Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 92

Take control. (joysticks for use in flight simulators)(includes product listing) (Buyers Guide)
by Denny Atkin

Everything's looking good for a successful attack run. It seems the enemy air force is too chicken to take the air today. Not a SAM launcher in sight, and ack-ack fire is minimal. A couple more minutes, and I'll be in range to launch-drop a couple of laser-guided bombs on the Scud emplacement, and then I can head for home. Suddenly I see my threat warnning light burning-a radar-guided SAM is headed for my plane! OK, I think, drop some chaff and pull some evassive maneuvers to get out of the missile's way. Let's see--which key controls chaff? Yikes! That one turned off my electronic countermeasures jammer! I'm really a sitting duck now. Which key drops the chaff? Here comes the missile--break right! Oh, no! I hit Page Up instead of Cursor Right--I'm flying into the missile. Good-bye, cruel world.

If only I had a joystick.

Let's face it: If American combat aircraft were equipped with PC keyboards, we'd never win a war. Flying one of the hot new PC flight simulators such as Falcon 3.0 or Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe with the keyboard is like steering a Porsche with a touchtone telephone. Luckily, a PC pilot has a wealth of controller options that can turn a computer desk into the hottest simulated cockpit this side of the Air Force Academy.

While a real fighter pilot has to flip a number of switches during the course of a flight, actual combat is usually performed with a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) setup. This system puts all essential switches and toggles for air combat right on ther pilot's joystick and throttle. A HOTAS system prevents the pilot from having to reach for the instrument panel during combat, preventing deadly delays. With the right accessories, you can approximate a HOTAS setup on your PC's screen.

Stick with It

Modern computer flight simulator controls barely resemble the flimsy plastic joysticks used by folks to fly blocky little biplanes across an Atari VCS video game screen. Those early videogames used swithc-based joysticks, which can only sense whether you're holding the stick up, down, left, or diagonally. The Apple II introduced a better kind of stick, the analog joystick, which can sense not only the direction but how far and how fast you move the stick.

Whole this type of stick is actually harder to use for the Pac-Man-style games popular in the late 1970s, it's the perfect choice for an innovative program released for the Apple ink 1979: SubLogic's Flight Simulator. The control afforded by an analog joystick helps vbring an extra degree of realism to Bruce Artwick's innovative simulation.

Just as flight simulations have come a long way from the low-resolution, black-and-white Flight Simulator, the newest PC joysticks barely resemble the promitive controllers of the early Apple II days. Those early sticks are little more than a couple of buttons and potentiometers crammen in a boxy off-the-shelf plastic case; they're hardly stylish, and they aren't very ergonomic, either. Those days are gone; many modern PC analog joysticks would look at home in the cockpit of a real F-16.

With all the features available nowadays, picking out the right joystick controller can be as confusing as buying the right PC. Among the features that differentiate various joysticks are onboard throttle controls, extra buttons, autocentering, and trim controls.

The controller most popular with dedicated flight-sim aficinados, CH Products' FlightStick, has all these features. This large gray-and-black controller features a heavy pistol-shaped grip, trim controls on both axes, and handle-mounted fire buttons. Instead of the ball-joint joystick base found on many joysticks, the CH stick handle uses a gimbaled mount. This allows more precise control--if you want to pull back without turning to either side, the gimbaled mount makes it easy.

One FlightStick feature that comes in particularly handy is its throttle control wheel. Mounted just to the left of the stick, this wheel simulates the y-axis of a second joystick. So if your program supports the use of a second joystick as a throttle (Flight Simulator 4.0, Falcon 3.0, Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer 2.0, and A-10 Tank Killer 1.5 are among the simulators that do), you can use the FlightStick's throttle wheel to control your engine power. It's much handier to have this control right at your fingertips rather than on a second stick you have to reach for. The throttle makes an annoying clicking sound as you move it; it would be more comfortable if the wheel would advance smoothly. (Instructions on disabling the throttle click are available on bulletin boards and online networks.)

Kraft's sleek all-back Thunderstick shares a munber of features with the FlightStick, including a gimbaled mount, a throttle control, x and y trim adjustments on the top of the stick, and stick-mounted fire buttons. However, the Thunderstick just doesn't have the professional feel of the FlightStick. The jouystick movement isn't as smooth, and the handle is lighter and not as comfortable. To Kraft's credit, its throttle implementation is easier to use than CH's. The Kraft throttle is a slider on the side of the joystick, and it's easier to set to a specific setting than the CH wheel. Also, Kraft includes a switch to disable the throttle in cases of software imcompatibility or if you want to use a second joystick instead. And Kraft's five-year warrantly is hard to beat; CH offers only one year.

Both the FlightStick and the Thunderstick work nicely as general-purpose joysticks as well. Their trim adjustments let you use them even with older games that don't include hoystick calibration routines. However, both sticks are autocentering and can't be used in free-floating mode, where you can leave the stick in any position. If you need that feature for CAD or other work, you might consider a second general-purpose joystick, such as CH's excellent MACH III. This smaller, more traditional-looking stick features three fire buttons, trim adjustments, study construction, and switchable self-centering on their or both axes.

Advanced Gravis Analog Joystick is also a contender if you need a general-purpose stick. It has a unique adjustable-tension centering feature-you can select how hard you have to push the joystick to move it off-center, or you can defeat the centering entirely. The Gravis stick has three fire buttons, one on the stick and two on the base. Each of these buttons can be assigned as joystick button 1 or 2, or disabled. The stick handle is fairly large and foam-padded, and it's more suitable for use in combat flight simulators than the CH MACH III. The Gravis joystick has one major problem--adjusting the trim requires a screwdriver, so it's not feasible to tweak it in mid flight.

