I think this is a first for AVSIM and any other major flight simulation website. We’ve reviewed yokes and pedals before, and even some pretty nice individual hardware. This time though we are reviewing hardware that’s the real deal for flight sim training. Walk into any real world major flight training center and you will find flight simulators.
Actually I shouldn’t just call them “flight simulators”, they are more correctly referred to as “flight training devices” or FTD’s and PC based Aviation Training Devices or PCATD’s. There are actually some more distinctions to be made and they can get confusing first time through… as well as the second and third time through. These distinctions range from an FTD with no visual systems, FTD with visual systems, PCATD which is like the FTD with visual system except the unit is run by a PC computer and the flight instruments are usually displayed on a computer monitor, BATD which is a PCATD with more switches and controls, AATD (Advanced Aviation Training Device) which usually comprises a full aircraft panel, and finally the FSTD (flight simulation and training device), and FFS (full flight simulator).
The last two require not only visual systems but also motion platforms allowing for spatial disorientation training and are generally found only in really large aviation academies, airline training programs and government military flight training schools. The cost of the latter is truly staggering.
There were old distinctions of PCATD’s being a PCATDa or PCATDb depending on how complex the units were. That has given way to a newer naming system of Cat I through IV, each successive number representing a more complex and complete training experience. In general the PCATD will qualify as a Cat I system and covers flight controls, engine power management, and radios. Move up to the Cat II and III and they are called BATD’s and you add switches for the electrical systems, the most distinctive difference I can see moving up to Cat III is a manual trim wheel and few more switches.
Cat IV’s are also called AATD’s and comprise a full panel and have become popular for Garmin G1000 and Avidyne Entegra glass panel simulations. All of this is really geared to take you away from having to use or even think about your simming involving a computer or any keyboard/mouse combination. The distinctions then are really geared towards what kind of situations and procedures you are capable of simulating with that equipment. Reach for a mouse or keyboard or have to bring up a window to view something and you’ve just crossed the line from FAA certified sim training into entertainment non-certified simming. Even with all the fancy equipment, if you don’t have an instructor sitting/standing there watching over you (and they have some control over what you are experiencing) the time is not loggable.
Talking about logging time, what exactly can you log? PFC equipment has been certified for use for flight training in the USA and Canada. In the US, the FAA will certify this equipment for up to 2.5 hours towards private pilot training and 10 hours towards your instrument training. Want to move up to a commercial license rating? You can log up to 25 hours with this equipment. In addition, you can perform instrument recurrency training (all of that is with an instructor present, of course).
So who is PFC? Precision Flight Controls was formed in 1990 to meet the demand for high quality flight simulation hardware for the growing PCATD market. In the past 15 years they have distinguished themselves as having one of the highest quality products available and a truly cost effective solution when compared to the highly expensive and sometimes temperamental FTD equipment that formerly was the only choice.
PFC hardware has been utilized in research studies conducted by the FAA Human Factors Laboratory in Oklahoma City and NASA's Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment (AGATE). Their products can also be found at many other prestigious institutions including the United States Air Force Academy, United States Forestry Service, Boeing, General Dynamics, and United States Navy.
So How Did I Luck Out Anyway?
PFC was one of our exhibitors at the AVSIM FanCon in Seattle last November. Eric Whiteside, their special projects manager, brought two full units out to show at the event. One was a full Cat III system utilizing their newest C2 console, complete with manual elevator trim wheel which was hooked up to the electric trim yoke switch… neat stuff. The other was a full Cat II system using the Cirrus II console (one of their most popular training units ever) that was used by the Charity Flight folks for their "around the world" flight with donations going to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children's Foundation. That unit was running 24 hours a day during the FanCon and was handled by a lot of people. If you attended the Seattle FanCon and donated to their cause, you got to fly this unit first hand.
I had been talking with PFC for over a year about reviewing their C2 console. Being a real pilot and starting some work towards my instrument ticket, this seemed like a perfect opportunity not only to test the equipment out for simming, but also for some real home sim instruction use using programs just like I would at my local FBO. At the end of the show, the Cirrus II Cat II system was boxed up and sent back to my office for the purpose of this long term review. When I showed up at the house with these three big boxes my wife asked “OK… what did you go out and buy now?” I just smiled and started unpacking boxes. Even though I’d seen the unit and had flown both at the FanCon, I couldn’t wait to get it out and look it over closely.
