Grounded? Not for teen inventor Aidan Fay. When the FAA told the La Jolla teen he could not fly an airplane solo because of a pre-existing medical condition, he built one instead. Today, a full-scale Cessna 172 cockpit simulator sits in his bedroom, occupying as much space as his desk and bedside table combined.
Determined to learn to fly and one day qualify for his Class 3 pilot’s license despite the medical setback, the Francis W. Parker School junior and lifelong aviation enthusiast, created his simulation cockpit using everyday materials and components found online. He’s invested more than 200 hours in the project thus far, starting with a prototype and modifying his design over time.
By wiring physical switches, potentiometers, USB joystick parts, and an arduino directly into his computer, Aidan has created a realistic flying experience that enables him to travel the world — virtually that is.
His goal? To create as life-like a flight experience as he could, so he could practice flying even when not in the air.
Sitting at his cockpit wearing the Oculus Rift virtual reality device he saved for last year, Aidan, 17, “flies” all over San Diego thanks to the flight simulation software his parents bought him when he was in elementary school.
His mother, Melissa Fay explains, “We had no idea when we passed along a free copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator when he was 8 that this would one day be the result. He’s created a way to make his dreams of flight come true, even if they are delayed for the time being.”
Explains Aidan, whose mechanical, electrical and software skills are largely self-taught, “I love aviation, especially World War II aircraft, and I love to build things. This project was my way of combining two of the three things I love most. (I also love playing guitar and drums.)”
Carefully designing and assembling the parts, Aidan wired the controls and switches into circuit boards. He used MDF and acrylic from the local hardware store, along with high tech components such as Arduino microcontrollers and used, disassembled joysticks he found for sale online. He even found actual airplane rudder pedals on eBay, as well as a real yoke, the airplane’s steering mechanism. To make the steering feel more realistic, the teen engineer used gears and motors to create a “force feedback” mechanism that tightens and loosens the steering according to the simulated flying conditions.
Says Ryan Griggs, Francis Parker’s robotics teacher and lead for the school’s FIRST Robotics Team, “Aidan’s skills as a full stack engineer continue to grow and impress. We look forward to his contribution this year, made even stronger by the engineering required for his independent cockpit project.”
Aidan’s fascination with flight began early, first with the float planes that flew on his early childhood lakefront home. When the family moved to San Diego, he quickly discovered San Diego’s Flying Leatherneck Museum and then the U.S.S. Midway Museum which features Naval aircraft on display. Reports on the Wright Brothers followed. His ongoing interest ultimately led to an internship on the U.S.S. Midway this past summer customizing and installing 30 flight simulators for the museum’s Flying Midshipmen ground school program.
Through the EAA Young Eagles program based at Brown Municipal Air Field, he obtained real world flight experience, completed initial ground school training and earned his first flight lesson. He now trains with Certified Flight Instructor and pilot, Jamie Dockins of Fly San Diego, working toward the day when his medical limitations are no longer an issue.
Aidan plans on studying aeronautical engineering at a top college with the ultimate goal of modernizing aircraft. He recently demonstrated his simulation cockpit at the second annual San Diego Maker Faire in the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park. More photos of his cockpit project can be found on his personal site.