Every seat's a window seat on BruceAir
I have long argued that an elaborate set of flight controls and other accessories isn’t necessary to make effective use of PC-based flight simulations. Flying is mostly a head game, not an exercise of finely-honed motor skills.
But if you’re the type of pilot—virtual or otherwise—who can’t suspend disbelief and get into the game without at least a simulacrum of a conventional yoke and engine controls, until recently you’ve had only one inexpensive choice, the CH Products Flight Sim Yoke. (Companies like Precision Flight Controls make yokes that resemble real airplane hardware, but prices for those accessories start at real airplane part prices—around $500.)
For more information about how PC-based flight simulation is being used in real aviation training, see Flight Simulator in Aviation Training here at BruceAir. You can also learn more about my books, Scenario-Based Training with X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator and Microsoft® Flight Simulator as a Training Aid: A Guide for Pilots, Instructors, and Virtual Aviators on their pages here at BruceAir.
Now you have a new option, the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and its companion Pro Flight Throttle Quadrant. (Saitek also offers Pro Flight Rudder Pedals, not reviewed here. For information about the complete Pro Flight line of prodcuts from Saitek, follow the preceding link.)
Saitek released the Pro Flight line in mid-2007, and apparently the accessories have proven popular. The units were on back order in early November 2007. The devices compete directly with the CH Products offerings (Amazon advertises the yoke and throttlle for $120.49).
Saitek has often shown more design flair than other makers of hardware, and the Pro Flight System components look sleek and solid. They’re made (mostly) of plastic, but they come close to re-creating that real airplane look and feel at about one-fifth the cost of high-end accessories.
(In fact, the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and Pro Flight Throttle Quadrant incorporate many of the main features and subtle touches that I specified for a flight yoke several years ago at Microsoft. But the Sidewinder hardware team decided not to proceed with the project, and Microsoft no longer makes joysticks and similar hardware for PCs. The company now focuses on controllers for the XBox.)
The Saitek yoke offers a typical set of basic features, plus some extra touches not available from the competition. The core functions include:
Extras on the yoke include:
In short, most of the controls you need for essential flying tasks are readily at hand.
The companion Pro Flight Throttle Quadrant matches the throttle nicely. It features three levers (by default, throttle, propeller control, and mixture) and three rocker switches. All of the levers include a detent at the bottom of the arc—useful for thrust reversers, propeller beta range, etc.
You can assign custom functions to all of the levers and controls. For example, if you fly a twin-engine jet, you can reassign the propeller control to act as a second power lever and convert the mixture lever into a flap or spoiler control.
The mounting bracket attaches vertically or horizontally, which makes the unit easy to clamp to the edge of almost any flat surface.
I’ve been trying the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and Pro Flight Throttle Quadrant with Microsoft® Flight Simulator X and Vista. I generally prefer to use a basic joystick for most virtual flying (it’s easy to move out of the way when I finish a practice session). But when I’m in the mood for an extended virtual flight, I find myself attaching the the Pro Flight Yoke and Throttle Quadrant to my keyboard shelf. The clamp mechanism is a handy bit of industrial design. It overcomes one of my long-standing objections to yokes and throttles—much of the time they’re too much trouble to fuss with if you don’t have a computer and desk space dedicated to virtual flying.
Flight Simulator recognized the yoke immediately, and with the Settings command in Flight Simulator, I was able quickly to configure the yoke buttons and throttle quadrant levers for the Baron BE58. (For more information about customizing control settings in Flight Simulator, see the Learning Center.)
The Saitek devices compare favorably to the direct competition, and even to much more expensive units. I recently test flew a $4500, FAA-approved console at an aviation convention, and although the yoke and other controls looked very much like the flight controls in a typical light-airplane cockpit, the control response didn’t feel much better than that delivered by the Saitek units, especially in pitch.
That’s a common problem that even the metal shaft and bearings that Saitek touts in its promotions can’t solve. It’s just not feasible to deliver fluid, precise, and timely response with the mechanical controls currently available—at least at prices most consumers are likely to pay.
Of course, no ground-based training device can reproduce the full range of feedback that pilots rely on when flying real airplanes in the real air. That said, the Saitek yoke provides a serviceable control “feel,” and after a few virtual flights, you’ll probably fine-tune your inputs to hand-fly effectively, just as you adjust to the differences in control responses among real airplanes.
For more information about the requirements that the FAA has established for Flight Training Devices (FTDs), see Fight Simulator in Aviation Training here at BruceAir, especially The Flight Model Myth.
Some of the people posting reviews of the Saitek system at Amazon.com and on the Saitek forums have reported a problem with random key-presses as they use the Pro Flight Yoke System. These phantom inputs seem to extend or retract the landing gear or make other changes to the airplane configuration or views. My tests did not turn up any of these issues, but Saitek seems to be handling complaints by exchanging units. More information is available on the Saitek support Web page.
To use the buttons and switches on the Pro Flight Yoke System and all the levers on Pro Flight Throttle Quadrant with Flight Simulator, you must spend a few minutes changing control assignments with the Settings command (see Using a Joystick [.pdf] in the Flight Simulator Learning Center). This process is a straightforward select-and-click operation that lets you specify which buttons control such functions as nose-up and nose-down trim, operation of the landing gear and flaps, and so forth.
To take full advantage of all toggle switches, buttons, and levers, you can use the SST Programming software from Saitek (it’s on the CD-ROM that comes with the Pro Flight Yoke System) that provides additional options, such as assigning sequences of keystrokes to buttons and using several modes (selected with switches on the yoke and throttle quadrant) that effectively multiply the number of controls available on the units. You can set up several profiles to use the yoke and throttle quadrant most effectively with different types of aircraft. Just load the appropriate profile when you switch from, say, a Cessna 172 to the BE-58 Baron or to a Boeing 737
The documentation for the SST Programming utility is on the CD-ROM. No real programming is involved—assigning functions to levers and buttons is basically a point-and-click operation.