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Their flights of fantasy start in real cockpits

Gene Buckle of suburban Tacoma, Wash., flies his F-15 fighter jet every chance he gets. Not very far, though. It never leaves the shed attached to his house, and it never will. It has no wings, after all, and no engines.

That's just as well. Buckle, 35, a software developer for a firm that makes vinyl windows, has never flown an actual airplane. Instead, he fires up Microsoft's Flight Simulator software on his computer for a relaxing make-believe aircraft ride.

But while most fantasy flyers sit at a desk, Buckle sits in the cockpit of a wrecked F-15, painstakingly restored right down to the ejection seat built for him by a friend. "It's the only one in civilian hands," Buckle claims.

There are many hard-core fans of digital aviation out there. Most scorn the term "gamers" and prefer to be called "simmers," as in flight simulation. They despise lightweight, easy-to-play aerial dogfight games, instead demanding ferociously complex and ultra-realistic programs that try to emulate the performance of real-world aircraft down to the finest nuances of climb rate and stall speed.

But then there are buffs like Buckle who carry the hobby to a new pinnacle of obsession. Not content to buy a joystick and throttle at Circuit City, these flight simmers insist on building their own planes -- or at least their own cockpits. They spend hours studying photos and technical manuals. They scour junkyards, aircraft shows, and Internet auctions for genuine airplane parts. And then they assemble their own fantasy aircraft, designed to mimic the real thing right down to the digital instrument readouts.

"The number of people who actually get to fly one of these planes for real is relatively small," says Greg Fieser of Dallas, who designs flight simulators for the US Army Apache helicopter and has built his own F-16 simulator. "I would equate it to having a date with a supermodel. Very few people can get to do that, but you can simulate it."

Buckle's date with an angel came about during a visit in 2000 to the Olympia Air Museum. There he found the ruined cockpit and determined to have it. The previous owner wanted $1,500 -- about a dollar a pound.

"When I got it, it had been sitting outside for about 10 years," says Buckle. "The corrosion wasn't really so bad, considering the environment it had been in, but the avionics were gone, the electronics, everything." So he's rebuilding it, piece by piece. He's got the ejection seat, and a guy on eBay sold him a genuine F-15 throttle in exchange for $410 and an A-10 throttle Buckle had picked up somewhere. A bedsheet purchased from Kmart hangs in front of the cockpit -- "my contribution to the Martha Stewart Defense Fund," jokes Buckle -- and he aims a jury-rigged overhead projector at the sheet to display wide-screen computerized images of blue skies and wafting clouds.

Now he's redoing the cockpit electronics. Buckle is installing new video tubes and wiring to link them to his PC. Microsoft's Flight Simulator is ideal for his task because it includes software "hooks" that let programmers capture data from the simulator and feed it to real aviation instruments. When he's done, the data from the simulator software will appear on his cockpit readouts, just as they would in a working aircraft. Buckle figures he's spent about $10,000 on his F-15 so far.

That's nothing compared with Robert Prather, 21, but then Prather is building something much bigger: a Boeing 777 twin-engine jumbo jet cockpit.

Prather, an electrical engineering student at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, is building his cockpit at his parents' home in Houston. He figures the project has cost him between $20,000 and $30,000. "Instead of buying clothes and CDs, I was buying parts for my simulator," Prather says. In the process, he has spent enough to take flying lessons and buy himself a light plane. But Prather thinks this is much more interesting. "Anybody with enough money can go out and buy a Cessna," he says. "This was something that had never been done. This was totally new."

Prather has written his own software to link his cockpit instruments to the Microsoft software, and he sells it to other cockpit-builders for $50 to $150. The software's in use by hobbyists around the world, including Japan, Italy, and Britain. Prather also benefits from the kindness of his colleagues. For instance, he used to have cheap plastic lawn chairs in his cockpit. But when a fellow hobbyist decided to stop work on his Boeing 737 cockpit and switch to a Lockheed Jetstar -- the plane flown by Pussy Galore in the movie "Goldfinger" -- he donated his Boeing seats to Prather. "Whatever we don't need, we trade each other," Prather says.

Indeed, the home-simulator crowd is a kind-hearted bunch of people, their monomania notwithstanding. A group of British simmers built a Boeing 757 in 1999, then "flew" it around the world in a virtual marathon to raise money for charity. Donors and sponsors, including British Airways, stepped forward, and the venture, called World-Flight, raised 1,700 British pounds -- $2,700 in today's dollars. They've done it every year since, raising $8,300 last year and inspiring home cockpit builders in Australia and Canada to launch similar programs.

Prather hasn't made any charity flights yet. He's focused on tweaking the details of his 777 cockpit. "I can't say that it's anywhere near completion," he said. "It's really never-ending."

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