by Ray Marshall
These are truly exciting times for those fortunate enough to own a flight simulation chassis. New to the market is a ready-made Avionics Panel that will significantly improve your existing Volair Flight Sim Chassis in a very short time with minimal effort.
Take a quick look at these images. On the left is the standard Volair Fight Sim Chassis, in the middle the new Avionics Panel has been attached to the panel tray. On the right is a fully populated Volair Flight Sim Chassis with yoke, throttles, and triple monitors added with FSX, FSS:SE, P3D, or X-Plane running.
In mid-year, 2013, I authored the Avsimreviewhttp://www.avsim.com/index.php/_/reviews/mad-catzsaitek-flight-simulator-cockpit-r690 of the Volair Flight Sim Chassis that has brought me hours and hours of sheer pleasure as I watched and participated in the Lockheed Martin development of P3D and Dovetail Games steadily improving the new Steam Edition of FSX. During these 3 ½ years of steady improvements to our simulator platforms, not much was happening at Mad Catz’s Saitek Pro Flight store. A few months ago the full Saitek line was purchased by Logitech.
X-Plane was also being progressively improved during this time and all this Saitek hardware and the Volair equipment can be used with X-Plane. I don’t have XP and therefore don’t know much other than what I read in the forums.
Sure, Saitek was the first and primary supplier of an affordable full range of hardware for the everyday flight simmer looking for something more to use with their Cessna Yoke and Pedals. For those looking for a good flight stick and throttle that wouldn’t break the bank,you could get the relatively inexpensive X52 Pro Flight System Controller and 3-lever throttle that could be attached to a matching 2nd unit for a 6-lever throttle unit and a big trim wheel that looked like it just came out of a Cessna 172. Then Saitek introduced an expensive little box that could be mounted in a flight panel and display any instrument with the proper software drivers. You could cycle between instruments with a couple of small arrow. It was a big improvement but got fairly expensive if you bought 6 or 7 of these little guys.
These little black boxes known as a FIPs, or Flight Instrument Panels would end up being a key item for home Flight Simulator Chassis builders on a budget.
As companions for the FIPs Saitek introduced several “Panels” that were designed to be stacked over, under, or next to other panels or FIPs to make a very flexible and practical layout for flight simulator avionics panels.
Well, it didn’t take very long for our flight sim community gurus to figure out how to eliminate the 6 button legends and use the full space for creative new images. It did take a couple of years for the new third-party SPAD.neXt drivers to be developed that would blast open the doors to the development labs and enable the use of Lvars and such.
Main line developers like FSXTimes and FIPgauges were quick to introduce mind-blowing multiple gauges in a single unit and replicate just about anything that could be found in a real world avionics shop or airplane.
We went from the standard Saitek, plain vanilla gauges above to the high end multi-use gauges shown below.
It is no small wonder that Saitek garnered a reputation for deplorable customer support and failed to promote the use of third party support for advanced gauge designs and more user friendly drivers. I was not at all surprised to hear that Logitech had bought them out – lock, stock and barrel – as we would say in Texas.
A future Avsim review will delve into the inner workings of this new SPAD.neXt driver based manager for the new and improved Lvars and original Saitek drivers and programs. It will also feature some of the more popular new gauge designs by FSXTimes.com and FIPgauges.com along with the windows edition and iPad edition of Sim Innovations Air Manager app. Look for this review around Easter.
Don’t get sidetracked worrying about your Thrustmaster, or other makes or models of flight instruments and hardware because this new Volair Avionics Panel is designed specifically for Saitek Panels and FIPs. A side benefit is that with a little Velcro or a couple of metal tabs an iPad can be mounted in lieu of a cluster of 6 FIPs or 2 panels. Not only is this a practical mix but can also be a money saver. (One used iPad2 ~$150 – one Saitek FIP - ~$150)
When used with the companion VolairFlight Sim Chassis it is a simple matter of aligning 4 pre-drilled holes along the bottom of the new Avionic Panel and insert the four supplied bolts, washers and nuts and tighten with the wrench that is also supplied. Now it is just a matter of populating the nine full sized slots with your Saitek Yoke, panels, FIPs, blanks, and maybe an iPad or two.
You can install your Saitek panels in the Avionics Panel either before or after mounting it on the VolairFlight Sim Chassis tray. You can also trade places with panels from the front of the unit with only a screwdriver.
