Like many others of the post war generation I always wanted to fly a Spitfire to see what it was really like and this seemed an impossible dream until personal computers started to arrive in the 1980’s and the first very rudimentary flight simulators became available. These first generation simulators were very basic, the flight models relatively simple and the graphics very unsophisticated.
Since 2005 some very realistic flight simulators have arrived on the market, where the performance of multiple aircraft types and variants is accurately modeled, cockpit layouts are almost at photographic quality of the real aircraft and the graphics are unbelievably good giving a real immersive touch. You can see infinite details outside, the countryside is accurately mapped, the sky, sun, clouds and weather conditions are almost real. As if this wasn’t enough from the game editor, some absolute fanatics with computer programming abilities have pushed the « vice » even further by developing « team play » functions and historically accurate « game » scenarios, if one can still call this level of simulation a game.
The game scenarios are created by player teams on public and private servers. These range from a simple map with plenty of fairly stupid artificial intelligence (AI) aircraft flying around so that you can practice attacks and gunnery, to fully fledged campaigns, such as Storm of War, where human teams need to pre register as Luftwaffe or RAF and get assigned to airfields. A series of objectives are designated for each side which can take weeks to achieve through a combination of teamwork and strategy. Even aircraft replacements are modeled on historical data and need to be ordered and ferried from factory airfields.
Watching a few videos « recorded » by players flying missions together and coming up against « human » opponents in a real time environment was a real eye opener and I chaffed at the bit to get a computer with sufficient graphics and processing power to allow me to join in. At last my dream to fly an almost real Spitfire was about to come true. Christmas was the opportunity to upgrade my son’s PC and to get a hand on his « old » motherboard and graphics card. With a small additional investment in a case, power unit and wide screen, I was soon downloading the latest WWII combat flight simulators such as Warthunder, Wings of Prey, the IL2 suite of Cliffs of Dover, Battle of Stalingrad & Battle of Moscow and DCS. I found the first two too much arcade style, even if the graphics are great and settled into the latter more realistic immersive type simulators. The nutters I was talking about earlier got together as Team Fusion and built some add-ons to the « basic » Maddox Games version of Cliffs of Dover. Initially a private player venture, this add-on is now « official » and is downloadable from the editor via Steam.
So what’s so immersive in theses sims ? Well how can one explain the sheer overwhelming experience of jumping into a fighter cockpit on a real airbase and seeing your squadron mates sitting in their aircraft parked all around you. You slide open the hood and hear the wind rustling in the grass before the morning silence is broken by the coughs and splutters of several aero engines starting up on radio command of the flight leader. By the way the sound of Merlin, Centaurus, Daimler Benz and Jumo engines is accurately modeled and is a real joy to hear.
Just like in real aircraft, pilots need to follow a strict start up procedure using cockpit switches which are activated by keyboard and joystick controls or mouse clicks. You then look outside to check that your flying controls are working, yes you can see the flying surfaces move proportionally to your control movements. A key to remove chocks a bit of throttle and you taxy out to the runway with your flight leader, taking care to lean out of the cockpit and to swing your aircraft from side to side to ensure you don’t chop his rudder with your prop.
Here it helps to invest in a small cheap gadget called an IR head tracker. This consists of an IR camera mounted on top of your screen relayed to a clip with 3 IR detectors attached to your headphones. This systems translates small head movements to larger screen view displacements. For example a 10° left head movement shows the view 150° behind your left shoulder. With a bit of experience you use this to spot enemies creeping up behind you in the « blind spot ».
So a quick look round to see you’re correctly positioned on the runway, brakes on and wait for the flight leader to give the call for takeoff. A moment here to talk about communicating with other players. Most on-line multi-player simulators offer a « Team Speak » facility where all players from one team are all on the same « radio » channel, so that they can communicate with each other in real time. Just as in real life, several channels exist so that one can speak to flight leader, other friendlies or even ground control who direct us to incoming enemy raids.
On command we power up to 50% and release brakes 3 seconds after the leader. As the aircraft accelerates we bring the power up to 100% and correct swing due to prop wash and side winds, again just as in the real thing. Its unwise to go full power straight away as the swing can be impossible to control if there is not enough airflow over the control surfaces. In our squadron we have a standard procedure for forming up. This consists in a left hand circuit at 75% prop pitch and throttle settings; Wingmen cut the corner on leader to form up close as the rest of the squadron or the other flights form up. After about one or two circuits of the aerodrome the leader gives us a course heading and settings for the climb, including desired climb rate in ft/min, speed and radiator setting.
This last item is important as radiator flap drag affects performance quite noticeably but if the radiator flap is closed too much the engine can and does overheat. The results of overheating are dramatic – at first you probably suffer from a perforation in the cooling system followed some while later by the engine overheating, oil being projected onto the windscreen and violent shaking of the power unit before it finally dies on you. You then need to find somewhere to make an emergency landing because in this « game » aircraft are a rare commodity and don’t get replaced immediately. It is important to try and save the airframe. Damaged aircraft come back to the flight-line much earlier than getting replacements for destroyed aircraft. So you configure for a glide, feathering the prop, closing the radiator and setting up a glide angle that keeps you at a reasonable flying speed.
