'Asperger's is my superpower,' says man who is building F35 jet simulator in shed
PUBLISHED: 10:08 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 13:12 19 June 2018
Some men are quite partial to pottering around in their shed with drills and spanners, but Kenneth Mockford has taken his shed-tinkering to another level. The 54 year-old engineer has been shutting himself away inside his garden shed “from dawn until dusk” since April 25 in order to build the world’s first F-35B Lightning jet simulator for public use.
The £70million Lockheed Martin-made F-35B Lightning jets on which Mr Mockford’s simulator is based are used for air-to-surface electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and operating undetected in hostile airspace, and made their UK arrival at RAF Marham on June 6.
“I chose to build an F35 simulator because these aircraft can actually hover,” explained Mr Mockford. “They’re a joint effort between the navy and air force and will be landing on the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier from Marham airbase.”
As the real dimensions of the F35s are kept a closely-guarded military secret, building the simulator has been a process of “reverse engineering” for Mr Muckford, who relied on “millions of pictures of people sitting in the cockpits” for guidance and inspiration.
It’s the culmination of a boyhood dream for the mechanical engineer, who has been building simulators – “starting with a joystick in a cardboard box” – since he was a schoolboy.
Mr Mockford credits his Asperger’s Syndrome for his extraordinary engineering abilities. “Asperger’s is my superpower!” he said. “It gives me the ability to look at something and form a 3D view of it. Asperger’s is an amazing tool. I can focus in on the minutest of detail – but I have very little empathy if someone is crying because they’ve broken their leg.”
Although Mr Mockford was born in Birmingham, his father served in the Royal Air Force in Rhodesia, then worked in Africa for an aircraft manufacturer. “My love of flying started when my dad started buying helicopter radios for the police, and when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, we’d go to the airfield at weekends and I’d spend hours flying in the aircraft,” he explained.
After serving in the South African Air Force, Mr Mockford moved back to the UK in 1995, and went on to work as head of engineering for Baxter Healthcare in the UK.
He recalls making presentations as part of his job, which wasn’t always a task he relished. “I noticed people smirking in the audience because I used the wrong word. And that’s irritating, because I know those people probably couldn’t change a tyre in their car.”
It was then that his simulator-building hobby started to take off. It took him two years to build a simulator of a Boeing 737, which trainee pilots have since used to practice and pass their Boeing 737 flight exams.
“The sims he was making just got bigger and bigger,” recalled his wife Martine Mockford, 50. “It took two years to build up the Boeing simulator, and people said it was so amazing, you should get paid for this.” In 2012, the couple decided to turn Mr Mockford’s hobby into a business, calling it ‘Sim2do.’ “My missus named it after the fact I was forever saying I have this sim to do!” Mr Mockford explained.
The couple moved the sims from the garden shed of their home in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, to a new company base in Mildenhall near the RAF base, building a nine-seater airline cabin as a waiting area.
Mr Mockford bought an empty Lynx helicopter cockpit shell in 2015 and figured out how to wire it himself, creating the UK’s first and only military helicopter simulator open to the public. But while making every effort to replicate the systems, some remain classified by the Ministry of Defence.
Mr Mockford has completed the mechanical base of his F35-B jet sim, built using a real fuselage “bought from a friend” and with parts bought from all over the world on eBay, at a cost of £25,000. He is now busy installing the software.
It will be a blessing for Mrs Mockford to get the latest sim moved out of their home, she said. “My dining room is no longer my own! It’s covered in computer parts,” she said.
“Kenneth wakes up in the morning and the first thing he says is ‘I’ve figured out how to solve this problem’ – he’d worked it out in his sleep. It’s an obsession.”
In the next month, it will be transported to Mildenhall, where Mr Mockford will spend 100 hours learning to ‘fly’ his contraption before he begins instructing members of the public on how to use it. He has already sold tickets to aircraft enthusiasts, which cost £59.99 for a 60-minute experience.