Flight Simulator Hardware

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What flight simulator hardware do you need? Okay, everyone knows what a “Flight Simulator” is.  The name itself should give it away: a software-based simulation of aircraft flight controls, mechanics, and physics.  Tom Clancy’s Hawx, Air Combat: Secret Wars, MS Combat Flight Simulator, Rise of Flight, X-Plane, MS Flight Simulator, Lock On, are all flight simulators, right?  Wrong.

Flight Simulator vs. Airborne FPS.

In my article on strategy games, I gave voice to my opinion that so-called “real-time strategy” games are not really strategy games as defined in classic military terms.  The “flight simulation” genre has also fallen into that well of ambiguity.   Tom Clancy’s Hawx  and Air Combat: Secret Wars are not flight simulators, they are basically just FPS games set in the air; let’s call them Flight FPS, or FFPS, for short.  FFPS games have common characteristics: they usually have RPG elements such as skill points or leveling up; a story arc or plot; the flight models are very basic (more on that later); your primary view is limited to outside the cockpit (i.e. your POV is directly behind your aircraft); and your primary controller is mouse/keyboard or a console controller.  The dead giveaway trait identifying a FFPS: the game is a console port. You normally don’t necessarily need “real” flight simulator hardware.

So what makes a true flight simulator?  When will the game experience get much better with flight simulator hardware? Here it gets fuzzy.  While some flight sims do have elements of a FFPS; the ability to turn off or moderate certain flight physics, a campaign plot, various out-of-cockpit views, etc., these are usually done to attract a larger buying audience by appealing to arcade and FPS players as well as hard-core flight sim-mers.  Examples of these games are Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator and 777 Studios’ Wings of Prey.  But turn on all the realism options and these come a lot closer to the real thing.

Flight simulation purists may balk at these games and their point is valid.  Like any hobby, there is a small niche of people who will stop at nothing in their guest for realism; like this guy:

“Okay.  I know the genre of flight game I want to try, get me started!”

Flight Simulator Hardware
Flight Simulator Hardware

For basic flight sims, Hawx, Hawx 2, Air Combat, etc., a reasonably powerful machine will do just fine; Windows XP or Vista running on a Intel Core 2 Duo 6320 / AMD Athlon X2 4000+ or higher with at least 2GB RAM and a 256MB video card.  Those specs, of course, are about a decade old.  Any modern computer, aside from cheap netbooks and/or laptops running Atom or E-series CPUs, should be suitable. Look for at least a dual-core processor in the high 2.0 GHz range.  A quad core would be even better with 8 GB ram and a 1GB video card from ATI or Nvidia.  Just be sure and read the minimum and recommended hardware requirements before you buy for any game you’re thinking of buying.  Reading the user ratings on Amazon or Newegg will also help tell if your hardware will run a good simulator with all the eye candy turned on.

For controllers, I’d recommend at least an Xbox controller for Windows, either wired or wireless.  While you can play with a mouse and keyboard, it’s cumbersome and you won’t get the nuanced control that is sometimes needed.  To enhance your immersion into the virtual cockpit, get a flight controller.  Basic models by Logitech, Saitek and Mad Catz can be had for between $30 – $50 USD.  Just be sure it has a hat switch and enough buttons available (preferably programmable) that you won’t have to be searching your keyboard for your rocket/gun toggle switch.

Intermediate Flight sims.

If you want to get a ‘real’, albeit still virtual, taste of aerial combat; look into the IL-2 series by Ubisoft/Maddox games.  First released in 2001, IL-2 Sturmovik (Win98, Me, 95) is still available.  It has been continually updated and expanded through the years and 2007’s version, IL- 2 Sturmovik: 1946, remains one of the top-rated WW2-themed aerial combat simulations and garners much praise for its graphics, flight mechanics, and AI.  But taking advantage of this realism will require an upgrade in your hardware.  At this tier, you’re looking at replacing your joystick with a Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS), also called a Flight Control System (FCS).

My current HOTAS is the Thrustmaster T-Flight.  At $50 USD, this versatile system has separate flight stick/throttle bodies that can be used connected or separated, whichever is most comfortable.  It is also compatible with the PC as well as PS3 – a big selling point (hint, if you can, make sure your gadgets multitask. It’s cheaper.).  It also completely programmable; most of its buttons can be mapped to any function and you can set different profiles between your games and switch between them on the fly.

Here is the necessary hardware…the article continues below…

Advanced simulations – Can they really teach you to fly?

You’ve seen it in the movies.  Airliner doomed to crash in a ball of fire until a gamer steps up to declare that he or she can fly the plane cause they have 1,000 hours – on a flight simulation.  Sure, it’s treated as a joke on film, but team up today’s high-end computers with a high-end simulation and who knows?

Today’s audience for advanced flight sims is, I believe, very small.  The main reason is that there is not a great selection of advanced simulations being made.  Microsoft released a progressively more advanced series under its Flight Simulator series but it ended with Flight Simulator X in 2009.  However, the flight simulation community continues to develop terrain and aircraft models for MSFS, but no new product is in development through Microsoft. A competing product, X-Plane, released its tenth version in May of 2013 and is now wearing the crown abdicated by Microsoft as one, if not the, most advanced flight simulator available.

Note that X-Plane and the like are not combat flight sims.  These are real world airliners, cargo planes, business jets, and personal aircraft flown by virtual pilots, often in real time and following real-world flight paths.  A large online community often flies together; for example, each person will operate a cockpit station: pilot, co-pilot, engineer, etc. from their home PC.

If you want to get involved with this community you might as well as take out a second mortgage.  Purchase a Saitek PRO Flight X-65F Combat Control System and its companion rudder pedals will set you back almost $500 USD.  Saitek also supplies additional interconnectable flight modules to further expand the immersion factor.

Additional Flight Simulator Hardware

To further add to the realism, I can personally recommend Natural Point’s TrackIR 5 head tracking system.  TrackIR is teams an infrared transceiver with a reflector on your head.  With it, instead of using your joystick’s hat switch to look left, right, up, or down, you simply turn your head.  No, you don’t have to swivel your noggin 90 degrees to look over your wing, the TrackIR is adjustable so that only an inch or two of movement can do the same thing.  It is relatable to the Kinect sensor in function but more nuanced and able to detect the minutest movements and amplify them on the screen.

Speaking of screens, this next piece of advice applies to any game, not just flight simulations.  Here it is: get the biggest screen you can afford and have room for.  I’m using a Vizio 47-inch 3D TV as my PC monitor.  It’s mounted on the wall about 5’ away from my eyes and is GLORIOUS; especially if your eyes are going downhill like mine. A big screen is also unsurpassed in spotting small pixels moving around in the distance; whether an enemy soldier in Call of Duty or a Focke-Wulf 190.

We hope this article has helped introduce you to the small, but passionate, community of flight simulators and the optimal flight simulator hardware.  Do you have hardware or software to recommend?  Please let everyone hear you by leaving a comment!

Follow Neal West:

Neal West began war gaming as a teen with such Avalon Hill board games as Axis and Allies; Battle Cry, Squad Leader, and The Russian Campaign. When the PC was born, he started electronic gaming; first on the Atari 800 and on through increasingly advanced machines. Through his 20s and 30s, he amassed a considerable library of SSI, EA, Infocom, and Microprose games. Today, he collects FPS, RPG, racing, and simulation games and is always on the prowl for strategic and tactical level war games. Neal has two degrees in military history and has contributed to ArmchairGeneral.com and Historynet.com.

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