Finding Parts for your Simulator

One of the challenges when building a complex home simulator is sourcing quality parts. But where do you find them?

SHAMELESS PLUG: To help solve the problem of finding simulator parts, I have created a new FREE web site, https://www.ineedsimparts.com, to create a central place for anyone worldwide to post their real or replica parts for sale.

Replica Parts

Most of my simulator is built on replica parts, so I have a pretty good knowledge of most of the replica parts vendors out there, which you’ll find on my Links page. Replica parts are what you’ll likely start building your sim from.

Replica parts are just that. Replicas of the real thing. They usually look and function pretty close, if not exact, but the electronics used are different so as to make them plug and play compatible, and to keep costs down. They’re also not built as durable as their real component counterparts, meant to withstand thousands of hours of abuse, not to mention the reliability real parts must have. Which is fine since a typical home sim doesn’t experience the same level of abuse as the real aircraft.

The great thing about replica parts is they are almost always plug-and-play now-a-days, a far cry from the pioneers who had to figure it all out from scratch (hat tip to them). This makes it easy to integrate with your simulator with a minimal amount of effort.

Most of the parts in my sim are made by the Canadian company Flightdeck Solutions, which does a very good job of replicating parts from the aircraft they model and their support is very responsive. I would say they are 90-95% accurate, for the most part, and are generally quite solidly built.

There are obviously plenty of other replica vendors, mostly based out of Europe, and most do a good job of replicating the parts.

Real Parts

Figure 1 – Real fire panel at the top right alongside FlightDeck Solutions radio panels in my pedestal

Sometimes there are parts you want or need that either aren’t made by a replica vendor, or the quality of the replica vendor’s parts just isn’t up to your standards. A good example is the Fire Panel on the Boeing 737 pedestal (see Figure 1). This is a place where replica parts may not hold up very long to hard pulls and twists on the handles like the real ones can.

So for these heavier duty parts you might look toward real aircraft parts, which are meant to withstand thousands of hours of abuse and usually solid as a rock. 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.

Where to Get Real Aicraft Parts?

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

The Price Dilemma

A big problem today with real parts is that the sellers know sim enthusiasts don’t know what a used part should sell for and often overprice their items because they know simmers will pay.

Another cause of rising prices is that demand for real parts has skyrocketed over the last decade as home-based simulation has taken off (excuse the pun), and high-value items like seats, yokes, and throttles have become scarce. Sellers have been able to capitalize on that demand by often overcharging (significantly). If you think about it, newer generation aircraft often being simulated are still in service, so when one rarely is retired the parts go quick!

The problem of overcharging likely won’t be solved until simmers become more savvy about what a part should cost and do their research ahead of time so they can negotiate a fair deal.

Will it fit?

Figure 2 – Real Transponder

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. If you don’t have enough room inside whatever you’re mounting it in, you might not be able to use real parts.

Let me give you an example. I bought an ADIRU (IRS panel) which you can see in Figure 3, next to an IRS panel from Sismo Soluciones. Note the difference in depth. Not realizing it at the time I bought the real unit, 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.

Interfacing

When we talk about interfacing, we’re talking about making that replica or real part work with your simulator software. Your software needs to be able to recognize a button, switch or dial have been activated and respond accordingly. And the software needs to communicate back to the part, in many cases, to tell it what to display (lights, indicators, gauges, etc).

Replica Interfacing

Replica part interfacing is pretty straightforward. There are many types of interface boards you can buy that are USB or Ethernet based that have associated driver software that allows the board to communicate with inputs and outputs to the board. Boards like Leo Bodnar BU0836X, FlightDeck Solutions InterfaceIT cards, Arduino boards, Phidgets cards, and many more all allow you to take a physical switch input, for example, and have it trigger something on the computer, and thus in your simulator.

Other simulation software, like the Prosim Avionics Suite, have built-in drivers that support many different hardware interface boards. All you need to do is plug the board into your computer, Prosim will recognize it, and when you trigger a switch connected to the interface board, Prosim will see the event and allow you to assign it to some action within the avionics software.

Real Part Interfacing

Figure 4 – My Real Fire Panel Gutted and Rewired for USB Interfacing

This is where it gets tricky. Real aircraft parts weren’t designed to be plug and play in the sense we know it. Avionics parts communicate using an aviation standard protocol such as ARINC 429 (Aeronautical Radio, Inc) . Without going into a lot of detail, you normally can’t simply connect a real aircraft part to an interface board like you can a replica part. Instead, you’ll need specialized communication boards and drivers, like those from CockpitConcept (some great folks, by the way), to interpret the ARINC commands into something meaningful both the part and the computer can understand.

Or, you can open the avionics up, gut it, and then reconnect the switches, lamps, and dials to your own 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, but it was a lot of work so this route is not for the faint of heart!

Conclusion

Most of us will start off with replica components when building our sim. There are numerous suppliers, most located in Europe, who make replica parts and 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 use real parts, 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!

ANOTHER SHAMELESS PLUG: To help solve the problem of finding simulator parts, I have created a new FREE web site, https://www.ineedsimparts.com, to create a central place for anyone worldwide to post their real or replica parts for sale.

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