| The Complete HOTAS
by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Suncom Talon, Strike Fighter Throttle, Quickshot Masterpilot and PDPI Lightning 4
Janes F15 will be on the shelves this week, so it seems like a great time to revisit the HOTAS scene from the perspective of a serious F15 pilot. If you've followed our previews to date, you know that Janes F15 is one of the most serious combat simulations ever released for the PC, breaking ground in two key areas: command and control interaction with wingmen, and flight modelling. One could argue that some aspects of the theatre AI are also ground breaking, but for the purpose of this article, the former points are the key ones.
What I want to do in this article is explore the SUNCOM sticks used in conjunction with the Quickshot Masterpilot in Janes F15. I get constant mail from our readers asking for serious HOTAS recommendations. Usually my approach is to point out that there are four major players and that each has its own advantages. Then I simply recommend that the reader check out our reviews. But to date I've done mostly individual stick and throttle reviews; in this article I want to review a particular HOTAS combo, and also make reference to a couple of other systems.
Why the SUNCOM gear? SUNCOM is the system of choice for this article because SUNCOM gear happens to be modelled on the actual sticks in an F15 cockpit. The Quickshot Masterpilot is added to the mix because the sheer volume of command keys now available to the virtual pilot have placed a strain on even the most programmable gear. Not only that, the Masterpilot is a powerful and unusual entry to the programmable HOTAS arena, and one that should not be overlooked by the serious virtual pilot.
When the Suncom F15 joysticks emerged on the scene in mid-1995, they became the first serious challenge to both Thrustmaster and CH products. Since that time the parent company went under and then Suncom was resurrected and re-organized with a revamped product line featuring the Talon as its premium joystick.
What makes the Talon and SFS unique among programmable joysticks is the fact that they are programmable from within the game itself. You can also add or change an assigned button press without disturbing the entire program. The Talon is also unique in that it feels and looks like it should cost at least twice what you will pay for it! For more specific information on the Talon go to the Suncom Talon Review.
SUNCOM gear comes in packaging reminiscent of all high end equipment: CH, Thrustmaster, Saitek.... But the Strike Fighter Throttle in particular has a look that would make any military pilot smile and it begs the question: "Are they shipping the rest of the aircraft separately?" This is one mother of a throttle, and with this entry into the HOTAS arena SUNCOM arrived with the big boys! For a complete review see our SUNCOM SFS Review.
Prior to the release of the SFS SUNCOM could not offer a complete HOTAS system. And for those who already have the SUNCOM Talon or the CH Force FX or Fighterstick, this throttle is the PERFECT addition to complete a HOTAS setup since it can create a slave of your standard joystick and make it programmable. I'll argue below that the Quickshot Masterpilot is the next piece you need, but I'll save that argument for the moment!
The SUNCOM split throttle consists of the dual throttle levers (which can be locked together to function in concert), 16 on board programmable buttons, 8 independent buttons and 2 four way HATS. As with the Talon, there are four independent slots or memories that can be accessed for programming the throttle itself.
On the right or inboard lever are four two-way switches. The two on top are programmable, but the bottom two are toggles which are used to select from one of the four program slots. Four LED lights on the base inform you as to which slot you're currently using.
Again on the inboard lever where your fingers curl over the top are two four-way hats. On the outboard lever reside a spring-loaded two-way dial and a red button, both of which are manouvered by your pinky. Also on the outboard lever is a simple one-way pinky switch, sticking out winglike where you can't miss it. Meanwhile, the tension adjustment is controlled by a steel lever that is tucked up tight against the lever housing on the inboard side.
Installation of the SFS was painless even though documentation was sparse. Like some other manufacturers SUNCOM is relying on online help more than paper these days. After installation you will see new driver options in the Controllers applet in Control Panel. You choose the one from the list that suits your setup. The one that works for the Talon/SFS combo is: Suncom SFS Throttle lft grip off +2ax,4 btn stick. If you want to use the left lever as a rudder you would choose "Suncom SFS Throttle lft grip off +3ax,4 btn POV stick."
Programming is where the SUNCOM sticks really shine. You can program on the fly to emulate your keyboard, and there are no DOS window boxes or downloads necessary to get this up and running, and no Windows 95 interference to be found. Chorded functions are also supported so that you can hit SHF F1 or any other key combination desired (although for some reason the ESC key chorded combo is a problem).
Now lets talk HOTAS... hands on throttle and stick. Many virtual pilots start out with a standard $20 stick. Some later move on to more sophisticated gear than includes a throttle wheel. But as they grow in ability or start to play more serious sims at higher levels of difficulty they discover that having to search for keys while dodging a SAM and hitting a target with a guided weapon is too much to ask. Or they get into a knife fight and are trying to lock a bandit on radar while manouvering into a good position for a shot. Uh-uh, it ain't gonna work! Time to eliminate that nasty keyboard. If real pilots can't make it work, neither will we.
With a complete HOTAS setup you never have to touch the keyboard. A separate stick and throttle not only gives you exacting control, it also adds way more command functions for your instant hands on access. Yes, you have to REMEMBER where the commands are, but after fifteen or so hours in a sim it all starts to fall into place.
The only problem is that with the latest sims you have to program a hundred commands or MORE to a twin stick setup. This means that you have up to six commands per switch a SUNCOM or Thrustmaster combination, and you have to refer to a command sheet printout to remember the less used ones. Damn, this is getting complicated! How to get around the problem?
Enter the Quickshot Masterpilot, a programmable console that mounts thirty one buttons! I have a complete COMMS system for F15 programmed to my Masterpilot console, neatly divided into WING, ELEMENT, DIVISION, FLIGHT and AWACS menus. Since you can also customize the labels on the pad, you can see at a glance what commands are accessed by which buttons. It sits between my throttle and stick and makes this HOTAS, along with my CH pedals, very complete.
Go to Part II
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Last Updated June 17th, 1998