Last year, [Mangy_Dog] was asked by a few friends to consult on a project they were working on. The goal was to build an authentic replica of an F-18 cockpit, apparently for the purposes of creating a film. The project never materialized, but it did inspire him to take a hard look at the 1970s era alphanumeric displays utilized in the real aircraft. One thing lead to another, and he ended up using his own take on the idea to build his own “starburst” digit display.
As [Mangy_Dog] explains, while the faces of these original displays might have been quite small, there was a lot going on behind the scenes. Due to the technical limitations of the time, each alphanumeric character was made up of an array of incandescent light bulbs and fiber optic cables. This worked well enough, but was bulky and complex to manufacture.
Today, we can do better, even on the hobbyist level. As it turns out, 0402 LEDs are just about the right size to recreate the segments of the original starburst displays. So [Mangy_Dog] came up with a simple PCB design to not only align the LEDs properly, but drive them with a 74HC595 shift register and an array of MOSFETs. While assembly wasn’t without its challenges, he made good use of his custom built reflow oven to get all the diminutive components in place.
He went through a few different ideas for the diffuser, but eventually settled on black plastic with tiny holes drilled through courtesy of his laser cutter. Behind each set of three holes is a small pocket that got filled from both sides with transparent UV resin, which was then sanded down after curing. The end result isn’t perfect as you can still tell the center dot is brighter than its peers, but the overall effect is still very nice and definitely has a sort of faux-retro appeal.
The military naturally has access to some incredible technology, though they have a tendency to hold onto it for decades. That an individual with a meager budget and homemade tools can improve upon a piece of hardware installed in a $60+ million airplane is a testament to just how fast things are moving.