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Q&A with a Home Simulator Builder and former Airline Pilot

Qantas, East-West, and Simulators with Ian Cameron

In light of the recent success of my Q&A with a Cathay 777 pilot, I got in contact with an acquaintance of mine, ex-Qantas & East-West pilot, Computer Technician, and master of home simulator building, Ian Cameron, to talk about his time in the aviation industry and the incredible sims he has constructed. All photos were provided by Ian.


Qantas & East-West

JO: What inspired you to choose a career in the aviation industry? IC: I was fascinated by aircraft from a very early age, stimulated somewhat by my grandfather who was an aircraft engineer in the 1930’s working on Gypsy Moths. He made wooden models for me and I started building and flying model aircraft once I was in high school. Myself and friends would cycle to Essendon Airport just to watch aircraft. I remember watching TAA and Ansett DC3’s, DC4’s, Viscounts and F27’s. On one occasion we asked a hostess if we could look inside a plane, and she duly obliged, taking us inside a Friendship. I was taken with the what at the time was to me was a maze of instruments and controls and thought I would love to be a pilot.

JO: how did you begin working in the aviation industry? IC: Whilst at school I also joined the Australian Air League followed by the RAAF Air Cadets. I gained a scholarship from a gliding club before I left school and did about 50 winch launches, training in ES52 Kookaburra gliders .
On leaving school I wanted to join the Air Force Academy but was unsuccessful so applied, and was accepted for a Qantas traineeship in Electrical Engineering. I was assigned to the Electrical Instrument section, which gave me the opportunity to work under supervision on all the Qantas aircraft at the time, DC3’s, DC4’s, Lockheed Electras, B707-138’s and 338’s and HS125’s (the DC3’s and HS125’s were used for pilot training). This work further inspired me to want to get into aircrew, and during that time I spent as much time as I could in each of the cockpits…one job I liked was checking annunciator and back lights (which blew regularly in those pre LED days), as I could sit in the cockpit and get familiar with each aircraft.
During that traineeship I managed to get a job on weekends refuelling aircraft at a flying school at Bankstown , with remuneration in flying hours instead of payment. This enabled me, over a period of two years, to obtain my Commercial Pilot’s Licence at the same time as completing my engineering traineeship. I was then able to do a small number of charter flights for the flying school, before transferring to Qantas Aircrew when I was accepted in one of their one year Commercial Pilot Licence Intake Courses.

A Qantas Lockheed Electra at Sydney

JO: What types of aircraft have you flown? IC: My powered training included C150, C172, Piper Cherokee, Victa Air Tourer and Mooney M21 light aircraft. The airline aircraft I flew were DC3’s, HS125’s, B707-338C’s, and F27’s.

JO: What was a typical tour of duty when flying for Qantas back then? IC: In the late 60’s early 70’s a typical trip on the Kangaroo Route to the UK would comprise overnight or two day stays in key ports. The route would usually be Sydney, Singapore, Bahrain, London or Sydney, Hong Kong, Teheran, London, with stays in each of those places. There were different legs in between those ports e.g. Sydney, Brisbane, Djakarta Singapore then Singapore, Bangkok, Calcutta, Bahrain followed by Bahrain, Rome, London. Stays usually involved a lot of resting for the next day and the hours were unusual. It was common for example to go to bed at 2pm in order to try and get some sleep before a night departure at 11 pm. With all the time changes it as difficult to know where your body was at. The tour to UK and return took place over about 12 days,and we usually had a longer stay in London before returning. Of course we also did one day flights like Sydney to Auckland and return, but it was more common to do a 10 to 14 day trip.
The Kangaroo route was more demanding than going to the US. We often used HF communication when out of range of VHF, and dealing with often hard to hear radio and people with different accents was quite trying at times. Because HF was affected by time of day attempts to communicate were made on different HF bands until the best reception was found. Destination weather was often sought on HF. Navigation was originally done via radio aids (VOR’s and NDB’s) and by Astro navigation…we carried a Navigator. There was a tiny clear dome in the roof of the 707 flight deck where the head of a sextant was placed. Doppler units were then installed…they were reasonably accurate except when flying over flat water as they required a radar return to function properly. The Doppler units were then replaced by Inertial Navigation units which were completely independent of anything outside the aircraft.
Navigators were still carried for a while after and pilots took great glee in asking the “Nav” if he would like a wind (speed and direction), something they previously had to calculate.

