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The Flare Path: A Stick For A Stone

Simulation & wargame news

I'm not saying my trusty Saitek Cyborg flightstick is old, but...

It has 'MADE IN SIAM' stamped on the base. It came bundled with a bottle of laudanum and a photogravure of an eagle. The hat switch has three corners. The Force Feedback mechanism involves burly shrews. The manual foreward was written by Pliny the Elder. Altering the deadzones without first placating Anubis, voids the warranty.

I can just about put up with the way my superannuated plane pointer creaks like a close-hauled felucca when I'm trying to shake a BoB2 Bf-109 or a RoF Albatross, but the jittery rudder axis and traumatically truncated trigger have tried my patience once too often. Enough is enough. This Yuletide I intend to treat myself to a new controller!

But which one? Because my knowledge of flight simulation hardware has more holes in it than an MG34 barrel shroud, before I introduce Percy, the FP piggy bank, to Paveway, the FP ball pein hammer, I thought it might be sage to ask everyone I know (Which includes you! Do supply your sticky stories and recommendations via the comments section below) to share details of favourite flight sim equipment.

Some were simply too snowed-under to respond, but a selection of Simulation's great and good did spill beans...

  • Matt Wagner

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Tearing himself away from applying finishing touches to the extremely imminent DCS: Combined Arms - a tanky payware adjunct for the ever expanding DCS World (Expect some CA impressions in FP very soon) - Eagle Dynamics producer Matt went porcine and pricy:

"My joystick of choice would be the Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS. After we announced DCS: A-10C Warthog a few years ago, my friends at Thrustmaster approached me about cooperating on a matching HOTAS system. The plan was to develop a HOTAS for the A-10C as they had done the Cougar for the F-16C. Naturally, we thought this was a great idea and the two products would benefit each other. Over the next year or so, Thrustmaster would send us development builds and we would adapt our A-10C input code to automatically recognize the controller and set up all of the axis, switches, hats and buttons to match that used in the real A-10C. After a lot of back-and-forth, we are quite happy with the result and it was a great to see software and hardware companies coming together like this.

Now, naturally there is a bias on my part given the relation to one of my products, but regardless of this, I believe the hardware is top quality and gives me, as a long time flight simmer, exactly what I want. That being:

- Precision control.

- 360-degree even force (not tied to the X/Y axis) with what I consider the perfect amount of resistance (not too light, not too stiff).

- Enough hats, buttons, and switches to allow me to program all I need without need of modals.

- Sturdy, metal construction with some heft to it.

- CMS switch with X-axis.

- A proper paddle switch.

- Throttle lifts.

- Additional input options on the throttle base.

Since DCS: A-10C development, I use the Warthog every day in our later projects like Flaming Cliffs 3 and P-51D; and it works just as well in those non-A-10C titles.

Speaking only for myself and not for the company I work for, the Warthog is the best stick on the market for my needs."

  • Dslyecxi

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Before ArmA oracle Dslyecxi founded Shack Tactical and hitched his consultancy wagon to Bohemia Interactive, he got a taste of unsimulated military life courtesy of the USMC.

“I was not a grunt or anything even remotely resembling combat arms, though I was a rifle/pistol coach and ran an Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer (ISMT) on Okinawa for a little under a year. If you’re looking for an oorah-been-there-done-that hardcore military role model, look elsewhere. I am simply someone who has a passion for what they do and an interest in sharing it with others.”

"When it comes to flying helicopters in the ArmA series, I'm a firm believer in the mouse & keyboard approach. This tends to come as a shock to those who see my piloting for the first time, but the rationale is simple: ArmA is not a full-on flight simulation, and given the choice between a full HOTAS and M&K, the M&K combination gives me more precision. Precision is everything when you're transporting or supporting human troops on the ground. Being a few meters too high on an approach, or a bit off during a danger close strike, can be the difference between the virtual life and death (and more importantly, the enjoyment) of the players involved. ArmA's tight integration of ground and air emphasizes this more than I've seen in any other game I've played.

