Grand Theft Aero

As devs are attracted to wartime drama the way anti-tank dogs are attracted to sausage-wreathed Panzers, I struggle to understand why I’ve never been asked to re-enact the most thrilling bits of books such as “The One That Got Away” and “Press on Rewardless”. For the past thirty years if I’ve wanted my pulse chivvied, my mind focused, and my bowels loosened by a scenario along the lines of… “Cold start this unfamiliar warbird PDQ or face years behind wire!”, I’ve had to make my own arrangements.

A surprising number of the prisoner of war memoirs striping my shelves feature tense episodes at enemy aerodromes. For evading airmen far from home, snatching an aircraft and flying swiftly to friendly territory was, for obvious reasons, an attractive option. Of the German PoWs tempted by the idea none enjoyed greater success than the enterprising Heinz Schnabel and Harry Wappler. Two Luftwaffe pilots captured during the Battle of Britain, this pair escaped from a camp in the English Lake District in November 1941, half-inched a Miles Magister from a nearby airfield, and made it as far as East Anglia before low fuel forced them to land. If the Maggie’s tank had been full at take-off the bid might well have succeeded.

Franz von Werra, another homesick Luftwaffe pilot, was sitting in the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane, desperately trying to make sense of the unfamiliar controls, when a levelled Webley revolver ended his (literally) sweat-soaked escape attempt. As anyone who has ever seen or read “The One That Got Away” knows, Werra wasn’t put off by this failure.

One of my favourite tales of aircraft theft involves a ballsy Beaufort crew and a hijacked Heron. Shot down in Greek waters while slinging tin fish at Axis shipping, the four RAF airmen were on their way from Corfu to Taranto in a CANT Z.506 float plane when they decided to turn the tables on their five captors. Punches were thrown and pistols snatched. The swashbuckling captain of the sky pirates, South African Lieutenant Ted Strever, then took the controls and, without the aid of charts, managed to reach easy-to-miss Malta. There the Heron was mobbed by local Spitfires – which luckily failed to cause injuries – before flopping into the sea its fuel completely exhausted.

The amazing Bob Hoover is probably the only escaped PoW ever to exit enemy territory with help from the same plane type that put him in stir. Savaged by a Fw 190 over southern France in Feb 1944, the USAAF fighter pilot who would go on to fly chase for Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 and thrill crowds at hundreds of air shows, spent 16 months in Stalag Luft 1 before escaping Germany in a swiped 190. Bob’s low-level flight to Holland was almost stymied by a patriotic Lufwaffe erk who, ignoring the pistol trained on him, reached into the cockpit and retracted the tail wheel in an attempt to prevent the theft.

I blame a thriller I read at secondary school for my life-long interest in grand theft aero. That novel is the reason I mentally refer to the act of simulated plane theft as “firefoxing”. Several sims unintentionally support firefoxing by offering superb clickable cockpits and rigorously modelled cold start procedures. One of those, DCS World, might have been made for the purpose. As the following accounts will hopefully illustrate, Eagle Dynamics’ era-fluid combat flight sim is also an absorbing aviation puzzle game on the sly.

Firefoxing in DCS World – The Rules

1. DRTFM. If you’ve perused documentation, accessed tutorials, or watched videos related to a particular aircraft then obviously it’s not cricket to firefox that aircraft. For this reason, the World Firefoxing Association recommends that DLC purchasers firefox before doing anything else.

2. Murine mores. While a HOTAS or solitary stick can be used to move the camera and manipulate primary flight controls, all other cockpit interaction must be achieved with the mouse. As some aerodynes may need assistance from ‘trolley accs’ (wheeled battery trolleys) or similar ground equipment to fire up their engines, use of the radio key is also permitted.

3. Gone in 600 seconds. All attempts are made against the clock (you’ll need a stopwatch). Unless you’re playing in Ironman Mode (see on) you’ve got precisely ten minutes in which to get your getaway craft airborne.

4. ты говоришь по русски? In Ironman mode the time limit is a mere 300 seconds and the helpful cockpit tooltips that identify/translate instruments and controls must be deactivated.

