In Microsoft Flight Simulator, not only do you have the freedom to fly wherever you want, but you can also fly however you like. The game supports a plethora of controllers and flight stick replicas, and for newcomers to the flight simulation genre, it can be difficult to find the right hardware and control scheme.
In this Microsoft Flight Simulator guide, we’ll show you our favorite control options if you plan on flying with a standard controller. For those considering buying a flight stick for Microsoft Flight Simulator, we’ll let you know what to consider when purchasing one or more pieces of gear.
Using a controller
If you want to quickly soar into the sky, you can confidentially learn how to pilot an aircraft with the controller you probably already own. Whether you’re using an Xbox controller or a third-party option, a standard game pad will allow you to control most of the operations of any given aircraft.
As we mention in our Microsoft Flight Simulator beginner’s guide, complete Flight Training first to learn about pulling off nuanced maneuvers on a game pad. Even after you’ve mastered the controls, you’ll still have to rely on your computer’s keyboard for some more advanced options.
Playing Microsoft Flight Simulator with just a controller is a completely valid option. To make the most of the experience, we’ve been using a specific controller to expand the options in our hands.
Xbox Elite Series 2 controller
The Xbox Elite Series 2 controller is a great option for game pad flying because of the two specific features of the controller: swappable thumbsticks, and customizable paddles on the back of the controller.
Tall thumbstick for yoke
First, it’s easier to control the yoke of the plane by swapping the left thumbstick for the taller option that comes in the box. The added height of the thumbstick allows for smoother and more precise aircraft control. Since you’ll perform most of your maneuvers with the left thumbstick, the additional amount of control made flying much more refined.
Paddle mapping for trim
The second change worth making is remapping two of the rear paddles to control trim. When climbing, descending, and cruising, you could constantly hold the left thumbstick to maintain the right angle of flight. But as you learn during the Flight Training, adjusting trim allows you to set a certain amount of angle to your plane’s nose allowing you to ease off the yoke altogether while maintaining a smooth ride.
With a controller, the way you adjust trim is by holding the Y button and then holding up or down on the D-pad. The problem is, to make adjustments on the D-pad, you need your left thumb. If you take your finger off the left thumbstick to make adjustments on the D-pad, the nose of your plane might dip while you slowly adjust the trim. This can lead to some jerky flying.
To combat this, set two of the rear paddles to up and down respectively. This way, you can still leave a finger on the left thumbstick to maintain the proper angle while you slowly adjust trim with your right thumb and fingers on the paddles. It takes a bit of dexterity, but once you master it, you’ll have steadier flights.
Should you buy a flight stick?
There are many flight sticks for aviation simulators. For newcomers, choosing among them can be daunting. Not only is it unclear how many pieces of gear you should buy, but prices for individual hardware can also fluctuate wildly.
If you’re looking to buy a flight stick setup, here’s what you need to consider first:
- How much space do you have for a flight stick and accessories?
- How much realism do you want to simulate?
- What’s your budget for dedicated hardware?
To answer these questions, let’s break down what your options are for hardware and how different pieces of gear add to the experience.
One of the sets we’ve been using is the Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack, and it’s helped us to gain a better understanding of what’s available in the flight simulator hardware ecosystem. We chose this three-piece kit because it offers the essential range of accessories simulation enthusiasts look for in a single package.
Let’s go over what comes in the kit and explore how each piece of gear transforms the flight experience.
Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack
Thrustmaster’s T16000M FCS Flight Pack is a comprehensive package that comes with three pieces of hardware.
- The T.16000M FCS is a flight stick that commands the plane’s pitch and roll with its handle. It has several buttons that can control menus, cameras, and other flight controls as well as another tiny joystick on top called a “hat switch” that lets you change your point of view. A small slider at the base can handle throttle, and you can manipulate the rudder by twisting the stick. You can also lock out the twist functionality entirely with a single, out-of-the-way button.
- The TWCS Throttle is, unsurprisingly, a throttle controller with far more precision than the tiny slider on the flight stick. It also has several more buttons, multiple hat switches that can be assigned to whatever you like, and a rotary knob that lets you adjust the trim with greater accuracy and speed. There’s also a paddle on the front that can double as your rudder.
