Eighty years ago, if you had asked someone what the best flight simulator setup was, they all would have answered the Link Trainer. Flight simulators have come far since the quirky blue box.
The advent of high-quality, affordable consumer-grade simulator gear has allowed millions of people to experience the beauty of flight from the comfort of their homes. To have more options is always a good thing, but this selection quickly becomes overwhelming for newcomers and experienced users alike.
My first flight simulator setup consisted of a Logitech Wingman and nothing else. The venerable Wingman had a total of two buttons – one trigger and a big button that rested under the thumb. There was no twist grip, so I had to control the rudder using one of the rotaries at the stick base, with the other one serving as a throttle. These days I use a WarBRD stick grip and base from Virpil, plus a TWCS throttle and T.Flight rudder pedals by Thrustmaster.
Bottom Line Up Front
The best flight simulator setup examples depends on your needs. Virtual pilots looking for a portable solution can fly with a good gamepad. The HOTAS X brings the throttle and stick experience on a budget. If you want a complete package, the T.16000M FCS pack gives you high-quality HOTAS plus pedals, complemented with a DELANCLiP to help with situational awareness.
Specialized setups cost more but have the quality to back up the price tag. A virtual airline captain will be at home with the Honeycomb Alpha, using the Thrustmaster TCA quadrant for precise engine control. VPC offers uniquely high-end flight sticks and throttles under the MongoosT-50CM line, with the MFG Crosswind pedals completing the set for fighter pilots. The helicopter pilots can rely on the one-of-a-kind VPC collective, the VKB Gunfighter stick, and T-Rudder pedals for the authentic rotary flight experience. Virtual reality headsets like the HP Reverb G2 are perfect for immersion.
Flight Simulator Setup Explained
A flight simulator setup has different components. They will not have items in every category, as virtual pilots like to mix and match based on their needs and budgets. I cannot imagine flying without a joystick, throttle, and rudder pedals.
The stick is the heart and soul of any flight simulator setup. It is impossible to have enjoyable flights without two axes to control your pitch and roll.
The most common option is the joystick, connected to a base that contains the sensors. The stick base detects movement as displacement from the central position. PlayStation or Xbox controllers have one or two sticks that work on the same principle.
The other popular version is the yoke, comprising two vertical handles linked by a bar. The center of the bar has a horizontal shaft that connects with the yoke base. Pitch inputs come from pushing or pulling the entire yoke, while roll happens by rotating it around the shaft. A notable exception is the Thrustmaster TCA Boeing Edition, where the roll remains the same as in other yokes, but the pitch works closer to a traditional joystick.
A discrete throttle increases pilot comfort and input accuracy, allowing precise corrections. Throttle quadrants come with buttons, sliders, and sometimes mini sticks, expanding the controls available to you. Commercial throttles look like those in real aircraft, which means their functionalities are ideally suited to aircraft of a similar class.
Throttles follow the HOTAS (hands-on-throttle-and-stick) philosophy of modern fighter aircraft or follow the design of civilian aircraft. HOTAS throttles typically have buttons, hats, and often a stick to help pilots control the various complex systems such as the radar and guided missiles. Civilian throttle quadrants have two to six levers with a longer throw than their combat counterparts. Quadrants also have additional buttons, but these are fewer and placed on the base.
It is great to have dedicated rudder pedals for precise yaw control. Joysticks come with a twist axis that allows virtual pilots to command yaw. The movement range of twist grips is small, making small inputs almost impossible. Since the control is also on the stick, it is common to make unintended inputs when commanding roll or pitch. The lack of precision may not be felt as strongly by those looking to fly large airliners, but it is critical for prop and helicopter pilots.
Awareness is everything when flying, so it is no surprise that headgear is popular among flight simulator circles. The two main options are head trackers and virtual reality headsets.
Trackers such as TrackIR are generally cheap and allow three to six degrees of freedom (DOF). The downside of trackers is scaling. Flight simulators allow pilots to turn their heads 90º or more each way, whereas monitors sit right ahead. This scaling means turning 10º to the side translates to 90º or more in the simulator.
Virtual reality headsets shine with their ability to replicate movements on a 1:1 scale and add the all-important depth perception. Headsets are costly and have much higher hardware requirements than their flatscreen counterparts.
Clicking things in the cockpit is good, but some virtual pilots like to take things to the next level. Panels with screens and buttons are a popular way to turn a desktop into an actual real-life cockpit. I will not recommend them as part of the specific setup examples below because these are modular additions that can fit any rig.