The distance one can glide obviously depends on the altitude you had when the engine conked out. Fighters surprisingly glide quite well in clean configuration. A dead-stick (power off) landing is another issue. You need to leave dropping the gear and flaps to the last possible minute if you are low and short of the field, at the risk of things not working due to hydraulic failure – remember there is no more an engine to pump the gear down. There is an emergency procedure using a gas bottle which the pilot can activate if the controls have been set up for this. Without flaps and gear down the aircraft doesn’t slow down, so in this configuration one needs to plonk it on the field as quickly as possible before one runs out of space.
I said earlier that the « team » aspect of flying is very rewarding, but how can one get into a team or squadron and apart from flying together what does this really involve ? Well the easiest way is to get onto the server and start flying by yourself but, and this is important, being logged on and active on the « open » team speak «radio » channels. This immediately puts you into contact with other friendly players who’s ambition will be to encourage you to enjoy the experience and for you to keep flying on the server. The more’s the merrier. So don’t be afraid to jump in. Obviously the flight radio channels are primarily dedicated to flight operations, but one does get to know other players and one can ask questions of a technical nature in the quieter moments. How did it work for me ? I was flying a Spitfire, of course, around the south coast when another came into view nearby and via Team Speak he invited me to form up with him and fly together towards France to look for enemies.
The advantages of flying with someone else are enormous. For a start two pairs of eyes are better than one, even if at the beginning a « newbie » doesn’t see as much as an experienced player, mostly because you don’t know where or what to look for at the right moment. The idea is that each pilot gives mutual defense by keeping an eye on the rear of the other aircraft, this being the most vulnerable spot for each fighter. A wingman can free up a bit the leader who can then concentrate more on offensive moves like getting ground control information of enemy movements, navigation and tactical positioning of the flight into intercept and attack positions.
This all sounds like basic common sense, but believe me when in the air and under pressure one can quickly get disorientated, loose sight of the leader, the flight becomes separated and this is the moment of course when the enemy plunge in to attack. Without cohesion each member quickly becomes vulnerable and one can get shot out the sky in no time. This is what really makes a difference with the arcade type games where you have unlimited ammunition, you are pretty much invulnerable or you can jump back into another plane immediately, you have unlimited fuel and you can keep on full power without overheating the engine or ripping off the wings of the aircraft in a dive.
No, in this game you are pretty much in a true to life environment where in addition to the tactical situation, you also need to manage your aircraft parameters to keep flying within the limits. The workload can quickly build up, so in addition to experience and having the keyboard keys and joystick buttons configured to the vital controls you also need to develop SA, situational awareness, to know where you are in relation to friends and enemies while looping, rolling and pulling high « g » turns.
This is where the second advantage of joining a team or squadron comes in. There is a lot to learn and although tons of things have been written by real fighter pilots about fighter tactics, and yes these are directly applicable in the simulator, it takes a while to learn, assimilate and put them into practice. I was extremely lucky to find and join a team with several squadrons and believe it or not an OTU or Operational Training Unit. Basically they won’t allow you to fly combat missions with them until you have mastered a minimum number of techniques which range from setting your computer flight controls, to navigation, formation flying and fighter tactics. There are 11 stages to go through, very similar to real life where ab initio pilots went to OTU to learn to fight effectively in aircraft as opposed to flying willy nilly in a violent and hostile environment.
I was absolutely amazed at the willingness of other squadron members to give up their time to take you through all these steps, to show you how, to give advice, to tell you what you are doing wrong and to check you out on each module. Although I had been flying sims on my own for years, this was a whole new ball game and I more or less had to start from scratch. I was and am still a complete dummy on certain aspects and I just can’t believe how patient they were with me in training and how they continue to be so on operations.
I’ve still got a long way to go to become a truly effective pilot, and being of a certain age I probably don’t pick things up as quickly as others, but I got my « wings » after about three months of training 3-4 hours per week and I have now completed around 50 missions with 2 confirmed kills and 3 shared victories. Yes there are times when on standing air patrols we do not come into contact with the enemy and when we do I am still a lousy shot, but it’s great fun and a real challenge to fly in formation, to try and keep an eye out for the others and to bring one’s aircraft back to base in one piece.
I’m ashamed to tell you how many aircraft I have broken on stupid flying accidents (landing, take-off and over speeding on dives), and I regret to say that I am not the only one – some small comfort. In fact after the fist day of a recent campaign we lost or damaged so many aircraft due to flying accidents on take-offs & landings, that the Wing Commander put us all into a training session. I still had trainee status at the time, and was more or less banned from flying operations until I had acquired more proficiency. Over time I can now put an aircraft down fairly safely, I even managed to land a Hurricane with about half of one mainplane missing, but obviously got a bit overconfident because I got myself killed the other day on final approach delivering a brand new Blenheim, which rolled in when I applied power for a go-around.
Okay I’ve been using a few technical terms that probably make you think that i’m a bit of a pilot. Well it’s easy to get caught up in the pilot-speak thing, even more so when you realize that the chap you’ve been chatting with on comms, suddenly tells you he won’t be around on Monday night as he’s flying a B777 to Sydney – Wow you mean real pilots « play » this « game », and you realize that those geeks from the Gaijun Entertainment & Team Fusion have really done a good job. I’m on again tonight so gotta go now – see you around sometime maybe, over the Channel ?