The main instrument panel (MIP) is arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment in a flight deck; it is around the MIP that everything revolves. Every enthusiast wants the MIP to be athletically pleasing and as real to the OEM product as possible. Depending upon the end use, the MIP may act as a skeleton from which to add OEM parts, or standalone accommodating reproduction parts.
There are several companies that produce MIPS and each has its nuances. After extensive research, Flight Deck Solutions (FDS) in Canada was commissioned to supply the MIP.
Note that in this review, reference is made to the term OEM which is an acronym for Original Equipment Manufacturer (aka real Boeing 737 aviation part).
The image above is the Duel Seat Training Device offered by Flight Deck Solutions (image courtesy and copyright FDS).
Information - Not Pretty Pictures
This post is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the FDS MIP or the parts attached to the MIP. Rather, the intent of the review is to provide adequate information for enthusiasts to make an intelligent decision to which MIP to purchase.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that all reproduction simulator parts are exactly that - a reproduction or facsimile of a real part. Often reproduction parts are not to scale and have subtle differences to the real item. Whether this is important is at your discretion and very much depends upon whether you intend to use OEM parts or solely reproduction parts.
To view images of the MIP, navigate to the image gallery (images FDS MIP).
Interface cards have not been discussed for two reasons. First, there are several differing types of cards that can be used, and second, Integrated Cockpit Systems (ICS) units come ready-made with all wiring and interface cards installed.
ICS and Options
FDS provide two options when purchasing their MIP - naked (do it yourself) or as an integrated cockpit system (ICS).
The ICS route was chosen because of time constraints; by eliminated the task of wiring and soldering a multitude of interrelated electronic parts together, it would allow more time to concentrate on converting real aircraft parts to use in the simulator. At the forefront of the B737 project, the MIP was to be a skeleton from which to hang OEM parts.
The MIP consists of two sections; the main instrument display including the lower display and glare shields (eyebrows), and the base structure incorporating the CDU mounting area, lower display and stand.
The panel is made from CNC machined acrylic and the glare shield from injection molded plastic. The panel and glare shields have been attached by screws to a light-weight powder coated aluminum frame which incorporates a 4 inch wide shelf on the rear side.
The cut-out lettering, which allows the lettering to be back-lit, is very crisp with well defined edges.
LEFT: FDS landing gear lever is a good facsimile of the real lever; however, the lever does not recess between the two half moons. Nor is the red trigger spring-loaded as in the OEM mechanism. Despite these aesthetic shortfalls, the landing gear functions well. The leather skirt is a step in the right direction concerning authenticity (click to enlarge).
The panel has been professionally painted in Boeing grey. Although the panel is made from acrylic, the use of high quality flat paint removes the sheen that acrylic is renowned for. In comparison to other plastic-looking panels on the market, the colour and appearance is very true to form. It looks 'almost; like the OEM panel. and matches the real aircraft parts very well. Furthermore, FDS apply the paint in several thin layers which makes the coating very resistant to chipping and scratching.
Switches have been mounted in the correct locations and the wiring from these switches has been secured within a wiring lumen or by plastic cable ties. The switches and knobs replicate those of the real aircraft and have the correct feel, although the general purpose knobs (GPK) do not replicate the exact appearance of the OEM knob. Where a panel has not been included (not stock B737 configurations) a blanking panel has been fitted.
The soldering work and connections on all switches are excellent; it is more than obvious that the person who did the soldering work is a professional with many years experience.
The gear lever is sturdy and feels solid. To engage the landing gear, the lever must be pulled out of its recess and pushed up or down. The detail to the lever is excellent and installation includes the correct-looking fiber sleeve. The mechanism does not have the spring-loaded trigger; the trigger is a solid cast item attached to the lever.
Annunciator lights (six packs) and various warning lights are all functional; however, pale comparison to OEM parts and other high-end reproductions; they appear 'cheesy'. The glare shield is strong textured ABS plastic and wraps over the top of the MIP. A correctly sized chart pocket is screwed to the top of the shield. The two glares either side of the MIP on the Captain and First Officer side are painted MDF wood and although not have a negative appearance they do not replicate the appearance of the OEM glare which is made from textured foam plastic.
