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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.

Su-25T Rook/Frogfoot Impressions

This is the second of three articles on DCS World aircraft, and the first written by me. The first overall, on the A-10C, can be found here.

I come bearing counterpoints. John wrote quite a bit on the A-10 and the DCS model of the C variant, and it would be silly of me to say that it isn’t the premier single-seat attack aircraft in the world today. It’s the whole package; the only thing it could really use is a radar, and that would take another MFD to use well (A-10D, anyone?). I’m here to talk about an older aircraft, a simpler weapon from a simpler time, a time when the only thing Soviet designers had to worry about was taking on NATO armor in the Fulda Gap. I speak, of course, of the legendary Su-25.

“The what?” you say. Yes, okay, fine. It’s not actually iconic over here in the west. It is, however, the first thing anyone from the former Soviet bloc thinks of when someone says ‘single-seat dedicated close-support aircraft’. See the picture in the spoiler tag below.


I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s orders of magnitude prettier than the A-10. NATO calls it the Frogfoot, which is clearly an attempt to drag it down to the A-10’s level. In Russian, it’s nicknamed the Grach, which translates to ‘rook’, of the bird-of-prey variety. I like that name better. It’s pushed through the sky by a pair of Soyuz/Gavrilov turbojets producing about 10,000 pounds of thrust a piece at sea-level speeds of up to 975 kilometers per hour. My handy-dandy unit converter says that’s about 530 knots. Quick, for a ground attack plane, but speed brakes and maneuvering flaps keep it controllable down to 350 or 400 kilometers per hour. The turbojets are thirsty, but external tanks can be carried on four of the eleven hardpoints (ten under the wings, one under the fuselage, capacity about four and a half thousand kilograms), and in any event, it’s not a deep strike aircraft by any stretch of the imagination. It mounts a 30mm cannon internally, the GSh-30-2 two-barreled autocannon, which fires a smaller round than the A-10’s cannon and carries a smaller ammo load. On the other hand, the Su-25 is a meter or two shorter and narrower than the Warthog.

The variant modeled in DCS World is the Su-25T, a dedicated anti-tank upgrade of the basic Su-25 which never entered high-rate production; there are only ten or twelve of them out there in the real world. Which is a shame: the T model keeps all of the features of the base model, and gives some serious (and deserved) attention to the avionics suite. The Su-25T has a proper HUD in place of the original Frogfoot’s electro-optical drop-computing sight, along with a Shkval TV targeting system and laser designator mounted in the nose, and, as seems to be standard on Russian single-seat attack aircraft, it has a serious autopilot. Capable of simple things like route-following and level flight, it can also hold a radar or barometric altitude, an altitude and a bank angle for automatic orbiting, an attitude for hands-off pointing, and an automatic-ingress-to-target mode that makes accurate release of unguided bombs almost trivial. The Shkval can be augmented by a variety of targeting pods: a low-light TV pod for nighttime operations, a FLIR pod for better target acquisition (opinions are divided on whether the FLIR pod actually can be mounted to the Su-25, and it’s actually labeled as the LLTV pod in DCS, but I’m definitely not complaining), or an electronic intelligence pod. The ELINT pod, which can provide ranging and localization for two sorts of anti-radiation missiles.

That’ll do as a segue to weapons. The Su-25T can mount quite an array of them: the aforementioned anti-radiation missiles represent the major capability gain over the Warthog, enabling the Rook to take on air defense suppression missions. Also on the list of armaments is the SPPU-22 gun pod, a dual-barreled 23mm autocannon on a mount that can swivel in the vertical. Combined with the Rook’s imaging sensors, laser rangefinder, and autopilot, the SPPU-22 can be flown on target and deliver tens of seconds of highly accurate cannon fire with very little pilot input. The BeTAB-500 and BeTAB-500 ShP concrete-piercing bombs also make an appearance, both 500-kilogram weapons; the latter has a rocket booster that fires once it’s gone vertical, which serves to launch it through a runway and crater the ground beneath it. The most notable deficiency in the weapons list is a limited capacity for fire-and-forget weapons: TV-guided weapons, either the KAB-500Kr bomb or the Kh-29T missile (picture a Maverick, but with three times the warhead) can only be carried on the two innermost hardpoints. Although Kh-25 laser-guided missiles (Maverickskis, really) can be carried on the next two sets of hardpoints out, the poor field of view on the Su-25T’s sensors requires that the aircraft be flown more or less straight at the target until the missiles hit. The Vikhr missile, which is also the primary armament of the Ka-50 attack helicopter, can be carried in two launchers of eight missiles each; the A-10 can’t even come close to that number of precision munitions. The rest of the weapons list is less exciting: rockets in a variety of sizes, including the S-25 340mm rocket and the S-25L laser-guided 340mm rocket, unguided bombs from 100 to 500 kilograms in size, including a rack of four 100-kilo bombs, and a few sizes of cluster bombs and submunitions dispensers. On the whole, it can carry weapons that make it suitable for nearly any mission the A-10 can be used for (with the exclusion of lots of precision bombing; on the other hand, though, let’s see the A-10 do SEAD). The avionics are more primitive (particularly when it comes to targeting and maps), but the autopilot is better, and putting an IR jammer in the tail was an inspired move. And, to quote my A-10-flying buddy, “Your plane handles so much better than mine.”

Is that really an important quality for a ground-attack airplane? Yes, yes it is. The Su-25 has a better thrust-to-weight ratio than the A-10 empty, and a better TWR fully loaded. It turns better to get back onto the attack after making a pass, accelerates better, and goes faster, which makes, say, tossing a guided bomb a little easier to pull off. Now, nobody I fly with is going to win any medals for Best Simulated Ground Attack Pilot, and John does seem to hit on more of his attack runs, but with those caveats in mind, I found myself getting in one and a half or two attacks to John’s one A-10 run. Better handling leads directly to an increased violence of action, and while I think I’d probably choose the A-10 for precision and its capability to loiter in low-intensity conflicts, I also think the Su-25T is at least as good as the Warthog in a hypothetical Third World War scenario.

