Covid shut down Young Eagles and $100 hamburgers, and my flying skills were going to pot. “Use it or lose it” is true where adherence to procedures and reactions to emergencies are concerned. Would a flight simulator help? What would one cost? Did I succeed in building one? Look at the picture and tell me.
Would you believe it cost less than $1,700? An era when government claims to spend trillions, with no cost to ordinary taxpayers, has a license for creative accounting. You will agree that there is zero new out-of-pocket cost for something one already owns—the key word being “new.” What did I have that could be used to build a simulator? An example is the iPad mini with ForeFlight on the yoke. It is one that I use in N4500R, so the cost for using it in a simulator is $0. Got my point?
Like any frugal person, I believe in junk drawers. For some, they represent untidiness. For others, a place to stash stuff they suspect might be useful sometime. Mine no longer fit in drawers, and include computers like Atari from when Pac Man was big.
Daniel C. Dennett described my position on junk drawers more elegantly: “Creativity must include mistakes and randomness… junk lying around that your creative process can bump into, noises that your creative process can’t help overhearing.” To cut to the chase, the Atari Flight Simulator yoke defied any connection with a modern computer, but old monitors filled a need.
X-Plane is an engineering tool used in flight simulators. One can download a free demo limited to 15-minute sessions. Access to the unlimited version requires purchase of a key. Since the full program is already onboard, if the demo works, the program works. It did (or seemed to) on my MacBook Air, so I bought the eight-disc set for $60, along with a pay-ware program, vFlyteAir Cherokee 140 Original ($25), to match my 56-year old Piper Cherokee. A control yoke, power quadrant, and rudder pedals cost $350, and the simulated Cherokee flew smoothly.
As it turned out, flying was smooth because it was slow motion. Think of the Six Million Dollar Man jumping over a wall. Since the wings of a Cherokee do not flap, the slow motion was subtle. Bottom line: a MacBook Air could not deliver the 20 fps (frames per second) demanded by X-Plane. At 50% of real time, everything took twice as long. The simulation looked great, but the Cherokee floated too much.
Re: “noises your creative process can’t help overhearing,” early reports of the M1 Mac Mini cited absence of fan noise in CPU-intensive applications. Fight simulators are both CPU- (Central Processing Unit) and GPU- (Graphics Processing Unit) intensive, as dials inside and scenery outside simultaneously depict what is being simulated. Realism would suffer if the windsock was limp in a 15-knot crosswind.
A 16 GB M1 Mac Mini ($899) was added to my system, which included an unused TV and monitor from downstairs. My son gave me another old monitor. One was connected via HDMI, and a second one used a Thunderbolt port. How to connect the third monitor?
Why did I want three monitors when most flight school simulators have only one? Their simulators are IFR trainers, where one focuses on instruments until breaking out of the murk on final. If done correctly, the runway is in front of you. However, I fly VFR, using a pattern around the airport rather than a long final. While one monitor may suffice for IFR, VFR flying needs side windows.
While extolling the speed of M1 chips, Apple maintains that the M1 Mac Mini cannot support more than two monitors, and ruled out an eGPU. Think of an eGPU (external Graphics Processing Unit) as a computer that tells another computer how to draw stuff. It is not called a computer, because that might make your main computer feel inadequate. Assuming that “smart” computers might have feelings helped get the third monitor to work.
What do you use when something can’t be done, but you are determined to do it? Trial and error, which requires perseverance and fills junk drawers. But the latter can also contribute. The nonfunctional steam gauges under the radio panel came from a junk drawer. In the 35 years that I have owned N4500R, things broke, and they look better as eye candy in my simulator than my junk drawer.
I was using one of two Thunderbolt ports on the Mac, so I tried to use the other to connect the third monitor. Trials included DisplayPorts with USB-C to VGA, to DVI-I, and to HDMI. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger if you get lost in alphabet soup. You don’t have to understand it, but if you are not willing to get confused, you are not trying hard enough.
