Home Aviation

Video: My Closet Simulator

I created a narrated video tour of my closet flight simulator and posted it on YouTube.

4:33 minutes

Not pictured is my gaming chair and the attached Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. See previous posts for details on that.

Forgive me Father, for I have simmed.

I have been very busy lately, but not with what you may expect. As you may know, I have been a motorcyclist for over a decade now, riding both a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, and a 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 sport bike. I had wanted to ride motorcycles ever since I was a kid, and have enjoyed doing so very much, racking up over 80,000 miles in 10 years of riding.

There is something I’ve wanted to do from an even earlier age.


I had the opportunity to take flying lessons when I was in my late teens but opted out because of the expense. Learning to fly is expensive, and flying once you get your license is expensive as well. So despite my passion and desire to fly since I was a very young boy, I have never pursued it.

Recently I heard about X-Plane, the flight simulation software that is arguably the de facto king of realistic simulation for the consumer (and professional) market. I ran a demo version of the software on my Macbook Pro and was blown away by the realism and depth.

Digging more, I found YouTube videos [ like this one ] of home-built cockpits and flight simulation rigs people are building in their own homes. Something clicked, and I realized I could get much closer to the experience of flying but at much lower cost and no risk to life-and-limb.

To get that desired realism, however, I would need a system a bit more involved than just a laptop and second screen. I began to research the kind of computer systems required to obtain the level of realism I needed, all based around X-Plane, and the flight simulation gear such as flight controls and gauges that would enhance the realism.

I purchased books about flying from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I investigated products and vendors and watched hours of YouTube videos posted by home flight simmers. I produced a budget for what my desired system would cost.

Unwilling to incur debt, I was also unwilling to tap into savings. I had to find the money from another source. Doing some soul searching, I realized it would be better to own one motorcycle and a flight simulator than to own two motorcycles and no flight simulator.

So I sold the Gixxer.

Using the sale money from the motorcycle, I had the financial side of the project covered. Based on my vendor and product research, I had a shopping list ready to go. All I needed to do was start placing orders.

The heart of the flight simulator is the computer. I chose a high-end Windows PC purchased from X-Force PC, based in South Carolina. They partner with Laminar Research, the company that makes X-Plane, to provide LR with the systems used in X-Plane development and testing. This would ensure high compatibility and reliability. After a phone call with Michael Brown, the chief builder and head honcho at X-Force PC, I had a system ordered. I also purchased my Saitek gauges and flight controls. The service I got from X-Force PC in general and Michael specifically was fantastic.

Closet shelf
Monitors, desk, and cockpit panel
Panel, yoke, rudder pedals, and computer
In-flight, showing LED lights around cockpit panel
Full system with gauges

Another key aspect of this system was location. Where would I put it? My home doesn’t have a basement, so I got creative. I emptied the closet of a spare room, mounted an adjustable shelf on the back wall to hold my video screens, and repurposed a small desk. The system is half in the closet, half out (no sociological puns intended). I have plans to build an enclosure around the seating area to mimic the realism of being inside an actual cockpit.

Flying is complex. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge. Operating the airplane is challenging enough on a perfect day, but when you factor in weather, topography, air traffic control, mechanics, and the myriad bits of information constantly deserving your attention, it quickly becomes an immersive experience that can eat up years of time and dedication.

This is something I won’t outgrow anytime soon.

My first flight in a Cessna 172

Steve's first flight
Me and the Cessna 172

I recently received a discovery flight in a Cessna 172 as a birthday present. It was out of Gorge Winds Aviation in Troutdale, Oregon (KTTD). A discovery flight is a chance to sit in the left seat of a small plane with a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) there to guide you. The CFI handles the hard stuff, like the initial take-off and landing, but you are given the opportunity to take the controls for just about everything else.

Cessna N5201H
Cessna N5201H, Gorge Winds Aviation

My CFI, Jason, already had the plane prepared and pre-flight checked before I arrived. I was in the cockpit with the engine running within 5 minutes of my arrival.

The plane we flew was a Cessna 172, tail number N5201H. It was built in 1975 and the cockpit showed its age. Everything was in working order, though, and I had no fears or doubts about its reliability and the maintenance care Gorge Winds provided it.

We taxied to the hold-short line of runway 25 and performed the run-up procedure. This entails revving the engine to 1800 rpm and checking the magnetos and gauges. After waiting for another Cessna to land, we moved out onto the runway and without delay were airborne.

