate and properly support the overhead. Also keep in mind shipping costs will be expensive so take that into account in your research.
AFT Overhead – Approx $500-2500+ USD
The AFT Overhead isn’t as important as the forward, but it does contain some useful components like the IRS keypad/display. It’s also not as complicated to wire so the cost isn’t nearly as expensive as the Forward Overhead. You could probably get away with doing it for $500. It’s basically just a rectangular box. Again, if you use printed panels and just use cheap switches and knobs you can replicate a lot of the AFT overhead for a very reasonable price.
If you want to add a functioning IRS panel, LE indicator and Audio Panel, well, that’s going to bump the cost up quite a bit. I used CockpitSimParts panels again for the AFT but struggled with how I was going to scratch build a working IRS keypad and digital displays. The displays can be found almost plug and play from flightsimparts.eu , albeit it will cost you a little, but the keypad would have been tough. So I decided I didn’t want to build the IRS panel from scratch, nor the LE Devices panel with all its close together LEDs, and I didn’t want a “flat” looking non-functional Audio Selector Panel (ASP). So I caved and ordered them from Sismo Soluciones.
A good pre-built AFT Overhead will cost you anywhere from $1500-3000 USD but again, it’s all about time and effort. I’m fairly happy with my self-built AFT Overhead, but in retrospect I probably should have just bought it outright. The problem for me in the United States is most of the good pre-built panels are made in Europe so shipping costs are significant. Of course if you live in Europe you have to pay VAT taxes so I guess in the end it works out about the same.
Throttle Quadrant (TQ) – Approx $150 – 7000+ USD
Solid throttles are obviously very important. You’ll use them quite often.
You could buy an inexpensive Saitek desktop throttle and use two of the three levers for throttles and perhaps the third lever for spoilers. You can even buy mods that will exchange the Saitek levers for Boeing look-a-likes. Probably all for less than $200 USD.
You could also go with a non-motorized replica TQ that gets you much closer to realistic. I bought a second-hand Jetmax throttle that looks great and does the main things I need it to do. New they’re somewhere around $1000+ USD.
You could opt for a fully motorized replica TQ with moving trim wheels, thrust levers, spoiler lever, etc. That’ll set you back a pretty penny, probably close to $4500-5500 USD. I ended up finding an older RevSim TQ used for half the cost of new, but I dealt with a lot of headaches to get it working right.
The last option, and probably the most time-intensive and costly, is to source a real TQ. Most likely your most attainable 737 TQ’s would be the classic 737 TQ as NG models are very hard to come by (since they’re still in use). There are differences and you’ll have to judge whether it’s worth to you to accept the differences for the robustness and feel of a real TQ or not. Then, you’ll need to clean it, paint it, and rebuild it for simulation use. Not an easy challenge by far and likely some serious engineering and electrical challenges to tackle to get it fully functional. For a real TQ we’re talking $2500- $1000 USD depending on condition and functionality.
Center Pedestal – $? – $4000+ USD
Ok, I put the question mark on the lower end of the cost because it all depends on how far you want to replicate the center pedestal. A center pedestal is kind of useless without some radio panels and you’ll definitely want a fire panel. Those alone will add up very quickly. Figure each replica radio panel, if bought pre-built, will run you $200-500 USD each. A pre-built replica Fire Panel will run you easily $1000 USD. So right there just a few radio panels and a fire panel and you’re at $2000 USD.
And what about the pedestal frame itself? If you buy one pre-built, expect to spend $700-1200 USD. If you build one from scratch, like I did, you can do it for a few hundred dollars and again, lots of time.
You could also look for panel kits then build each panel by adding buttons, switches, and seven segment displays, then wire yourself as your budget allows. Nothing wrong with that. Remember, you still need something to hold it all so take that into account.
As mentioned, I built my pedestal from scratch. I used MDF wood and spent a week finding measurements, cutting, sanding, gluing, and painting. At first I made the supporting rails out of square wood dowel and drilled every single hole with a drill press. That was maddening and a waste of time honestly. Instead, just screw your panels into square wood dowel with replica DZUS wood screws. Or, for more realism, find and cut some real DZUS rails (as in the picture below) and mount your panels like they do in real life, with real DZUS screws. Just make sure the panels you buy will line up properly with the DZUS holes.
