Taking flight at home

SINGAPORE - Walk into the room and you would think you have entered the cockpit of an aeroplane.

A curved, 2.5m screen shows a runway. There are blinking lights and a "captain's" control yoke. The LED screens show the outside "temperature", "altitude" and "direction" and there are knobs and buttons controlling everything from the "brakes" to the "fire extinguisher".

Welcome aboard Mr Fabian Lim's bedroom.

The 42-year-old Internet entrepreneur has turned one of three bedrooms in his 1,378 sq ft condominium unit in Somerset into a replica of a Boeing 737 cockpit.

The total cost? More than $125,000.

And all because of his love for aviation.

He says: "All my life, I've loved aeroplanes. As a teen, I read aviation magazines and built model planes.

"Too bad my eyesight wasn't good enough then," he says when asked why he did not become a pilot. So he chose to stay a hobbyist, going on imaginary flights through the video game Microsoft Flight Simulator.

But that was not enough. He wanted the right equipment to make the experience more realistic.

At age 33, he bought his first flight simulator via an overseas website for $12,500.

He gave this to a friend last year to make way for his current full-sized version.

This new 400kg flight simulator is 1.8m tall, 2m wide and its base runs for 2m, ending just where the "plane door" would be.

"Captain" and "co-captain" sit on adjustable replica seats that even come with life vests.

Mr Lim ordered the parts online from companies in Spain and Britain last year.

He says: "I spent days deliberating over which components to get. I wanted my set-up to look as realistic as possible."

To power his flight simulator, he built two computers from parts purchased at Sim Lim Square .

Last September, his simulator parts were eventually couriered to his condominium in four wooden crates, which were each up to 2m long.

He says: "Before ordering, I measured the size of my doors and even the lift in my condo to make sure everything could fit. Even then, we had to do a lot of angling to get everything through."

The next two weeks were spent assembling the simulator and getting the parts to "communicate" with one another. He bought a pilot's uniform from a United States company to look the part.

The whole project - from planning to final installation - took two years.

"It was hard work," he says. "But I was determined to see it through."

The flight simulator also lets him practise his flying skills. Over the years, he has signed up for various flying lessons and courses. Eight years ago, he received his pilot licence at a flight school in Washington in the US.

Two months ago, he bought a five-seater jet - an Eclipse 500 - for US$2.5 million (S$3.2 million), which he is currently flying in the US.

He flies it periodically and plans to bring it to Singapore in June.

"My flight simulator is like my friend. It allowed me to practise so many manoeuvres, it was much easier for me to get certified as a pilot," he says.

"While flying, I can actually see myself going over mountains, padi fields, even through thunderstorms. My favourite route is from Hong Kong International Airport to the territory's former Kai Tak Airport. When landing, I can actually feel the resistance on my yoke."

Mr Lim is not the only one here with a flight simulator at home.

Sismo Soluciones, the Spanish company he bought the components from, has had two other orders from Singapore - in 2011 and 2012.

Shops here selling basic flight simulator parts have also seen steady demand for them.

Says Mr Koh Kew Siong, 44, manager of The Software Boutique in Funan DigitaLife Mall: "Some customers don't only want to play the game. They also want the full experience of being on a flight, so they buy the accessories."

His shop sells control yokes, rudder pedals, throttle quadrants and flight simulator software.

Their prices range from $50 for a joystick to $239 for a control yoke.

Says Mr Lim, who is married with no children: "Whenever friends come to visit, they are always amazed at my flight simulator. We'd spend hours on it going for joyrides. It's my pride and joy."

Says his wife, Ms Evangeline Lee, 40, who runs one of Mr Lim's businesses dealing with seminars on Internet marketing and stock trading: "I'm fine with him having such a hobby.

"But if he can afford to buy a flight simulator and a private jet, surely he can buy us a bigger home, right?" she adds with a smile.

Pay to play pilot

If you do not own a flight simulator, commercial operators allow you to indulge in a little flying fantasy.

At least three centres here - at the Singapore Flyer, near Changi Airport and at the Orchard Central shopping mall - have flight simulators.

All three cater to beginners, aspiring pilots and professionals.

At the Orchard Central centre, run by SG Flight Simulations, beginners sit in a replica of an Airbus A320 cockpit and learn the basic ways that an aircraft can move in flight, such as banking, yawing and pitching.

With the help of an aviation instructor, they can choose from more than 20,000 airport scenarios - from trying to land at the challenging former Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong to crossing the snow-capped mountains of Innsbruck in Austria.

A 30-minute package costs $69.50, while a 90-minute one costs $195.

For more advanced users, the Simulation Centre Changi, also run by SG Flight Simulations, which opened last year, offers flying courses in a replica of a full-motion Airbus A320 cockpit.

A two-day introduction and familiarisation course, for example, costs $1,175 a person.

Although these courses do not grant you a licence to fly an actual aircraft, they can help student pilots get more familiar with the plane.

Joy flights, where customers get to "pilot" a plane with the help of an aviation instructor, are also available.

Mr Frans Mosmans, 47, executive director of SG Flight Simulations, says that about 150 people sign up for the flight simulator experience every month at the Orchard Central outlet. Figures for the Changi outlet are not available as yet.

The third commercial operator here is at the Singapore Flyer. Called Flight Experience, it opened here in 2008.

According to its website, users can go on a "flight" in a Boeing 737 flight simulator. A 30-minute scenic flight costs $175, while a 90-minute flight can cost $395 or $430.

You can also go for basic flying courses, although these do not certify you to fly an actual aircraft.

In addition, the operator runs a variety of educational programmes for groups and schools.

bang@sph.com.sg


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