When I was asked at the age of seven what I wanted to be when I grew up I knew the answer; A Commercial Airline Pilot.
I even knew enough to be specific, a commercial airline pilot. My first trip of many into the skies was two years before aboard a mighty McDonnell Douglas DC-10.
I was enraptured with the whole experience of flight. How does this thing fly? How do we build aircraft that hold 400 people? Who are the magic people that fly these things? And how do you get to become one?
There was no question about my passion, however when it came to an academic ability to forge a path to this career that was a different story. I had struggled to keep up at school, partly because of lack of interest and partly because of dyslexia but both combined had done enough by the age of sixteen to rule out any chance of ever having a career as a pilot.
And so it seemed I was destined to forever look up to the sky with envious eyes at those lucky individuals that had made the grade and were flying their dreams....
Until 1998. At this point I had enough money to put towards flying lessons and although I lacked anything like the full £60,000 to gain enough experience and ratings to even be remotely attractive to an airline I had enough to have a few lessons and see if I could have made the grade after all.
The money paid for several lessons in which I was thrilled to have learned basic control of an aircraft and it's systems both on the ground and in the air. It's amazing how fast you can spend a few thousand pounds in aviation training! But alas my money had run out and it was once again time to admire from afar.
Fast forward a little to 2000. I had always dabbled in computers from an early age and had owned such early machines as an Atari 2600, Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K, Amstrad CPC464, Atari 520STE, Nintendo NES, Sony PS1 and now I owned my first proper PC; A HP Pavilion.
It had enough graphics, memory and CPU to run the 'Game' which would change my aviation life: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. It was a revolution in simulation software a quantum leap in immersion and graphics. Previous attempts to "simulate" flight for me fell way short of the real experience but this was the first thing to make you feel like you were flying an aircraft. I soon tired of using the keyboard and purchased a cheap joystick, little did I know it at the time but I had taken my first step into a larger world.....
Time passed and I found myself with little time to peruse Flight Sim, it was a lot of fun but ultimately it fell short of being a fully immersive experience. That was until the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, what I now regard as the high point in the evolution of flight simulation software.
The difference between what I played previously (FS2000) and FS2004 was night and day. I had missed the release of FS2002 which could be argued was the real jump in technology and a lot of that game had been passed over to FS2004 but this incarnation took it to the next level. Everything had been improved, too much to list here but most notable were the aircraft flight models and graphics, weather and cloud effects, better terrain modelling, interactive Air Traffic Control and multiplayer options. I was hooked on it from the start but still ended up feeling frustrated by the lack of true immersion; As it happens I wasn't the only one.
By this time I was hatching my own plan to make the simulation more immersive. I had purchased a force feedback joystick and had discovered that in windowed mode I could run two monitors at once making it possible to split the flight instruments and the view outside the cockpit window on to two separate monitors. A few google searches later revealed the extent to which I could take this. Some people had built full-size cockpits and were running multiple computers with add-on programs written by flight enthusiast programmers to take the simulation to the next level; to actually give frustrated pilots their very own cockpit in their own home.
I had to have one.
From that moment onwards I became slightly obsessed with making a home cockpit a reality. I made it my mission to learn everything necessary to build my dream. I had to understand computers and IT in general much better than I currently did, so that became my first task. I had always wanted to understand what made that ivory box tick anyway so off I went learning to begin with only what I needed to make the Sim run; I can now say with pride that it has taken me all the way in to a career in IT and I am still learning to this day, and long may it continue.
The next task was to learn Carpentry, ok just enough to cut wood and put it together to roughly resemble a cockpit interior. As much as I wish I'm no Carpenter! There was much work put into solving little problems here and there, how do you backlight homemade instruments? How can you network six PC's together to run a seamless multi-monitor display? How can I do all this without spending a small fortune? Luckily many other talented people in the Flight Sim community had solved most if not all of the big problems and it fell to me to put the spaghetti of wires and cables in to the right places and get them and the programs to do what I wanted them to, that remains the hardest part to this day.
It took about a year to get the result I so badly wanted. When I had finished I had a full-size cockpit consisting of eight CRT monitors, six networked computers, a yoke, rudder, and throttles, an autopilot module, two car seats adapted into aircraft seats, and a bunch of wood painted up and assembled into the rough shape of a cockpit interior. It was important to keep the outside world out and keep in the experience of immersion. I had it all, my life was complete! It was the best thing I had ever owned, It provided hours and hours of joy not just to me but for family and friends alike.
I, however, succumbed in later months to the problem that a lot of artists get when they obsess about a project; Perfection. Eventually, when I came to look around the old girl I didn't see an aircraft anymore, I saw something that looked "a bit" like an aircraft with the lights out. Like a spoiled child, I wanted more, I wanted something better.
From 2008 to 2010 I found myself in a house too small to even have the Sim set up. These were a hard couple of years for many reasons but one day I found myself looking at my Sim, now just a loose assembly of parts in my shed and facing an unresolvable space crisis and finding myself with no other choice I had to destroy my beloved creation. It had its valuable parts removed (yoke, autopilot etc.) but the rest was disposed of in an ignominious way.
I stood watching this and at that point pledged that she would fly again. Bigger, better and more immersive than ever before.
From then till now she has lived on as a small one screen setup albeit completely refurbished in the hardware department. From March 2012 I now happily find myself at the point of beginning construction of the Mark II Flight Sim. I have a construction plan and a location and the keyword this time will be realism. At this point, technology has come to the stage where you really can have a fully working hyper-real Flight Sim in your house, one that would and in some cases does fool actual pilots into thinking they are at the controls of a multi-million-pound training simulator.
I have reached a point where I now look back on my early dream and I'm glad in a way that my life never took me in the direction of becoming a Commercial Airline Pilot. I realise now that the lifestyle of a real pilot isn't all glamour and glory, these guys work long and unsociable hours with little or no family life and what's worse they come to regard flying as nothing special or magical anymore, instead just a job. The minus points would have eventually outweighed the plus points. I would have hated that.
Today I am happy where I am. In a year or two, I am going to end up owning my very own Boeing 737-800. I can take it wherever I like, burn as much fuel as I want without incurring the cost to myself or the environment and what's more I don't have to pay to maintain it or park it! Thanks to Technology It will be there whenever the urge takes me to once again take to the virtual skies.
I intend to document the process this time around and hope to share it with everyone. Watch this space for occasional updates.
Colin Steward. IT Field Service Engineer, Memset.