DCS World Taught me to Crash

Thursday, January 14, 2016
Okay, where do I put the key?

Flight sims are my jam. The last time I played a truly detailed flight sim was probably more than 8 years ago. I've limited my flight games to more arcade style combat games like War Thunder and World of Warplanes. I've looked at Digital Combat Simulator on and off over the past six months, marveling at the level of detail and the high fidelity models of the planes. Thinking I could handle the challenge, I downloaded DCS last night. What followed would make any flight instructor weep.

I couldn't wait to hop into the cockpit and fly around. DCS comes with two planes; the TF-51D and the SU-25T. As a sucker for classic fighters, I chose the TF-51D for my maiden flight. I picked a quick mission setup that would let me fly for fun. I thought I would start on the runway where I could tinker with the controls until I managed to either start the plane or blow it up. When the sim loaded, I was at five thousand feet at full throttle. 

I'll admit, I panicked a bit. Using the joystick was easy enough, but being used to more arcade style controls, I wasn't prepared for the more accurate simulations of G-force in tight maneuvers. Put simply, I turned too sharply and my virtual self almost passed out. After I leveled out, I decided to take a closer look at the controls. There were so many knobs, buttons and switches, each with a specific purpose that I was completely ignorant of. 

I moved my cursor over the panels, watching it turn green to indicate a usable control. At some point, I must have tapped one of the switches and the engine started to sputter. Then the engine died. Frantically I began pushing every button, toggling every toggle and cranking every crank. As my airspeed dropped, I managed to open the canopy, lock my flaps, and likely a dozen other things I didn't notice. I did not start the engine. 

Finally, the engine roared back to life and I pulled up from my slow dive. Within three seconds, the engine died again, came back and stayed on. I thought I was in the clear until I noticed the temperature gauge creeping steadily higher. There was a sudden *CLUNK* and the prop stopped spinning. The engine had seized up. I tried the keep the thing together and make an emergency landing, but I ended up a smoking crater. 

I went to the DCS World site to look for a flight manual for the TF-51D, but the link to it was broken. I've since found numerous videos describing the start up procedures but almost all of them offer no explanation for how the controls work or what they actually do in the plane. Instead they rattle off a dozen or so things to do, in no particular order, and say that should do it. One even said it didn't matter what order you did any of the start up items in, just so long as you did them at all. In my experience since, I've learned that isn't quite true. Just getting the engine to turn over feels like an accomplishment, not to mention getting off the ground. 

I have found a copy of an actual flight training manual for the P-51D. I haven't read through it yet, but I'm hoping that by using it I can finally make some headway with the plane. I have been coddled and babied by my arcade "sims" for so long, it is easy to get frustrated with the damn thing, but the challenge is refreshing. I feel a greater respect for the people who flew these  planes into combat and could wrangle such a complex machine so deftly. 

DCS World is available on Steam. The base game is free, but additional planes and campaigns cost between $10 and $50 each.