There’s a feisty little company out in Kansas called Roger Dodger Aviation. These guys have come up with a way for fixed wing and rotary wing simulator pilots to add a little more realism to their experience with do-it-yourself flight simulator plans. The best part, they’re inexpensive to build and you don’t need to be a master craftsman to do it. I sat down with company owner, Matt Thomas, and asked him about his company, as well as the simulator community.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Matt Thomas. I teach people how to build home flight simulator cockpits using materials from their neighborhood home improvement store. I communicate this knowledge with Do-It-Yourself (DIY) videos and instruction manuals you can download from our website. I earned my Certified Flight Instructor ratings in the 1990′s and worked at various pilot jobs over the years. I loved flying, but I also enjoyed tinkering with projects in my workshop. Now I’m able to combine both of those interests. I live in a far-away land called Kansas where all the girls are named Dorothy and all the dogs are Toto.
Explain the basic premise of Roger Dodger Aviation.
If you love flight simulators, you can make your computer look more like an aircraft cockpit with a few simple DIY projects. I can show you how to build these projects with materials from your local home improvement store and common hand tools.
Who do you feel is your target audience?
Guys that have a few basic power tools and can find their way around a home improvement store. You don’t have to be a carpenter or have expensive tools to build the DIY Flight Sim projects.
What drew you to aviation?
There were several things in my childhood that spurred my interest in aviation. My uncle was a pilot and kept his airplane in a barn next to a grass landing strip surrounded by bean fields. He took me on my first flight in his Cessna 172 on a calm summer evening. As we climbed over the farmland, he turned the plane toward the low, rising Moon and it seemed as if we were headed toward it. He said, “Ok, we’re going to the moon. Are you ready?” I was ready.
My father built and flew radio-controlled airplanes, so I learned about aerodynamics at a young age. I built plastic airplane models like a lot of kids. I joined the Civil Air Patrol when I was 16 and started flight training with them a year later. I had an early version of Microsoft Flight Simulator on a Commodore 64 and I hated it because flying a real airplane was so much easier.
What simulators do you enjoy?
I had a tremendous amount of fun when I was flying World War II combat missions on a LAN with friends or online with a squadron. We used the IL-2 software series with various updates from the user community. Officially, I used this time to test different framework configurations on my home cockpit which later became some of the DIY videos on my website. On the other hand, I was doing it simply because it was a lot of fun. I wish I could do it every day, but eventually I had to move on to new projects.
Why would someone choose your product over competition such as Gold Medal or Sim Samurai?
Every one of my DIY projects includes a step-by-step video in addition to the detailed instruction manual. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a thousand pictures.” I show you where to measure, what to cut, where to drill the holes, and how to assemble the pieces.
What is the average cost of one of your products?
There are several products to choose from and they vary in complexity and price. Simple keyboard modifications are $15 to $20 USD for the video, manual, and button label sheets. The various cockpit frames are $16 to $43 USD for the video and manual. We offer several bundled products as well. All products are instant digital downloads.
What is the average cost of a project to build?
You can probably make a keyboard modification for as little as $15 to $25 USD. The other cockpit frames require PVC pipe, lumber, foam panels, paint, etc. Those can cost anywhere from $40 to $200 USD depending on the complexity of the project. Two big caveats: material costs can vary significantly in different countries. For example, foam insulation panels are cheap in the USA but very expensive in Spain. Also, I’m not including the price of flight controls, monitors, or computers with these estimates. Our customers use what they already have in most cases.
Care to announce any new projects that you might be hiding from the rest of us?
We are going to SPACE! DIY Flight Sims is happy to announce the first DIY Keyboard Modification project for the Evochron Mercenary space flight simulator! This project shows you how to create a comprehensive spaceship control panel from a common USB keyboard. You don’t have to memorize keyboard assignments any more.
Any thoughts about releasing plans for a full size enclosed cockpit?
I think about that sometimes, but it’s almost like a different market. My DIY projects tend to be rather generic so the builder can adapt it to his specific needs or resources. The full-size cockpit market tends to be type-specific. For example, I can’t offer just a full-size generic cockpit, it would need to be a Boeing 737-900 with every switch, display, and lever being a perfect copy of the real thing. But all my work on that project would be worthless for someone who wants to build an Airbus A340-600 cockpit. It’s a no-win situation.
How about a motion based simulator cockpit?
A motion flight simulator is truly the “holy grail” of home simulators. I’ve studied many smart people who designed ingenious, complex flight sims that moved via electric motors, hydraulics, or even pneumatics like the old Link trainers. If I was to create a project like that, I would try to make it reliable to operate and as simple as possible to build. I would love to create a DIY Motion Flight Simulator project. Will I create such a project? That is currently Double-Super-Secret-Classified information.
