As you make your Fishbed, so you must fly in it

Last Wednesday, Leatherneck Simulations released the MiG-21bis Fishbed-N module for DCS, and I’ve been getting to grips with it since then. Here are my impressions so far on the aircraft and simulation. It’ll take a while before I’m comfortable enough with the plane to talk about the campaign or the included single missions.

The MiG-21 was designed as a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, and its shape reflects that: teensy delta wings highly swept. Overall, it’s quite a slight machine: its maximum takeoff weight is a mere 10,400 kilograms, next to the 17,500 kilograms or so of the Su-25T (also described on this blog.

Takeoff calls for full afterburner: with a rotation speed of 350 kilometers per hour, the MiG needs the extra kick in the pants to get off the ground in good order, especially with a reasonable load. Handling in flight is benign at high speed, and a little wallowy if you get below 450 kilometers per hour or so. That said, the MiG retains good controls authority down to the lowest speeds at which it can fly, and up to angles of attack where most planes would be complaining, or bumping you into angle of attack limiters. It’s even possible to do something like the famed Cobra maneuver a la the Flanker, although not quite as crazy off-axis.

It shines brightest in the linear and vertical axes. Drag is low, and acceleration at afterburner is exceptional. Below 4,000 meters altitude, you have access to a second afterburner mode, which increases the kick in the pants factor still further. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that 0-300 kilometers per hour on the runway takes more time than 1000-1300 kilometers per hour at 2,000 meters. Climb is similarly rocket-like, especially while the second afterburner is available. Even with a full combat load, it’s only a hair away from a 1:1 thrust-weight ratio.

The front office is very 1960s, as is the design (it entered service in 1971). Steam gauges and switches are the order of the day. It comes from the era before pilot workload was a major concern, so switches you’ll need are positioned helter-skelter around the cockpit, although some of the most important functions do show some grouping. For instance, the weapons control panel, at the top left of the front panel, has all of what you’ll need to select and ready weapons.

Speaking of which, the MiG-21 is DCS’s first full-fidelity multirole fast mover, and I only feel a little bad about how much I’m stretching the definition of multirole. Your weapons include a variety of obsolete air to air missiles, from the RS-2US beam-rider to the R-55 let-us-take-RS-2US-and-add-semi-active-seeker-da upgrade to the R-3/R-13/K-13/AA-2 family of IR and SARH missiles. Also available are the R-60 and R-60M, the latter being more nearly obsolescent than straight-up obsolete. The air-to-ground loadout options include a mix of similarly obsolescent things, like 57mm rocket pods (abandoned in general use in Afghanistan, because they were insufficiently effective) and the Kh-11 Grom radar-beam-riding missile (highly effective), and the timeless FAB series of general-purpose free-fall bombs. There are also some esoteric options like the rocket-assisted runway-penetrating BetAB-500Sh. All told, it’s a curious kit, capable at short range in air to air combat, and limited in its maneuverability in that realm, and more than sufficient for oppress-the-rebels-style strike sorties, examples of which in the real Middle East have recently featured the MiG.

Aiding you in finding targets, aiming those weapons, and firing them, is the avionics suite, which really isn’t significantly more complicated than, say, the Huey’s setup. Certainly, it’s less to get to grips with than the Ka-50, and a whole lot less to get to grips with than the Warthog. The kit comprises four systems: the radar, the optical sight, the radio navigation system, and the autopilot.

The radar is simple to use, but no more capable than you’d expect: it’s useful only in the near BVR arena, and to cue radar homing missiles. It has no dogfight modes, and a detection range of maybe 30 kilometers on a good day, if you can tease contacts out of the clutter. (Clutter is modeled for the first time, and is pretty nifty. And annoying.)

The optical sight includes the actual sight unit and the weapons control panel next to it. The former is simple to set up, providing gyro-based aiming for the gun and air-to-ground rockets, and indicating what an IR-homing missile is tracking. (For radar seekers, you’re on your own.) The weapons control panel is effectively an analog stores management system: you pick the pylon with a big honking knob, the master mode (either air to air or air to ground) with a switch, and the weapons paramenters with a variety of other switcher.

The radio navigation system is surprisingly useful1. The ARK is a standard radio compass, capable of tuning the NDBs scattered around the Georgia map and providing bearings to them. RSBN stations, the other kind of beacon the MiG can tune, function like VOR/DME, providing cues to fly to or from a station along a certain radial course, and distance to the station, with a range of about 200 kilometers. The MiG can provide steering cues to intercept and fly along a radial, or, while flying along a radial, descent cues to reach pattern altitude within 20 kilometers of the station2. The third position on the RSBN mode switch is landing, which utilizes the PRMG instrument landing system3. It’s a pretty standard ILS. The NPP (read: horizontal situation indicator, read: radio compass thingy) has some tick marks on its inner dial which provide steering points to construct a standard landing pattern, which I thought a very handy feature. Stay tuned: after I mention the autopilot real quick, I’m coming back to landing.

The autopilot (really, the flight control system; the Russian acronym is SAU) has a few handy features: a straight-and-level mode, a ‘stabilized’ mode that tries to maintain your current bank and pitch4, and a pair of landing modes. One flies you in automatically, one provides you flight director cues, like you’d get on a more modern aircraft automatically, and neither seem to be working right now.

Which brings me to perhaps the most exciting phase of flight: the landing. It’s been a while since I’ve flown a simulated fixed-wing aircraft as complicated to land as the MiG. With those tiny delta wings, it requires an insane turn of speed: 350 kilometers per hour, or almost 200 knots, over the runway threshold. To compound that, it features blown flaps: engine bleed air is vented along the wings to provide more lift at low speeds and high angles of attack, as you find on landing. Most planes don’t mind an idle-throttle touchdown; with the MiG, I find myself flying into the flare and very slowly reducing the throttle to avoid dropping it on the runway like a streamlined brick. Fortunately, the brakes are good and a drag parachute is mounted in the tail, so stopping after touching down halfway down the runway doesn’t often present much of an issue. (Unless you shoot a second approach and forget to have the parachute repacked in between, in which case you’re going off the far end of the runway.)

That’s about all I have right now. I’d like to write about, or potentially stream, some of the campaign at a later date, but there are a few things stopping me—general just-past-release issues. Game performance is pretty horrid right now. The MiG’s developers are working hard on optimizations. A few avionics bugs slipped through the pre-release net, and are also being worked on. That said, the MiG was a definite buy for me, an icon from an exciting era past, and given Leatherneck Simulations’ progress on cleaning it up so far, I think it’s more than worth the cost of entry.

1. Quoth me, to skypirates collaborator parvusimperator: “I guess when you have such a short range, ‘divert to alternate’ is not an okay response to bad weather.”
2. In DCS, all of the RSBN stations are at airfields.
3. I’d been so disciplined with footnotes until just now. Anyway, the PRMG system is a lot like the western ILS, except it provides guidance both ways on a runway and fits in a single truck, which is a rare case where the Russians seem to do something better than we do.
4. Or something. I haven’t quite figured it out.

2 thoughts on “As you make your Fishbed, so you must fly in it

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