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[StarCitizen] Corwin's unreasonably messy guide to flight sticks ^^ [Updated Apr. 2018]

Many people keep asking me lately what sticks I use for Star Citizen and what they should buy. Conversations on the subject start here, as well as on the UOLTT Discord server and the RSI forum and eventually get drowned in the flood. So I decided to compact all I can think of regarding the sticks I know into a more comprehensive format for anyone interested to browse through.




Have in mind that by no means am I claiming to be any kind of authority on the matter, nor do I count my opinions to be the end-all of any discussion. I am just someone who has had the chance to muck about with many of the sticks and HOTAS systems that are currently on the market and have kept my ear to the ground over the years, because I am interested in new developments and about how things work in general. Below, I may express strong opinions regarding certain brands and certain technologies so please have in mind that these are still my own opinions - be sure to take them with a grain of salt. What I like or dislike may turn out to be the complete opposite of your own tastes. ;)




Now with all that out of the way, let me start with the basics. And a lot of basics they are going to be... sorry. ;)


When you go buy a gaming joystick, you will see them being sold either as standalone sticks or as part of a HOTAS package. HOTAS is originally a military acronym, that describes a flight control system, used primarily in applications that expect intense combat and maximum concentration, therefore arranged in such a way that the pilot needs to spend as little time as possible with their hands off their craft's main controls or thinking about them at all. Hence the acronym - Hands On Throttle-And-Stick. Since this article will deal mainly with flight sim controls in the context of Star Citizen, I will not spend much time talking about throttles. Not because they are not important, but because, unlike in a atmospheric military jet, they are less important in SC's particular control scheme. And I will try to explain why.


In atmospheric flight, as experienced by flying modern day airplanes, there are three primary axes of movement that a pilot has to concern themselves with, namely - pitch yaw and roll.



Due to the limitations imposed by aerodynamics, in a classic airplane control scheme, maneuvering is mainly achieved by propelling yourself forward and then using devices, called ailerons to change the aerodynamic shape of the craft and changing its orientation around its  main axes. Pitch and roll are the two axes that a pilot would use most in order to control the plane's heading, with yaw being used more sparingly. Pilots would pitch up and down in order to move vertically - gain or decrease altitude: 




...and they would roll to one side and pitch up in order to execute turns:





Being the easiest way to control a plane in an atmosphere, pitch and roll are controlled with the plane's main controller, be that a yoke for larger craft or a stick for lighter and more nimble ones. While the third axis - yaw, is usually relegated to foot pedals and used more sparingly for small corrections in heading.


Airplanes obviously use one additional axis, called the surge axis, to change direction forward, by using their main engines. They use only half of the surge axis, as they are unable to go backwards for obvious reasons, as their main means of propulsion only work in one direction and even if they wanted to go backwards without changing their attitude, they would have to come to a stop first, at which point they would just fall like a rock. :) Anyway, a plane's speed of movement along the surge axis is controlled by the throttle lever. 


In contrast - helicopters, although much slower, can move along all six available axis - surge (forward/back), heave (up/down), sway (left/right), as well as pitch, yaw and roll. The limitation of helicopters in this regard is that with their propellers placed on top, providing downward thrust, most of them can not make a full revolution around their pitch and roll axes, and those that can, can do it for only seconds at a time, as staying with their propeller pointing at the ground any longer would not be the brightest idea at the best of times. ;) 



When we go into space, however, things get a bit more complicated. There is no air and therefore no aerodynamics. Our ailerons would be useless, as would be rotary propellers -  there will be no atmosphere for them to get traction on. In order to change our heading and orientation without an atmosphere, we have literally push our craft away from itself :D in different directions, on its own power. We can achieve that by expelling some sort of mass, be it rocket exhaust, plasma, or even cold gas at high enough speeds so that it can push us away from the point of thrust. As in airplanes, we would have big main thrusters that would propel us on our main heading, but unlike planes, we would need to stud our craft with smaller thrusters to control the craft's attitude and make it maneuver.


