The Best Controllers for ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’

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In the late summer of 2020, about six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Microsoft released Flight Simulator 2020. The latest edition of this decades-old classic (now available for Windows and coming soon to Xbox) really struck a chord with those of us stuck in our living rooms. Playing FS2020 allows us to float on gentle winds above the earth and free ourselves of those sullen bonds that bind us.

Mind you, FS2020 is not really a game but rather a realistic flight simulator, which means that staying aloft on those rippling breezes is not easy. One thing that can make the experience more enjoyable is flying your virtual airplane with a set of controls that mirrors the setup a real pilot might use in a real airplane. There are many options for realistic flight controllers, and I looked at several that work well with FS2020, including a simple joystick, a few hands-on throttle and sticks (HOTAS) controllers like those in military jets, and a flight yoke that approximates what you would find on a small aircraft like a Cessna.

My top pick is the Logitech G X52 Pro. Although it costs over $300, it is the most solidly constructed, most configurable, and most flexible controller for use with multiple types of planes in FS2020 and even other flight simulators. If you are just dipping your wingtips into the Flight Simulator world and you want a budget pick, the $40 Logitech G Extreme 3D is a great choice. It’s a well built joystick with a slider on the side that works as a throttle control. You don’t get the same realistic feel as the more expensive models, but it’s enough to give you a sense of what flying a real plane is like.

One caveat: Microsoft Flight Simulator has remained so popular since its release last year that many of these hardware controllers are often out of stock. If you see a recommendation here that you want to buy, you may have to wait a week or two for it to become available again. We’ve provided links to retailers that tend to refresh their stock more often, but you still may have to hunt around on your own to find the more popular picks. Demand for controllers will only increase when FS2020 lands on Xbox this summer.

Be sure to check out our other game hardware buying guides, including our favorite wired and wireless headsets, and our favorite controllers. See all of WIRED’s video game coverage.

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  • Image may contain Electronics and Joystick

    Photograph: Logitech

    Best Overall

    Logitech G X52 Professional

    Real pilots control a plane’s throttle using a large sliding lever that makes it easier to quickly throttle up or down. That’s vital in air combat or aerobatics, where throttle control is as important as the stick to maneuvering. This is the idea behind the “hands-on throttle and stick” (HOTAS) approach of controllers like the Logitech G X52 Professional (Rating: 9/10, WIRED Recommends). 

    It comes in two parts: a large, button encrusted stick and an equally enbuttoned throttle slider. Typically, you use the stick with your right hand and the throttle with your left. The sliding throttle control definitely adds a lot to the experience. You really feel like you are getting things started when you slide the control forward and the engine starts to roar, and it feels much more natural to carefully throttle back when cruising or landing.

    The entirety of the X52 is covered in buttons. There are six buttons, two hats, three toggle switches, and a dial on the stick, plus six buttons, four dials, two hats, and a small slider on the throttle. All of these are illuminated with LEDs, and there is also a safety cover that sits over the main weapons trigger on the stick. Flick the cover open and the trigger button underneath glows a frightening red.

    That trigger might make it obvious that the X52 isn’t really about just flight simulation. It is just at home in air or space combat games like Elite: Dangerous that rely on flying skill and reactions to defeat those pesky aliens. These buttons are great for flight sims as well though. They are all assigned to essential controls by default in FS2020, and you can reassign any of them. Even the trigger gets assigned to something: flick open the cover and press the trigger (which usually fires a missile) and your autopilot is engaged. Pull the finger trigger on the back of the control stick (which usually fires a secondary weapon) and your view changes to the nearest point of interest—usually the airstrip you are trying to land on. With so many buttons at your disposal, you can handle an entire flight without using the keyboard.

    All those buttons can be confusing though. The buttons are labeled, but these don’t correspond with the labels used in FS2020. The big button on the top of the throttle slider, for instance, has a big “E” on it, but FS2020 calls it Joystick Button 8. It’s inconsistent and makes figuring things out harder. In one flight, I accidentally pressed one of the buttons on the throttle that turned the engine off right after takeoff and crashed just off the end of the runway. But at least with this setup, I can try to nail that takeoff again, which I probably wouldn’t be able to do with a real plane.

  • Photograph: Logitech

    Best Budget Option

    Logitech G Extreme 3D Pro

    The cheapest option I looked at is the Logitech G 3D Extreme Pro joystick (Rating: 8/10, WIRED Recommends). This is a general-purpose joystick designed for gaming as well as flight simulators, but it includes one thing that makes it more suitable for flight sim use than most: a slider control on the base that can be used as throttle control. Sure, it feels a little odd to be using a tiny slider to be controlling the throttle of a 747, but it’s much better than hunting for F3 on a keyboard.

    The joystick itself feels rather cheap. The handle has a nice shape, but the all-plastic construction doesn’t feel like it would stand up well to heavy use. I also found that it had a habit of sliding around on my desk as I maneuvered: bigger rubber feet or suckers on the corners would have helped.

    Still, there is no shortage of buttons: six on the base of the joystick, plus the slider control and an additional six on the stick itself. It also has a small hat control (a small finger-controlled joystick) that sits under the thumb and which moves the pilot view around, so you can look out of the side windows. The buttons on the base are set by default to do things like control the flaps or switch between in-cockpit and external view, while the buttons on top of the joystick do things like control the brakes and changing the view. The thumb button in particular resets the screen to the default view out of the front of the cockpit window. It’s useful if you are admiring the landscape and suddenly realize that you are about to collide with it and need to quickly get back to controlling the plane.

  • Photograph: Logitech

    This One Is Like a Small Plane Cockpit

    Logitech G Flight Yoke System Professional

    For the how-to-fly tutorial that gets newbies up to speed, Microsoft Flight Sim 2020 sticks you in the pilot seat of a Cessna 152. That particular airplane model has the type of mechanical yoke commonly found in small aircraft. The Logitech G Flight Yoke (Rating: 7/10) and throttle system look and feel a lot like the controls of the Cessna, so you definitely get the vibe of the real thing.

    The yoke and throttle combo clamps onto a desk or table, with a cable connecting the two pieces and a single USB cable connecting to your computer. This cable is long enough (over five feet) that you can connect it to a PC that’s under the table or on the other side of the desk. There are also three USB ports for connecting additional flight sim components (Logitech also produces a range of dials and switch panels, but these aren’t yet compatible with FS2020) and an input for an optional power supply. I didn’t have to use this: I plugged the yoke and throttle controls into a standard powered USB hub, and they worked without issues.

    To control the plane, you push the yoke forward and back to pitch the nose up and down, and tilt the yoke left and right to roll side to side. The throttle is just as simple: push it forward to increase power, back to reduce. I didn’t have to configure anything to get these working; I just installed the Logitech software and was ready for takeoff. The three throttle controls on the device are mapped to the throttle, fuel mix, and rotor tilt, but you can ignore the last two for most small planes and just move all three pieces together.

    There are a few other controls that aren’t on the real plane though, such as a small hat switch on the left arm of the yoke that changes the pilot’s point of view, and a trigger button on the right. As (most) Cessnas are unarmed, pressing the trigger in FS2020 points you towards the closest point of interest, which is usually the airport you are closest to.

    The Flight Yoke system feels very realistic, although the lack of force feedback from the yoke is a pity. Much like how you feel the road conditions vibrating up through a car’s steering wheel, on a real plane you can feel the plane push back when you move the yoke. You don’t get that on the sim version, but it is still close to the real thing—close enough to make the Flight Yoke a great pick if you want to get a realistic feel for piloting a small plane.

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