Like many computer users of my generation, I've notched up many hours of virtual flight time in a number of fairly realistic simulation programs. There are those who are simply not satisfied with keyboard, mouse and joystick control of jet fighters and passenger airplanes on a desktop computer system, though. Air traffic controller and pilot James Price is one such simulation-junkie who has taken his desire for realism to dizzy new heights by having the nose lopped off a veteran Boeing 737, fitting out the gutted cockpit with working controls, dials and monitors and then interfacing the hardware with flight simulation software. It's been a labor of love but we think the result is well worth the enormous amount of time and effort that's gone into the build.
Price's obsession with flight sim realism had already seen him reproduce aircraft cockpits from wood before a divorce at the turn of the century allowed him the freedom to make his dreams of authenticity come true. A friend on a hardware scouting mission at an aircraft graveyard in Ardmore, Oklahoma discovered that he could actually buy a genuine cockpit from one of the facility's rusting residents. For the princely sum of US$1,500, Price bought the 2,500-pound (1,134 kg) nose section from a 1968 Boeing 737-130 and took delivery in June 2000.
After clocking up tens of thousands of miles with a number of different airlines since it was first delivered to Lufthansa Airlines in December 1968, the 737 was eventually retired on December 20 1997. The cutting away of the lower section to allow a movable base frame to be assembled was soon followed by months of stripping out left-over equipment and circuitry, cleaning up the shell and then painting the interior of the cockpit.
Price and his small team of fellow enthusiasts then installed original 737 components where they were available - such as the throttle pedestal, flight control unit, control display unit, data interfaces and panels - and added seats, dual controls, instruments, dials, clocks, and lots of lights to make it look, feel and behave just like a real aircraft.
Once all the dials, levers and monitors were wired up and in working order, the build team set about programming the flight simulation modules and interfacing the Extended/Programmable Input Controller (EPIC) with the aircraft's hardware. Over a year after taking delivery of the gutted cockpit shell, Price was rewarded with an operational - and beautifully realistic - flight simulator.
Fast-forward to 2009 and Price moved the set up from a hangar at Livermore Municipal Airport to the garage of his home in the suburb of Pleasanton, California. Work continued on fine-tuning the simulation software and the number of projection screens increased from one to three, positioned to the front and side of the cockpit to provide the flight visuals.
The flight software has now been programmed with lots of destinations around the globe, different weather conditions (with real-time weather information fed in via the internet) and terrain scenery have been added, and both day and night time flying scenarios included.
Price said in a recent San Jose Mercury News interview that "it's pretty much like the real thing, there's no motion but there is vibration, you've got the outside visuals to trick your mind into feeling like you're flying, and you have 90 percent of the 737's systems operative so you work it just like a real aircraft."
While there are numerous life-size aircraft cockpit reproductions built for use as flight simulators, Price's creation is one of a handful that makes use of an actual 737 cockpit, but his obsession hasn't been exactly cheap - the build has so far cost in the region of $150,000 and it's still evolving.
The 52 year-old is constantly tinkering, making software adjustments and adding new technology as it's made available and his budget allows to make the experience even more realistic. Perhaps we may yet see things like 3D visuals and motorized motion simulation being added some time in the future. I wonder if Price still runs annual SimFest gatherings that will allow me to grab some time in the pilot's seat.