Are there planes with electronic joysticks as shown below?

enter image description here

RC airplanes are incredibly effective at using this technique. For actual planes it would remove the need for rudder pedals and a stick along with potentially being easier to get used to.

Are thumb controlled sticks used in aviation? or is there a reason to why they aren't used?

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    $\begingroup$ This is not a great answer, but I think if I sat as a passenger on an RC plane or in a flight simulator cabin, I would get very sick, very quickly. There's a reason people pay a lot of money for large, realistic controls: it gives you much more precision and control than a tiny game pad. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Oct 11, 2016 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ Suggest you look into the Airbus A320 series to answer your question. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2016 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ Plenty of aircraft use 'joysticks' (this one even uses two), so perhaps it would help to explain what the twin sticks would control? I'm not familiar with RC aircraft, so how do two sticks control three axes of movement, plus thrust? If you explain a little more about exactly how your idea would work then you may get better answers. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Oct 11, 2016 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ I am aware that side sticks exist but that is not what I am asking, I am asking if it would be better to control everything with your thumbs where you can use both thumbs to control everything and remove the need for rudder pedals $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Oct 11, 2016 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ "Better" NO! Why would you deprive yourself of additional channels for control inputs? If you fly in three dimensions, and have three axis of rotation, it makes sense to have three channels of input. Prevents mode confusion. (OK, the RAH 66 Comanche did that, but it was on a joystick as well). Ergonomics is a fascinating science, but it's a whole art form that most of us exploit without always knowing how many tests went into getting it to "feel right" as a man-machine interface. (And don't get me started on the Yoke versus Stick debate ...) $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2016 at 19:20

7 Answers 7


They are used, they are just bigger joy sticks than used for RC flying.

A current example is the Airbus A320 (and related family) of passenger aircraft. A short video of the joystick in action(called "side stick", start at about 1 minute in). There is no direct mechanical linkage between the stick and the flight controls.

enter image description here
(For the A330, but basically the same).

For more detail, you can download this (slightly out of date, but with enough information to be useful) Flight Controls lesson for the A320 here.

I am more curious about thumb controlled flying as you could control everything from what essentially looks like a video game controller.

@Rory Alsop noted that ...

... even video game controllers are terrible for this. The bigger the stick the better fine control you have over it. This is why for flight sims for PC's and consoles, keen players buy proper joysticks - otherwise they are twitchy and hard to handle

Video game controllers require two hands, have poor sensory feedback (as compared to a stick type controller) and are not as ergonomically effective as a multi-axis stick. Also, there are some "push buttons" on a control stick that allow moving a finger or a thumb to activate other functions, like the "take control" button in the side stick(For swapping control between left seat and right seat pilots). On some sticks you'll also have the "push to talk button" for the radio, as has been done for decades. It's an efficient use of the hand, without having to move the hand for multiple tasks.

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    $\begingroup$ This makes me wonder how hard it'd be to get an Airbus sidestick to work with your PC... $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2016 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ @UnrecognizedFallingObject it wouldn't be plug and play, and it'll be a completely custom job because nobody gets controls from a real plane and attach it to a PC. But since it is all electronic based, it's just matter of translating all the actions to PC understandable code. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Oct 12, 2016 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Nelson -- I suspect somebody building a A320 sim's probably done it before, at least... $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Nelson here is one example a320homecockpit.de/00000096221175917/00000096330b5e512/… $\endgroup$
    – Ukko
    Oct 12, 2016 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @daelarn Another important thing is sensory feedback, which in turn helps with fine control. Something that's very sadly missing from most videogame controllers. $\endgroup$
    – Shadur
    Oct 13, 2016 at 6:58