The shelf system, located behind the main instrument panel, is an excellent idea. The shelf, in addition to providing an area for the FDS monitor stands to be mounted, is a good platform to mount various cards, speakers and other items that may be required.
The lower display modules, which are mounted to the lower area of main panel, are installed using normal Phillips-head screws. In a real B737, panels and modules are usually secured using DZUS fasteners or skirted screws. It would have been a nice touch to have replicated the use of DZUS fasteners on the panels in the lower kick stand.
LEFT: The FDS bracket, a novel design to hold the display units firmly in place. The display unit bezel is made from plastic and does not hinge outwards as the real bezel does. Note the reflection in the center display for the ISFD (click to enlarge).
Display Unit Covers
The protective displays that the computer monitor screens (display units) are made from 1.5 mm thick perspex. I have found the perspex to be very reflective - especially so if the simulator is located in a well-illuminated room.
Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)
Integrated back Lighting (IBL) is the name FDS has coined to refer to their proprietary design in which FDS utilise aircraft bulbs rather than LEDs. IBL is supplied to illuminate the back lighting in all FDS panels and modules.
One of the main advantages of a bulb in contrast to that of a LED is the throw of the light and the colour temperature. The area of coverage from bulbs is relatively even, where the coverage by an LED is more pinpoint and uneven. The only way to achieve a similar light coverage to bulbs using LEDs is to use several LEDS mounted in close proximity to each other.
One area that the use of bulbs excels is the rear illumination of the stencil-cut lettering on the MIP. Bulbs will completely illuminate the stencil cut-outs where LED lighting will often only illuminate part of the stencil cut-out (unless there are several LEDs).
Bulbs and LEDs have different colour temperatures. A bulb transmits a warm colour (soft orange hue) whereby a LED transmits a cooler colour that appears more blue in comparison.
All Boeing airframes, with the exception of the newest airframes utilise 5 and 28 volt incandescent bulbs.
The only downside of IBL (if there is one) is that the bulbs generate quite a bit of heat. The life of a bulb is also less than a LED.
What the MIP Lacks
The non-use of DZUS fasteners in the lower panel (kick stand) and the failure to use skirted screws has been mentioned.
LEFT: Ground Proximity Panel showing use of Phillips head screws rather than the more usual DZUS fasteners (click to enlarge).
Stand-by instruments and clocks are not included. FSD supply a stenciled backing card which is mounted behind the perspex to mimic the look of the yaw dampener, brake pressure, clock and flaps gauge.
Considering the purchase price of a MIP, and considering the importance of a working flaps gauge, an operational analogue flaps gauge should be a stock item.
The avionics suite (Sim Avionics) can display virtual stand-by instruments id required.
The speed reference panel and knobs are not functional. The knobs used in the speed reference panel do not replicate the OEM knobs used in the B737; the real aircraft uses double rotary encoder knobs. As with the flaps gauge, these knobs should be functional and, at least shoe some resemblance to the real part.
Software - Interface IT
The software to interface the MIP (InterfaceIT) seems to be well designed and robust. It does require a learning curve to become proficent with the software, but once proficent the siftware is logical in layout and use. Installation of the IT software is straightforward.
Additionally, there is a direct link between InterfaceIT and Sim Avionics which makes internal configuration and programming very easy.
Flight Avionics Suite
Duel Seat Training Devices (DSTD) and MIPS configured by Flight Deck Solutions use Sim Avionics as their flight avionics suite. After you receive your MIP, FDS staff will e-mail to you a file which you import into InterfaceIT. This file holds the data assignments for the MIP buttons and switches.
Although FDS recommend Sim Avionics, there is no obligation to use this software; the MIP will operate with whatever software you choose. A seperate post will deal with a review of Sim Avionics.
Lower Base Structure
The base structure comprises the lower section of the MIP and includes the CDU bay structure and lower display screen. The structure is made from aluminum which has been professionally powder coated in Boeing grey.
LEFT: The rear shelf located behind the MIP and the propriety bracket used to hold the display units (computer screens) firmly in place. The bracket works exceptionally well and the shelf is very sturdy (click to enlarge).