JO: During your time with Qantas, what were some of the more unusual routes you flew? IC: Apart from the standard routes only one comes to mind for me was when we took a single race horse to LA, direct from Sydney. Other pilots flew to Saigon (Hồ Chí Minh City) during the Vietnam war, carrying troops back and forth as well as doing civilian evacuation trips at the end of the war.

JO: What did a typical day as an East-West pilot entail?
A typical day would involve a morning flight from Sydney, Orange, Bathurst, Sydney, followed by Sydney, Port Macquarie, Taree, Sydney in the afternoon. The day would start around 6am at the Flight Service office for flight planning , flight and met briefing, arranging fuel requirements etc. Around 7:30 we would go to the aircraft and do pre-flight walk-around, radio checks, setting up navaids, checking load sheets, take-off data and completing the checklist to pre start.
Breakfast was had during the flight and lunch generally in the terminal before doing the afternoon legs. They were pretty full days, particularly if the weather wasn’t good.
I remember one day we did several unsuccessful instrument approaches at each of Orange and Bathurst due fog, before having to return to Sydney…the passengers weren’t delighted!
There were several other routes of similar number of legs and we also did afternoon and night flights. East West also operated direct flights from Sydney to Hobart, Maroochydore, and Alice Springs. Sometimes we would need to refuel at Oodnadatta for the Alice Springs flight. The “terminal” there was a tin shed at the time, and the passengers just wandered around the field until we called them by shouting to re-board! We would overnight in Alice and return to Sydney the next day.
Generally we would do about 3 or 4 of these days a week and averaged about 70 hours flying a month.

An East-West Fokker F27 at Bathurst

JO: East-West weren’t solely a scheduled passenger airline, what other kinds of flights did you fly during your time with them? IC: I had a DC3 endorsement when I joined East West and was initially employed solely on them. They were used for the odd charter flight, but mostly for Aerial Survey for the NSW Dept. of Lands and a specially fitted one for CSIRO cloud research. The surveys were either low level with a magnetometer trailing behind the tail, or sometimes relatively high altitude (around 24000ft) for aerial photography. The latter required us to be on oxygen as of course the
DC3’s weren’t pressurised. These flights were often of 8 hours duration flying a strict grid pattern. The lands work required clear skies, but the CSIRO work was the opposite, and preferably stormy. There were about 4 or 5 scientists
on board and I remember once being asked to hold an instrument probe of some kind out the cockpit sliding window. The charter flights were often Rugby or Bowling teams going to country meetings etc. These were often noisy crowds and they gave the hostesses a hard time. They would cheer and clap loudly when we landed.

An East-West Fokker F27 at Bathurst

Simulators

JO: What prompted you to build a full flight simulator? IC: I had used PC based simulators since the very first ones on VIC 20’s and Commodore 64’s in the early stages of personal computers. Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 was the first simulator that started to allow more sophisticated aircraft systems, and one real world B767 pilot who had programming skills developed the initial LevelD B767-300ER. Although basic by today’s standards it was later further developed commercially to a stage reached in 2004 where all the main systems of the B767 were implemented in the simulator and functions (switches etc) could be operated by key inputs. At that stage there was very little in ways of interfacing hardware to the simulator apart from some joystick devices that had a few buttons on them. This resulted in some early home simulator builders making some ungainly solenoid driven devices that actually pushed keys on a keyboard, a switch or button would operate the solenoid which in turn would press a key. Having an engineering background I was always interested in these developments, and around 2004 the Commercial developer released the System Development Kit (SDK) which gave access to the program variables associated with the 767 functions. At this time I met up online with a fellow simulator enthusiast in Holland who, being a computer programmer had developed a program to interface some early interface hardware to the functions and he had made a working FMC (Flight Management Computer) keypad for the 767. Using a mouse to operate switches was never very satisfactory to me, so now, being able to interface switches, buttons, rotary encoders, 7 segment displays and LED outputs made me want to start getting some functions interfaced. And so started the building of my fixed base 767 simulator. I started with making a simple switch to operate the park brake and just added things here and there…the things that made flying on the PC easier. Initially this was just a board with switches, buttons, LED’s etc., followed by a home made FMC keyboard with a small 5 inch black and white TV as the CDU screen. Once I had quite a few components built it was time to build a cockpit shell, and so it went on for the next 17 years, constantly improving things with better software, PC and interface technology etc. becoming available.

