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Mithras

Building a Cheap Saitek Cockpit

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By Paul Elliott

 

There are some wondrous home cockpits out there, and mine is nice, but not up to the standard of a scratch built 737-800 fully enclosed cockpit! My interest has always been in GA, specifically GA training, bush planes and twins and so my own homebuild cockpit is tailored to that look. This is my home cockpit today; I call it the Elliott Twin Sim.

 

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The key part about my cockpit is that it is CHEAP. I used mainly Saitek gear and scratch built the actual ‘body’ of the cockpit. I want to show you how I did it. I have almost zero carpentry and electrical skills, and moderate computer and FSX  knowledge. My saving grace is that I am a Roman and historical re-enactor here in England, I even write books about Roman military history, and so I do have a knack for making and creating objects that look exactly right or feel right: to emulate something.

 

To start, let me show you my first sim-pit, collected after about three months of flight-simming:

 

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You can see that I worked out how to set up three screens, I think this is important, you need a screen that will stretch the width of your cockpit. I found a supplier of refurbished monitors identical to the one I already had, he was selling them for £34 each, free P&P, so I bought two. Nvidia Surround on my Nvidia card did the rest, although there was a good deal of trial and error trying to get the right connectors to the monitors.

 

Yoke, rudder pedals, throttle quadrant, radio panel, switch panel and multi panel are all bog-standard Saitek components. I set them up roughly where they would be in the actual aeroplane. The keyboard sat nicely on top of the yoke, I had my iPad running the wonderful RemoteFlight Map app and in front of that I adapted some old Buzz PS2 controllers as a switch box (they are USB and FSX compitable!!).

 

I flew like this for a year.  

 

Next. Why I upgraded, and what my plan was, and how little it cost me! 

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PART 2

 

I decided, during an epic round the world flight to build a decent home cockpit. Firstly, it was the next logical step, and secondly I was often flying with the 2D panel open, cycling away the instruments and flying the Gipsy Moth to Australia with vast panoramas of view, great for admiring the scenery and more importantly looking for crucial landmarks as I flew. Read about my Amy Johnson flight to Australia here: http://www.avsim.com/topic/450607-amy-johnson-london-to-australia-attempt/

 

I had recently been up in a relative’s Pipier Archer and to me that was the coolest airplane going, so I knew I didn’t want the Cessna-look, I wanted the Cheroke- look. Something like this:

 

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I printed this out and used it for much of my building design. Note that everything is black! I love that, it reminds me of 1950s and 1960s British warplane cockpits.

 

So how do you go from Saitek units bolted onto an old computer desk, to that?? I thought I should build up from what I had, which was an old computer desk with the sliding tray removed, that I bought from a charity store for £20. I knew the surface wasn’t large enough so I mounted a couple of pieces of stiff wooden board to the top to make a new and larger ‘worktop’.  In the photo here you can see me just beginning to put things together, you can see that I have extended the desk at the back for the monitors to fit comfortably and I’ve done the same for the front. I was using off cuts of board and wood left over when the kitchen fitters had finished, so I had some cupboard unit sides and lots of bits of board.

 

My biggest problem was the instrument panel. Saitek sell individual instruments for around £100 and six of those would cost a lot of money, plus, I didn’t think they looked that good. I looked into having a fourth monitor, but I knew unless I started getting a second PC roped in, that would cost me processing power and frame rates. Then I remembered that Remote Flight, that produce my wonderful inflight map app also did a Gauges app. That was it, if I could buy a cheap retina iPad and could use that for my instrument panel, with the added bonus that it has no effect on the PC or FSX whatsoever! My plan became formulated then…. An iPad ontop of the yoke, the Saitek panels at the side and ‘some kind’ of central pedestal to mount throttles and trim wheel.

 

Let me sketch you my initial plan:

 

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Here I am starting to dry assemble the my components. Do they align? How tall is an iPad ontop of the yoke? How tall are the three Saitek panels?

 

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In this sketch I am looking at the framework. How will it all hold together?

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I must have spent a week thinking about this, the framework, how everything fitted together. I decided that I would be building only the first ‘foot’ of the cockpit, and that after that I would just stick on a glareshield that would slope down to the desk  in front of the monitors. From the side it won’t look very realistic, but from the front: perfect.  

 

So if you look at the sketch above, I decided on wooden ‘pillars’ between the main components (ipad/yoke and radio stack, with smaller side pillars at each end. Where there weren’t any instruments I reasoned I could use my power jigsaw to cut a piece of board to fill in the blanks.

