An inside look at three homebuilt flight simulators
PUBLISHED: 16:52 21 January 2019
Using some real − and very realistic − hardware, virtual flyers are sharing the challenges and pleasures of the piloting airliners across the globe | Words: Bob Grimstead
You may have read that, on several days this summer, the number of airliners airborne at one time exceeded 200,000. But are you aware that−in a parallel online universe−hundreds, if not thousands, of virtual aircraft are continually circling the globe?
Thanks to the computer program VATSIM (the Virtual Air Traffic SIMulation network) all these virtual flights can not only be in contact with each other but−given the incredibly realistic visuals−can ‘see’ one another to interact.
Furthermore, because there is also a worldwide network of ATC enthusiasts, they can receive clearances, fly through real-time weather and in all respects behave just as though they are operating in the real world.
Most of these simulated flights are generated by the familiar Microsoft Flightsim, run on ordinary home computers, but there is now an increasing number of full-sized, airline-standard, amateur-built ‘proper’ but domestic simulators.
Despite having been forewarned, imagine my shock when walking into Greg Hateley’s suburban living room and, glancing to my right, seeing a complete, working, running Boeing 747-400 cockpit. As he invited me to board and sample it, I actually bumped my head on the same switches I used to in the real thing!
It was very strange to be back in that cockpit after a fourteen-year absence, and a steep re-learning curve to fly it, but incredibly satisfying. As in every other form of aviation, to operate an airliner safely and economically you have to do it monthly (a legally required minimum) and to be at all good you need to fly at least weekly.
It took several sessions for my old skills to return, but come back they mostly did. Before long I could once again maintain the climb-out speed fairly accurately through the varying drag changes of undercarriage retraction, recall most of the procedures by heart, and fly a moderately accurate ILS without the flight director.
After that first encounter a year ago, I have visited and flown three of these top-notch homebuilt simulators, and have been blown away not only by the superb realism of their at-home airliners, but by the skill, dedication and professionalism of many of these backroom aviators.
Greg Hateley’s Boeing 747-400 simulator GTI 1471 (‘Giant 1471’)
Greg is the 61-year-old chief engineer for a local radio station. Although many more recently built simulators utilise the chopped-off front portion of a scrapped real airliner, Greg’s simulator’s framework is built of plywood and MDF to dimensions sourced via the internet.
The pilots’ seats came from a scrapped 767, the throttle quadrant from a ‘classic’ 747, and his original control columns were made of four-inch PVC water pipe, although he has since replaced these with proper ex-747 controls. Greg showed me how he carved every instrument and switch panel out of transparent acrylic sheet using a self-made CNC Dremel router, which he first had to learn to programme. Then he sprayed on the brown topcoat with paint matched to the correct shade by the local Bunning’s hardware store. That’s for all the physical back-lit panels that go into the cockpit’s interior, not to mention the many switch-buttons that all work properly.
Seven mainframe computers run it, plus all the control laws, the 180° visuals with their three high-definition projectors, and the myriad other tiny components that interface perfectly to make it work in a completely lifelike manner in every way except for the lack of motion. It has a fixed base because of the enormous cost of hydraulic pumps, rams, motors, cooling and soundproofing, plus of course the huge space required.
His wife Doris has been very supportive, particularly when he decided to bring it in from the garage. Reportedly now ‘in their living room’, the simulator is actually in their ‘home theatre’ - a modern Australian concept of a room with no windows and no other useful purpose.
I find it mind-boggling that Greg’s sim is not just ‘very good’, but near-perfect in every respect. Indeed it is better than an actual, commercial, Boeing-certified fixed-base 737 simulator I sampled recently. His visuals (and those of the other homebuilt simulators I’ve seen) far surpass in quality and verisimilitude those of the British Airways simulators I used to fly professionally. Not only are detailed surface textures evident on buildings and foliage, but there are walking people and moving vehicles all around the airports and outside on the roads. Other aeroplanes currently using VATSIM come and go, whether parked, taxying around or flying. The result is so lifelike that spectators standing behind the pilots often lean into the turns and then stagger.
