Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 4 / APRIL 1983 / PAGE 244

Build an airplane controller for your computer. Tom Riley; Kelda Riley.

Build An Airplane Controller For Your Computer

The first article in this series on home built controls for the personal computer detailed the rebuilding of existing paddles and oysticks to improve their electrical performance, beef them up mechanically, and give them a better feel (Creative Computing, February 1983, pp. 140-150). This month we will tell you how to build a new type of control, one which can't be purchased at any price. We call it an airplane wheel; a pilot might refer to it as the control yoke.

The control has two pushbuttons and provides two analog inputs. The first is the degree of turn of the wheel, and the second is the position of the wheel forward and back. These actions insure that the airplane wheel control closely imitates the actual controls of a small aircraft.

There are several airplane flight simulator programs and related games on the market, but they depend on input from the computer keyboard or from standard game paddles or joysticks. Unfortunately, no one flies an airplane by punching keys on a typewriter, and that isn't the way you learn to fly either.

Using the Control

To use this control you sit in a chair in front of your computer with the leg board of the control under your legs and the central wheel support between them. Thus seated, you can turn the wheel, push it forward and back, press the push-buttons, reach the keyboard, and see the screen--all without changing position. All you have to do is plug in the control, run your flight simulator program using the paddle rather than the keyboard mode, and take off. The wiring shown in the drawings is consistent with the A2-FS1 Flight Simulator program from Sublogic.

The Drawings

Before you get excited and start building this device, let's look briefly at the drawings. Figure 1 is a sketch of the completed prototype indicating the leg board, lower support and struts, the wheel itself, and the hardwood grips. Note that two microswitches are mounted in the grips, potentiometer 0 is mounted in the wheel axis, and potentiometer 1 is mounted on the lower back strut.

Figure 2 is a side view that gives much more detail on assembly of the unit. Figures 3 and 4 show details of the component parts. Figure 5 is the electrical schematic, which will be explained in a separate section.

Construction Materials

The airplane wheel is constructed primarily of plywood and sheet metal. It can be built entirely with hand tools, but the use of a table or radial arm saw and a power drill will greatly speed up the work. It is therefore helpful if you have access to a home workshop or a local high school woodshop.

The best material to use in constructing the control is 1/2 hardwood plywood. We made the prototype out of the maple plywood door of a discarded kitchen cabinet. Regular fir plywood can be used, but the unit will not finish as nicely. Plexiglass scrap, 3/8 or 1/2 thick, would make a striking unit; plexiglass can be worked with wood tools if you proceed carefully. Many plastic suppliers will sell scrap by the pound at reasonable prices. Solid hardwood would also produce a good-looking unit, but it would be necessary to use a power plane to cut the hardwood down to the 1/2" thickness required.

The small parts needed to build the control include plastic washers cut from coffee can lids and bushings cut from 1/4 (internal diameter) brass tubing. The latter can be purchased at a local hobby shop. A scrap of sheet metal, plexiglass, or Formica will be necessary for mounting pot 0. The required nuts, bolts, flat washers, and wood screws are given in the Parts List.

Construction Steps

Assemble all the materials and parts you will need for the project. Then start work by cutting out all the wood, metal, and plastic parts. The large holes in the upper and lower supports are included simply for decoration, to give the control a lighter, less massive look. They were cut out with a hole saw in a power drill, but may be omitted if this tool isn't readily available.

The physical size of pots from different manufacturers varies somewhat, so if you begin the woodwork before you have the pots, just drill 3/16 pilot holes for both the mounting hole and the shaft. When you obtain the pots you can drill out the holes for an exact fit.

Potentiometers are designed to be mounted through thin metal. To mount them on wood that is too thick for the pot bushing, first mount the pot on a 1/16 to 1/4 piece of stiff material (aluminum or steel sheet metal, plexiglass, or Formica) and then screw this piece securely to the wood. This is the method used for mounting pot 0 (see Figure 4). Pot 1 is shown mounted directly in the wood, but it could also be mounted in the manner just described.

When drilling sheet metal, never hold the work with you hand; the metal will spin and cut your fingers. Hold the sheet metal with visegrip pliers or in a bench vise. Start the holes in any of these materials with a pilot hole of about 1/8 in order to locate exactly the center of the hole, and back up the drilled piece with scrap wood to prevent breakout damage.

