General Overview

The following is a detailed overview of home cockpits in general and a "behind the scenes" look at how I built my full size flight simulator. For information on ARCOM_Systems, please visit ARCOM's homepage:

What exactly is a home cockpit?

A home cockpit is a machine that closely simulates a real cockpit. It can be used at home, and it shows how a plane and its cockpit behave in certain circumstances. It houses various hardware, such as replica front-panels, steam and digital gauges, switches, LEDs, Displays, and other out- and input electronics. One experiences a feeling that comes close to actually flying a real plane when using it.

People tend to build simulators resembling large airliners, such as my Boeing 737-800NG, but simulators of General Aviation Aircrafts like the Cessna 172, or other private planes can be found too.

The "why" and the "how"

I was always fascinated by aviation and got my first flight simulator software when I was 8. Very quickly, I learned how to "fly" a plane in this simulator, eventually being instructed by a friend of ours who is a private pilot. Flying in the online network "VATSIM" was the next step. Flying in this rather 'professional' environment required me to learn how to fly "technically" correct. This included various procedures, such as approaches, take-offs, landings, descends, ascends, holds, and emergency routines. After some time, sitting in front of my PC flying a plane with a joystick and a keyboard was just not satisfying anymore. My parents wouldn't let me get a PPL since they feared I might crash, so I decided to do something else.

My initial plan was to build a "full motion simulator", which, according to my imaginative plan, would have been able to turn a total of 720 degrees. Not knowing what I was talking about, my parents asked me to show them some plans, models, or anything that could make understanding my idea easier. First, I built a model from Lego which indeed worked like I had imagined it. Then, I created a keynote listing all components, the  costs, and some technical details. Although they did like the idea, they decided to open my eyes and tell me that there was simply no room in our house for a machine of this size.

I looked for something else that I could build and that had a connection to Flight Simulation. Soon, I stumbled upon the so-called home cockpits. After some research, I made a conceptual "Main Instrument Panel" using 3 old monitors from the scrap yard, which I had repaired by replacing broken components (mainly broken capacitors) and old, to-be-thrown-away computers from my school. This small "pit" did not look anything like a real cockpit, but it was a proof-of-concept model, showing me that I was indeed capable of putting together one of those huge cockpits that I had seen in the Internet.

When my mother became worried about my room becoming a huge mess consisting of my bed, clothing, tools, and a sort of weird looking machine with a huge screen, I was allowed to move into an old, unused room in the basement where I, together with my grandfather who helped my with the carpentry, started the project once again. This time, however, I used real measurements and accurate plans of the Boeing 737-800NG's cockpit. As you can see on the following pictures, everything was constructed out of wood. It was a very long way to get to where I am now, and I am very satisfied with the results.

The problem of finding screens to put behind the panel (from left to right: Primary Flight Display (PFD),  Navigation Display (ND), Artificial Horizon, and upper Engine Display (upper EICAS)) was solved quite creatively: The PFD and ND are both on one LCD monitor which I got from the scrap yard for 3€ and repaired for 0.75€.

The EICAS and Artificial Horizon had to be fit onto one screen, too, but finding a display with the correct size that would fit into the small space I had behind the panel seemed to be impossible at first. After some intensive research in the Internet and a considerably large disappointment after finding out how much some of those LCD screens cost, I had the idea of tearing apart an old laptop, removing the screen, extending its wires, reconnecting them, and finally mounting the actual screen behind the panel. It is a very messed up solution with many wires hanging around, but from the front it looks just perfect.

The most difficult part was building the windows and the sidewall. They are both exactly like "the real thing". When building the sidewall, my grandfather taught me how to create professional plans of objects in space by hand. It took very, very long to build this structure.

A part, which I am proud to say to have built completely on my own, only thriving on the knowledge my grandfather gave me, was the roof. It might sound trivial, but crafting a roof that looks like as if it were "round" and smooth is pretty difficult.

Now it is time to move on to explaining the purpose of panels. Basically, these panels are white pieces of acrylic glass, coated in several colors, and engraved by a CNC machine to let the back-light illuminate the letters on them. At first, I planned to make them myself by building a CNC router, but after several conceptual models and plans, I decided that building a machine like the one with the accuracy that I needed was simply out of scope. To build a CNC machine would have been a project as complex as the cockpit itself.

Therefore, I decided to buy plain panels from a Spanish company called Opencockpits. When they arrived, they looked like this:
Today, those panels are all assembled and installed in the cockpit. Most of them are fully functional and interfaced (=work together with the simulation software). I use my own output interface system to drive output hardware. This part of my hobby is further described on my company's homepage:

As some of you may know, every cockpit has an "Overheadpanel". This panel is mounted right above the captain's head and has many switches and annunciators. Crafting its panels, again, would have been impossible without a CNC machine, so I bought a plain "Overheadpanel" from the Polish company "Poldragonet". This panel was not the cheapest one available, but I was willing to invest a bit more, since I wanted to use a high quality product in the cockpit that I put so much effort into. Therefore, I had to put together all the money I had made with ARCOM_Systems so far and add the money I won in a speech contest to pay for the part. In retrospect, I am absolutely certain that it was worth every cent. I have not yet mounted it above my head, but the electronic components are already installed (not wired up), and it looks absolutely amazing:

Flying a plane in the dark is difficult without lights in the cockpit. Therefore, every cockpit has dimmable cabin lights that illuminate all kinds of things. I have only recently started to install them in my simulator but the already installed lighting looks quite impressive. It is dimmable with a potentiometer. Since I use LED light chains, I have to use PWM (= Pulse Width Modulation) Dimmers to control the brightness of the lights. Currently, I use a PWM output on an Arduino and a transistor to control the lights' brightnesses, but I will soon switch to making the whole lightning independent from the rest of the cockpit by using a small dimmer circuit based on the 555 Timer chip.

I have been working on this project for nearly 3 years, and I learned many new things that I would have not been able to learn in school. Carpentry, electrical engineering (soldering, basic electronics, and Printed Circuit Board Design in EAGLE), Computer Aided Design, C#-, Java-, and Arduino-programming are among those things. People tend to ask me when I'll be finished with all this and "ready to go". The answer is simple: never. A self-built cockpit like mine cannot be completed because there will always be something to improve. The journey is the reward, and I must say that I really enjoy this journey!

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