Excellent gamepad support across all platforms has really spoiled us as gamers. The main on-brand models all feel great and most games are tuned to perfection for use with these controllers.

However, some games can only be enjoyed to their fullest by using specialized controllers. For serious racers, this means getting a great racing wheel, and perhaps even a racing seat. For flight sim enthusiasts, it means a HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) and perhaps even a set of pedals.

The level of realism that’s possible with modern computers and consoles is incredible, not to mention the existence of high-end VR. Having in your hands the real controls you’d find on an actual plane will help your control abilities match what the game can do and what you see on screen.

Flight sticks can vary wildly in terms of price and quality. Serious sim-grade sets can cost hundreds of dollars, but if your a flight sim nut it might be worth it. Then you can get pretty affordable sticks that allow you to dabble or just have some fun with more arcade-like settings or games. Let’s have a look at some of the interesting choices there are for those in the market for some more realistic flight control.

The Perfect Beginner Stick: Extreme 3D Pro Joystick for Windows

I’ll start off with a flight stick that I have actually owned myself. The Logitech Extreme 3D Pro is by far one of the most popular flight sticks on the market and has been for years. It lacks any sort of force feedback, true. However, it’s got oodles of macro keys, a nice ergonomic design, and a lovely price. My own unit has been through a real battering over the years and still works as well as the day I bought it. The simple thumb throttle has plenty of sensitivity and the wide base makes for a stable stick that won’t skid around on most desk surfaces.

The plastics are a little on the cheap side, but it’s very well supported, with plenty of flight sims referring to this stick by name. If you want to try the experience of a HOTAS stick, but don’t want to spend a fortune, this is the best entry-level choice.

Deal of the Century: Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack

Thrustmaster is probably the most respected brand in the flight stick world and this mid-range kit is a great example of why that is. The T16000M FC Flight Pack includes a stick, throttle, and foot pedals. That means you can mount these on the appropriate chair and can have a very comfortable experience, with the right controls spread out rather than squeezed into a single device.

Having a full kit like this is the premium option, yet Thrustmaster is selling the pack for less than some HOTAS sticks by themselves. Speaking of which, the included stick is, in fact, a standalone HOTAS unit with a thumb-operated sliding throttle. That’s actually a good thing, because if you don’t feel like whipping out the whole shebang, you don’t have to.

I like that the buttons on the stick have special markings so you can identify them just by touch. That’s a potentially wonderful feature for VR.

The throttle comes with 14 buttons and its own 8-way hat switch. It is not, however, ambidextrous, at least as far as I can tell. Combine this with all the buttons and the hat switch on the stick, and you have just about enough buttonage going around for any sim.

The final piece of the puzzle is the rudder pedals. Unlike racing pedals, rudder pedals are symmetrical and work in unison. That is, if you push on the one side the other pedal comes up, just as in a real craft. It uses a self-centering mechanism just as you’d have with real pedals. It’s truly a sweet little piece of kit.

I honestly can’t believe that Thrustmaster is selling this kit for such a low price. If you are even semi-serious about flight or space sims, this is one of the best deals I have ever seen.

High-end Heaven: Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog PC

I have never had the pleasure of seeing or using one of these sticks in real life, but I have read plenty of hardcore sim enthusiasts wax lyrical about this beast. That’s perhaps because Thrustmaster developed this stick and throttle kit from the ground up with the help of hardcore sim gamers from the PC community.

The first thing you need to know is that this is actually a replica of the real controls found in the A-10C Warthog. That doesn’t mean you only get to use it with Warthog sims, of course, but if you do, it would be the most realistic home gear out there.

Looking at this set as a general flight stick, there’s a hell of a lot to like. This is a real monster, weighing in at 14 pounds, with plenty of metal parts making up its body. It has 55 buttons and two four-way hat switches. Those hat switches can also be pressed as buttons, which is a first for any flight stick.

This stick has an incredible level of precision and accuracy. The buttons all simulate the feel and required pressure of real aircraft gear – another something that no one else has done. The throttle system allows for two independent engine controls, but it has a physical lock so that you can make it act as a normal single throttle as well. The throttle has some 100% realistic toggles and switches, which have to be seen to be believed. Honestly, this stick is worth it just as a replica – simply to be admired. While the price is steep, this is pretty much the final word in PC flight sticks. You just need to find a good rudder pedal set to complete the picture and maybe a VR headset. Oh, and a flight seat, and…

Where No Man Has Gone Before: Logitech G X56 H.O.T.A.S. RGB Throttle and Stick Simulation Controller for VR Gaming

While VR gaming hasn’t quite taken mainstream gaming by storm, it has definitely found an irreplaceable spot within the sim community. Whether it’s an airplane, helicopter, space fighter, or giant robot – if it’s a cockpit of some sort you’d better believe VR is a great choice for it. The only problem is that in VR you can’t actually see the real controls. You can’t read labels or do anything that can’t work by touch. That’s fine for a gamepad, but the intricate controls of a throttle and control panel are a different story.

