There are many considerations to work through before your first purchase. Indeed, for the most economically efficient path to the best simulator for your purposes, you should work through all those considerations before making any purchases.
Parts of a Sim
What a home flight simulator? You’ll need a chair to sit on and a table or desk to hold the simulation components. Of course, you’ll need at least one computer monitor for a combined or selectable view of the instrument panel and outside. Plus, of course, you’ll need a computer to run all of this.
Almost all the aircraft controls can be simulated on screen, but for even the most basic realism, you’ll certainly want at least a yoke or stick, power controls, and probably rudder pedals.
That’s the minimum. The maximum is, well, a nearly unlimited amount of incidental hardware, with multiple computer monitors and computers. So, let’s narrow our scope a bit.
What Do You Want?
Start by answering the question, “What do you want?” There are a great many options for you in the DIY (do it yourself) sim world and some might be critical to you, while others might be irrelevant. This is where you decide exactly what you want for your purposes. (What your friend has might help you decide, but it’s not likely exactly what you’ll want.)
Let me offer this disclaimer. I have not (yet) built a simulator. Please read my Remarks from September. I had concluded that I would build a sim because it didn’t look like the simulator I’d purchased (and paid for) from FlyThisSim would ever be delivered. Since I still wanted a sim, I started going down this path of defining and designing the sim I’d build.
I’d gotten right up to the point of ordering parts and pieces, but didn’t. A glimmer of hope unexpectedly appeared that FlyThisSim might still deliver after a year and a half, so I decided to wait. Nonetheless, the process I went through trying to decide how to get started was quite educational.
Back to, “What do you want?” Save yourself some real headaches later and thoroughly answer this question. Define things like airplane(s), instruments, placement of controls, size and fidelity of outside visuals, size of your instrument panel, degree of control-placement faithfulness, versatility, reconfigurability, etc. Only with these goals in mind you can make informed choices about what to purchase. Start by figuring out how you’ll use your sim.
What’s Your Mission?
I discovered that there seem to be three grous of home simmers: 1) “gamers” or (often) non-pilots who just like the idea of flying F-16s, B-747s, or the like; 2) serious pilots who just want a sim for instrument and/or aircraft proficiency; 3) a blend of those two—pilots who are both interested in simulation for proficiency, but who also like to fly the sim for entertainment, likely experimenting with some of the hundreds of types that they know they’ll never otherwise fly. Which of those three are you?
I am solely in the second group, pilots who want to fly a simulator just for proficiency. But, I appreciate those who are also in it for the fun, because they’ve increased the market size and forced a lot more product development.
So, do you want only to simulate your Mooney, or would you also like to fly a 747 or simulate a dog fight in a Sopwith Camel? This is important because it dictates other choices like the physical degree of flexibility you need. For example, do you need interchangeable controls, or would one physical configuration be enough?
A related question is how you will fly your sim? Assume you just want to simulate one aircraft. Do you want to use it solely for instrument practice, or would you like to be able to fly your simulated aircraft through mountain passes and canyons, skim above the water of the Great Lakes, or maybe fly inverted under the Golden Gate Bridge? Or, perhaps you primarily want to fly it VFR and just look out the “window.” All of these are valid scenarios, but will dictate many hardware and software choices.
Like to “Tinker”?
Are you handy at building things, perhaps with wood or metal? Or, perhaps you’re comfortable rummaging around the guts of a computer and modifying it to optimize one particular area of performance? If so, you can definitely sink your teeth into building a sim.
Building your own sim from disparate hardware and software components is easier today than even a few years ago, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to fiddle to get things just right. Take a simple example of your table height. Most cockpits have an instrument panel that’s lower than your table. Is that okay with you, or would you like to lower the table, or perhaps put your chair on a platform to get closer to the relative geometry of your cockpit? It helps to be handy. Or, you could mitigate the geometry challenges if you want by just paying a lot more for an adjustable-height table.
The software and hardware simulation components you select will usually work together reasonably well, but there will be times when they’re not exactly plug and play. So, it might be necessary for you to dig into software driver settings, or even just configure the simulation software itself to map all those unlabeled switches and buttons on that new yoke you purchased so they perform the functions you want, once you label them. If you’re not comfortable with things like this, you might want to consider more of a turn-key approach, which is definitely available.
Buttons, Switches, Radios, etc.
It’s time to begin exploring some specific choices, starting, believe it or not, with your desired degree of realism. In a perfect world, you’d be able to create an exact replica of your panel, both easily and inexpensively. If you’re willing to ignore “easily and inexpensively” you can, indeed, build an exact replica. Start by going to an aircraft salvage yard and purchasing an intact cockpit of your aircraft type.
Short of that extreme effort, you will have to compromise. Do you want actual switches, knobs, and buttons for everything from the mags and lights to landing gear and flaps, or are you willing to use on-screen representations of those items that operate by touch? Most of us would prefer the actual tactile controls, but this raises a major consideration.
Images on a computer screen are a lot easier and cheaper to arrange than creating a physical panel. So, if you want to replicate the positioning and types of controls in your cockpit, you’ll be able to achieve much more positional accuracy if you go with on-screen depictions. Note, though, that those on-screen depictions, for instance of the subpanel of switches, will require more computer monitor real estate than if you just depicted the instruments alone. It’s simple: the more you want to display, you either need the images to be smaller (smaller than the real thing) or the monitor(s) must be larger.
