Please Note: This post covers only mass market joysticks and HOTAS from major brands. If you are really all about helicopters and willing to spend the money for the good stuff this article probably isn’t for you! Sadly the only product I’ve tested from our helicopter specific control suppliers is the cyclic gimbal from microhelis.de which I love and still use for my helicopter simulator.
A few years back I was known in one community as “the Joystick Guru”, and not much has changed in the landscape since then. That said, I have some pretty strong opinions, all grounded in many hours of flight time with each option I will mention except the X-56. Likewise I have opened up and tinkered with them all, and fully or nearly fully disassembled almost all of them.
Before I start because this may change what you get out of this post, I think it is very, very worthwhile to get a pair of rudder pedals, and with the sub-$100 Thrustmaster pedals available you might want to consider adding them in. Pedals might take some adjustment, but they greatly improve immersion and control as well as opening up better Joystick options.
First and foremost, do NOT get a Logitech stick. I’m talking about their own sticks, not the former Saitek sticks that are now Logitech branded. It pains me to say this because I used to be a huge fan of their stuff, but for many years Logitech has been known for using absolutely god-awful potentiometers. Initially the stick will work just fine, but with very few hours of use you will start getting “potentiometer spiking” which will have you fighting an invisible battle against incorrect inputs that you most likely won’t even know is screwing up your control corrections.
I am a strong proponent of the T16000M. I wish it had more buttons, and I hate the scratchy feeling of the gimbal after a few hours but the thing is reliable and extremely precise due to it’s hall-effect sensors. As mentioned, the T16000M HOTAS throttle has a control that is great for anti-torque, in addition to also having the standard twist grip option so you can try both and use either. The only drawback is the centering spring, but it’s not super stiff and you will have to deal with spring action on any affordable stick but the Saitek (now Logitech) options.
And so I move to those. I owned two pre-Logitech X-52 Pro HOTAS, the second because the first died just barely out of warranty. And there is the rub, reliability is a major concern with these. I also bought a post-Logitech X-52 Pro and I strongly suspect that there was in reality little to no improvement actually made to them. This is not surprising considering that they’ve been selling the same sticks for many many years without switching to better pots despite well over a decade of complaints. Essentially I think the X-52 (and also the X-56 which is basically a (significantly) updated version are pretty much the best reasonably priced option for helicopters due to the access to the spring. Just be aware that you may find the unit develops problems long before you would expect. The Saitek sticks definitely feel far nicer than the T-16000M and have a lot more buttons, but are less accurate (especially over time). I never tried the magnet mod, which is reported to help a lot. Google it to learn more.
One of the best options are the CH Products sticks. They are top notch quality in terms of accuracy and reliability, but they are not very fancy and still feel like a toy in your hand. The dualbarrel gimbal generally turns off most people due to feeling the little “bump” when you cross from any quarter of the stick travel to any other quarter instead of only when you cross center. This is actually a good thing for fixed wing, and if you can mentally get over it it’s not really going to hurt you. In fixed wing it’s better, and in helicopters I found the spring tension to be very light. I think out of all these sticks the CH Figherstick I owned had by far the lowest spring tension out of the box. There is one problem though, the CH sticks do not have a rudder axis, and if you elect to buy the throttle (sold separately) it doesn’t have one either. If you are going with pedals this is a pretty great option though. For me the price is too high for a stick that despite it’s reliability and accuracy still feels like a toy.
As someone else said, do not buy the T-Flight HOTAS. It is terrible. The stick travel is far too short, it’s almost as bad as flying with an X-box controller. There is nothing good about this stick. The desperate need to replace it is actually what catapulted me into my joystick/HOTAS obsession.
Finally, there’s the Thrustmaster Warthog. This is not going to be brief! It’s not really “affordable” by most folks measure and it has no really decent way to control your tail-rotor IMO so you will probably also want to buy pedals. A Warthog HOTAS is what I use to fly modern fixed wing, so I have MANY many many hours on this stick. In general I recommend it if you are willing to spend, but if you are looking to focus on helicopters you might then want to go for broke and get some of the specialized hardware. The Warthog is a mix of good and bad, and opinions vary wildly on it depending on what is important to you and a bit of luck.
Why luck? It is not terribly uncommon to have issues with a brand new Warthog, or with a few hours on it. The good news though, is that these problems will almost certainly occur long before your warranty runs out. Long term reliability, unless you beat the heck out of the gimbal it is unlikely to give you problems aside from “stiction” requiring some (easy) disassembly, clean up, and good grease. For most people this will be something you won’t feel the need to do until after the Warranty is up anyway, but I also believe you probably wouldn’t have any issue with warranty support for opening up the stick base.
So here’s my breakdown, I’ll go with bad news first. Without an extension the stick gimbal is far too stiff for helicopters and it’s plastic. With many hours of use it gets sticky too as mentioned above. You will also find a lot of complaints online about the gimbal design, but what’s not apparent is that those complaints are actually specific to fixed wing aircraft, and mostly specific to aerobatics. The problem is that it’s difficult to move the stick on one axis without also getting some input on the other axis. This is actually true of every stick on this list.
Here is very good news though. You can buy a joystick extension online (ebay is a good option) that will drastically reduce the spring tension (and stickiness too if you get to that point). The Warthog then goes from much too stiff to far better than any of the other options here by adding an extension. For helicopters especially the longer the extension the better. With a longer extension the spring tension is basically nothing. It’s not even enough to center the stick in many cases. The extensions are not super cheap though, and they also give you a lot more leverage to damage the gimbal. Even with an extension, the only way it’s very likely to break is if you let someone use it unsupervised and they are slamming the stick against the stops.
Another great thing about the Warthog, you can actually buy repair parts if it’s out of warranty!
The up side of the Warthog is huge if you aren’t going to be offended by the gimbal not being up to snuff with the rest of the rig. It feels AMAZING. It weighs a ton, and the metal grip makes you really feel like you are using the real thing instead of a toy. I can’t over-stress this, it is a whole different world in terms of how it feels. The toggle switches, push buttons, and hats are also FAR better quality and have much better feel than anything else on the mass market. They feel real, period. It’s very very hard to go back to a plastic stick after you’ve put you hands on one of these. I couldn’t do it. It’s also got a ton of buttons and switches for you to assign to whatever you want. The Warthog throttle doesn’t have much in the way of flaws, it is just awesome.
Something people seem to ask about surprisingly frequently is the Thrustmaster Cougar. This setup is very long discontinued. It was the predecessor to the Warthog and had terrible quality gimbal parts and throttle action. It wore out very, very quickly and also doesn’t get along well with modern versions of Windows. There were some amazing mods for it depending on application, but they too are long since discontinued and had flaws. I’ve owned three Cougar HOTAS setups. One had the legendary U2NXT mod, but even that had major issues that eventually caused me to sell it. In general, just say NO!
In conclusion I’ll list my recommendations:
Lower price option:
Either: Take a risk on long term reliability and get the Saitek X-52 or X-56 or get the super reliable and more accurate T16000 setup which feels a lot less sexy, has a lot fewer buttons on the stick, and no external spring to remove or mod.
Higher price option:
If you fly fixed wing as well and want something that will work well for both get the Thrustmaster Warthog Hotas, a stick extension, and a set of rudder pedals.
If you are want really proper helicopter controls an are willing to spend even more look into getting a proper helicopter setup from someone like the ProFlightTrainer setup. I can not personally review any of these setups and some have reliability and quality issues so do your research first!