The most versatile option in the market today is the Elgato Stream Deck. The Stream Deck is a compact, programmable button box that gives you plenty of menus and submenus. This format makes it extremely useful for flight simulators. You can have discrete buttons for armament, navigation, and utility functions or recreate the buttons on a multifunctional display.
Modern fighter pilots love the Cougar MFD set by Thrustmaster, a replica of the buttons used to control the F-16C avionics. Diehard helicopter fans sing praises to the VPC SharKa-50 control panel, a box with four handles, and a recreation of the autopilot, navigation, and armament panels of the Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopter. Logitech offers a wide range of additional panels for civilian flights, including radios, auxiliary switches, and even standalone instrument displays.
Flight Simulator Setup Examples
Picking the best flight simulator set up for yourself is all about knowing your needs and catering to them. The main things to look out for are what simulators you want to fly in, how much you are willing to spend, and how much room you have available.
Cheaper mass-produced items have common issues with quality control that can lead to problems later down the line.
High-end gear offers excellent precision and immersion but usually comes with high price tags and portability penalties that not everyone wants. Such items can also suffer from overspecialization, like yokes only suitable for airline and general aviation or collectives exclusive to helicopter pilots.
The Controller Warrior
You are a virtual player looking for a low commitment and hassle-free way to fly.
- Gamepad: Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller
Total Price: $59.99
Footprint: Very small
- Widely available
- Low precision
- No suitable throttle axis
- Few buttons
Many of my friends love flight simulators but need ways to enjoy them in a small, portable package. The reasons for this are different. Some of them have no room at home for a full-blown flight simulator setup, while others love the ability to fly on the go. I know truckers and airline pilots who take their gaming laptops and a controller on the road, allowing them to keep up with the hobby anywhere they go.
The limitations of the controller setup are obvious. The analog sticks on them are less accurate than those on joysticks. A gamepad has a few buttons to work with for complex aircraft. No handle or slider stays fixed in position, so controller warriors need to use keys to adjust the throttle incrementally.
If your simulation needs can cope with these limitations, the controller is an option to enjoy the virtual flight without committing a lot of money or space for it. The stick movement range on gamepads is not ideal, but it is adequate for many pilots. Microsoft Flight Simulator has had the best flight simulator launch in history because of its release on Xbox.
Laid Back but Well Equipped
You are a budget-conscious pilot who wants a proper stick and throttle experience.
- Stick and Throttle: Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS X
Total Price: $69.99
- Most affordable HOTAS set
- Comfortable throttle grip
- Wears out fast
- Fewer buttons than its competitors
If you want to get an immersive flying experience, you will need a stick and a throttle. I spent six years using a Logitech Extreme 3D Pro standalone joystick, but in 2014 I upgraded to the Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS X. The difference was massive.
Despite having similar build quality and being in the same price range, the HOTAS X adds an independent throttle with buttons and a large rocker axis. This feature is not a substitute for actual rudder pedals, but I felt the movement range and independence from pitch and roll axes made it much better to control yaw.
The Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS X occupies a special place in the market because it offers a HOTAS experience but costs way less than other similar setups. In my opinion, the HOTAS X throttle has fantastic ergonomics and accuracy. The stick is adequate, and I miss the number three button that rests under the index finger. Pilots struggling with space can link the throttle and the stick bases into a single block.
The main downside of the HOTAS X is longevity. My joystick has served well for years, but I noticed a small dead zone forming on the stick center after three years.
Flying Like a Balanced Expert
You are a demanding virtual pilot seeking precision and realism without breaking the bank.
- Stick: Thrustmaster T.16000M
- Throttle: Thrustmaster TWCS
- Rudder: Thrustmaster TFRP
- Head Gear: DELANCLiP
Total Price: $327.00
- Excellent value
- Accurate stick and throttle
- Affordable quality head tracking
- Low precision rudder pedals
- Narrow spacing between footrests
Virtual pilots getting more serious about this can find the previous options lacking in precision and buttons available. This setup tier introduces rudder pedals and head tracking to make the simulation experience more immersive. The flight peripherals listed below are part of the Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack, a single-purchase item that gets you a good joystick, throttle, and pedals for a solid price. I got myself this set back in 2017 and have very few complaints.
