I've said it before, and I'm going to say it again: it doesn't matter how good the computer side of a simulation is if the human side, i.e. the controller, doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. The more that the controller feels like, acts like, and responds like the real thing, the more you will be immersed in the experience. On the other hand, the more lacking in fidelity a controller is, the higher the chance that rather than enjoying a rewarding immersive experience, you will instead quit in frustration.
Racing sims and flying sims are amongst those that either benefit from, or suffer from, an inadequate controller. In this case, I will be discussing a new controller for flight sims, the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke and Throttle Quadrant. Saitek is moving into flight sim controls in a big way, and it looks like they're going to give the granddaddy of these types of controls, CH Products, a run for their money. I've had a CH yoke for as long as I can remember, and regarded it fondly as the only affordable quality yoke out there. With a street price of around $100, and the only other viable alternative being the Jeppesen yoke priced in the $500 range, there really wasn't much choice. While affordable, the CH yoke drove me nuts in one important way: the pitch axis did not center consistently. The rod supporting the yoke seemed to be lacking in bearings and the pitch axis just seemed sticky. This made it difficult to precisely manage the pitch of the simulated airplanes, and rose the frustration level to the point where I simply gave up and concentrated on planes that are controlled with a joystick.
With that in mind, it should be no surprise when I tell you that the very first thing I did upon removing the Saitek yoke from the box was feel the spring action in the pitch axis. Low and behold, it had a smooth, consistent action, and also had a bit more spring force. That additional spring force is important too, in that it helps to keep the pilot from over controlling. Things were sure looking promising for the Saitek! As I looked at more details on the yoke, I became even more impressed. For example, one of the hassles of having a lot of disparate controllers (rudder pedals, throttle quadrants, etc.) is the collection of USB cables that have to reach down to the PC on the floor. The tangle of wires can be a royal pain to deal with. Saitek addressed that problem with the addition of a 3-port USB hub in the base of the yoke. Very slick! Of course, with my innate and highly tuned ability to find a fly in the soup, I found the USB cord that runs from the yoke down to the PC to be embarrassingly short. Smilin' Bob is going to need a lot of Enzyte to get this thing to reach to anything but a desktop box, if you get my drift. Easily cured with a USB extension cord, but still, it seems somewhat short-sighted (get it?) by the designers when compared with all of the things that they did right.
Another weakness in many controllers that mount to the edge of a desk or table is the mounting clamps. The clamp on the Saitek is the first ever than handles the odd edge of my desk with total aplomb. It mounts tight and stays tight! Nothing will make you scream like having the yoke separate from the desk as you pull back to flare for landing. The Saitek has never budged in the hours that I've been using it, and I have total confidence that it never will.
The yoke itself has a nice collection of controls on the top of each side to allow for the same type of HOTAS controls found in real-world airplanes. The left side has a hat switch that can be used for things like view panning or elevator/aileron trim, a finger switch that would be used to key the microphone in a real plane, and a forward/backward rocker switch that I chose to use for elevator trim. On the right, there's a big red thumb button that I'm currently using to change views, but will soon re-map to autopilot disconnect. There are also two more rocker switches, one going fore and aft, the other left to right. With the three rocker switches, you can configure all three trim axises. I found the rocker switches to be somewhat weak, though, in that they don't provide a solid 'click' feel when you use them. They work, but it's hard to tell that you moved them enough. a slightly more tactile feel would have been very welcome there. Finally, there is a 3-way mode switch for the right index finger, but I have yet to find a use for it.
At the center of the yoke, there is an electronic elapsed time timer that can be used for instrument approaches. Mine is kind of flaky in that it is very hard to read from straight on, but looks a little better when viewed from a top-down oblique angle. This doesn't bother me too much for the type of flying that I'm doing, but anyone practicing IFR instrument approaches would prefer for it to be more viewable.
The package includes a full-size, three-lever throttle quadrant that is vastly superior to the tiny levers that are integral to the CH yoke. When comparing the $150 price of the Saitek unit to the $100 price of the CH unit, this factor should be considered. In addition to the three full-throw levers, the throttle quadrant also as a row of three up-down rocker switches across the bottom. I mapped one of them to extend and retract the flaps, and would have loved to use another for extending and retracting the landing gear. Unfortunately, the default control configuration from Microsoft only allows for a single switch for controlling the landing gear, rather than allowing separate switches for each function. There's probably a way to edit config files for setting it up the way I want it, but I had no luck in finding a way to do it that wouldn't be overwritten every time I changed any other setting. Boo, Microsoft.
Saitek also provided a second throttle quadrant for review, which easily plugged into the USB port on the yoke. This allowed me to configure for multi-engine aircraft. The knobs on each arm of the quadrants are easily removed and interchanged, so it was a simple matter to reconfigure for a twin engine airplane's normal configuration of (going left to right) Engine 1 throttle, Engine 2 throttle, Engine 1 prop, Engine 2 prop, Engine 1 mixture, Engine 2 mixture. Saitek was clever enough to also include extra knobs, so it was possible to also configure a separate throttle lever for four-engine aircraft. Lacking a third quadrant, I mapped the mixture and prop levers to control all engines simultaneously rather than individually, but for the nominal cost of an additional $50 quadrant, you could do that.
So, you're no doubt asking, how did it fly? In a phonetically spelled, made-up word: sue-poib. As with most controllers, you need to spend a bit of time tweaking sensitivities and null zones, in addition to mapping buttons and axises. With Microsoft Flight Sim, the most important thing that I've found to good controllability is to set the pitch sensitivity to the lowest possible setting. Anything higher than that and you will spend a lot of time at Sea World: porpoising up and down uncontrollably. Once you have everything set to your personal style, the flying qualities of the yoke are rock solid. The yoke is big and beefy, just as you would expect when flying the big iron, and feels appropriate to the job of guiding tons of aluminum safely through the sky. The throttle levers, particularly in the case of a 4-engine plane, give you a gratifying handful of knobs to push forward for takeoff. The good centering action in the pitch axis combined with the good spring resistance make for a good feeling of control.
Other than the small issues I had with the yoke-mounted rocker switches and the short USB cable, I found nothing but exemplary performance from the Pro Flight Yoke and Throttle Quadrant. At a combined price of around $200 for the yoke and a second quadrant, the Saitek set comes in at a little less than the price of a CH yoke and twin-engine throttle quadrant, yet provides a nicer feel in flight. Saitek is definitely going to make inroads into a niche formerly dominated by CH Products with these new controllers.