5. What’s my motivation? In firefoxing competitions, judges award bonus time deductions for i) composure in the cockpit, ii) stylish climbouts, and iii) imaginative back stories.

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Example #1
Aircraft: DCS Spitfire
Reason for theft: I’m an Abwehr agent fleeing England after a failed attempt to assassinate “forces sweetheart” Vera Lynn.

Having flown countless virtual Spits in my time, I’m quietly confident going into my first firefox bid of 2021. That quiet confidence starts ebbing away the moment I arrive at the locus delicti.

The “cold and dark” DCS Spitfire I’m hoping to enliven is, I now realise, a relatively late, relatively complicated LF Mk IX – a far more intricate beast than the commonly simmed marks that helped humble the Luftwaffe in 1940.

I find and set the magneto switches (A) and fuel cock lever (B), and unlock and pump the fuel primer (C) without much difficulty, but then reach an impasse. Depressing the starter button does nothing except persuade the starter motor to commence slow, wheezy rotations of the four-blade prop. Concerned, I experiment unsuccessfully with different throttle and mixture settings before noticing an amber “Fuel Pressure Warning” light (D) glowing feebly in the lower-right corner of the panel. Perhaps my parched Merlin 66 isn’t getting the avgas it needs. As turning a chunky handle labelled “Fuel tank pressure” (E) close to the light fails to resolve the problem, I return to the hidden object game surrounding my seat.

The whisker-thin second hand of the old PRIM wristwatch that’s serving as my timekeeper, completes two complete revolutions before I happen to cursor an unfamiliar spherical knob (F) just below the starboard cockpit rim, revealing in the process the promising legend “Wobble Fuel Pump”. Frantically working the knob backwards and forwards a few times extinguishes the amber light. Now surely the engine will fire.

Damn, still nothing.

With one minute left on the clock, Scarpa, the Greek god of escaping, teases me again. If this was a movie or novel, after noticing and activating the “Fuel Pump” switch (G) all but hidden by the trim wheel, the uncooperative Rolls-Royce would splutter into life, and, pursued by military police, my mount would gallop across dewy turf before leaping into the air. In imagination-enhanced DCS World, the ending is less up-beat. I’m still speculatively jabbing buttons and flicking switches when a man sporting an ironic smile and an unironic Lanchester submachine gun hops onto the wing and enquires “Need a hand, chum?”

Postscript. After several unsuccessful attempts to firefox the Spit, I finally admitted defeat and went looking for a cold start tutorial. The cause of my failures turned out to be a button alongside the ignition labelled “Booster Coil”. Although I’d pressed this mysterious protuberance regularly during my bids, I crucially hadn’t pressed it while simultaneously pressing the starter button. Unusually for a DCS flyable, the Spitfire is a machine that can’t be started using the mouse cursor alone. A keyboard or HOTAS binding is necessary. Firefoxers take note!

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Example #2
Aircraft: DCS Yak-52
Reason for theft: Until my retirement a couple of weeks ago I was Vladimir’s Putin’s personal plastic surgeon. Now I have a sudden urge to emigrate.

Was the road traffic accident that almost cost me my life last Wednesday really an accident? I have my doubts, hence my postman’s attire and the hastily packed holdall I’ve just jammed into the rear cockpit of this poorly secured Yak-52 trainer.

My steed looks like something that might have participated in the Parade of Victors had bad weather not scuppered a flypast, but actually this type first flew in the mid Seventies. In theory the Yak’s simplicity should make it eminently firefoxable.

I’m sufficiently mechanically savvy to know that the nine-cylinder radial engine up front won’t stir without a spark and a fuel supply. The rotary selector by my left knee (I) looks like it turns on the mags and one of these switches by my right (J) should bring my battery on-line.

Now for fuel. I wonder if the red fuel cock handle (K) needs to be pulled back or pushed forward? Let’s assume it was left in the closed position. Prop pitch to ‘fine’ and a smidgen of throttle and we should be all set.

Hmm, not a twitch from the prop. I must have missed something important. The oval knob (L) above the radio perhaps? It turns out that the Yak, like the Spit, has a pump-action gizmo for squirting fuel into cold cylinders. Half a dozen strokes plus a couple for luck could make all the difference…

…but doesn’t. Back to the drawing board. The fact that nothing whatsoever is happening when I press the engine start button suggests what? Think, Tim, think.

