Orville, the youngest of the Wright brothers, once joked that an "airplane stays up because it doesn't have the time to fall". The same could be said of Ash. A former commercial pilot, he has spent over five years and more than $200,000 painstakingly crafting a realistic 737-800 simulator from real-life parts. Yet it wasn't until being diagnosed with a rare and potentially terminal immune disorder that his project really came together. Thousands of hours of problem-solving on his feet has not only helped his health, but also kept him too busy to fall from the sky.
I won't dwell on Ash's health; it doesn't define him. But it was the catalyst for him to fully revisit his passion for flying and realise a home-built 737 simulator. "One time I missed dinner because I had wind shear three times coming into Canberra and had to head back to Sydney." Ever the pilot, he refused to simply switch off. It's the serious mentality he was instilled with. Things have to be done right.
"My partner knows when I'm landing because the bass (digitised from a real aircraft) out of my Logitech surround speakers makes the house windows wobble. She very kindly puts the kettle on." Ash says "it's a bit too nerdy" to play pilot and stewardess (hey, I had to ask!), but they're "thinking of linking the intercom to get inflight cups of tea".
Ash has an effortless intelligence that makes listening a learning experience. He custom-built a 54sqm garden shed, insulated it with heat shielding and decked out the insides like a NASA lab.
Here's a video of Ash coming in over the heads of Sydney, flying directly towards the Harbour Bridge, with the Opera House and city on the left, before landing at Kingsford Smith Airport. The graphics/visuals will improve when he upgrades his computers and moves over to three HD short-throw projectors.
Three BenQ MP-730 projectors throw a rendered 180-degree universe into the windows of a 3m long steel cockpit shell. Six networked Windows XP Pro PCs control genuine Boeing parts sourced from the aftermarket around the world: control yokes, warning systems, microphone, buttons, switches, cabin lighting, cockpit seats, stick shakers and more.
"Once people sit inside and feel the cold hard steel, they get it. It's a real aeroplane," he enthuses. "People really get sucked into how immersive it is. I've had death grips and very intelligent people come in and feel like they were falling. They couldn't believe it wasn't moving. Once you close the door, all you can do is look forward and feel the rumbling. The next step would be hydraulics."
Surprisingly, at least to me, the visual environment is served up by FSX -- Microsoft's aging Flight Simulator X from 2006 -- not MS Flight, the stunning X-Plane 10 or even the Digital Combat Simulator series. "The great thing about FSX is the fantastic graphic packs, including stunning scenery meshes from an Australian company (Orbx FTX)," Ash explains. "You can also get real-time, real-world weather effects, flight schedules and air traffic data."
"I've done The Damn Busters' low flights to bomb the Germans and tried the odd F-18. The great thing about FSX is that so many people have created fantastic things: Springfield from The Simpsons, even an add-on that lets you head into space.
"I'm sure they've probably got an X-Wing run on the Death Star somewhere. Those guys have done some crazy things."
Ash's favourite environments are his photo-realistic recreations of Brisbane airport ("down to the proper palm tree in the terminal") and Queenstown airport in New Zealand. "I've landed real planes there and I can't believe how accurate it is."
Ash was initially inspired by a couple of guys in the United States who cut the front end off a plane. Matthew Sheil's incredible 747 simulator down in Melbourne was also a big influence. He started off with cardboard and switches, but his rig was still looking pretty ordinary. A friend in electronic engineering also helped construct a little logic board to flash lights in a not-so-realistic sequence.
Ash soon discovered Flight Deck Solutions, a Canadian one-stop shop for most of the components one could need. He started chipping away, and bit by bit he sourced, bargained for and traded real 737-800 cockpit paraphernalia around the world -- The Pilot's Historical Society in the US, avionics from China and Japan, and countless salvaged parts from Mexico, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the UK.
Ash is currently integrating the real aviation parts with software controls using a clever relay card that will drive immersive elements such as window wipers and sirens.
"Without the help of FDS and Nat Crea (another Melbourne aviation enthusiast and consultant for FDS), it would have all been that much harder," Ash says. "Nat's brilliant at aircraft visuals and all things simulating. He has so much knowledge and is always happy to share that with you."
Everyone is so giving with their know-how. The hardest part is finding out how it all fits together -- and then getting the computer system to play nice without crashing every five minutes.
It's that problem-solving that has Ash hooked. "Switch something on one day, no problems. Then spend the next four weeks wondering why it's not working... but also learning how to be more efficient. That and hours of refurbishing and waiting for bits. Lots of waiting.
"It's amazing how much you can get done when you might not be here tomorrow. I was originally playing it week by week, but now my doctors are thinking more long term."
"I have a couple of mates who love taking photos and getting involved. They come over to help and hang out. Last weekend we installed some analogue instruments. I love weather effects -- hail, fog, snow. I usually have things up on pretty dire settings -- so I can do instrument approaches and certainly get a sweat on."
"However," urges Ash, "a crash is never acceptable."
This story was originally published in July 2012.