Center Pedestal

Panels & Lighting

Great Simpits Have Great Panels

You can buy'em

If you're planning on building your own CDU, or really ANY bit of simulated aircraft equipment, you'll want an impressive front panel.   You can buy replica panels of many commercial and some military aircraft from  a number of companies these days.

Or you can build'em

Consider as well that you can build your own panels. After all, the joy in this hobby is not just in the flying. It’s also in the sense of satisfaction that comes from building and adding to your simulator, along with the well-earned bragging rights that accrue to the accomplished flight deck craftsman!

Some are simple, some are not

Real aircraft panels come in a broad range of features and complexity, from a “Spirit of St. Louis” simplicity to the complexity of a night vision enhanced military fighter. The older, basic panels simply held the instruments in front of the pilot. A  flashlight provided lighting if one was brave (or foolish) enough to fly at night. Panel mounted post lights and gimbal-mounted cabin lights made substantial improvements. The state of the art, used in both military and commercial, includes internally illuminated instruments and light plates.

Light plates are plastic sheets with embedded lights. The plastic is clear internally, but covered with an opaque color coat. Panel markings are engraved through the color coat into the clear material. The lights make the markings glow in the dark. The lights may be incandescent lamps, electroluminescent panels or light emitting diodes.

Light plates also illuminate knobs like those used to set radio frequencies. The knobs are clear plastic with an opaque coating except for a clear indicator line. The light plate will cause this line to glow in the dark, showing the knob’s position. These are known as “transilluminated knobs”.

Illumination may be white light or of a particular color, depending on the application. White light works well in that it preserves the ability to pick out colors in instrument faceplate arcs and on maps. In situations that require the flight crew to maintain minimally impaired night vision, red illumination is used. But neither red or white light work well when night vision goggles are used. This is particularly true with incandescent light sources. Night vision goggles are overloaded by the long wavelength infrared emitted by these sources. So when night vision gear is in use, the shorter wavelength green or blue illumination comes into play.

Light plate cross section

The military classifies light plates by light color and assembly type.

Types:

Light plates do not support the instruments or avionics. They overlay the structure that does. This support structure may be a simple flat plate or a mechanically complex 3D assembly. Light plate thickness is spec’d at .230 ±.023”. The length and width is spec’d to be 0.047±.016” smaller than the mounting plate the light plate overlays.

You really, really should consider using great panels

There are two very good reasons for using illuminated, “high fidelity” panels. These panels look good. They contribute greatly to a feeling of reality. This helps build a sense of immersion and the “suspension of disbelief”. The simulation becomes more compelling, more enjoyable.

Panel illumination helps balance a need for visibility inside the cockpit with visibility of the external scenery. This becomes an issue as projection systems are used. Low cost projection systems have relatively low light output and are best used in reduced light environments. Keeping the room lights on to see the instrument and systems panels detracts from the external scenery display, washing it out. Internally illuminated panels and instruments put the cockpit lighting where it’s needed without making the external scenery look dim.

Representative DIY ideas

1) Your basic great looking panel

Masonite and thin plywood are two inexpensive materials to consider for your panels. Personally, I prefer masonite. It’s cheaper and a bit easier to work with. It’s smoother and you don’t have to worry about wood grain. That said, if you have a good source of quality ply, go for it. You can always use a polyester filler to take care of the wood grain.

Panel markings are where you can really start to add flare to your sim. The technique that’s looking very good these days is to use a drawing program to layout your panel full size. Print it using a color printer. You can print it on self adhesive paper and stick it to your masonite or plywood. You may want to give the paper a few thin coats of non-yellowing urethane varnish to protect it.

Panel markings

Self adhesive paper is available at office supply stores. It’s the same stuff that self adhesive labels are made of. It's just not scored into smaller label sizes.

2) Your not-so-basic, back lit, fantastic looking panel

Clear plastic is another good material for a panel. It’s a bit more difficult to work with and costs a bit more. On the other hand, it’s great for back lighting.

The panel layout here is also done with a drawing program, but it’s printed on regular paper, the thinner the better. A few coats of urethane varnish over the ink may boost the paper’s transparency a bit. Notice that you can use color in the areas that will be back lit.

You then print a modified version on a transparency. The modified version is made black where light is to be blocked and left clear otherwise. The transparency is placed behind the paper, and both are mounted on the clear plastic panel. An easy way to mount them is to cover them with another piece of clear plastic and hold everything together with the mounting hardware of the items on the panel.

Lighted panel markings

If your printer cannot put enough ink on the transparency to adequately block the light, you can go over the black areas with a black marker, or simply use two or three transparencies stacked together.

(A tip of the hat to Capt. Slarty for posting the basic idea over at FlightSimNetwork.)

The light source is placed behind the panel. This should provide even lighting across the back of the panel so LEDs are probably not the best choice. Electroluminescient panels are a possibility, but are rather expensive. Small incandescent lamps are much cheaper and will work well. White Christmas tree lights are a possibility, and will let you use a regular light dimmer. Alternatively consider cold cathode fluorescent lamps. They’re available from several surplus electronic sources and generate less heat than incandescent lamps for the same light output.

