By – Stephen Todd

Saitek X56F

If you had told me three weeks ago that a control stick would make me a better simulator pilot, I would have scoffed at you. And then, the box arrived.  I walked into my office and I see this box that looks like it just walked out of some top secret lab at Area 51 sitting on my desk. Every inch of the box was covered in graphics: mock checklists, caution stripes, “Declassified” stamps, descriptions of the products, and a carry handle. Somebody or several somebodys had obviously spend quite a bit of time designing the packaging. Everything was well placed and aesthetically pleasing. Frankly, I found it rather clever. “If they spend this much time on the details of the packaging, what is the actual product like?”, I wondered.

I open the box and the first thing I see is a manual. A 91 page manual, to be exact. (only the first 19 are in English. Whew!) I reach down and pull out the top part of the foam, anxious to get to the treasure I know is buried within. I’m a little surprised to find 4 inch thick foam in that box. “They must really love this thing.”, I think to myself.  Moving inside the box, I see what I’ve been waiting for.The X-65F system seemingly begging to be taken out of the plastic and given life. I reach down and pull out the throttle first. The thing in heavy- and it should be, considering its metal!  Then I remove the control stick. I swear to you, when I took that thing out of its packaging and rested my hand on that stick for the first time, I heard angels sing! It felt like it had been tailed for my hands. It was like I had robbed an F-35 parts storage facility. Yeah, it’s that realistic!

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I decided to get the drivers installed. There is an included DVD that has an auto installer in it. Once installed, it does ask you to test the components by moving the axis’ around. This gives you your first feel for how well these things are made and your first taste of the non-moving, force sensing stick. I will also quickly add that there is a mouse feature built into the throttle. It works like a trackball, but is actualy a small control stick.  I loaded up at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. My mount – a brilliantly textured F-16. After starting it up, I checked the flight control surfaces and taxied to the active. Advancing the throttles, I lit the afterburner and I was screaming down Runway 14 like I had seen them do countless times while on base. When the airspeed read 165, I gently and evenly applied back pressure to the stick and the nose very gracefully came up as directed. What an odd experience it was to have the stick not move, but have the aircraft react. I imagine this is how real F-16 pilots feel the first time they fly their magnificent machines.

I climbed at about 6,000 FPM until I reached 33,000 feet, and I leveled off. I could not believe how easy it was to control this plane! I chased clouds, did rolls, loops, immelman’s, Split-S, high and low yo-yo’s, and really anything I could think of. The Viper danced gracefuly in my simulated Utah sky, handling better than I had ever experienced- and it was all because of the flight controls.  You see, there are no potentiometers to read the movement of the stick. It’s all force sensing, like a real F-16. The time between your input and the time the aircraft does what you want is much faster, smoother and more accurate than using the old potentiometer method. Additionally, the X-65F made of metal, not plastic or plastic with some metal bits here and there, like most products. You feel like these are real flight controls, like you are flying a real airplane.

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There is an acronym I have learned and it applies here. “RTFM”, or “read the manual.” That manual was very informative, giving you the basis of putting together the few things you should, how to test and program the stick, functionality, force sensing adjustment, diagrams, et al.  It’s worth your time to read it and do things right the first time. Then, I got to really looking at construction and functionality of the product, by starting with the stick.

This unit really does look like something you would find in a fighter jet. It’s solid, sturdy metal construction adds to that effect in both looks and feel. There are three hat switches and a single red pushbutton on the face, a four way hat switch for your thumb, a trigger, a single red pushbutton that is easily indexed with your (ironically) index finger, a pinky switch and another lever in front of that one. I would actuate that one with a pinky as well. The manual calls it the “Flying Pinkie Switch.” Clever.

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The stick incorporates all three axis of flight- Yaw, Pitch and Roll. Yes, a stick that doesn’t move and senses pressure, has a twist feature.  From the bottom of the base to the top of the stick, it measures about 10.5 inches high.  The base is about 6.75” wide, about 7.25” long and just shy of 2.25” tall.  At its thickest point (excluding the head), the stick is 6” around; about 4” at its thinnest. However, that’s where the trigger is, which also takes it to 6”. I would guess the weight to be around 5 pounds.

