By Horst Federau, EAA 1434868, Chapter 63, Lynwood, Manitoba
My passion for aviation and flight simulation has directed me along some interesting paths and I’ve met some very interesting people along the way. One of those encounters happened at a local flight school about two years ago. As I was walking along the hallways of the school I noticed a room with a fairly old Frasca Piper Seminole simulator sitting on the floor. It was partially disassembled and in non-working condition.
The simulator was an original Frasca, running five projectors and nine computers. I noticed the high quality of the parts and the accuracy of the instrumentation. Somebody later told me that it was an exact replica of the cockpit of the Piper Seminole PA-44 and the owner had purchased it at an auction in the U.S., but they couldn’t make it work and Transport Canada certification would be out of the question in its current condition.
The owner had approached Frasca and asked about the cost of a total rebuild to make it compatible with current flight simulator technologies. The price for such an upgrade was substantial and not something the owner wanted to do at the time.
Armed with hope and some courage, I approached the owner one day and said I could take on an upgrade of his old Frasca simulator if he would be willing to take a chance with me. It didn’t work. He decided to ship the simulator off to the U.S. and get it done by a company that specializes in building simulators like that.
Close to that flight school, there is a nice restaurant by the side of the runway where I go often to have breakfast and watch students practice their take-offs and landings. Almost every time I would go, I would make a point of sticking my head into the office of the flight school owner and see how things were going. One day he told me that he was not having great success with upgrading the Seminole simulator. The project was dragging on and there was no end in sight. Apparently the company had ripped everything out and had started from scratch and was not making great progress with getting all the electronics to work again.
Some time passed and one day I got a call from the owner asking me if I could come by his garage and help him with something. He had decided to bring the simulator back from the U.S. and it was sitting in his garage, in pieces, and he could not make it work. I agreed to take a look. When I got there, I could see why it was hard to get it to work. There were cables and electronics everywhere. A true spaghetti of cables and components intermingled and twisted. I tried my best to make it work, but half of the instruments were not even turning on. The scenery screens for the outside view were not working either. I could not help him as the sim was in a state of total disarray.
I proposed to him again that I could do a total rebuild by using less electronics and using quality components that would bring the simulator to a level that it could be re-certified by Transport Canada, all at a fraction of the price he had been given. After some back and forth over the next few months, he agreed to give me a chance and to provide me with an opportunity to prove myself (which I was very grateful for).
As it happened, I had just gotten a new space to open my simulator shop (I was working out of my garage until then), so one day he delivered the simulator to my shop and we started working on it.
I am not a pilot or an engineer, nor have I received formal training in aviation. But I had been building my own simulators from a young age and studied a lot of the theory and systems that go into an airplane. I am a computer coder by trade, so I know how to interface the hardware with the software (simulator).
The owner and I sat down and started talking about the requirements of the new simulator and how to make it as close as possible as the real Seminole cockpit/airplane (systems, what each button and leaver does, performance, etc). The physical layout was the same as we used the old Frasca frame to rebuild the new simulator. Each step I took was always done by keeping in mind that it needed to be good enough to be certified by Transport Canada.
Lots of roadblocks and unforeseen obstacles came along the way, mostly because the existing hardware was old and needed to be “adapted” so it could work with modern simulator software. Also, many of the replacement parts were not available anymore, so I had to 3D print some of them or “rework” them so they could be used again. Things like old lamp bulbs were replace with LEDs, which require a different power supply, or the new force feedback flight yoke was not made to be used in a simulator like that and I had to build an adapter so it could be mounted behind the instrument panel and extended through it.
All buttons, lights, levers, and switches had to be re-cabled and new electronics had to be installed and programmed. The main “six pack” group of gauges was purchased from a company in the Netherlands, but had to be programmed and adapted. We kept all the buttons and switches and throttle quadrant, which I connected into new electronics and programmed to work with the simulator. We also added new G5 units to replace the ADI and HSI as those are used in the real Seminole PA-44 at the flight school.
Those also had to be adapted to work in the sim. We kept the old RPM, manifold pressure and EGT gauges, which I had to make work with custom built electronics and programming them to replicate the behaviour of the real airplane.
For outside view we decided to not use projectors. Even though they give out a big image on a curved screen, the resolution is not there and it is a constant hassle to synchronize the overlap image between all the projectors. Little things like room temperature can shift the image and create a very distracting distortion. I recommended that we go with four large TVs that would surround the cockpit. We did so and the immersion is pretty impressive.
One of the requirements I was given was that the whole system should be easy to maintain and reliable (the old sim had nine computers and five projectors, many points of failure which translated in constant downtime). I was able to make the whole simulator run off of one computer. All instruments, scenery and the simulator software run on one computer. This makes maintenance a lot easier.
So after three months of solid work, the sim was ready and delivered at the school. Then COVID hit and we could not get Transport Canada onsite to take a look and certify it. However, in the meantime, we asked TC to provide us with the manual and examination scenarios that they would apply for the certification. So one day, the owner and I sat down and went through the many pages of tests. We put the simulator through its paces. It passed all of them.
Instructors and students alike loved the new simulator and did their own “certification” runs. They compared the airplane’s real behaviour with the simulator and were amazed how closely it matched with reality. Things like killing one engine or other failures, as well as normal level flight were tested. Since the simulator cockpit is a replica of the real airplane, things like checklists can easily be done and can directly be transferred later to the real airplane.
After many months of waiting, TC sent an agent to the school. Since TC had never heard of me or my little company, it was not a regular certification (like RedBird or Frasca). They wanted to see every detail and test everything before certifying. From what I heard, they have three individuals across Canada that do these certifications for “new” FTDs (flight training devices). As a matter of fact, the agent they sent to us went on to certify a 787 after he looked at mine. The agent was happy with what he saw and how it performed. We made a few changes here and there, mostly related to the manual for the simulator.
I got the news on the last day of 2021 that my simulator had been certified and was ready to be used for official training. Not bad for a guy that started building simulators in his garage!