Simulator guides student to high-flying goals

Photos by Allen Laman/The Herald
Luke Trout, 17, sits inside a simulated cockpit he and his dad built inside their Holland home.


HOLLAND — Here’s a riddle for you. Sunday, a 17-year-old boy piloted a Boeing 737 airplane from Louisville, Kentucky, to Cleveland, Ohio. After that, he flew from Queens, New York, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

He did this after going to church in the morning and was back in his bed in Holland when he turned in for the day. How is this possible?

The answer: He used a sophisticated three-dimensional flight simulation software — while sitting inside a tricked-out DIY cockpit loaded with switches, knobs and lights designed to mirror the ones you’d find on real-life runways across the world.

Luke Trout has his sights set on becoming a pilot. Once afraid of flight, the Southridge High School junior recently built that realistic control room to help hone his skills and give him a leg up on other aspiring aviators when he departs Dubois County for his life’s next chapter.

“I go through a lot of trial and error,” Luke said of the lengthy construction process. “But I don’t give up.”

What started off as a small endeavor later took off into the intense construction of a 5-by-9f cockpit that is walled off by cuts of wood and sits in the basement of the Trout's rural home. Many of the countless hours that Luke and his father, John, have spent constructing the fixture took place after the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the country, and social-distancing precautions became the norm.

Here’s how it works. Luke first boots up a computer loaded with the flight simulator software, and the hyper-detailed program is beamed to three, 50-inch television monitors in front of the wooden cockpit that generate the plane’s controls and windshield. Following the exact same process that guides professional pilots, he spins dials and presses buttons to prepare for takeoff, and after pulling back the yoke, he’s in the sky.

In-cabin speakers sound off button pings and cabin noise; maps and radars show other aircraft flying in the virtual world that Luke frequents. He navigates the plane with the yoke and a special piece of hardware shakes his chair whenever the plane takes off or lands. He even speaks to real people acting as ground and air traffic controllers through a headset and microphone.

“And so they’ll tell me, ‘Turn right, turn left,’” Luke explained while describing the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network community. “And they are professional to a T. And I have to be professional.”

Flying scared Luke to death until he was in middle school. It wasn’t until after he caught a glimpse of a plane’s cockpit when flying to South Carolina — and was captivated by the views on that journey — that he began to envision a high-flying future.

He is currently enrolled in a technology development course that uses a much simpler flight simulator, and he plans to continue his aviation education after he graduates next year — either at a university or through the United States Air Force.

His mother, Annette, couldn’t envision the home cockpit project in the beginning. Back before Luke and John built the walls, situated the TVs and purchased switches and wired them together, it all seemed so distant.

But now that the first-class product functions, she is hopeful that all the work will bring her son closer to his dream of becoming a pilot.

“I go outside, and the first thing I do when I open the door is I look straight up,” Luke said. “I look for airplanes, but I look at the stars. I love watching the stars. I guess I just love looking at the sky. I love being up there.”

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