Cockpit Shell – $750 – 5000+ USD
The cockpit shell is very important in my mind. It gives you a sense of realism that you are “sitting in” something verses just being in a room. It also gives you proper placement of major sections of the cockpit. And it just looks cool! I’ve seen people build them from lumber and that’s amazing to me. Figuring out what goes where (proper overhead height, window location, etc) has to be very difficult. I’ve seen some just make enough of a frame to hold things where they should be, and others build a completely accurate frame with ribs and all. I just don’t have the time or patience to do that but I assume if you do, you could do it for relatively inexpensively (just lumber and screws…and of course all the related wood cutting equipment).
I chose to go the Flightdeck Solutions route and bought their pre-fabricated cockpit shell kit for around $2300 (and another $500 to ship via freight). It goes together with just screws and bolts, and sets up the interior mounting points perfectly. The outside looks like a Star Wars Darth Vader helmet, but you’re not flying from the outside so who cares.
I chose the bare aluminum version but looking back I wish I had spent the little bit extra and got the black powder coated version (then we’d REALLY be talking Darth Vader!). Painting/Coating it yourself will cost you WAY more in the end.
Yokes/Control Columns – $150 – $5000+ USD
You can’t control your plane without some sort of control mechanism, and the control column (or yoke) is what you use. There are inexpensive desktop yoke solutions out there from many vendors, like HoneyComb and Logitech. They’re not going to look and feel as real, but they’re on the low end of the cost scale and perfect for starters. These cost around $150-300.
If you want to up your game, switch to a more realistic control column. They cost around $1200-1500+ USD. I have owned the Precision Flight Controls Saab airliner yoke and it was a very solid piece (but not very accurate for a 737), and I currently use ACE yokes (much closer to real looking, but they are now out of business). In any case, most of the larger replica simulator parts companies sell these more realistic yokes.
If you want a truly accurate cockpit you’ll need two control columns, and for even more accuracy you’re going to want them to be linked so movement in one is replicated in the other like the real thing. That’s when you start getting into the high dollar ($3000-$5000 USD), and most need 6 to 12 inches of space under the floor for the linkage bar so keep that in mind.
You can also source real control wheels and columns if you keep your eyes open on eBay or other aviation sites. Since they are real, you can’t get any better. You’ll likely need to build custom supports and add the electronics to pass the movements to the sim software along with tensioning springs to approximate the right pull forces. It’s not hard, it just takes some thinking ahead and some handiness with engineering skills.
Lastly, you can do a control loaded yoke. This is going to be the most realistic because servo motors move the yoke when on auto-pilot, just like the real thing, and you’ll feel control forces in the yoke during flight. You can build your own with help from sites like BFF for a lot less money, but generally expect a pre-made solution to be very expensive ($10-20K+). This is the ultimate in realism and what I am ultimately striving for some day!
Rudder Pedals / Steering Tiller – $150 – 5000+ USD
Flying an aircraft without rudder control is possible, but not realistic. You’re going to want rudder pedals, especially on windy days when you need to do some crabbing and last minute yawing when landing these jets. Not to mention you’ll need some stopping power with brakes that are activated by pressing the tops of the rudder pedals.
You can do this cheap by just buying an inexpensive rudder pedals from Thrustmaster, Logitech, etc. It’ll do the job fine but generally they’re not too solid or heavy, and won’t stand up to much abuse. These run around $200-400 USD.
You could then go the next step and buy a quality rudder pedal from a company like Precision Flight Controls for around $800+ or so. These are much sturdier but aren’t going to look like the real thing. For around the same price you could buy a set of solid real-looking pedals from someone like Opencockpits (remember, don’t forget shipping costs!).
For even more robustness, you can look to rudder pedals from FDS or FSC which are solid and will withstand a lot of abuse over time.
If it’s just you flying, then you only need a single set of rudder pedals. In reality, there are two sets, linked together so push the left pedal on the pilots side causes the left pedal to move on the co-pilots side. A set of two linked rudder pedals and connecting linkage will easily cost you $2500-5000+ depending on who you buy from.
You could go real and source some real rudder pedals but converting them for simulator use is probably more of a challenge that is worth taking on. Unless you have all the mechanisms that go with the pedals, and can create the proper mounting if you don’t have a real cockpit floor, I wouldn’t waste my time.
Lastly, if you really want to take it next level, you could do a force-feedback, servo-driven set of pedals. Super expensive, but the ultimate in realism!
Don’t forget to steer a heavy jet on the ground you use a steering tiller. The rudder pedals on a 737 only turn the nose wheel a maximum of 7 degrees which isn’t going to get you around tight corners on the ground. So I highly recommend a steering tiller. I bought one from Jetmax and it is now so much easier (and more realistic) to control the aircraft on the ground. Expect to spend $300-400 on a decent spring-loaded one. Sure, you can build it yourself, but it’s just not worth it, honestly.
