Edmonton

Bob built a cockpit simulator in his Alberta backyard. Next stop … Hawaii

Bob Roberts, a former recreational pilot and retired engineering manager from Camrose, Alta., has found a way to travel the world without leaving his backyard — a Boeing 737 MAX flight simulator he set up himself.

'You can feel everything. Every single switch, every button works the same as a real jet,' says Bob Roberts

Former recreational pilot Bob Roberts set up a flight simulator of a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in his backyard in Camrose, Alta. (Bob Roberts/Meghan and Nicole Films)

A former pilot has found a way to travel the world without leaving his backyard. 

Bob Roberts spends close to three hours a day flying in a simulator he finished setting up last month on his property in Camrose, Alta.

The simulator, which he named CamAir, is a full-scale representation of the cockpit of a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, complete with windows and an exterior screen projecting an outside view. 

"I call it the sports car of the airline industry," Roberts told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active

"It's very nimble, very fast now with the new Max," he said. "They're extremely efficient. They're very powerful. It's just a nice airplane to fly. And all the components are very modern."

A screen wraps around the nose of the cockpit and projects a view of the outside world. (Bob Roberts/Meghan and Nicole Films)

When the doors are closed, you can't tell you're not actually flying, Roberts said. The pilot can fly in clear skies or in active weather. 

The cockpit is true to scale and fits inside a building that Roberts designed to look and feel like a departure lounge. The entire project took 18 months to build. 

"I built an actual shop in the backyard. So it has clocks on the wall and a coffee table with rivets in it." 

LISTEN | Bob Roberts is flying high with his flight simulator:

We will speak to a retired pilot who has built a Boeing 737 Max stimulator on his property in Camrose, Alberta.

Once an avid recreational flyer, Roberts made the switch to the flight simulator about 10 years ago. Flying any distance is expensive, and he grew weary of making short flights, so he decided he'd stop. 

Now with the simulator, he says he can fly to wherever he wants, whenever he wants. 

Roberts bought the simulator from Flight Deck Solutions. The immersive experience is complete with workable switches and buttons, Bose speakers and motion. When the doors are closed, Roberts says you can't tell you're not actually flying. (Bob Roberts/Meghan and Nicole Films)

Virtual pilots, virtual air traffic controllers

Roberts connects with other simulator enthusiasts around the world through groups like Virtual Air Traffic Simulator Network and PilotEdge, which act as virtual air traffic controllers. 

"We talk on the radio and we get clearance," he said. "They have vectors in different airports and stuff like that. 

"There's thousands of courses across the world that are doing some desktop simulators and some cool sims like I have. It's very, very immersive." 

I used to go to the local airport and watch guys fly, and I was just fascinated at the age of five years old.​​​​- Bob Roberts

With motion sensors, nine Bose speakers that emulate jet engine sounds, a 270-degree wrap-around screen, a joystick, and real people acting as air traffic controllers, it's hard to tell the difference between the flight simulator and a real airplane, he said. 

"You can feel everything. Every single switch, every button works the same as a real jet," said Roberts. 

"There is no faking anything on the plane other than you're on the ground, and it's the only fake thing about the whole experience."

The cockpit, which is true to scale, is seen from the 'departure lounge,' which Roberts built himself. (Bob Roberts/Meghan and Nicole Films)

Roberts bought the simulator from Flight Deck Solutions, a company favoured by many airlines and flight schools for training services. 

Only a handful of private citizens have their own flight simulators, and Roberts' is even more unique. 

"The cockpit actually comes black normally, but I had mine wrapped in vinyl," he said. "It's quite an undertaking and it's expensive." 

Childhood fascination

Roberts, a retired engineering manager for Syncrude Canada, used his skills as an engineer technician to put the simulator together. 

He's been flying since he got his pilot's licence at the age of 18, but has loved flying for a lot longer than that. 

"I used to go to the local airport and watch guys fly, and I was just fascinated at the age of five years old," Roberts said. 

For many years, he flew a Zenair Zodiac plane that he built himself.

Now the simulator makes it easier for him to fly to places he's always wanted to go. 

"I've flown to Alaska, I've flown to Churchill, Man.," he said.

His next stop? Hawaii. 

The real-view image makes it feel like you're really up in the air, and the simulations allow pilots to fly in clear skies or in active weather. (Bob Roberts/Meghan and Nicole Films)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ishita Verma

Producer

Ishita Verma is an associate producer with CBC News based in Edmonton. She started her career with CBC after graduating from MacEwan University with a major in journalism. Follow Ishita on Twitter @ishita_verma12 or email ishita.verma@cbc.ca with a story idea or book recommendations.

With files from Liam Harrap

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