The Flare Path: This One’s For Dobbs

By Tim Stone on September 16th, 2011 at 4:28 pm.

1 point for the name, and 1 for the word that links it with a famous Escher lithograph

October 18, 1923. While watching sycamore keys twirl from trees in a Kiev park, a young engineer called Igor Sikorsky has an extraordinary idea. What if rotary motion could be used to dry damp laundry. That evening over beer and mushroom broth in a local hostelry, Igor describes his idea to hard-of-hearing colleague Wolfgang Helicopter. The rest is history.

This week is whirlybird week here on Flare Path. Beyond yonder text-horizon there’s talk of two work-in-progress helo sims plus a video guide to stealing the soul of a P-51.

A Video Guide to Stealing the Soul of a P-51

Reviews of A2A Simulations’ ‘Accu-Sim’ FSX add-ons have become increasingly pointless in recent years. This glimpse into the company’s staggeringly forensic research approach illustrates why.

Seeing all that passion and professionalism in action, it pains me to remember that A2A abandoned their plan to refurbish Rowan’s MiG Alley and Microprose’s B17: The Mighty 8th. Picture that P-51 chasing Focke-Wulfs through skies aglitter with Flying Fortresses. Imagine it rocket-laden and grimy, hunting T-34s by the Yalu River. After the disappointment that was Cliffs of Dover, the idea of revamping classic combat sims rather than building new ones from scratch, seems so so sensible.

On The Take

I finally got round to taking on the Take On Helicopters community preview yesterday, and despite the fact it features just one helo – the Hughes MD 500 - and no new real estate (you’ll need Operation Arrowhead installed to use it) the dang thing stole most of my afternoon and evening.

The token test sortie – a low-level dash down some dusty Central Asian valleys – was quickly discarded. What kept me clamped to my stick was some surprisingly sophisticated flight modelling and a handful of self-made missions fashioned in the Factory of Fun that is the OA editor.

You have to hand it to BIS. They’ve done a very bold thing in a) venturing deep into traditional MSFS/X-Plane territory, and b) laying their WIP wares before knowledgeable chaps like Rubix and NightSta1ker. The Czechs are plainly keen to do the helo thing right. This is the ninth iteration of the community code. The readme reveals a string of feedback-inspired improvements covering everything from start-up procedures and gauge graphics to blade stall simulation and ground handling. I’m struggling to remember the last time a flight sim dev consulted so enthusiastically prior to a launch.

Though the taster doesn’t provide answers to important questions like “Will a glimpse of downtown Seattle send framerates tumbling on average rigs? and “Are the NPCs going to be as charmless as the usual ARMA cast?” it does – to me at least – prove that the Real Virtuality engine and delicately modelled helicopters are a splendid combination. Simmers have, of course, had the chance to fly plausible choppers before. What we haven’t had is the opportunity to fly them so close to such detailed terrain. When you find yourself checking an LZ for wandering chickens and fly-tipped washing machines, you know you’re in new territory.

Most of my homebrew sorties involved collecting snipers from flat rooftops and cramped yards. Landing on these small rectangles of mud or tile without toppling into streets or tangling with street lamps, involved just enough challenge to keep the brow of this moderately experienced helo simmer beaded. As Rubix points out in his forum comments, details like ground effect are very nicely modelled. Cross a roof threshold and you find yourself needing to lower your collective as all that downforced air comes surging back up.

Hopefully, future community builds will show progress in two currently weak areas: damage modelling and audio. Right now the Hughes has a very small repertoire of engine notes and airframe creaks, and heavy impacts cause ARMA-style screen red-outs rather than buckled skids, cracked canopies, and distorted airframes.

Apache: Not Quite an Anagram of Panache

My own helo sim (Apache: NQAAOP) has been in the works for five years now, and all of that period has been spent coming up with the title. Three-man team Tricubic Studios have, happily, approached their own AH-64D project with a tad more professionalism.

Judging by the words and images on the dev blog and game site Combat-Helo won’t be quite as pretty at low altitude as gaming’s last AH- 64 offering but will piddle all over it in terms of realism and campaign freedom

When Richard ‘Flexman’ Hawley & co aren’t arsing around bolting cameras to rotor blades…

or being sidetracked by the construction of a flyable CH-47D…

“The Chinook is looking like it will be way more detailed and use more textures than the Apache. It could quite possibly be the single worst helicopter we could have chosen in terms of detail and technical difficulty”

…they are doing serious stuff like grappling with the complexities of radar, MFD and IHADSS modelling. While DCS: A-10C or Black Shark levels of arcanery are not on the cards, those left frustrated by Apache Air Assault’s lack of heft – those that remember the glory days of Gunship! and Longbow 2 – should find plenty of avionic gristle to get their teeth into.

