Throughout the 18 years I have been using flight simulators, I have been aware of the brand Thrustmaster, one that is almost synonymous with the genre. My experience with the brand on the other hand, only started when I received the Thrustmaster TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition earlier this year. The TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition is the first in a range of products aimed at recreating the Airbus universal flight deck found in the A320 and A350 family of aircraft at an affordable price for your home simulator. I have been hands-on with the Sidestick for a few weeks now and I have enjoyed using it, but it isn’t without flaws. Join me in taking a hands-on look at both positives and negatives of the TCA Sidestick Edition from Thrustmaster.
The box has a striking appearance with a mix of real-world and simulator shots along with details all about the TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition. One of the most important things that are printed on the box is the official Airbus logo to highlight the official endorsement Thrustmaster has received from the aircraft manufacturer. The box also details some more of the TCA ecosystem that will soon be available to purchase, including a throttle quadrant and additional Flap and Spoiler module towards the end of the year. Inside the box, you can find one page ‘how to’ guide, four interchangeable buttons and of course, the Sidestick itself – all tightly packed into the rather small yet compact box. The four interchangeable buttons include two black and two red buttons. Only the red button is included on the real aircraft, which is situated on the right-hand side for the captain and left for the first officer. It is used to disconnect the autopilot and to enable the input from the stick to control the aircraft. I like the fact that you can even have two red buttons or two black depending on your preference.
Overall Look and Features
The first thing that surprised me when I pulled the Sidestick out of the box was that it looks just like the real thing: it is a great replication of a real Airbus sidestick on a one to one scale, and all the dimensions are modelled from the real sidestick. This is almost a surreal feeling and one that made me smile and excited to get flying with it. The real Airbus sidestick is rather simplistic with just two buttons, the push to talk trigger and the red autopilot disengage button, which is included with the Thrustmaster rendition. Although similar, the TCA Sidestick does differ from the real thing with a few elements. The real Airbus Sidestick has a glossy finish whereas the TCA Sidestick has a matte finish, other than the surrounding on the HAT switch which is set in a gloss panel. The fact that the stick has a matte finish doesn’t take away from the experience though. Another difference to the Sidestick is the addition of four switches and buttons. The first being a HAT switch right in the middle of the stick itself at the top. In the real aircraft, this is a thumb rest – but the addition of the HAT switch is one of the most used functions I use in my sim as I use it almost exclusively to look around the flight deck. The next additional switch is one of the interchangeable side switches towards the top of the Sidestick. In the real-world aircraft, this button location doesn’t exist but as time passed, I found myself binding the function of ‘COM 1 Switching’ and utilising the additional button as it saves me changing my view to the radio panel whilst flying on online flying networks such as VATSIM. The next additional button is located just above the trigger on the underside of the stick. This small but useful button has been bound to my parking brake toggle switch Although only really used twice on a flight, I enjoy the fact that I don’t need to switch views to toggle the parking brake on the aircraft now. Finally, the last addition to the stick compared to the real-world counterpart is the twist-lock just on the rest plate at the front of the stick. Just like flatpack furniture, I neglected to look at the instructions and this function surprised me when I discovered it. I fly with rudder pedals but I do use the Sidestick twist function as a taxi tiller which further improved my simulator experience. It is also nice to lock this function with just a flick of the switch when airborne making the Sidestick easier to handle. The base of the Sidestick includes 12 generic buttons that are split evenly either side of the stick and a throttle control directly in line with the Sidestick. The throttle slider is rather small and contains an invisible button at the 20% mark which feels like an indentation in the slide. This feature is defaulted to engage reverse thrust below the detent and normal thrust above. The base is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and is painted in the typical Airbus blue you find in the early cockpits of the A320 series aircraft. The base includes a debossed glossy Thrustmaster logo and decals detailing the throttle detent resembling the real-world counterpart, finished with a large and striking Airbus logo. Overall, the look and feel of the stick is great, and the inclusion of relevant additional buttons on the stick help to bridge the gap between the real aircraft and a home simulator.
Setting up the Sidestick is very simple and easy. As with most USB devices nowadays, plug and play apply, with my Windows 10 system recognising the new peripheral almost instantly. When firing up X-Plane for the first time, the Sidestick is recognised but initial calibration of the Sidestick is needed. The Sidestick is automatically bound to movement of the rudder, ailerons and elevators as well as the throttle, the rest of the buttons are left for you to bind as you wish. This took some time for me as it does require some thinking as to which features you will use the most and then go in and bind the keys. Another decision you will need to make is which hand you will be using with the stick. I for one, am very happy to finally be able to use my dominant (left) hand to fly an aircraft without feeling uncomfortable as the flight control has been ergonomically made for the right hand. To install or switch the buttons, you will need a small Philips screwdriver. Simply unscrew the locking screws, of which there are two, select the buttons and locations you wish to assemble them in and let the screwdriver secure the buttons in place. You will spend more time looking for the buttons in the box than you will be putting them onto the stick. The process is very straightforward and easy.
