I remember it like it was yesterday. US Rapid Deployment forces were advancing to capture the Dalian Plant nuclear facility and force disruptions to the electrical grid in northern China. Elements of the Second Army of the People’s Republic of China had moved forward to serve as an improvised defensive force. This location was of vital strategic importance to both sides, for a major reduction of the generating capacity of the PLA forces would allow rapid consolidation of US units dispersed throughout this vast region. I had taken up a defensive position at the main entrance where I could use the TOW missile system to pick off unwary enemy tanks and troops. With my back more or less protected by troops defending the flag, I felt nearly invulnerable. “Nearly” was, of course, the operative word. What I had failed to consider was the airborne threat of enemy gunship helicopters, and I paid for that neglect rather spectacularly as I was blown to bits by an air-to-ground rocket. It was at that moment that I decided the role of infantry grunt was not for me. No, at that moment I swore that I would get out of the trenches and into the cockpit of one of those aerial tanks.
That, as you can imagine, was easier said than done. It wasn’t too difficult to get a helicopter to attempt to train myself on, but let’s just say that the early results were anything but promising. The keyboard/mouse control setup was simply more than I could handle, and the self-immolating wreck was the rule rather than the exception. It was very difficult to control altitude using the keyboard for the helicopter’s collective, and the mouse made for an overly responsive and difficult to control cyclic. Maybe the life of a grunt wasn’t so bad after all!
Recent events encouraged me to try again, though. The clarion call of the whopping rotors of the overhead threat was still calling to me, and when offered the opportunity to try out Saitek’s new Aviator joystick, my first thought was to use the Battlefield 2 helicopters as the measure of its worth. I had tried other joysticks, most notably the Saitek X45. The X45 is a fine joystick, mind you, but there were a couple of problems with it with regards to the BF2 choppers. First, the breakout force around the centering spring was too strong for the highly responsive choppers. The choppers scream for a very sensitive joystick around the center, and with the heavy breakout forces of the X45 it was a constant battle against over-controlling. The second issue was the separate throttle: I simply didn’t have enough hands to hold everything solidly in place. Bungee cords helped hold the throttle to the desk, but I still needed two hands to hold the bulky joystick.
The Aviator has the benefit of having much lighter centering force and the throttle control right there on the base of the joystick. This configuration allows for comfortable two-hand control without the need to strap pieces-parts down. As an additional bonus, the Z-axis twist of the joystick provides a good way to control the tail rotor on the choppers. The Aviator also includes four two-position toggle switches, two triggers (one for the index finger, and one under a protective cover to prevent accidental firing), two thumb buttons on the top of the stick, and a hatswitch. The throttle control was interesting in that it was actually two slider controls that could be operated independently of each other or could be latched together to operate in conjunction with each other. The latch mechanism was somewhat broken on my review unit, though. More on that later.
The installation and configuration went quite easily, and I was soon seated at the controls of an AH-1Z Super Cobra helicopter perched on an American aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Oman. Shortly thereafter, I was no longer on the carrier and was actually IN the Gulf of Oman. So, a quick lesson was learned: a good controller is a requirement for flying the helicopters, but it is no panacea. There were still a couple of hours of intensive practice to engage in before at least a modicum of flying ability was gained.
But gained it was! Within a couple of hours I was flying around the solitary battlefield and only periodically suffering bouts of cranial/terra firma collision. Once the feel for the stick and the control of the chopper approached something resembling skill, it was time to go to war. This will probably not come as a surprise to anyone, but there is a vast difference between flying around sightseeing in empty skies and flying around a live battlefield with a huge “shoot me” target plastered on your side. Suffice it to say that I won no medals that day. Eventually though, I became the airborne fighting machine that I had sworn to become that fateful day at the Dalian Nuclear plant, and I had the Saitek Aviator to thank for it. As I watched a PRC troop flying through the sky sans wings or other levitating devices courtesy of a well placed air-to-ground missile fired from my Cobra, I couldn’t help saying a short but heartfelt thank-you to Saitek.
Truth be told, however, there are some weaknesses in the joystick. The toggle switches are sketchy at times, and there is no positive “click” to ensure you that they have received your input so you have to make sure you are, uh, confident in your application of force. The top position of the hatswitch steadfastly refuses to register in the joystick configuration screens of some flight sims, so is useless for the down elevator trim function I had hoped to use it for. And the clever little latching mechanism for combining the throttles? It popped right out and rained pieces onto the floor. It re-assembled easily enough, but it will pop back out again now and then, usually at highly stressed and inconvenient moments. Let’s just say that the robustness of this stick is questionable. With a street price of around $40, you will be either aghast at the build quality or consider it appropriate for that cost. It all depends on your means and how they slant your perception of a $40 value. Me? I think it’s just about right. I rate it at 8.5 in consideration of how well it works despite being somewhere near the low-end of Saitek’s offerings.
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