La Jolla teen builds own realistic flight simulator

During the past several months, when he hasn’t been in school or working with friends who are also on his school’s competitive robotics team, 17-year old Aidan Fay of La Jolla has spent much of his time figuring out how to connect a virtual reality to a physical one.

Fay hopes to one day be a licensed pilot. He’s had a fascination with flying since he was a young boy. Earlier this year, he decided to further his interest by designing a mock cockpit that could be used in conjunction with a computer flight simulator program he had been using, Prepar3D developed by Lockheed Martin. But that’s just a sliver of a grander story of this Francis Parker School junior, who has faced head-on with growing innovation trials that just a year ago he never thought he’d face.

When he began making his first cockpit simulator, Aidan started small, building what he needed for a mechanized and computer-connected cockpit in the likeness of a World War II-era plane’s cockpit. Some of his first creations were aimed at making a more realistic steering environment. He took apart joysticks to create something resembling what would be in a World War II-era plane. From there, he began integrating switches, using materials he could easily come across to build each of the cockpit components, whether it was PVC pipe for the throttle handles or bungee cord providing needed tension in the rudder pedals.

“Aidan has always been a builder, and he’s always loved planes,” Fay’s mother, Melissa Fay, said.

The process began about a year ago, when Aidan started building what his mother recognized only as “little boxes on his desk.”

“He explained to me these were cockpit switches,” Melissa said, adding that Aidan didn’t like that he was stuck using a mouse and a joystick with his computer games. “It didn’t feel real to him. He wanted to have more things he could actually touch.”

After already building that first cockpit, Aidan’s interest in flying elevated to a desire to start actual flying lessons. He got himself involved with the Young Eagles, a program of the Experimental Aircraft Association to provide young people interested in flying chances to fly general aviation aircraft. After meeting the head of information technology at the USS Midway, Aidan began summertime work configuring and installing flight simulators.

During that summer came Aidan’s decision: he had to fly.

But following his first lesson in a Cessna 172, he realized his cockpit wouldn’t be helpful for practicing what he’d be learning in lessons with more modern aircraft. His solution was to start building a second cockpit, one more suitable for practicing flight in a Cessna.

That cockpit today, combined with the computer it’s connected to, takes up nearly half the space in his bedroom. It sits opposite the wall on which Aidan’s electric guitar, also homemade — from a kit, Aidan notes — hangs.

“These are for running different scripts,” Aidan said, sitting in the cockpit and indicating how the controls he’s built, such as the throttle and flaps, are connected to work with the computer program. Rather than operating the computer program with a mouse or joystick, Fay works the program from inside his cockpit. When he pulls in on the throttle he built, or otherwise makes adjustments in the cockpit, it communicates with the computer program to do what he wants. He utilized a number of components to make it work, and placed each of the controls in the same position as can be seen in the computer program or in a real Cessna cockpit. The resemblance is there, down to the cockpit color scheme.

Among the most critical components are the Arduino microcontrollers he’s used in both cockpits. They allow him to digitize the physical adjustments he makes in the cockpit. A pair of Oculus virtual reality 3-D goggles is also connected to the system, so that although the space in front of him is occupied by his cockpit dashboard, he can still see what the computer software intends for him to see — a 360-degree view of his virtual flying landscape — without having to turn his head to look at the computer monitor.

Aidan’s mother points out that he saved money to buy the developer’s edition of the goggles, since they hadn’t been released to the public yet.

In the lead-up to all that, Aidan faced a challenge he hadn’t expected, but that fueled his push to succeed at building his second cockpit. He had begun flying lessons, but they were not inexpensive. Aidan’s parents agreed to let him continue if he was able to secure scholarship money for the lessons, which they also agreed to match. But there, Aidan hit a roadblock.

The first scholarship he applied for required a medical certification, and through his exam, Aidan and his family found that because of a mild preexisting medical condition he had been diagnosed with as a young child, he could not be medically certified. The same limitation would apply when seeking a pilot’s license.

