Monthly Archives: June 2013

Whirlybird Student Parvusimperator

It was all going so well last week. I got over my inherent fear of an aircraft who’s normal state has the wings moving faster than the fuselage and is, by definition, unsafe. I got over the fact that the cockpit has minimal visibility (except to port, where the door is), is claustrophobic, and has not much more advanced than switches. I even got over the fact that there’s a 70’s TV in front of me that gets only one channel. And hey, I guess I can get over the fact that I’m trusting some stupid satellites for my position rather than letting my INS do its own dirty work. My first takeoff wasn’t too bad to begin with, but I started messing with the cyclic too early and left my tail on the ground. Apparently this isn’t an optional part (or so I’m told–it does about as much as a pet platypus), so I tried again, being more careful with the cyclic this time. Worked great, and I was able to accelerate, slow down, and do some snazzy looking turns. And in spite of myself, I started to like the Akuloshka. I was having fun and she (or do the Russians call it a he?) was very responsive and agile. Alright, for a guy who just climbed out of an A-10C, this isn’t saying much, but it was still a blast.

Then my instructor told me that ‘Flight director mode is not for real flying’. Figures. I picked it up easily, so it must be a useless skill. Apparently the Kamov Design Bureau decided that one man was enough for flying and gunnery if they gave him an autopilot to do all the flying work so he could concentrate on the missiles. Great theory. So now I had to put this plan into practice. First, I had to be conscious of where my controls had last been centered from the autopilot’s perspective. Second, I had to be aware of the limitations of the autopilot’s control authority. This all came out okay with some practice and trying to keep my control inputs small. All of it that is, except hover mode. Which, basically makes you get in a hover before hover mode can do anything. When I just had to damp my forward motion, I got into a hover okay. But then I flew around a bit and tried again, and I had introduced a bit of sideslip. Sideslip that just wouldn’t go away and stay gone. I focused on getting rid of it, and then tried to kill my speed, and oh look, sideslip’s back. Did you forget to completely zero out the horizontal inputs? Probably. Or maybe you kicked in too much on the pedals, and you’ve got a bit of a turn coming. Lovely. Now time to correct again, but oh wait—no, you’ve got more forward velocity.

After much cursing, and not much help from my instructor beyond “small inputs” (although to be fair, he can do very little when he can’t see my control inputs—a two-seat trainer would be great), I decided that I was getting entirely too frustrated. You know you need a break when you decide that you’d rather figure out your CDU than work on aerial maneuvers. And at that point, I was ready to code coordinates in my CDU rather than keep wrestling with the autopilot. Which brings me to another gripe with Akuloshka—where are the acronyms? Where are the barriers to understanding? How are we supposed to minimize actual words in our procedural checklists?

But, after a little research and practice, I finally figured out how to not move at all. In the air. It’s a bigger accomplishment than it sounds like, believe me.

DCS: P-51D Mustang first impressions

The DCS summer sale started yesterday afternoon (or the minute after midnight, Moscow time), so I grabbed the P-51 and the Huey. I haven’t had a chance to get into the latter yet, but the P-51 is very cool. I have HOTAS cheat sheets for the Ka-50 and the Su-25T (smart of me, if I do say so myself; remembering which buttons do what is the hardest part of any return to flight simming after a break), each of which takes up about a full page of notebook paper, with avionics and attack procedures on the other side. For comparison, the P-51 cheat sheet is about half of the front of a notecard—everthing else is used rarely enough to just throw the actual switch in the clickable cockpit.

Engine start was correspondingly simple: open the air intake, turn on electric power, turn on the fuel pump, and start the engine turning. Ground handling proved a little more complicated, since the P-51 has two modes on the ground. The first, activated by holding the stick aft of neutral, has tailwheel steering, but only up to 6 degrees off of a straight line. It’s easy to control, but it also has a turning circle more suited to a battleship, so I found myself trying to use the other mode, too. Holding the stick forward of neutral unlocks the tailwheel and lets it swivel freely, which might be described as ‘ground loop mode’. Eventually, I got my toe brakes properly calibrated, which made it possible to straighten out and re-enable tailwheel steering after making a sharp turn with the swiveling tail wheel. Once I got that down, I was able to actually make it to the runway to attempt a takeoff. Three of them, in fact, two with the takeoff assistance set to full, and one without any takeoff assistance at all. It didn’t seem all that hard to me in either instance, but that might just be my many, many hours in simulated prop aircraft showing through, or possibly the results of the manual’s recommendation to trim in five degrees of rudder before takeoff for the torque. Anyway, the trick is to hold yourself in place with the wheel brakes, run the throttle up to 30 psi of manifold pressure, then release the brakes and slowly feed in power up to 50 psi while holding the stick back to keep tailwheel steering. Pull the tail off the ground at 75 miles per hour or so, keep it straight, wait for the plane to fly itself into the air, and Bob’s your uncle.

The first step in the post-takeoff checklist is to set the fuel tank selector to the fuselage tank as soon as possible. It’s behind the pilot, and it turns the otherwise-friendly P-51 into a Camel-esque spinning monster, and skipping the drain-the-fuselage-tank-before-having-any-fun step after my first takeoff resulted in an inverted flat spin at the top of a loop about 500 feet above the ground. Oops. After picking myself out of the burning wreckage, I gave it another go, set the fuel tank selector to ‘fuselage’ until the engine sputtered, then put it back to one of the wing tanks and did some maneuvering.