Unpacking and Setup
Let me first say that the packaging is designed to protect these units with foam corner inserts and plastic air bubbles. PFC has sent these units all over the world and they know how to protect them from all but the most ham fisted delivery service.
Upon unpacking the Cirrus II console, I notice that the landing gear lever was broken… what? I called up AVSIM’s John Binner who had helped pack it up and he told me that it had happened when some dutz was playing around with the unit and hadn’t been instructed that the gear lever has to be pulled out first when changing its position and had forced the switch. He said not to worry, PFC had sent spare parts just in case something like this happened during the FanCon.
I also noticed that there was only one diagram for hooking up all the wires that come out of the back of these units, no printed manuals. I went to PFC’s website and was able to find all the information I needed and downloaded the needed modules for FSX and FS2004 as well.
I found the spare parts bag and there had actually been two spare switches sent for the gear. They were a heavier duty switch and when I talked with Mike Altman at PFC, he explained that they had gone to a heavier duty model of the switch just for this reason. If you tried to force the old switch you could bend and eventually break the metal stalk. The new one has a larger shaft and hopefully just from looking at the way it is made, most people would figure out you do have to pull it out first and then move it.
I cautiously took all the screws for the cover off the Cirrus II and found that the insides are as impressively finished as the outsides. Clean nicely laid out circuit boards, neatly organized wire runs with fasteners and solid connectors. Oh… and the landing gear switch… there it is. Remove two wire contacts, unscrew the nut from the outside and the old switch pulls out from behind, new switch pushes in and the nut goes back on. Now unscrew the old landing gear handle from the broken shaft and screw it into the new switch and all is fixed.
The bearings and support structure for the yoke are quite heavily reinforced and is one of the features that really sets PFC equipment apart from most all competitors. You can grab onto the yoke and shake it around and it doesn’t budge outside of its normal designed movement. THIS feels like a real aircraft yoke. It is solid, you can feel the weight and inertia when you move it. Same goes for the ingenious throttle sliders.
There are six spring-loaded rods that will stick out of the unit and interact with one of many throttle quadrants that thumb screw onto the console. This allows for proper emulation of single engine aircraft with carb heat, with a fixed pitch prop, or complex single. If you are into twins, you can choose between the standard unit with throttles on the left or the Baron unit that has throttles in the middle positions.
If you want to try your hand at a turboprop, there are two to choose from; one for single engine and one for twin turboprops, each with proper metal detents that you have to bring the levers past to engage reverse thrust, feather the props or cutoff the fuel. You say you want to fly jets, well take your choice between twin, triple and four jet engines to control. On the jet unit's levers they are also there for speed brakes and reverse thrust or flap setting like their real world counterparts. Understand that not all of the throttle quadrants come with your purchase. Console purchases come with two throttle quadrants, the most popular combination being single complex and standard twin engine version
Now, I just lucked out when it came to getting the Cirrus II console and not the C2. Why would I say that? The C2 is the newer unit and has the nicely built in remote instrument console, post lighting for nighttime use and manual trim wheel. It also measures 29 ½ inches wide. My computer sim desk has an opening 28 ½ inches wide making the 28 inch wide Cirrus II a perfect fit.
I cleared my desk of my old CH equipment and ACP Compact which have served my simming habit well for the past few years. Gave the desk a good dusting, as well as opening up the computer case and vacuuming the accumulated dust out of it. I set the Cirrus II up on the desk and was delighted that it fit like it was made for it. Now, this equipment was designed in the days of using serial ports for this type of equipment and while most newer computers don’t even have a serial port, thank goodness for serial to USB adaptors.
What is surprising is that I went from using four USB ports to only using one. The Cirrus II does require a power supply which is included and when I started hooking up the wires to attach the rudder pedals, radio stack and remote instrument console, I was delighted that PFC had labeled and color coded all these connections. They couldn’t have made it any easier to set up.
