NO PROJECT IS TOO SMALL OR TOO SIMPLE TO OVERCOMPLICATE!
DUDLEY PROJECT CENTRAL
PROJECT: SIMPIT DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION

2007-2010

After a couple of simple trys during the 90's and early 2000's, I finally decided to build a real simpit. I spent many hours huddled in front of the computer, looking for other home built simulators that I could learn from.  I also spent almost as much time trying to explain to my wife exactly what it was I wanted to do.  But I am lucky in that department.  Not only is my wife a wonderful woman who is great at indulging my hobbies and projects, but she is a private pilot, works for a flight training company here in sunny Arizona, and actually hopes to get some 'stick time' in on the simpit once it is up and running.

After looking at the various types of 'pits out there, I realized I needed to make a choice.  I could build an exact duplicate of a real world cockpit, probably an F-16 or A-10, and try to follow in the footsteps of some VERY successful pit builders.  The only catch is, I don't just want to fly those airframes.  I also want to fly some single and twin engine stuff out of FSX, some WWII fighters out of IL-2, and then any helicopter flight sim I can find.  Okay, I know what you are thinking... you could get away with the F-16 cockpit for all of these, maybe with just a couple modifications for unique controls.  But, being that it is me, it just can't be that easy. But wait, there's more!  I also race on line every weekend with my brother and father, so I need it to work as a car as well.  That really throws a monkey wrench in the F-16 pit idea.  I toyed with having multiple pits, but budget, available space in our house, and the challenge of getting all in one package over-ruled that idea. So the idea of 'real' cockpit lost out, and I went on to a protype, all in one, 'Transformer' type of idea.

With all of that in mind, I have set out on outlining my parameters for what I wanted to build:
  • I had to be able to build all of the components myself.
  • It had to be reliable and reasonably easy to maintain.. I want to fly/drive sims on it, not work on it all the time!
  • I had to be able to use it in all of my various aircraft and vehicles, with a minimum of muss and fuss switching between sims.  I don't want to need 15 minutes to switch from flying an plane to driving a car.
  • I want to be able to use it at night with minimal lighting... that means backlighting the panels.. gulp.
  • It needs to be adjustable to fit me (six foot 4 inches tall, 260 punds) and my wife (five foot two inches tall, and not even half what I weigh... she would kill me if I put in her actual weight) and everyone in between, as I have some friends who can't wait to sit in this thing.
  • It has to fit into one corner of the spare bedroom in our house, which also serves as my hobby room.  It's gonna be a tight fit!
  • It needs to look cool.  If I am going to spend this much time, money, and effort on it, it had better inspire some wow factor!!

Designing - 2008-2009

After more research I broke out the sketch pad, graph paper, and tape measure, and started with some rough size and shape drawings.  It didn't take long to realize I had better get this on to some sort of CAD program if I was going to have any hope of success.  So I started looking for some 3D CAD software, and stumbled on to an AWSOME find. Google Sketch Up. It's a very user friendly 3D CAD program with many complex features, and it is absolutely FREE.  I love that word... FREE.  It didn't take long, and I had mocked up a basic idea of what I wanted.  Then I went back and started doing detail construction drawings, figuring out panel placements, controller locations, seat and pedal adjustments, and just how to have aircraft stick, throttle, and pedals, helo cyclic, collective, and pedals, and car wheel and pedals, all in the same pit.

I also figured out how to hide the steering wheel and car pedals when not in use, and the same goes for the aircraft controls when they are not needed.  There was also the challenged to figure out not only where to tuck the collective when not in use, but also how to build a collective out of a Thrustmaster Cougar.  I still have to do the detail design on it, but I have experimented enough that I now know it's possible.  It will become a separate project when I get the simpit operational.
Okay, so now I know what it will all look like, what do I actually build it out of and what am I going to use as a controller for all of those switches?

With all of that done, I decided to mock up the whole thing in cardboard.  I'm sure glad I did.  After messing with it for a few days, I realized I had a bunch of things wrong and ended up changing a ton of things.
Get my Sketchup Simpit As Built file

Construction Begins May 2010

I knew I wanted the pit to be strong and for me to be able to take it apart for maintenance and eventual relocation.  This meant I needed to build it in sub-assemblies.  After looking around, i decided to use MDF (medium density fiberboard) as the primary construction medium, and to use aluminum angle strut as supporting structure that would handle being taken apart and reassembled mutliple times.  I couldn't just use MDF, because while it is actually very strong in some aspects, it is really just made up of tightly compressed sawdust and glue.  So screwing into the same location more than once is always an iffy proposition.  But if I use the MDF as a skin, and put aluminum strut inside at any attachment or connection point, I can actually use machine screws to attach the MDF to the struts, which are tapped with threaded holes where ever I need them.  

This worked out very well, but it did make the build more time consuming on the front side.  With as many times as I've take some of the MDF panels off, it has paid off though.

Here you can see all of the pieces of the left console laid out like a flattened box, with the angle strut laying in the rough install positions.  I used 1/2" MDF for everything except for the base of the pit, which is all 3/4" MDF.

Cutting Angle Stut

The process starts with cutting my MDF pieces to size.  I used my Sketchup model to get the individual panel sizes.

Then I determine where I want the angle strut to go.  This was normally in every corner, vertical or horizontal.  Really, it was any place two pieces of MDF met. 

I then took some measurements and cut the strut to length using a cutoff wheel in my radial arm saw.

I picked up all of my aluminum at metalsdepot.com .  Everything is 1"x1"x1/8" thick 6061 aluminum.  It was way cheaper to order from them and have it delivered than to pick the stuff up at Home Depot or any other store I could find in the area.

Drilling and Tapping Holes

Once the strut is cut to length, I drill holes where I want the machine screws to go.  Then I tap the holes.  Tapping is the process of threading the previously drilled hole to the correct size/pitch that cooresponds with whatever bolt you are using.  In my case, I primarily use 8x32 bolts of various length. This is a #8 bolt with 32 threads per inch.

If you do this on angle strut, make sure you offset your holes on the two sides.  Otherwise you may end up with bolts that block one another during assembly.

I used a jig where the first screw was 1 inches from the end of the strut, and then a screw every 8 inches after that.  For the other side, I just started the whole process 1.5 inches from the end.  This way my screws had plenty of clearance.

Drilling the MDF

After the holes are drilled and tapped in the strut, I then mark the cooresponding drill locations on the MDF panels.  I did this by clamping the strut in place on one panel, and marking the holes on the second panel.

I drill the holes in the second panel, and actually screw the strut in place.  Then I clamp the first pane to the strut, ensuring my alignment between the two panels is where I want it.  Now it's just a matter of drilling the connection holes in the first panel and screwing it in place.  

You do this over, and over, and over until all of your panels are built.

Lots of Bolts

You can see in this picture all of the connection points on the panels.  Each of those black dots is a socket flat head machine screw countersunk into the MDF that looks something like this...
I used primarily alloy steel screws, as I didn't need stainless steel or chrome plated for corrosion/heat resistance.  I picked up all of my machine screws and other fasteners at fastenerexpress.com .  They had a great selection, and the best prices I could find. 

Ready for Paint

You can see in the lower right corner of this shot what the interior of the console looks like with the angle strut visible.

The angle strut also serves as an attachment point for the switch panels when they go in.  Visible are some early moc ups of the panels.  I don't think any of them from this shot actually ended up being anything close to the finished product.  There was a LOT of time spent sitting in the pit figuring out where I wanted different groups of switches to go.

After it reached this stage, I painted the whole thing with exterior latex paint I picked up at the local hardware store.