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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Of HOTAS Boards and Lessons Learned

Have you ever been flying along, singing a song and suddenly space around you goes all crackly blue as an interdiction vortex tries to scramble your frame drive? Sure you have. The next thing you know your ship shutters into non-relativistic space and someone is taking pot shots at you. It happens to all of us at some point. So you transfer energy from your engines to your weapons and get to work. You work your throttle back, you work throttle forward, feeling out the maneuverability sweet spot to give you just the edge you need. All the while you're putting the stick through gyrations that'd make a whirling dervish green with envy. Everything is just starting to go your way when it happens. POP! POP! Just as you get your reticle on your nemesis the damn suction cups come loose and your stick suddenly tips, or skitters sideways on your desk. This on top of the fact that every time you push or pull the throttle, it too threatens to slide forwards and backwards; undoing your ability to turn inside your adversary. It's almost impossible to make the fine adjustments necessary for assured victory as you find yourself pulling down so hard on both the throttle and the stick assembly to keep them from dancing around that your muscles threaten to cramp. Okay, that last was perhaps a bit of hyperbole but you know what I'm on about.

It's a well-known fact the lightweight plastic housing of most reasonably priced Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) accessories don't have enough mass to remain in position during evasive maneuvers. Most such devices come with suction cups you can use, but they are almost as bad as just using the rubber pads on the bottom of the HOTAS. HOTAS manufactures understand the issue. The Thrustmaster Warthog is made metal, providing a resting mass equal to the force you have to place on a less weighty HOTAS to keep them in their place. The Warthog stick alone weighs nearly 7.5 pounds. The throttle assembly is nine! But let's face it, most of us are not going to drop $500 on a HOTAS just because it's heavy enough to stay in place. I know I have no desire to spend that sort of moolah on a HOTAS. I love Elite: Dangerous, but not that much. Less costly HOTAS are all made of plastic; that's why they don't cost $500. The manufacturers of these less expensive models understand you are making a sacrifice to save money, so they have made sure to mold mounting holes through the body of the HOTAS. All you need to do is buy some screws, put them through the holes and screw the HOTAS into your desktop.

What? You say you're not going to ruin your desktop just to hold a HOTAS in place? I don't blame you. My brother-in-law is a cabinet-maker and many years ago made me a custom computer desk with lovely routered edges, a cherry finish and a premium long-lasting Formica surface. There is no way I'm putting holes in that! Fortunately that is not necessary. What you need is a HOTAS board. This is an appropriately sized piece of wood on which to mount your HOTAS. The board simply lies on top of your desk and provides the mass and friction necessary to render your HOTAS practically immovable. It's something I've been meaning to do since buying myself a HOTAS for my birthday, and Superbowl Sunday I finally got around to doing it.

I created my HOTAS board from a 34.5" by 12 " piece of 3/4" plywood I had lying around the shop. The dimensions are not happenstance though. When you place the two sections of my HOTAS on either side of my Mad Catz v.7 keyboard, they are precisely 34" wide. I wanted my board to be not much longer than that. I just lucked out to have a piece that length available. The 12" depth ensures the keyboard can rest between the throttle and stick easily without threatening to drop off the front or back edge.

But dimensions alone do not make a great HOTAS board. The board needs to be thick enough for mounting screws to bite deeply into without going through. That is why I recommend no less than a 3/4" board. With a half-inch board, you run the risk of the screw tips penetrating all the way out the bottom or, if you elect to use shorter screws, pulling right out of your board. At this point we need to talk about the screws themselves. I used 2.5" #8 wood screws. I've a Saitek X52 Pro and the bases are 2 inches thick. The board is of course three quarters inches thick. The X52 Pro has inset mounting holes designed so the flat top of the cone-shaped head of a wood screw is flush with the top of the assembly housing when fully screwed down. This makes the actual screw depth of the housing a smidgen less than 2". When you do the math, that leaves my wood screws a smidgen more than a half-inch of bite through several layers of good plywood. Between that bite depth and the 5.5 lb weight of my Douglas fir plywood, my X52 Pro probably isn't going anywhere.

