After building home simulators for more than a decade, we finally acquired the ultimate in home simulation, the shell of a real Mirage cockpit. At that time, we had no idea that this was the actual cockpit of the downed aircraft number 206 of Major Arthur Piercy. Major Piercy had been hit by a missile shot from a Mig23 over Angola in 1987 leaving Arthur paralysed and confined to a wheelchair for life.
After cleaning up the wrecked cockpit, we started rebuilding everything from the panel to the heads-up-display, rudder, joystick, ejection-seat and side panels, using photographs and measurements taken from another F1-CZ at the Air-Force Museum.
We knew that simulation is about using the 3 primary senses namely, sight, sound and touch and so we very carefully designed our simulator starting with the visual system to allow its pilot to not only see in front but also to see the ground over the front sides of the cockpit producing a visual reference point. This immediately gave the sensation of high speed, pitch and roll to the point that many a visitor has experienced varying degrees of vertigo.
Secondly, a powerful sound system was fitted comprising two sub woofers directly behind the seat, two mid range speakers to the left and right aft and four tweeters in the front and sides to create wind noise and the hiss of the engine intakes, which are situated right next to the cockpit. The sub woofers provide not only realistic jet thrust noise, but are effective in generating aircraft vibration and bumps. This is especially effective when retracting the landing gear or on touchdown. Ground roll vibration is pronounced and creates the sensation of becoming air-bourn when the wheels leave the ground and the vibration is immediately reduced to engine vibration only. The wav files used were specially modified by for this purpose.
Every switch, lever and gauge in the cockpit works via an electronic interface to a single Pentium4 PC running a fast graphics card, and all of this using FS2004 as the platform in conjunction with FSUIPC. Software for the special effects 3D gauges was written using XML and high resolution photographs and although the gauges and panel strongly resemble the original panel, we decided to modernise some of them to enable ordinary youngsters interested in aviation as a career to fly with a more familiar looking layout. A fully functional and full-size HUD complete with its glass and switching added a high degree of reality and dimension.
The air-file was created and fine tuned with the help of ex-Mirage pilots and crew to make the simulator perform as close as possible to the real thing, especially the speed, sensitivity, engine performance and the deliberate instability of fighter jets which enable a high degree of manoeuvrability.
Finally we were ready to take our simulator to AAD 2004, an International defence air-show in Pretoria. We had thousands of budding pilots fly her but when a visitor arrived in a wheelchair and reached out his hand, and gently touching the side of the airplane saying “my baby…, my baby…” grown men in the crowd wept openly for this was none other than Major Arthur Piercy. He had been searching for this cockpit for nearly 20 years. The crowd immediately lifted him from his wheelchair and placed him back into the seat of his plane. Seeing Arthur at the controls was one of the most emotional experiences of our lives. Our emotions and the excitement were nonetheless a major contributing factor to our mental turmoil because there was no way that we could be sure that this was actually the cockpit that this man in the wheelchair thought it was. But Arthur was ecstatic and returned the next day with a gift of a Professional Pilot Logbook which he presented to us and making the first entry, he recorded its registration number as F1-CZ 206.
We frantically tried to verify its origin as Dassault could not disclose any information on the manufacturer’s number which we had found stamped into the inside of the cockpit. But then, to our amazement, a second round of emotion overcame us when we visited Arthur’s website that evening and there she was, our cockpit, clearly recognizable by the burn marks and damage that matched those on our simulator exactly. Overjoyed, we invited Arthur to our home with his parents to fly her again. After watching his father fly for an hour, Arthur insisted that we set up a flight for himself that terminated at Waterkloof Air-Force Base in Pretoria. (FAWK), the airfield where she was originally based.
Fortunately we had just acquired new photo-realistic scenery files for the area and we let him fly her in from Bloemfontein (FABL) and after executing a low level fly-past, Arthur brought her in on runway 01 and once again reached out and this time, patting her gently said, “There you go 206, I finally brought you home”
Virtual reality had made history on that special day and we will never know what kind of physiological effect that closure had brought to a man robbed of his dream to fly at such a young age.
Editor’s Note: For a the complete background story about the Author and his simulator rebuilding experiences, click here. His story continues in great detail and makes for very interesting reading.
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