As with the upper section of the MIP, the attention to detail is obvious. There are no sharp edges on the CDU bay structure, nor are there gaps where panels attach together. Screws match their holes correctly.
The DZUS rails that line the internal section of the CDU bay marry perfectly with the DZUS fasteners used to secure the Control Display Unit (CDU/FMC) to the rails. It does not matter whether a reproduction or OEM CDU unit is used as both will fit perfectly.
The lower display screen, which fits between the two gaps in which the CDUs reside, is identical in shape and manufacture to the upper display unit bezels. Unlike the three upper bezels in which a standard computer monitor can be mounted, the lower screen requires a smaller monitor which is not an off the shelf item.
Dimensions, 1:1 ratio and Using OEM Parts
The ability of a manufacturer to produce a MIP that is the correct 1:1 ratio to the real item cannot be underestimated. If an enthusiast is intending to only use instruments and panels produced by that manufacturer, then any size disparity is probably unnoticeable and probably not that important. However, if OEM parts are to replace reproduction parts, then the base sizing become crucial to the correct and easy fitment of an OEM part. In this area, the FDS MIP has some shortfalls.
The MIP has a number of holes and gaps that parts reside, for example for the AFDS and flaps gauge. If the holes are incorrectly matched to the OEM part, either a new panel (aluminum backing plate) will need to be engineered and painted, or the hole may need to be enlarged. Although enlarging a hole in a MIP is straightforward, the opposite is problematic and requires the design of a new panel.
Unfortunately, many of the holes in the FDS MIP do not correspond to the correct size when fitting OEM parts. For example, the holes that the AFDS units reside must to be enlarged considerably to enable OEM AFDS units to be fitted. Likewise, the holes to fit the annunciators need to be enlarged. The hole that the flaps gauge is housed is far too large and a new panel needs to be designed to gt an OEM flaps gauge.
Power, System I/O Cards and Cabling
A multi-voltage computer power pack is used to power the MIP and has been mounted at the rear of the lower base structure.
The position chosen is well suited to internal wiring and allows easy access should a problem develop.
LEFT: Detail of the angled shelf used to accommodate the I/O cards. The multi-voltage computer power supply can also be seen mounted behind the perforated vents. The terminal block caters to 5 and 12 volts. The interface card is the FDS SYS card which comes standard with the ICS MIP. (click to enlarge).
An angled shelf has been engineered to fit immediately behind the CDU bay. The design of the shelf is intended as an area on which to mount the various interface cards required to operate the simulator.
The interface cards required to operate the MIP have been secured to the angled shelf and all wiring has been expertly soldered or attached via solid electrical clips. Cabling and connections are of the highest quality. Each of the wires that are connected to the SYS board has been tagged with a plastic tag which indicates their function; a good idea if you need to change something at a later date or troubleshoot a particular problem.
There has been no compromises with regard to how the staff at FDS wired the MIP - it is beyond reproach.
The base structure (stand) has been designed to be mounted either directly to a base platform. The mounting points are numerous holes along the lower angled edge of the stand. A concern was that the structure would wobble, as it is quite high and made from light-weight aluminum.
LEFT: 3mm replacement side stand. The replacement stand inhibits any movement of the MIP as the structure is not (at the moment) installed within a shell (click to enlarge).
These concerns were short-lived; once each attachment point was secured with a screw the assembly was quite solid. This said, if you energetically engage the landing gear lever, there is a very slight movement in the upper area of the MIP. If you are mounting the MIP into a cockpit surround, any movement will cease as it will be attached to the outer skin of the shell.
To counteract any movement, it is a relatively easy matter to fabricate two replacement side stands from a thicker sheet of aluminum (3-5mm). This will guarantee that there will be no movement when manipulating knobs, the landing gear, etc.
To read about the replacement side walls, navigate to this post.
Communication, Support and Delivery
Communication with FDS was excellent. E-mails were always answered in a timely manner and Peter and Steven Cos are very professional in their approach. I was continually kept in the loop regarding construction and shipping.
Support if and when required is either via a dedicated forum, e-mail, or if necessary by telephone. Peter and Steve Cos very approachable and helpful and their support is second to none. I would go so far as to say that the support that FDS provides cannot be matched.
