As flight simulator software has evolved, so too have flight simulator controls evolved along with it. In the early days of flight sims, most individuals were stuck using their keyboard and mouse. Some lucky few had access to primitive joysticks, but they were in the minority. As the popularity of flight sim software took off, if you’ll excuse the pun, tech companies released more advanced gear that was more widely accessible to the general public. Today, with the availability of at least smaller approximations of major airplane controls, the flight sim enthusiast is able to nearly recreate the feeling of actually being in the pilot’s seat of any type of plane available in their software.
The Many Tools of Flight Sims
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The joystick is the heart of all flight sim setups. It is the major device used for motion control. Despite the relatively simple-sounding task, joystick offerings are anything but simple. Technology has come a long way since the days of the original Atari 2600 joystick with the single red button. These days, many joysticks have more buttons than most console controllers. Most are pressure sensitive, detecting and reacting to the most slight and subtle touches. While the button placement can vary, most place them in ergonomic positions to allow for the easiest access with the least amount of repetitive strain. While the most basic elements can be accessed with only a good, generic joystick, those wishing to get the most out of their sim will want to spring for the more advanced and immersive flight simulator controls.
The most popular companions to the ubiquitous joystick are flight sim pedals. They are the pedals that lie on the ground that are used to control taxiing, braking, and rudder movements. Lower-end models are simply pedals with no frills, while the more advanced types have haptic feedback built in to simulate the feel of the brakes, are pressure sensitive to allow for more precise and subtle controls, and allow different types of pressure to achieve different effects. The plus to flight sim pedals is that they can also be used as the gas and brake pedals in racing games.
If the flight sim enthusiast is dedicated enough to get pedals, he or she will likely also want the 3rd most common controller to really create a fully controlled, completely immersive experience: a throttle quadrant system. As the name implies, this component controls the throttles in your flight sim. There are fairly simple types with only three levers, and very complex types with six or even more levels and as many switches.
Other less common controls include flight switch panels to control such functions as landing gear, ignition, and others; flight TPM systems (throttle/prop/mixture) to control the exact mixture of your fuel, your propeller pitch, and throttle; and many other instrument panels that have LED artificial horizons, virtual GPS systems and maps, radio controls, trim wheels, and much more. The standard for flight sims is that if the control exists and is needed inside an actual plane, at least one or two flight sim equivalents will be available. It all depends on how dedicated you are to realism, and how much space you can commit.
A Few Examples of Flight Simulator Controls
The types of controls with the most variety are joysticks. Included features can range from the bare minimal to the extremely complex, and the prices reflect that. For those on a budget, the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick is an all-around controller that is not specifically designed for flight sims but shines in that area, regardless. The joystick features 12 fully customizable buttons that can be programmed to control any aspect in the software you need. It is pressure sensitive and features an eight-way hat switch. The Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick only costs about $30, which is a steal considering its versatility and reliability. Add in Logitech’s well known reputation for making high quality products, in general, and the Extreme 3D becomes one of the best joysticks you can get for the price.
For individuals with money to burn and a need to reach as high a level of authenticity as possible, the Saitek X52 Pro Flight System Controller is one of the highest quality joystick systems available. In addition to the actual joystick, which itself has a total of 12 programmable buttons and a plethora of additional features, the system includes a throttle system that has controls for afterburners, a built-in LED display, a number of dedicated and programmable buttons, and numerous other features. Both units have built-in, programmable LED lighting and enhanced back-lighting, among many other complex and customizable controls. As well as the two physical components, the set includes a software development kit which lets the user create game or sim-specific programs. The Saitek X52 is a very precise and highly complex and involved system designed for the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic virtual pilots, and its price of about $140 reflects that.
Flight sim pedals can range from around $80 to over $500. As the price goes up, so do the specific purposes; for instance, the most expensive pedals are designed to resemble and behave exactly like the pedals in a Cessna or a fighter jet. For a well-rounded, easy to use set of pedals, however, the CH Products Pro Pedals USB Flight Simulator Pedals are hard to beat. They’re simple and easy to hook up. The pedals themselves are pressure-sensitive and respond with the sensations of actually taxiing and braking an airplane. CH Products makes a wide array of flight simulator controls, all of which are high quality with a range of prices, and the Pro Pedals are an excellent example of their products.
As described previously, throttle quadrants allow the simulation of precisely controlling an airplane’s throttle. Like the previously mentioned categories of flight simulator controls, a variety of throttle quadrants are available to match each person’s budget and needs. For the money-minded person who doesn’t need a huge number of levels, the Saitek Three Lever Pro Throttle Quadrant only costs about $50. It has three levers and three corresponding switches that can be programmed for various purposes. The throttle is manufactured by Mad Catz, and it includes a solid mounting system that allows the user to firmly attach it to nearly any place needed.
For those who need a bit more and who have more money to spend, the CH Products Throttle Quadrant is nearly three times more expensive at $140, but it’s also twice as big. The system offers a total of six levers and six corresponding, fully programmable switches. It also comes complete with programming software to let users customize the system to their exact needs and specifications. It is solidly manufactured, like all CH Products, and would be an excellent addition to any collection of flight simulator controls.
The Pro Flight Instrument Panel is a really nifty device that includes an LED artificial horizon, virtual maps and GPS, and several other navigation-related features. It is made by Mad Catz and costs a bit over $120.
The Saitek PRO Flight Switch Panel provides landing gear, ignition functionality, and controls various other aspects of a cockpit, and it costs about $80.
The Saitek PRO Flight TPM System is about $130, and it allows minute and precise adjustments in the fuel mixture, throttle, and prop settings. In addition, the system also has a total of nine customizable buttons to provide greater control.
Those are just a few specific examples of the plethora of specific flight simulator controls available. Since most, if not all, of the functions provided by the three examples and numerous other devices are available from within the program of a flight sim, they could be considered unnecessary and extraneous additions. For those working to achieve the most realistic setup possible, though, all three of the examples above, as well as the many pieces of equipment not listed, would be quality additions to a person’s collection.
Virtual Flight and the Flight Simulator Controls to Achieve It
Aviation technology has evolved at an enormous rate since the Wright brothers first achieved lift-off in 1903. Within almost everyone is the desire to lift off the ground and soar among the clouds. Unfortunately, that dream isn’t accessible to everyone. Thankfully, though, flight simulation technology now gives anyone with a computer the ability to experience at least the technical side of flying a plane, if not actually providing the g-forces and wind through your hair. As people’s desire to more accurately represent all the various aspects of flight has grown, more and more components with ever-increasing levels of accuracy and complexity have been released. And with the sheer number of flight simulator controls available, anyone who wants it badly enough can achieve the intense experience of flying a modern day plane.