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.