This has certainly been a trying year for many of us, forcing us to change our routines or lifestyles. But COVID has driven a surge in gaming popularity, and no other gaming genre has had as much as a resurgence in 2020 as flight or space simulator games. Throughout the spring and summer, many gamers dove into gems like Elite Dangerous, DCS World, or Star Citizen.
While we may have been quarantined indoors, online we were free to soar through the skies or sail across the stars. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 and the forthcoming Star Wars: Squadrons have all but solidified 2020 as a golden year for flight sims. While these games offer a wide variety of control schemes, nothing completes the immersion like the feel of a proper flight stick in your hand. If you’re looking to join in the fun or upgrade your setup, I’ll take you through some of the best setups at varying price points to enhance your flight.
Best Entry Flight Stick – Gladiator NXT
If you’ve never heard of VKB Controllers, you’re not alone. While they’re not exactly a household name for most gamers, they have a reputation among flight simmers for producing sticks that feel great. They updated their Gladiator NXT model this past summer, and it currently retails between $120 and $150 depending on whether you go with the standard or premium version.
What really stands out about the Gladiator NXT is its weighty, but smooth feel that doesn’t break the bank. In addition to pitch and roll axes, you’re able to twist the stick left or right for yaw controls. Its base comes with plenty of buttons, switches, and dials for you to map nearly every control you’ll need. The stick is offered in both right and left-handed models, which makes it ideal for gamers looking to buy two to create a dual-stick or HOSAS setup that is popular with space sims.
The difference between the standard and premium versions of the Gladiator NXT is the inclusion of additional springs of different tension for you to customize the resistance to your liking, as well as the upgrade of a hat switch and a thumb push button to an analog mini-stick and hat switch, respectively.
The only drawback for the Gladiator NXT is that it can only be ordered online, so you’re not able to visit a retailer to try it out ahead of time. Even so, I’m confident recommending the Gladiator NXT as the best entry-level stick.
Best Entry HOTAS – Thrustmaster T.16000 M FCS
Thrustmaster is a brand that’s more well known, and their T.16000 M hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) package is a solid entry-level contender. In fact, it’s what I’ve been using to fly since 2017. What’s great about this stick is that there are a few different packages you can purchase this setup with: just the stick (FCS) for about $100, a pair of FCS’s, the FCS and a separate throttle (TWCS), or the FCS, TWCS, and a set of rudder pedals ($256 at Best Buy). You can purchase the TWCS or the rudders individually as well.
The FCS is fine – it comes with interchangeable components that make the stick suitable for righties or lefties. The movement and stick resistance is good and also allows you to twist for yaw controls, though my favorite part of the whole package is the TWCS. The throttle resistance is adjustable, and I’ve gotten it dialed into where it feels so smooth. The buttons on the TWCS are amazing and allow me to control most everything I’d like to. There’s also a larger rocker on the front of the throttle you can use for yaw as well. I like the buttons on the throttle so much, I almost never use any of the buttons or slider on the base of the FCS. The TWCS is so good, it’s not unusual to see gamers upgrade to a better stick but keep the TWCS.
As mentioned earlier, there is a matching set of rudder pedals available, however, I’ve never gotten much use out of them. Frankly, I’ve just never gotten the pedals dialed into my liking and the other controls on the FCS and TWCS handle my pedal needs just fine.
My only complaints with the Thrustmaster FCS and TWCS are that the trigger button on the FCS is a bit noisy when clicked, the FCS’s base emits an orange glow whenever input on the stick is registered – even when not in a game – and for whatever reason the TWCS seems to keep Windows from letting my computer sleep. While I’ve not found a setting that can solve it, other users have reported similar problems, so at least I’m not alone. I’ve resorted to simply plugging my flight sim peripherals into a powered USB hub that I disconnect when I’m done flying, and everything works fine.
Best Intermediate HOTAS – Thrustmaster Warthog
In 2010, Thrustmaster released the HOTAS Warthog – a stick and throttle modeled after the controls found in the A-10 Warthog, quite possibly the coolest aircraft ever produced by the United States Air Force. The stick is heavy, offers good response and plenty of buttons.
The throttle is absolutely amazing, offering a wide variety of labeled buttons and switches. What sets the Warthog throttle apart from the TWCS is the ability to split the throttle in half – controlling two engines separately – as well as afterburner detents.
If you’re not in love with the flight stick, Thrustmaster does sell other fighter-style grips that can be swapped onto the base, such as the F/A-18, but they are pricey. Two drawbacks of the Warthog HOTAS is that the flight stick doesn’t have twist access – but to be fair, that’s how it works on the actual A-10. The other is a complaint made by serious simmers who take issue that the gimbal in the base of the flight stick is plastic and therefore susceptible to cracking or breaking. They argue that for a premium product, one would at least expect a metal gimbal – and at a retail price of $549, I can understand.
Best High-End HOTAS
The best high-end HOTAS or flight stick is really going to be a matter of personal preference. The internet is full of arguments as to which is the best, but at this level, most pilots are simply looking for a specific stick or throttle to satisfy a particular need. Some grips are designed for realism while others for space combat. Some are better suited to a sim pit that you’re building while others need to be mounted on a desk. Rather than make a particular recommendation, let’s go over some highlights of what’s out there.
We’ve talked about VKB’s excellent entry-level Gladiator NXT, VKB offers an excellent step up in the Gunfighter Mk.III available in the Space Combat, WWII Combat, Modern Combat, or F-14 Combat editions. Individually they’re pretty slick and can be customized upon ordering between standard and premium editions as well. But be prepared to shell out anywhere from $300 to $500 for these sticks.
The other retailer to consider is Virpil, which makes the beautifully designed VPC MongoosT throttle full of switches, levels, dials, programmable lights, and more. It’s such a great piece of hardware but commands a steep price of nearly €320 (about $375 USD right now) before VAT. And if you want even MORE buttons, they’ve just released a companion control panel for €240.
However, my favorite piece of hardware that Virpil sells is their VPC Constellation ALPHA grip, available in both right and left-hand configurations. This guy has more buttons, hats, and switches than I know what to do with – but I’ll think of something. The grip itself costs about €190 (about $225 USD) and you’ll need to buy a base to go with it (another €190 or €290, depending on which you get). Virpil does offer a 10% discount if you buy a grip and base together. Plus, as a bonus the Virpil bases are fully compatible with Thrustmaster grips, so you can mix and match to your heart’s content.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of what you choose to fly, it’s never been a better time to be a flight simmer. Though with all the extra attention flight sims are getting coupled with the squeeze on supply chains that COVID has been making, flight sticks and throttles have been selling like PlayStation 5 preorders. So perhaps the best flight stick you can buy may just be whatever happens to be in stock.