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Virtual Reality Flight Simulator

Henri Rantanen 1

In the summer of 2018, I built a VR-based flight simulator. The first version was just to just play with a computer with the yoke mounted to the desk, but I soon realized virtual reality would certainly add a whole layer of realism that would help train hand-eye coordination of flying a plane.

As a result I continued the project and added even more realism!


The Flight Sim Setup Explained

Video

DIY VR Flight Simulator – My Setup

Flight Sim Desk

I designed the wooden stand based off real measurements off the plane cockpit. First of all, I set up all the controls in CAD and then built the frame to mount all controls.

Home made saitek controls htc vive X-plane VR Flight Simulator
Home made VR Flight Simulator with the knobs missing

The cockpit was modeled after Cessna 172 Skyhawk, therefore all the buttons and pedals are physically in the right place where they are in VR

Thanks to Sketchup’s “3D warehouse“, I did not have to model the Logitech’s controllers, I could re-use something that was already made.

Special thanks for modeling the parts go to:

  • Benk Kimball – Saitek switch panel 3D model
  • MiRi – Saitek rudder pedals
  • Josh M. – Saitek throttle quadrant
home made vr flight simulator
Saitek Pro Flight simulator cockpit frame

Parts of the VR Flight Simulator

Flight Controllers and Input Devices

I opened the Yoke unit and gave it a half-a tube of engine grease, stock lubricants did not feel right. Fixed the problem, feels much more premium and moves smoothly.

Logitech G Saitek Pro Flight Switch Panel
Logitech G Saitek Pro Flight Switch Panel installed in the frame

X-Plane Virtual Reality

By default, the switches on the physical control panel do not match the 3D model in the game. Remapping them fixes the problem, but then the texts next to the physical buttons will be off. Therefore have to decide whether to use the TV or VR, either go by text or feel.

Cessna Skylane C172 on EFHK RWY 22

Other Flight Sim Hardware

  • HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset
  • Bose QC15 noise canceling headphones
  • DIY frame made from pine wood and a push-rod assembly
  • Fan to cool user down and add a physical direction indicator
  • Beefy computer to run high frame-rate VR in real time
  • Miscellaneous fasteners and a lot of tape.
home made vr flight simulator
Cessna 172 Skyhawk simulator frame with Saitek controls

As an optional part, I modeled the Pilot In Command (PIC) side of the Cessna’s instrument panel to be laser-cut from plywood.

This would enable a screen to be used behind it, putting the instruments and their adjustment knobs on the right physical places.

Cessna Skylane C172 Throttle and Mixture Knobs

I 3D-printed the engine control knobs that are glued to the ends of the pushrods. 

3D-Printed Cessna Skylane C172 Throttle and Mixture knobs
3D-Printed Cessna Skylane C172 Throttle and Mixture knobs

3D-Print your own knobs

You can find the knobs from Thingiverse under my nickname: Nerdaxic



VR Flight Simulator and HTC Vive

Flight Simulation Quality and Immersion

Even with the pixel-fog of HTC Vive the simulation is quite immersive.

Its the best when there is something that you panic upon – you get a realistic reaction from the user.

You get the feeling of control and you automatically try to reach the right switches when the VR-cockpit matches the actual mechanical layout  

If you need to read texts on the instrument panel, for example, the
switches, you have to lean in quite a lot because of the poor resolution.

Best VR Headset for flight sim

Here I feel like HTC Vive Pro would be the best option for X-Plane and worth the extra money if building this setup from scratch.

I would not see a reason to update existing Vive though.

VR Headset and Motion Sickness

Against all expectations, to this day I haven’t gotten motion sickness from this setup. I am very susceptible for it but I guess the combination of sitting and having a “static” reference frame in the VR (cockpit) makes my brain to be able to handle the visual input well.

DIY Virtual Reality VR Home Flight Simulator Setup
The full VR Flight Simulator setup

I have tried playing some other games, like Fallout 4 VR with the setup while standing and I can’t really play more than 10 minutes at the time without getting hot and motion sick.

One of my friends who tried the system reported feeling a bit dizzy after flying for 20 min.

Virtual Reality Flight Simulation

X-Plane 11 is detailed enough that you can actually use all the instruments on the plane and on the ground, like aerodrome lights etc.

You know they have achieved something, when you flying on top of a large city at night time and you go:
“that is actually quite beautiful”

Helsinki during the night

The only downside of running this on VR is the intense GPU load. My new computer (Mark IX) is running fast 8-core processor with 16 threads, 32 GB of RAM and GTX 1080 was barely managing 45 FPS with high detail.

GTX 1080 was barely managing 45 fps with high detail

The frame rate is very important for Virtual Reality and if you set the detail too high, it might drop below usable when you fly on top of crowded places like London which has a lot of buildings, cars etc to render.

Extra Simulator Immersion for Cheap

I noticed that adding a fan next to you, blowing the air so it seems like its coming from the virtual air vent in the game for some reason makes the simulation way more immersive. Like so much another level it feels stupid.

Fan ties down the VR-experience with other senses to the physical world, giving you additional feedback like where your head is actually turned.

Simulator’s Cessna model has leather seats – thus I selected my couch as a prime location to set up the simulator. Even the surface you sit on feels like what your eyes are telling you. Small things add up to create really comfortable and immersive experience.


Build Your Own Flight Simulator

You can build your own simulator desk based on my design, drawings and materials are in the bottom, downloads section.

Main parts of the flight sim desk

Download the plans for this simulator desk in the downloads section below.

Note 1) I goofed up and made the desk one-knob too short, meaning mixture knob is placed where throttle should be placed and the throttle is in the place of propeller pitch should be. Quite often I end up pulling the mixture knob when I was supposed to give it more gas. You can see this in the video on the top of the article

I solved this at some point with 3D-printed knobs so you can feel if you grabbed the wrong one.

Note 2) As a further improvement, I recommend to add a mouse and a beer-can-compatible cup-holder. Elevator trim wheel would also be nice.


Downloads

Also check out my photo album: Aviation and YouTube channel

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  1. Virtual Reality (VR) and actual reality often don’t mix: watch someone play a VR game without seeing what they see and you see a lot of pointless-looking flailing around.

    [Nerdaxic] may have found a balance that works in this flight sim setup that mixes VR and AR, though. He did this by combining the virtual cockpit controls of his flight simulator with real buttons, knobs, and dials. He uses an HTC Vive headset and a beefy PC to create the virtual side, which is mirrored with a real-world version.

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