It seems that Logitech has therefore found quite a niche for itself with the G X56, which is being marketed specifically for use in VR. Like the Warthog stick, this has been modeled on combat flight controls. Unlike the Warthog, the G X56 is not based on any particular real plane, but still features that split throttle design. In fact, Logitech has aimed this at space simulation, although it will work just as well for more earthly exploits.

Where it takes a massive departure is the tactile nature of the controls and the addition of specialized mini analog sticks. These can be used for equipment on the simulated craft that have gimbaled attachments. Think of vulcan cannons or point defense cannons on spacecraft.

The VR aspect comes from how distinctive the different buttons and controls are. Logitech says that you should have no trouble telling each control apart from touch alone. You certainly can’t argue with how beautiful the switches and toggles are!

Speaking of pretty things, the programmable RGB backlighting is really well done. Obviously, that doesn’t mean much in VR, but if you like to play in a dark environment it means you can use these controls without spoiling your night vision or wondering what button is labeled as what. Of course, the whole tactile angle makes that sort of pointless, but it still looks pretty cool.

In the end, the biggest selling point of this stick is the focus on six degrees of freedom. Spacecraft can move freely in 3D space; freed from the pull of gravity. So you need controls that can operate the sorts of thrusters that work in that environment. If you take all of that into account, then the asking price is downright reasonable.

Logitech G X52 Flight Control System

If the X56 is just more stick than you need, you might consider something that’s half the price but surely not half the stick. The X52 has a very distinct look to it. It actually looks a little like a sci-fi impression of what flight controls looked like from the 90s. There are lots of silver plastics and switches that look like they come from an old-school boombox. Whether you like that or not is going to be personal preference, but I think there is a certain amount of retro charm to it all. In fact, if you’re going to play something like Elite Dangerous with it, it’s perfect in the looks department.

There’s one real innovation here that I haven’t even seen in more expensive sticks. It has a multi-function display on the throttle unit. This is used for all sorts readouts, and in compatible titles it seems like it would be really cool. It seems, when looking at the user reviews from people who have bought it, that it really is a popular choice for Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen players. It has programmable profiles that can be selected on the fly, which is probably why Elite players like it. However, that MFD and its specialized controls are compatible with some of the most popular flight sims out there, from expensive, one-time hardcore sim packages to free-to-play tites. They’ve garnered plenty of industry support for the X52 stick.

Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas One

You might not know this, but flight sims have historically been quite rare on consoles, being more of a PC crowd thing. There are, however, quite a few good flight games on consoles and they deserve to be played with something appropriate.

Luckily, Thrustmaster has risen to the occasion and has produced a proper Hotas stick with a proper, full-sized throttle. While this stick will work in Windows, it’s the first stick that’s officially supported by the Xbox One and has Xbox buttons on it.

The design is brilliant. You can snap the stick and throttle together, so that it acts as one unit, or separate them out. This is also compatible with certain rudder pedals from Thrustmaster. However, that’s optional and there are 5 axes available with the base package. This stick is being sold specifically for use with Elite Dangerous, which means it supports features like reverse thrust, which is needed for space flight but makes no sense for airplanes.

It’s not the best flight stick ever made, but for console gamers on the Xbox One, it’s really the only choice. The stick is actually pretty good for the money; the main issue is game compatibility. As I write this, it really only works with Elite Dangerous and Ace Combat 7. I’ve also heard rumors that it will work with War Thunder, but don’t quote me on that. It’s definitely worth it if you love those games, but if you are looking to play every flight game on Xbox One using this setup, don’t hold your breath. However, as the only Xbox One stick on the market right now, I have a feeling plenty of developers will patch support into their games, so keep an eye on those patch notes.

Full Throttle!

Most of us will never, ever get to be behind the controls of a real aircraft. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to fly a helicopter in real life as part of a training experience, but that was just my good fortune. Even so, when I get a hankering to take to the skies, I only have computer and console sims as an option. While a gamepad is fine for a quick, casual experience, nothing beats these sticks! If flying the wild blue yonder is something that appeals to you, hopefully you’ve found the right gear to take matters into your own hands right here.

If you are starting to get into VR sims, then I’d go as far as to say that you should consider a decent flight stick a requirement rather than an option. It changes everything, believe me.