What is a Flight Simulator Cockpit?

The original article was published in 2014
 - Consolidated with other posts and Updated on 5th December 2016

We all know what an aircraft cockpit is – the place where the pilot sits and controls the aircraft.

But how do we simulate such a cockpit? It’s easier than you think.

Simply put, a flight simulator cockpit consists of one or more PC’s which are networked together to simulate the actual situation in a real aircraft cockpit. In addition, all that computer equipment has to be positioned somewhere – perhaps just on a table top or in a fully built structure which looks and feels like the real thing. The fatness of wallets will determine the degree of sophistication that we settle for. There is a whole sliding scale of increasing complexity (and cost).  From relatively cheap to eye-wateringly expensive, it all goes under the name of a “Flight Simulator Cockpit”

An Overview of what Cockpit Options are Available.

There are three main payware flight simulator software programs in popular use today:

  • XP – Laminar Research X-Plane (64-bit)
  • FSX – Dovetail Games’ Microsoft Flight Simulator X (32-bit)
  • P3D – Lockheed Martin Prepar3D (32-bit)

The following is applicable whichever simulator software you use.
In increasing order of cost and complexity:

  • The simplest flight simulator cockpit is a desk with a PC or a laptop on it. You control the aircraft with the keyboard and the mouse. Not very realistic but cheap.
  • One step up would be a joystick to control the aircraft instead of the mouse.
  • Two monitors instead of one allow you to see more.
  • Add/Replace the joystick with a yoke and a pair of pedals and you are gradually becoming more realistic.

Further improvements will usually necessitate a modified desktop or the construction of a dedicated structure. A better sense of reality is achieved using more than one PC:

  • The next step up the list is where one PC (the “Slave” computer) controls 3 monitors arranged in an arc to represent the external view, and one more powerful PC acting as the “Master” computer and controlling the virtual cockpit and all the avionics. An additional tablet or laptop is useful here to display charts, maps flight planners etc.  The virtual cockpit would be represented by two monitors side-by-side.

Now we start moving into the constructed-cockpit territory – the desk just won’t work any more:

  • Next in complexity would be to have some actual switch panels, throttle quadrants, radio panels added to the master. The Saitek and Goflight modules are what you want to look at here. The two monitors of the master virtual cockpit view would be replaced with touch screens.
  • Next up the scale would be when we wish to get a bit more professional about our cockpit and to get rid the distortions that a single 3-monitor wide image will give us. We now increase the three external-view monitors to six monitors to form a complete 180 degree field of view (FOV) and we replace the “Slave” with six PC’s – one for each monitor.

If you are into Airliners, you can go a few more steps:

  • A further step would be to have touch screen monitors above the pilot’s head and beside the seat and create representations of switches and indicators with special software which plugs into the simulator. This works particularly well with X-Plane. Software packages can be purchased which allow you to easily create your own active instruments. An example of such a package is Air Manager.

The next step is when your wallet is really able to withstand punishment:

  • For those who want a jetliner simulator that is pretty realistic, Goflight modules or Precision Flight Controls stuff is what you want to look at.
  • Better than this? Then you are now looking at a full-motion simulator which uses hydraulics to simulate yaw, pitch and roll.

A flight simulator cockpit in its simplest form consists of a single PC  connected to a couple of monitors, an inexpensive joystick is used for better control, and relatively cheap (but extremely sophisticated) flight simulation software is used to drive the whole system. This does, however, require a large amount of imagination since this setup requires you to visualize yourself at the controls and those controls – joystick, keyboard and mouse – have very little resemblance to the real thing. But, it’s cheap.

The Basic Controls in a bit more Detail

Once the idea of flying with a keyboard has been abandoned, the next step up in realism is to replace most of the functions performed by the mouse and keyboard with an actual dedicated control. The primary steering control becomes a joystick (if it’s an Airbus airliner or military jet simulation), or a yoke if the cockpit simulates a Cessna or a Boeing.

Picture of Flight Simulator Simple Joystick
Flight Simulator Simple Inexpensive Joystick
Picture of a steering yoke for flight simulator
Steering and Banking Yoke for Flight Simulator

Often a Joystick is sold together with a throttle device. Both the yoke and the joystick can vary tremendously in price depending on its sophistication and quality. Here is a more sophisticated joystick and throttle:

Picture of a Saitek X55 joystick and throttle combination
A very good joystick and throttle combination is the Saitek X55 .

A Flight Simulator fitted with  rudder pedals can add enormously to the realism of the simulation.

Pic of Rudder pedals
Saitek rudder pedals can look and work very closely to the real thing.

A much more sophisticated set of rudder pedals (with a somewhat higher price tag) is shown below (I really recommend these, by the way). They go by the name of MFG Crosswind Pedals.

Pic of Precision Flight Simulation Pedals
MFG Crosswind Precision Flight Simulation Pedals

All these devices shown here are connected to the PC via a USB port and software is usually installed with them to allow you to program the various switches and buttons on these devices as well as to calibrate them.

The above devices are all used on a Desktop simulator as well as an enclosed simulator housing. A “real” flight simulation cockpit housing is somewhat more sophisticated than a desktop. The computer (or many computers) are built into a housing of some sort and monitors take the place of the windows and cockpit gauges. In addition to a yoke/joystick and rudder pedals, instruments and controls can be bought to move the simulator further away from keyboard dependency and make each operation more realistic. Many flightsim add-on manufacturers actually make whole suites of devices to building into cockpit enclosures – an example is the company Saitek who make superb add-on units for flight simulators. 

Picture of saiteksystem

A Range of Cockpit Instruments and controls from the Company Saitek