The upside to all this is that, without an atmosphere getting in the way or a gravity constantly pulling us in one direction, depending on the placement and strength of its maneuvering thrusters, a spacecraft can potentially utilize all six available axes with equal ease. Most space sim games play pretty loosely with this concept and don't bother themselves with pesky physics realism, where your main thruster will still be thousands of times more powerful than your maneuvering thrusters so changes in heading will be a really ponderouos affair indeed. SC is certainly not among the guiltiest of the guilty in this regard but it is still up there. ;) Still, if you have played any of the few really "realistic" space flight simulators out there, you will agree that they are not for the short-tempered and not really the regular flight junkie's cup of tea. ;)


I would place SC in the "close enough" category and leave it there. And if you happen to disagree, remember - my personal opinion, not a statement of fact!


Anyway, again in my own personal opinion, the greater freedom of movement along all six axes (6DoF), provided by the "close enough" space sims necessitates a control scheme different than those used in atmospheric flight. I personally have found that I feel most comfortable controlling ships in SC with two joysticks, instead of a stick and throttle. That is not to say that other people have not found many other methods comfortable as well - such as plain old mouse and keyboard, stick and keyboard, stick and mouse (HOMAS/HOJAM), and even two mice, lol! HOTAS is still usable, especially with the more expensive sets that have enough thumb hats on the throttle to use for strafing.


For the purposes of this article, however, I will be sticking (ha! get it? im so funny!) to what I know best - and that is sticks (no pun intended this time, you pervert!).


When you are shopping for a stick, there is a number of things that you better be aware of before you make your choice. I will do my best to outline them here, but whether you ultimately like how a stick handles or not is entirely up to personal preference. If you have a chance to try it before you buy it, I strongly suggest you do so. If you have a friend who has it, ask them to loan it to you for a week. If you find a retailer with a really good returns policy, be shameless and order a few of them to compare, pick the one you like most and return the rest!





I would like to go into some of the features that differ vastly between sticks and greatly affect performance and feel. 



The sensors of a stick are the means by which it senses movement along its axes. Several unpopular types have been tried along the years, such as light sensors, working on the same principle as optical mice, but today, two main types of stick sensors have emerged as dominant and pretty much unchallenged, used in virtually all sticks currently on the market - these are potentiometers and magnetic (hall effect) sensors.


 - Potentiometers are the most common type of movement sensor and have been around since the dawn of electronics. For detailed information on how they work you can refer to the quite comprehensive Wikipedia article here. They can be seen in joysticks throughout the history of gaming as well, from the old Atari days until today. They do the job well and if they are of really good quality, they can last for years. The problem with potentiometers, however is that all of them, even the best ones, eventually degrade. Think of the volume rocker on your grandma's old radio and how it fluctuates while you turn it. That is a potentiometer that has degraded from use... now imagine that this same pot in this same state was what you are using to sense the movement of your joystick, instead of the volume of your grandma's radio. Yeah... not fun. :) That said, there are sticks out there, such as the CH stick lineup, that use extremely robust, industrial-grade potentiometers that can last decades of heavy use. If, however, you are faced with a cheap potentiometer stick, have in mind that it will probably degrade within 2-3 years on the outside, with some of the cheaper Saitek ones or the Chinese brands lasting mere months!


 - Hall sensors, unlike potentiometers, use magnetism, instead of friction, to sense changes in their orientation. More information on the way they work can be found here. Suffice it to say that frictionless sensors last longer and have much greater accuracy at all times. I am no electrical engineer, but I can't imagine a way they can actually degrade from use. They would probably stop working when their materials start crumbling. Fewer sticks use Hall Sensors and most of them are expensive. The higher-end Saitek HOTAS systems, such as X-55/65, the Russian VKB lineup, as well as Thrustmaster's t.16000m and their flagship product the Warthog.



Springs and centering:

Even if you have the best sensors, however, your stick can still be inaccurate and hard to aim in a pinch. Every brand has their own spring and centering solutions and a lot of their R&D money are poured into this deceptively simple branch of development. Potentiometers and Hall sensors you buy from third party manufacturers, but centering solutions you have to develop by yourself. :)


Again there are two main types of spring centering, variations of which are used by pretty much everyone. Single compression spring centering and dual tension spring centering.


