I’ve been doing this for a long time, so it takes a lot to impress me. When I saw Thrustmaster’s secret announcement of its new 1:1 metal replica of the F/A-18C Hornet approved by Boeing, I was intrigued. When I opened its box, I was amazed. When I plugged it in and took a virtual Hornet out for a spin pulling 5G on a reverse Cuban Eight, I was pretty much sold for life.
Thrustmaster were kind enough to send us some physical samples for this article. Wargamer is an Amazon Affiliate.
Thrustmaster’s F/A-18C Hornet flight stick is the closest you’ll come to owning a real working F-18 hardware. Modelled and built just like the real one used by the Navy (which is also almost identical to the controls of the AV-8B Night Attack and the F-15E Strike Eagle), the stick features 19 buttons — including a 2-step trigger with the most satisfying double action I ever felt and an 8-direction point-of-view hat switch — and is built of real metal, weighting almost a whole kilo.
The most important thing to get out of the way is that the F-18 Stick is not a standalone product, but an add-on; it screws to the base of Thrustmaster’s HOTAS Warthog (or Cougar), replacing the A-10’s control column with the F-18’s. That does mean you require the expensive HOTAS Warthog to use it, but it also means you can keep the same amazing throttle box that comes with it and just change sticks on the fly (though not actually in flight, as that would lead to the airplane crashing).
In terms of quality, the stick completely delivers — it feels less like a gamey peripheral and more like a piece of a real machine that was ripped off from its panel, which works wonder when playing something as involved and demanding as a proper flight simulator. I’ve used a lot of flight sticks in my time, having played flight games for nearly three decades now, and the F-18 stick provides one of the best tactile sensations I’ve ever in a virtual environment.
Since the base is actually the Warthog’s, the grip uses the same magnetic sensor system for an amazing amount of accuracy and auto-centering feedback. The buttons, however — and in fact, the stick itself — feel noticeably rougher and denser than the A-10’s, creating a rugged feel that really brings into focus the idea that this little metal stick is supposed to direct a 30 ton quasi-rocket blasting through the air.
If there’s one problem with the F-18’s, is that it shares the Warthog’s inability to turn sideways, forcing users to either adapt the controls through the TARGET software or rely on external (and expensive) pedals for yaw control. The TARGET software can be downloaded from Thrustmaster’s support website and is surprisingly versatile, though it requires a lot of input to fully customise something of this magnitude.
For testing purposes, I used the F-18 for nearly three weeks straight on over 10 different flight titles, both sims and arcade. While some titles like IL-2 Sturmovik Battle of Stalingrad and even the old TIE Fighter games work amazingly well after some TARGET tinkering, the biggest synergy came from Eagle Dynamics’ Digital Combat Simulator. I flew about 12 different airplanes from World War II to modern era originating from various countries, but the stick natively integrates with the new F/A-18C module — and it feels unbelievably amazing. More than just the consistency of looking down in-game and seeing your actually stick on the screen, the button mappings and general feel of the product feels like the closest most humans on Earth will ever come to piloting the real strike fighter, and I couldn’t wait to get home from work to log in some flight hours on my F-18.
The Thrustmaster F/A-18C Hornet flight stick is available to pre-order right now on Thrustmaster’s website, with out retailers going live soon. At £179,99/199,99/$229,99, it is a very expensive piece of engineering — but it’s one virtually unmatched by any other on the market, and which is built to last a considerable amount of time. If you want to experience what it feels like to fly a real jet fighter from the comfort of your own home, definitely gives this flight stick a shot.
The F/A-18C Hornet is due for release on July 25th, 2019.