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Jane’s Combat Stick, CH Products, Vista, Calif., 1997, $99.

Serious simulation players know that trying to fly a virtual craft with the keyboard is difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst. The peripheral most appropriate for PC flying is the joystick, which simulates the movements of a control stick in a real aircraft–but not all joysticks are made equal.

If you’re looking for a good flight joystick, avoid the lure of $10 items you may see in some computer superstores. Those inexpensive devices are generally characterized by shoddy parts and will often lose their calibration or break altogether. On the high end of the spectrum are the $200 joysticks and throttle units that look like they were stolen from a real jet. These peripherals are the most realistic you can buy, but they might be excessive purchases for novice or intermediate virtual pilots.

Somewhere in the middle, Jane’s Combat Stick, modeled after a real General Dynamics F-16 control stick, might be the last joystick you will ever buy. There are other good joysticks in the $50 range, but Jane’s Combat Stick can really take a beating, and it comes bundled with a flight simulation. The parts are well-crafted, and all fittings have flush surfaces. The buttons and hat switches are programmable and generate a solid tactile response when clicked. There is also a throttle wheel on the base, so you can simulate the throttle control in simulations that support it. Its only problem is shared by all the sticks modeled after the F-16 grip: they are really designed for right-handed people with larger hands. If your joystick must be shared with lefties or small children, there are better alternatives.

Jane’s Combat Stick is also accompanied by a copy of Jane’s Advanced Tactical Fighters, a flight simulation focusing on exotic advanced jets, including the X-31, the Lockheed Martin F-22 and stealth aircraft. The simulation is not the most realistic or the most current, but it sits well on the fulcrum between realism and accessibility until you are ready for your next simulation.

If you already have Jane’s Advanced Tactical Fighters or just want to purchase the joystick by itself, look for CH Products’ F-16 Combat Stick, which is essentially the same device but without the software. If $100 still seems too rich for your budget, then stay tuned. Aviation History will cover more flight simulation peripherals in upcoming reviews.

Bernard Dy