A thumb operated joystick requires fine motor skills while a big lever on the same joystick (essentially the modern control device as answered by KorvinStarmast) provides the same functionality but with larger movements required to make them. This is helpful for subtle control work and makes piloting in turbulence feasible, something RC flyers don't really have to contend with while standing on the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ Not so. When your plane weighs 1.3oz, everything is turbulence ! The small thumb sticks on rc aircraft are better due to the very quick movements needed from one axis extreme to the other, as opposed to a stick on a real aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Sirex
    Oct 12, 2016 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Sirex: the point is that the pilot's hands are not shaken by the turbulence the aircraft experiences, because the pilot is always standing on solid ground. I initially interpreted it the same way as you, so an edit might help. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ ah. fair enough. $\endgroup$
    – Sirex
    Oct 12, 2016 at 18:45

As others already said, joysticks are used. But there is a fundamental difference with the RC controls.

We humans do much better job of dynamic control when controlling the force rather than position/displacement. It is too long a discussion why, but the main reason is that we have special force feedback sensors in our muscles. (Yes, it's a common misconception that we have only five senses).

For this reason, airplanes are generally controlled by force. Even those that have mechanical links and deflect the controls proportionally to position; even those FBW that measure position of the controls (the first type that Peter Kämpf mentioned) - they still, in the end, are controlled by human force. This is why correct loading (spring or otherwise) is crucial: certain displacement requires certain muscle force, and this force we apply and control.

Ideally, you want to tune the loading so that a certain force would produce a certain desired end effect. Say, each 1 kg pull produces additional 0.1g of normal acceleration. This naturally happens with classic reversible controls: when airspeed increases, the required control deflection (for a given acceleration) decreases significantly. But the required force per unit of deflection increases by the same amount. Thus we have constant force per acceleration, despite having very different control travel. This travel difference can be an order of magnitude, but it poses no problem for the pilot, because force is the same. In fact, pilots use it as a secondary feedback about airspeed.

Electronic (FBW, fly-by-wire) joysticks could be made to require no or little force, like RC controls, but this is never done. A great deal of effort is invested in producing optimal loading. For one, an accidental move of a light control might destroy the airplane. (This may happen even with RC airplanes, which are much stronger relatively). But even more importantly, it has been proven that gradual precise force control works better for us that position control.

This is why some aircraft (starting from F-16) moved away from positioning entirely and measure force on the stick directly. However, this just doesn't feel natural for us: we expect some movement in response to a force; so a small amount of movement is generally allowed even for pure force control.

The amount of travel also matters, but this is only a secondary feedback. Besides, it works better when we see the movement, which doesn't always happen when flying.

When you press brake in your car, you also feel and coordinate mainly the force on the pedal rather than its position. This allows you to adapt to different cars quickly. Racing cars have very little pedal travel. But if the required brake force was very light, you wouldn't be able to brake smoothly, no matter what travel there was.

Now the RC controls have almost insignificant spring, and are actually controlled by position. Normally, this doesn't give a precision anywhere near what a real airplane would require. As Daniel noted in his comment, you wouldn't be a happy passenger on such an airplane. This is partly mitigated by using a very close position reference (the hands grab the sides of the control) and using our most sensitive fingers, but still only partly.

  • $\begingroup$ This addresses some of the ergonomic issues that I'm not too good at explaining. Nicely said. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Most competition RC pilots fly with very stiff springs because they need to "feel" the aircraft flying. I'm not a competitive pilot but I always tighten my springs to max for the same reason (though I don't splurge on replacement springs). There's a saying in RC - soft springs sells radios, stiff springs wins competitions. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Oct 12, 2016 at 15:57

Thumb controlled? No, this would be impossible in a moving aircraft. For precise input, pilots need to rest their forearm on an armrest while handling their joysticks. Due to their location at the side of the pilot's seat they are called side sticks. There are even two different types:

  1. Airbus-type side sticks work against springs and can be pivoted fore-aft for pitch rate and left-right for roll rate. Depending on the active control law, the motion can also code for elevator and aileron deflection angle (direct law).
  2. F-16 type side sticks are immovable, but sense the force which the pilot uses for control. The early models of the F-16 used side sticks with no free movement at all, which caused an awkward feeling, so more recent models allow for some motion. But it still needs a lot of force to move the stick, and the full range of motion is just a few millimetres.