This is an individual choice; there’s no wrong answer. For me, I want to be able to use my muscle memory in locating a control, so I want it in the right place. Once I’m there, to me the difference between throwing an actual switch versus touching a monitor to operate the switch is of less importance. I choose real placement over correct tactile operation.
If you choose the opposite, you’ll have a challenge. There are a number of companies that make aircraft switch panels for simulators. Unfortunately, they don’t usually replicate any particular aircraft. But, you’ll get real toggle switches, knobs, and buttons to operate; they just won’t be where you want them.
The same question arises for your avionics. Many (not all) popular modern avionics are available for sims. Some will be just software, providing an on-screen replica of the device that is operated by touchscreen. You can enhance them from there with bezels that fit over the image and provide the actual buttons and knobs. These physical devices are more expensive and can be more generic than the on-screen depictions, but you can build a credible radio stack with realistic looking and operating hardware. For example, you can get a realistic GNS 430 for your sim in either all-software or with accurate hardware. Or, you can get a generic flip-flop nav/com in all hardware. Again, the choice is yours, but you should decide ahead of time.
How big is your aircraft’s instrument panel? Chances are that it’s larger than a 22″ touch-screen monitor that’s commonly used in sims. You could go with a larger monitor, but those get breathtakingly expensive quickly and the available choices are limited. The common choice is to use multiple monitors. If that’s your choice (or need), how will they be arranged? Will they be vertical or horizontal, or perhaps you’ll choose to have even more monitors so you can even depict the right side and/or your center console? However you arrange them, will you be able to get around the edge-to-edge bezel space where nothing will be displayed? If you’re using multiple monitors, you’ll probably want to pick monitors with very narrow bezels so that blank space is minimized.
Even if you’ve chosen to seek maximum accuracy, this remains an area where you’ll most likely need to compromise, if for no other reason than it’s impossible to take one or even multiple rectangular computer monitors and end up with something exactly the same size and shape as your instrument panel. But, if fidelity to the real thing is your goal, it’s worthwhile to spend the effort to maximize the realistic effectiveness of your monitor(s). Otherwise, just plan on having everything scrunched down to one or two horizontal screens.
You might even initially decide to go all-in to get a faithful depiction of your full instrument panel complete with on-screen avionics, only to find that you simply can’t arrange multiple monitors to work right. Reconsider your choices. You might find that a physical radio stack—if your radios are available—would produce better results.
Consider the avionics you want in your sim carefully. While it’s easy to say you want everything that’s in your airplane, you might find that not everything is available. So, be willing to compromise as you move forward. (For example, if you require a Garmin G500 for your simulator, this will dictate your choice in the underlying simulation software since that’s only available on one platform. Or, if you want physical avionics, that GTN would look silly in your Sopwith Camel.)
Take your time laying this out and making these decisions; these choices will dictate many future decisions.
The View Outside
Even if you’ll use the sim solely for instrument proficiency, you’ll still want to break out of the clouds and see the runway. For that, you’ll need at least some outside visuals. The most basic sims, even from commercial sources, depict a reduced size pilot’s portion of the panel on one monitor, leaving enough room over the top of the depicted instruments for a bit of a view outside. For many, that’s sufficient.
Others might want a much broader view of the world outside. This might come from one or more computer screens, usually in the 21 to 24-inch range, placed above the instrument panel monitor(s). These can be regular monitors, not touch screen, because there’s nothing on them to operate.
Even though we’re not able to log time in this sim we’re building, I personally want it to be as functional as possible to get maximum proficiency. This means I want a view of the outside world that’s pretty accurate so that I might even be able to do a circle to land on an approach, or fly a standard traffic pattern in good VMC.
While small monitors directly above the instrument panel monitor will suffice, bigger is an option. Consider one or more large TVs, in the 52 to 60-inch range. These would be arranged horizontally in a semi-circular layout, set back somewhat from the seating position and the instrument panel monitors. Or, go all out and use six or more arranged vertically, to get some absolutely stunning visuals, and costs to match.
Today’s state of the art in computer-generated graphics, even if generated from data to represent a known image, is that one high-end computer can drive four monitors at HD fidelity. Beyond that you’ll begin to sacrifice smoothness, detail, and realism unless you add another computer.
I’ll note here that you can get generic outside visuals that use real topographical and urban data to emulate terrain and urban areas, but aren’t accurate with building placement. Or, you can add data that’s so accurate it allows you to fly over your own house.
The decision on outside visuals stymied me as I worked through all this. I simply didn’t know how much of that view outside I really wanted, but I knew I wanted more than just a couple small monitors. I decided to start with my multiple instrument panel monitors, then use a single large TV for straight-ahead visuals, like it would be out the windscreen. Then, after using that, if I wanted a more expansive view yet, I’d add more of those large TVs around me and computers to drive them.
Hopefully I’ve given you a lot to think about as you consider building your own sim. Once you reach conclusions on what’s been raised here, you’re ready to search for specific components. Those components could be the ones we’ve talked about here—table, chair, touch-screen monitors for the instrument panel, and other monitors for the outside visuals if you want them. Beyond that, there’s a vast array of add-ons and components for all the platforms. The best advice I can offer is to research your product selections carefully. Also, note that while you can rely on advice from others, you must decide what products best meet your objectives of performance and price.