Perhaps the aspect that impressed me most though was the real-time weather. I don’t merely mean that you can access up-to-date TAFs and METARs for anywhere in the world by ATIS, ACARS or ATC. We can all do that nowadays with smartphones. What I mean is that as you take off, climb out, fly along the airways, descend and approach, the sun’s position, moon’s phase and weather outside are precisely as they are in the places you are simulating flying from, over and to. Thus, as Greg and I practised the many visual and non-precision approaches to Mahé airport in the Seychelles, the weather was actually deteriorating on each subsequent attempt, exactly as it was in Mahé at that time! We even had to fly through a rain-shower.
One oddity is that Greg’s sim has no transparencies in its windows. Although that’s strange at first, it does mean the scenery isn’t degraded, and handily allows one to lean outside and point out specific details.
I was also impressed to discover that, in the main, these simulator operators love their flying just as much as we licensed pilots do, but have often been prevented or put off by the innumerable bureaucratic hurdles and expenses we face. I now know that the virtual aviation network has probably at least as many enthusiastic exponents and skilled pilots as our ‘real’ GA community−it’s just that they don’t have to put up with all the grief and cost that we do!
We were able to dispel a few misapprehensions on both sides. The builders I met were slightly surprised that they often found it difficult to persuade current and even retired or aspiring airline pilots to come and sample their equipment.
I explained that no professional pilot ever skipped, whistling and smiling, towards their six-monthly simulator sessions, because in a mere four hours they could lose their licence, career, partner, family, home... everything. Few in the general public realise the mental and emotional strain incurred in these biannual checks.
Since that first session, I have flown twenty self-indulgent sorties and amassed more than eighty hours flying. I have enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with many favourite destinations and a number I was never able to visit.
I have even flown on to some short runways no 747 operator would touch in reality.
Island destinations are my preference, especially with non-precision approaches, so with my fellow pilots Greg and Lesley I have planned and flown routes around the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands as well as operating quasi-commercial flights through Eastern Africa to airports far too risky for regular operations.
Enjoyable destinations include non-precision and visual approaches to Kennedy’s, Kai Tak’s and Mahé’s Runways 13, circling approaches to Skiathos, Split, Coolidge, Gibraltar and St Maarten. I’ve flown visual sightseeing circumnavigations of La Réunion, Mauritius, Antigua, Montserrat and St Lucia, and made touch-and-goes on tiny Islander and Twin Otter strips in the Greek and Windward islands. Other favourites are Bhutan and New Zealand’s Queenstown, although I haven’t yet tried these. This was all the most tremendous fun, avoiding all the time, cost and safety constraints of real airline flying.
Every aspect of the operation is performed realistically, starting with the computerised fuel flight plan, using a representative payload and real-time weather and forecasts. An ATC flight plan can be filed−or not, depending on whether this sector will be flown under the auspices of VATSIM. Pre-flight cockpit scans, checks, push-back, engine start, taxying and takeoff briefing are all conducted as they would be in a real world operation, using generic computer fuel plans and loadsheets plus Aerad and Jeppesen charts and Boeing checklists.
And I am glad to say that we operate in the proper Boeing manner−flying our own approaches, and handling our own speedbrakes, brakes and reverse−and not the silly British Airways way, of which I never did approve.
For interest, and just to see how accurately Greg’s simulator’s performance matched the real thing, I tried some test flying, comparing the simulator’s pitch attitudes, power settings and speeds at several weights and with various flap settings with those in the Boeing ‘Flight with unreliable airspeed’ tables.
Gary Oliver’s Boeing 747-400 simulator BAW 47C (C/S ‘Speedbird 47 Charlie’)
Gary’s British simulator is squeezed into his garage in a Home Counties town. So far it has taken him four years to build and refine and cost him up to six figures (“as much as gaining an ATPL”, he says). His group, Simfest has fifteen flying members and more than 7,000 followers.
Gary (33) is in the high-tech software business, and previously built a Boeing 777 simulator using Plasticard and plywood when he was sixteen. Early in 2000 things in the homebuilt simulator world improved, with proprietary replica parts becoming available, so he replaced the 777 with a 737 sim. Then he chose to build a 747-400 because PSX provided such superb software, and as -400s were beginning to be scrapped he could buy second-hand real cockpit internal hardware more cheaply than replica parts, so all Gary’s panels and interior are real Boeing parts and he’s keen to relate which actual aeroplane each part came from.