However, there are two more things you need to take into consideration. The first is that most desk tops are smooth and slick. Even a five and a half pound piece of plywood can, and will, slide on most desktops. And though this is not as catastrophic for Internet spaceship combat as having your stick suddenly tilt 45 degrees, it will be catastrophic to the finish of your desktop in just a few weeks. The second thing you need to consider is wood splinters. Through the course of general wear and tear, uncovered plywood will splinter. Most boards will, given enough time. You don't want your unprotected skin riding the edges of an unprotected board.

To stop the board from sliding, the solution is to treat it like a rug. Rugs on hardwood floors slide. Anyone who's ever floor surfed to their mother's chagrin understands the principle. So civilization has invented grip padding. You can buy it everywhere: home improvement stores, hardware stores, department stores, Amazon. I even saw a bolt of it at JoAnn Fabrics yesterday when I was out with the misses! This grid-pattern rubberized matting causes so much friction between the carpet and the floor, it has eliminated any hope of rug surfing ever becoming an Olympic sport. If you put this on the bottom of your HOTAS board, it will not move. I guarantee it. 1

As for the inevitable problem of splinters, I recommend you wrap your board in duct tape. It's cheap. It's available everywhere grip padding is sold. And it comes in the most delightful colors and designer patterns these days. You won't need much, because you only have to cover the top and edges of the board, wrapping the duct tape around to the bottom just enough to hold the grip pad in place. Be creative. Make your board a statement about you. It won't cost any more than a custom skin for your internet spaceship, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you did it. It's fun!

So that's how you build a HOTAS board. And since a picture is worth a thousand words (or 1200 words in my case :o ,) here is what my finished HOTAS board looks like:

[gallery size="large" ids="4378,4379,4377"]

So yeah, I've been enjoying the hell out of my new setup. I no longer worry about keeping the HOTAS in place. Dogfights in my Cobra Mark III have become a real pleasure, and I've not lost a fight yet. But I can no longer say I have not lost a ship. Last night I was feeling pretty cocky. I got a really, really nice delivery mission off the Bulletin Board. It was going to give me enough credits to finish outfitting my ship for exploration and leave me several hundred thousand credits in the black. Finally my hard work was paying off!

[caption id="attachment_4380" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Simple Delivery Simple Delivery[/caption]

Boltzmann Gateway was a short jump away. It's a peaceful High Tech system, and the station is only about 600 light seconds from the NAV point. It was a cake walk. I boosted out of  mass lock range of Gidzenko Ring, charged my Hyperdrive and jumped into LTT 7548. I lost no time getting to Boltzmann Gateway. The only ships in system were Federation Security. I game in on the Coriolis station from the side. The docking face was pointing slightly away from me. I requested docking permission and hit boost. I flew along the station at 400 m/s. I hit boost a second time and arced around the edge that would lead me to the docking slot. I was a cool two kilometers from the station; travelling laterally at about 350 m/s.  The slot was to my right and I had the docking computer green light. I slid the throttle back to zero and let the computer take over. But I forgot what an unforgiving mistress momentum is. The stupid computer immediately turned my ship toward the station and attempted to align on the slot. The ship was still moving laterally at just over 300 m/s. In a split second all I could see was superstructure. I grabbed the controls, hit the override button and tried to pull up. I was not Luke Skywalker. I lost the ship, the gold and my pride in less than a second. So much for being cocky. It was an expensive lesson to learn. I not only paid over 65k credits in insurance fees because of the bonehead maneuver, I violated the contract terms and had to pay a substantial fine. My standing with Gidzenko Ring dropped back to neutral, and I've been set back several days in my efforts to outfit my Cobra Mark III for exploration. Space is a dangerous and unforgiving place - always. Never forget that. Complacency is expensive.

Fly Careful

  1. Only under normal use while flying an Internet spaceship in combat when you'll be too worried about saving your ship than trying to prove Mabrick wrong by yanking the board around in unnatural ways ;) . 

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