The first thing that surprised me was how rapidly those little planes can gain altitude. My ears popped right away. The second thing that surprised me was how little visibility you have forward over the engine when climbing at that rate. We rose at 600-700 feet per minute and at that angle of attack, you can’t see anything directly in front of you. After we reached 500 MSL (mean sea level), we reduced our rate of climb to about 300 fpm.

To my left I saw a helicopter moving parallel to the runway at about 100 ft. AGL, below us. Soon we banked left and headed south. Jason mentioned we were in the KPDX air space and had to stay at or below 1,200 feet MSL to stay below incoming airliners. Once we got out of a particular radius from the main PDX airport, we were able to climb to a higher altitude.

Cessna cockpit

Once we made our bank to the left and Jason got the aircraft trimmed up, I took the controls. The yoke was fairly small, a bit smaller than I anticipated. Even though we didn’t have much wind–calm to 3 mph–we got moved around a bit at different times during the flight. At one point the aircraft yawed rather abruptly to the left and down. I instinctively corrected and righted the plane without any fuss.

I was impressed by how deftly Jason handled the comms. He was conversing with me, listening to air traffic control, and giving them updates as we flew, all without missing a beat. Jason also kept a small tablet on his kneeboard (a clipboard strapped to one leg) and tracked where we were at all times on a digital map.

We followed highway 26 at about 1,800 ft. MSL and made our way to my hometown of Sandy, Oregon. Although I didn’t specifically see my house, I could see my neighborhood. We flew directly above it. As we maneuvered further south, I was surprised by how dense the trees are in east Multnomah and west Clackamas counties. When I fly over the area in X-Plane with photo-realistic scenery, everything is in its place and even larger buildings are replicated rather well, but the density of trees is not very accurate in the simulator.

I was allowed to choose our course and fly there, and Jason never took over the controls until we were on the final turn to land back at Troutdale. We passed over my house another time, then flew above the Sandy River back toward home base.

As we flew, Jason remarked at how smooth and well coordinated my turns were. He was surprised that I have never actually flown before; my only experience is conceptual and simulated. The principles are easy to follow, though, and I have a fair bit of coordination after riding motorcycles all my life and playing drums since grade school.

When we approached KTTD, Jason gave me the opportunity to have my hands on the wheel as he performed the landing. I wasn’t comfortable with that, as I didn’t want to risk influencing his control inputs. I was satisfied with observing and noting his actions. Jason described what he was doing every step of the way, which I greatly appreciated. I soaked it up like a sponge.

We came in close for a ‘short final’ approach, just west of the bluff above Troutdale. In my simulator, I had always flown over the bluff further to the east, making a longer and more gradual final approach. Jason dropped the flaps to full (30 degrees), slowed it up, and dropped us down for a steep approach. He flared the aircraft and made a nice landing.

In the real aircraft, I had a much more accurate sense for how far we were above the runway. In the simulator, it’s harder to tell where and when to flare because you don’t have the same sense of altitude.

We taxied off the runway, contacted ATC, and made our way back to the parking area outside the Gorge Winds office.

I helped Jason tie down the plane, took a minute to snap some photos, then went inside. I purchased a pilot log book and Jason noted our flight within.

The experience was a thrill and completed a bucket list item I’ve had since I was a small boy. I definitely wish to fly again, and hope to take the controls a bit more next time.

Review: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020


I’ve been flying X-Plane 11 since it first came out and recently gave Microsoft’s latest version of its venerable Flight Simulator a try — it’s first update in over 10 years — and my first reaction is Wow!

This new version offers real-world satellite photography to dynamically generate the scenery, allowing the virtual pilot to fly anywhere in the world without having to pre-generate (or buy) photo-quality scenery ahead of time. The visuals are stunning and very realistic.

I already knew that would be the case when I decided to purchase MSFS 2020. What I wasn’t prepared for, but was delighted to experience, was how refined and elegant the interface and mechanics of the software actually is. This doesn’t come across as what is essentially a first-gen product. Refined really is the best word for how the simulator runs and how you interact with it.

I really like X-Plane 11, and still feel it is the more realistic simulation in terms of how it simulates flight. But MSFS 2020 is a leap ahead in terms of product quality, from how it installs to how it automatically detects and configures your flight control hardware to how you work with the AI and air traffic control systems once you’re airborne.

Comparing X-Plane 11 to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is like comparing a command-line version of Linux to the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system. They both get the job done but one is substantially more refined than the other.

