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Flight 737, Now Departing From Your Garage

Published: September 25, 2003

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

WHEELS DOWN - James Price, an air traffic controller in Livermore, Calif., used a real Boeing 737 cockpit for his flight simulator, which is controlled by a cart of computers.

IN the quarter-century that flight simulator software has been on the market, many pilots have cited the fun of such programs as their inspiration for learning to fly. But Matt Ford, a Los Angeles lighting designer, cites the opposite, tracing his infatuation with simulation programs to his real-world flight school days.

It was a warm, sunny morning in the spring of 1998, and Mr. Ford, then a resident of Dallas, was puttering over southern Oklahoma with his instructor in a Cessna 152. They flew over a site where retired airliners were stripped for parts. "There were 30 to 40 airplanes being torn down," Mr. Ford recalled. "Big DC-10's, 747's, a couple of 727's and 737's."

Around the same time he discovered the Web site of James Price, an air traffic controller in Livermore, Calif., who had cobbled together a makeshift cockpit at his house using Microsoft Flight Simulator - one of the first simulations available to home computer users and by far the most popular - and several computer monitors.

As a youth, Mr. Ford, planned to be a commercial airline pilot until his eyesight deteriorated, and he now realized that building a cockpit of his own might be the closest he would ever get to his dream of flying a jumbo jet.

He contacted the facility he had seen from the air, purchased the sliced-off nose section of a old Boeing 737 for $1,000 and hauled the one-ton chunk of airframe home.

Five years and some $25,000 later, Mr. Ford's flight deck - commercial grade and fully functional yet still unfinished - epitomizes a pastime that is rapidly gaining devotees worldwide. Along with Mr. Price and about 10 other early builders, Mr. Ford, 35, blazed a contrail that now separates the ultra-techies from the mere pretenders in the culture of flight simulation. Not content with a simple game joystick or even a more sophisticated yoke and rudder pedals, hard-core hobbyists spend thousands of hours and dollars constructing ersatz airliner cockpits in their garages, basements and bedrooms.

While the number of flight deck builders - fewer than 1,000, aficionados say - still constitutes a tiny fraction of the estimated seven million users of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the reasons for the pursuit's growing popularity are clear enough.

First there is the technical appeal of modern airliners like the Boeing 777 and the 320 Airbus, whose slick, computerized flight decks are easier to recreate than their cluttered analog predecessors. Then there are the recent refinements to Flight Simulator itself, including photorealistic scenery and weather that make some armchair pilots, known as "simmers," want their immediate surroundings to be realistic as well.

"I was tired of the virtual world of simply clicking mouse buttons," said Junji Hirayama, a doctor in Wakayama, Japan, whose hyper-accurate 747-400 mock-up stood in for a real flight deck in a hit Japanese television drama. "I wanted to touch and feel the real world of the cockpit."

Most important was the rise of a cottage industry that catered to the home cockpit set. Several companies offer pre-cut instrument panels and other components; popular programs from Project Magenta, an Italian software company, divvy up the simulator's instrumentation among several task-specific monitors, just the way it is on real jets. "A lot of people have now also come to appreciate the difference of our way of flying, without cramping everything onto a single screen," said Enrico Schiratti, the company's founder.

Mr. Ford's flight deck stands on casters in his garage amid the enticing clutter of welding equipment, hand tools and wiring. Motorists jam on their brakes at the sight of a Boeing 737 nose section staring out at them, and some residents even questioned Mr. Ford's intentions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Now they all kind of know me, and I'm kind of just the weird neighbor," he said. "The neighborhood kids will come by and I'll occasionally let them fly it."

Inside the cockpit, which is outfitted as a somewhat dated 737-200 but will soon undergo an upgrade to resemble a more modern 737-700, Mr. Ford's insistence on real aircraft parts has resulted in a machine that seems less like a homespun flight simulator and more like a living museum piece. Even the smell is convincing - slightly musty from the used 747 seat cushions yet pleasantly tinged with hints of tarmac and coffee from 30 years of service (it was last flown by Continental Airlines).

The shopworn levers, knobs, buttons and switches are almost forbidding; they engage with the sturdy tock and thunk sounds reflecting Boeing's deliberately stiff ergonomic style, which is intended to prevent them from being moved accidentally. The throttles glide with aged grace, and the yoke feels appropriately firm and heavy to the touch.

