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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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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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.