There’s that word again, refined.

Although MSFS 2020 is a new product and still has some bugs and functionality that’s not yet in place, this is a flight simulation product that all flight sim enthusiasts should try.

Just make sure you have two things: a large solid-state hard drive and a very fast internet connection.

X-Plane switch from Airfoil Labs to Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172

X-Plane comes with a Cessna 172 by default. It’s a competent plane and it is what I have flown since I got X-Plane 11 back in May of 2017. I wanted more realism so I purchased the after-market Cessna 172 by Airfoil Labs.

It was buggy and presented several challenges to flying. I had to learn how to land all over again. There were several graphical issues that prevented me from flying the AFL 172 at all. I got fed up and uninstalled it.

After reading posts from other sim pilots on X-Plane.org’s forum, I discovered another approach. Now, I fly the default Cessna 172 with the SimCoders.com Reality Expansion Pack ($19.99) installed on top of it.

The aircraft experience feels more immersive, because I’m not just flying a virtual plane, I’m managing the entire aircraft from when I approach it on the tarmac to take-off to flight to landing and finally when I park it. I even conduct maintenance on it like I would a real airplane.

The REP has been very stable, too. There was one sound error that occurred, but removing the Cessna 172 from the list of possible AI aircraft fixed the problem.

So far, I’m very impressed with this approach.

I sold my Saitek gear and cockpit panel

I have been flying in my home simulator based on a Cessna 172 cockpit for almost two years now. My gear is focused on the tactile fidelity of a real cockpit, using a yoke and throttle quadrant and simulated gauges. Everything runs wonderfully with X-Plane 11 and is super easy to configure. This is probably the most common and well-supported gear you can get for a home cockpit.

Lately I have been wanting to fly other types of aircraft, including fighter jets, and the narrowly focused nature of my gear doesn’t handle the versatility I need. As a result, I have sold all of my current avionics (other than my rudder pedals) and am switching to a touch screen for gauges and a Thrustmaster H.O.T.A.S. ‘Warthog’ joystick and throttle for flight controls.

I have sold the following items as a package to a small airport in Michigan.

Saitek Pro Flight Yoke and Throttle quadrant.

Saitek Flight Instrument Panels (six gauges).

Saitek Radio Panel.

Saitek Switch Panel.

Saitek Multi-panel.

Volair Sim Avionics Cockpit Panel. Read this thorough review: https://www.avsim.com/home/reviews/hardware/review-avionics-panel-by-volair-r3904/

Saitek flight instrument panel

Saitek radio panel

Saitek switch panel

Saitek multi panel

Volair Sim avionics cockpit panel

Cockpit panel showing blanks

Crosswind landings in X-Plane

I’ve spent several hours practicing pattern work, but I’ve always done it with clear weather and no wind. Lately, I’ve attempted to add crosswinds to the mix to simulate more real-world conditions. It hasn’t gone well.

I set up a 6 kt 90 degree crosswind at Aurora Muni (KUAO) and took off in the X-Plane default Cessna 172. Take-off and flying the left-hand pattern went relatively well, but when I came in on final and entered the glideslope, things seemed to get wonky.

My approach was made on runway 35 so the wind should have been directly from my left. The windsock showed this to be true. However, my plane seemed to be drifting to the left. I attempted a forward slip with a little right aileron and a small amount of left rudder, and things went wonky even more.

It was crazy trying to get the plane lined up with the runway, yet the wind was only 6 knots, with no gusts configured. I gunned the engine, raised my flaps, and conducted a go-around.

As I was flying the pattern again, I paid close attention to what the wind seemed to be doing to the aircraft. At pattern altitude of 1,000 feet AGL, it seemed to be getting blown to the west. That’s incorrect — the wind was configured to be blowing from the west. I turned onto the base leg and the groundspeed slowed, again indicating I had a headwind from the east. When I turned onto the final leg, once again I had fits getting a line on the runway.

I’ve heard that X-Plane 11 has notoriously inaccurate ground effect winds and handling. This seems to be the case. When I got my wheels on the ground, I turned my ailerons fully to the left, to the west and the direction the windsock indicated the wind was blowing, and got shot far to the right and onto the grass.

I can’t confirm it, but it very much acted like the wind was blowing the exact opposite direction the windsock was indicating (and the weather configuration specified).

UPDATE 01-29-2018: I have confirmed the wind and windsock are behaving correctly in X-Plane. It’s operator error on my part.