Computer forums are like EAA chapters, although forums focus on computers, rather than flying. X-Plane.org forums are a hybrid, as everybody is either a pilot or a wannabe, including ATPs eager to maintain skills in airliners and others who are into “eye candy.” ATPs need complexity that has no appeal to me, and the latter need high price equipment. My simulator should not cost more than my plane, and I am a VFR flyer. Manage your expectations, and a frugal flight simulator is achievable.
When I asked for suggestions on the forum re a third monitor, several responded that a Mac Mini could not deliver graphics at acceptable fps. Perhaps they did not consider the M1 chip. One member suggested a DisplayLink and driver. I had tested several DisplayPorts with no success, and cannot tell the difference between them and a DisplayLink. The recommendation was “USB 3.0 Dual Head Graphics Adapter – HDMI and DVI-I” ($80). Nowhere on the box did the word DisplayLink appear. Nor did it say that it required a DisplayLink driver, but it does. With the driver on, the M1 Mac Mini lit up all three monitors.
Getting the Mac to see three monitors won a battle, but not the war, as X-Plane opened only two screens. My wife, who was supportive while I turned the family room into a laboratory, suggested that I treat X-Plane like a jealous child. “You have been using two monitors, maybe X-Plane does not want to meet a third one.” Given that it applies artificial intelligence, maybe I should not treat it like an adding machine? I quit X-Plane and designated the third monitor to be main monitor. “Who is a big boy now?” It worked! After restarting, X-Plane recognized the new monitor. All that needed to be done was tell it which monitor was really the main one, and arrange graphic settings.
You saw six screens on the first photo, not three. The iPad mini with ForeFlight links wirelessly to X-Plane, which acts as a GPS source to depict the avatar on a VFR Sectional chart. The other iPad uses Sim Innovations Air Manager ($23) to display selected instruments. I bought that iPad for another purpose that was blocked by Covid. Google Earth is running on the larger old iPad, so one can zoom in anywhere on Earth with 3D, down to street level.
An example of how I use this simulator for personal training is the so-called impossible turn, an attempt to maintain 80 mph at a bank angle of 60 degrees after losing the engine on takeoff (see picture above).
Every pilot asks, “Can you log time to maintain currency?” No, and not because the simulation is different from an FAA-certified simulator. It is just that it is not “FAA-certified.” The retail version of X-Plane is almost identical to that in $500,000 full motion FAA-certified platforms. However, certification requires fps checks, files, hardware panels, and lacks purely fun stuff like space flight. Similarly, my home-use license does not permit use in a commercial flight school. That requires an X-Plane Professional license, costing $750. It is like purchasing an STC to use auto fuel. Nothing was done to my engine, but the piece of paper lets me legally use auto fuel.
Although one can dial any frequency on radios on the screen with a mouse, I investigated adding the external radio panel. The manufacturer’s support group said they do not support Macs. When I asked about it on the forum, a member told me not to buy one. He sent me one from his junk drawer. Another provided software to make it work on a Mac. If you wonder about such generosity, credit the Digital Age, and there was some quid pro quo. That radio panel is now tuned to Racine airport’s ASOS, which transmits weather 24/7. It can also be an ADF, DME, or transponder.
The trial phase revealed a problem with having the yoke on the desktop. Since the yoke protrudes from a box, mounting it on top puts the instrument panel on the monitor either far away or too high. The solution was to mount the yoke and power quadrant underneath, placing the screen at the edge of the desk. A bracket titled “LowRider Yoke Mount” on the internet inspired me to use a rimless cookie sheet. Holes were drilled in the cookie sheet for four of the six screws on the top of the yoke’s box and around the sheet, so that it could be screwed to the bottom of the desk.
The Flight Velocity Trim Wheel Pro on the left cost $99. While rudder and elevator trim can be simulated by switches on the yoke, I found the latter unrealistic. Elevator trim gets a workout when landing a Cherokee, while one rarely adjusts rudder trim. This is fortunate, as I have to duck my head under the panel to reach it.
