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How a flight-sim cockpit helps me get away from it all (figuratively)

How a flight-sim cockpit helps me get away from it all (figuratively)

 September 4, 2021 at 3:09 pm   |     Author:   |     Technology  

Photograph of an Obutto R3volution cockpit with accessories
Enlarge / The Obutto R3v that sits in the corner of Lee’s office. The two little dark plastic tray-looking things on swing arms are exactly that and are a great help for both scribbling notes and also holding food and beverages.

Lee Hutchinson

One of the great things about working from home is that you have a lot of freedom to set your home office up just the way you like it, whether you’re perfecting your PC setup to make it more comfortable for long days of Zoom meetings or buying weird niche gaming accessories for after-hours fun. Now that he’s back around the Orbital HQ, Ars Senior Technology Reporter Andrew Cunningham is interviewing Ars staffers about the gadgets they use to put the “home” into “home office,” starting with Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson and his intricate flight-sim setup.

What’s the thing on your desk/part of your setup/etc that you want to tell me about?

I think it’d be the Obutto R3volution cockpit.

What is it for?

It forms the base around which my gaming PC setup is built. It gives me a place to sit and mount peripherals (like joysticks, throttles, wheels, pedals, keyboard, mouse, monitors) in a way that’s conducive to flying or driving. And it’s pretty comfy, too.

Was it an impulse purchase, or one of those things you had been thinking about for a long time?

A little bit of both, I guess—I’d been thinking for years that I should get one, but the actual buying process was pretty impulsive. I was in a mood, and I bought it because my purchasing discipline is basically zero.

Tell me, a person who knows nothing about any flight-sim anything, why this is cool and why I would want one.

There’s nothing wrong with playing flying/driving sims seated at a desk. There are all kinds of awesome clampy-type things that will let you mount joysticks and throttles to a normal desk, and they work really well.

But a cockpit setup can be a lot more comfortable if you’re planning on multi-hour gaming sessions. It gives you options on where to mount stuff and what you can mount—you can configure a side-stick setup if you’re flying an aircraft that has its flight controls set up that way IRL (like an F-16, for example), or center stick if you’re flying an aircraft with center controls (like most other fighters). A cockpit also allows for easy swaps, so you can change your physical control setup from airplane to helicopter to car to Elite: Dangerous spaceship just by moving a few bits around.

The cockpit takes up a lot of room, but it’s comfortable and puts you in a more “natural” reclined position for piloting and driving, and it’s really nice to have the controls for your plane or car or whatever be where they’re “supposed” to be.

So often when I make a big purchase or find a new song or play a new game it always gets mixed in with these associative memories, so I can never think about the one thing without thinking about whatever was going on the first time I found it. So tell me, what was going on in your life when you got it?

There are associative memories galore—mostly from Elite: Dangerous, which is what I’m usually playing (DCS is a distant second, because I am all about that space). Elite is kind of an odd game where there’s not much game to it—it’s more like a you-are-flying-a-spaceship simulator than it is a traditional space combat sim or anything like that. You spend a lot of time doing mundane things—docking, undocking, ferrying cargo from point A to point B, working out profitable trade routes, gathering minerals, engineering your ship(s), that kind of stuff. But because I play Elite in VR, it feels less like a game and more like an actual place where I can go and spend time. Having somewhere like that to escape to has been hella palliative over the past two years.

Has it pulled you deeper into any hobbyist rabbit holes? Is there anything cool you learned about while you were researching it or as you were learning how it worked?

Yeah, it really has pulled me deeper into the hobbyist rabbit hole. I think I buy flight control peripherals like most other folks buy shoes at this point. Once you’ve broken the proverbial seal and assembled a giant cockpit in your office, buying a replica F-14 grip specifically for your DCS adventures doesn’t seem crazy at all anymore.

I’m not sure if that kind of rampant consumerism is really healthy, but it’s definitely been a good distraction while the world burns.

Have you seen any other setups that make you jealous? What’s the maximalist version of a flight sim setup? I’ve seen the setups of people who are WAY into racing sims, for example, and they are… intense.

I am solidly mid-tier when it comes to my flight setup ambitions—I’ve got a gaming cockpit and some flight peripherals. There are folks who go waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond that, though. You can spend five figures (per item!) on high-fidelity sim peripherals from these guys, for example. And calling my Obutto cockpit a “cockpit” is really kind of silly when you can just go buy full-fidelity aircraft cockpit components, actual-for-real surplused military cockpit trainers, or go full “’scuse me while I kiss the sky” bonkers and call up Boeing and get a bid directly on the real thing. The only thing holding you back are your own fears. (And bank account.)

What memories have you made with this thing?

I play a lot of Elite, but zooming around in real-world airplanes in DCS is what really helped keep me centered in the past year. During the cruddiest moments of lockdown, that cockpit is where I retreated. I’d pull down the VR headset and load up a mission I’d created in the editor where I start out in the Tomcat at about 30,000 feet, with the aircraft slicked down and nearly empty on gas, and the infinite fuel cheat turned on. Jam the throttle to the stops, wings back, watching the airspeed indicator as it wheels madly clockwise. Mach 1 comes and goes, and I tip the nose up 60 degrees and rocket upwards, fleeing the world at the tip of a resounding glass-shattering shockwave.

Level out at angels 65 as the sun cracks the horizon and the cockpit is touched with buttery orange light. The simulated world spreads out beneath as the turbofans keep working, keep pushing the jet faster.

Mach 2 is a distant memory as the airspeed indicator hovers at a truly ludicrous number, the sun flooding the cockpit now. I look back over my shoulder at the F-14’s graceful fuselage and the spreading dawn behind it, and just then, just for that moment—just for that moment, there’s no pandemic. There’s no work stress. There’s no politics or worry or strife or any of the other garbage that occupies my day to day.

There’s just me, racing the sunrise. And that’s good enough.

Listing image by Lee Hutchinson

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