JO: What made you decide to build a 767 sim, over another aircraft type? IC: Having the ability to interface hardware to the software is a necessity for any cockpit building and the LevelD 767 provided that. In the past, having flown aircraft with only analog instrumentation, and I particularly liked the mix of analog and glass panels. This gave me the opportunity to learn about glass panels, the real 767 being the first civilian aircraft to have them. It was also such a versatile aircraft, capable of short hops as well as Atlantic crossings etc.

JO: How many sims have you built now? IC: I have now built 3 simulators. A generic GA (General Aviation) simulator and an F16 fighter along with the 767.

JO: How long have they been operational? IC: The 767 has been operational right from the beginning in various states of completion as I wanted to keep flying the whole time I was building. The GA sim for around 8 years in various states…I also use it a lot for testing software for the 767. The F-16 is operational also from the beginning but not complete. I started it around 8 years ago too in association with a friend who provided me with the wooden shell components.

JO: How long did each one take to construct and test? IC: For the 767 it was around 12 years before it was “completed” and since then work has gone on to update the avionics etc. The GA sim just grew over time from a desktop to having a shell. I could easily build it from scratch in less than a year, given the time to devote to it.
The same for the F16. Its hobby time really rather than working on them full time…and one of my favourite sayings is ”tis a sad day when all the work is done”.

About the 767 simulator The simulator used Microsoft FS2004 as its main scenery generator and the LevelD 767 specific aircraft software. The hardware interface uses electronic cards produced by a Spanish company Opencockpits which specialises in home cockpit supplies, and interface software with its own programming language specifically written for that hardware. My friend in Holland wrote the software that interfaced between that language and the aircraft software.
About two years ago I decided to upgrade to a later 64 bit simulator X Plane 11, and to change to new generation NG Avionics. I was able to do this by using my existing hardware and with only some minor wiring changes in the simulator but had to write my own program of some 8000 lines in a basic language called LUA. This took me well over a year and quite a few months of debugging and fine tuning. New main instrument panels had to be made for the change to all glass screens and some control panels for them. Most of the panels in the sim are home made using MDF. The throttle quadrant is also completely homemade. The main shell is all timber framed and covered with MDF. Seats were out of a wrecked Datsun with special bases made. The mode control panel (MCP) is out of a real 767 but with my own wiring, digit displays and the electronics cards soldered up from kits. I moulded all the knobs using real knob samples to make the initial moulds. Annunciators and some special Korry switches were made by Flight Deck Solutions in Canada who also make full fixed base simulators for commercial us There are 5 networked computers running the sim. One handles just the aircraft and interface software, three handle the scenery driving three 65 inch TV’s, and one handles weather, ATC and auxiliary programs. The real weather is downloaded and sent to the aircraft computer in a form that the simulator can then replicate, and then sent to the scenery pc’s. Air Traffic Controlling is done through two organisations IVAO and VATSIM. Each has about several hundred thousand members who fly or act as controllers online, the latter having replica radar screens to those used by real life controllers, and using real procedures.
The simulator also has some software that picks up real airline traffic using a program a bit like Flightaware many people use, and places that traffic in the simulator scenery using a database of aircraft types and liveries. The navigation database is the same as that used in real life…These are known as AIRACs and are updated every month covering all airports and their procedures for SID’s (Standard Instrument Departures) and STARs (Standard Arrivals) and there precision approaches (ILS, VOR, GNS etc). These are loaded in the simulator via the Flight Management Computer (FMC) along with airways routes etc. and displayed on the glass panels as in the real aircraft.


I’d like to say a massive thanks to Ian for agreeing to do this and sharing the details of his fascinating time in the airline industry and his incredible sims for my website. I hope this has been as interesting for you to read as it was for me, and if you have any questions for Ian, chuck me a DM on Instagram or fill out the form on the Contact page, and I’ll make sure to forward them on to him

2 replies on “Q&A with a Home Simulator Builder and former Airline Pilot”

What a story!!!! As a 70 year old, who has held an Australian Private Pilots Licence since 1977 and having spent the past 35 years heavily involved in Flight Sim I can relate to much to Ian’s incredible career.

I very much wanted to fly B727s for the former Ansett Airlines but for a variety of reasons never realized that dream.

Great article and very much enjoyed the attached photos. Thanks lots.

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