Thirty Minutes Over Toseong

Come, let us reminisce.

It’s the mid-2000s, and war has broken out over the Korean Peninsula. I climb into my F-16C Block 52, get her powered up, and listen to the radio chatter as the inertial navigation system aligns. The time is just after noon, and the tower welcomes a few flights back. Good. The war only started this morning, but losses of planes and pilots both have been heavy.

The INS is aligned, and the Data Entry Display, the little green screen beneath and to the right of my HUD, informs me that my takeoff time is in five minutes. I radio the tower, and they clear me to taxi to runway 20R at our airbase, Seosan, a little ways southwest of Seoul. In between lining up another flight for landing on runway 20L, the tower gives my little two-ship clearance for takeoff.

We’re loaded light today, four AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders, so I take off at military power to save on fuel. We turn east-northeast and climb. We’re to our rendezvous point in about ten minutes. A few miles behind us, the ground-attack flight we’re escorting slots in. I check in with Chalice 4, the AWACS flight covering our sector of the front, and he advises me of bandits to my west, heading this way. I dither for a moment: should I push west and deal with the bad guys, or stick close to my flock?

On the assumption that close escort is and always has been dumb, I turn west. I match the bullseye position on my radar MFD page to the position AWACS gave me, and sure enough, I see two contacts headed my way. I hand one off to my wingman, bug the other, get target confirmation from AWACS, and send the first AMRAAM on its way. It hits, and my wingman’s does too. AWACS calls picture clear, and I turn my flight back toward our charges.

Of course, this is a full-scale war. There’s no way our sector will keep quiet for a full half-hour. Sure enough, AWACS reports contacts about 60 nautical miles distant, inbound from the north. We have identifications: one or two MiG-23s in the middle of a big group of Il-28s. Neither are particularly fearsome, but the MiGs should go first on principle—the Ilyushins are ancient jet bombers, dating from the late 1940s or 1950s, while the MiGs have some 1970s-vintage missiles that might pose a threat to us if they get close enough.

This is where things start to get a little hairy.

It isn’t that engaging the MiGs and Ilyushins doesn’t work—it works just great. The problem is that we still have ten minutes left on station. AWACS calls out a close threat—so close they give us a bearing and range, instead of a bullseye call—and my wingman goes low to deal with the MiG-19 that apparently managed to get in underneath us. Having pushed a little further north than I wanted while prosecuting the bombers, I turn south to extend, and take stock of my situation. I’ve fired all four of my AMRAAMs, and I have a pair of Sidewinders left on the rails. My wingman splashes the MiG-19 down low, and I call him for his status. “Winchester,” he says, “fuel state 2000.”

Well, that’s no good. He’s out of everything and has enough fuel to make it back to Seosan. I send him home, and call AWACS to let them know I’m effectively empty.

“Lobo 9-1, Chalice 4, your window of vulnerability is still open. Can you hold out?”

Well, crap. “Wilco,” I reply, on the assumption that an F-16 with no long-range missiles at angels 25 looks, on radar, to be very similar to an F-16 with long-range missiles at angels 25.

Then the RWR chirps in a way I’m too familiar with. The new threat is a MiG-29. I call AWACS again. “Nearest contact bullseye 050, 60 nautical miles.” I fiddle with the horizontal situation display MFD page, and verify that those are indeed the Fulcrums, sixty or seventy miles out. I ask if I can go home again, and they insist I try to hold out a little longer. There isn’t really much holding out to be done, though. I can’t take on a pair of Fulcrums on my own.

I can stick around a little longer, pretending to be armed, though. I have one eye on the clock, one eye on my RWR, and both ears listening to AWACS updates. It’s agonizing—the MiGs are closer to a missile shot every minute, and I don’t have the fuel to run away at afterburner for very long. Finally, the clock ticks past the edge of my station time. I call AWACS and tell them I’m out of Dodge, and I put the MiGs on my six and run for home.

So ends this tale of a rarity in gaming: a moment when I was not only happy to escape, but actually planning on running away.

The games I’ve enjoyed the most over the years have a common theme: they make war stories. Whether it’s the one time in PlanetSide where I used a Galaxy to scrape the enemy off of a hilltop position, or that time I was stuck on-station with MiGs bearing down on me, it’s the sort of immersion that resonates with me the best. That’s the best thing I can say in favor of Falcon 4 BMS.

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