Saturday, August 25, 2012

Build Your Own F-16 Flight Simulator

Here at KTF we're all about finding hobbies and projects that inspire the hearts of men to come alive. If you still remember all the details about the first time you watched Top Gun this is probably right up your alley. Join us as we take a look at what it takes to build a flight simulator on par with what the pro's use.

I've wanted to be a pilot since middle school. The urge ebbs and flows and right now I'm figuring out how to once and for all make that happen by using my VA benefits. But that's a different story. The idea for this project came from a tangent of those thoughts though: why not build an immersive environment where you can enjoy the thrill of flight from 0 ft AGL (above ground level)? And why not do it in a cockpit of one of the best fighters the US has ever made? [Extensive debate may be made about which one is actually at the top- feel free to discuss in the comments below]. Turns out others have beat me to the punch on this one and there is actually a whole community online dedicated to building cockpit simulators.

The good news: The cost for developing this kind of simulator has drastically reduced in the last 20 years thanks to the progression of the computer.

The bad news: This won't be a weekend project you can do on a shoestring budget. This is only for the dedicated with some cash to spare. If you're an actual pilot the cost savings can really add up- hours spent in a simulator are hundreds of dollars cheaper than being in an actual aircraft.

More bad news: Even if you build this your wife still won't call you by your callsign and you'll probably never look like Mav and Goose in the beach volleyball scene. But don't let that crush your spirits!

On to the meat. Here's what you'll need to build, acquire, cobble, and refine:

The Cockpit
Estimated Cost: $300-$3,000

Cockpit by Martin Schmitt
I chose the F-16 because I've spent the most time in this one and I love how it fits like a glove (Okay, it was a parked stationary museum piece but it still counts...) There's no reason you couldn't build one for a Sopwith Camel or an X-Wing if that's what you're into. There's an adventurous German fellow who has built his own- complete with flashing lights, functional knobs, and the works. No doubt he's spent thousands on just the cockpit alone, but yours doesn't need to be that fancy. He's done a wonderful job of documenting how to do everything with great photos of all the panels and instrumentation to replicate any model of the F-16. He has plans for all the components you'll need to build- primarily out of MDF- a sturdy, inexpensive, and easy to work with material. Head over to for more. Be sure to click the US flag for the English site. [Warning: you could spend hours here].

Flight Controls
Cost: $475

Like anything else, you can go all out or save money in this part of the build. Saitek offers tons of different instrumentation packages that merge with several flight sims on the market now. You could spend thousands on just instrumentation. Based on the research I've done so far the set below looks like a solid starter for your cockpit though.

Throttle/Flight Stick

Estimated cost: $700-$1500

You'll need a gaming PC capable of keeping up with you at Mach 2. I've been a Mac guy since way before it was cool, but there just isn't the software or hardware out there for Macs.

Estimated Cost: $350
To be completely immersed in the simulation you'll need a projector. In the past, home built projects used their clunky computer monitors set on top of elaborate cockpits like the one on the left. Not exactly immersive. But thanks to the rapid decrease projector cost and high fidelity imaging, the field of view can give you an IMAX experience in your garage. This tiny projector can cast a 120" screen in 1080i for hundreds less than a TV screen half the size- just be sure to have a doggy bag on hand. Justify the cost by using it for more than just the simulator in your man cave.

Estimated Cost: $30
Here's the cheap part- buying the actual software to get you in the air. There are hundreds of flight simulators out there, and these are some of the best:

Surround Sound
Estimated Cost: $60
You won't need a fancy home theater setup, just a computer 5.1 system would be more than adequate to hear radio chatter and the earsplitting whine of the engine spooling up for take off. Step it up a notch by in stalling this $45 bass shaker to the underside of the ejection seat to feel the roar of the afterburner or that missile that just took off your left wing.

With an overall budget of about $2000 this could be yours. I bet though that the thrifty builder could do it for less than that. Check E-bay and Craigslist for some of the more expensive components.

We hope that this idea keeps you up at night plotting and scheming like it has for us.

Tim "Thunder" Storm

Other Resources:

You May Also Like:
The ABC's for Special Forces, Fighter Pilots & Manly Men
Wooden Propeller: The Plans
Project Inspiration


  1. Just to stir up some controversy: The best 3 fighter aircraft of all time:
    1. P-51 Mustang
    2. F-16 Falcon
    3. F-22 Raptor


    1. The F-22 is horid piece of bad engineering. It is incredible to see, but has never flown in combat and doesn't meet the warfighter needs of today.

    2. Poorly engineered or not- we're still vastly ahead of any adversarial aircraft that the Chineese and Russians are trying to catch up with. And it's still more capable than the JSF.

    3. P-51 Simply for being ahead of it's time for a fighter. As well as looking awesome.

  2. 1st: Somehow I've never thought of this but it has moved to the top of the projects list.

    2nd: The greatest fighter of all time is too broad of a criteria to select a worthy fighter properly. If we're talking air to air combat, I'd say the F-15 currently. If we're talking about the most advanced overall then definitely the F-22. And if we're talking about design, personall I still can't get over the F-14 Tomcat. I have Pete Mitchell to thank for that.

    3rd: If we're picking our own call signs then I'm Stephen "DarkKnight" McGee.

    1. 1- Maybe we could do a joint venture on this in one of our garages

      2-I'm just gonna say the F-15 has nothing on the F-22 when it comes to aerial combat. It does however remain a superior attack role aircraft as it's payload is greater.

      3-Roger that DarkKnight.

    2. I think the F-22 is certainly superior air-to-air, but war is real, and what makes a great plane is not how it looks in a air show or imagining what it might do in a situation it's designed for. The F-22 has proven to be too expensive and its role too narrow to be of any use. As of today (or few months ago last I actually checked...)the F-22 has not flown any combat missions. Most of the fleet is grounded and even in that state it's more expensive to maintain than a F-15. Its range and inability for carrier operations makes them a home defense plane only; and not for the foreseeable future is there a real threat that a foreign nation is going to attack our mainland with military planes. (You may at this point think "9/11" and if I grant that on a technicality then it's only fair to point out that no matter how great the plane, if the tactical readiness lacks then it really is moot what we have...something that 9/11 painfully proved...) The F-22's best use so far has been to funnel taxpayer money into the private sector and as a source of pride to show others what we can achieve. So when you say the F-15 has "nothing" on the F-22, then I just want to disagree with you and say that I think the F-22 has only one thing over the F-15; The wow factor and a showroom shine. The F-15, in all aspects that are relevant to military operations, have been the plane that ruled the sky in the past, and for the foreseeable future will continue to do so...