The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
For pilots with short attention spans or limited interest in committing to a lengthy series of career-advancing tasks, there is usually a straight-into-battle mode where, without further ado, you are thrust into the middle of a furball. These are usually free-for-alls: every plane you see is an enemy ship and everything on the ground is a juicy target. Here the objective is not to fulfill any specific objective but instant gratification—just to survive as long as you can.
Many sims allow the player to control several elements in the game. In addition to prepackaged missions, a sim may offer a mission "builder" or editor, wherein you choose your theater of operations, your aircraft, your target(s), your weapons, your ordnance, your routes and waypoints, even your wingpeople, the weather, the time of day, and so on. Most will allow you to adjust the difficulty level of your aircraft (from a-breeze-to-fly to ornery-as-a-mule) and the skill level of your opponents (from dithering idiots to Heroes of the Revolution).
All sims will let you fly as the pilot. Some so-called multirole sims will also let you fly other positions in, say, a bomber: bombardier, navigator, or gunner, for example. There are also multiplayer sims, meaning that you play against not just the computer but against (or sometimes in cooperation with) another flesh-and-blood player, hooked up to your computer via modem over telephone lines or—if you're close enough—by direct computer-to-computer connection.
There is also a long list of features that your sim may or may not have—the most important of which are multiple perspectives (other than the straight-ahead view out of the cockpit) and/or some sort of "mission recorder" (a record/playback function, like a videocassette recorder).
The most critical element in dogfighting isn't maneuverability or firepower, it's what Mike Spick in The Ace Factor identified as Situational Awareness (SA). That is, how alert you are to what's going on around you. "Lose sight, lose the fight," as the fighter jocks say. Racing drivers, for example, know the exact position of their competitors, whether they're gaining or losing, and by how much…and that is only in two dimensions. Pilots need to keep track of not only the guy theyire trying to shoot down, but also of any bogeys who might be able to get on their Six. For this, you need to be able to swivel your head around almost 360 degrees, as well as see above and below. Often, this proves as difficult to simulate as flight itself.
The ability to record and play back an action is key to analyzing what you did wrong… or right. Most of the better sims have not just a "gun camera" but a VCR feature that lets you record, save, and sometimes even edit the action from your original perspective, and the ability to see it from multiple other viewpoints, with full pause, rewind, fast-forward, and frame-by-frame advance controls.
Also really useful is a God's-eye map view: your position is dead center and you can zoom in and out to change the scale. Other nav-aids include waypoint carets on the HUD (Head-Up Display) of contemporary aircraft, radio and avionics stacks, VOR indicators, and radar. Radar also plays a prominent role in modern air combat—particularly in target acquisition and tracking—as do infrared sensors and laser designators. When youire on the receiving end of electronic warfare, you have radar detectors, decoys, jammers, chaff, and flares.
Instrument panels can get so complicated that you have to scroll right and left and up and down to see everything: rows of mysterious gauges, cathode-ray tubes, digital readouts, and flashing LEDs. The number of commands to make all this stuff work can edge up to over one hundred.