The real decisions are going to be related to exactly where in the panel you are going to place your Saitek panels and FIPs. For many, the judicial use of the supplied 5 blank panels and two divided panels will help determine your final layout.
The center bottom slot is reserved for a Saitek Pro Flight or Cessna Pro Flight Yoke, but, as you will see, this Avionics Panel is flexible enough to house any of the existing panels.
Here is a quick glance of the Volair Avionics Panel as it comes out of the box.
I was brainstorming with my graphics program and using some cut and paste images to see how I might mount my existing Saitek panels.
Having eight (8) Flight Information Panels, FIPs created a small problem for me, because I don’t want to buy another one to come up with the magic number 9 that would neatly fit into three slots. I ending up choosing to add 6 FIPs and put two in a drawer for backup or future use.
After a little head scratching and changing my mind a time or two, I have more or less determined that I will not use my Saitek Cessna Yoke and will instead mount the Backlit Information Panel, BIP, in the slot designed for the yoke. It looks similar to this layout template that I made using cut and paste with my graphics program. The actual Avionics Panel looks much better than this image. That is an image of aniPad in the middle above the Switch Panel.
I first mounted the Avionics Panel on the Flight Simulator Chassis Tray as shown in the two page instruction sheet. I then promptly removed it, by simply removing the 4 nuts and moved it over to my small desk. This created a problem when using standard monitor stands because the monitors sit too low to be fully visible over the top of the Avionics Panel.
A temporary fix for me was to cut a couple of pieces of Styrofoam to use as a base to elevate the monitors. A more permanent solution would be a sturdy tall basefor the monitors made of wood or something more substantial than left over molded Styrofoam packing material.
Because I prefer to sit in a desk chair and use the x52Pro flight stick on for my right hand and the companion throttle unit for my left hand with a wireless keyboard and mouse in the middle, this new Avionic Panel provides a perfect arrangement for my existing Saitek hardware.
It is not that the very sleek racing chair that comes with the Volair Flight Sim Chassis in not comfortable, it’s just that I spend more time reading, researching, and writing than I do flying the flight simulator. I also have a weak back from those 10,000 hard landings by my student pilots from the old days. I also only have one room dedicated to my hobby and I have 3 stand-alone desktop computers so I use the newest and fastest to do my work at my desk.
I normally use a 24 in. Dell triple-monitor arrangement but have been having difficulty keeping all 3 monitors up and running. When one failed several months ago, I replaced it with a used monitor from Ebay, then another one failed. I have been dragging my feet deciding whether to buy another used monitor or start over with 3 matched new 27 in. HD monitors. This review will use my remaining two good monitors so I can get it in the publishing pipeline for Christmas. My Volair Flight Sim Chassis has a nice 27 in Dell ultra-sharp monitor that might end up with matching sides one day soon.
I had three days to consider my first arrangement as I waited for the UPS delivery of the 20 pound box containing the Volair Avionics Panel. The trip from Indiana to Mississippi consumed the normal 3 days transit. I was surprised the unit weighed that much.
Because I had read the panel top or covering was a padded carbon-fiber looking material I was expecting a lighter weight unit. I should have known that Bart at Volair would basically overbuild it with plenty of heavy metal framing. Even the blank plates are heavy metal, and must weigh a pound or more – each – and there are five of them.
If I decide to make the new Avionics Panel on my desk with triple monitors my permanent setup then I will need to drill four holes in the desk to properly secure the panel because it is definitely top heavy – almost 12 inches tall but less than 5 inches deep. The exact measurements are 11 5/8 inches tall, 4 ¾ inches deep and 46 inches wide. I have the panel secured with a cup hook screwed into the window frame and 3 rubber bands for this review.
I will most likely not drill holes in my desk but ‘engineer’ a base-plate for mounting the Avionics Panel and then clamp the base-plate to the desk. Maybe even figure out how to incorporate a triple monitor stand to the base.
The nine horizontal openings are all the same size with the exception of the lower middle slot designed for the Saitek or Cessna Yoke. The difference is the upper corners have a metal angle so the Yoke will fit flush. The Yoke is separately mounted to the VolairFlight Sim Chassis panel tray with this new Avionics panel designed to fit snuggly over the top of it.
