Enclosing the flight simulator cockpit

Over the weekend I completed the next phase of my home flight simulator project. This effort was spent enclosing the cockpit in a shell or box to at least somewhat mimic the inside of an airplane’s cockpit.

I didn’t pursue realism. I wanted versatility, low impact, low cost, and ease of construction. The size of the cockpit enclosure is rather large compared to a real airplane, 59″ wide and 60″ tall. There are no side windows or imitation door handles. What it does, however, is make me feel like I’m inside the simulator, rather than sitting halfway in a room staring at a computer sitting in a closet. It also lets me control the amount of light and even the air flow to a certain extent. Here are pictures of the enclosure so you can see what I mean.

Step 1: Ceiling frame. I built a framework out of 1.5″ x 3/4″ hemlock and L brackets. It holds an AC Infinity USB-powered ventilation fan that will suck air up and out over the top of the simulator. This framework is very lightweight yet plenty sturdy enough to hold everything in place.
Step 2. Mount ceiling panel. I attached corrugated plastic panels to the underside (or inside) of the ceiling frame, and draped two additional panels down the sides. These are held in place by large binder clips, which means they can be easily removed for access. The entire ceiling panel rests on two L brackets mounted to the closet entrance, resting on the crossbeam you see in the ceiling framework. It actually pivots up and down with ease, as the whole panel is well balanced. In the rear, under the closet supports, are two down-facing L brackets with velcro to kept the panel from rotating up.
Side panels. In this photo, you can see the overall size of the enclosure, including detail of the side panels. These are corrugated plastic panels purchased at Home Depot. They are very lightweight and can be cut with a utility knife. The inside dimensions are 59″ wide and 60″ tall. They extend out into the room about 30″.
Far rear. Standing in the room looking into the simulator, you can see how much space there is to either side of the cockpit panel. I have an old speaker stand sitting to the right where I have my mouse to control the simulator’s menus and settings. I will put a small shelf of some kind to the left to hold an iPad, notebook, and a place to put a beverage.
Inside
Inside. From inside the cockpit you can see the ventilation fans I mounted in the ceiling panel. They are controlled by the dangling cord you see on the right; I’ve since tucked that back around the wall where I can reach it but it isn’t in my view. The back of the ceiling panel is pressed against the closet wall about 4″ above the top of my three 32″ monitors.

The materials to build the ceiling panel and side panels cost about $125, all purchased at Home Depot. The entire structure can easily be removed without having to remove any screws or other hardware, other than unplug the USB-powered ceiling fan.

After using the enclosure, I will be attaching some lightweight material along the back to block out sunlight, as there is a window directly behind the camera in this photo and it makes the inside of the cockpit a little too bright during mid-day. I’ll attach the material with binder clips for easy removal. The ceiling fan does a good job of ventilating warm air from the PC (lower-right, behind the mouse stand) and keeps the enclosure relatively comfortable. The fans themselves are relatively quiet, but because of how I mounted them they make a slight buzzing sound which actually is similar to what a Cessna 172 sounds like when it flies overhead at 5,000 feet. When I fly I wear headphones and don’t hear the fans or PC, however, so it’s moot. To others in the room, though, it actually sounds like a prop-driven plane buzzing along (quietly).

Next steps include putting a shelf of some kind on the left-hand side of the cockpit chair. I’ve also been teased that I need to put posters of blue skies and clouds on the inside of the side panels. We’ll see.

Forgive me Father, for I have simmed.

I have been very busy lately, but not with what you may expect. As you may know, I have been a motorcyclist for over a decade now, riding both a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, and a 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 sport bike. I had wanted to ride motorcycles ever since I was a kid, and have enjoyed doing so very much, racking up over 80,000 miles in 10 years of riding.

There is something I’ve wanted to do from an even earlier age.

Fly.

I had the opportunity to take flying lessons when I was in my late teens but opted out because of the expense. Learning to fly is expensive, and flying once you get your license is expensive as well. So despite my passion and desire to fly since I was a very young boy, I have never pursued it.

Recently I heard about X-Plane, the flight simulation software that is arguably the de facto king of realistic simulation for the consumer (and professional) market. I ran a demo version of the software on my Macbook Pro and was blown away by the realism and depth.

Digging more, I found YouTube videos [ like this one ] of home-built cockpits and flight simulation rigs people are building in their own homes. Something clicked, and I realized I could get much closer to the experience of flying but at much lower cost and no risk to life-and-limb.

To get that desired realism, however, I would need a system a bit more involved than just a laptop and second screen. I began to research the kind of computer systems required to obtain the level of realism I needed, all based around X-Plane, and the flight simulation gear such as flight controls and gauges that would enhance the realism.

I purchased books about flying from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I investigated products and vendors and watched hours of YouTube videos posted by home flight simmers. I produced a budget for what my desired system would cost.

Unwilling to incur debt, I was also unwilling to tap into savings. I had to find the money from another source. Doing some soul searching, I realized it would be better to own one motorcycle and a flight simulator than to own two motorcycles and no flight simulator.

So I sold the Gixxer.