Simulator Platform – $200 – $13000+ USD
You need something to attach all this stuff to. You can build a simple base of just a couple of 4′ x 8′ pieces of plywood if you want, or get more fancy and create a raised floor with room underneath for a dual linked yoke mechanism, wiring, etc. I went somewhere in between. I create an 8’x8′ raised floor out of four square sections 4′ x4′ each made of 2’x6′ lumber, then added a plywood floor and put castor wheels on the bottom so I could roll it all around. All told, I probably spent $200-300 for wood, screws and wheels. Not too bad. Just depends on how fancy you want to get.
Some replica simulator parts companies sell floors but usually they go with their matching cockpit shells. So make sure to watch out for that.
Of course, you can go all out and buy a complete floor with yokes and rudder pedals all part of the package which can run you upwards of $10-13K USD. As they say, all it takes is money!
Displays – Approx $50 USD to Thousands!
Visuals are arguably one of, if not THE most important piece of a home-built simulator because what good is all that hard work above if you can’t see anything out the window? Sure, there are commercial training simulators that have no visuals. I flew a United 777 Fixed Base Trainer without visuals which was primarily just the Main Instrument Panel and throttles. For learning procedures it’s a great teaching tool. But what fun is that at home? You want eye candy!
When starting out you can just start with one monitor, preferably large, which you can get on eBay for cheap if you choose. Ideally for a desktop sim I’d recommend at least 3 monitors and a good graphics card, or else a single monitor with some sort of head tracking device like TrackIR to make it easy to look around the cockpit. It makes it difficult to turn knobs and flip switches with your mouse when the whole world is moving around with your head movement, but there are ways to quell that.
Along those lines you can opt to go bigger, with large screen TVs being much more affordable these days. One, or even 3, can make a big difference in the feeling of being there. Keep in mind, if you go with 4K displays you’re going to need a very strong video card to get acceptable frame rates.
The next step is a projection screen. You can get just a simple front projection screen for less than $100 USD and buy a reasonably cheap projector to go with it (make sure you determine if you need short-throw or not). That gets you a much larger image for a reasonable cost.
But if you want to take that to the next level, you can go with a wraparound screen and three projectors. This is the route many hard-core simmers go because it’s still affordable for a wraparound view, but it can be a challenge to get configured properly. Also, don’t forget you’ll need lots of room, and some warping software to account for the curved screen. You also need to keep in mind there is a parallax effect where the image will be correct for only one viewpoint (like the pilot) and every other viewpoint (co-pilot) will look skewed.
That skew is corrected by the most expensive/complex displays called collimated displays. Collimated displays correct the parallax effect and also provide a convincing illusion of distance/depth, but are very rare if you can find them. The cheapest and easiest to find are single eyepoint collimators. These were the originals used many years ago in Full Flight Simulators where there’s a separate mirror/glass combination for forward, 45 degree, and 90 degree views. Today, however, Full Flight Simulators use cross-collimated displays which have complex mylar mirrors with special projection so that every seat in the simulator has a correct view. The sense of being there is truly marvelous as I can attest to after having flown in one!
Which method you choose depends, of course, on budget, how much work you want to put in, and availability.
Everything Else – $$
Don’t forget you still have computers (I recommend a minimum of 2 but ideally at least 3 or more), avionics and sim software ($1000-1500 USD), simulator addons (airports, utilities, weather, etc), USB cables, power strips, electrical components, seats, audio speakers (for surround sound, cockpit sound, etc), cable ties, tools, miscellaneous parts…the list goes on and on. Some people have dedicated rooms for their sims. Others even build large wrap-around displays. This can also add up so do your research and know what you want to spend or before you know it you’ll be like me and spend way more than you should!
If you’re overwhelmed after reading the above (it’s easy to be)…
My recommendation is start small. Buy the most important parts first. Like a good computer, a yoke and rudder pedals (essential), simple throttle, maybe a few monitors, a CDU to more easily/quickly program the flight system and later a MCP/EFIS. Then, start working toward the other pieces. It takes time. I’ve been doing this for 12 years+ and only in the last year am I starting to see it really coming together as a whole simulation system.
So if you start to feel overwhelmed, remember “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Sometimes I’ll go months without doing anything. Sometimes a ton happens in a week. Sometimes I just get burned out. And sometimes I feel like I’ll never finish. But these last days as things are starting to come together and I’m really starting to enjoy and appreciate what I’ve been able to accomplish!
I hope this helped.