The T.16000M joystick is the cheapest option to use Hall effect sensors to track inputs. The specifics of this technology are outside the scope of this article, but the practical implications for virtual pilots are exponentially higher precision without the mechanical wear associated with potentiometers. The stick comes with twelve buttons on its base. Some are not easily accessible when throwing the joystick around, but they are fit for auxiliary functions.
The TWCS overall layout draws inspiration from the F/A-18 throttle. This is a single throttle axis instead of the two on the Hornet.
As far as pedals go, the TFRP set is modest but capable. There are individual left and right toe brakes to make ground handling more comfortable. The pedals on this set use regular potentiometers instead of Hall sensors. The spacing between the footrests is small compared to other pedals. Using them is awkward for some pilots, but it diminishes the space needed to use the pedal.
Head tracking comes in many flavors. TrackIR by NaturalPoint is the most established head tracking brand in the market, but other companies have risen to the challenge. DELANCLiP provides excellent solutions at less than half a TrackIR 5 set.
A Boeing Captain’s Dream
You are an avid virtual airliner pilot looking for an immersive flight deck.
- Yoke: Honeycomb Aeronautical Alpha Flight Controls
- Throttle: Thrustmaster TCA Quadrant Boeing Edition
Total Price: $430.00
- Best yoke in the consumer market
- Affordable realistic throttle quadrant
- Limited use outside of airliners
- More expensive than stick and throttle setups
It does not take an expert to understand that flying a 150000 lbs airliner is different from wrestling a MiG-21. Airline flying is a lot more peaceful than fighters, but at that size, you need separate throttles and a proper yoke to do the job right.
Honeycomb Aeronautics introduced the Alpha during the Microsoft Flight Simulator hype. The Honeycomb yoke boasts an incredibly smooth roll and pitch, excellent angular resolution, nine switches on its base, and thirteen on the grip. The Honeycomb Alpha even has a five-position ignition switch to make engine starts more realistic. It is hard to put into words how well-crafted and luxurious this yoke feels in your hands.
The Thrustmaster TCA Quadrant line is a compact but realistic recreation of classic Boeing throttle quadrants. It comes with three axes and modular handles to configure as you see fit, depending on how many engines you have. The movements are smooth, the build quality is good by Thrustmaster standards, and it feels like the real deal.
However, if you are the type that prefers Airbus to Boeing, Thrustmaster offers the TCA in Airbus flavor too. The Officer Pack comes with the iconic Airbus sidestick and a compact version of the throttles for $189. If you want the set with four axes and plenty of extra buttons, the Captain Pack offers that for $279. The sidestick is similar to the T.16000M, sharing the same base that gives it good accuracy and plenty of additional buttons.
For Modern Combat Enthusiasts
You are a fighter pilot at heart who loves the thrill of immersive virtual combat.
- Stick: VPC MongoosT-50CM2 Grip and WarBRD Base
- Throttle: VPC MongoosT-50CM3
- Rudder: MFG Crosswind V3
- Head Gear: HP Reverb G2 VR Headset
Total Price: $1665.00
- High-quality components
- More buttons than any competitor
- Very customizable
- Costly compared to other options
- Not always in stock
- High hardware requirements due to VR
The MongoosT-50CM2 is the latest iteration of VPC versatile stick grips. The overall design looks like the Sukhoi Su-57 fighter control stick. A great feature of the MongoosT-50CM2 is the analog paddle in front of the stick. This tool accurately replicates the braking system used on Eastern Bloc aircraft such as the MiG-21bis and the L-39, but it serves well in western aircraft. For example, this is perfect as the autopilot standby paddle on the Mirage 2000C.
When I made the jump into VPC controls back in 2020, I expected good things. These are expensive items that ship from the far end of Europe, meticulously built in a workshop by talented professionals. Once I finally received my stick, I was in awe. VPC bases have set a standard in build quality, durability, and ergonomics that greatly surpassed the top-end offers from Thrustmaster.
The ideal throttle for this stick is the MongoosT-50CM3 Throttle Control System. This heavily programmable throttle quadrant has two main axes with multiple configurable lift detents to fit different needs. My friends use them for engaging the afterburner, but you can also set them up as idle detents for more immersive start-ups. The throttle handles have dozens of buttons plus one mini stick and three additional axes. The base packs six programmable push buttons, three axes, and seven two and three-position switches.
The MFG Crosswind set has been the gold standard of flight simulator pedals. The pedals are machined using a CNC lathe, have excellent ergonomics, and are highly customizable. Crosswind pedals use Hall sensors to reduce mechanical wear and increase accuracy. The Polish artisan that makes them introduced a new variant in 2021, with reinforced internal components to make them even more durable.
