A small introduction to combat flight simulators — Part I

Flight sims exist just in case aliens invade and the government starts looking for more pilots
I've always been fascinated by big and mean machines. The term "faster, stronger, better" also describes the degrees of my obsession with these machines. This eventually led me to become a mechanical engineer in pursuit of immersing myself among these machines. On the other hand, it also made me a devout gamer because sometimes making them is not enough, I have to pilot them as well. It's also not surprising that my first ever game was a simulation; Jane's F/A-18. Ever since simulations of varying degrees of realism/masochism has been present and installed on my PC. Needless to say, MWO exploits this weakness greatly and it's one of the reasons I'm so in-love with this game.

However, today we're going to talk about flight simulators. I'm not exactly an expert in this very niche area of gaming, but I've been following the scene since 1999 which gives me a decent perspective on things. I've especially invested significant hours in classics like IL-2, Lock-On, DCS but more on those later.

First, let's cover the basics.

Two main eras: WWII and post-WWII

There are exceptions, but flight simulators tend to focus on aircraft from these timelines. Pondering on the actual reasons would probably make a decent sized essay and result in heated debates, but in short I think it all comes down to the nostalgia factor and the capabilities of the aircraft. 

FW-190 is one of those legendary WW2 aircraft
  • WWII aircraft represent the pinnacle of propelled combat aircraft technology and from an engineering perspective this is an era of crazy ideas and experimentations. The results are truly stunning though; the legendary P-51, Spitfire, Bf-109 are all children of continuous evolution under constant trial and error in real combat. 
  • The aircraft from this era are maneuverable, pack a lot of machine guns and cannons and feature distinct aerodynamic characteristics. For this reason, aerial combat in this era is much more up-close and personal with a huge emphasis on pilot skill (hence, legendary pilots with hundreds of kills). This lends itself well to hardcore but action-packed gameplay and is very well exploited by the IL-2 franchise so far.
  • Another thing to note is due to the relative simplicity and the lack of digital components in these aircraft, it's relatively easy to model them in numbers. The most challenging aspect here lies in getting accurate data for engine performance and aerodynamic characteristics of the each aircraft, which can be rather difficult considering they're 70 years old now.
Faster, stronger, better.
  • Post-WW2 and modern aircraft are much more complicated than their WW2 brethren. After the advent of radar and guided missiles, which require sophisticated electronics, the requirements of air defense shifted from mass production to quality over quantity. Most of the popular aircraft from this era has radars, flight computers, navigation equipment and smart weapons. It's hard to generalize the whole post-WW2 aircraft since there have been decades with focus on different things such as speed, aerodynamics and such. 
  • The simulation of these aircraft tends to be much more difficult. Technical data about their equipment tend to be classified (even for very old ones) so creating accurate models require very intensive research. Even then, the modeling of these very complicated equipment tend to be difficult. 
  • Due to this, there are simulations with varying degrees of realism. Some developers go completely arcade and don't think much about the technical stuff. These kinds of games tend to have tons of aircraft to choose from. Ace Combat series is a great example, Some developers take the middle way. They try to remain as faithful to the real aircraft as possible, especially in terms of aerodynamics, but tend to simplify the modeling of complicated equipment such as radars and flight computers. Most of the older Jane's series, Lock-On and the current DCS: Flaming Cliffs series are examples of this. At the extreme other end we have simulations that try to model everything as much as possible. Electronics, hydraulics, avionics, cockpit, aerodynamics are all modeled as much as possible. These kinds of simulators tend to focus on a single aircraft and they're usually called "study sims". 

