Friday, September 08, 2006

Birthing Pains

So how does a modern sim like the new Elite arrive at its destination? The answer is in an incredible number of boxes. I had reached an agreement with R.C. Avionics at Anoka (KANE) to rent space for my new sim. ETA for the sim was late May. The arrival date slipped into early June, but soon one corner of the hangar was temporarily housing a large number of boxes. Looking at all those boxes, it was hard to imagine this could actually become a sim.

Once everything had arrived, I faced the challenge of trying to turn this pile of boxes into a modern sim. One of my former students came to the rescue. We started the assembly process on a Friday evening, and after four hours of hard work, the outlines were beginning to take shape. But there were still a lot questions about how to proceed with the cabling.

The next week one of the avionics techs volunteered to cable everything. Once that was done, we tried the basic smoke test – power it up and see if anything turned to carbon and started smoking. It seemed to work, but where was the Garmin 430 supposed to go? The only place that made any sense was in a center console. Elite support has been incredibly helpful, and they quickly verified the Garmin placement was correct.

But then problems surfaced. The sim is driven by two computers. One computer, acting as master, drives the simulation while a second slaved computer drives the visuals. The simulation computer had problems. Without any warning it would reboot itself. One of these uncommanded reboots occurred during the installation of a wireless mouse and keyboard. This left it so confused that it refused to recognize any mouse or keyboard in the Windows environment. The R.C. Avionics IT expert came by one evening and tried everything he could think of. It was all to no avail. The simulation computer had basically turned into a large rock.

I shipped the simulation computer back to Elite, where it was confirmed to definitely be broken. A new simulation computer was shipped out. Once it arrived and was installed into the simulation, I figured the problems were over. That proved not to be the case. The new one insisted on also doing uncommanded reboots.

The Elite support people were baffled. What could be causing it? So they got in touch with the manufacturer of the computer, who came up with the answer. The problem was being caused by the two 512m memory cards. I had specified a gig of memory, and it had been installed as two 512m cards. I was highly dubious that this could be the source of the problem but was willing to try anything at this point. Elite sent out a 1 gig memory card. We installed it and held our collective breath as the sim was powered up. It worked beautifully! No uncommanded reboots, no glitches; everything was working.

A large group of instructors, technicians, and students gathered around and watched as one of the senior instructors put the sim through its paces. The visuals are projected onto a large screen, and as of yet there was no screen. So a large off white piece of canvas was quickly hung up to serve as a temporary screen. We all oohed and ahhed as the demonstration proceeded without any hitches. The Garmin 430 worked beautifully, as did the KFC 150 autopilot and flight director. Even on the wrinkled canvas screen, the visuals were very clear.

Victory was declared, and it was now time to complete the installation. Another former student volunteered to help put the cockpit enclosure together. The enclosure assembled more easily than expected, and soon it was looking like a real sim. Now it was time to find a real screen. I blanched at the price of a large projection screen, but one of my students made an incredibly serendipitous discovery. He found a piece of white polywall at Home Depot. He promptly bought a 4’ x 8’ sheet and brought it up to see if it would work as a screen. The polywall sheet has one very smooth side and one slightly textured side. We put it up, and it worked beautifully. And it only cost $20, which sure beat paying several hundred dollars for a real projection screen.

The next step was getting the projector mounted. To date it had been sitting rather precariously on a stack of boxes. Another student made a platform to mount it near the ceiling behind the sim. It was all coming together. There were still a lot of details to be handled, but my dream of owning a sim was becoming reality.

With the help and support of a lot of people, the sim went operational on July 12th, when I gave my first lesson in it. It’s still a learning experience for me, as I explore the different capabilities of the software. But it is successful, and Sim Flite Minnesota is doing well.

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