What has been your favorite project so far?
The DIY Triple Screen Flight Sim is my favorite because of the story behind the project. The National Airline History Museum asked me to build a flight simulator for them, but they had no budget so I posted a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter.com. With the help of a lot of wonderful people, we reached our funding goal. The plan was to debut the flight simulator at the KC Maker Faire, so I only had three weeks to build the project, and take video of every step. That was such an intense time, and I got a lot of help from my friends. We finished the sim on time and hundreds of people flew it at the Maker Faire, and afterwards we trucked it straight to the museum. Today it is available for museum guests to fly, and the DIY project is on the website so anybody can build the same thing.
You’ve done some, I think, really good charity work. I’ve seen you donate simulators and time to museums, you help raise money for Diabetes and, to me, it seems like you love to give back to your community. I think that shows what type of character you have. Anything else on the plate coming up?
I love that question! We’re partnering with a non-profit organization that provides science education events for kids. We’re going to use the DIY Roll-Away Flight Sim at three different science day camps this summer. The kids are going to learn about aviation and space while flying the simulator and having fun.
Gotta throw this out there: Since you’re a CFI, have you considered perhaps going one step further and making a real world RDA series in the flavor of something like King Schools has? I think it would be a hit.
John and Martha King have produced outstanding training videos for years, and so has Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Angle of Attack offers the Aviator90 video course that is free, online, and designed specifically for the flight simulator pilot. On YouTube you’ll find several videos from respected aviation training schools like the University of North Dakota. There are a lot of aviation videos out there, so I think I should avoid entering that market for now.
It is slightly old news, but Microsoft is out of the consumer simulator business. BIG blow up about that. What are your thoughts about this and how do you feel it will affect the simulator community?
I think it’s terrible. The launch of Microsoft Flight is a case study in how not to handle a software launch for many reasons that have already been discussed elsewhere, however, I will say that Microsoft Flight was effective at attracting new people to the hobby. Flying has a high learning curve, and Microsoft brought newbies in the door, but unfortunately did not take them any further. If a new person tried to integrate into the flight sim community they encountered a hostile population of people online that felt betrayed by Microsoft. The hobby of flight simulation still has a future and much promise, but Microsoft Flight left a lot of disappointment in its wake, both in the community and at Microsoft.
What do you think will be the next big simulator?
I’m leery of predicting the future. Think about what was happening just 12 months ago. The titans of the flight sim world were facing off in the arena once again. In one corner we had X-Plane 10 and in the other corner, Microsoft Flight. Could anyone have predicted that in less than one year X-Plane would be embroiled in a patent lawsuit and the Microsoft Flight development team would be jobless? It’s astounding.
Having said that, Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) abides. Most flight sim enthusiasts use FSX, and those people have invested money in various 3rd party add-ons that will only work with FSX. Most virtual airlines fly with FSX. FSX is not stagnant, it continues to improve as 3rd party developers create enhancements for the terrain, sky, water, mesh, sound, physics, etc. FSX will still be the standard for the hobby for years to come… but not forever.
Do you think we’ll see a return to single aircraft based simulators or even theme based, such as IL2 or Falcon 4?
I really have no idea. I can only say that I believe there will always be flight simulators as long as people are fascinated with flight… and people have always been fascinated with flight, even as far back as the ancient Egyptians.
What is the first thing you want people to know about flight simulators?
That’s such a great question because “flight simulator” means different things to different people. Flight simulator can mean a piece of software, a million-dollar trainer for airline pilots, or something you build in your garage from PVC pipe. I just want people to know what we’re talking about. Maybe we need a different word. Some people use the word “simpit” but nobody outside of the hobby knows what that is.
Since I started writing for TPG, the experience has made me wonder what I would do if given the opportunity to create a simulator. So, let’s say you are given the chance to build simulator software. You have full creative control, but it has to be marketed and be profitable. What do you build?
Well I don’t know, I’m not really a software guy. We can assume the graphics and physics will only get more like reality as time goes by, but I wonder what it would be like to have a flight simulator that had consequences that were really emotionally important. The MMORPG industry is good at this. What if your friends depended on you to fly proficiently and make good decisions? What if you were congratulated after achieving something great? Maybe that’s why I thought flying with the online WWII squadron was such an intense experience.
I am surprised that nobody has tried to build a bridge to social media. What if you had a feature where you could post the progress of your current flight on Facebook or Twitter? Imagine being able to take a screenshot and post it on Facebook the same way people post pictures of their food. Just an idea.
I want to thank Matt for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the market for an inexpensive, easy to make home simulator cockpit, you can find Roger Dodger Aviation via the official site, YouTube and Facebook.