One thing Tricubic aren’t busy with at present, is hand-crafting heaps of go-here-kill-that missions. Demonstrating admirable imagination and ambition, they’ve opted to go the tricky dynamic campaign route. Whether you choose to fly the Afghanistan-based counter-insurgency campaign, or the Iran-based tank-heavy one, every playthrough should be totally unique. Peruse the following description of the Afghan Campaign and tell me it doesn’t sound like one of the most tantalising prospects in solo simming in years:

“In the COIN (counter-insurgency) campaign you’re tasked with improving the local security situation and increasing popular support for the Afghan government. This is a faction driven scenario akin to a strategy game in which you play the role of a pilot. A simulated native population divided into local groups, using real-world statistics, insurgent activities in proportion to regional security levels are generated. Local security forces may be tasked, or ambushed, or just need escort. As an attack helicopter pilot you and your crew will be constantly tasked to provide support where needed. Your every action can potentially influence the balance of power and security.”

There’s no release date yet, and, as I understand it, the team are still weighing-up different distribution and product structure options (there’s a possibility that new birds like the Chinook will arrive as Strike Fighters-style DLC). Whatever approach they settle on, I reckon Combat-Helo is going to kick-up plenty of dust when it finally touches down. A lot of the sim development old-guard will tell you that delivering realism and dynamic campaigns isn’t economical. Three chaps with an AH-64D-shaped dream may be about to prove those killjoys wrong.

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33 Comments »

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  1. Torgen says:

    I would die for a return to MiG Alley. I missed the first one, being “between computers” at the time.

    (weeps for the days of dynamic campaigns and 100+ page manuals with historical notes)

  2. GenBanks says:

    The beginning of this article got me curious about how helicopters were invented. Which led me to this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focke-Wulf_Fw_61

    Someone needs to build a simulator of that.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      That’s worth a look – Frau Reitsch and the FW61.

    • PatrickSwayze says:

      Focke Wulf would be the best name for a game ever.

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      Fitzmogwai says:

      It was the cancelled sequel to Sabre Wulf before Ultimate sold out and went Isometric.

  3. GraveyardJimmy says:

    “A2A abandoned their plan to refurbish Microprose’s B17: The Mighty 8th. ”

    Why would you do that? The mighty 8th was great, I played it after reading “a real good war” (written by a b17 navigator) and felt it captured the feel of the book really well. One of my most played sims, second to IL2 series.

    • EOT says:

      What? Nooooo!

      Excuse me….I need some time alone now *sobbing sounds*

  4. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    Take On Helicopters looks very interesting – first I’ve heard of it, although given BIS’ abilities to make 1500 yards visibility in the middle of a rural island chug along, I dread to think what an airport’s going to do to their engine…

    The Apache sim’s going to be worth a look – I’m another plane physics geek without enough time (or, to be honest, inclination) to get stuck into the PHd level avionics of the DCS products. And everyone loves the Chinook, right?

    The opening picture – so I knew it was something very closely related to the Bristol Belvedere but with different wing(lets), guessed it was the prototype, but had to use Google to get to Bristol 173. Do I still get a gold star? Buggered if I know about the Escher, mind.

    • Tim Stone says:

      One point out of a possible two and a Commendation for Swiftness.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      What about one point with honours for spotting the Westland Dragonflies in the background?

    • identiti_crisis says:

      There exists an Escherian lithograph by the name Belvedere, so I guess that’s it? The picture is a prototype which later evolved (?) into the Belvedere proper.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belvedere_(M._C._Escher)

      Good work, Captain.

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      Man Raised by Puffins says:

      Thoroughly beaten (and rather deservedly so, took me an embarrassing amount of googlesmithing to even chance upon the Belvedere. Still, it proved to be an entertaining jaunt through the history of early rotorcraft).

      Edit: Although I could cheekily make a claim for a point by pointing out that the image is specifically a depiction of the 173 Mk.2.

