Aircraft Control in Flight Simulator Cockpits

FSX, P3D and X-Plane can all make use of different devices to enable you to manage your simulated aircraft. There are a number of ways of controlling your aircraft which can all be used in a flight simulator cockpit – very often a more sophisticated cockpit can use all of these input devices – not just one. Here in South Africa, there are various specialist computer shops that sell these devices, or I can get them for you, or you can import them yourself via the internet and a credit card.

Listed in order of sophistication:

  • The simplest method of aircraft control is using the mouse and keyboard. Familiar, reliable and not terribly realistic because the closest you come to a keyboard in a real aircraft is when you program the Flight Management Computer (FMC) or a GPS unit. A mouse is seldom used in a real cockpit.
  • The next method is using a joystick. This has indeed got its real-world counterpart in an Airbus cockpit or in a modern fighter jet. In a flight simulator, this is the absolute minimum you can get away with – it is really painful to try and drive a flight simulation system with only a mouse and keyboard. The joystick can itself vary between just a simple single stick unit like this:
Picture of Flight Simulator Simple Joystick

Simple inexpensive joystick for flight simulator

or a combination joystick, throttle unit and lots of switches like this:

Picture of a joystick and throttle combination

A more sophisticated joystick and throttle simulator.

  • Next in line of sophistication is a special variant of joystick – foot pedal units which work fairly realistically in a flight simulator cockpit for controlling the rudder and the toe brakes exactly as in a real aircraft: 
Picture of Rudder pedals

Rudder pedals can look and work very similarly to the real thing.

  • Next up the scale would be something more realistic than a mouse – the ability to flick a switch or press a button by physically using your finger. The device used here is a touch screen monitor where your finger taps an image of a control and if that control is programmed to react to a mouse click, it will also react to a finger touch. In a built-up flight simulator cockpit, the virtual cockpit is often represented by touch screen monitors thereby enabling you to press the image of a button on the monitor. Touch screen monitors vary tremendously in price – beware of the very cheap ones that are sold for retail-shop systems since these have a fairly course sensitivity and are frustrating to use in a flight simulator cockpit:
Picture of a touch screen monitor

Finger tapping or dragging on a touch screen can simulate a mouse-click and a mouse-drag, and goes a long way to making the cockpit operation more realistic.

  • In order to assist you looking around the virtual cockpit, a company called Naturalpoint create a handy device called TrackIR . This is essentially an infra red sensor which reads infra red light from 3 LEDs mounted to your headphones, and thereby tracks your head movement. This is then translated into the panning operation that you would normally perform a POV (Point of View) motion with a HAT switch on your joystick:

    Field Of View & Amplification Diagram

    Sketch showing the principle of TrackIR.

  • The ultimate in sophisticated controls for a flight simulator cockpit is a set of actual flight instruments. These might be devices like gauges or switch banks specifically created for flight simulation, or they might even be real instruments obtained from real aircraft being broken up for scrap with some customized electronic circuitry added to make it interface with the computer – usually by USB port.  
Picture of Saitek Flight Sim instruments

Some of the Saitek FlightSim instrument range.

As always, “you gets what you pays for”. The cheapest flight simulator system just runs with a standard mouse and keyboard, while the most sophisticated cockpit for virtual aviation use all of these devices and can cost eye-watering amounts!

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