Building an Instrument Panel for FSX (and Prepar3d)

When people think of FSX, they may think “niche market,” or “dated graphics,” (its last update was in 2006) or “dead product” given that Microsoft shuttered the product some years ago.  The truth is, today FSX is being used in ways I doubt the original product team thought it would ever be.  It’s actually quite a robust platform for aftermarket add-ons that still has a very active development community.  There are scenery packs that can let you fly over your house, and airplanes that have so much detail that they literally simulate the amount of fuel injected into the cylinders when priming (use too much, and you’ll flood the engine…then you’re going nowhere).  Then, there’s the hardware, and that’s the focus of this article.

My intention was to create a home simulator that was immersive enough that I could replicate the real flying experience with a level of immersion beyond what a simple keyboard/mouse/joystick combination could provide.  At the same time, the panel needed to be non-permanent in design—something that I could set up relatively easily when I wanted to go fly, and then take down and store in a closet when I was done.  I wanted the same type of interface that I have in a real aircraft cockpit—one that allows me to manipulate by hand all of the avionics, instrumentation, and gauges in the aircraft.  For my home, all of this had to be removable and relatively inexpensive.  There are several commercially available instrument panels with avionics that work with FSX, however none of them quite fit my requirements, and so I decided to build my own.

IMG_2471_fixedI should point out that this project does not require programming knowledge, soldering, or any custom engineering whatsoever.  This solution is purely based from modular off-the-shelf components that are commonly available.  The biggest hurdle that I faced when initially choosing hardware was finding an avionics stack that had two dedicated communication radios, and two dedicated NAV radios.  The requirement of having both active and standby radio frequencies dialed on the COM/NAVs was the hardest thing to meet.  I had narrowed down my search to three manufacturers:  Saitek, VRInsight, and GoFlight.  The Saitek modules felt a little bit too “video game” for my taste, and multiple forum reviews mentioned that the frequency knobs were notoriously unreliable.  The impression I got from VRInsight, while they had a good lineup of modules, most of them looked like they were designed by engineers who had heard of what an aircraft avionics panel should look like, but had never actually used one.  There was an inconsistency in their brand, and for the price, I felt justified in looking further.  The GoFlight modules, while being the most expensive of the three, seemed like the most versatile and would have the best construction.

IMG_2478_fixedThe GoFlight modules share a common size and plate orientation (usually 1U or 2U, being units tall).  Using their mounting racks, you can mix and match them as desired to create the avionics stack you desire.  You have the option to purchase each module individually, or find one of their module systems that bundles what you want together.  I mixed and matched as appropriate.

The GF-ICCS is a module system comprising of (4) GF-166 NAV/COM style modules, (2) GF-46 multifunction modules, and (1) GF-RP48 Push Button Rotary module on the bottom.  In addition, I added (1) GF-P8 Push Button module to serve as an audio panel directly above it.  In the process of writing this article, I noticed that the GF-ICCS has been revised since I originally purchased mine (the second multifunction and the push button rotary modules have been removed).  I should point out that all these modules, even though I use them for one purpose only, can be set to do nearly any task through the GoFlight configuration software.

IMG_2479_fixed

The GF-LGT-II Landing Gear and Trim Control module handles landing gear and flap retraction, however the trim functions are useful.  A realistic size three position gear switch is a good add-on for any aircraft that has retractable landing gear.  Modules come with a set of black, magnetic labels that can be cut out to indicate the purpose of a multifunction switch.

Standard cockpit controls are mapped to two additional GF-RP48 Push Button Rotary modules to set flight instruments in the middle of the panel.

GoFlight does offer desktop module racking frames, but for this project I couldn’t quite find anything that fit what I was looking for.  I made the decision to forgo a realistic, type-specific panel and went for a more generic and functional approach.  My goal was to emphasize ease of use of avionics and flight instruments, but also keeping switches and knobs in the same general vicinity of where they’d be found on their real aircraft counterparts.

PanelSchematicBuilding the panel started with dimensioning out the size of my desk, yoke, and throttle quadrant.  I then built a scale 2D model to illustrate placement using Visio, but Google Sketch-up (or even paper and pencil) would also be suitable for this task (and is free).  Since my module frame was to be constructed from wood, the important task was to figure out exactly how much wood I’d need and where the cuts would be.  The frame is hemlock and was cut entirely on a miter saw and the front panel was 5mm Luan cut with a hand held electric jigsaw.  Pan head screws hold the front panel into the frame, and small machine bolts and nuts mount the GoFlight modules to the panel.

IMG_2492_fixed_smallWith all these USB modules, you may be tempted to repurpose or find a cheap hub to plug everything into.  Word of advice:  Don’t.

The modules with an LED readout, such as the radio stack, are power hungry.  Most USB hubs simply can’t provide enough power to make these things work reliably.  I ended up finding a pair of commercial grade USB hubs on Amazon with 4 amp power supplies.  Before I did that, this panel was notoriously unreliable and modules would either freeze or not initialize properly.

The GoFlight software is compatible with Flight Simulator (and now Lockheed’s Prepar3d) which will take care of most of the mappings for you.  To get the best experience, you’ll still need to use it in conjunction with Peter Dowson’s FSUIPC.

M1030017

Electronics for this project:

1 GoFlight Integrated Combination Console GF-ICCS @ $679.20 = $679.20

1 GoFlight LGT II Module GF-LGTII @ $159.96 = $159.96

1 GoFlight P8 – 8-Pushbutton module GF-P8 @ $95.96 = $95.96

1 GoFlight Single Engine Control Module GF-SECM @ $239.96 = $239.96

2 GoFlight RP48 2″ Tall Panel Module GF-RP48 @ $129.56 = $259.12

2 CoolGear Metal 7-Port USB 2.0 Powered Slim Hub @ $49.98 = $99.96

Prices for electronics are included for comparison research.  Wood and screws are not included as they will vary from build to build.  The Saitek Pro Flight Yoke with Three-Lever Throttle was previously purchased, along with an additional three-lever throttle and USB rudder pedals.

To see more of this panel, here is a YouTube video of it in action:

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