F-16 control stick

F-16 control stick (picture source). Due to the complexity of the system which they control they have a lot more buttons and switches than your average joystick, but in principle they are the same.


It's the other way around, we play video games with aircraft style joysticks.
The games industry looked at aircraft and basically took those designs as inspiration for their products, in no small part because a lot of those games were about controlling flying aircraft and spacecraft and it'd be more immersive to have controls looking (somewhat) like the real thing.

Of course there is a massive variety of joysticks out there, but the most serious ones aimed at high end gamers still look like modern day fighter sticks to this day.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. Do you any source about that? $\endgroup$
    – Taladris
    Oct 12, 2016 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Taladris Simply goggling for images of "realistic joystick" gives you instant hits. The most conspicuous example is Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog, modelled on the A-10 flight controls. Thrustmaster's previous high-end product was the HOTAS Cougar, modelled on the F-16's flight controls. And if you look at other high-end joysticks that are not imitations but still high-end sticks - such as the Saitek X-52 - you can see many similarities between them and real life HOTAS systems. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Oct 12, 2016 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ Please add some of those Comments to the answer since examples usually help to illustrate a point. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 12:52

I think the other answers are missing something. I think the OP is asking about a single control input, rather than having a joystick (or wheel) to control ailerons & elevator, and foot pedals to control the rudder. Perhaps with some linkage to automatically maintain coordination, like IIRC the Ercoupe.

One reason is that in light aircraft at least (I have no experience with commercial) you sometimes want NOT to be coordinated, as for instance when you're doing a sideslip to lose altitude/airspeed for a short field landing.

  • $\begingroup$ well, generally on an RC radio such as the one I posted a picture of, pushing the left stick up is throttle and side to side is rudder and the left stick up/down is elevator and side to side is ailerons. $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Oct 13, 2016 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ the switches at the top control gear, flaps, optional thrust vectoring on/off on some planes, mixing flaps/ailerons for technical maneuvers using flaperons, lights, and sometimes a camera or other function such as a drop chute or streamer $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Oct 13, 2016 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @dalearn: There's also the fact that the controls in most light aircraft work through physical cables connecting the controls to the control surfaces, so there's direct force feedback. In addition, most light aircraft were designed and built before electronic controls became cheap, lightweight, and reliable enough for general use. I still have the original radio out of my Cherokee sitting in the shed: it has vacuum tubes. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 13, 2016 at 18:07

Joy sticks and control yokes are traditional for full size aircraft for very functional reasons going back to the dawn of flight. All of the pre-WWII aircraft were controlled by direct mechanical linkage. the is moving the stick or control column for and aft pulled on cable that moved the elevator up and down. Moving the stick or wheel (yoke) side to side caused one aileron to go up and the other down. The ruder pedals were on a toggle or t bar connected to the rudder cables and directly moved the rudder left and right. The larger the plane the larger and more stressful the movements were as the aerodynamic forces on the controls (back pressure) increases with the aircraft's size and speed. This is the original reason multi engine bombers and cargo planes started having co-pilots. In bad weather it might take the strength of 2 men to handle the controls. By WWII planes were so large and fast that hydraulically boosted controls were needed. Think of these like the power steering or brakes on your car. Large movements were needed to open and close the valves and allow the hydraulic fluid to flow and move the controls. The first production aircraft that did not have a mechanical connection between the pilot ant the control surfaces was the General Dynamics F-16 (1979 - present). The F-16 is a side stick "fly by wire" design were the pilot tells the computer what he wants to do, and the quad redundant digital computers figure out what control surfaces need to move to achieve this. It also prevents maneuvers that would exceed certain safety parameters. Since planes are durable and stay in service for decades, familiar patterns of instrumentation and controls last for decades with few changes.


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