Regardless of the light source, provide ventilation. (EL panels are probably the exception.) Heat will build up, and you don’t want your plastic panel softening.

3) Your incredibly real, light plate illuminated panel

There is nothing that prevents you from making light plates yourself. You can make the panel itself from aluminum, then provide illumination using those light plates. Equipment with light plates adds a special texture to the panels of your sim that the other approaches simply can't. Using real light plates is the ultimate step in home cockpit construction.

What this approach really comes down to is engraving plastic. Usually this is done with a mechanical router or a laser based engraver.  You can learn a bit about the capabilities and techniques of both approaches by looking at articles published in the professional periodical "the Engraver's Journal".

Professional sign making shops have the equipment to do this, and will probably be happy to help you spend your money. You could buy the engraving equipment yourself, but it's a bit on the pricey side.  So it’s unlikely to be cheaper than paying the sign maker. You might, however, consider building it. There are a considerable number of hobbyists who have built small CNC milling and engraving machines. If you’re pursuing a large flight deck project, or want the ultimate, give this approach some thought.

Fonts

If you're into high fidelity realism, you've probably wondered what fonts are actually used on commercial and military flight hardware. I understand that Boeing uses Futura Medium in standard and condensed versions. If you don't have this on your system, Universe is very similar.

Engraved light plates were apparently made using a "Gorton" engraver and you may run across references to "Gorton font". (In fact you will, if you read a bit further here.)

The following bit is taken from NASA's Man-Systems Integration Standards. There is no guarantee that a specific manufacturer follows it for commercial products, but I suspect it's representative of what they do. (In fact, there is no guarantee it's followed precisely by ANY manufacturer. The wording is "...shall be preferred."  It appears that some variety of Gothic Condensed shows up on some military gear. I suspect this is no big thing. All are simple, block style fonts.)

Font Style Design Requirements (from Man-System Integration Standards)

Requirements for the selection of font style are provided below.

a. Dark-Color Characters - Futura font shall be preferred. Commercial font styles for dark-color opaque alphanumerics on light-color opaque or transilluminated backgrounds and for hardware labels are indicated below in descending order of preference.

1. Fonts for engraved lettering:

a) Futura Demibold.

b) Gorton Normal.

c) Gorton Condensed.

2. Fonts for engraved numerals:

a) Futura Demibold.

b) Gorton Modern.

c) Gorton Normal.

3. Fonts for printed lettering and numerals:

a) Futura Demibold.

b) Futura Medium.

c) Alternate Gothic No. 3.

b. Light-Color Characters - Futura Medium type shall be used for transilluminated or light-color opaque markings on dark opaque backgrounds.

c. Fit Problems - The use of condensed type (Future Condensed) or abbreviations shall be the preferred method for solving line length fit problems rather than a reduction in type size.

d. Stenciled Characters - Stencil-type characters shall not be used on display/control panels or other equipment.  

Colors

It is difficult (okay, it's impossible) to find the actual paint used by Boeing and Airbus. However, there are some very close substitutes. In fact, there are some substitutes so close they are recommended for use as touch up paint by at least one panel manufacturer (Gables Engineering).  This information is from Gables' Service Information Letter #70.

Testors (www.testors.com) products are sold through hobby shops in little bottles. It will be more cost effective to use the Testors paint as a color reference and find matching  paint from another source. For example, Rustoleum's "American Accents" line of spray paint has a satin finish "Nutmeg" that is a very close match to the actual Boeing color. (Tip of the hat to Ray S. "Lawndart" for that bit of info.)  

Materials

The materials used in panels and light plate construction are readily available. Most home building / home repair centers carry clear plastic. If you're really cheap (like me, although I prefer to use the term "frugal"), you can visit sign making shops. They use a great deal of plastic, and generate lots of small, left over pieces that they may sell for pennies. Acrylic plastics like Plexiglas, Perspex, and Chemcast are all good choices that are easily glued with solvent type cements. Lexan, a very tough polycarbonate plastic used for windows, is another good choice. Lexan, however, is slightly more finicky when it comes to gluing, as it is a bit more prone to "blush" or turn milky when glued with solvent cements in a humid environment. In either case, solvent type cements are nasty, smelly liquids best used with an abundance of ventilation, which is to say, outdoors.

If you want to investigate different colors or other plastic options, check out TAP Plastics, US Plastic and Cyro Plastics. Cyro's site has a large collection of useful articles covering the properties of plastics, techniques for working with plastics, and so on.

Aluminum in small quantities is even easier to find. It's as close as your grocery or cooking store. For some strange reason, it's always mislabeled with things like "Cookie Sheet"; however, with a critical eye it's no problem to find. Larger quantities are available from local metal suppliers like The Metals Warehouse, industrial suppliers like Enco and homebuilt aircraft suppliers Aircraft Spruce and Specialty and Wicks Aircraft. When ordering aluminum from these sources you will have to specify the alloy. 6061T4 is an excellent choice. It has good workability, is quite strong, plus is the least expensive alloy.