Observe that the wheel is attached to pot 0 by set screws tapped into the wood. Drilling and tapping is usually done in metal, not wood, but I have found that hardwoods like oak and maple work satisfactorily if the tap has course threads like the #10-24 shown in Figure 3. No lubricant is required for tapping in wood. Two Allen set screws at least 1/2 long are required. The screws should be drilled at right angles to each other. The tapping is most easily accomplished before the steering wheel parts are assembled.

Inside the potentiometer is a small metal tab that stops the pot from turning a complete 360 degrees. (Most pots turn through 300 degrees.) This tab is not very strong, so stronger stops must be built to keep it from being accidentally broken in vigorous play. Figures 2, 3, and 4 show one stop screwed onto the top support and two screwed onto the wheel. These stops can be made from faucet washers or small rubber feet attached with roundhead screws. You may have to include flat washers under them if they don't touch each other. These stops will be precisely located during final assembly.

Both of the pots have 2 shafts. These long-shaft pots are sometimes difficult to obtain. If you can't find them locally, you can order them by mail. The ones for the prototype were ordered from Newark Electronics (see Parts List for the address). The minimum order is $25, so you may wish to go in with some other people on an order. Delivery time is four to six weeks.

Two microswitches are mounted in the wooden grips for use as pushbuttons. They are shown in Figure 2 mounted at the top of the grips; here, they are pressed with the thumbs. If you prefer, they could be pointed away from the user or to the inside of the wheel and pressed with the index finger. The switches and the #2 mounting bolts, which are extremely small, were purchased at Radio Shack, but suitable switches can be purchased from many mail-order houses. The Radio Shack switches (Cat. No. 275-016) have a small metal lever that is attached to the switch with a rather weak hinge. Reinforcing this hinge with a matchhead-size dab of silicone sealer helps to strengthen it.

The microswitches are mounted on the plywood wheel and covered by the hardwood grips which also have a hidden groove for the switch wires. The grips on the prototype were cut from scrap walnut, so they are particularly attractive.

The plastic washers are inserted wherever two wood parts would otherwise rub against each other. They are cut with scissors from polyethylene coffee can lids; the central holes were cut with a hand paper punch. These washers provide smooth turning while relieving the strain on the pot shafts.

The three bushings on the supports are installed where wood moves against the bolt threads. These bushings were cut from model shop tubing with a small triangular file. There is also a bushing in the one strut which goes over the shaft of pot 1. Fat metal washers are also used wherever bolt heads and nuts come in contact with the wood.

The lower support has built into it a clamp for the shaft of pot 1. The pot itself is mounted on the end of one strut and moves with the strut. The pot was fitted to the strut and held with silicone sealer. In constructing the clamp, a pattern of holes is cut into the support to let the clamp close down on the shaft when the #6 nut and bolt and flat washer are tightened. We strengthened the wood near the clamp by coating it with epoxy, and later redrilled the holes.

Sub-Assembly of Wood Parts

After you have cut out all wood parts and given them a preliminary sanding, you can begin assembling them. The lower support is attached to the leg board with two #8 X 1 flathead wood screws and wood glue. Counter-sink the screws flush with the wood surface. Assemble the top wheel support in the same way. I prefer to use Elmer's Carpenter's Wood Glue, but any good quality wood glue will suffice. Keep a damp cloth handy to wipe off excess glue.

Next, assemble the wheel hub with wood glue by putting a 1/4 bolt with flat washers through the central hole in each piece. Tighten the bolt to clamp the three pieces together. The hand grips have to be custom-fitted to the wheel and holes for #4 screws drilled through the plywood wheel, but the grips are not glued on. Drill mounting holes through the plywood, not the grips, for the microswitches.


If you have done a good job on the woodwork, then it is worth doing the same high quality work on the finish. Prepare the wood by rounding all corners with a fine rasp, and sand all surfaces. An orbital sander is best for this job: start with #80 sandpaper, then do a light sanding with #120 paper to finish up. The plywood parts can be stained if you want a dark finish, or they can be painted with an oil-base enamel in a color you like.

Now you are ready to apply a stainfinish polyurethane varnish, using two or three coats over a stain or one coat over enamel. The polyurethane will give the enamel a rich look and keep the enamel from leaving marks on the furniture or the floor.

