Whether you get your jollies flying planes on Microsoft Flight Simulator, conducting aerial firefights in DCS World, or battling across space in Star Wars: Squadrons, a good joystick is the primary foundation for any immersive cockpit setup. Even if you add nothing else, a flight stick (or, better yet, a full throttle-and-stick combo) will amplify the realism of taking to the skies in a way mouse-and-keyboard systems just can’t do.
These are our favorite stick-based control systems.
Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog
Arguably the best throttle-and-stick setup out there, the Warthog has long been a favorite among enthusiasts (it’s been around 10 years), with its combination of precise control, responsiveness, and impeccable build quality. Suffice to say, this is one premium piece of flight sim gear, with the premium price to show for it.
Made with a combination of plastic and metal, it’s heavier than your typical joysticks, weighing in at over 14 pounds, so there’s no need to secure it to your desk – the darn thing will hold its place all on its own, although it does have drill holes if you still want to screw it down. The throttle can even be split in two if you need discrete controls, with a host of toggles, buttons, and switches (seriously, several dozens in total) allowing you to put all your controls within easy reach at all times. It boasts the outfit’s five-coil spring system that delivers consistent tension without any dead zones, along with a magnetic sensor system that delivers 16-bit precision.
It’s also one of the best-looking HOTAS rigs out there, with a design based right off the A-10C Warthog’s cockpit, so its aesthetics are deeply grounded in realism while the ergonomics create a really good feel in-hand. Sadly, being a replica of A-10C means there’s no Z-rotation on the joystick, so you’ll have to map that somewhere else in the ensemble.
If you’re not quite that into flight sims and space combat to spend the money the Warthog requires, the T.16000M will probably be more suited to your liking. It’s affordable, it’s incredibly good-looking, and it handles really well, striking a good balance for those with more modest requirements.
The stick uses the same magnetic sensor system for 16-bit precision, along with a helical spring inside providing smooth and firm tension with a consistent feel. It has four independent axes that deliver satisfying pitch and roll controls, while twisting handles the yaw when you’re performing horizontal adjustments. The thumb control on the side of the stick can be moved to the other side for ambidextrous support, while 16 action buttons, an 8-way hat switch, and a trigger offer even more controls from the same hand. The throttle, on the other hand, has a lower positioning that makes it more comfortable to keep your hand on, while offering another 14 programmable buttons and a hat switch.
While it’s far from the most complete HOTAS setup out there, the T.16000M arguably offers the best value for money, as you get a whole lot of flight sim control in a relatively affordable package.
The successor to Saitek’s popular X55, the X56 retains many of the elements that made its predecessor so popular, all while improving on nearly every aspect of the old design. The joystick, for instance, features multiple analog thumb sticks, allowing you to control every imaginable movement of your aerial or space vehicle, along with any gimballed weapons that require maneuvering on the fly. It also boasts an adjustable spring tensioning system for customizing the feel, along with contact-free sensors that allow for high levels of sensitivity and responsiveness.
The throttle, on the other hand, can be split in two similar to the Warthog for separate controls, all while hosting an array of thumb sticks, switches, and knobs that allow you to manage every element of your flight. Everything is, of course, customizable across three different modes, which, the outfit claims, will put over 180 different action controls at your fingertips.
There’s a metal plate on both the stick and the throttle, although everything under it is made with plastic. As such, it doesn’t feel as substantial, so you’ll definitely want to use the included suction cups to ensure a more secure hold on your desk.
A replica of the throttle and sidestick used on iconic Airbus airliners, this steps up the realism for those interested in simulating the feel of those large passenger planes. The control stick has a modular design that lets you attach controls to mimic the layout for a captain, a co-pilot, or a solo flyer, respectively, as well as a lockable twist rudder that makes control easier for multi-tasking in the air. There are a dozen buttons on the base of the stick for easy access to multiple flight elements, while a thrust reverser mechanism really makes it feel like you’re flying a proper airliner.
The throttle, of course, mirrors the computer-controlled systems in Airbus airplanes, so it’s got locking positions for different flight modes, although that can be disabled if you’d rather it control like a regular throttle for those times you’re not in the mood to conduct mere passenger and cargo transport. It has dual thrust levers for better mimicking the controls on Airbus airliners, with the option to add another throttle controller, so you can have four levers for each of the four engines on even larger planes (like the Airbus A380). There are also eight buttons on the deck, eight virtual buttons on the levers, and a built-in thrust reverser mechanism.
If you like flying those airliners in flight sims, this is a heck of a way to do it. Of course, it’s not as suited when you’re flying warplanes and spacefighters in other games, but it’s customizable enough to get the job done when you need it.
If you’re new to flight sims and aerial combat, investing over $100 just doesn’t seem all that prudent. For all you know, you could stop enjoying it in short order, so the most modest investment available is likely what you’re looking to make.
For our money, that’s what Logitech offers with their Extreme 3D Pro, which is a standalone joystick that should get you a good feel for what those more complete systems will feel like. This was originally designed as a general gaming joystick – one that can serve you well whether you’re playing fighting games, flight sims, or one of those arcade classics from yesteryear, so it’s something you’ll likely find of use even if you don’t end up a flight and space combat enthusiast.
It doesn’t come with a throttle, but there’s a slider control on the base that you can use for throttle control, while the stick itself has a twist rudder control, making it an excellent, albeit not quite high-precision, option for flight sims. It also includes multiple buttons, a rapid-fire thumb trigger, and even an 8-way hat switch, so you can map plenty of controls that will otherwise require you to reach for the keyboard. While Logitech touts it as having a weighted base, the reality is, it’s not that heavy, so you’ll likely want to improvise ways to secure it to its place on the desk using those cutouts on the corners.