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NEWS | June 10, 2014

Flying high: Creativity helps former crew chief continue flying

By Melissa Walther 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Water drips onto the gravel floor of an apartment complex basement in Newport News, Virginia, while boxes of holiday decorations mingle with ladders and extra light bulbs. It's a typical storage area, and a place most residents don't even know exists.

But this basement holds a secret, as out of the darkness comes the rumble of a jet's engines. As David Gatling piles on the throttle and climbs, the walls of the basement fade away and suddenly he's surrounded by blue skies, thanks to a little imagination and a lot of innovation.

Chapstick tubes, shampoo bottles and bottle caps have found new life as oxygen canisters and controls while an old entertainment center has become the ejection seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. A recycled computer and projector provide the sky and "brains" of Gatling's home-made flight simulator.

A former U.S. Army crew chief on Cobra helicopters and current apartment staff-resident liaison, Gatling decided to take his love of aviation and skills as a model builder to the next level and create his own F-16 Fighting Falcon simulator so he could continue to experience the joy of flight.

"I grew up in the area and I trained at Fort Eustis," he said. "My youngest son is in the Civil Air Patrol at Langley and I've always had a passion for aviation, ever since I was a little kid."

Attending his first air show with his father in 1970 at Langley Air Force Base, Gatling said that was the moment he knew flight was for him.

"It was the Thunderbirds flying F-4 Phantoms," he recalled. "I always loved the Thunderbirds; I decided to build this simulator when I found out they weren't coming back to Langley. I look forward to air shows every year and I take my two sons; it's a family tradition."

A former resident and friend of Gatling's provided the software that made the whole project possible.

"He was a B-29 pilot for the Air Force during Korea and we'd talk about our love of aviation," Gatling said. "He had the software for an F-16 simulator and when he moved out, he gave it to me. I had always wanted to dabble in the simulator world and that was what made it possible."

Gatling started surfing the web, looking for reference pictures of the cockpit of an F-16 and keeping his eye out for likely materials that were discarded by residents.

"You'd be amazed what you can find on the Internet," Gatling said. "A lot of research went into it. Residents are always getting rid of things, so when I'd see a big box or something I thought I could use, I'd grab it."

Dials and gauges were printed from the Internet. Buttons and knobs are bottle caps, construction paper, glue and paint.

"The president has his saying of 'yes, we can,' and I decided that 'yes, I can do this,'" Gatling said. "It took me a long time to get all the materials together, and I'm still adding to it, but it's identical to an F-16 in almost every way."

According to Gatling, he's spent about $200 on the simulator, most of the cost going into paint, glue and a refurbished computer to run the software.

"That's not too bad, when you consider that a real simulator costs tens-of-thousands of dollars," he said. "Once you get in it, you're blown away. I've had a couple of F-18 pilots from the Navy come try it out and they said it was amazing."

Gatling said it took about 10 weeks from start to operational status to build it, with five weeks spent on the seat alone.

"I felt great when I finished," he said. "I was amazed and I couldn't believe it myself; it was an accomplishment. I can do everything you can do in an actual F-16. I can take off from a cold start, do training missions, set navigation points, do combat simulations, everything."

Although most residents have no idea there's a simulator in the basement, Gatling said it's becoming an attraction with management.

"They're cool with it and really supportive," Gatling said. "Some of the vice presidents of the company have seen it and the word is getting out about the simulator in the basement."

Gatling said his work on the simulator will continue, with plans to build a contoured body shell.

"Even though it works, I plan to keep improving it," he said. "I come down here in the evenings and fly and it's great. I'm in my 50s now, and I had always wanted to join the Air Force; now I can keep flying."