I thought about hooking this unit up with the TripleHead2Go unit I have, but instead decided to use my 21” Trinitron monitor which better emulates use as a BATD. I am now deciding on whether or not to get a 28” widescreen which would fill the space above the console nicely and place the radio stack next to the unit.
With the monitor set on top of the Cirrus II and the desk reassembled with all wires and electricals in place, I decided it was the moment of truth. I plugged in the computer and hit the power button. No smoke… no burning smell and no blue screen of death, so far so good. I installed the PFC drivers for both FS2004 and FSX and they run a little install program that verifies your registry entry for FSX, connection with SimConnect and that you have an up-to-date version of FSUIPC 4 installed… if you don’t, it will install a recent although possibly not the latest FSUIPC 4. You will need FSUIPC 3 to use the PFC equipment with FS2004.
Peter Dowson wrote the module used for the PFC equipment and it shows the same attention to little programming details that he has earned with FSUIPC. It is quite easy to understand and use. Once you’ve set up which comm port the hardware is plugged into, it starts communicating and has logging ability to track down any problems. The combination of the PFC module with a registered version of FSUIPC gives you complete control over all buttons and functionality with this hardware.
So How Do I Like Flying With It?
If I told you that this has transformed my simming experience, would you believe me? Finally… FINALLY I have found hardware that gives a feeling of being in the cockpit and not having to touch the keyboard or mouse from engine startup to shutdown.
Now I do have to give an explanation as to how I could accomplish that given that Microsoft’s ATC utilizes key presses. I frequently don‘t use FS ATC, I have been and will remain, a fan of Tegwyn West’s brilliant programming of VoxATC. When I set up the Cirrus II, I made sure to program one of the yoke buttons for the push-to-talk for use with VoxATC, so just like when in a real cockpit I want to talk to the tower or approach, I dial in the correct frequency, wait to confirm no one else is talking then key up and speak… look Mom, no mouse, no keyboard!
I’m also utilizing my TrackIR4 Pro but when I setup the yoke button for view selection, I made the decision to make it a switch. Push it one way for the 2D panel, press the other direction for the VC. So I can enjoy the smooth hi-res gauge movement of the 2D and if I want to look out my windows, I can switch to the VC and pan around using the TrackIR.
For entertainment simming, I do prefer the VC with the TrackIR but as I stated in an earlier review, if you are using the sim for actual IFR type training, the VC can be an annoyance and the fixed 2D panel is far more realistic and appropriate in that setting.
One of the software classes for IFR training I picked up just before getting this equipment, was American Flyers IFR refresher courseware. It consists of 14 individual flying lessons laid out very much like your IFR training syllabus, each one building on the last. They cap it off with the final three all being part of an IFR cross country, each with a different kind of approach at the end.
Repeating this 12 hour training course with the Cirrus II Cat II hardware was a pure joy. The equivalent of going through the same type of training at any simulator equipped training facility at a FBO, or doing it in an aircraft with an instructor next to you for that matter. Now with the proper equipment, I could concentrate on learning the procedures as they would be handled and flown in the real aircraft; changing radio frequencies, verifying identifier codes, tuning radials on the omni, setting your DG and altimeter setting all by turning the appropriate knob. I even used the timer function on the ADF for flying approaches and holding patterns. Man… I can tell you holding patterns on a NDB with a 14 knot crosswind are a true test of piloting skills.
I haven’t talked much about the other parts of the Cat II hardware; the rudder pedals and the digital avionics radio stack with remote instrument console. The rudder pedals have been reviewed before at AVSIM many years ago by someone that hadn’t really used rudder pedals. I have used my CH rudder pedals for years and while I am used to them, I never felt that they conveyed a very realistic feeling of real rudder pedals.
Now these PFC pedals are heavy; steel and aluminum in construction with springs and are self centering. Their travel may be less than most aircraft I have flown but the overall feel is very realistic, the further you press them the harder they get to push. The toe brakes take some setting up to calibrate them so that you like their feel, and they can take a considerable push to get them to stop the aircraft and this is not far from reality. You don’t want overly touchy brakes in an aircraft.
