Getting Started   by   Chris Van Lierop
Before getting started on your own simulator cockpit there are quite a few questions you have to ask yourself. Like: do I mind the fact that my partner will hate me for the next couple of years, and friends and family will seriously question my sanity? But there's also a less serious (?) list of questions you need to check before you get started on your "neverending project" ;-)
  • - What kind of cockpit will I build (fighter jet, airliner, Formula1 car, Mechwarrior)?
  • - Do I have enough room to build my cockpit?
  • - What kind of money am I willing to spend?
  • - Will I use "real" parts or will I build everything myself?
  • - What kind of materials will I use?
  • - What kind of tools will I need (to buy..)?



    And these are just some basic questions. 

      Digging deeper into the matter you may start to ask yourself:

    • - Do I want a "virtual" cockpit with everything in HOTAS style, or do I want a full suite of working buttons/switches in my cockpit?
    • - How will I make the buttons work, or how will I interface the buttons/switches with my PC?  Will I use an EPIC card or other keyboard encoder? Will I be able to program it myself? Am I willing to spend the time and money this will cost me?
    • - Will there be other problems interfacing the cockpit with the PC. Do I want working gauges and warning lights? Will I settle for a "glass cockpit"?
    • - Will it be a one- or two-person cockpit ? If two, will it be built so that  it CAN be operated by ONE person     so that you can enjoy it without having a friend (or wife?? haha) over all the time?
    • - Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.....


    On deciding which type to build, a good thing to consider is the availability of information and parts, both real and replica. F-16 info and a lot of Boeing stuff is readily available right now. There are also companies making F-16 components and lots of Boeing stuff can be found. If you switch to making something like a Canadian Regional Jet, it would be much harder to find parts and dimensions and such.
    Another important thing to keep in mind is what software is available to run the sim. A Boeing 737 sim is a great thing to build because so many of its components are available right now through Microsoft, the PFD Team and others. But good software for a MechWarrior sim, that allows data in and out of the sim, may be hard to find. The type you want to build may also be decided by your favorite  (software-) sim at the time. Keep in mind that your favorite sim may change a lot through the years, so you might also choose to go for a more 'generic' sim cockpit.


    One of the most important (according to some THE most important) aspects of your simulated experience, are the visuals. Which route do you want to go? Stick with the single monitor? Go for a multiple-monitors setup?  Ask yourself: does my software support multiple monitors?  Do I have enough knowledge to realise/implement this in MY pit?  How much processor-power/networks/graphics-cards etc. will I need?  If you go for a multiple-monitors setup, you will need to take that into account in the design of your cockpit. Maybe you want to go for the head-mounted display. Ask yourself again: Can I pay for this? Does my software support this? A head-mounted display does mean that you don't have to enclose your cockpit and still get the total immersion.Have you won the lottery? You could go for a LCD projector. Project stuff life-size and get totally immersed. You don't have to pull many tricks to make it work and you don't have to enclose the entire cockpit, without being distracted by things around you in the room. You do need a big wallet though! ;-)


    After you answered all these questions, and all other questions you can think of yourself, you're already starting to form a "battle plan" for your upcoming project. And that's the most important thing: "plan before you build!"   Precise planning and probing will save you tons of time and money on your project. If you're going to build a replica of "the real thing", try to gather as much info on it as you can. Measurements, angles, colors, versions, anything you can get your hands on, because in the end it will never be enough! If you go for the 'fantasy' approach, be sure you will be able to fit yourself in the pit comfortably and that you'll be able to reach all the buttons and controls. Think ergonomy!      Any which way, think your project through, and then... think it through again! 

      3D DESIGN

    It wouldn't hurt to get acqainted with a good 3D CAD program either. This will help you filter out design flaws in an early stage. Nothing is more frustrating then to build a whole part of your pit, to find out that it doesn't quite fit or meet up to your expectations. By designing your pit in 3D first, you will also know the quantity of materials you will need before you start building the actual pit. In the direction of construction, another piece of advise: measure twice before you cut once!


    Another good idea is prototyping. Before you build a part of your pit, build it from cheap material first. This way you can see if it fits and works as planned, before you spend all your money on expensive materials. Wanna make a 'glare-shield' for your F16 cockpit? Make it out of cardboard first, see if it fits. If needed make some adjustments, and then use the cardboard as a mask for the 'real thing'.


    Unplanned building has cost me alot of time and money on my first pit. It cost me a lot of blood sweat and tears, to build and rebuild all parts, and in the end I still wasn't satisfied. Something can seem as a great soluition in your head, but fall terribly short in reality. If you make a new part, think of the consequences it will have on your design.

    The conclusion should now be clear: the success of your "pit project" stands or falls with the amount of time you spend building it in your head and on paper, BEFORE you build it for real !!!