The HP Reverb G2 is currently considered the best VR headset in the market for Digital Combat Simulator and Il-2: Great Battles. Its main advantages are resolution and image clarity, which are crucial when scanning hostile skies for bandits.
The Rotor-head Special
You are a diehard fan of advanced rotary wing contraptions that fly as a triumph of ingenuity over common sense.
- Cyclic: VKB Gunfighter Mk.III Modern Combat Grip
- Collective: VPC Rotor TCS Base and SharKa-50 Grip
- Pedals: VKB T-Rudders Mk.IV
- Head Gear: HP Reverb G2 VR Headset
Total Price: $1590.00
- A real collective for proper helicopter operations
- Cyclic and pedals that feel closer to helicopter controls
- Depth perception for VR makes hovering easier
- Costly compared to other options
- High hardware requirements due to VR
- Not suited for fixed-wing aircraft
I love helicopters. I joined in on the rotary-wing craze with DCS: Black Shark in 2009, and I have yet to see a simulator title that does a better job at these marvels of engineering. The controls to enjoy them took a while to arrive, however. For decades, rotary-wing enthusiasts worldwide have begged peripheral makers to come up with an actual collective, so they could finally stop using fixed-wing throttles for the job.
In 2020, with input from real-life helicopter pilots such as Mi-8 veteran Aleksandr Podvoisky, VPC released the Rotor TCS base collective. The base comes in western and eastern flavors, represented by grips based on the Ka-50 attack helicopter and the UH-60 utility helicopter. Both grips come with hat switches, buttons, and three-way switches, which are fit when flying any helicopter model. The Rotor TCS attaches to the base of any chair and has an adjustable resistance to make movements more comfortable based on personal preference.
The VKB Gunfighter stick is highly customizable, which allows you to set soft springs with no discernible center emulating the feel of cyclic control. The number of buttons on the top fits even for the AH-64D Apache in DCS, a monster that requires more bindings than the human brain can process.
The VKB T-Rudders Mk.IV pedals let you change the springs to remove the centering motion. On helicopters, the anti-torque pedals traditionally do not return to the center. From the cockpit, this means you can make your corrections and then rest your feet on the pedals or even lift from them, while the helicopter will maintain its trajectory until you make new inputs. The T-Rudders do not have toe brakes, but this is not something you need.
After over two decades in flight simulators, I have come to find my sweet spot with different hardware. Flight simulation prices can skyrocket rather quickly. It is easy to spend a lot of money without seeing a proportional improvement in experience.
For combat simulations, the best value is the Thrustmaster T.16000M FCS pack. For $259, you get a good stick, an outstanding throttle, and an adequate set of rudder pedals. The pack is fully modular, so you can swap components on the go if you feel the need to upgrade any of them. After three years with mine, I changed the T.16000M stick for a VPC WarBRD, similar to that on F-5E-3 and Mi-24. The original was pretty good but felt a little too light for me.
In terms of civilian simulators, there is no beating the Honeycomb Alpha. That yoke is a work of art, and nothing in the market comes close to it in this price range. The Thrustmaster TCA quadrants do not enjoy the same build quality, but they are great recreations of those on the real Airbus and Boeing aircraft. If you specifically want to fly airliners, rudder pedals are optional. You can complement the set with the TFRP or the VKB T-Rudder to get good pedals for flawless crosswind landings.
Question: What do I need for a flight simulator setup?
Answer: The bare minimum equipment you need is a controller with a two-axis joystick.
Question: How much does a flight simulator setup cost?
Answer: A flight simulator setup costs anywhere from $30 to upwards of $3000.
Question: Do I need a gaming monitor for flight simulators?
Answer: No. Gaming monitors with high refresh rates are great, but many flight simulators do not reach the frame rates required to get the best out of them.
Question: Are there controllers for helicopter pilots?
Answer: Yes. VPC introduced a purpose-built collective in 2020.
Question: Which device do flight simulators use?
Answer: Most flight simulators use a stick and throttle. Professional options require rudder pedals as well.
Finding the best flight simulator setup is all about knowing your needs. The examples I put together are good guidelines for different user profiles. The great thing about putting your home cockpit together is that you can always change things to your liking. With the advice in this article, you will surely be able to find the best flight simulator setup for you!