Feature image: Piper Comanche PA24 from A2A Simulations
This series is a slight bit outside of the usual scope of TechPatio, but nevertheless, it’s technology related, it comes around electronics (such as Arduino) and gaming (Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020).
The target audience for this series is small. It’s a niche. There’s not that many home cockpit builders out there. But regardless, I want to give back a bit of my knowledge to the community, about what I learn during the process of building a home cockpit almost from scratch. I’m new to this, so a lot of time went into learning and researching. That’s some of the things I’ll be sharing in this series over the next few … months, years maybe…?
What am I building?
The foundation for my cockpit will be a three 55″ TV’s. One front, and one in each side. Then between me, as the virtual pilot, and the front TV, I’ll be putting a physical cockpit panel with switches and knobs. The actual instruments will be displayed on a 27″ widescreen monitor running Air Manager.
Lots of home cockpit owners fly the Cessna 172 or similar. Which is understandable. It’s a great GA (General Aviation) plane and it’s both user- and newbie- friendly when it comes to flight simming. And since it’s so widely used, and also a bit slow, this is why I decided to go another path.
I’ve really been enjoying the twin-engine Cessna 310R from Milviz / Blackbird Sims. But it’s cockpit panel layout is a bit more complex to build, and this is my first time building so I wanted something easier.
Then I learned that A2A Simulations was working on their first GA plane for MSFS 20, the Piper Comanche 250 (PA24). Unfortunately I have no prior experience/”relations” with this plane from earlier flight sims, but I kinda fell in love with its retro looks, it’s faster speed than C172 and how the cockpit panel was laid out – this seemed like something that was about as easy to build as a C172 would be. So that’s the plane I set out to base my designs on.
Also I wanted a plane that was as much “study level” as possible. A plane that could have circuit breakers pop, or engine stop if running it with too low oil temperature, random failures etc. And there’s not a lot of GA planes for MSFS 2020 that has this yet. WBSim C172, or the newly released WBSim / JPL C152 (version 2) is near study-level, as well as the C310 mentioned above. And apparently A2A’s Comanche will be as well.
As of now (February 2023), A2A Simulations recently started internally beta testing the Comanche, so I’m hoping that in a couple of months it will be available to purchase.
At this time, I’ve actually been building for about a month. So these articles will come “delayed” compared to actual progress.
Why build a home cockpit?
Or, why not just go VR…?
For starters, I’ve been flight simming since I almost can’t remember. I think since the mid-90’s. I recently found a photo of my gaming PC from late-90’s and I had the physical box of Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 sitting below my desk, and I know that I started flight simming before that.
Then I grew up, and life started happening. And work. I guess I took a break from flight simming for at least 10 years.
Then in 2020, Microsoft/Asobo released Flight Simulator 2020, with worldwide Bing/Blackshark.ai map coverage.
Fast forward 2 years, I couldn’t hold back the itch… I had to scratch it. I had to try MSFS 2020.
At that time, I was already kinda in love with VR. Just recently got Oculus (Meta) Quest 2 and was very impressed with it all. Even Truck Simulator was amazing in VR, although kinda of a struggle to get just decently optimized. So of course I had to try Flight Sim in VR too.
And it’s amazing. The cockpit feels just as small in VR as it does in real life. It’s so cramped! The scenery was amazing, landing almost instantly became easier because you could now properly see the distances, compared to how it looked on a 2D display.
But there were downsides to VR too:
- Lower graphics quality compared to 2D. Partly because you need a lot of extra CPU/GPU power to drive all those pixels in a VR headset.
- General optimization hassle. There’s a lot. Like, a lot, of settings to go through. Both in MSFS, Nvidia Control Panel and Oculus software. It all has to come together nicely. Except if you don’t care and just lower your settings until it runs smoothly, or you can afford the best of the best in terms of CPU, GPU and RAM.
- I have extra lenses in my Quest 2 headset so I can use it without wearing glasses. This means that each time I take off the headset to do something on my computer monitor, I need to take on glasses… annoying for me. I also found it annoying having to use a “spacer” in the headset so I could wear the headset with my glasses on, as this reduces the Field of View.
- Weight. A VR headset has some weight to it. You will be putting this extra weight (strain) onto your head/neck, for hours.
- Heat. For me at least, my face gets hot when it’s covered with electronics… not so comfortable.
- Fiddle around with physical controls. Using the mouse or VR controllers to control the plane is a big immersion killer for me.
- Even if we had perfect hand recognition you would still be toggling “switches in the air”, without being able to feel the tactile feedback of a switch or a knob. Even if we had tactile gloves (they exist but not widely available in the consumer market) that could give a tactile feedback, it would still just be like a “tap” on the finger when you flip something, better than nothing but not as good as the real thing. So if you want to use physical controls with a VR headset, you need to have good memory and learn where your buttons and switches are located, so you can find them without looking.
- At least until we get consumer-grade VR headsets with proper mixed reality, so we can have the entire plane and scenery in VR but it brings in your physical cockpit. This exists, Varjo XR3 I believe, but it’s like $10k+. So it’ll be a while…
- Charts. Yes you can get charts into VR as well. So this is a minor downside. I just prefer to have them either on my tablet or paper, and not “floating around in VR”.
- Surroundings. When you’re in VR, you’re in Virtual Reality. What happens around you, doesn’t exist to you. Until you knock over a cup of hot coffee and tear you headset off…. I often have a lot of things going on when I’m cruising, maybe I’ll browse Reddit on my phone, answer some emails etc., while autopilot does it stuff. Easier to do if not flying in VR.
- Can’t share cockpit with a co-pilot. You would need to have two VR headsets then, and imagine the kind of processing power needed to run two VR headsets…
There are upsides to VR too:
- Immersion is unbeatable.
- Can be cheaper, if you already have a powerful enough CPU/GPU or you can accept whatever quality and FPS you might be getting.
- Takes up very little space, compared to either a home cockpit or a triple monitor setup.
- Basically compatible with any plane you wanna fly. Compared to a physical cockpit that may be tailored towards a single engine piston plane, and not an airliner…
So there I was. I decided I was going to build a cockpit. I had some “hobby money” saved up through several years and currently in a place in my life where I feel like I have the interest, time, energy, knowhow and savings, to start this journey. So let’s get building!
Next update will be about the TV’s for my cockpit. Stay tuned!
For more Flight Simulator / Home Cockpit building related articles, click here.