 - The idea behind single spring centering is for a spring to be compressed by moving the controller, providing uniform feel of circular movement. To be honest, I can not find any major faults with single spring centering, as implemented by Thrustmaster, so I have no idea why everyone isn't copying them shamelessly. I'm guessing patent issues. :) In their most popular products Thrustmaster use a plate at the bottom of the stick that compresses a large spring under it. And this really seems to be the best way to do it, to achieve the smoothest movement experience.


Thrustmaster Warthog spring: 


Thrustmaster Warthog spring


 - The Saitek approach to single spring centering is a bit different. They use a compression spring on top of a cone that goes into a depression on the base of the stick. I have tried many Saitek sticks that use this method, even their most expensive ones, and I can't say I am really impressed. In every case, no matter what lubrication you try to use, the contact of the cone with the base is never completely uniform. There are always lurches and nudges, preventing perfect accuracy. That is not to say that their high end sticks are not accurate, just that they are less accurate than even something as cheap as Thrustmaster's budget hall sensor/center spring offering - the t.16000m.



Saitek spring-in-cone



 - The other common centering solution is the dual tension springs. Where a separate spring is used for each of the stick's main axes. This method has an innate problem with four small "bumps" at the four corner positions where one of the springs is fully extended, while the other is fully compressed. The resulting deadzones can vary in severity, depending on the stick's build quality. For example CH sticks use dual springs, yet the bumps are just barely noticeable, while theyare a bit more pronounced in the VKB Kobra M5. 



CH Fighterstick with dual springs



2018 Update:   A lot has happened on the flight peripherals market since this guide was first written. And especially good things in the area of stick centering. Two companies - the Russian VKB and the Belorussian VirPil took the above idea of dual spring centering and pumped it full of delicious, industrial steel steroids! The basic idea behind this gimbal centering method is not putting the springs directly on the gimbal, like in the above method, but introducing two very smooth, very strong and very accurately shaped steel plates, called cams that move on rollers and are being centered by the tension springs, giving the movement of the stick a buttery smooth and uniform feel with a gradually increasing tension from the center to the edges. Both companies sell their new lines of modular products for ungodly amounts of money, but I would say it's wortth it, if you're looking for a piece of kit that would last for decades and provide the same smooth accuracy all throughout its life. Both companies offer separate modular stick bases and grips, bundled with different sets of cams and springs so you can adjust the tension and center hardness to your liking.


Here is a video of the basic idea behind this type of centering, shown with the VKB Gladiator Pro:






There is not much to say about joystick button switches, really. Everything you know about mouse and keyboard switches applies here too. There are good ones, that are expensive and crap ones that are cheap. The good ones provide a satisfactory clickety-click and will last for ages, while the crap ones will start occasionally missing to make contact when you press them and eventually stop working altogether. The good news is that they are easily replaced in most sticks so any local tinker shop can change them for you, even if your stick's warranty has expired. Even my personal favorite t.16000m has crap switches. I have had to replaced a trigger switch on my first one and then they just gave me an entire new unit when the top hat switch died as well.


Handle ergonomics and button placement: 


The handle is a matter of preference, perhaps more than anything else. Some sticks, such as the Saitek F.L.Y lineup are very adjustable, you can change the length and tilt of the handle, the position of the head and so forth... unfortunately that, and some pretty decent button placement are these horrible sticks' only redeeming qualities. :) Another example of a stick with adjustable ergonomics is the t.16000m (yes, I can't shut up about it, yes I know...) - it is ambidextrous, and has a thumb rest that can be put on either side for both left and right hand use. The button placement on it is hardly ideal, but I will go into detail about the virtues and failings of many individual models in part 2 of this wall of text. :) 




And thus endeth part 1. In part two I will compare the sticks that I have tried and try to be as objective as possible in examining their pros and cons. With apologies for the incoherent novelette so far - To be continued... ;)



================NOTABLE BRANDS================



Contrary to what your mom would probably imagine when hearing about a company that develops big black phallic objects, branded THRUSTMASTER, they are actually one of the primary developers of quality niche gaming peripherals, for racing and general gaming, as well as flight simulation equipment, such as rudder pedals, yokes, throttles, joysticks and HOTAS systems. Established in 1990, they have grown considerably and have had their ups and downs in terms of quality.