Crikey, seven minutes gone already? I better get my skates on.

Do I need “Oil Dilution” or “Carb Heat”? I doubt it, but let’s have them all the same. Aha, what’s this lurking behind my left elbow! “Main Pneumatic System Air Valve” (M) – didn’t I read somewhere that certain aircraft use compressed air rather than batteries or cartridges to rouse their engines. I twirl my mouse wheel, opening the worn tap, then, mouthing a silent prayer, apply a sweaty forefinger to the starter button.

Two black sedans are barrelling past the airfield’s MiG-15 gate guard when the Vedeneyev M14P I’ve been prodding and slapping for the past nine minutes finally wakes up. By the time my pursuers reach the ramp, me and my Yak have swapped lumpy greensward for wild blue yonder.

I give the miserable Makarov clutchers below a jaunty wave as I turn for the border.


  1. GTA during Cold War –,
    “On March 7, 1964, a young aircraft engineer, Theo van Eijck, of the Dutch Naval Air Arm MLD stole a two-engined Grumman S-2 Tracker maritime patrol aircraft at RAF Hal Far in Malta and flew to Libya. He was trying to defect to Egypt, but did not have enough fuel to reach his destination in Alexandria. He made a perfect landing on a short airstrip near Benghazi, after flying over Benina Airport. The pilot was then granted political asylum by the Libyan authorities, but a year later he agreed to return to the Netherlands and spent a year in prison. The aircraft was returned to the Dutch afterwards”

  2. I haven’t got DCS World, but this is exactly why I make a point of never selecting the “Ramp” option in Falcon BMS.

  3. Flight sims are far beyond me but this is a brilliant challenge Tim, and an excellent set of wiki articles to skim during work!

  4. Great idea! I feel like a little modded ARMA 3 ww2 escape and evasion scenario leading up to an aerodome would dovetail in nicely.

    • The late, great Jane’s WWII Fighters has a mission that was essentially this, where you’re a German pilot stealing an Me 262 at the end of the war (though without the cold start on the ramp).

      The USAF also had a unit that learned to fly stolen or captured MiGs (several interesting books about this) and had fascinating experiences trying to figure out how to fly them:

    • “a little modded ARMA 3 ww2 escape and evasion scenario leading up to an aerodome would dovetail in nicely.”

      Agreed, but I think you could tackle the subject using nothing but 2D maps and a 2D cockpit render and still produce a gripping game. Many Allied PoWs carried intricate hand drawn maps with them on their escape attempts. Using such a map in combination with a “real” LoS-reliant top-down ‘map’ view would, I suspect, make for engaging cross-country navigation. Add patrol avoidance, food scavenging, weather, pinchable bikes etc. and you’ve got the making of a (potentially) cracking evasion sim. Way of Defector meets Radio Commander meets Commandos anyone?

  5. Devyatayev’s group escape should also have been mentioned.

    Devyataev managed to convince three other prisoners (Sokolov, Krivonogov and Nemchenko ) that he could fly them to freedom. They decided to run away in the dinnertime, when most of the guards were in the dining room. Sokolov and Nemchenko were able to create a work gang from Soviet citizens only.

    At noon of 8 February 1945, as the ten Soviet POWs, including Devyataev, were at work on the runway, one of the work gang, Ivan Krivonogov picked up a crowbar and killed their guard. Another prisoner, Peter Kutergun, quickly stripped off the guard’s uniform and slipped it on. The work gang, led by the “guard”, managed to unobtrusively take over the camp commandant’s He 111 H22 bomber and fly from the island. Devyataev piloted the aircraft. The Germans tried to intercept the bomber but without success. The aircraft was damaged by the Soviet air defences but managed to land in Soviet-held territory. The escapees provided important information about the German missile program, especially about the V-1 and V-2.

    The NKVD did not believe Devyataev’s story, arguing that it was impossible for the prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Thus, Devyataev was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit along with the other nine men. Of the escapees, five died in action over the following months. Devyataev himself spent the remainder of the war in prison.

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