For us fans of PC flight simulation, the ultimate goal has always been a realistic home cockpit with tons of switches, knobs, buttons, and levers to give us that extra edge and forever do away with having to use a keyboard.
The biggest question when approaching your home cockpit should first and foremost be: How much can I spend? In the world of flight sim peripherals, it is not unusual for realistic components to cost way over $500 dollars. Many remedy this by building their own gear which, I will touch upon later on in this review. For most people, however, they will not be able to go that route and will instead focus on purchasing equipment for their ‘pits. We are targeting this build for gamers with lower to mid-level budgets.
The second question you should ask yourself is what kind of sim would you like to build? A realistic replica of an existing jet fighter? A jumbo jet? Cessna? While going the route of a replica build is awesome and sure to turn heads, it does limit you from using your build for other types of aircraft. For the lower-budget simmer I would recommend building a generic home cockpit that can be used for several types of aircraft.
This TRC Cessna Cabin Retails for $19,000 Dollars!
Since we are building a generic style flight simulator setup, we chose to go with a commercial ‘gaming cockpit’ desk and, since we had an Obutto laying around from our review of that product, we chose to use it. For the most part, the structure will be one of the most expensive single pieces in your home pit. Obutto gaming cockpits start at $478, not counting triple monitor mounts or central flight stick mount. There are several options for you to choose from, however. SC Simulations has a gaming cockpit starting at $499 while PlaySeats has a flight simulator gaming chair for $449. Of course, instead of going with a gaming desk/chair like those already mentioned, you could go with a more generic desk option as well, saving that extra cash for better peripherals. Whatever structure you choose, just make sure it has room for lots of peripherals as well as up to three 24-inch LCD monitors. For triple-display flight simulation, you really should not go under 24-inch wide-screen displays as the height is just too small for comfort.
A special mention must be made of home cockpit structure designer, SimSamurai.net, who offers some really exceptional designs, both in pre-built and plan form, for decent prices. Their structures often wrap around the simmer and even offer pilot/co-pilot frames!
Whatever aircraft you hope to simulate, you will need to control it. That means, generally-speaking, a flight stick and throttle assembly. If you are mainly planning on civil aviation simulation, you will probably want a flight yoke instead. However, for our purposes we have chosen to go with Thrustmaster’s HOTAS Warthog system. While not cheap, retailing for over $450 dollars, it provides an exceptional build quality made of very durable metal and as well as a ton of customizable controls. This is one category where personal preference really matters as a flight stick or yoke may be fine for one person’s hand but too small or large for another – so, whenever possible, try out the controller before you buy. HOTAS, for those of you who do not know, stands for Hands On Throttle And Stick, and usually allows virtual pilots to move quite a few commands and inputs from the keyboard to the stick and throttle so that you rarely have to remove your hands from them.
Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog
On the flight stick and throttle front, you have several top-notch models to pick from for a variety of price points. On the high-end, you have the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog and Saitek X-65F (which features a very cool force-sensing control system similar to that found in the US Air Force’s F-16D blk. 52 Fighting Falcon). The mid-level crown must definitely go to Logitech for their G940 Flight System, which includes not only a force-feedback enabled flight stick and throttle quadrant, but also a set of rudder pedals. This is currently the only system on the market right now with all three. For the lower-end of the price range, my money goes to CH Products Flight Stick and Throttle controllers. You may have to buy them separately but each will provide you with rock-solid feedback and response. If you are looking for REALLY low price point flight sticks, you should direct your attention to Thrustmaster’s HOTAS-X flight stick and throttle system. It is great entry-level HOTAS setup that will allow even novice pilots to get off the ground.
Rudder pedals tend to be in a class by themselves. Only one company currently bundles a bundle set of rudder pedals with other inputs and that is Logitech in their previously-mentioned G940 Flight System. For the rest of us, we have to pick up our rudder pedals on their own. For this, there are the ‘pro-sumer’ pedals on the market from folks like TRC Simulators and the consumer options from companies like CH Products and Saitek. For our purposes, we chose to go with CH Products ‘Pro Pedals USB’. CH Products has been in the rudder pedal-making business for many years and that quality and longevity will be very apparent to you after using them for a while. The best part about the CH Products Pro Pedals is that they have both rudder and toe brake functionality! This far more realistically replicates true aircraft rudder pedals than those with only rudder functionality. The Pro Pedals simply plug in to a USB port and are ready to use. Just be sure to double-check the rudder assignment in your flight simulator to make sure the axis are assigned properly. Installing the CH Products Pro Pedals was very simple, just plugging it into an available USB port. They do offer a useful customization program but, for our purposes, we did not require it.
After getting the basic structure and controls out of the way, we can turn our attention to other the numerous other systems found in your virtual aircraft. This category of peripheral is the most vast, with some high-end companies even offering USB analog gauges! Most gamers will not be able to plunk down that kind of change (some of those single gauges go for over a $1,000 dollars), so we have decided to go with two additional controllers that have made a huge difference in how we play.