Their first collaboration with the US Air-Force, geared towards consumers - to develop a full replica of the F-16 Fighter controller system, resulted in the HOTAS Cougar. While pretty expensive, this device failed to capture wide market attention due to a slew of problems, primarily with wobbly centering and really low quality potentiometers.  With the latest additions to their flight peripherals lineup, however, - the budget T.16000m and HOTAS X, as well as the enthusiast HOTAS Warthog, have managed to win back the market's confidence and are currently regarded as some of the best pieces of equipment available in their respective price brackets.



Established in the distant 1979, Saitek has gone through many transformations and developed many odd things, but they are probably best known for their Flight and racing peripherals, and more recently - their mice and keyboards of the Cyborg lineup. Associated with reasonable quality at reasonable prices, Saitek was a big driving force for innovation in the industry throughout the late nineties and early 2000s. However, after their acquisition by the company MadCatz in 2007, they have received heavy criticism for lowering their quality standards (even for new batches of old products), as well as poor customer support.


Saitek was also chosen to be the designer and developer of the upcoming StarCitizen HOTAS controller, which, judging by the initial concept designs, is to be based on their X-65 HOTAS design.


2018 Update:  And in the world of business things have progressed as well. A little after this guide was written later in 2016, for better or worse, Logitech publicly announced that they have purchased the Saitek Brand, along with all patents and product lines from their previous owner MadCatz. In the following two years, not much has happened. Logitech continue to sell Saitek's old products under the Logitech brand name, but nothing new has been shown so far. here's hoping. On the bright side, users are reporting that the customer service has improved greatly since the acquisition.


CH Products

CH products is the Gaming peripherals arm of the APEM Group - a leading developer and manufacturer of switching, motion sensing and controller equipment for industrial applications. Their CH Products subsidiary develops exclusively flight simulation controller equipment. Although firmly sticking to conservative technologies and known for their lack of product diversity and severe lack of attention to visual design (;)), CH are also renowned for their uncompromising build quality and constant aim towards functional perfection. Most people who own CH equipment will pretty much tell you the same thing - "It may look like crap but it works so well I never even bother looking at it.":)



Well you know Microsoft. They've made everything at one point or another, including Gaming peripherals, under the Microsoft Sidewinder brand.


In terms of Joysticks they have had good and bad. The good, stemming from their implementation of an innovative light sensing system with the Sidewinder Precission Pro, which is pretty accurate, although it never got much traction. On the other hand, their unrelenting obsession with trying to push Force Feedback technology on every later model, even though the market clearly didn't really love the idea after the first few failed attempts, has given Microsoft sticks as a whole a bad reputation, which is a bit unfair, because they still do have a few of the classic quality devices in this niche.




A large manufacturer of consumer and gaming peripherals, logitech have been on the flight controller market for quite some time as well. Their more recent developments have received mixed reviews, with their G95 HOTAS system being criticized for poor build quality and lack of accuracy. However, they have also developed one of the staple budget sticks currently on the market - With its low price, good ergonomics and above average sustainable accuracy, the Logitech 3D Pro has won its acclaim as one of the most widely spread joysticks among entry level users.



VKB is a Russian company, developer of a relatively narrow range of flight simulation peripherals. They make rudder pedals, throttles and several joystick models. Their sticks are faithful visual replicas of the Sukhoi SU-34 jet fighter controller and vary greatly in price, functionality and build quality.  Their most popular is their budget offering - the Cobra M5, with its relatively low price, fully magnetic sensors and good quality switches, it has become the favorite of a small but growing fan base. 


