An alternative to using multiple monitors is a device called TrackIR, which works by translating head movement to motion on to the screen. This overcomes a major limitation of flight simulation on a single flat screen on which the viewing angle is limited by its size. ‘Shooting’ traffic circuits at airfields or aerial combat becomes much more natural as you are able to maintain better spatial awareness. The TrackIR is also very useful when looking around a virtual cockpit.
TrackIR 5, the latest version, is optimised for TFT monitors and has a wider field of view than previous versions. Track Clip Pro is a unit that clips directly to the side of your headsets and is powered by USB, projecting three IR lights directly at the TrackIR device rather than reflecting light as was the case before. As a result, the TrackIR device receives a much clearer signal and consequently translates head movements much more accurately. The device is not affected by ambient light and there is very little lag between head movement and the movement on screen.
Six levels of movement make it possible not only to look up, down, left and right but you can also lean out of the window when taxiing a tail dragger where visibility is low, look over the nose of an aircraft during landing or zoom in and out by leaning backwards or forwards. Similarly, you can lean forward and zoom in to gauges that are hard to read, or during a landing flare you can look up over the nose of the aircraft to get a better view of the runway. It would be fair to say that the TrackIR is one of the most innovative devices on the market and is well worth investing in to get that extra sense of realism.
See the September-October 2009 issue of PC Pilot magazine for a full review of TrackIR 5.
As graphics cards become increasingly powerful, more and more flight simmers are using multiple monitors to split the image across several screens to give a panoramic view of the outside world. One of the most popular methods to achieve this aim is to use a device called ‘TripleHead2Go’, which allows three monitors to run from one video card. The advantage of this device is that you can achieve a much wider view than with a single monitor, which in turn will give you much better spatial awareness, particularly during the approach and landing phase as the runway can disappear from view when turning on to your final approach.
Headsets are another area which is often overlooked. Good headsets, combined with a microphone, enable you to communicate verbally in a multi-user environment or you can talk directly to ATC, which gives you a better understanding and insight into how radio communication works in the real world. Good quality headsets offer voice recognition capability technologies such as VOIP (voice over IP) and VoxATC, which will allow you to use them in a multiplayer environment.
The ButtKicker is designed to enhance physical feedback in flight simulation. It amplifies sound from the audio output of the sound card and converts it into physical vibrations through a device attached to your seat. It is one of the most unique and exciting products on the market as the physical feedback reflects the different phases of flight. In combat simulators such as IL-2 you can feel the recoil of the cannons or machine guns or even the shock of impact as your aircraft is riddled with enemy fire. Similarly, you can feel the engines kick into life or vibrations as you deploy flaps or the landing gear or even the bump as you touch down!
CH Multi Functional Panel (MFP)
The MFP from CH Products is a good example of innovative hardware. It consists of a panel to which you can attach buttons in any order and assign a number of keystrokes to the press of a button using the CH controller software. This allows you to configure a number of controls to the press of a button and gives you the ability to fly with minimal keyboard input. It is also possible to link several panels together giving you virtually endless possibilities in configuring custom cockpits. If your aim is to minimise the use of the keyboard, this device is worth investing in. In addition, it is possible create custom templates to label the buttons on the MFP.
As well as hardware aimed at the enthusiast market, there is also a wide range of devices aimed at the serious flight simmer and professional market. This includes radio stacks, consoles and even fully functioning gauges that can be used to build custom cockpits.
Consoles combine a yoke with a throttle quadrant and a number of controls such as an undercarriage lever, flap lever, anti-ice systems, boost pumps, cowl flaps, magneto switches controls and lights. Consoles come with a high quality yoke and the ability to swap throttle quadrants, which allows you to set the units up for virtually any aircraft type. These units are very popular as training devices for student pilots or the professional wanting to stay proficient. Recently, they have received much interest from the flight simulator community, particularly those who want to achieve ultimate realism. Elite has been making professional consoles for a number years and recently Cirrus has also made its mark in the console market with some innovative products such as the Cirrus II console, which provides unrivalled functionality.
It is also possible to get more specialist hardware; for example, the helicopter controls from Flight Link. These are very popular with student pilots as they get the opportunity to enhance their rotary wing skills at the fraction of the cost of real lessons. The basic helicopter controls are replicated in detail, giving you cyclic, collective and anti-torque pedals, which operate just like the real thing. It is also possible to get additional components such as dedicated radio stacks and instrument panels, all of which further enhance the flight simulation experience and can be of great benefit for IFR training.
For the flight simmers who really want to immerse themselves in the hobby, building a replica instrument panel can be a very rewarding experience. Not only do you get the enjoyment of creating something unique, you also end up with a set-up that closely resembles the cockpit of a real aircraft. There are several companies on the market that specialise in custom cockpits and gauges.
GoFlight builds a variety of control systems based on modules that replicate real aircraft systems in detail. This includes units such as autopilots, avionics stacks or even complete centre consoles with throttles. These units are aimed at the more serious flight simmer wanting to take their experience to a new level of realism. Although these modules come at a price, it is possible to create highly realistic cockpits that replicate their real-life counterparts in every detail. For more information visit GoFlight’s website at www.goflightinc.com.
Another company that specialises in a wide range of hardware is called SIMKITS. It offers anything from yokes to individual gauges and even complete cockpit systems. There is a wide selection of gauges available that will suit almost any general aviation aircraft, ranging from the attitude indicator, directional indicator, airspeed indicator, vertical speed, to the altimeter, turn co-ordinator and the RPM gauge. Depending on your budget, you can build your own custom cockpit or even purchase a fully assembled cockpit. From a training perspective the SIMKIT cockpit offers a cheap alternative to flying lessons and you can gain a lot of satisfaction by building your own. You can find out more at www.simkits.com
Seagull Systems is another company that builds high quality smooth gauges aimed at the cockpit builder and the flight simulator enthusiast. It is possible to purchase the primary instruments including the horizon, airspeed, altimeter, rate of climb as well as the turn co-ordinator and a gyro compass, navigation instruments, such as the VOR/ILS indicator (NAV1) and NAV2 (without the glide slope indicator) and a fixed card ADF indicator. For engine instrumentation you can purchase an RPM indicator, fuel flow/EGT (exhaust gas temperature), fuel quantity, oil pressure and temperature, vacuum/amps and a torque gauge.
There is virtually an unlimited number of hardware devices to enhance your flight simulation experience. Whether you simply want to ‘dabble’ or build a complete system that replicates the cockpit of a real aircraft in minute detail, there is something available for you. It is also possible to create a realistic flight simulator set-up at a reasonable price. The variety of joysticks, yokes, throttle quadrants and rudder pedals enables you to customise your setup to your heart’s content – for example, you could invest in a CH Yoke, throttle quadrant and Pro Pedals or you can go down the Saitek route with the Pro Flight products. The Pro Flight Yoke or X52 used with the Pro Rudder pedals will give you a superb flying experience. Your spatial awareness and field of view is greatly enhanced by using innovative products such as the TrackIR or TripleHead2Go.
If you have the budget, the professional yokes or consoles from Elite or Cirrus are very well built and highly realistic. They are often modelled on the controls of real aircraft and allow you to manipulate aircraft systems at the touch of a button. Combined with a separate avionics stack, they allow you to fly almost without ever needing to use the keyboard. Finally, if your aim is more ambitious you can go down the route of building your own home-built cockpit based on a simple cockpit for a Cessna or a more sophisticated glass cockpit of an airliner flight deck – the choice is yours!
Extracted from an article first published in PC Pilot magazine Winter 2007