Final Assembly

Pot 0 should now be installed through its mounting plate. Be sure to make a small hole for its spin prevention tab. Screw the mounting plate to the top wheel support. The four brass bushings are installed in the following locations: two in the top support, one in the front hole of the bottom support, and one in a back strut. If the bushings fit tightly you will not need to glue them. The #1 pot is glued on one of the struts. The hole in the strut should be drilled out to a snug fit on the pot bushing (not on the smaller shaft). Then cut a notch for the tab and glue the pot with epoxy or silicone sealer to the strut.

Now attach the struts to the two supports, using for each pair two flat washers, two plastic washers, and a nut. When you are certain you have the unit assembled correctly, lock on the nut with Loctite thread sealant, super glue, or fingernail polish. The bolts should be tight, but the struts must move freely when moderate force is applied. You can also install the clamp bolt in the lower support at this time, but do not clamp the pot shaft until the final adjustments are made.

You may wish to lubricate the bushings and flat washers with a tiny amount of petroleum jelly or candle wax. I think the wax gives a better feel to the movement of the finished device.

Now press the wheel on the pot shaft. You may have to chase the hole with a drill bit-to clear out excess glue and finish. The big plastic washer goes between the wheel and the support. If the pot shaft sticks out of the front of the wheel, you can either cut off the shaft or install additional large washers. The wheel stop on the top support can be installed at this point, but the two spots on the wheel itself must be left off until final adjustments are made.

Electrical Components

Electrically, this unit is just an overgrown joystick with two pots and two pushbuttons. The wiring schematic, Figure 5, is for the Apple II, but you can build an airplane wheel for any computer that can handle a two-pot joystick and at least one pushbutton. To do it, you must use the correct pot values, find the right plug, and make changes (mostly pin numbers) in the electrical wiring. Your task is simply to search out this information concerning a standard joystick for your system and copy the electrical connections.

In the prototype, the pot 0 value is 150K ohms, an unusual value but standard for Apple paddles. The 0 pot should be long-shafted, completely enclosed, and of good mechanical construction. The Parts List gives a suggested manufacturer's part number and supplier. If the pot does not have a screwdriver slot across the end of the shaft, you will have to cut one with a hacksaw, since the shaft must be turned with respect to the wheel for final adjustment.

Pot 1 is a bit different. This pot does not turn through its full range. (As noted earlier, a normal pot will turn through 300 degrees from one stop to the other.) The struts that move pot 1 will permit only about 170 degrees of turn. If we desire a full reading we must use a larger pot, one that will go from 0 ohms to 150K ohms over a turn of 170 degrees. We also have to choose a value for the pot that will let us purchase the actual item.

For the Apple II, a value of 250K ohms works very well. Other computers will require a value about one and one-half times that of the standard pot. For an Atari which uses 1 meg-ohm pots, you will need a 1.5 meg-ohm pot which must also be long-shafted and mechanically sound.

The pushbuttons in the prototype are microswitches that have a metal lever on top. We purchased them at Radio Shack. There are three terminals on the bottom of each switch, labeled C, N.O., and N.C. We used the one marked C (common) and the one marked N.O. (normally open). You may use any type of normally open, momentary contact switch that will fit neatly on the wheel.

The plug for the Apple II is a 16-pin DIP header, sometimes called a component carrier. When you solder this device, be sure to plug it into an unattached 16-pin socket so that the heat doesn't loosen and misalign the pins. The #1 pin of the plug is marked by a cut-off corner; the wires normally trail out the end near pin #8.

Figure 5 shows two 1K ohm pull-down resistors from the pushbutton pins #2 and #3 to ground. If you are very careful, you can mount these resistors inside the header itself.

The schematic also shows correction caps, which are only necessary if the pots you are using have too low a resistance value. Their use was explained in the first article. If you use correction caps, they can be mounted on a small piece of printed circuit board about one foot up the cable. The electrical noise prevention cap shown in Figure 5 is optional, but could be mounted beside the correction caps.

To determine the number of conductors required for the cable, count the +5 supply, the two pot wires, and the two pushbutton wires; you will need five conductors. If you weren't able to find exactly the pot size you need and are using the correction caps, you will also need a ground wire.

I don't particularly like working with the flat ribbon cables that are used in many commercial joysticks; I have repaired too many broken wires in them. Radio Shack sells a good four-wire telephone cable (Cat. No. 278-366) that works well in constructing controls if you are careful not to overheat it while soldering. If you have the correct pot values and choose to use only one pushbutton, you could get by with only four wires and run a single cable. If you need more than four wires, you should use two runs of cable and double up the +5 wire.