Suncom's Analog Xtra is billed as a "Flight Simulation Joystick"; it's probably only a good choice if you want to simulate getting blown out of the sky. The stick is one of the most impressive-looking in the bunch, and it sports a full feature list: throttle slider, three fire buttons, adjustable-rate rapid fire, trim sliders, and optional suction cups. However, the stiff rubber boot at the bottom of the stick handle makes it very difficult to move the stick, robbing you of necessary flight control.

Total Control

Even if a joystick has a throttle control, you're still forced to reach for the keyboard for functions like deploying the speed brake or changing radar modes. With the ThrustMaster system, though, you can approximate a true HOTAS setup.

The ThrustMaster system consists of two components, each sold separately: the Flight Control System (FCS) joy-stick and the Weapons Control System (WCS) throttle. The FCS is probably the most authentic control stick available for any computer. Its heavy-gauge molded plastic stick looks just like the sidestick in an F-16. It has four buttons (the extra buttons are currently supported by Falcon 3.0, where they toggle speed brakes and change weapons modes, and by Chuck Yeaker's Air Combat 1.1) and uses a unique nonlinear spring system to provide more tension as you push the stick farther--just like in a real plane. It has no trim adjustments, however, so it's only suitable for flight simulators that let you calibrate the stick within the program.

The WCS is a throttle control with six buttons and a three-position toggle switch. The throttle works just like a side throttle in a fighter jet: Oush the throttle forward to the detente stop to go to full speed; push it farther to activate afterburners. The buttons and toggle switch activate different functions, depending upon which simulator you're using. In Falcon 3.0, the buttons control flares, chaff, target selection, lock on, lock clear, the air brake, and combat mode. In Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, on the other hand, they control the gun camera, map mode weapons mode, arming and launching rockets flaps, and landing gear. Be prepared for a bit of confusion if you fly a number of simulations, but it's no worse than memorizing different keyboard controls.

The WCS acts as a keyboard device and plugs in between your PC and its keyboard. (Note that you'll need adapter cables if you have a PS/2-style keyboard). It works by sending the key codes to the computer as if you'd pressed them on the keyboard. This works great for weapons toggles and such, but the WCS sends throttle movements by sending keypresses, also. This isn't as responsive as the analog throttle control used by the FlightStick and Thunderstick. Also, some programs, such as Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, can't accept a fast series of keypresses, so quick throttle movements can result in little more than a series of "too-many-keypresses" beeps.

Because the WCS has to send different keypresses depending on which simulator you're running, you have to change a set of DIP switches on the back of the case each time you boot a different simulator. You also must replace a ROM chip inside the stick to add support for new programs. The stick currently supports 14 of the hottest flight simulators--including Falcon 3.0, Yeager's Air Combat, Wing Commander, and A-10 Tank Killer--and the ThrustMaster company regularly releases updates ROMs for a small fee. Even with these minor problems, though, I'd recommend the WCS to all flight sim fans, no matter which joystick you choose. With a good joystick in your right hand, the WCS in your left, and a set of rudder pedals at your feet, you've got a true HOTAS system that can make combat easier, more realistic, and much more exciting.

It's in the Cards

To attach any of these joysticks, you'll need a game card as well. Many PC sound cards include joystick ports, including the Sound Blaster Pro and Thunder Board. Besides, a sound card is another must-have flight simulator accessory; combat is more exciting when your guns thunder than when they click.

I tested all of the sticks here with a Thunder Board and had no problems. However, if you're going to be using more than one joystick-port device (such as two joysticks and rudder pedals), you'll need to attach Y cables to the single joystick port on the back of the sound card. I've heard reports of incompatibilities with such setups and the Sound Blaster Pro card, so you might be better off just buying a game card with two joystick ports.

Both Kraft and CH manufacture dualport cards that will automatically adjust to your PC's speed, and both include calibration software on disk. The Kraft Programmable MultiSpeed Game Card will autoadjust to speeds up to 35 MHz, while the CH GameCard III Automatic will work at up to 50 MHz. Suncom's GamePort 2 Plus card works only up to 16 MHz and requires you to manually change switches on the back of the board to alter the card's speed.

Advanced Gravis Eliminator Game Card takes a unique approach to the calibration problem, offering an external adjustment dial that plugs into the back of the joystick card. Although this setup ensures that you'll be able to adjust the card specifically to your computer's speed, I didn't have any problems with the automatic cards.

Take Off, Eh?

There are a number of good options for the dedicated PC pilot. My setup of choice is either the FlightStick or the ThrustMaster FCS, along with the ThrustMaster WCS. Jerking back on the stick while shoving the throttle forward is an experience totally different from holding down the + key while hitting 2 on the numeric keypad. Another accessory the dedicated pilot will want is a set of rudder pedals. The Maxx Pedals from Maxximum are popular with PC pilots, but they didn't arrive in time to be included in this feature.

If you're considering buying some of these accessories, you should check your flight simulator's manual to see if it supports some of the more esoteric options, such as rudder pedals or second-joystick throttles, before buying. A good source of compatibility information and product recommendations is CompuServe's FSFORUM, an online forum dedicated exclusively to talk about flight simulators. A couple of FSFORUM pilots are even putting together a custom HOTAS system, which will sell for around $300 and be completely user-programmable.

Put away that keyboard and grab a real flight controller. The wild blue yonder will never be the same.