As far as my setup goes - I've stuck with a Saitek Eclipse keyboard, the original 'version 1', for many years now. I'll likely keep it until I finally wear it out - if it ain't broke, etc. My mouse is a Logitech G9X, while I use a Steelseries mousepad for it. The important thing with all of this is to simply get something quality and work with it long enough to develop familiarity. Endlessly swapping components in an attempt to fix phantom concerns or develop skill-by-hardware-osmosis leads you nowhere.

When it comes to playing full-on flight sims such as Black Shark or IL-2, I bring out my X52 Pro HOTAS and Saitek pedals. I've been using Saitek's HOTAS series - from the X36 many years ago, to the X45, and now the X52 - for as long as I can remember. I believe the first sim I played with them ages back was Apache/Havoc. Their HOTAS series has always been the right mix of functionality, quality, and price - if I were more of a hardcore flight sim player, I'd possibly have reason to look into a more high-end combination - the one that has my eye if that ever happens would have to be the Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS. Hopefully I'll have an excuse for that some day!

The one thing that stays constant between my ArmA and flight sim hours is my usage of TrackIR. In the flight sim community it's a given that head tracking is an essential part of the experience, whereas in ArmA's community - with it's mix of infantry, vehicles, and aircraft, and players who may only participate in slices of that spectrum - not everyone fully appreciates the significance of such capabilities. In my Art of Flight series for ArmA, many of the techniques you see illustrated depend on the often subtle capabilities that TrackIR allows for. Whether it's flying CAS in a Frogfoot against players, moving platoons around the battlespace via Chinook, doing hot extractions in the mountains of Afghanistan, or doing dynamic hostage rescues in the dark, I find TrackIR to be an absolutely invaluable part of the flight experience - and a core aspect of the infantry and vehicular aspects of the game as well.

When all is said and done, the hardware involved is ultimately just a piece of the puzzle. Quality hardware that allows you to perform at your best is key, but without hours and hours of practice, and a continual drive to excel, hardware alone won't win your battles for you.  The best pilots didn't find their skills on a DVD included with their gear, but rather through endless hours of study, practical application, and extensive AAR'ing of their past performance."

  • Jason Williams

Overseeing the growth of the super-rigorous Rise of Flight and the development of super-unexpected IL-2 Battle of Stalingrad means 777 Studios' president now holds the hopes and dreams of a scary number of digital dogfighters in his steady hands. When those hands want to cajole a Camel or hurl around a Harry Tate, which flightstick do they reach for?

"I've been very lucky and have been able to try just about every major flight-controller over the past 15-20 years and I have yet to find the perfect HOTAS setup. I found that with each new design released there was something missing or the quality was suspect. It was either missing a button I wanted or it needed one more rotary dial, but there was always something missing preventing it from being perfect. Am I crazy? I give the manufacturers credit for continuing to invest in HOTAS systems, but the perfect flight-controller has yet to emerge in my mind. When I used to work for a retailer and distributor of such products I found that many simmers would just buy a new stick to test and then just sit it on the shelf if it didn't do the trick. I'm currently testing a prototype of a flight-stick from a company that has not hit the market yet that has a lot of potential, so the quest for the perfect HOTAS continues!"

  •  Cat

For the last decade or so, those of us that lounge in's warm, welcoming mess have been enjoying Cat's claw-sharp reviews, previews and interviews, and stirring sim-powered fiction. New distractions and a busy legal career mean instalments of The Sacha Chronicles have been depressingly few and far between in recent years, but that doesn't mean Cat's faithful flightstick is ready for retirement quite yet.