- The TFRP Rudder is a dual pedal rudder system that plugs into the throttle with an old-school-style telephone connector or into your computer’s USB port with an included dongle. It offers far greater control of a plane’s rudder with a sliding mechanism for precise steering. It also includes individual toe brakes — one for each foot — to help you steer the aircraft on the ground.
Each piece of hardware adds a layer of realism to the flight simulation experience. While a standard controller can perform most of the actions that these bespoke accessories can perform, the point of having dedicated hardware is to provide greater control and enhanced level of immersion.
After going through the Flight Training in Microsoft Flight Simulator a second time with this new gear, we definitely noticed a difference. Once we became comfortable with this advanced setup, we spent a few hours exploring the world with our new hardware.
So let’s consider the cost, required desk space, and learning curve, to figure out if individual piece of flight simulation hardware makes a meaningful difference.
The biggest change in experience comes from the entry point to flight simulator hardware: the flight stick.
If you are on a budget or lacking space, a flight stick can do most of the heavy lifting. Controllers like Thrustmaster’s T.16000M FCS (which is the exact same stick that comes bundled with the above package) or Logitech’s Extreme 3D Pro can perform all the maneuvers you need to get the plane off the ground and soaring with ease. A good flight stick will also have a mechanism to control the plane’s throttle with a slider at its base. Not only that, most flight sticks can twist to manipulate the rudders, making it easy to guide your plane as you move about the runway.
The biggest change in the experience you’ll notice is how much a stick allows you to precisely control the plane’s nose. Gently guiding your aircraft up and down for a smooth landing or slowly drifting into your turns feels more accurate — and realistic — with a flight stick. There’s a valley of difference in fine control when comparing your thumb on a controller to using your wrist, elbow, and shoulder to move a flight stick.
The additional buttons on a flight stick’s handle and base also offer far more customization than your standard game pad.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s settings automatically map some of these buttons for you, moving critical commands like unlocking your parking brake or controlling the in-game camera closer to your hands. The plethora of additional buttons lets you customize how you control your aircraft to the point where your flight stick alone can control just about every essential command.
Stick and throttle (HOTAS)
Just using a flight stick would be like playing a racing sim with just a steering wheel. For more precise flight, you’ll want fine speed control. To do that, you’ll need a separate piece of hardware to control your throttle. Much like the pedals that control gas and brakes on a car, a throttle is the driving force behind a plane’s engine.
Most of the options you’ll find for flight simulator controllers are of the HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) variety. These come with both a flight stick and a (detached or connected) throttle.
A HOTAS setup lets you control both your speed and your direction with dedicated control surfaces. The precise manipulation of a dedicated throttle and the additional buttons they offer amplify what you’re capable of. Instead of relying on the tacked-on slider of a flight stick to smoothly handle speed, a throttle mimics the precision delivery of power that real aircrafts need.
The options for HOTAS setups varies. Thrustmaster’s T16000M FCS Flight Pack comes with a separate throttle controller and so does the Logitech G X52. Regardless of which option you choose, a HOTAS setup benefits greatly from having two individual devices split the duties of keeping your plane in the sky.
When dialing in the right speed for a smooth landing or maintaining the proper airspeed for cruising, a throttle handle makes the process simple. A throttle’s large sliding surface lets you easily control how much power your plane is outputting. You can energetically slam it forward like you see in the movies when you’re ready to take off or you can gently pull it back to float into a perfect landing.
A separate throttle will have additional buttons, toggles, and sometimes extra thumbsticks to further customize your flight experience. Some throttle controllers also let you control the in-game camera, certain flight functions, and even the rudder using paddles that you control with your fingers. Throttles with dials on them can tune trim, which is an essential flight control that keeps your plane level without needing to constantly adjust your flight stick.
There are also more advanced throttles on the market, such as the Logitech G Flight Simulator Throttle, which gives you separate power controls for your left and right engines on twin-engine planes.
HOTAS and rudder pedals
The last step (pun intended!), in filling out a full flight setup is rudder pedals.
Despite their appearance, rudder pedals don’t control your plane’s the throttle. These car-like pedals manipulate the rudder flap in the back of your aircraft and also control the brakes. The left and right motion of the rudder won’t steer your plane in the air. Instead, they apply counter-motion to combat again unwanted trajectory.