It was fantastic. The Mustang is small, light, and fast, and is easy to flog around the sky. A nudge of the stick to the left, a bit of rudder, and some back pressure, and hey presto, a perfect four-G turn. It has more than enough power to go vertical (especially considering my most recent prop flight hours have been in Rise of Flight), climbs well, stays rock-steady in dives, and turns much better than its reputation suggests. After a few minutes of that, I decided I’d give a landing a try, so I eventually found the runway I took off from and settled in on an approach. With flaps and gear, I found 120 miles per hour easy to hold, so I flew that most of the way in. The problem was that going that speed forced a very shallow approach, so I flew the last half-mile or so before the runway completely blinded by the Mustang’s giant snout. Still, I managed to not drift completely off the runway, and touched down going about 90. That was slow enough to hold the stick back for tailwheel steering, so I didn’t even flip the plane or anything.

On the final flight, I turned the machine guns from SAFE to DAKKA and came back around on the airfield to strafe the radars. As I suspected from its dive performance, it’s a good gunnery platform, and I popped two of them before I realized I hadn’t been paying much attention to my engine gauges. I also realized that my engine gauges were saying things that would have caused flashing lights and audible alarms in a more modern aircraft, such as, “Your oil is almost on fire,” and, “All your coolant has boiled.” Oops again. Seconds later, my engine made a very loud clunk, going from 3000 RPM to 0 in the space of about a tenth of a second. As good a chance as any to try a deadstick belly landing, I figured, so I found myself a nice open field just past the airfield, lined up, and set her down, a little beat up but certainly fixable.

I think it’s worth the $16.

Flight Instructor Fishbreath: The Kamov Ka-50

My old college pal and sometimes wingman John (a.k.a parvusimperator from Vanguard, or from the Warthog aircraft review) has had DCS: A-10C since, I believe, well before I bought DCS: Black Shark 2. Once I had the Ka-50 in my hangar, we began a sort of cold war, each of us waiting for the other to flinch and buy the other platform so we could do same-aircraft multiplayer. Well, I’m pleased to announce that he cracked first, and has become the proud owner of a Ka-50 to go along with mine.

Rather than learn as I did, by finding the very few Youtube videos on advanced Ka-50 combat employment and reading the manual’s occasionally (read: frequently) confusing descriptions of complicated procedures, he decided to accept my generous offer of flight instruction (half-delivered in a Russian accent). These are my notes on my curriculum and his progress, which may or may not be entertaining or useful. The student may be in to offer his thoughts at some point.

Since John can’t count any helicopter experience among his flight sim or real flight time, I decided we would start with a cockpit tour, a cold start, and some free flight. The cockpit tour got off to very much the start I expected, as the Warthog-acclimated John asked all the usual questions: “What’s this 1970s TV screen doing in my cockpit? Why are there all these switches? Why are there gauges and indicator lights over my head? This is claustrophobic. How do you see out of this thing?” After he ran out of things to gripe about, we went around the cockpit, and I pointed out handy things like the targeting control panel, the Shkval targeting system (the 1970s TV) and the ABRIS moving map system, the navigation, autopilot, and datalink panels, and a few of the switches we’d need for an engine start.

Speaking of, that’s where we went next. The Ka-50 is not a complicated aircraft to start—hydraulics, batteries, the APU, engines, generators, and power switches on a few avionics panels. The inertial navigation unit, which on the A-10 constitutes five minutes of waiting during startup, needs only to be powered on in the Ka-50; since it’s updated by the satellite navigation system, it can be instantly updated when airborne, and isn’t necessary for the minute or two a good GLONASS fix takes.

With the rotors turning all proper-like, I took off, gave John some pointers on how to get off the ground safely (add a little forward cyclic, since the neutral stick position on the ground yields backwards flight in the air), and watched. Unfortunately, this first takeoff was not wholly successful. John got stuck in an overcorrect cycle, backwards and forwards, until he whacked the tail on the ground and ended up leaving it there. Fortunately, I had guessed something of the sort might happen, and John moved to the next helicopter lined up on the ramp, whose engines were already turning. This second attempt proved a little more successful: John took off, and we went over some helicopter basic flight maneuvers.

This is where I’ll have to digress to talk about the Ka-50’s autopilot. It starts with everything off: there are no computer inputs at all, neither for control dampening nor for actual flight control. This mode—or rather, lack of any mode—is interesting from a wow-this-is-not-a-stable-helicopter perspective, but it isn’t useful as a flight training tool. Instead, we started with flight director mode, which, when enabled along with the pitch, bank, and yaw autopilot channels, provides stability enhancement but doesn’t add attitude changes of its own. As such, it represents the way the helicopter handles when you’re flying it by hand, or when you’re in between attitudes when the autopilot is engaged.

John took to it fairly quickly, after we covered the basic fact that helicopters move in the direction you move the stick at low speeds, and fly not entirely unlike airplanes at high speeds. We also discussed vortex ring state, a helicopter hazard encountered when an inattentive pilot descends into his own rotor downwash (the helicopter may be climbing relative to the air, you see, but the air is moving down very quickly). We had a little jaunt around the airfield, and then returned for a landing, during which there was no crashing! John developed a bit of fondness for the Ka-50, particularly its agility and light control responses. Little did he know that the autopilot would prove his greatest foe yet.