    • Tim Stone says:

      1 silver FP point for Captain for Exemplary Extraneous Observation.
      1 gold FP point for identiti_crisis for Luminiferous Lateral Linking.
      1 bronze FP point for Man Raised by Puffins for Meritorious Pedantry.

  5. Reapy says:

    This is a timely article. The last simulation style game I played was probably secret weapons of the Luftwaffe or something. I just started diving back into the simulation genera and it’s hard to piece everything together. It feels like a lot of the simulation scene is driven by moders rather than companies.

    I just grabbed IL2 1946 and will probably plow into that a bit. I think I want to get a cheap webcam and try the facetrack no IR thing, also need a new flight stick. With all that set up I’m probably going to want to branch out on things. I’m excited to try out the helocopter for OA (I got that a while ago but got distracted and didn’t put too much time into it).

    Cliffs of dover looks like a disappointment, but might have some potential in the future. I really do like the idea of modeling everything down to the engine start up procedures to really put you in the seat of things.

    After some hunting around it looks as though Rise of Flight is the WW1 place to go.

    For modern jet, I think there is some insanely modded version of falcon 4.0 to go off of.

    For helicopters, I keep see DCS products mentioned, but haven’t investigated. I just keep seeing reference to ridiculous amount of procedures that need to be followed to fly it.

    For the general purpose flight sims i’m not sure what is out there… xplane and flight simulator X? Though it seems like they sell small DLC style plane additions as they add to it?

    Anyway it is a big wide world of sim, but the commercial side of it seems very tiny indeed. I’m glad the article here gave me some more places to investigate as I have my little journey through simland :)

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      For the general purpose flight sims i’m not sure what is out there… xplane and flight simulator X? Though it seems like they sell small DLC style plane additions as they add to it?

      Purchasable content for those isn’t developed by Microsoft or Laminar Research, it’s all third party. Given the relatively low standard of the actual content, FSX is pretty much just a platform for third party content – I was never sure but I guess that’s why MS have stopped with it. Given the fractional, incremental improvements to the actual engine made between releases, that all the hard research work was being done by third party developers and the large amount of add-ons that most FSX owners have, the option between migrating all your content over to FSXI (which would probably be only marginally better) and sticking with FSX would be a no-brainer.

    • sgt. grumbles says:

      Indeed it is a timely article. For starters, I was just reading about a P-51 crash at an airshow in Reno, Nevada, USA. Lots of casualties, bad stuff.

      And then for seconders, Falcon BMS was just released. (http://www.benchmarksims.org/forum/content.php). This is an update to the venerable Falcon 4.0, a game I used to play when it was first released in 1998 (!!!). Even though it’s ancient, the dynamic campaign and a lot of the details (avionics, etc) have yet to be matched for both realism and awesomeness. The source code was released at some point, and a number of teams have been working on it year after year.

      I actually never kept up with Falcon after the retail version, and thought I was long past flight sims. However, I looked at some Falcon BMS 4.32 videos and it looked stunning. It’s a standalone release, although it requires the original Falcon 4.0 installed or CD (well, actually, I think it only looks at the original .exe, which I imagine could be obtained just for the purpose of installing BMS). The immersion is great, light reflecting off the cockpit and planes, canopy reflections, clickable cockpit controls. The terrain is still shabby, but that is due to be fixed by a terrain graphics update called Flare.

      Best part is BMS is free. My sim skills are ultra rusty, but this crop of releases (Falcon BMS, DCS A-10) has me eyeing throttes, rudder pedals, head tracking, etc. Time to see if my body can cash all those checks my ego won’t stop writing.

  6. DigitalSignalX says:

    Thanks for this series. While not an actual player of flight sims, they are very fun to read about. The remarkable in engine physics, attention to detail, and amazing community surrounded them are great. It remind me of Eve online in that respect.

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    chabuhi says:

    Wow – and here I was thinking that combat flight sims had died with Jane’s. Shows my age.

  8. TimA says:

    Thank you for these articles!

    I hope there are plans to cover PMDG’s 737NGX, though I don’t know what there is to say about it other than it’s bloody fantastic, and it even runs better than their previous releases on my ageing computer.

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    Fitzmogwai says:

    I yearn for something to replicate those old Gunship! days.

  10. LionsPhil says:

    I am disappointed by the lack of mundane German simulators in this post.

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    AmateurScience says:

    I don’t think I’ve played a flight sim since MiG 29 Fulcrum in the early 90’s (it was on a 5 1/4 inch floppy, remember those?) but reading this column makes me want to dip my toe in. Any suggestions on a reasonably easy going starting point?

