A required preface to my writeup which follows:
Helicopters are here! And that’s really all it took to entice me to give MSFS a try. I downloaded initially to my PC to try it in VR. I liked it well enough. But what I really wanted from the sim, since it really doesn’t offer any PC functionality that I don’t already enjoy with X-Plane, is something to play from the comfort of my living room. I’ll relate my experiences thus far, limiting any “general impressions” comments to keep it relatively brief. I will allow myself this: the sim is stunning! Even down low where helicopters roam and Bing buildings don’t always render well, it’s still beautiful. Tokyo at night has taken top spot as the single most gorgeous sim experience in my many years in the hobby. What’s more, it looks better and runs smoother on my XBOX series X at 4K than it does on my PC. Loading times are about 1/4 of what they are on my PC (SSD).
The console was a bit of an impulse buy. I don’t see myself ever returning to Halo or CoD or BF. The appeal of gamer fodder is mostly lost to me now. So the console is pretty much a one-trick pony. Me being me, I doubled down on the “investment” by purchasing an “Elite 2” controller. Having two controllers lets me keep one for the PC in case I want to fly MSFS in VR (X-Plane has me too spoiled to accept the poor implementation of VR controls in MSFS). Behold my wine cork mod:
Over two days and a dozen hours I have tried every possible setup: from the default “Gamepad Helicopter” to using the right trigger as collective and right stick as anti-torque. There’s been some frustration but I’ve mostly enjoyed maximizing the usefulness of the controller. Working around some big limitations has been part of the learning experience. Those limitations when compared to a real joystick are obvious. And, yes, I know that there are very good setups available for the console. Going that route would defeat my purpose of having quick sim excursions in an otherwise uncluttered living room. The cyclic part of the problem is easy. My “mod” and the very high quality gamepad gives X and Y control that’s about 80% that of a decent joystick. The big limitation for the cyclic is the circular limits of a gamepad stick compared to the proper square limits on a real stick. Other challenges have been:
- Sharing camera slew with collective.
- Getting around the collective centering.
- Fine collective control in cruise.
- Getting accustomed to triggers as rudder.
- Some general weirdness with MSFS helicopter FM, especially the 407.
The camera challenge is overcome by having a bumper serve as a shift key so that a combo press with collective stick can slew the view. Cyclic trim is pretty cool. I shifted that with the other bumper. So, let’s say we need nose up trim. I am already holding aft stick to keep the desired attitude. So all I do is bump the bumper and any needed trim values will dial in due to stick displacement away from center! The default Helicopter Gamepad settings use A and B for collective. Using buttons is fine for throttle in a fixed-wing. But a great joy in flying helicopters is having precise and timely control in the vertical. The challenge for me has been that the neutral spring coincides with 50% power which is roughly where hover power resides in the “Gumball”. Pushing up and down through the sprung center takes away some of the precision at the exact moment where you need it most. (I have an old wired gamepad that I plan to disassemble to see if spring removal is possible.) The triggers on the expensive controller are very precise. I am still not a fan of using them for rudder but I found that flying with rudder on the X axis of the collective stick was impossible for me. One “feature” of the new MSFS bespoke helicopter settings is the ability to have rudder inputs be additive (like a form of yaw trim) instead of axial. I hated that and found it impossible as well, unless one flies extremely conservatively so that collective inputs are perfectly timed with rudder taps. I lack the fine motor skill to do that consistently. So I have the triggers set up as axes and that works out great. Similarly, the collective can also be set up as trim-like but, like the rudder, I have it set as an axis. Remember the A and B collective buttons? I kept them. This way I can use the stick for fine hover control and use the buttons in cruise and more safely use the stick for view control. All together, this takes a bit of fancy finger-work, but it’s fun and, as my skill improves, I am starting to see a point in the near future where it will be hard to tell that I am not flying with a proper stick.
I haven’t flown RC in a couple of years. But I see myself getting back into it someday. So the left-stick-cyclic/ right-stick-collective bothers me. The gamepad and all of the MSFS presets are setup for this arrangement. My next move before I get too dialed in, is to see if I can reverse all of the letter functions and d-pad functions and swap the sticks.
EDIT a few days later. The controller disassembly revealed a stick that is enclosed as a unit and soldered onto the board. Spring removal is possible but more than I am willing to risk with either controller. Plus, it ruins the controller for anything else.
I won’t go into why I am unable to swap the cyclic and collective sticks other than to say it involves the secondary menu functions that the sticks serve on a setup with no mouse. I’m used to it now. Any RC model in my future is totally doomed.