 

I dry assembled it all again, looked OK, but what about that iPad? It had arrived by then, refurbished iPad from eBay for £180, as good as new, fantastic purchase. Remote Flight Cockpit went on and worked great, but … how did I integrate THAT?? Obviously I wanted to be able to tae it out if needed and have access to its buttons … more thinking.

 

I eventually invented an ingenious method of mounting … the iPad ‘shelf’:

 

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In essence the ipad leaned back on a board that I would attach with nails I think, about 1cm in from the front of the pillars. I painted it back. Next I cut up an old plastic gardening seed tray from my garage to create a thin strip or ‘kerb’ to stop the iPad slipping off the top of the yoke, and another wider band to stop it tipping forward. Because I left a bit of extra height on the pillars, I could lift the iPad, tilt it slightly and slide it out of its new mounting. Done! I made sure there was a space to slide the iPad’s power cable in there too, and I bought a black one for a couple of quid so it would not stand out too much.

 

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Next what about the throttle and trim wheel? 

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PART THREE

 

I needed someway to mount the throttle and trim wheel, and for that I needed to go ‘below’ the level of the desk. I needed a pedestal.  This is the Piper Archer again:

 

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I sketched out something I could build with my jigsaw and rapidly diminishing off-cut wood supply:

 

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That might look a little confusing, but it is essentially a narrow board attached to the front of the desk, with throttles glued in place, and the trim wheel screwed onto the first set of throttles. Then I measured and built a wooden box to fit around it. It isn’t attached, so I can slide it out of the way if I need to gain access.

 

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The fuel selector was ordered from the States and was a Christmas present, it didn’t go into my initial design.

 

Note that for a great deal of the construction I used screws and/ or a hot glue gun, which worked for most things and was very versatile, allowing you to stick together components that you would struggle to attach with screws etc.

 

Finally, before I fitted everything together, I wondered if I could fit my sound system’s amplifier into the cockpit. In actual fact it is a small upright CD player and radio to which I wired up some big speakers. I was square-ish and had a smooth glass face, I reasoned I could mount it to the right, where in many planes there is a blank panel. With some jiggling and building of little props I had it stood vertically (the CD player leant backwards a little), sprayed it all black and – it didn’t look too bad. Now I had my volume controls discretely mounted into my cockpit too.

 

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You can see the CD player behind this iPod mount, sprayed matt black with decals stuck onto it. If I did not have the CD player, I would have left the right hand side blank.

 

Now I was ready to build. 

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PART FOUR

 

Hot glue guns are great! Lots of black spray paint was used  for the cockpit parts, and I decided on an off-white paint left over from the kitchen for anything below the instrument panel . I even carpeted my foot well with an offcut I got free when asking at a local carpet shop.

 

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When everything was in place I had to get serious and put my best ‘carpentry head’ on. I needed to cut out a wooden panel to fill in all the spaces not filled by instruments. This did not prove too hard, in the end.

 

Look at this sketch:

 

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Numbers 1 and 2 are the two pieces of hardboard that I jigsawed into shape and either screwed or glued in place after spraying matt black. I made thick cardboard versions first and cut and shaped them unti they were perfect, then removed them. I drew around the carboard versions on my hardboard and then used my jigsaw to cut them out. I had to cut one again, I had made an error, but quite quickly they were complete. Once glued in place my cockpit looked finished … almost, there was a glare shield to think about now.

 

I looked at some other builder’s posts but their glareshields looked complicated and difficult woodworking projects. So … I turned to my favourite material, cardboard. I got the box my PC had come in and used that, measuring how wide my glareshield had to be. Using several layers of cardboard and half a roll of sticky tape I built or moulded my glareshield, paying particular attention to the corners where it curved. Once I was happy with the covering for the top of my instrument panel, I added more cardboard to the back to trail away and slope down to the desk. I kept fitting it, removing it, adding more, bending here, cutting and shaping with sticky tape till I was happy with it.

 

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Then I ordered some cheap black leatherette from eBay for £5 and covered my glareshield with it. That was hard. Glue didn’t work at the corners, I had to use double sided tape. Finally when mounted on to my cockpit it looked great!  Wary of putting screws or nails through it, I instead hammered four thin nails into my pillars, leaving the nails sticking up proud. My glare shield was put into place and with a little pushing the nails pushed up into the corrugated card, holding the glareshield in place. Black electrical tape was used to mask the fiddly corners of the glare shield, where the leatherette had folded over and under. Later on I did put a couple of screws through the glareshield and covered them with black screw covers (the covers were white, so I sprayed them black).