On the ground, your rudder pedals do control the side-to-side motion of your plane, such as when taxiing around the airport. This takes a bit of getting used to as it feels natural to want to step on the right pedal of something like Thrustmaster’s TFRP Rudder only to veer off the runway instead of moving forward.
One downside of the TFRP pedals is that they are a bit fragile and narrow. If you’re a bigger person, or you just want a more robust solution overall, look into picking up the Thrustmaster TPR Pendular Rudder Pedals or the MFG Crosswind v2.
The Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack comes with rudder pedals in the box along with its throttle and flight stick. However, most HOTAS setups let you command your plane’s tail on either the stick or throttle, so unless you lean into the immersion you may not find the need for them.
Very few of the virtual cockpits in Microsoft Flight Simulator actually include a stick. Most — like the Cessna 152 that you learn to fly in the tutorial — have a yoke. They take up a bit more room on your desk, but they’re even more authentic for civilian aviation. There are a few good options on the market right now, and we’ve tested two of them with great success.
The most highly recommended is the Honeycomb Aeronautical Alpha. Not only is it an incredibly solid piece of kit, but it’s also completely plug-and-play compatible with Flight Simulator. There aren’t even any drivers to load. Even the ignition, power, and lighting switches work right out of the box.
While the Alpha comes with a traditional clamp, it also ships with a a nifty non-marring adhesive plate, which makes it suitable for just about any desk. It’s in short supply, and expensive at $249.99. You’ll also need pedals and a throttle to make full use of it.
Our second recommendation is the Logitech G Flight Yoke System. While much more fragile than the Alpha, it’s far more affordable at $169.99. It also comes with its own throttle quadrant — perfect for controlling twin-engine planes. You’ll still need to invest in pedals, however.
Another well-regarded flight yoke comes from CH Products. It’s also affordable at $149.95 and comes with its own built-in throttle. We’ve not yet tested it with Flight Simulator, but they have an excellent track record.
Microsoft Flight Simulator comes with plenty of options for changing your view both inside and outside the cockpit. You’ll end up dedicating at least one of your various hat switches on a setup like the Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack to help you look left, right, up, and down before long. But what would make things much easier is if you’re in-game pilot had working neck. Allow us to introduce you to the TrackIr head-tracking device.
TrackIr is expensive at $199.99, but it dramatically enhances the experience of flying. TrackIr uses the same kind of infrared technology found in the Wii motion controllers. You attach an infrared emitter to your headset and a receiver to the top of your monitor. Using the calibration software, you can then translate tiny movements of your real head into big movements of your pilot’s head in-game.
Using TrackIr, you can easily line up your plane for final approach, find your friends in the sky during multiplayer sessions, and take in the sights while hunting elephants and grizzly bears. You can even lean down and over to access all the controls — including the fuel shut-offs and parking brakes hidden under the dash of some planes. You can even stick your head out the window and look down while you fly. It’s the closes you’ll get to flying in virtual reality until that feature is released later in 2020.
How you fly is up to you
While you don’t need a fight stick or a racing wheel to enjoy fighting or racing games, veterans of both genres know that dedicated controls heighten the experience. Flight simulators are no different. The magic of Microsoft Flight Simulator is that anyone can hop in, learn the basics, and explore the entire world. How deep into the simulation you want to go is up to you.
If you’re not ready to leap into a dedicated set of controls for flying, but would consider an upgrade to your controller, then the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller is a great choice. Not only do the adjustable thumbsticks and four rear paddles give you flexibility in controlling your aircraft, but you can also use the controller to play hundreds of other games.
When you’re ready to take the leap into dedicated hardware, you can use what we learned on, the Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack. This three-piece kit has everything you need to transform a desk into a cockpit. The controls on the flight stick, throttle, and rudders are far more responsive than what you’d experience on a controller. The amount of additional buttons leaves your experience wide open for customization. If you want to really dig into flight simulators and the immersion that dedicated hardware offers, this flight pack is a great starting point.
If the world of flight simulators is still new to you, check out our Microsoft Flight Simulator beginner’s guide. Once you’ve found your preferred method of flying, consider looking for your house or finding some of the world’s best landmarks.
Honeycomb Aeronautical, Logitech, and Thrustmaster hardware was reviewed using retail kits provided by the manufacturers. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.