The digital avionics radio stack is a thing of beauty; dual knobs, labeled buttons that really work. It was designed to emulate the Bendix/King line of radios found in a majority of training aircraft and includes the radial feature on the nav radio. This allows you to alternately display the standby frequency or the radial from the tuned VOR station. The ADF has all the settings like the real unit including flight elapsed timer, and stopwatch functions. The autopilot and altitude preselect use MSFS variables so they will work with all default and many aftermarket aircraft (as long as the programmer used these same variables they should work).
The DME has switches to select Nav source and RMT/Freq/GS/T, just like its real world counterpart… I think only Dreamfleet has programmed their radios with this kind of true functionality. The GPS buttons send a signal to the sim although their original programming was for the Trimble autopilot used in pure IFR PC based simulations. With a registered version of FSUIPC you can assign the GPS buttons to work in FSX and FS2004. I set the on/off button to the GPS popup display and the respective buttons to their sim counterpart, so I can pretty much operate the GPS via the radio stack buttons. The lower row of buttons on the radio stack have preprogrammed functions and can also be modified via the included module for the PFC hardware.
One of the real surprises i found using the radio stack for flying with VoxATC, was that I could use the secondary com radios. Now in MSFS VoxATC is Com 1 only, Com 2 does not communicate with VoxATC and I have been happy to let Com 2 be relegated to duty for weather via Active Sky’s reporting feature on 122.0.
The ON/OFF buttons for the Com radios on the PFC radio stack actually switch which Com Unit on the radio stack is sending to the Com 1 port for MSFS, so I can have ground and tower set up on Com 1 and departure and FSS set up on the Com 2. When it comes time to switch to the other radio, I just hit the ON/OFF button on Com 2 and those frequencies are now picked up on the Com 1 set in MSFS, meaning they work with VoxATC. To switch back to having the Com 1 on the PFC radio stack, I just hit the ON/OFF button on that unit.
This doesn’t mean you can be receiving on both at the same time, but it certainly adds to functionality for my use and in all honesty, I doubt PFC even thought of this when they made it this way. If you are watching your onscreen radio displays, the Com1/Com2 will be out of sync when you are using this function but when you have the hardware radio stack with digital displays, there really is no need to use the onscreen radio displays.
I couldn’t wait to get a twin up so I changed the power quadrant out for the twin engine one. Easy job, just unscrew two thumbscrews, pull off the single engine quadrant and push the twin quadrant on and replace the thumbscrews. This time it is pure entertainment simming, so I am in the FSX Baron looking at the throttle levers as I move them on the Cirrus II, switch on the main power, make sure the emergency brake is set, fuel selectors on, strobe on, push the throttle forward an inch and left mixture all the way forward and turned on the left fuel pump briefly.
My wife probably wondered what the heck was going on when I yelled “CLEAR PROP” from the sim room. I twisted the mag switch past right, left, then both and all the way to start and the prop started spinning, it lit off and I released the mag switch and adjusted the throttle for a 1,000 rpm idle. Now same procedure starting the right (no, I didn’t yell “clear prop” again). I then set up the radios for a quick flight out to Newport.
I know the Nav frequencies and course settings by heart. Yes, I could have used the autopilot but flying by hand with this kind of equipment is so much more fun. I will point out that I did change out the gauges in the default Cessna and Baron with RealityXP’s FLN and FLT package. Their clarity and realistic needle movement are a significant improvement over default gauges and blend well with this type of hardware.
I had asked Mike Altman at PFC to send me out a turboprop quadrant since I also wanted to check it out. Now Aerosoft’s Cheyenne would seem the perfect aircraft to go flying with, but I have to tell you that because of its very specific gauge programming, not all switches and knobs on the PFC hardware work with Aerosoft’s Cheyenne. I found that I frequently had to be relegated back to the mouse to get certain switches and knobs to do what I wanted them to.
Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but it does leave the Cheyenne as an entertainment title only (yes, that is what it was intended for as well). The turboprop quadrant is a beautiful piece of work though. Longer levers and a metal gate that you need to laterally push on the levers to get them to move past. All in all, a very realistic item if you are planning on simming with turboprops. All the quadrants have a friction lock that you can adjust so that the levers require just the right amount of pressure to move. While I did like my CH Throttle Quadrant, the ease of moving the levers and their detents were not realistic at all.
