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Show Us Your Tech: 'Softie Builds 737 Cockpit In His House

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Microsoft employees are often as passionate about their hobbies as they are with their work. Salvador Patuel is an ADM out of our UK office during the day, but he's a hobbiest commercial airline pilot at night. Salvador loves flying so much he decided to build an elaborate controller to make his flying a bit more realistic, except this controller includes a full flight deck. Salvador shot a short video tour of his pet project himself for Show Us Your Tech and he's answered some of my email questions below.

Who are you? What do you do at Microsoft?
My name is Salvador Alvarez Patuel, I am a Principal Application Development Manager (ADM). I am responsible for helping customers to develop better solutions using Microsoft technologies. I am currently based in the Microsoft campus in the United Kingdom.

What’s your flight background that made you decide to do this?
I have a private pilot license, obtained 15 years ago, always loved flying and had the opportunity to fly on several different birds, from single piston to multi turbo-prop engines. I have flown several jet planes on real simulators and I try to fly at least once a month on the B737 simulator at British Airways. I have used Microsoft Flight Simulator from the early 90s, always using different hardware devices to enhance my experience, to make it more real.

How did you start this project?
Well, my wife does not like me flying, as she is quite afraid of flying. When we got married she asked me to fly less hours so I tried to negotiate a win-win situation, I said to her “Ok, but can I develop my flight simulator in my studio?”, she obviously answered yes, thinking that I was going to buy some kind of joystick and a bigger monitor Smiley. I was aware that there was a small group of people around the world that have built some homemade cockpits in their houses, and started browsing for some ideas. At the beginning it was quite hard, as you can imagine there are not a lot of suppliers that offer affordable parts, so I decided to purchase what I could, and develop what it was missing.

How long did this take you?
I am not considered it done, but I started 3 years ago and started flying just a year ago. That means that it took me 2 years to get some decent parts ready to start experiencing the simulation!

Where did you get all the hardware?
As some parts where available, I try to leverage on affordable products, but sooner realized that I had to create some of the parts. The good thing is that the internet and the community provides most of the diagrams, with measures and materials so it wasn’t very difficult to get what I needed, but it was much harder to make those custom parts using new suppliers. For the structure, I have used Flight Deck Solutions, today they have a very rich set of parts but wasn’t like this when I first started, seems that the hobby is growing!. Some parts are actual real from airplanes, like the yoke which I rewire, add some potentiometers connected to a USB board to get the values from it. My latest addition, the throttles where custom made by a third party company called Revolution Sim Products as with my new baby boy I didn’t have time to build it myself.

How did you get it all to work with FSX?
That was the interesting part, as I am a software developer I had all the necessary skills. I started developing all the software by myself, reading real Boeing 737 manuals with more technical drawings than the space shuttle (trust me!) I coded the aircraft logic as I was just using the 737 models in flight simulator. I knew about FSUIPC library, written by Peter Dawson and I start interfacing my software with FSX using the available offsets. For the visual avionics I wrote components using DirectX, but rapidly found myself diverting a lot of energy getting the visual rights, and not enough time on the logic. Therefore, I decided to buy a visual package from Sim Avionics, at that time it was a very cheap option compared with Project Magenta, one of the leaders on this area, now they are similar prices. I use my system logic to interact with Sim-Avionics using FSUIPC offsets, this is a very fast input/output model that allows me to link 3 computers in near real time. The other hard part was to write components that read USB values, from all my hardware. I have managed to connect everything together but trust me, it was quite hard

What do you use for your primary displays?
My first idea was to use a set of projectors, I bought one but I found that without a proper cockpit shell it didn’t look real, just a big image on the wall. So I decided to take a different approach, using several monitors. The problem was that a decent graphic accelerator card will have two outputs, and the performance degrades when you increase the resolution and detail, so I found another way to do it. I found the Matrox triple head device as an excellent alternative, as it takes the feed from one output and spread it across 3 screens, without degrading the performance, now it looks like I have proper cockpit windows!

As you may know, FSX is hungry for resources so I must admit that I have invested on the main machine that only runs FSX. It has an i7 processor, 8Gb DDR3 RAM , solid state drives and an nvidia GTX 570 graphic card. I am getting 40fps nearly full detail, sweet.

How much of the controls actually work compared to just being “eye candy”? 
Practically everything I have works as the real plane, even the lights dimmer. The motored throttles have given it the final touch, as follows the autopilot logic that I have also coded. I have some dummy parts still, but just because I didn’t have the time, like the chronometer and the yaw dumper gauge. The other area where software is replacing hardware is the overhead panel and the pedestal area (with radio controls), I don’t have the space to do it but once I have more space I will definitely jump into them.

What do you have left that you’d like to add?
I want to add another computer to manage the CDU (as is quite intensive) and the lower display unit, just beside it. It will require a custom LCD screen (as the upper display unit that I already have) and some wiring. That will allow me to display secondary information, like tire pressure, doors, etc. Also I want to add the first officer side, not that I needed but it will look nicer. Smiley

Do you think you could fly a real 737 now after having this?  
I already fly the real 737 simulators, therefore my answer will be “Probably yes”. Smiley

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