Beneath all this veteran hardware, however, lies a sophisticated, high-maintenance computer network. Most home cockpits require at least five interconnected PC's to drive the various electronic displays, flight computers and the external scenery monitor (which is often a big-screen TV placed in front of the cockpit). Mr. Ford's uses eight PC's, and he and Mr. Price have spent thousands of hours writing a program that enables Microsoft Flight Simulator and Project Magenta to respond properly to their cockpits' controls.

Despite endless tweaking and tinkering, the resulting system can be quixotic. During a reporter's visit, Mr. Ford's effort to boot up the flight deck was unsuccessful.

The vast majority of cockpit builders are men. Age estimates vary, but most seem to be 25 to 45. Few are licensed pilots. The strongest adherents are versed in electrical engineering and computer programming, just two of the wide range of skills and traits necessary, from carpentry and welding to endless patience. "It's purely hobby, and pure obsession," said Robert Prather, an electrical engineering major at Prairie View A&M University who started building a 777 at his home in Houston when he was 17.

While the cottage industry that supplies builders has made constructing a cockpit easier and less expensive, assembling one from genuine airplane guts is even more difficult than it once was. When Mr. Ford and his contemporaries began their projects, they established the flight simulation community's first contacts with the world of commercial aviation parts suppliers, who were intrigued and amused enough by the hobbyists' ambitious plans that they virtually or literally gave away surplus and obsolete material.

Thus, through networking, horse-trading, bargaining and begging - although Mr. Prather, 21, said Continental Airlines declined to let him retrieve items from the company's garbage - the early builders amassed equipment for only a fraction of its true value. Mr. Ford estimates that his $25,000 cockpit actually contains $400,000 worth of hardware.

Now, with a flood of impatient newcomers scouring the market like fashion slaves at a sample sale, the good-will discounts are disappearing. Mr. Ford said a 737 nose section like the kind he bought for $1,000 would now fetch $15,000. Even indicator lights can cost $700 each. "EBay used to be one of the best places," Mr. Prather said, because there was hardly any competition for items. "All of a sudden we're having to bid on the stuff."

Amid the surge in activity, the hobby's tightly knit core of originators are revered by the neophytes who flood them with e-mail seeking the quickest, cheapest way to get a rig up and flying. "People say, 'O.K., I want to build a simulator. What all do I need?' " Mr. Prather said. "That's like walking up to Toyota and saying, 'I want to build a 4Runner.' The parts list is endless."

Thanks to such complexity, it is unlikely that terrorists would attempt to assemble a cockpit of their own, Mr. Ford and other builders said. By the same token, merely constructing and using a home cockpit would not cast a veil of suspicion over a well-meaning hobbyist, said Paul Bresson, an F.B.I. spokesman.

"Absent any particular evidence to suggest it's being used in any kind of nefarious way, there would be no reason for the F.B.I. to show interest," he said.

Security issues aside, the spitting-image verisimilitude of some ready-made flight simulation products does raise the question of trademark infringement.

Boeing, for one, is somewhat wary. "We understand there are issues of concern within the aviation and aerospace communities," said Susan Bradley, a company spokeswoman. "It's great to see the enthusiasm people have for aviation, and we're constantly amazed at the many ways they express their passion for flight. We remain, however, very protective of our intellectual property and will be watching as this area evolves."

The hobby presents physical hazards as well. This month Mr. Ford escaped serious injury when the massive professional viewing system he was installing in front of his cockpit toppled over. Alan Dyer, a computer consultant in Northern California, was less fortunate. A 130-pound chunk of bulkhead fell from his sawed-off 737 fuselage and knocked him unconscious. Mr. Dyer was found lying in a pool of blood and remained in a coma for a month.

"I was sectioning the underside of the cockpit away so I could get to the controls, and it was the last little piece that was high up," said Mr. Dyer, a licensed pilot. "I couldn't figure out why the piece hadn't come loose. And then boom, it went."

Having recovered from his injury, he continues undeterred, while his colleagues ponder enhancements. Some builders have floated plans to make their cockpits pitch and roll like a full-motion airline trainer, an idea that at least one hobbyist derides as fantasy. Installing a wraparound external view, on the other hand, is already possible yet extremely expensive, says Peter Cos, the founder of Flightdeck Solutions, a Canadian maker of instrument panels and other parts for the simulator market.

Mr. Cos encourages hobbyists to get their artificial planes airborne before worrying about bells and whistles. "I think a builder should be flying in six months," he said.

Mr. Prather has waited four years for the right pair of throttles. After investing up to $50,000 in a series of trial cockpits, one of which was destroyed in a flood, he has still not flown his simulator.

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