It’s not all roses. Visibility out the back is abysmal, and the takeoff roll at full load is nearer two miles than one. It has a drag parachute for use on landing, not as a luxury but because it doesn’t have any other way to slow down. For compactness reasons, it uses turbojets instead of turbofans, and sans external tanks it doesn’t have much loiter capacity (the A-10 can, I believe, shut down an engine to save on fuel and extend its time on call). On the other hand, it’s durable, agile, well-armed, and easy to employ. It’s a great little package, and although I haven’t flown the A-10 yet, I don’t think it could win me over.

A-10C Warthog Impressions

John and I have been putting in a fair few hours in Digital Combat Simulators lately. It’s a line of high-fidelity flight sims that can be enjoyed in multiplayer. This is the first of three articles on the aircraft we fly, his take on the A-10C. -Fishbreath

Disclaimer: I’m not an actual fighter pilot. I can try to write like one anyway.

The Fairchild-Republic A-10C Warthog (technically its the Thunderbolt II, but no one calls it that) is one of the ugliest planes you will ever lay eyes on. However, it is also the finest ground attack machine ever devised. It is well armored against ground fire, so you can fly as low as you please and not worry about machine guns. In fact, it’s one of the few modern aircraft where you don’t have to care about machine gun fire, because the ‘Hog is built to absorb damage. Losing a hydraulic system is no problem, because the thoughtful designers put in a second one. And if you lose that one too, you have a manual system of cables and pushrods, just like your grandpappy’s P-40 Warhawk. It’s not power assisted, but it will get you home. The fuel tanks are self sealing, so holes in the wings won’t cause you to return all that JP-8 to the earth. Your engines are separated, so if one of them eats a SAM, you still have another functioning one. Oh, and the gear don’t retract all the way, which the fighter pukes will no doubt object to on the grounds of drag, but this way, should your gear fail to drop because they’re too shot up, you can have a much more pleasant belly landing. The ‘Hog’s toughness rivals that of Rocky Balboa, and this toughness will make you love it, even though it’s hideous.

One of the prominent features on the Warthog as you approach it is the gun. This is the General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger autocannon, and it is the greatest aircraft gun ever built by human hands. Thor wishes he has one to shoot lightning bolts at nonbelievers. This gun was not built for the Warthog; the Warthog was built around this gun. It weighs over two tons fully loaded. The ammunition drum is the size of a Volkswagen, and holds 1,150 rounds. Rate of fire can be as high as 4,200 rounds per minute, but the pencil-necked ‘whiz kids’ have limited the nominal rate of fire to 3,900 rounds per minute. Two kinds of rounds are carried: armor-piercing incendiary and high explosive incendiary. Normally, there are four armor-piercing rounds per high explosive round. The armor piercing incendiary rounds contain a depleted uranium core, which will tear through the armor on most tanks. Some studies have linked these rounds to cancer, just in case tearing through the armor of a tank and setting it on fire is insufficient to kill the target.

But all of these features were on the boring old A-10A too. This is the A-10C. What’s different? Well, we have proper multi-function displays (MFDs) now, which let you select and aim weapons, set up a moving map and interface with the brand-new navigation system. The cockpit is now night-vision goggle (NVG) compatible, in case you have to save some army guys late at night. The A-10C is now compatible with a wide variety of smart munitions, including laser guided bombs (LGBs), which are perfect for tank-plinking. Some guys from accounting have told me that tank plinking is a waste of a rather expensive piece of hardware1, but no one listens to the guys from accounting (just look at the JSF project).

Okay, enough blabbing about engineering. Flying impressions. Well, it’s pretty wallowy. It looks like a ‘hog, and it flies like a hog. The boys at Fairchild-Republic picked an engine that has next to no oomph for the A-10. Shove the throttles to the firewall and you feel like you’re trying to run in molasses. You accelerate slowly. You climb slowly. And if you want to do both at once, it will be a long day. Fortunately, the A-10C has big fuel tanks, so you can take your sweet time over the battlefield. Turning is an adventure. You might feel that a nice, straight, boring wing (like on your grandpappy’s P-40) would make for a stable platform. And it does. So long as you keep your turns very gentle. Exceed a standard rate turn and you’ll start bleeding altitude and airspeed really badly. So don’t fly like you’re in a Viper and you’ll be fine. The low speed and stability in level flight makes weapon employment a breeze, even without the use of the autopilot. The LITENING targeting pod is a really great tool, giving you a wonderful perspective of the battlefield, though the field of view is narrow. It can provide a good picture to the MFDs from much farther out than the Maverick’s IR seeker. The A-10 carries a large payload of stores, so you won’t object much to sacrificing a pylon to the LITENING pod, and you’ll be able to dish out plenty of damage. Cueing the Maverick from the LITENING pod takes a little practice, and definitely takes time. At closer ranges, it’s easier to just use the HUD display and the Maverick sight directly. LGB employment is pretty simple when using CCRP (Continuously Calculated Release Point) mode. Nearly all of the work is done for you once you’ve found a target with the targeting pod. You then tell the aircraft that you’re ready to fire, and the aircraft calculates the best time to release the bomb, even if you’re in a climb. The targeting pod handles laser designation, and then your target explodes. Despite low engine power, takeoffs are easy, although long. Landings are similarly easy due to the low stall speed and stable airframe.

1. JDAM and LGB kits for standard dumb bombs are actually way less expensive than Mavericks. -Fishbreath