Prairie View A&M student makes his dream take flight
By Louis B. Parks
Published: October 24, 2003
It is a small room, and Robert Prather's homemade version of a Boeing 777 flight deck spreads out wall to wall.
"It's an acrobatic balancing act in here," says Prather, stretching one leg carefully over a panel of lights and switches as he reaches under a console for an exotic-looking button.
There's barely room for a bed in this bedroom, but then a place to sleep was often superfluous when Prather was still in Forest Brook High School and working nonstop on the flight deck simulation in his free time.
"I'd get home (from school) about 4:15 and work on this thing until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, every day," Prather says. "Saturdays I'd wake up at 9 or 10 in the morning, work until 1 or 2 the next morning. Half the time I wouldn't make it to the bed, I would just black out on the (pilot's) chairs here."
As Prather talks, soft, insistent beep noises come from a computer beneath his flight deck. Prather ignores it, even when the calm but urgent voice of a flight simulation program keeps warning about "altitude, altitude." Eventually it emits a dull "thwump."
Prather grins. "We just crashed."
Not for the first time. Prather, 21, and an electrical engineering student at Prairie View A&M University, is five years, three prototypes, one flood (Tropical Storm Allison), about $30,000 and thousands of hours into the job of building the 777 flight simulator. He's one of a small but growing number of enthusiasts worldwide who build flight simulators in their homes or garages.
Simulator builders -- called simmers or, in Prather's case, hybrid flight sim builders -- don't want to simply play at being fighter pilots on video games.They aren't even satisfied with the complex computer flight simulation programs now available. They want to re-create the environment of being in the cockpit of a plane, to build simulators so authentic a pilot could train on them.
Prather first became aware of the hobby in 1998 after stumbling across an Internet report by an Englishman who was one of the hobby's first major enthusiasts.
"I stared at it for days and weeks, clueless," Prather says. "His report said it may be possible to wire the entire simulator to a keyboard, so I tried it." His success hooked him. "From there it kept building, with e-mails from people all over the world saying I've got this (part or information). All of a sudden I had all the resources to begin."
Using money from various jobs -- he works as a software designer for Duke Energy and has other commercial projects -- Prather was able to pursue what has gone from interest to passion.
"He was kind of obsessive," says Prather's mom, Patricia Smith Prather, executive director of the Texas Trailblazers Preservation Association. "He was on it all the time. I did what moms do. I used to take dinner on a tray in there so he would eat. I wouldn't do that for any ordinary kid, but he was so focused on what he was doing you couldn't help but support him."
Now that he's at Prairie View, Prather has his own apartment but he returns frequently to his old bedroom in his parent's house in northeast Houston to work on his project.
The 777 still dominates his attention but it's not his only interest. He works with local musicians (singing backup and developing music tracks), he's worked for several Houston City Council members, he hangs with buddies in a car group, and in the last year he's found time to start dating.
"This was getting a little overwhelming," he says. "I had to learn to balance life with going out to social events, hanging out with friends. I've been doing a lot of programming, but from Friday afternoon to Sunday night I'll hop in the car and go someplace, just to keep that balance."
The search for parts can mean long periods of inactivity. It took months, for example, to get the rudder pedals for his simulator (actually old pedals from a 737). When they arrived he sent them off to be refurbished, which took several more weeks.
Ironically, the hobby kept Prather more grounded than he would have been otherwise. He started flying lessons at age 16 but became so engrossed in his 777 project that he dropped the class just hours from getting his pilot's license. And after years of working on the simulator, he's still not to the point he can "fly" it.
"I've test-flown it. It's always flyable," he says. "But I haven't made the maiden voyage with the real yoke, the real throttle doing what they are supposed to do. I'm hoping to do that by Christmas."
Simulator perfectionists strive for realism, and that eventually means going beyond parts they can make or fake.
Prather spends months searching for authentic parts or, more often, near matches that can be substituted. He goes to the original supplier when possible.
But suppliers used to selling in volume to big manufacturers have no interest in selling a panel or a couple of buttons to a hobbyist.
Scrounging on the Internet and among other hobbyists used to be easier. Collectors could buy planeloads of parts from dumps for deactivated planes. One of the best-known simmers, Californian Matt Ford, actually bought the nose section of a mothballed 737.
Eventually word got around there was a growing market for the parts.
"One of our best resources was eBay. This panel here was $20. Now it might go for $100, because everybody wants them."
The 777 proved difficult to re-create because, being a new plane, there was little available information on its design and virtually no old parts to be found.
"He's amazing," says Austin Hayward, Prather's engineering teacher at Forest Brook. "Prather was one of the sharpest kids I've ever had come through here in 11 years. This kid won national competitions in science and engineering as a freshman in high school. Continental called him one time. They had purchased a million-dollar flight simulator and called him to come take a test run."
Though most flight simulator hobbyists work alone, they're in touch with each other through e-mail and telephone.
Prather's work, detailed on his Web site -- www.the777project.com -- has put him in frequent contact with simmers from Australia to Greece to the Netherlands to California. They share information, disappointments, successes and parts.
Prather has traveled to California to visit Ford and another enthusiast, James Price, "who we call the kings of simming."
"(When we talk) on the phone, it's all acronyms. `Man, did you get your MCP, with PFC and ND working?' Pretty much like that for an hour and half, and we love every minute of it. But when we sit down together we break bread and talk more about the business side of things, our relationship with other builders, trying to see where the hobby is."
Prather hopes to widen the scope of the hobby.
"At first it was just to have a fully functional airplane that I could get in and have fun with," he says. "Now it's becoming more of a commercial venue. There are few of us now, but eventually we want it to be something grandiose that everybody wants to get a piece of."
Meanwhile, Prather's mom encourages him to get away from the simulator more often.
"But it doesn't work," she says, laughing. "Actually, he's pretty good. Once a week we go hang out."
He's negotiating with several companies for related projects, including a California company that builds simulations for the entertainment business and a company that builds real plane simulators.
"This is something I wouldn't mind doing for the rest of my life," he says. "I'm willing to bet I will finish another simulator (for a company) before I finish mine."
He may never call his simulator finished. The building of it is the obsession.
"I think the journey has become more passionate than the goal," he says. "The patience required is phenomenal. I mean, it's almost like the guys who build ships in bottles."