A standard desk height of 29 – 30 inches might be a few inches too high for a yoke mount although it could be done. My desk is of the homemade variety and has a finished height of 33 inches, although I have lowered extensions, like wings on either side to house the x52 Pro throttle and flight stick.
My complement of Saitek Panels include all the available panels, 8 FIPs and one of the older TPM panels which will not be moved from the VolairFlight Sim Chassis to the desktop setup. This is the Switch Panel, The Multi-Panel, two Radio Panels and the BIP panel. Take a look at the images here.
The dimension of the “wide panels” are usually described by the distances between the mounting holes. Center to center the mounting holes are 274 mm x76 mm. This is 10.787 in x 3.0 in.
The Flight Information Panels, hole center to hole center, are 85 mm wide x 76 mm. That is 3.346 in x 3.0 inches
All are 15 mm or 0.60 inches thick.
When purchased, each Saitek panel comes with a standard mounting bracket or plastic cases that can be connected to other Saitek panels above, below, or on either side. These plastic cases are not used when mounting the Saitek Panels in the Volair Avionics Panel.
New longer screws are provided by Volair with Phillip screw heads. (Saitek mounting screws all come in black or silver with raised thumb screw heads). See photo. If you happen to have a small electric screwdriver, all the better.
The Saitek mounting system is very versatile and the panels can be used as stand-alone units, like the image on the left,or connected together as shown in the image on the right.
The Saitek TPM System for PC is not a standard panel. Because it uses a totally different mounting system it is not considered a panel and would not fit into one of the openings in the Volair Avionics Panel. It can certainly be used with the Volair Flight Sim Chassis should one want a single engine setup.
The Saitek TPM has a color coded and shaped plastic heads for metal shafted Throttle, Propeller, and Mixture plungers with 9 assignable switches to look similar to a Cessna 182 setup and is usually mounted underneath a desktop or flat surface.
The Volair Avionics Panel (VS-AP1)
This is a single unit with the intended purpose of providing a home for Saitek Panels and designed to fit over a Saitek Pro Flight Yoke or Cessna Pro Flight Yoke. The 4 pre-drilled mounting holes on the bottom match 4 holes in the panel tray on the VolairFlight SimChassis.
My personal thought is that this is a no-frills, well-engineered and well-built, avionics panel. The package comes with all the necessary slots and mounting hardware including 5 blank panels and two divided panels designed for the smaller Flight Information Panels, FIP displays. A total of twelve FIPs can be installed in the Volair Avionics Panel.
The Volair Avionics Panel has a soft-to-the-touch top and sides with attractive hand stitching and a modern carbon-fiber look with just enough overhang in the front to give the impression of a glareshield. The general shape is that of a typical general aviation small plane panel. It reminds me a little bit of a real world Cirrus SR22 glareshield or maybe one of the Bonanzas.
The VolairFlight Sim Chassis is not included and not required, but the two together make an impressive home simulator cockpit. All computers, monitors, cables, panels, boxes, throttles, flight sticks, coffee cups and similar items that you may see in sketches, screenshots, or photos are not provided with either the VolairFlight Sim Chassis or the Volair Avionics Panel. All such items are to be supplied by the purchaser.
I use the term ‘no frills’ because the new Volair Avionics Panel does not include any extras like some similar, and much more expensive panels that have built-in lights, speakers, powered USB hubs, rails, switches, cables, sound boards, etc.
My desktop VolairAvionics Panel setup.
My setup for this review uses two blank panels in the center that are mounted on top of the built-in two 3 slots each arrangement intended for the ‘6 Pack’ of FIPs. I have my BIP in the slot designed for the yoke and held in place with a couple of well-fitting blocks of wood and some duct tape. Remember, this is temporary so I can get this review completed in time for Christmas. A couple of small L brackets will secure it nicely.
I used some light-weight pieces of metal that I could easily bend to form a couple of brackets to hold an iPad in place. I use my iPad for bedtime reading and checking my email at the breakfast table so it will be shared with my new desk mounted Avionics Panel. I could use Velcro to hold it in place but I don’t want to stick the Velcro onto my iPad.
My hastily made metal brackets work just fine for now, I think they were originally intended as rain gutter downspout brackets. I used black electrical tape to cover the sharp edges and therefore do not need to paint these makeshift brackets.