Thrustmaster has included support through their Thrustmaster Advanced pRogramming Graphical EdiTor or T.A.R.G.E.T software to help programme 256 buttons to the stick and to build custom response curves for all the axes on the stick. The functionality of the software far surpasses what you will need for the use with the TCA Sidestick as this programme supports the entire range of more complex HOTAS products. The T.A.R.G.E.T software is helpful in creating different profiles for multiple flight simulators including P3D, X-Plane and DCS. The user can launch different simulators with a custom profile and user-defined response curves right from the ‘Fly Now’ function when setup correctly. The T.A.R.G.E.T software is a great place to iron out any issues that you may be having with quick links to support pages and an easy way to calibrate your TCA Sidestick. I have only used the Sidestick with X-Plane and as it has the function to change response curves and to allocated built-in, I have not found the need to change any of the simple functions using the third party T.A.R.G.E.T programme.
Throughout using the TCA Sidestick, I have found that if I have enough space on my desk for my forearm or elbow to rest on. The Sidestick is immensely comfortable and it is easy to hold the stick in a particular position for a prolonged period of time, no problem at all. This is great as although Airbuses trim automatically for pitch, this does take some time to correct and if you are using the Sidestick with any other aircraft, you may need to move your throttle hands or viewpoint to trim the aircraft. I find myself hand flying more of the climb out and approach each time I use it. When it comes to precision, the Sidestick is the best stick I have used thus far. With each small movement and correction, the aircraft moves exactly as much as you put in. This is down to the type of sensors that register movement within the stick. Thrustmaster has included Hall Effect AccuRate Technology or H.E.A.R.T., which measures the strength of a magnetic field to register movement in the stick. What this means for us when flying is that with each slight movement of the Sidestick, the aircraft will position itself more precisely compared to the older potentiometers which have a much bigger margin of error and need bigger inputs to make the aircraft move. Another upside to using H.E.A.R.T. is that the sensor and the stick are not in contact with one another and therefore the sensors will remain as sharp as they did when they were brand new. The use of these sensors makes a big difference when flying a tricky approach and I have seen my terrible landings improve to ones you may sometimes walk away from.
The stick does seem to return to a centred position rather quickly and it does take some effort to move the stick away from the central position which does make for some jerky aircraft movements. Once the stick is away from the centre position it is very easy to manoeuvre the stick and hold it in place if needed. I have also found the stick to be the perfect size for my hand, without having to stretch to reach the push to talk trigger or the autopilot disconnect buttons which is always a bonus as you don’t need to move your hand or readjust your position all the time, regardless of how sweaty your palms get during a tricky approach.
Although the Sidestick itself is finished to a nice and solid standard that feels like such a quality product when handling it (you would think you were in a real Airbus), I have found some downfalls when it comes to the quality of the base. Firstly, it feels way too light. With sharper, full movements to the left or right, the base lifts from the desk. I feel that Thrustmaster should have included some pads to help stick the base to the desk or some additional weights to help counterbalance the full movement of the Sidestick, but there is no way of fixing the base to the desk. Another area in which I feel some quality is lacking is the 12 buttons set within the base. These feel cheap and compared to the stick it seems like these were an afterthought. The buttons feel hollow and loose when pressed. I have experienced some button presses that have not been registered which is frustrating and really lets some of the cracks show in the product. My advice would be to not bind all 12 buttons but have a captain and first officer set up in which you only bind the buttons that are nearest your throttle hand as you would either need to let go of the stick or reach over the stick to operate the others as they would be on the opposite side to your free hand. Thrustmaster does have a solution to this in the form of a left-hand/right-hand switch, located on the underside of the base, which swaps the inputs of the left and right bundle of keys on the base. Due to the quality and location of these buttons, I found myself reverting to my keyboard to operate the functions that I have bound to these buttons.
There is one final feature of the TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition that I have not mentioned, which is the integrated throttle. The slider is small and the distance between full power and idle is very small so finding where the throttle should sit to engage auto-throttle becomes a guessing game. There are decals of a real throttle and a physical detent to note where idle and reverse thrust is located but I have found that this is far too small a detent to make a difference and there is no reference on the slider to detail where the decal and the slider should match. Occasionally I found myself knocking the throttle past the idle detent and engaging the reversers when taxiing due to the location of the slider. The throttle is located right under your arm regardless of which seat of the flight deck you’re flying from and this is far from ideal. When in full reverse, the slider also sits quite far back and beyond the base of the Sidestick, which makes me think if it is knocked hard enough it may separate from the base or break. Although I love the way the throttle slider incorporates reverse thrust as a default, I feel there is quite a lot missing in the execution.
Right from the unboxing, I was impressed at how much the TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition looks and feels just like the real thing. Unfortunately, to keep costs down and to include the best type of movement sensors, the base of the Sidestick has suffered from some cuts to quality. The TCA Sidestick is a precision product and if you were looking for a first input device, I think this will enhance your simulator experience tenfold. If you were looking to add the Sidestick to your collection of yokes and sticks, I would only recommend this if you mainly fly airbuses. At the price of £64.99, I think the TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition is possibly on the more expensive side considering the overall quality. However, the addition of the precision of Hall Effect sensors might be worth spending the additional cash.
- 1:1 recreation of the real Airbus sidestick
- Use of precise high-quality Hall Effect sensors
- Customomisable Captain or First Officer position
- Ergonomic, comfortable fit
- Flimsy feel to the Throttle
- Buttons in the base seem cheap and poor quality
- No inclusion of means to attach the Sidestick to the desk
- Indentation inside the throttle is too shallow