 

Part 5 will be finishing touches!

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PART FIVE

 

So now the Elliott Twin Sim looked the part!

 

But I had a problem. Focussing on the cockpit as a recreation of reality, I had ignored the mouse and keyboard completely. Now I had to address those key bits of kit. It is out of shot, but to the right of this photo and the red PC case, is a window and window ledge. The ledge was too far away to be useful, so I got out the jigsaw and cut out a shelf for the keyboard with a central arm sticking out that I screwed to the window ledge (with my wife’s permission!). That brought the keyboard within reach. The mouse I decided could go on a little shelf I cut out and screwed in place to the underside of the desk. Can you see that?

 

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All of the cabling was hidden. I was very strict about that. Most of it is behind underneath the glare shield, all feeding down to the PC at right. The rudder pedals, for example have a cable, but I cut a hold in the carpet and the cable goes straight through the hole: invisible. I strictly adhered to the no cable rule, except for the cable going to my ipod or iPad mounted to the right as a nav aid. The mount can accept either my little iPod (which I use as my G500!!) or my original well used and well loved iPad (used for flying in airliners as a moving map with Remote flight - https://remoteflight.net/ ).  As a side note, when I do fly airliners, I have another app on the instrument iPad called AirTrack (http://air.ipobjects.com/airtrack ) which gives me an MFD, and looks absolutely fantastic. It includes an airport database, brings in weather data, flight calculations, it is wonderful. So the cockpit can be configured differently for different types of flying using the iPad software.  

 

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What else? I bought a pilot’s yoke mount for checklists, but had to modify it with card, black tape and a bulldog clip in order for a satisfactory result. I also bought a digital car clock, I use for timings between way points that cost 3 or 4£ from eBay.   

 

Very finally, I bought one of these from eBay:

 

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A Buffalo Nintendo Retro Gamepad, with USB connector. FSX recognises some but not all of the buttons. I sprayed the body black and glued it on a wide wooden strip that I had mounted just under my yoke and instruments. It serves as engine starters, APU controls and seat and no smoking buttons as well as master/alt for the A2A 172 which does not like the Saitek Master/Alt button.

 

 I think that about covers the building of the Elliott Twin Sim!

 

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Oh, a quick note on costs:

 

Saitek yoke, rudder pedals, switch panel, radios, autopilot, two throttles, trim wheel:  £700-800

Two extra monitors: £68

iPad: £180

Carpet: free

Wood: free (but if bought, might come to £30-£40)

Clock: £3-4?

Nintendo Gamepad: £10?

Black Tape: £1

Leatherette: £5-7?

Software: Airtrack and RemoteFlight Gauges - £40

 

I already had the Saitek stuff, so the cockpit cost me £240, most of which was the cost of that refurb iPad. 

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Great post, shows you what can be done with a little ingenuity!

Any chance of a pic using it in airliner mode? I went to the Airtrack site - but wasn't sure if it displayed just one instrument at a time, or a cluster of instruments, I'm curious as to how it looks.

Eugene

 

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I love reading about cockpits on the cheap, great job! Im curious though have you gone from a 3 screen wrap around to what now appears to be 3 screens in a horizontal straight line ?

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I love reading about cockpits on the cheap, great job! Im curious though have you gone from a 3 screen wrap around to what now appears to be 3 screens in a horizontal straight line ?

Hi, it wasn't really wrap around - simply Nvidia Surround but with angled screens, I just figured it looked better as a lined up set of screens.

Great post, shows you what can be done with a little ingenuity!

Any chance of a pic using it in airliner mode? I went to the Airtrack site - but wasn't sure if it displayed just one instrument at a time, or a cluster of instruments, I'm curious as to how it looks.

Eugene

 

Hi Eugene, the crisp quality of the graphics doesn't come out in these photos. It is configurable... voila: 

 

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It is easily worth it, I use it for flying bizjets or airliners, and if I ever flew glass garmin G1000 cockpits, I'd use it for that. The database is fantastic, with runways, elevations, ILS freqs etc, plus it has a great computer that calculates headings, time to all waypoints, time to destinations, % of flight covered etc, absolutely wonderful. You cannot altar flight plans, it reads fps input from FSX. 

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Looks great - very configurable, makes the cockpit very versatile, 

Thanks

Eugene

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