You can blame Microsoft Flight Simulator for the flight stick shortage we’re experiencing. Logitech, Thrustmaster, and many of the big name manufacturers are out of stock everywhere you look. What little product is actually available — even used equipment — is going for wildly inflated prices. Still other manufacturers are taking pre-orders, and then banging out new units as quickly as they can. So what’s a budding flight or space sim enthusiast to do?
My advice, of course, is to give the scalpers a wide berth. If you’re stuck on Microsoft Flight Simulator — especially the big commercial airliners — give Honeycomb Aeronautical a try. If you’re playing a more hardcore flight simulator, like something from the DCS World portfolio, you probably already know about VKB. Its high-end equipment is currently in stock. But, if you’re looking to spend a relatively modest amount of money on a more general purpose device — something that might work with terrestrial and space flight — I recommend you take a look at Virpil Controls, a small European company that is doing some really remarkable work.
And, just like everyone else, Virpil’s stuff is on backorder as well. Nevertheless, late last year Virpil sent along a selection of its most popular flight gear. I’ve been taking it for a test drive on my custom-built flight rig. So far I’m extremely impressed.
My favorite set of kit is called the Virpil Constellation Alpha, which, when coupled with a throttle, does an admirable job of controlling commercial aircraft. It has plenty of hat switches, plus an assortment of triggers that are perfect for games in the IL-2 Sturmovik family or other high-end simulations. It’s also mostly plastic, but in a good way. It feels more robust than the Logitech X-52 and X-56, but lighter than the all-metal Thrustmaster Warthog.
The Virpil Constellation Alpha also comes in a left-handed variant. That means you can easily arrange for a much more complex dual-stick set-up. Also known as a hand-on-stick-and-stick (HOSAS) setup, I found that it completely changed the flight experience in both Star Citizen’s Persistent Universe and Elite Dangerous.
Explaining the difference is difficult to do with words. Previously I had played spaceflight simulation games with a single stick and throttle, which is known as a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) setup. Swapping out the throttle for another stick meant that I had to constantly hold the left-hand stick forward to maintain forward thrust. But, by pulling back on that stick I had easy access to reverse thrust, which makes slowing down and changing directions in space a lot snappier. The right-hand stick still has complete control of pitch and yaw, while rudder pedals handle roll. But now I’m able to use the two stick’s twist axes to handle strafing (right) and moving up and down (left). Previously, those functions sat on a tiny hat switch on my throttle.
After a few hours of HOSAS practice, I suddenly found myself with much more precise and immediate control over my virtual spaceships than ever before. Vectors which had previously been relegated to the keyboard or tiny hat switches were now integrated into the joysticks themselves. I could hit the gas on the main thruster to accelerate forward, rotate my ship in place, then roll left while also moving slightly down and sliding to the right all at the same time. The impact was especially prominent in Star Citizen, which has much faster ships and far more aggressive combat. HOSAS made me a harder target to hit, and helped to improve my own aim — especially with fixed weapons.
Better still, the Constellation’s side-mounted thumbsticks mean that you can actually navigate on foot without ever taking your hands off the joysticks. That made the experience in Star Citizen, which features a surprising amount of walking, much more enjoyable. It will also likely have the same kind of impact when Elite Dangerous: Odyssey launches later this year, adding first-person, on-foot gameplay to that spacefaring game.
Another highlight for me were Virpil’s Ace Interceptor Rudder Pedals. I’ve had a pretty good experience with the Thrustmaster TPR Pendular Rudder Pedals for the last few years, but they hang from a large central column that takes up a lot of space in my office. Virpil pedals are much, much lower to the floor and accommodate a wider stance — which, as a 6’6” man, I greatly appreciate. Ace pedals also have a much better mounting solution, in my opinion, compared to the TPR pedals. Out of the box, Virpil’s large, grippy rubber feet stay put on most surfaces. You can also remove about an inch of height from the pedals, stripping off the rubber feet and the entire lower frame, to attach them directly to a custom flight seat.
While the input devices alone are excellent, Virpil also has a line of surprisingly affordable custom mounting solutions. For around $70 you can get the Virpil Desk Mount V3-S. It features a dead-simple clamp with an adjustable bite, which you can dial in to firmly grasp the edge of your desk surface and hold fast. They release quickly, making storage a breeze. They’re also beautifully powder coated, and come with all the bolts you need to make the attachment to the Constellation. The V3-S also opens the door to additional customization options, including mounts that hang a keyboard, mouse pad, additional button boxes, and more all off of the same clamp.
Note that you’ll need two of the Desk Mount V3-S devices for a HOSAS solution using the Virpil Constellation sticks, which brings the price of accessories up to $140. If you go with a HOTAS solution instead, making use of one of Virpil’s fully-customizable throttle boxes, you’ll need a slightly larger version of the clamp and a special adapter plate. That brings the price for a full HOTAS mounting solution closer to $180.
Overall, I’m smitten with these Virpil controls. They strike a good balance between price point and feature set, sitting comfortably in between classics like the Logitech X-52 and the Thrustmaster T16000, and higher end products from Thrustmaster and VKB. They also have just the right amount of heft to them, and feel like a substantial upgrade to the kinds of flight sticks I’ve been using for the last decade.
There are a few caveats, however.
First, the documentation on these products ranges from awful to non-existent. Even basic assembly drove me out to YouTube where I spent hours freeze-framing foreign language unboxing videos to find out which screw goes where. When it comes to calibration and programming, you will similarly need to find your own way with the community of users on YouTube and on message boards as Virpil offers next to no help in getting things squared away.
Second, know that the current incarnation of the Virpil throttle box may simply be too much for most users. It has about twice as many buttons as Microsoft Windows recognizes on a game controller, which means you’ll need to take some extra time to get it tuned before you hop into a game. If you’re going HOTAS, I’d recommend getting something from Thrustmaster instead.
Also, I did notice some defective materials in the batch of products that I received. The non-marking pads on the mounting hardware, for instance, began to slide off after several weeks of continuous use. I also had several screw heads shatter as I attempted to remove them, either due to being made from weak metal or being gummed up with too much thread locking paste.
With those limitations in mind, I still can’t help but recommend Virpil. After nearly a decade of watching modest, incremental improvements in the space it’s nice to see a manufacturer innovating with their flight sticks. There’s even a line of collective grips on the way, which will be perfect for the new helicopters coming to DCS World and Microsoft Flight Simulator in the not-to-distant future.