Hardware Review: Saitek Pro Flight Cessna controls
Note that this review is still in a draft form, and in particular will include photographs of the components later.
Background to the review
The background to this review is worth explaining. A new user to FG posted a request for help configuring his new Saitek Cessna controls on the FG forums. They didn't work out of the box as no configuration files existed for them, and he didn't have enough experience to write the config himself. I offered to help, intending to iteratively write configuration files and have him test them. This was going to be a very slow process, so I contacted Saitek and explained the issue. They very kindly sent me a full set of controls so I could write FG configurations files and this review.
The Saitek Pro Flight Cessna series are a set of official Cessna licensed controllers for flight simulators. They are intended to closely represent the controls on Cessna 172 - the default aircraft in FG.
The product line consists of
- Pro Flight Cessna Yoke (which includes a 3-level quadrant module)
- Pro Flight Cessna Trim Wheel
- Pro Flight Cessna Rudder Pedals
As of version 2.8.0, these controls are fully supported out-of-the-box in FlightGear. The rest of this review describes the controls themselves, a discussion of yokes vs. stick, a comparison between the rudder pedals and the competing CH Products pedals, and a final summary.
Saitek also produce non-Cessna branded Pro Flight yoke, quadrant and rudder pedals. Though I haven't used them, based on photos I expect they are very similar in quality and function. In particular, the rudder pedals appear to be the same chassis, but with different pedals.
The centre-piece of the controllers is a Cessna branded yoke. The 172 has been produced for more than 50 years, with a variety of different yoke styles, and I have only a couple of hours experience in the real thing, so I can't claim to say whether it's completely accurate. Saitek claim it's a 1:1 reproduction, and it certainly looks and feels close to the real thing. Obviously there are concessions to it being a simulator yoke - for one thing there are many more buttons than on the real thing, which typically just has a PTT switch.
The yoke movement is nice and smooth, and feels like it uses springs for centering. Left/right travel is 180 degrees, and forward/back travel 8cm.
All the buttons are mounted on the yoke itself, and there are a lot. Below is a quick run-down of the buttons, and their standard assignments in FG in v2.8.0. Of course, these can be change by editing the XML configuration file.
Left hand arm:
- Red button: Push To Talk (FGCom)
- Coolie Hat : View direction (Note that the granularity of the movement is controlled by the sliding switch on the right hand side)
- Left hand 4-way switch: Zoom In/Out (forwards/backwards), Change View (left/right)
Right hand arm:
- Black Button: Reset view
- 3-position sliding switch: Change view direction granularity.
- Vertical switch: Elevator Trim
- Horizontal switch: Rudder Trim
At the back of the yoke there is a set of USB ports, plus a PS/2 for the quadrant, and a 6V power input in case you need additional power for USB peripherals. I found this very useful, as I simply plugged the quandrant, trim wheel and pedals into this, and then had a single USB connection from the yoke to my computer. Of course, this doesn't solve the problem of having 4 cables all over the place!
Like all simulator yokes, this is quite a large piece of kit, and needs to be secured to the table using a supplied bracket. Its 28cm wide, 26cm deep, 10cm high. It comes with a bracket to secure it to a table surface, and it's worth noting that the maximum table thickness the bracket can handle is 5cm, and it extends under the table by 12cm. I had to change the table I use for my computer to provide enough space and appropriate thickness for the yoke.
So, what's it like to fly? Very nice indeed. It's got plenty of sensitivity and no sloppiness. For flying a GA aircraft like a 172, the Beaver or indeed a traditional airliner or business jet, it simply feels more natural than using a joystick. The buttons themselves are quite sensitive, and placed so that ones left thumb lies across both the 4-way switch and the coolie hat. The intention is that once can manipulate both controls at once so it's easy to zoom in while adjusting the view direction at the same time. However, due to the sensitivity of the controls it is a bit too easy to change view when trying to adjust your view direction. Some care is needed.
The Quadrant comes with the yoke, and is the standard quadrant that Saitek provide with their Pro Flight Yoke. It has three levers for throttle, propellor and mixture, with differently shaped black, blue and red knobs. As well as having the normal axis of travel, all three levers can be pushed past the 0% mark for reverse thrust, propeller "beta", or mixture cut-off. At present the FG configuration files do not take advantage of this, but Saitek's approach of using a "button" signal when in the reverse/beta/cut-off position would make this straightforward without compromising the use of the quandrant for aircraft that don't support such operations. Nicely done!
Underneath the quadrant are 6 buttons, arranged into three vertical pairs. These are well placed for flaps, gear and spoilers, and indeed that is how they are mapped in FG by default.
The quadrant is designed to sit nicely next to the trim wheel, or another quadrant, with a detent in the side to match them up, and identical profile. The knobs on the levers can be swapped around so you could purchase another quadrant and set it up with separate engine throttle, prop and mixture controls for each engine in a DC-3 or Seneca.
The quadrant can be mounted on the supplied bracket so that it either sits on top of the table, or roughly level with the table edge. This latter position places it more naturally relative to the yoke, but obviously means that it sticks out more. Personally I have it mounted high to keep it out of the reach of my children!