The throttle is also constructed of metal with the same attention to detail as the stick. The slide motion is smooth and has an adjustable tension screw on the bottom of the unit. This is actually a dual throttle control module, with a small, moveable pin keeping the throttles together or separate, for those pesky engine out moments. However, it could also be helpful for when you start up, as you do that one engine at a time or used for ground handling if you want to use differential thrust.

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The base is the same size as the stick but this only stands about 6” tall (7” if you include the button on the top). There are two push buttons on the right size, top and bottom, that also spin.  Two four-way switches, a flat button, mode select switch and even what the manual calls the “left mouse nipple/mouse button”. It is exactly what it sounds like. It controls your mouse and can even be clicked to select items.  On the left side there is a scroll switch to go along with the mouse. On the back, where your fingers would rest, there are two four-way switches and one two-way switch.  Marked on the sliders, there are power settings so you know where you are at a glance.

Ironically, with the exception of the rotary switches and the scroll button, I think all the switches and hats, on both controllers, (minus maybe the trigger) are plastic.  It’s thick, well made plastic, but they’re plastic. I imagine this was a cost control method, and it doesn’t really affect the function. It would have been cool to have them all be metal though.  The switch panel is just a plastic box with 4 lights marked M1-M4, to display the mode you have selected. One covered button, four force sensing mode select switches (increases or decreases the amount of force sensitivity) and four extra buttons that you can assign as you please inside the Saitek Profile Editor. I should also mention that there is a non functional module included. It just shows the different amount of force needed for the different modes. The way I see this, it’s a spare box and screws, in case I need them.

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To me the X-65F really is a quantum leap in flight simulator technology, even over Saitek’s other products.  I use their  pro flight yoke and throttles for my personal flying and reviews I’ve done. I also own their multi-panel  (I’ll get the radio stack and combat pedals one of these days). The X-65F beats them all, hands down, no question.  I was so immersed in what I was doing that I flew for two hours that first night. When I got in bed, my thoughts were on nothing but this system and the grin on my face could have been measured in miles. I knew I had something special, but I wanted to take a more in-depth look at this system when I could.

After admiring the construction and functionality, I put that in the back of my head and got back into the action.  This flight was made in an F-15 with a friend of mine on a private server. It was a different plane, but I got the same results. Once again, the X-65F delivered smooth, accurate control. I currently have about 12 hours of time on the stick and I haven’t changed my opinion. It is as much fun now as it was that first night.  I shocked that virtual display teams haven’t flocked to this control system in droves. Virtual military organizations might also be interested, because their members would get a much richer experience. Really, anyone who demands high quality, made to last, accurate, highly functional flight controls needs the X-65F.

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To me, this is like meeting your childhood hero, and finding out he’s as cool as you thought.   This is like driving the kind of Lamborghini you had a poster of on your bedroom wall as a kid, and it being every bit as cool as you dreamt it would be. This is everything we dreamed about when we were kids, looking at airplanes and thinking “one day, that’ll be me.” This is finally putting your hands on real controls and blasting off into the wild blue yonder. The X-65F is what the flight simulator community has longed for since its inception.

Is It Worth Your Money?

Yes!  When we are talking about high-end hardware, cost is a natural concern. Not everyone can throw down $400 bucks on a flight stick. In terms of cost and build quality, there is nothing cheap about the X-65F, but it is worth every penny. So, you can spend your hard-earned money on cheap components that will last only a few years before breaking down. Instead, you could invest in current technology that is built to last.  You can pick up the X-65F from the official Saitek site.

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  • John Norman

    The control stick in the F-16 was originally non-moving, but during testing they found that pilots had a tendency to over-rotate, so they gave the stick some play. I believe the F-22 and F-35 also have force sensing sticks with the same slight play to them. In fact, when I first read about the X-65F, I was very surprised that there was no play in the stick at all. I personally would like a tiny bit of play to the stick so I’ve been holding out hoping that somebody else will create a competing stick with some play to it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anybody will.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.todd.374 Stephen Todd

    You know, I found that I don’t notice it not moving. You very rapidly get used to it. On top of that, you can push a button and it changes the sensitivity. I really do think this is the best control system ever made for Flight Simulation.