Secondary reasons were that you can squeeze a 747 on to any 900-metre runway and you can get five or more people into the flight deck, unlike a 737’s cramped cockpit. Unlike Greg, Gary has gone to the trouble of replicating the spacious rear part of his cockpit to give more realism behind the pilots’ seats, with a real cockpit door and even a galley outside.
The Aerowinx PSX program (provided by German Hardy Heinlin) runs the ‘aeroplane’ in flight, including the interaction of all individual aircraft components, while the visuals are provided by Lockheed Martin’s Prepar 3D (utilising three projectors).
When I flew it last year, Gary’s ailerons were discernibly heavier than Greg’s (Gary called them ‘manly’) so, like Greg, he has spent the early part of this year improving both his controls and the visuals in a four-month upgrade. Because Gary’s floor is at ground level, to gain access to his controls he had to dig a pit in the concrete. There isn’t enough headroom in his garage to raise the simulator, so he has since had to dismantle the whole thing and dig a deeper pit for the improved controls.
One other slight difference is that Gary’s visuals are set up as a compromise between both pilots’ viewpoints so that either one can land it, but the result is that both pilots seem to be landing with some drift! Oh, and he has perspex windows, so I kept stubbing my index fingertip!
At every data point its attitudes were within half a degree and the power settings were within 0.02 EPR of the tables, which quite frankly is about the normal variation you get with different airframes across a fleet of fifty-odd aircraft. I also flew some stalls in various configurations to compare with the tabulated airspeeds.
Of course a fixed-base simulator like this lacks the strong tactile pre-stall cues given by the real aeroplane (a 747’s stabiliser buffet is completely unmistakable as the pilots bounce up and down in their seats three or four times per second at the front-end of their 230 feet long pogo stick). So I had to rely on the ASI and more obvious instantaneous VSI to tell me when the G-break actually happened. Nevertheless Greg’s sim accurately matched the original in speeds and flap settings.
After one clean stall, in an attempt to minimise our height loss I eased back on the stick too soon. The real aeroplane is supposed to be able to recover in 150 feet if flown properly, and will buffet violently in protest as it approaches a G-stall, but this simulator just went into a spin. Lesley saw a minimum airspeed of ninety knots and our sink rate was off the clock. But to my surprise and satisfaction the simulator responded to normal anti-spin control inputs and recovered easily. Obviously I can’t say the real aeroplane would behave like that, but I suspect it would.
Still being a fourteen-year-old at heart, of course I experimented with a few simple aerobatics. The 747 was not made for this. Its elevators are far too ineffective and the spoiler panels fight the ailerons when you’re inverted, but if you know the aeroplane’s systems and strengths, you can coax it around loops, aileron and barrel rolls, quarter-clovers and half-Cubans. You’d better have plenty of height though!
Some of the sim hours I have flown were as part of the crew of Worldflight 2017. Worldflight has been staged since 2001 and is an international, seven-day, round-the-clock, virtual world circumnavigation by around a dozen privately-owned full-sized airliner simulators.
These sims are based in Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and India, and Worldflight destinations are deliberately chosen to be either challenging, exciting or both, with interesting scenery a priority. The whole thing is in aid of various charities and has earned impressive amounts of money over the years. I participated in Worldflight Australia which raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), and has contributed in excess of $200,000 to date.
In 2017, there were 49 sectors, of which I operated nine with Lesley Daniels, who flew two more with other pilots. What initially flabbergasted me was that several hundred other members of the VATSIM network joined in and flew along with this group using their desktop computers and Microsoft Flightsim programs.
Gwyn Perrett’s Boeing 737-800NG simulator Virgin 738 (‘Velocity 738’)
Now a naturalised Australian, 58-year-old Gwyn was formerly British. He has had a lifelong interest in aviation but found out at an early age that he was partially colour blind and wouldn’t be able to fly professionally. He started flying lessons at the age of 39 and holds a Recreational Pilot’s Licence, occasionally taking a Cessna 172 for a spin around the Perth suburbs, but he says having a fully functioning 737 simulator in the home workshop is a much more convenient and cheaper flying thrill.