After completing checklists and engine start, clicking Shift-W resets the monitors to show only the view outside the cockpit. One can also view the plane from behind, so the Air Manager panel on the desktop helps.
To make the simulator presentable enough for the family room, a single desktop of ¾-inch plywood was cut. A four-foot long angle iron was screwed underneath along the 48” end, and the board was covered in matte black contact paper. The 36” sides provide space for an arm rest and a mouse.
The desk’s legs were trestles. When inserted between the trestle and desktop, the L -shaped brackets on the floor, each with an extra 90-degree bend, provide a shelf for a keyboard, maps, etc.
Rudder pedals presented a challenge, since they must be locked in place, and I wanted flexibility to use either the yoke or a joystick. Do I need a joystick ($150) for training in a Cherokee? No, but old guys have fun too. I had downloaded a Spitfire ($0) from X-Plane.org. The challenge was how to position the joystick, without removing the yoke.
My first attempt attached the joystick to a lapboard, but that put the rudder pedals too far away, since they were locked in place for use with the yoke. The solution was to attach the pedals to a piece of plywood that was slightly wider than the space between the trestle legs. Notches on the sides of the plywood allow the pedals to be locked by the trestle legs for either the Cherokee or the Spitfire configuration. It is simply a matter of lifting the board and moving it to the set of notches appropriate for that plane.
The drop-in-place approach was used for the joystick. It was attached to a board that fits in the desk well. Bent bookends were bolted on as braces, and self-adhesive Velcro fuzz minimizes scratching when it is being moved. Everything was either painted black or covered with contact paper. When I fly the Cherokee, the joystick is set aside.
Both sets of controls remain plugged in, so it is simply a matter of dropping the joystick in place and repositioning the rudder pedal board when I want to go to the Spitfire configuration. The controls do not interfere with each other, as they are set as either active or “do nothing” in the planes’ profiles.
I like to simulate flights in Ireland, and ForeFlight’s Aerial Map is a satellite view of the world. Since the output of the iPad can be mirrored, we conduct aerial tours on a family room TV with X-Plane. For example, I flew over a fairy ring fort. Such ring forts are difficult to find at ground level, as they just look like a line of bushes. However, they are obvious from the air. My grandkids were amazed to see two fairy forts next to the house where their grandmother grew up. I never knew they existed when we were dating.
To find the fairy fort I flew over, enter “Fenit, Ireland,” in any satellite map, and count four fields east of the last house in the village. These Bronze Age fortifications have not been disturbed for millennia, because locals did not risk the ire of the fairies. You can find many in the area. They are easier to see than the pyramids of Egypt, the subject of another aerial tour.
A final question many pilots ask relates to my simulator’s capability to handle complex aircraft, something several people in the forum say it cannot do. To find out, I took off in a Boeing 747 on a clear day, landing in ORD. The landing was not pretty, requiring three go-arounds. Fps was 31 throughout the flight at mostly high graphic settings. These settings had to be reduced when low clouds were included. For me, the sweet spot for fps in is 25-35, although eye candy purists demand more. While it was interesting to fly a 747, that is not my thing. I just want to fly VFR and practice crosswind landings in a PA28-140. Bottom line: the M1 Mac Mini and X-Plane meet my needs. I can apply whatever weather I want, so high graphics settings and fps are possible.
The Mac Mini, USB bus, and power bar are all hidden behind the monitors, and reshaped beer cans hold the iPad minis. If you have been adding the costs so far, you will know my out-of-pocket was $1,661. Details for getting the M1 Mac Mini to support three monitors can be found here.
My simulator is not a toy, and I am rigorous about following checklists when I fly it. However, it is no crime to have fun!
- Crosswinds and emergencies—lessons from the simulator - June 15, 2022
- Building a frugal flight simulator - May 2, 2022