    • scharmers says:

      TKs Strike Fighters 2 series of sims would probably fit the bill. Relaxed difficulty but not console-level brain dead. Fits the mid-90’s mainstream “realism” level you may be familiar with.

      (http://www.thirdwire.com)

      And to be honest, I can’t think of any other recent sim that doesn’t descend into switchology (DCS) and/or unforgiving flight models (RoF) and/or general rivetiness (CoD). Lock On:Platinum, I guess; it’s the next step up of switchery from the SF2 sims but isn’t too bad.

  12. Cheese says:

    Is this just a flight sim column or will there be something to satiate the seaman crave?

    • Tim Stone says:

      Sit on the dock of the FP bay for long enough, and something nautical will definitely turn up.

    • sgt. grumbles says:

      If I weren’t such a mature and forthright human, I’d write “Cheese has a craving for seamen!!!”

    • Cheese says:

      And if I weren’t above such disgusting jokes, I’d point out that my original comment was in fact intended to be a joke of such nature. Just not about myself.

  13. Gasmask Hero says:

    I miss MiG Alley. I miss Flying Corp. I miss Rowan Software, come to think of it.

    Flying Corp gave me some of the best experiences of a flying sim i’d ever had, before and since. Want an example? No? I’ll give you one anyway.

    There I was, flying a Sopwith Camel (I forget the campaign) when my patrol got bounced by some DR1s. I got locked in single combat with this enemy triplane. For TEN real time minutes I was banking, dropping and climbing, everytime he fell into my sights he would slide away, and me likewise. Neither of us was giving an inch.

    Eventually, I became so tired, and my hands so locked with cramp that I had to release the joystick. Two seconds of level flight was all it took. The air was filled with yellow streaks and the rat-a-tat-tat noise and engine drone of a victorious Fokker pilot.

    I’m dead. But no. I’m alive! The airframe is still intact! I haven’t got the red mist of the fatally injured Flying Corp pilot! I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the goddamn world!

    Then the engine coughed. Once. Twice. Then died. Im left alone, contemplating the sound of the wind, the sight of the gently windmilling propellor, the altimeter reading of 12,000 feet, and the glide profile of a Camel compared to a household brick. In favour of the brick.I quickly put the beast into a dive, thoughts of pointy-helmeted prussian monsters foremost in my mind. At high speeds the Camel’s airframe becomes highly unstable, and so it proved in Flying Corp. It began slamming my force feedback joystick around, as I fought to hold on I knew I had to reduce airspeed to prevent a breakup, so I pulled back. I reduced the airspeed, sure, but If I reduced it too much, I’d stall, and with no engine power to recover I’d be a dead man.

    So I continued on. Dropping to a dive, pulling back to the point of stall then repeating. I hit the ground doing 80mph. I survived, with three weeks in hospital, but I survived.

    I miss Rowan Software.

  14. Ben Mansill says:

    Fantastic post Tim. Really nice coverage and treatment.

    “Apache: Not Quite an Anagram of Panache” – do like.

  15. Zeewolf says:

    That dynamic campaign description from Combat-Helo is exactly the kind of stuff that gets me (as a regular gamer, not a sim nut) interested. Scripted, linear campaigns are okay in space operas (though I would rather have a semi-dynamic campaign a la Wing Commander 1) or completely story-focused stuff like Ace Combat (just wish their stories were actually good), but I’m having a hard time engaging with a flight sim/game that just offers a string of dull missions with a simple pass/fail check.

  16. metalangel says:

    My copy of Bus, Streetcar and Cablecar Simulator (San Franciso) has arrived and sits tormenting atop my laptop as I shuffle out for work all weekend. Can’t wait to go dewire some trolley buses!

  17. apa says:

    Great to read about Combat Helo! It’s been a few years since I read about it SimHQ Enemy Engaged forum.

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    Oozo says:

    Ok, I give up. Even though it’s killing me. Won’t somebody help?
    Thing is, I’m not a native English speaker. So I do reckon that there is brillantly humourus word play-stuff going on in the opening of this article, but I can’t figure it out by myself. It’s been more than two months, and still I haven’t forgotten about it.

    So, what it is that Mr Helicopter heard instead of “dry damp laundry”?
    I guess the first word would have to be “fly”, but the rest?

    Help, please, someone… anyone?