Soldering Procedures

To do the soldering in this project you need a small soldering iron (about 25 watts), resin core solder, wire strippers, and a small pair of long nose pliers. Figures 2 and 4 show which terminals of the pots to use for the various wires and where to route the cable. Start wiring at the pushbuttons and work back to the plug. You will need a three-conductor loop of cable to extend from the wheel to the back of the top support. It must be long enough to allow 300-degree rotation of the wheel. You can work out the correct length and location of the anchors by trial and error.

Before you wire the unit, make two photocopies of Figure 5. Then, as you run each wire and make each solder joint, trace it in on one of the copies, using a colored pencil. After you have finished the wiring, it is a good idea to have another person go over the unit, checking out the wires with a colored pencil on the second photocopy of the schematic to make certain that you haven't omitted any connections.

If you have a multimeter you should also check the resistance from pin #1 (+5 supply) to pin #8 (ground). You should always get a reading of at least 50 ohms on any control, and the reading ought to be much greater. Watch this reading while pushing the buttons and turning the pots. It must always be high.


Aligning the control requires a simple program that repeatedly shows the reading of pots 0 and 1 and the condition, open or closed, of pushbuttons 0 and 1. The article in the February issue gives just such a program, but you can quickly write your own. Be sure to put a slight delay between the two paddle readings. Check out the program on a standard joystick or paddle before testing your new creation.

Now turn off the computer and plug in the new unit, making certain that the #1 pin in the plug is in the correct hole. Turn on the computer. If it doesn't start up exactly as usual, turn off at once and recheck your work. Now load your check program and place your airplane wheel in position under your legs.

We will start the adjustments with pot 0. Turn the airplane wheel slowly and check that the pot reading goes from 0 to 255. Now center the wheel and, using a standard screw driver, turn the pot shaft inside the wheel until the reading is 127 with the wheel centered. Press the wheel firmly on the shaft and tighten the set screws.

To locate the two stops on the wheel (the single stop is already mounted on the top support), turn the wheel until you feel one of the stops inside the pot. Now back off this stop just a little and check that the reading on the screen hasn't changed. Hold the stop in place and mark its center with a sharp point, like an awl. Repeat the procedure on the other side for the third stop. You may have to remove the wheel to install the stops properly, then replace and center it again.

To adjust pot 1, pull the wheel as far as you can, leaving the clamping bolt loose. Adjust the pot with a standard screw-driver until the reading on the screen just reaches 0. The forward motion must be stopped by contact of the wood parts, not by the tab inside the pot. Now lock the clamp by tightening the clamp bolt. Pushing the wheel back should now bring the reading all the way up to 255, and a reading of 127 should be at a center position that is comfortable to hold. Press the pushbuttons to make sure they work.

Now load your favorite flight simulator program or space game and take off.

Finishing Touches

To give the unit a finished appearance and make it last longer, you may want to do the following:


The drawings show the prototype exactly as built. You almost certainly will want to make some improvements of your own, particularly if you build more than one unit. As mentioned earlier, the clamp and mount for pot 1 could be strengthened with some sheet metal parts and set screws.

The wheel axis of the prototype is parallel to the leg board and floor. A pilot who tested the unit suggested angling this axis down a little in back to be more like the steering wheel of a light plane. This could be done by adjusting the angles of the lower support.

The unit shown in the drawings is about right for most average-size adults. You could extend the lower support as much as four inches if the paddle were to be used primarily by a taller individual, or shorten it by two inches for children.


We would like to hear about your experiences in building the airplane wheel. Let us know about any difficulties you run into, any instructions that aren't clear in this article, or any parts you have trouble finding. Describe the software you use and how well it works with the airplane wheel. Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you want a reply. Have a good flight.

Coming Up

In the next article we will look at building multiple sockets that will bring the controller plug out of the computer to a more convenient location beside it. These multiple sockets will also let you plug in more than one control at a time so you can choose the one you want with a switch, and even use two joysticks at once for playing two-person competitive games.


Photo: Figure 1.

Photo: Figure 2. Side view of airplane wheel.

Photo: Figure 3.

Photo: Figure 4.

Photo: Figure 5. Game Paddle with Correction Capacitors.