The problem with VKB equipment is that it is very hard to obtain outside of Russia. They sell worldwide only from their European online store and that has most of their products "out of stock" most of the time. But they do restock it every once or twice a year, so the trick is to catch them when they do. :)


2018 Update: Since this guide was originally put together, VKB have stepped up their game immensely and having used their new product for about a year now as my main right-hand stick, I have to say that they now develop the best, most accurate and most durable flight simulation equipment on the market, with their only real competitor in these areas being the Belorussian company VirPil. The prices of both are not for the faint of heart, but they are all now much easier to actually obtain from their online stores that now thoroughly cover Europe and North+South America. Both manufacturers are still niche, expensive and stock availability is a bit spotty at times, but in terms of quality, all other brands are pretty much left in the dust, hands down.







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Guide Synopsis: More confused that I was before

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19 minutes ago, abyss03 said:

Guide Synopsis: More confused that I was before

Ah, but that is not the guide! It is merely the foreword of the guide! :D


Lol, seriously, my initial idea was to give short reviews of a bunch of sticks I've tested. But every time I start writing about one I'll be like ok but I have to talk about 6DOF, ok but I have to talk about atmospheric flight vs space flight, ok but I have to talk about pots vs hall sensors, ok but I have to talk about different spring types etc. etc. So yeah... guide to follow. :D

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3 hours ago, Corwin111 said:

Yes, they are perfect for WOW, I agree. :P

You wanna take this to Yella Bro?

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1 minute ago, Corwin111 said:

Yes, they are perfect for WOW, I agree. :P

Ooooooooooooh sick burn. I use Mouse and Keyboard too though! Its really good right now and until I can make sense of your guide I cant use a joystick to save my life (I die a lot with it)

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I mostly use HOTAS, but one set up I have enjoyed but was not mentioned was HOTAM.  I don't typically match speed, I like to close and fall back incrementally as needed and I like having the throttle on hand.  My strafe hat, Space Break, and Counter Measures are all on the throttle so I use the mouse to aim.  it works pretty well actually, though it is more fun to fly with a stick just not as effective for me.

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Joystick for flying! M+K for fps :D

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  • 2 years later...

Hello people from the future! Since I wrote this thing in 2016, there have been several major developments that reshaped the market, so I have included a few update paragraphs.


See you in the verse.

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Good timing since my joystick is flapping around everywhere, struggling to keep it stand up, it wants to flop to the right constantly. Think it's time to get someone to see if they can fix it. Or replace it. 

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 30-4-2018 at 1:55 PM, rentaspoon said:

Good timing since my joystick is flapping around everywhere, struggling to keep it stand up, it wants to flop to the right constantly. Think it's time to get someone to see if they can fix it. Or replace it. 

Ever thought about seeing a doctor about your problems?

New to Star Citizen? Look no further!

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On 17/05/2018 at 12:02 PM, Wauthar said:

Ever thought about seeing a doctor about your problems?

Yes but he's now in councilling

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  • 1 year later...

Ugh.. I so need to get back in... 


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4 hours ago, Michaelk morris said:

obviously thrustmaster is the best joystick on the market for Flight Stick.
But many man many mind 
Someone likes design 
Someone likes the durability  

Someone likes the comfortableness 
You can check the link also...

A few years ago, this claim could have been made with a straight face. Nowadays - not so sure. Both VKB and VPC have vastly superior products now, in terms of technology, ergonomics and durability. They are just insanely expensive. But if you have the dough - TM is no longer king. 

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4 hours ago, Corwin111 said:

A few years ago, this claim could have been made with a straight face. Nowadays - not so sure. Both VKB and VPC have vastly superior products now, in terms of technology, ergonomics and durability. They are just insanely expensive. But if you have the dough - TM is no longer king. 

Is it just me or does this happen to Thrustmaster a lot?
they look at something and go: "We can do that better and we will charge for it!" so they go out and make a better thing and charge more for it.

People then start to accept that you have to pay the price and buy that new Thrustmaster product.
New manufacturers look at this and ask: "People pay for that? Lets make it even better and charge more." so they go out and make an even better thing and charge a lot more for it.

Cheap people now buy the cheap stuff and people who want the best buy the best they can get and Thustmaster gets left in the middle

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