"I've had it since 2003 or 2004. My Thrustmaster “Top Gun” Fox2Pro USB. It was cheap, and reliable, and my Microsoft Sidewinder just was worn the heck out. I never have upgraded from the Fox2Pro; I use it alongside an ancient Belkin Nostromo N52 Speedpad, and they work together just fine. I'm something of a technology Luddite, which is weird for someone who is into PC flight simulations. I gravitate to using the old-fashioned padlock and thumb-hat snap-view system, which is definitely old-school when you compare it to the sim-pilots out there with their Saitek gear and 6-degrees of freedom TrackIR TIR is the third version and I need separate software for the Vector I said, it's the old school.

My Fox2Pro has seen me through fights in the Horn of Africa, piloting a virtual F-22 against a wall of Chinese MiGs and Sukhois in an new Ethiopia-Eritrea civil the Black Sea region, flying a MiG-29 or Su-27 against Turkish F-4s and F-5s, or Syrian Mirage-2000s....over Aviano Air Base, Italy, climbing to FL 20 in an F-16CJ on its way to bomb targets in Serbia during a new, hot police action...or in a renewed Korean War, in the same aircraft....and it's also had my back as I piloted DeHavilland DASH-8 Q400 freighters out of Hartsfield International Airport to parts all over the Southland. It's a little sloppy, sure! But it is also solid as a rock, completely reliable, and easy to use. I can count on it to be there, and to work every time.

Sometimes, the old school is the best school."

  • Mark 'Polovski' Rogers

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How long before the flyable-festooned, dynamic campaign-blessed follow-up to well-loved CFS3 super-mod Over Flanders Fields emerges from its wood and canvas chrysalis? Assuming Old Brown Dog top dog Polovski doesn't squander too many hours responding to idle press questions like this one, then Wings Over Flanders Fields might just be with us by Q2 2013.

"I don't have luxury tastes in controllers probably due to lacking flying skill ;) but my personal preference is ye olde USB MS Sidewinder Force Feedback 2. Just has the best FF for me.

However a close 2nd I also quite like is the Saitek Cyborg 3D ForceFeedback. it was the one before the current model I think, some while back too until the base melted over time and I had to retire it ;). I suppose the smaller lighter case has a down side. I think they redesigned it since so not sure about the new one. Anyway it was a heck of a lot lighter and cheaper and less bulky on the knee for casual flight sessions, with great FF.

Also goes with some Simped USB rudder pedals - fantastic quality great response and lasts forever. An essential for me like TrackIR has become for flight sims.

I just asked colleague Mark "Winding Man" Andrews and he also likes the Sidewinder 2 FF but prefers to use his home made joystick. For this he made an extended controller handle attached to a joystick internals. Not sure what the internal was in its former life - probably another MS sidewinder."

  • JC

A stielhandgranate's throw from FP's scruffy shell scrape is the stout plank-lined bunker occupied by sim & wargaming connoisseur JC. AARs are a Real and Simulated Wars speciality and reading examples like this one left me wondering what the author's wing waggler of choice was.

"The great majority of simulators I play are combat-related and every flight controller in my setup is from CH Products (CH Fighterstick, CH Pro Throttle and CH Pro Pedals). I had a couple of HOTAS from Saitek a while back and I loved them both. But after hosting a couple of work-related gatherings at home and getting "that look" from some of the highbrows I have as professional peers, I had to get something less conspicuous and flashy for the war room (AKA home studio/library).The transition was hard at the beginning (both CH's throttle and stick are designed for people with big hands), but shortly after I was a convert. CH hardware is very precise and incredibly sturdy. The CH Fighterstick includes trim wheels and two separate pivots for the x and y axis instead of just one spring holding it in the neutral position. The CH Pro Throttle is flat-sliding and there is no need for a mechanical friction mechanism to keep it in position. It also features a mini-stick with adjustable sensitivity that I use for moving the radar cursor or targeting pods. The CH Pro Pedals are my least favorite. They require considerable pressure to move and I frequently end up over-controlling.

All things considered, I am very pleased with my setup. I can land my Black Shark on the roof of a backyard shed in DCS World, can shoot a fly from 2 km with my Abrams tank in Steel Beasts ProPE and last but not least, the semi-pro looks of the CH products are great conversation starters with ... Highbrows!

