Mudspike contributor, Jörgen ”Troll” Toll, takes a closer look at VPC Virpils latest flight controller stick grips. Read the review of the VPC MT-50CM2 and WarBRD flight controller base units here.
Sticks and stones…
VPC recently released a couple of stick grips, or handles if you will, for their flight controller base units. The first one up for scrutiny is somewhat of a Hollywood celebrity.
I am of course talking about the V.F.X. Never heard of it? Can’t blame you! But what if I told you that the US Navy ”Naval Fighter Experimental” program, that ended with Grumman winning the contract to build the F-14 Tomcat, was called the VFX Program? The VPC V.F.X grip is a copy of the grip found in the illustrious Tomcat fighter, made famous by a bunch of sweaty volleyball playing Hollywood actors in the 80’s. Yeah, and by the Gulf of Sidra engagements, naturally…
The VPC V.F.X grip isn’t a replica of the Tomcat grip, but more of a copy, inspired by the Tomcat grip. The most obvious departure from the real deal is the lever on the front of the grip. Now, the real Tomcat stick has a lever for emergency disengagement of the autopilot, but it’s situated below the grip. The reason for changing the position of this lever probably comes from a desire to keep the proportional brake lever that the MT-50 series of stick grips has. Yes, this lever is proportional and is detected as an axis by Windows Direct Input, just like the proportional X & Y axes of the joystick, you can control wheelbrakes, or any other axis, with this lever. I have come to appreciate this function from the MT-50 stick grips that I have, in conjunction with for instance the Spitfire, which uses a bike style brake lever. Read more about this in the review link at the top.
The V.F.X grip has two more proportional axes, actually. There’s a twist function of the grip, for those flightsimmers who still haven’t got a set of rudder pedals. I get that not all flightsimmers are like me and spend a lot of time building their own controllers and flightsim pit. I don’t have a set of rudder pedals. I have several… So, twisting the stick to control the yaw axis, isn’t my cup of tea. VPC has thoughtfully incorporated a small hex screw that can be tightened to lock out this function.
The last axis is the DLC control wheel. This is a spring centered forwards/backwards thumb wheel that rotates maybe 30° both ways and controls the Direct Lift Control spoilers on the real jet. These are lift spoilers that extend partially, to ruin some of the airflow of the wings, thus spoiling the lift generation. The DLC spoilers can be increased or decreased, as the pilot sees fit, to steepen or flatten the decent profile, without changing the pitch attitude of the jet. The big grey button on the side of the DLC control wheel is the DLC activation switch that also controls the chaff dispenser, if you haven’t set flaps for landing (which is pretty unlikely in a situation where chaff may be needed).
All three axes of the V.F.X grip has digital contactless magnetic sensors.
Another cool feature of the V.F.X grip is the weapons selector. Who hasn’t dreamed of flicking a switch while calling ”too close for missiles, switching to guns”? I sure have. This is the switch Maverick is using to do just that, in the 80’s volleyball movie. The weapons selector has four positions. Off, Gun, SW for Sidewinder missiles and SP/PH for Sparrow or Phoenix missiles. To move the selector in and out of ’Off’ position you must press the switch hat in, while moving it up or down. Pressing the switch hat also registers as a button press. This is a very impressive switch. The lever and hat is made of metal, and I suspect much of the mechanism inside is too, judging from the solid clicking sound it makes.
The rest of the switches are of the more mundane and regular sort. There’s a two stage trigger, a trim hat that can be pushed in and a nosewheel steering button. The proportional lever also has a switch that registers at the end of travel. This is so you can use the V.F.X grip with a Thrustmaster Warthog or Cougar base unit, that doesn’t register proportional signals from the grip. Same goes for the DLC control wheel which also sends ON/OFF button presses when used.
I feel the need…
So, what do I think of the V.F.X grip?
Well, compared to the VPC MT-50CM2 grip, which is what I used before getting the V.F.X, it’s a step backwards in functionality as it has fewer buttons. The proportional DLC wheel and twist axis must be considered added functionality, but I don’t use the twist axis and the DLC wheel is mostly a Tomcat thingy. Yes, you could use this axis for speedbrakes or such, on other aircraft, but it really only comes into its own right with the Tomcat…
I guess the question is, how do I think the V.F.X grip works with the Heatblur F-14 Tomcat module for DCS? In short: it rocks! Granted, you can fly the Tomcat with almost any other joystick grip out there but looking down on your virtual flight controller in the awesome virtual Tomcat office and seeing a copy of the same stick grip you are clasping with your hand, is something else… Some may say that buttons are buttons and it’s just a matter of dexterity and remembering which one does what. True, but still, using the V.F.X grip with the DCS Tomcat module give me that extra happy feeling that I have transgressed yet another virtual/reality boundary that puts me one step closer to believing I’m up there with Goose, talking to me. Ok, ok, Jester then. I guess I’m a sucker for these things. I guess it also explains why I’m trying to make a dedicated Viggen stick grip. But that’s for another review.