Another nice surprise while doing research for this equipment, was that a module was being developed for Richard Harvey’s FlyII which is still on my computer. I got in touch with Chris Wallace who had been working on the .dll for FlyII and he still had the code on his computer. After reacquainting Chris and Mike Altman, Chris got to work putting some finishing touches to it and now has it working in almost all the aircraft I have loaded in FlyII.
PFC had been working with the development team for FlyII with the hopes of having it be a true IFR approved simulation software before Richard Harvey passed away. There were some items that the overseeing software company didn’t deem important enough to warrant changing that made IFR certification impossible, so the whole project unfortunately got dropped. Now with the go ahead to release the module, anyone with PFC hardware will now be able to utilize FlyII and the things that it did do well. I was surprised to see just how much of the radio stack was functional in FlyII. I had read that this wasn’t possible with my ACP compact but obviously it was.
Now for a kind of bad news, my elaborate CFSIII installation with Firepower, Korean Theatre, Mediterranean Air War, and Over Flanders Field all won’t be recognized by the PFC hardware. Neither will my 1930’s era Golden Wings and 1960’s era Silver Wings (with Dave Blitzer and team’s 4 course radio range).
These are secondary installations of FS2004 (my TrackIR4 Pro doesn’t work with these last two either). I was able to use the CH yoke and pedals with GTR2, GT Legends and Grand Prix Legends for race simming, also not supported by the PFC equipment. Reason being is that the PFC control surface inputs are not treated like a traditional joystick input so there’s nothing there for the software to recognize and use. I’ll probably get a good steering wheel and race pedals since I always intended to anyway… but losing CFSIII is kind of a bummer. On the other hand, so little time and so many sims, you gotta let some things go.
Here’s how the CAA liked it
I made a presentation at the Columbia Aviation Association in January of this year about using flight simulators for advanced avionics training. The presentation was really centered on what software and components to buy for real pilots to utilize with flight simulator in their homes to help with familiarization training.
We talked about Flight 1 Tech’s Avidyne Student trainer and Mindstar’s Garmin G1000 and then the hardware one would need to really best simulate real world use. I brought along my entire home sim computer with the PFC Cirrus II Cat II hardware and borrowed an LCD for the gauge displays and then set up a secondary projector for the "out the window" view. I also brought along my laptop and used a second projector for its "out the window" view as well as all my old CH hardware.
These were set up side by side, so pilots could sample both units and compare. It was the first time I had pulled the CH products back out and used them after a month of using the PFC equipment. Oh my goodness! The difference was so stark as to be almost embarrassing.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always budgets to consider and thank goodness we have joystick manufacturers like CH and Saitek that make yokes and pedals. When I started simming, your only choice were goofy little joysticks that more closely resembled controllers for RC aircraft. But having these units side by side was like having a plastic toy next to real industrial hardware. Yes, you should expect quite a difference for the cost disparity and this example really demonstrated that, in this case, you DO get what you pay for. If you price out PFC’s “Flight Simulator Combo” on their specials page you’ll see that for roughly double the cost of the plastic hardware, you can have the PFC hardware and I can’t imagine ever needing to replace them.
In the shots below you’ll see LCol Clee Lloyd flying the F1 Tech Cirrus SR22 on the PFC hardware. Now Dr Lloyd has over 500 hours in F-15’s, so he immediately started shooting high yo-yo’s and making strafing runs on unsuspecting AI airliners landing at KPDX. There was quite a crowd watching from behind and when he finished, he remarked that this equipment was as good as any of the simulator equipment he had used in his training with the Air Force. Both computers were set up using FS9 with Flightscenery’s FlightZone 2 Portland and all the pilots were amazed at the "out the window" graphics.
All the CAA members had a blast shooting about the simulated skies that night and they’re still talking about it and looking forward to the next time I bring out the sim equipment. CAA’s past president Brig Gen Jack Bramsman commented that the club really has to get one of these! Hopefully by mid year, CAA might finally realize their plan to have a FAA certified simulator for member use
Summary / Closing Remarks
This is really highly specialized equipment, so I don’t expect it to be for everybody. It costs more than many computer/sim hardware combinations out there, so I can understand an initial sticker shock. I can’t imagine any simmer that wouldn’t want it or envy someone that does have it.