The quadrant connects to the yoke via a PS/2 connector rather than being a separate USB device. I suspect this was done to allow different assignments of the quadrant buttons when the mode selector on the yoke is changed. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this is that the quadrant cannot be used without the yoke. I had hoped to be able to use it with my joystick for flying the P-51d Mustang, which requires juggling the throttle and mixture during startup. Of course, one could just buy a throttle quadrant separately, but I'm not that keen!
Flying with the quadrant is much better than using the throttle control on my joystick. The movement has a good level of damping, and it's very nice to have a straightforward indication of the current setting, as there are percentage markings on the quadrant itself. I now stop the engine of the 172 properly by pulling mixture to 0, rather than switching off the mags. Of course, the real 172 has push/pull vernier controls rather than a full quadrant. Saitek do sell a set of these as their "TPM" product. I do not know whether this would work with FG, but I suspect it would with an appropriate configuration file.
While the yoke, throttle and pedals are similar to other products in the Saitek range, the trim wheel is unique. It consists of a single wheel set up to change elevator trim. Readers who have spent any time flying real aircraft will know the importance of trim, and while most joystick bindings include a control for trim, the experience is quite different. For starters, this is a real control axis, so the setting is not reset between flights. The first time I plugged it in and tried to take off with the FG 172, I stalled on take-off as I hadn't checked the trim position, having assumed it was set to the default. The second difference is that with 9 full rotations from full nose-down trim to full nose-up trim, there's a not of sensitivity available if you require it, or you can just roll in a "handful" of trim as you change from initial climb-out to cruise.
While a really simple control, I find this really adds to the realism of the sim. Rather than simply blipping the trim control on my joystick, I have to reach and turn the trim wheel itself on every attitude change. The wheel has the characteristic knobs of the Cessna controls, though I'm not sure if it's a 1:1 replica - I suspect it's slightly smaller to stay a reasonable size for the desktop.
The rudder pedals are big, widely spaced, and with a large knob in the middle to adjust the force required to move them from neutral. The pedals themselves are intended to mimic those of a 172, and have the characteristic "step" part way up the pedal. As with other rudder pedals, as well as providing rudder control by sliding forwards/backwards, each pedal has a toe brake, allowing differential braking.
I own a set of CH Products Pro Pedals, which I've had for many years, and they provide an interesting comparison. The major difference between the designs is the size and weight of the pedals. The CH ones are smaller and lighter, and requiring less force to move from neutral, even when the Saiteks are on minimum tension. The room I do my virtual flying in is carpeted, and a side-effect of the increased force is that the Saitek pedals need to be braced against the wall to avoid the chassis slipping, while there's enough friction in the carpet for the CH pedals to stay put.
Ergonomically, they are also different. The CH pedals are significantly narrower, with less space between your feet. This is a bit more realistic for the 172, as there's not a huge amount of space under the instrument panel. Where the Saitek pedals are better is in the angle your feet have to use for the toe brakes. The CH pedals are flat and hold your entire foot, and the rotational travel for the toe brakes is greater. This means you must sit significantly higher and closer to the pedals to be able to apply full brakes. When flying a fighter (or even a microlight) you feel that you are sitting up a bit too much when using the CH pedals.
For this reason, I've been using the Saitek pedals in preference to the CH. My simulator set-up is semi-permanent, and I don't move my kit around. If I had to put it away in a cupboard, the CH pedals would be a better choice, being smaller, lighter and a bit neater.
The full set of Cessna controls make for a very compelling simulation. Despite being one of the maintainers of the FlightGear 172, I'd not done much virtual flying in it recently, with the exception of using it to take part in the MP ATC events at the "EDDF Triangle" on a Sunday evening. Having these controls encouraged me to fly the 172 more. I thoroughly enjoyed doing circuits Livermore Municipal (KLVK), and Reid Hillview (KRHV). and cross-country flights around the San Francisco Bay area. There's something just "right" about flying the 172 with a yoke, and using the trim wheel as you pull back the power to descend. If I get bored with the 172, there are a whole raft of GA and commercial aircraft for which the yoke is the correct control input.
A yoke setup like this obviously isn't for those flying fast jets or WWII fighters. It also takes up a lot of space, and really has to be set up permanently. The yoke is sufficiently large that you can't simply reach around it to type, as you might with a joystick, though you could balance a keyboard on top!. Similarly, the quadrant and trim wheel will get in the way of trying to use your computer for other tasks. To set up the system properly, I had to replace my computer table with a larger one that I had in the garage, and set up a separate monitor specifically for FG. I'm quite happy with the results, though negotiation of the permanence of this setup with my wife continues. I may yet have to go back to a joystick and pedals. For many people the space requirements will be a deal-breaker, and a high end joystick is much more spouse-friendly.
There's no getting away from the fact that this stuff is not cheap. The Cessna yoke carries a premium over the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke, and the pedals are similar in price to the Pro Flight Combat Rudder Pedals. The yoke does come with a quadrant, and discounting that from the price makes it comparable with my high end joystick (CH Products Fighterstick). On that basis, the cost is more reasonable. The pedals are a bit trickier to justify. I think they are better than the CH Products equivalent, but I'm not convinced that the price differential is justified. The trim wheel is unique, and while it costs the same as a moderately priced joystick, it does offer a step up in simulation, and IMO is worth it for those flying GA aircraft and who have the space. You can justify it with the money you save flying FG rather than a commercial sim.