Australian travels between two continents to turn 747 cockpits into flight simulators

Joseph Corrigan works on converting a 747 cockpit into a flight simulator at his hangar at the Tupelo Regional Airport. (Thomas Wells)

Joseph Corrigan works on converting a 747 cockpit into a flight simulator at his hangar at the Tupelo Regional Airport. (Thomas Wells)

By Dennis Seid
Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Mississippi heat is almost too much for Joseph Corrigan, especially when he’s working inside a Boeing 747 cockpit that sits inside a metal aircraft hangar.

“It’s the humidity,” said Corrigan, wiping away sweat from his forehead and repeating a phrase Mississippians are quite used to.

But the Australian’s labor of love is worth the price of a little sweat.

Corrigan, in fact, has three 747 cockpits he’s working on. But he’s not exactly an airline mechanic. He does, however, fly a small plane back home..

The 747 cockpits have been taken out of retired aircraft by Universal Asset Management, the aircraft disassembling and recycling company that leases spaces at the airport. UAM has landed some 60 aircraft in Tupelo since 2011, including about a dozen 747s. Engines are the most desired part and are taken off first. But cockpits, among other parts and pieces, also are sold.

That’s where Corrigan comes in.

He has a friend who got into the 747 conversion business, and Corrigan decided to give it a try as well. While there are other companies that disassemble aircraft, UAM is one of the largest.

“I follow UAM,” he said. “I had a customer who managed to get a 747 cockpit for me and I wound up here in Tupelo. I’m from a small town in Australia and the people here in Tupelo I find are warm and welcoming.”

Corrigan is converting the cockpits into flight simulators, but they won’t be anything like the Microsoft Flight Simulator game people might play at home on their computers.

The simulators will be rebuilt with aircraft parts and will be as real as any simulator being built. The controls will mimic exactly the controls of a fully operational aircraft, and a large wraparound digital screen will provide a measure of reality that a video console or even a large flat screen can’t match.

“People ask me if they’ll be able to crash the plane,” Corrigan said. “I tell them the tough part is not crashing the plane. You’ll feel the same thing a pilot feels as he’s flying and landing, with the wind shifting, and you’re trying to manage all the controls at the same time. It’s as real as it can get without actually flying.”

Corrigan has been flying between Tupelo and Australia since March, and he recently completed his fifth trip to the All-America City.

He comes to Tupelo about once a month and spends a week or two on his projects.

His “real” job, as he calls it, is film production and photography. Fixing and converting 747 cockpits halfway around the world is only a part-time gig at this point.

He already has one fully functional 747 simulator at his home in Australia.

The first cockpit he’s working on in Tupelo will be sent to the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, Calif., next year. The second cockpit could very well end up at Tupelo Aviation Unlimited, the fixed-base operator at the Tupelo Regional Airport.

Corrigan said he’s taking lessons he learned from his initial experience of converting a 747 cockpit and applying them to the work he’s doing now.

“The one sitting at my home took about 2 1/2 years to finish,” he said. “But that included a lot of learning along the way.”

dennis.seid@journalinc.com