The first of these additional controllers is the X-Keys XK-24 programmable keypad from PIEngineering. Featuring up to 24 independent, programmable keys, the keypad makes a perfect controller to assign things like a CDU (Control Display Unit) or UFC (Up Front Controller). In our current simulation of choice, DCS: A-10C Warthog, we used one XK-24 as a UFC and the other as a side-seat radio control pad due to its macro-recording capabilities. The best part about the XK-24 is that it comes with special long button plates which take up two button spots but allow for a more custom look. In most UFCs, the Enter and Master Caution Reset buttons tend to be longer, rectangular buttons. These long button plates are perfect to replicate this! Installing the XK-24 is simple – just plug it in and install the macro software. From there, you assign button presses to each of the keys on the keypad. The XK-24 also features two different color modes, blue and red, which I use as a personal reminder to myself when I go ‘Fence In’ and ‘Fence Out’ (into and out of hostile territory). These tend to be used in more commercial applications, and their construction reflects this. They are extremely durable and a great fit into any home flight simulator setup.
The next controller we selected for our home cockpit was the Tack & Toggle panel from VRInsight. We actually got ours from SimWare Simulations as VRInsight does not sell direct. Thankfully, SimWare Simulations was quick to respond and provided good customer service. The Tack & Toggle panel features six rocker toggle switches, eleven traditional toggle switches, and 15 illuminated push-buttons. These are all programmable and feature USB input. The variations between the types of switches allowed us to separate out the controls by location as well as actual switch. For instance, you can assign the electrical panel controls to the toggle side, then CDU functions to the push-button side or however you like. We found the centrally-located rocker style switches to be perfect for external and internal lighting. This multiple-use functionality hearkens back to the beauty of building a generic cockpit – controls can be anything you like, as opposed to hyper-real setups where switches have to mirror their real-life counterparts.
After getting all the hardware in place, it was simply a matter of assigning the controls a function assignment inside the simulator. Being able to control the flight sim by the control peripherals alone was an excellent way to fully immerse myself into the experience. There is nothing quite like going through the pre-flight sequence flipping actual toggle switches with the tactile response they provide.
We will not tell you how to build a custom panel in this article just because of their highly-personal nature but, if you want to take the plunge into creating your own custom panel containing any combination of switches, displays, knobs, and whatever else you can think you, here few things to consider.
The first thing to consider is what functions you would like your custom controller / panel to be able to accomplish. After deciding on its functions, layout the switch / control layout with either a CAD program or good old pencil and paper. You are going to want to measure out the dimensions of your controller to know how much construction material you will need. This brings us to construction material. Many home cockpit makers prefer woods like plywood for their home panels. While wood is very durable and easy to work with – unless you are a master craftsmen, chances are it is going to look somewhat amateurish. If you want to go with something that has a far more professional feel and look, you may consider going with ABS plastic electronics enclosures. You can find a nice 10x6x3 inch enclosure online for about $15 dollars. You can then drill and mount your screws and lighting directly into this enclosure and have a slick-looking peripheral once complete.
The final thing to consider when building your own custom panel is how to get those switches and other inputs to send a signal to your PC. The easiest way is simply to get a USB IO board like the Leo Bodnar BU0836X or the Groovy Gamer GPWIZ-40. These allow you to wire up your switches into the control board and plug that board into your PC via USB cable. Your PC then reads the switch inputs as it would any other USB peripheral. In my personal experience with building a custom panel, these cards made doing so a real breeze. I purchased switches with Quick Connect terminals and had a very easy time wiring it all together. Best part about the USB input board I listed here? No solder! They have simply screw down terminals to connect your .22 gauge wire.
Displays / Head-Tracking
Many sim pilots like to add an additional level of immersion to their sims by using a head-tracking system. This is a system which allows you to look around your simulator’s virtual cockpit not by using the standard hat control but your actual head movements.
The most popular of these solutions if NaturalPoint’s TrackIR 5 Pro. The effect of what they call the ‘Six Degrees of Freedom’ can be a bit difficult to get used to – especially when using the mouse to click on virtual buttons inside the virtual cockpit – your head wants to fight the view system at times. However, while in a dogfight and without a traditional padlock view, you will find the TrackIR setup gives you a lot of situational awareness that you did not previously have.
Putting it All Together
Once all together, the peripherals work as one to create an excellent flight simulator experience. Right now, we are pretty heavy on DCS: A-10C Warthog but the setup can be used equally well with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X or even a racing title if you change out the flight stick for a racing wheel. With the generic setup, your options are only limited by your will and your pocketbook. So, until next time, check six!
We would like to thank the following companies for donating hardware to this article…