“It was the worst month ever,” Melissa said of the time through which Aidan’s family considered appealing the decision. A medical examiner recommended by others concluded that Aidan may have an easier time at getting a different decision when he’s older, but said that to try to appeal the decision now could prove costly, and not guarantee a reversal.

“It was like the loudest sound of screeching-halt brakes,” Melissa said. “This was all he ever thought about.”

Melissa and Aidan’s father, Todor Fay, decided at that time to keep Aidan’s dream alive, and to absorb the cost of his flying lessons. Melissa said that even if he wasn’t able to get his pilot’s license in the foreseeable future, he could learn something from the lessons and still use the knowledge through the future. The Fay family hopes that as Aidan gets older, the mild form of the medical condition he was diagnosed with will become less relevant.

Coincidentally, when Aidan presented his cockpit simulator at San Diego Maker Faire 2015 in October, he spoke with a Southwest Airlines pilot who faced a similar situation when he was younger. That pilot’s story provides even more hope for Aidan that someday, he’ll be able to get a pilot’s license.

“Back in the day, he wasn’t allowed to fly, either, because his vision wasn’t good enough,” Aidan said. “And then, regulations changed. And he’s an airline pilot (now).”

Getting the simulator to Maker Faire wasn’t easy. “It was horrible,” Aidan said. “I didn’t design it with the intention of taking it anywhere. I had to take it apart to get it out of this room.”

Not so horrible was that Southwest Airlines pilot’s assessment of Aidan’s work. “He liked it. The only thing he didn’t like was the rudder pedals, which is the thing I didn’t build,” Aidan said jokingly.

Aidan’s projects have brought the Fay family more than a few laughs and good times. His mother jokes that Aidan never previously used the skateboard she and her husband bought him when he was a child, until he needed something to use as a dolly for moving his simulator around — Aidan rebuffs that assertion, saying that he’s used it on occasion before. And Melissa enjoys jumping in the cockpit seat every once in a while for a shot at staying level throughout a simulated flight.

“I can fly it pretty well, it’s super relaxing,” she said. “But I can’t land it. I keep crashing.”

All throughout the last few months that Aidan’s been focused on building a first and then a second simulator cockpit, his parents have learned to take it all in stride, and ask fewer questions each time Aidan proposes a change or addition. “With each step, it was like a door opening, and it kept getting wider and wider,” she said. “At a certain point, you just kind of trust.”

Aidan’s father, Todor, said everything from the cockpits’ humble beginnings to the full-blown creation it is now hasn’t been as surprising as it has been pleasing to watch. “I didn’t think it was as ambitious a project as it turned out it was,” Todor said.

That ambition has Aidan considering multiple options for when he finishes high school. He’s gone from thinking solely about aeronautical engineering to now considering a combination of computer science and aeronautical engineering. And his experience on the Francis Parker robotics team has already made him an amateur programmer.

“I do want to work with airplanes, but I’m not as sure as I once was when I thought I could fly,” Aidan said, explaining that his goal had been to create airplanes he could fly himself, perhaps for a company like Cessna or Icon Aircraft. “Now that virtual reality is really developing, maybe I should go into (that world),” he added.

His top choice for a dream job, though, would still be to work for Icon, developing planes he could fly. “But another one would be, maybe, to work for a flight simulator company,” Aidan said. “That would also be really cool,” and not create the same inner conflict he’d potentially face with developing planes he’d never be licensed to fly.

He hasn’t figured out where he plans to attend college, and he’s not limiting his options, as the Fay family said there are several quality programs in aeronautical engineering and computer science on both coasts of the country.

Although the switching and mechanisms working with the computer flight simulator program to control everything from the rudder pedals and the yoke to the alternator, battery, fuel pump, throttle and flaps — among other controls — already may seem more than functional to an outsider, Fay keeps adding to it. To him, it’s a continual work in progress.

“It’ll never be totally done,” Aidan said. “There’s more radio stuff. There’s more stuff that can make it more realistic.” It’s also a possible precursor to an even bigger future project. When the day comes — if it comes, Aidan said — that he decides to move forward with that, he’d let people know, he said.