It is important to note that Flight Deck Solutions is not a mail order company with products in storage waiting to be shipped; products are assembled to order. This means that often there is a timely wait until you receive your shipment.
The MIP I had delivered to Australia was packed in and attached (screwed) to the floor of a large wooden crate. It arrived undamaged.
Quick List - Pros and Cons
- Well designed & constructed
- Excellent workmanship (metalwork and wiring)
- Realistic and highly effective Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)
- Good functionality
- Very clean appearance - wiring and cards favorably positioned
- 1:1 (or as near possible) to the real MIP (exception if using OEM gauges)
- Moderate to high attention to detail
- Robust & functional software (InterfaceIT) if using Sim Avionics avionics suite
- Excellent paint quality (several layers of paint) that resists chipping and scratching
- Outstanding support - the best in the industry
- No analogue flaps gauge, other than virtual version (rectified by spending more money)
- No stand-by instruments or clock (rectified by spending more money)
- Non use of DZUS fasteners in lower panels above 'kick stand' (small things do make a difference)
- RMI knobs are very low quality
- Speed reference knobs are very low quality & do not replicate OEM B737 knobs
- Landing gear lever does not recess behind shield when in down position
- Landing gear does not utilise the spring trigger as in the real aircraft
- Section between upper and lower MIP (kick-stand) is not the correct shape. It should be rounded and not be an angled piece of aluminum
- Display unit covers are very reflective (easily rectified- remove or replace them with tinted displays)
- Slightly inaccurate General Purpose Knobs (GPK) - poor stenciling on knobs
- The MIP is not completely 1:1 and if using OEM parts, some engineering is required to fit OEM parts
- The MIP is not an exact reproduction and artistic license has been taken in some areas (for example, the section between the upper and lower MIP (kick-stand). The MIP also lacks various screws and fasteners seen on the OEM MIP
The MIP is well made and has been finished with obvious care; parts line up correctly, screw heads have not been burred and paint not chipped. Wiring, soldering, parts, switches, paint, colour, rotaries, blanking panels and display frames are of the highest quality. It is obvious you are dealing with a premium product that provides an very good facsimile of a stock standard B737-800NG instrument panel.
Downside is the lack of any hard-wired gauges, poor quality speed reference and general purpose knobs, lack of DZUS in lower panels, no flaps gauge, and inaccurately positioned landing gear lever (when in the down position). Another issue is that the MIP is not 100% 1:1 ratio, nor is it a 100% accurate rendition of a OEM MIP.
This said, for many enthusiasts this will not be an issue as the differences are minor. If you intend to use OEM parts then some parts of the MIP will need to be fabricated to enable the real parts to fit snugly and correctly.
Depending upon your end use - a MIP with reproduction gauges or a MIP skeleton to hang OEM parts - your views will alter. Certainly, the FDS MIP is not to be discounted as a premium product; it is a pity that FDS did not 'take a few extra steps' to make this MIP the 'Queen of the crop'.
The closest rival to the FDS MIP is the MIP manufactured by Fly Engravity and SimWorld. Other MIPS are available from other companies, but the FDS MIP, although lacking in some areas is superior in many ways.
Rating is 7.5/10
Please note that this review is my opinion only and is not endorsed. Furthermore, note the date of the review. Flight Deck Solutions may have updated their MIP after this review has been published.
I must apologise for the lack of separate stand-alone MIP images. I was very keen to begin building and failed to photograph the MIP as a stand-alone item. Thanks to Peter Cos, Flight Deck Solutions for allowing the use of the front image.
A review of Sim Avionics will be published in the near future.
I have received several e-mails over the last six months asking about the quality and accuracy of the FDS MIP knobs, RMI and other knobs used on the MIP, and the landing gear. Rather than alter the original post, I've attached a few photographs showing the detail of the FDS-style knobs, switches and the landing gear lever.
General Purpose Knobs (GPK)
The NG style knobs are of high quality, however, cannot be compared to the OEM item.
