How to build the perfect flight sim

Matt in the Cockpit

As a kid, Matt Wietlispach built airplanes and spaceships.  Big ones with blankets for fuselages and kitchenware for the cockpit.  Growing up hasn’t stopped him.  In his basement lurks a hand-built, fully functioning, military flight simulator.

In a thirty-hour-a-week quest for the ultimate simulated experience, every gauge, dial, switch and light in his cockpit is fully operational.  He’s got a head-up display, a g-suit, an oxygen system, even a military-surplus ejection seat.  Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is at the heart of the system; but coders at Redmond wouldn’t recognize it because of Wietlispach’s extensive customization.  It requires five networked computers and an industrial power supply, but there is one concession to comfort: a retractable cup holder.

In the real world he is an avionics engineer for a major manufacturer, where he works on integrating cockpit systems for military aircraft.  “It’s close to what I do in the basement but on a different scale.”

He is unusual in the sim-builder community because he prefers old-fashioned electro-mechanical instruments to LCD displays.  This increases his workload dramatically: “all the interfaces have to be built from scratch and there are hundreds and hundreds of wires.  It just takes forever,” he says with the zeal of a purist.

Cockpit Interior - Hand-built Steam Gauges

He’s been working on it for five years and there’s no end in sight.  “What takes so long is that I keep changing it,” as he finds new, more intricate components on the internet or in the junk shop at work. The latest development is hidden cameras focused on the pilot and the instrument panel to record test flights.  Just like they do at work.

“I never thought I would get as far with it as I did.  And neither did my wife,” who calls herself a sim-widow, “I must have spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on it.  I’d probably freak out if I knew exactly how much.”  It is his craftsman’s appreciation of the engineering in these precision devices that has seduced him. “I think I must have been a watch-maker in a previous life.”

One Response to How to build the perfect flight sim

  1. Nicodemus March 22, 2011 at 19:10 #

    He must have been a really gifted (or persistent) engineer in order to convert all the coded signals from the simulator into digital (or even more impressive: analog) signals used by the gauges and other electro mechanical elements in his cockpit.

    It's a tribute to his other skills as a husband that Matt's wife put up with this "hobby"

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