I considered getting a Thrustmaster Warthog but decided to do the budget-conscious thing and wait until any of the CH products I have goes bad. Based on CH products' legendary durability, it is likely going to be either a long wait or a memorable $500 impulse buy."

  • Buddye

If you've any interest in flight sim AI, you're sure to recognise the name above. Buddye, is a vital member of the Battle of Britain Development Group, the sterling band of Battle of Britain II modders that have, over the course of the last seven years, turned a troubled revamp of Rowan Software's fine Finest Hour sim into one of the very best single-player fighter sims available. Extremely busy in the run-up to the launch of a major update (2.12's influence will be felt particularly strongly in the campaign game and low-down over Southern England's towns, ports and airfields) I managed to squeeze the following snippet of stick-related intel out of a man indirectly responsible for shooting me down on countless occasions.

“I use a CH FighterStick and CH rudder pedals. I wanted high quality controllers for my Flight Sim game play. My previous joystick was MS Sidewinder Force Feedback which was excellent. I made the decision to buy the CH controllers because I felt the CH was higher quality and could be programmed with CH macros.”

  • Mike 'some1' Krawczyk

Last into the geodetic FP confessional is one of the men behind A2A Simulation's mesmerising Accu-Sim physics and engine simulations. News on the studio's work-in-progress Cessna 172, PA-128 Cherokee, F-4 Phantom, F-104 Starfighter, and P-51H is pretty thin on the ground, but at least I now know what Mike Krawczyk likes to dent his desk with.

"I was born in the mid '80s and my first joystick was a digital "JOY stick 125" connected to Atari 65XE microcomputer. To those who don't know what digital means in this case: the joystick had only 5 positions: up, left, right, down and centre, with nothing in between, there were no potentiometers. So in modern terms it was just a hat switch with longer grip. The joystick was also equipped with four buttons, all of which had exactly the same function: FIRE!

I think I was only 3 or 4 years old when I got it, but I still have that joystick (and it works!). I've included a photo of it next to my current HOTAS. A proof that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. And sticks.

But coming back to something modern that you can actually connect to the PC, I have very good memories of my old Saitek X52. That was the first HOTAS I bought, and I used it extensively. I'm still recommending it to those who don't want to spend a lot of money on high end HOTAS, yet want something more serious than a simple joystick. It's quite ergonomical and very universal, can be used effectively in both WWI/WWII simulators as well as modern fighter jets. It's simply good value for your money.

Currently I use different joystick and throttle combinations depending on what simulator I fly, because there is no setup that fits all games and all airplanes well. My primary stick is Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog, and in my opinion it is great, probably the best HOTAS off-the-shelf. Smooth, very precise, has this serious look and feel and of course a LOT of buttons, switches and hats. I use this joystick in all sims I play, except those which need a yoke. But the throttle, while also a great piece of engineering, comes from the attack airplane, so its layout is not well suited for fighter jets or WWII planes. I'm not saying you can't play RoF or Falcon 4.0 with it, but I'm personally missing the extra axes on the throttle that my X52 had. Because of that, for simulations of airplanes with piston engines, I supplement Thustmaster with Saitek Throttle Quadrant which gives additional levers to control prop pitch, mixture and radiators. For Falcon 4.0 nothing beats the realism of HOTAS Cougar throttle - at least when the potentiometers work correctly. And for FSX I just use whatever fits best the current airplane I fly, be it joystick or yoke, couple of throttle quadrants or single Hotas throttle.

To conclude, having a big joystick won't make you more attractive to the ladies nor a better virtual pilot, but it definitely makes flying across the virtual sky more fun."


The Flare Path Foxer

The dozen disparate components of the collage below aren't nearly as disparate as they first appear. Find the link before anyone else and a shiny brass Flare Path flair point made from one of Tiny Tim's crutch ferrules is yours.

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