The pattern is full…
The one feature that actually is a true advantage of using the V.F.X grip when flying the DCS Tomcat is the DLC Wheel. When I tried the V.F.X grip with the Tomcat for the first time, I hadn’t flown the Cat for several weeks. I set up all the controls and selected the Case 1 recovery mission. I flew past the boat, turned into the pattern. Wings to auto, speedbrake out, gear and flaps down, DLC on. I continued on the downwind finding the AoA and speed. I turned base and final. In the groove I nudged the DLC wheel a few times, to get a feel for it. I trapped and Goo…JESTER… told me in his smug voice that I had snagged a three-wire, just as expected. Now, I don’t normally expect three-wires, especially not after a several week long Tomcat hiatus. Was it the DLC control that got me the three-wire, or should I go buy a lottery ticket? Either way, it was a great flightsim moment for me. I swept the wings and taxied to the cat, for another go. As you might expect, having a proportional DLC wheel controller is no silver bullet. I did maybe five or six additional traps, without ever touching the third wire again…
So, does this mean you could just as well use buttons to control the DLC? Well, I guess so. Some guys don’t use DLC at all. As always; do it often enough and you will get good at it. It’s just that I felt I had better control using the V.F.X DLC control wheel.
Now, what about that weapon selector? I’m grinning from ear to ear, every time I fly a dogfight mission and switch from missiles to guns..! ’Nuff said.
BRD of a feather
The other grip up for review is the WarBRD. The grip that was made to accompany the WarBRD base unit that was reviewed earlier. The name is of course a play with words. The term ”Warbird” is normally used for old aircraft survivors, still in use today and BRD signifies the collaboration between VPC and BRD. Read more about this in the previous VPC MT-50CM2 review link at the top of this page.
The WarBRD grip looks a lot like the stick grip of the F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and like the V.F.X it’s not an exact replica. And also like the V.F.X it has a rudder twist function. But unlike the V.F.X it can’t be locked out. The twist axis uses a digital contactless magnetic sensor, which seems to be the standard for VPC controllers.
The WarBRD has a dual stage trigger, a POV/Trim hat with a push in function, a 4-way hat with push in and two regular momentary buttons. As with the V.F.X, comparing the number of switches to the MT-50 will make you feel that the WarBRD is an inferior product. But, if we consider that this is a grip marketed towards WWII and early jet fighters, it’s more than enough.
The WarBRD also has a LED light, but I must admit that I haven’t found a reason or use for this, other than as an indicator that the grip has been connected.
The WarBRD grip is smaller than the MT-50 grip and sits a bit lower on the base as well. This is also true for the V.F.X grip and is something to consider as you may need an extension to bring it up to the same height, if your controllers are mounted for the MT-50 grip.
If modern Jet fighters is your thing, you will probably feel that the WarBRD grip is too limited in its array of switches and buttons. But for WWI, WWII and early jet fighters or simple trainers, it will do just fine.
Both grips came with this quick start guide which will tell you how to connect the grip to the base unit.
The connector is a mini-DIN5 type and the female part of the base unit is held in place by two screws. The male part is at the end of a cable.
the cable can be pulled out by an inch and inserted in the base connector before tightening the collar nut.
Lastly, let’s talk money.
The V.F.X grip cost about €160. You can actually buy it without the twist axis and that will save you €10.
The WarBRD grip is about €90.
Now, remember that this is for just the grips. You need a base unit as well. Then again, you can have just one base unit and several interchangeable grips. Virpil also offers a 10% discount when ordering a base unit with a grip.
I’m not going to discuss value for money. Some have more money to spend and how you value a look-a-like flight controller for your flightsim will vary greatly. Tell me that you can’t buy happiness and I’d say you just don’t know where to shop…
But considering the quality of the hardware and that making high end flight controllers for flightsims, is a niche within a niche, I think this is value for my money. Yes, the grips are plastic. That doesn’t mean they feel cheap, though. They feel quite sturdy and will probably last for a long time. VPC use high quality sensors and switches and load bearing parts like the twist axis and base connector is made from metal.
That said, if VPC would start making limited edition metal grips, I’d be all over those! There’s something to be said for feeling cold, unforgiving metal, touching your skin.
I applaud VPC for making these flight controller grips! They’re perhaps not for everybody, but that’s precisely what’s so great about them; Diversity…
We all have our favourite aircraft and we all find pleasure from visiting different corners of our big sandbox of flightsims. The more controllers and grips, the merrier, if you ask me. That way everybody can find something they like.
Keep ‘em coming, Virpil!
Visit the VPC Virpil Webshop for pricing and availability.
VPC has graciously agreed to donate the WarBRD base unit and grip, that was used for the reviews, to a lucky Mudspike reader. There will be a contest at the Mudspike.com forum.
The V.F.X grip was purchased at the VPC webshop, at regular price, by the reviewer. The WarBRD grip is courtesy of VPC. The reviewer, i.e. me, is also cooperating with VPC by using their hardware in a commercial Viggen stick project that I’m working on.