Home-Grown Simulators

Nine guys who have raised puttering in the garage to an art form.

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His goal—building an accurate reproduction of the F-15’s systems—has led him on a long and pricey quest. Authentic military instruments can run $6,000 each, and cheaper surplus equipment is scarce. The Air Force’s demilitarization procedures haven’t helped; instruments are often processed beyond recognition or destroyed altogether. “I sometimes get handed a bag of fragments and have to piece them together,” Buckle complains.

The software engineer frequently relies on machinists who delight in constructing replicas of two-inch fuel flow gauges, but there’s often a lot of begging involved (“I talk to a lot of people to make sure they remember ‘that crazy guy who’s building an F-15’ ”). Buckle dismisses the idea that using reproduction pieces diminishes the sim’s authenticity. “It’s mostly theater,” he says. “If I can trick you into thinking it’s real, who cares if it’s real or not?” www.f15sim.com

Most south London sheds house lawn mowers or mulch, but inside Daren Knightsbridge’s, you’ll find a complete 767 flight simulator. Refurbished airliner seats and plastic panels have convincingly transformed the former coal bunker into the flight deck of a jumbo jet. Knightsbridge is proud of his work: “I’m a truck driver, not an engineer,” he says. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve had to learn how to do it myself.”

Each November, a roster of enthusiasts, including the managing director of London’s Gatwick Airport and several airline pilots, fly his simulator non-stop for a week to raise money for children’s charities. They follow the schedules of British Airways, Virgin, and EasyJet airlines, among others. “We try to plan it as realistically as possible,” he says. “British Airways provides the routes and supplies approach plates.” Legions of other supporters log on to his Web site to become air traffic controllers or fly along from other computers. (An online group of supervisors makes sure nobody is flying recklessly. See www.vatsim.net for more about virtual air traffic control.) Ever dedicated to realism, crew members even eat airline food donated by Knightsbridge’s employer, Gate Gourmet, while they fly. www.world-flight.org

Captain Cardiologist
Joseph Maldonado has spent the past year restoring the front section of an ex-TWA 727-200—flight deck, galley, lavatory, and 15 feet of the first-class cabin—and refurbishing it with airline paraphernalia such as in-flight magazines, silverware, playing cards, pillows, blankets, life vests, and barf bags. The Hatillo, Puerto Rico cardiologist plans on re-creating the entire flying experience; when the simulator is finished, passengers will be able to watch scrolling terrain from their windows—or opt for an in-flight movie—as pilots fly the jet on a simulated route. Maldonado has prerecorded cabin announcements and even outfitted a mannequin with a flight attendant ensemble. He’s also acquired a refreshment trolley. “I’m looking forward to having friends come over and eat a meal in the back as they await their turn to fly the jet,” he says—and he doesn’t just mean soda and a bag of peanuts. “We will serve full-course meals, as in the golden years of first-class.”

Special challenges await those, like Matt Ford, who try to turn real aircraft into simulators. One is integrating monitor displays and converting avionics to respond to simulation programs and the multiple computers that drive them. Another is developing “flight loading,” which determines the behavior of controls and governs force feedback—the yoke’s resistance when pulling out of a dive, for example.

In 1998, Ford bought a 737-100 flight deck from a tear-down facility in Oklahoma, but for several years, it languished in pieces in his parents’ Dallas garage. Once he got started, he put nearly $25,000 into the sim before he made his first flight, in February 2002.

Like others in the hobby, the Los Angeles lighting designer (who’s earned two Emmys for work on the 1998 and 1999 Oscars) strives for authenticity. “I’m really committed to having every component be either a real part or an exact replica,” he says. “I want a 737-NG [next generation] pilot to come in and see no discernible difference between my sim and the real thing.” He’s even acquired authentic “Boeing Gray” paint. “I love having friends come over and fly the thing,” he says. “For them, it’s like a ride at an amusement park.” www.737sim.com

Analog Amalgamation
Because digital displays easily interface with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, most sim builders use computer screens for primary flight displays. Their absence makes Matt Wietlispach’s sim unique; he refuses to use anything but analog gauges and dials.

For the avionics systems engineer, work and play are nearly identical. “I pretty much do the same thing at home as I do at work, but on a smaller scale and for much less money,” he laughs. Working for an aerospace firm does have its rewards—Wietlispach uses discarded sheet metal scraps, instrument components, bolts, and lights for raw materials. Without them, he couldn’t have built his simulator. “This stuff is beyond expensive,” he says.

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