Equipment 

I think you've guessed that at a minimum a joystick is required. However when you start hunting for a joystick you'll see that there are many different joysticks with different features. As you dig deeper you may also notice rudder pedals, yokes and throttles being sold. I'll try to categorize them to make it easier to understand:

Joysticks

The holy grail of flight simming: the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog
Joystick is the most basic element of control in flight simulations. You can control three degrees of freedom with it; the roll, pitch and yaw axis. There are two different types of joysticks out there:
  • Your good old single stick. It's very hard to classify them but all of them cover the yaw, pitch and roll axes with a few buttons to spare. Ideally they should also have at least one hat-switch and a throttle. Some of them feature force-feedback (which usually sucks, but if you can get a hold of one a Microsoft Force Feedback 2 has the best FFB ever produced).
  • HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) flight control systems. They come with a joystick and a throttle. These try to replicate the modern aircraft control by featuring tons of buttons, sliders and hat-switches. The idea is to have so many functions assigned to these buttons that it's possible to fly the aircraft without ever needing to take your hands of the joystick or the throttle. These tend to be pretty expensive (all the way to 500$-1000$ range).
In addition to that, the manufacturers are also very important. There are four main joystick manufacturers out there:
  • Thrustmaster: One of the oldest companies on the joystick business, they offer both high-end and low-end products. Their Thrustmaster TM16000 is universally considered the best entry-level joystick with a very accurate sensor that puts many expensive joysticks to shame. On the high-end they offer Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog, which is a replica of the real A-10C stick and throttle which is considered the best out there, but comes with a 500$ price tag.
  • Saitek: The poor man's HOTAS manufacturer. Their products are heavy on the feature side and go head-to-head with very expensive sticks in that regard, but they bring their price down by using cheap materials and horrible QA. Their joysticks tend to be riddled with reliability problems. Still, an X-52/pro is a great way to make a decent entry to the hardcore simulation genre. Stay away from their low-end joysticks though.
  • CH Products: CH is one of the older but most respectable joystick manufacturers out there. They produce separate joysticks and throttles for the hardcore players. These joysticks are very sturdy, reliable and accurate. They're a bit hard to obtain since they're a small company but I've heard nothing but praise from their users. Since they don't produce in huge numbers expect to pay a lot though.
  • Logitech: Logitech maintains a huge presence in the joystick market. Their low-end joysticks are not very recommendable, but they're of much higher quality and have better ergonomics compared to their competitors. On the higher end they recently made an entry to the HOTAS market with their G940 product (which offers force feedback over their competitors) but it wasn't as well received as the Warthog.

Rudder Pedals

These tend to be purchased the last, since they don't tend to have as much impact on the flight as the throttle, pitch and yaw and also tend to be expensive. They're pretty much your average foot pedals, but some of them feature "toe brakes" to allow differential braking in aircraft. Bear in mind some aircraft are meant to be steered by differential braking on the ground (Mig-21 comes to mind) so they could be a source of much immersion. Rudders also have a lot of use in WW2 flight sims.

Head Tracking



Head tracking tends to be overlooked, but if you're serious about flight sims they're a must. Without head tracking you're expected to move your view around with a hat-switch which is very cumbersome and frustrating during combat. Fortunately you don't have to pay much. Here's your main options:

  • TrackIR: The mother of all head tracking equipment. TrackIR is basically an infra-red webcam that tracks reflectors in-front of it. Two reflectors give you 2D tracking while three give you 3D tracking. The worst thing about TrackIR is that you have to wear a hat with the reflectors mounted on it or you need to get a separate headclip attachment for your headset. 
  • FreeTrack/OpenTrack: An open-source and free alternative to TrackIR which works in a similar way. You can use pretty much any webcam with this but your results will also vary depending on the webcam. It's trickier to set-up at first but you can save a couple hundreds of bucks if you can get it right.
  • EDTracker: A fan made head tracking device for Elite Dangerous which can also be used with other games. It doesn't use optical tracking, but rather gyroscopic tracking. Which means you have to slap on a small device on your headset and then call it a day. It needs to be calibrated regularly though.
  • VR stuff: When they're made available for consumer versions, these devices may become "the" thing for head tracking. As of the time of this article, there are no usable consumer VR products geared for gaming though.

Miscellaneous 

Other than these, the sky is the limit. You can buy switches, gauges, or MFD boards but those are all for those who want to take their hobby to the next level.

In the next part, we'll cover the actual simulators themselves and maybe touch upon the basics of aerial combat.
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About Rak

I'm an engineer who likes to write extremely long articles about games that border simulation and mainstream.
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