First, the GPK, although a good facsimile is not identical to the OEM GPK. They are missing grub screws, do not have a metal center sleeve to stop erosion of the inside of the knob, where it is attached to the stem of the rotary, and the knobs are slightly the incorrect shape. Second, the vertical line seen on the front of the knob is a manually applied transfer which in some instances has not been correctly aligned. The knobs are made from grey painted acrylic and are translucent to backlight from FDS's IBL backlighting. But, the line in the centre portion of the knob is not evenly illuminated.
In the real aircraft all knobs are back lit by IBL and the line can easily be seen at night. This is but a small detail, however, small details can make a difference and should not be overlooked. The knobs can be easily replaced with higher quality reproductions, or by the OEM item.
Very poor quality and not identical to the OEM knob in any way shape or form. FDS use a thin piece of acrylic plastic with a cheesy-looking transfer applied to the front.
Used Fuel Reset Switch
A normal two-way toggle is used which is incorrect. There is no similarity to the OEM Used Fuel Reset Switch. The OEM toggle has a large bulbous head and is a specially-designed three-way toggle (see image below).
Speed Reference Knobs (SRK)
The speed reference knobs supplied with the FDS MIP bear no resemblance to the OEM knobs.
Autopilot Flight Director System (AFDS)
Although not an exact replica of the OEM unit, FDS has done a good job replicating the functionality of the AFDS. Unfortunately, if you wish to replace the FDS unit with an OEM AFDS unit, the hole in the backing plate will need to be enlarged considerably to allow correct fitting of the OEM unit.
Lights Test / DIM Switch
A normal two-way momentary toggle is used which is incorrect. The OEM switch is a three way non-momentary switch which allows the switch to be placed in any one of three positions. The OEM toggle is also large than a standard toggle switch.
Annunciators (korry condition lights)
The FDS MIP uses LED reproduction annunciators (korrys). The LEDS are illuminated by two 5 volt LED lights which do not provide complete light coverage across the lens plate. The brightness of the LEDS is also not as bright as the OEM annunciators.
Furthermore, the hole in the MIP that the korrys reside is a tad on the small side; therefore, if you are intending to replace the reproduction korrys with Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM) annunciators, you will need to engineer the hole to a larger size. This is unfortunate as a MIP should be manufactured 1:1 to allow reproduction parts to be replaced with OEM parts.
Landing Gear Lever
The landing gear lever requires more explanation.
In the real B737-800 NG the landing gear handle sits closer toward the main instrument panel. The half circular shield is designed so that the red-coloured gear trigger sits between the two shields when the lever is in the DOWN position. In the FDS version, the trigger sits too far out from the front of the MIP and the trigger is not protected by the two half moons.
Furthermore, the trigger is not spring-loaded as in the OEM mechanism.
ABOVE LEFT: General purpose knob (GPK) located on lower display unit (kick stand). The black line is a manually applied adhesive which depending upon which knob you are inspecting, may or may not be quite straight. Being adhesive, with time the transfer lifts, especially at the ends. The translucent line between the black outer lines is not as bright as that observed in the real aircraft. The GPK shown is one of the better-looking knobs, others have crooked transfers.
The knob is the incorrect shape and the grub screws are located in the wrong position on the knob. The knob also does not have an inside metal shroud (circular retainer). The retainer increases the longevity of the knob as it stops the acrylic from being worn down over time with continual use.
The knobs serve a function, but for the price of the MIP, knobs that reflect a more accurate representation would have been appreciated.
ABOVE RIGHT: Speed reference panel on the MIP. The knobs are very poor reproductions which do not mimic the OEM speed reference knobs in way, shape or form. The OEM knob should be a double rotary encoder knob. There has been no attempt to replicate this type of knob.
ABOVE LOWER LEFT: The Boeing NG landing gear trigger mechanism should, when in the DOWN position, reside in the recess between the two half circular shields. The FDS landing gear does not.
ABOVE LOWER RIGHT: The two RMI knobs are made from acrylic with a transfer attached. The knob has no functionality and is attached to the MIP in a recessed hole. The RMI knob bears no resemblance to the OEM knob.
NOTE: Before taking what you read as gospel, check the FDS website in case these shortcomings have been rectified since this post was published.