Gwyn, a mechanical engineer by trade, started by making a throttle quadrant for his desktop computer, and then one for an A320 customer. This was followed by more custom sim parts and so his hobby business ‘Aerosim Solutions’ was founded. Gwyn now makes simulator parts for clients worldwide, including for a very realistic Spitfire cockpit, a real C172 fuselage conversion, several executive jets and most of the popular airliners, as well as for three of Perth’s commercial flight simulators.
Gwyn was only the twelfth member of an early simulator builders’ online forum which now has over 13,000 members. With half a dozen of these forums in existence there are potentially more than 60,000 full-size sims being built in English-speaking countries alone.
This, Gwyn’s second full-sized 737 sim build, is housed in a big metal shed in the garden of his home in the northern Perth suburbs. Gwyn started the ‘Grey Lady’ in around 2012 and, like Greg’s, it has cost him around AU$50,000. With actual 737-200 pilots’ seats and flight controls, I can attest that it flies and operates precisely like the real thing. Gwyn has set his up more like an airline’s, in that he can also simulate as many failures as could be imagined for training.
2017 was the fourth Worldflight for ‘Velocity738’. Combined with Greg’s team, ‘Worldflight Perth’ crew has raised over $26,000 so far for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
ATC enthusiasts, often from the countries being traversed by our simulators, provided monitoring and clearances. All my flights were in local daytime; that was quite enough for me. Other team members flew sector after sector, day and night, which would have been gruelling. All legs but the last were carried out as professionally as possible.
Worldflight 2018 starts on Sunday 4 November and will consist of 48 sectors covering some 40,000 nautical miles. Sector lengths vary between 1:20 and a maximum of around four hours, partly because longer simulator sectors become boring, and also because short-haul Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s are involved.
Scheduled turnarounds are mostly a realistic 45 minutes, although some are longer to allow delayed members of the fleet to catch up. Everything is operated as authentically as possible.
The 2018 sectors are; Sydney-Cairns-Broome-Jakarta-Singapore-Banda Aceh-Colombo-Malé (Maldives)-Diego Garcia-Mauritius-Mayotte-Durban-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Lubango-Libreville-Lagos-Dakar-Agadir-Madeira-Barcelona-Zurich-Dussledorf-Leeds/Bradford-Trondheim-Tromsø-Svalbard-Thule-Goose Bay-Ottawa-Minneapolis-Jackson-Vancouver-Sitka-Fairbanks-Providenya Bay-Sokol-Khomutovo-Fukushima-Kansai (Osaka)-Shanghai-Hong-Kong-Brunei-Makassar-Darwin-Port Moresby-Cairns-Brisbane-Sydney.
In 2017 the weather was mostly benign, but challenges included thick fog, rain, snow, an icy runway, unnecessary ATC delays and typically awkward, xenophobic and chauvinistic ATCOs. We also had to squeeze our giant airliner into the confines of Juneau’s and Innsbruck’s short runways, plus a special manoeuvring, timing and handling challenge in foggy Delhi, which I completely stuffed up by misreading our height, dragging a wing through the trees, losing an engine and crashing! One way of washing away these stressors was finding plenty of appropriate local national beers to celebrate arrival in each of our destinations.
The last leg was special: a mass flight with one-minute separations from Albion Park NSW, fifty miles up the eastern coast to Sydney. With varying cruise speeds, we were able to fly some formation with our 737 colleagues before transiting through The Heads and along the harbour to fly under the iconic bridge and aileron-roll off to the northwest before landing at Kingsford Smith.
I am delighted to say that we exceeded our 2017 target of $7,000 by more than $1,000, so this year our target is $10,000. Gary’s Simfest group has been even more successful, raising over £95,000 for a variety of charities. This year’s choice is Contact the Elderly. To contribute, go to justgiving and search for Simfest 2018.
If you enjoy viewing any of these, please donate a fiver to the RFDS via: https://rfdswa-fundraisers.everydayhero.com/au/perth-worldflight-team