Using a Buttkicker Gamer 2 in X-Plane 11

To improve the sense of immersion in my home flight simulator, I purchased and installed a Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. This is a device that bolts to the base of an office chair and transmits vibrations into the chair based on sounds generated by the flight simulator. It’s like a subwoofer with vibration only, no sound.

Update Dec 17, 2020: I currently use the Buttkicker in X-Plane 11, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and DCS World 2.x. All three use the Simshaker software utility referenced below.

Buttkicker Gamer 2
Buttkicker Gamer 2

I purchased the Buttkicker from FullCompass.com, with free shipping, and it left their warehouse the day after I ordered it. Many other vendors I researched were either out of stock or sold them at above MSRP (Amazon, what the hell?) The Gamer 2 edition comes with the transducer, a dedicated power amplifier, and all the cables you need to connect it to your flight simulator.

Installation took about a half hour, and most of that time was spent feeding the wires around and out of the way behind my simulator. After getting it plugged into the sound-out jack on the back of my PC, I fired it up and tested it out. It really startled me the first time it vibrated my seat. Even though I knew it was going to happen, the amount of vibration it can produce was startling. I reduced the sound levels and did some more testing.

Buttkicker amplifier
Buttkicker amplifier

From all I’d read on the forums, I learned that although the Buttkicker can be used directly with X-Plane 11, the experience isn’t as specific as it can be. The solution is a pair of software solutions working in tandem, one free and one payware. Simshaker for Aviators is the free part, and Simshaker Sound Module is the payware part (about $30 USD; it’s from a guy named Andre in Vologograd, Russia, so the exchange rate will vary).

Using these two apps, you can fine-tune the types of simulated events that produce vibrations and the amount of relative vibration for each event. Otherwise, without these apps, it vibrates generically with any low-frequency sound.

My flight simulator is located in a spare bedroom on the second floor of my house. There was some noticeable vibration in the room beneath on the first floor. This was because the Buttkicker was attached to my office chair, which was sitting on its wheels pressed into the carpeted floor directly above. I needed some way to reduce or eliminate the vibrations being transmitted through the floor.

Sorbothane anti-vibration pads, 2 1/4 in. wide by 1/4 in. thick

I ordered some sorbothane anti-vibration isolation pads from Amazon. They are 2.25″ wide and about 1/4″ thick. I opened the package and let them air out overnight in the garage as they have an off-putting smell when you first open them.

The pads are very sticky and I read reports that they can stain carpet, so I cut circles of waxed paper and stuck them to one side of the sorbothane pads. I purchased some square furniture cups from the local hardware store and stuck the pads to the bottom of those. I tried sitting the chair’s wheels into these cups but the sides weren’t high enough to keep the wheels in place, so I removed the wheels from my chair entirely and placed them in the cups. (In the picture, you can’t see the sorbothane pads; they are pressed against the carpet under the brown furniture cups.)

Pads installed under furniture cups

This reduced the amount of vibration being transmitted into the room below by at least half. It was quieter than the noises generated by my forced air furnace.

Once I got all that set up and got the software installed, it was time for some test flying in X-Plane 11. I started in Boston and flew to Nantucket in a Cessna 172, then over to Martha’s Vineyard. The Buttkicker conveys a predictable engine vibration, along with other events like flaps going up or down. The most exciting vibration event is when the wheels first touch down while landing.

I still have a lot of experimentation to do, both with the amplifier settings and with the software settings.

So far I would say it was a worthwhile investment for those wishing to increase the level of apparent immersion in their home flight simulator.

YouTube: X-Plane flight from Troutdale to Aurora

Recently I videotaped a simulated flight from Troutdale, OR [KTTD] to Aurora, OR [KUAO]. The aircraft was the default Cessna 172 with the Reality Expansion Pack installed.

This was on my home flight simulator, which runs X-Plane 11.25 on a Windows 10 machine with an i7 processor (4.2 GHz overclocked to 4.6 GHz), 32 GB RAM, and a GTX 1080i video card. I was getting an average of 31 frames per second during the flight. I use three 32″ flat panel monitors, Saitek FIP gauges, yoke, throttle quadrant, and rudder pedals. I also use Saitek radio, switch, and multi-function devices.

You can view the flight on YouTube here.

This was more a test of how to videotape and record audio of my flight simulator than it was to portray an actual simulated flight (so please forgive my flying ability, lack of ATC, etc.)