After our Saitek Cyborg Evo review, we received a surprising amount of feedback, so we decided to invest time in a major joystick review. But what to work with? Well, the obvious next step was a HOTAS unit. For those not familiar with flyboy vernacular, HOTAS stands for Hand On Throttle And Stick, meaning that there is a separate throttle and joystick controller.
Why in the world would anyone want to tie up his second hand with a throttle, instead of using the keyboard? Well, for starters, it isn't just a throttle. Throttles often contain extra hat switches, buttons and occasionally features like a mouse controller, or - and keep your pants on - trim wheels. If you don't enjoy flight simulators, that probably went right over your head - but don't worry, we'll get to it.
For review, we purchased a Saitek X52 and came to an arrangement with the fine folks at CH Products for a review unit of their top-of-the-line CH FighterStick Pro USB and corresponding Pro Throttle USB. We also made overtures to Guillemot to try and test a Thrustmaster Cougar, but were unable to secure it despite delaying the article several times, and the joystick is far, far out of our price range but we did do research on it regardless.
The question remains though: why HOTAS? Since a keyboard can do just as much and often more than a throttle, why use one? Well, other than features like the mouse emulator and trim wheels which are difficult to repeat on the keyboard, it all comes down to atmosphere. When you sit down at your desk and put a hand on a meaty throttle, with a dozen buttons under your command - buttons to raise and lower landing gear, adjust flaps, switch radar modes, control the in-game map or select weapons - and in the other hand you've got a capable joystick to fly your aircraft with, that's when it hits you. You are most definitely in the game - the sense of immersion of never having to touch the keyboard as long as you fly is unparalleled.
In fact, I got so hooked on the experience that not only did I use the HOTAS, but I also bought CH rudder pedals (which work with the X52) and a TrackIR 3 Pro, to further immerse me in the game. There is, quite literally, nothing I do with the keyboard while flying, though I do still switch to the mouse to scroll the map.
I went into the article thinking that I'll be writing for people who take flight simming seriously - but I've come away with the impression that anyone who flies even casually on the computer should have a HOTAS setup. It's criminal to fly with a $20 joystick and keyboard if you can afford better. The experience improves drastically.