The readers of AVSIM though are great in number and diversity and there are also many readers that are real pilots, even own their own aircraft and know first hand the cost of actual operation. In fact, I have recommended to many of the CAA members that ask about setting up a home sim, that they consider getting PFC’s flight sim combo which consists of their yoke, quadrant and rudder pedals, and as I already mentioned, the cost is roughly double of buying the plastic equipment. An investment that years later will give the satisfaction of money well spent.
In fact, add a radio stack to the latter and you can have a Cat I PCATD. The more that the sim can be moved out of a novel curiosity and into a real training tool, the better if that is your primary usage.
And what about this PFC equipment vs a true FTD? I have experienced a true old school LINK trainer, an ATC 610 and a FRASCA FTD at flight schools in the past. Understand that these FTD’s are designed solely for instrument procedural training and when it comes to the instrument panel, what you see is what you get.
The FAA is also not too specific about flight dynamic envelopes and a generic FDE that allows simulation of straight and level, altitude changes, procedure turns and approaches is all that is necessary for these units. The PCATD and BATD being computer based, allow for running programs that can have much more finely tuned flight dynamics to better represent the FDE of a particular aircraft… and change for a different one even on the fly!
Panel depiction is another area the computer based unit has the advantage. Want to fly with a basic six pack? You got it… oh, want to add a HSI into the mix? No problem. Change the single needle ADF for a two needle RMI? Easy. Make a panel that looks just like the aircraft you own or fly? You can usually find the gauges to do it with.
How about a full glass panel? Flight1 Tech already has their Avidyne Student program available for familiarity training of the Avidyne Entegra displays. Mindstar has their Garmin G1000 simulation which remains a work in progress but has so much more functionality than the default FSX units. I also know that there are monitor bezels in the works so that when these programs are fully functional simulations, the physical hardware will be available to make them fully legal for training purposes. Presently, real world Avidyne and Garmin units can be built into full panels which are called AATD’s (remember those advanced aviation training devices mentioned above?) and yes, you do pay for the real avionics in those units.
A word on that glass panel simulation business. Entertainment sim developers and true flight training sim developers have a gap that needs to be understood. When it comes to entertainment, close is usually good enough, hence the FSX Garmin G1000 is a decent visual depiction of what the real unit looks like in basically normal use. Start pushing buttons though and you realize that this is only a partial simulation and many functions use different key presses or don’t even exist at all.
While this is viewed as fine for entertainment purposes, it is a big NO NO in the sim training world. You can’t kill yourself in a sim, but it unfortunately happens in real aircraft, so 100% faithful reproduction in avionics is a must have when you are looking to get not only FAA approval, but have flight schools purchase the product. 99.99% is not good enough. Get a real pilot in a high workload situation and watch his/her reaction when the avionics don’t respond as expected/trained. Bad news and worthless for training purposes.
I mentioned logging actual time earlier in the review. Presently, you have to be using a FAA approved IFR training flight simulator program (these are more expensive than FSX, and the graphics aren’t geared for entertainment), or even the approved version of X-Plane, and remember a flight instructor has to actually be present when you make your flight.
At present Microsoft’s FS9/FSX doesn’t carry a FAA approval for simulated flight time and I am not sure if the present EULA will even allow for such use… maybe that has been reserved for the ESP platform. You can, however, log ground time with an instructor while using a PC based flight simulator hardware and FSX or FlyII, and for that the simulator does not have to carry an FAA approval.
understanding of the FAA regulations is that an individual
simulator installation of FS9/FSX can receive an FAA approval with a site
inspection but these are
difficult to accomplish. I am in the process right now, so
I know. The regulations are currently undergoing review and what is true
today, may change tomorrow
and my talk with the local FSDO indicated that the regulations
were getting tighter, not easier, so the situation may be that
only flight schools will be
allowed to get this approval.
What I Like About The PFC Cirrus II Cat II Hardware
What I Don't Like About The PFC Cirrus II Cat II Hardware
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