Using the sale money from the motorcycle, I had the financial side of the project covered. Based on my vendor and product research, I had a shopping list ready to go. All I needed to do was start placing orders.

The heart of the flight simulator is the computer. I chose a high-end Windows PC purchased from X-Force PC, based in South Carolina. They partner with Laminar Research, the company that makes X-Plane, to provide LR with the systems used in X-Plane development and testing. This would ensure high compatibility and reliability. After a phone call with Michael Brown, the chief builder and head honcho at X-Force PC, I had a system ordered. I also purchased my Saitek gauges and flight controls. The service I got from X-Force PC in general and Michael specifically was fantastic.

Closet shelf
Monitors, desk, and cockpit panel
Panel, yoke, rudder pedals, and computer
In-flight, showing LED lights around cockpit panel
Full system with gauges

Another key aspect of this system was location. Where would I put it? My home doesn’t have a basement, so I got creative. I emptied the closet of a spare room, mounted an adjustable shelf on the back wall to hold my video screens, and repurposed a small desk. The system is half in the closet, half out (no sociological puns intended). I have plans to build an enclosure around the seating area to mimic the realism of being inside an actual cockpit.

Flying is complex. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge. Operating the airplane is challenging enough on a perfect day, but when you factor in weather, topography, air traffic control, mechanics, and the myriad bits of information constantly deserving your attention, it quickly becomes an immersive experience that can eat up years of time and dedication.

This is something I won’t outgrow anytime soon.

John Irving or Stephen King?

The writing methods of John Irving (The Door in the Floor) and Stephen King (The Shining) couldn’t be more different. Both seem to have strong views about the right way to write. Last year I read King’s, Stephen King on Writing and was blown away when he talked about his writing process, but was even more impacted by how strongly he feels about it.

According to King, organization kills creativity.

John Irving, on the other hand, takes an approach that would make King’s eye twitch in barely contained rage and frustration. Irving’s first action is to write the last line of his book. He then outlines and defines every step that will be taken to lead the reader from page 1 to that culmination.

I developed my own writing style before I knew anything about King and Irving’s methods. In fact, I had never heard of John Irving until I’d already published my second novel. I ran across a YouTube video of a speech he gave where he described his writing process. It almost perfectly mirrors my own.

Later, when I read Stephen King on Writing and I learned how the master does it, I found myself asking, “How is that even possible?” (He starts with a blank page and just writes.) Of course, Stephen King is a writing savant. He could write a 1,000 page novel with one thesaurus tied behind his back.

My process can best be described as organized, linear creativity. I invent my characters and the things that happen to them in a series of brainstorming sessions, then I use an organized, methodical approach to refine those broad ideas into specific details.

When discussing my writing approach with readers and budding authors, I describe it by saying, “I don’t write novels, I write scenes.” This is because I outline my ideas down to the scene level during my planning and organization phase. Then, when it’s time to start cranking out the prose, I only have to write one scene at a time. It is specific, finite, and relatively small. I’m not overwhelmed by the intimidating scale of several hundred blank pages and the pressure of having to come up with a novel’s worth of creativity on the spot.

Most importantly for me, though, is I don’t have the fear that I’ll start down a creative path without knowing it will end well. Because I’ve already determined the plot, sub-plots, character development, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, setting, etc., I can write one scene at a time knowing it will all fit together in the end.

How to Kill a Tarrasque

TarrasqueDuring a D&D game a few weeks ago, we were chatting and killing time before the game started. Someone mentioned the Tarrasque, the most powerful monster in the 5th edition Monster Manual, with a Challenge Rating (CR) of 30. I’m not sure why, but an idea for how two players of moderate level could kill it popped into my head.

Bear with me, as this approach has a certain eww factor for one of the players.

Sam the Sorcerer and Bob the Barbarian want to kill a tarrasque that is threatening their home town. Sam has the Teleport spell, and Bob wears a Ring of Regeneration. Bob also wears very spikey armor, kind of like what the glam-metal band Gwar wears in their music videos. The final ingredient in this monster-killing stew is Bob’s really big battle axe.

The steps required are very simple:

Sam the Sorcerer teleports Bob the Barbarian into the brain cavity of the tarrasque.

The Ring of Regeneration Bob’s wearing keeps him from dying, while his spikey armor and wielded battle axe cause lots of terminal damage to the giant monster’s brain, hopefully killing it instantly, or at least quickly.

Once the beasty falls to the ground dead, Sam gets some local woodsmen to swing their axes and cut Bob out of the monster’s skull.

Ohlen’s Bane now available in paperback

Book Two of The Taesian Chronicles
Book Two of The Taesian Chronicles

I am very happy to announce that Ohlen’s Bane, book two of The Taesian Chronicles, is now available as a paperback from Amazon.com.

Ohlen and his close ally, the irrepressible and honorable Kha’ard, pursue a deadly killer into a maze of underground tunnels after a close friend is assassinated. On the surface, the hardscrabble mining town of Eeron is attacked by a powerful race of creatures seeking to wipe out the humans that live there. Will the unexpected arrival of Eeron’s oldest enemy spell its doom?