This is an easy and direct question, right? But the answer is not often that easy. Especially for the person that is trying to find out how to best spend their hard-earned money.
And it can get even harder to answer if you’re into helicopters and are quite new at the hobby.
I’ve seen both newcomers and veterans struggle with this issue. And I’ve had my fair share of sightings of folks fighting with their sticks when trying to fly helicopters.
So, what’s the magic answer to this elusively easy question?
I have a few answers for you, actually. But please notice this: I am NOT talking about the amazing hardcore helicopter controls in the market but some “budget” solutions for those that are either starting, moving to helicopters or can’t afford the bigger – and more expensive – kits.
Let’s start with the most basic part of your setup, and one that can get you up to speed for some time even without a set of rudder pedals – which I very much advise you to get whenever possible.
But, if you are on a tight budget, there’s no reason for you not to enjoy your helicopters (or any other aircraft for that matter) by using just a joystick for a while.
My first choice: the Logitech (ex-Saitek) X-series
Back in 2016, Logitech acquired Saitek and got it out of Mad Catz hands, which seemed to have struggled with maintaining product quality for some time.
Logitech upped the quality, made some cosmetic changes (mainly the color) of a couple of products and kept on selling the amazing X52 and X56 sticks.
Both the X52 (the regular one and the Pro versions) and X52 are a full HOTAS (Hands On Throttle-And-Stick) system and they come with a stick and a separate throttle with some extra buttons, rotary buttons and china hats.
This allows you to have more assignments available at your fingertips which is pretty much the whole purpose of an HOTAS: the pilot (especially a fighter pilot) should not have to remove his hands from these vital controls.
These sticks come either with a twist grip or a couple of buttons that act as an axis on the throttle, allowing you to use it without rudder pedals.
There’s an extra bonus: these models allow you access to the centering spring. The X56 even allows you to change it to any of the 4 different springs it comes with or to remove it altogether. As for the X52, you can compress the spring just like I did on my old Saitek X45 joystick a few years ago.
Why would you want to do this? Well, to have a much better control of the stick. Helicopter cyclics don’t center. Pilots don’t need to fight the cyclic the whole time and that’s all we do with our self-centering joysticks.
This not only gets you tired faster but also decreases your much valuable precision. Helicopters are precision machines and we need to be able to be on top of them the whole time. Struggling to get the stick a few millimeters to the side when trying to keep a steady hover can impair your flying.
If you’re up to get a better stick and are willing to wait a bit longer for some pedals, The Logitech X52, X52 Pro or X56 are an excellent choice.
Easier on your wallet: Thrustmaster T.16000M
I’ve done a review on the T.16000M (curiously also back in 2016) and I was very impressed with the stick.
The T.16000M can be bought as a stand-alone unit or in a package with a throttle. In this case you’ll get both the twist grip and the rudder axis on the throttle. You can use either or none if you so wish to.
While you won’t be given access to the spring – meaning you cannot remove or compress it – I found that it’s not that much of a hassle when compared to other joysticks in the market that I’ve tried.
Yes, it can wear you out after some time but it’s not too bad in the beginning. The only way to do something about it would be to open the stick (thus voiding the warranty) and tinkering with the internal hardware, something I strongly don’t recommend you do.
It’s still a great stick for the price (and even cheaper if you get the stand-alone stick) and you can build from there by getting the throttle and the pedals further down the road.
Any stick will do
Honestly, any stick will do if you have the patience and will to learn how to fly helicopters. But you’ll need to be especially aware of the spring and how much force it will do against your hand.
Apart from the precision of the electronics (which should be fine in any known brand such as Thrustmaster and Logitech, for example), this is one of the things you should look into.
At the end of this article you’ll find a small checklist of items I believe you should have in mind when purchasing a joystick if you aren’t happy with my suggestions above.
Wait! What about the Thrustmaster Warthog that everyone talks about???
It seems like a wonderful stick. People that have it absolutely love it, but I’ve only tried it once for a few minutes and wasn’t even with a helicopter.
It seems to be amazingly built, with great quality and very sturdy. The electronics seemed great, but the stick felt a bit too hard. Like I said, I only spent a few minutes with it and couldn’t give myself time to get used to it or look for strategies to better use it for rotary-wing.
Seems to be a great stick for fighters and I know some folks use it for helicopters, but I cannot give you my honest opinion on it as I don’t own one myself.
The joystick checklist
So, the two suggestions above don’t convince you? Don’t worry. I’ll still try to help you and let you know what you should be looking for in a stick for helicopters.
Shouldn’t be too hard as not to get your arm tired and allow you for better control of your helicopter. If it’s too stiff, you’ll be in trouble after a few minutes.
If you can remove or compress the unit, even better!
You’ll need rudder control
Get a stick with a twist grip or any other form of rudder control – or some rudder pedals, which I’ll talk about on a future article. You will need it. Can’t escape from those on a helicopter, really.
Make sure it’s a good manufacturer
You won’t be throwing the stick all over the place – remember helicopters need gentle movements – but you’ll need it to last and you will definitely need good, precise electronics.
Potentiometers with null zones or too much electronic noise will not be exactly helpful.
Not of the unit itself but if you can’t afford an HOTAS right now, get a stick that you can later expand on by getting a throttle and some pedals. The stick itself should come with a small throttle and a twist grip. The T.16000M I mention above does.
For some of you, this will be the primary factor and it will dictate the rest. Look around, check on several websites, see if someone’s selling a 2nd hand unit. Not that I’m a big fan of purchasing this kind of hardware from people I don’t know (and they tend to tear and wear over the years) it can still be an option if you’re stuck.
I hope I managed to help somehow. I know I didn’t exactly gave you a lot of choices but the truth is that the market is not that big right now and considering our hobby is so demanding in the kind of hardware we need to be able to control those nasty whirlybirds, it’s even harder to find hardware that will satisfy our demands.
That’s all for part 1. On a future article, I’ll cover the rudder pedals.
Do you have any other suggestions or tips of your own to our readers? Please let us know in the comments section below!
Read Part II
You can find Part II here.