This configuration works very well for me – I have a full panel of gauges and panels, my trusty x52Pro flight stick and throttle, and a keyboard and mouse handy. I ordered a black 2 m Lightning USB cable for the iPad so I can run it with power on and not be distracted with the standard white cable in these photos.
I started with the Switch Panel in the lower center slot with the BIP on the bottom left. With nothing more than a screwdriver you can remove the four mounting screws from the front of the Avionics panel. You then have to pass it through the open slot to place it in any other slot. I chose to exchange the Switch Panel and BIP panel and it took maybe 5 minutes. See pic.
I removed the BIP panel and replaced it with my Saitek Pro Flight Cessna Yoke just to confirm my decision not to install the yoke. It is comforting to know just how easily I can change the configuration to fly with or without the yoke. I had to move the Avionics Panel forward about 6 inches on my desktop to make room for the yoke, which extends out behind the Avionics Panel by about 6 or 7 inches.
This is a slam dunk for those that either have Saitek flight sim panels or wish to have Saitek panels. ThisVolair Avionics Panel is well made, looks great, and will last a lifetime. Everything you need is in the box – new longer screws for mounting the blank or divided panels which are the same screws for mounting anything that will fit in the panel. An installed Avionics Panel gives the impression of a general aviation cockpit panel and feels natural to the touch. The mock glareshield with the soft texture and hand stitching gives the installation a nice, finished look.
It really does not matter if you already have a VolairFlight Sim Cockpit Chassis or not. For those that do have one already or maybe have one on order or are expecting one for Christmas this new Avionics Panel will be a welcome addition. For those that elect to mount the Avionics Panel on a desk or tabletop, like me, then as you can see, the choices are only limited by your imagination.
Any of the 4 wide Saitek Panels – Switch Panel, Multi-Panel, Radio Panel, or Backlit Information Panel – will fit in any of the 8 slots and even the 9th in a pinch if you give up the Yoke, like me. You can mount an even dozen FIPs, in any 4 slots, or use two slots for FIPs, and mount an iPad or even two iPads in front of two blank panels and use Sim Innovations or Remote Flight to populate the iPad with flight instruments or gauges, or switch panels.
One word of caution. Older iPads will run Remote Flight but will not run the newer and more flexible Sim Innovations’ Air Manager app. The Air Manager requires a minimum of OS 9 and many of the older iPads can’t be upgraded to that level.
With a little ingenuity, I bet you could install some sort of mounting system for your iPad that would fit over or on top of six FIPs. That way you could have the best of both worlds and still make the iPad removable. I am not a big fan of Velcro but that is yet another option.
Should you only have a starter set of Saitek panels, or just a few FIPs then you can use the blank panels to fill the slots while you save up to add more to your inventory until your cockpit panel is finally full.
Having a new Volair Avionics Panel chock full of Saitek flight gauges and panels sitting in front of your monitors with sharp, brightly lit gauges and instruments is one thing.
But, being able to reach out and physically turn the starter knob and listen to the engine come to life, then feel the change as you check the mag drop, or adjust the altimeter, or change radio frequencies, or maybe select a new altitude or speed, press the button to engage the autopilot, move the landing gear lever up or down, or raise or lower flaps, adjust the elevator trim – well you get the picture.
It may not be the same as doing exactly all this in an A36 Bonanza, but, it is a helluva lot less expensive, you don’t need a medical and it is just a little bit closer to really flying.
I tend to reach up and place my hand on the edge of glare shield as I have done a thousand times in real life in my airplanes. About the only thing missing now is a proper seatbelt and a window to open while I wait for takeoff clearance.
The Volair Avionics Panel gets a most definite RECOMMENDED BUY. You can buy one at Amazon.com and pay retailer buy direct from VolairSim headquartered in Indianapolis and save $50 just for reading this review. You gotta hurry, though; this is a time limited offer. http://www.volairsim.com/
Volair for supplying the Avionics Panel
Mad Catz/Saitek for all the panels, yoke and pedals (4 years ago)
Michael Brown, XForcepc.com for YouTube videos and screenshots
FSXTimes.wordpress.com for FIP images
FIPgauges.com for FIP images
SPADneXt.com for great community support of Saitek hardware
Unnamed for screenshot of Volair Flight Sim Chassis in corner with blue screens
Most of the photos taken by author with iPhone