Does flying a real warbird for a living, dull your appetite for the virtual kind? What’s the hardest thing to teach a novice flier? How good are the RAF’s own training sims? These and many other questions are answered by James ‘Darkmouse’ Fielding, THC’s first ‘atypical simmer’, in the companion piece to yesterday’s feature.
THC: Are you fond of your current steed? Does it have any vices?
James: I love flying the Puma, and whilst I have no real frame of reference having only flown the Squirrel and Griffin before it, it flies the way I feel a helicopter ought to fly! I’m probably also biased as I’m sure most pilots love their aircraft! its nimble, light on the controls and having been upgraded to Puma HC2 it also has plenty of grunt, which is one of the reasons why it’s been so useful in Afghanistan – it’s able to handle flying in ‘hot and high’ conditions. Kabul is 6000ft about sea level and on a hot day, its density altitude can be much higher, both of which make the air very thin, so having powerful engines certainly helps!
It doesn’t really have any vices, although there are certain things you have to be aware of; for instance, it has a very high centre of gravity and quite narrow undercarriage, making it particularly prone to wanting to roll over if you don’t land it going absolutely straight (no drift, no yaw). We also have relatively stringent sloping ground limits for the same reason, and if you are landing on a slope, once you’ve made contact you must be relatively careful when lowering the lever and be prepared to either lift off and look for somewhere flatter, or hold it in an acceptable attitude with a bit of power.
The other main thing to guard against is ‘limited control authority’. In a nutshell, the ‘disc’ of the rotating blades can tilt (technical term ‘flap’) away from incoming airflow in a phenomenon known as flapback, which can be overcome by moving the cyclic in the opposite direction. The puma cyclic sits in a rectangular shaped box, which has more travel fore and aft than it does side to side. In a slow, decelerating left hand turn, the puma skids around the turn, introducing an airflow from the right. The disc ‘flaps’ away from the airflow to the left, you subconsciously move the cyclic right to counter it. The disc flaps further, you move the cyclic further. What can happen, is that when you come to roll out of the turn, you discover that the cyclic is already all the way over to the right and you have nowhere else to move it! Luckily the recovery is very straight forward and mainly involves using ‘top’ (right) pedal. I’ve never actually encountered it, but it is real – the best thing to do is understand and recognise when it could happen and guard against it! Beyond that the Puma is a delight to fly.
THC: In terms of graphics and flight models how sophisticated are the simulators you use at work?
James: Our full motion sim is actually incredible, and whilst sitting in the 100% accurate, fully working cockpit it is possible to forget that you’re in the sim rather than the real aircraft. Anything that can happen in the real aircraft is accurately replicated in the sim, meaning you can practice anything from minor emergencies, to full-scale conflict scenarios packed with EW threats and everything in between. I think the graphics are excellent, but in a slightly different way to what I would consider excellent on a desktop simulator; they offer a believable and realistic slice of the world where it is possible to navigate using VFR techniques, airfield layouts are accurate, and trees, woodblocks, powerlines etc (which are very important when most of your flying is done at very low level) are faithfully replicated, but they are done so in a simple manner – for instance when you get up close to trees you realise that they are a flat image. However, an absolutely 100% smooth fluid framerate is far more important than eye candy, as is scale – things need to look and move as they do in the real world, something that desktop sims miss, even when they’re running at 140 fps+ – I guess because things like FOV etc interfere on a small monitor.
The flight model is also very good, and is being constantly tweaked by rotary test pilots and CAE (who run our sim) to get the very best out of it, so the majority of flight regimes are 100% accurate. That said, I believe it’s built upon the base of a fixed wing sim, so there are occasional situations where things happen slightly differently to how they do in the real aircraft, but they are really negligible. Flying an ILS in the sim for instance is slightly trickier than the real aircraft as there seems to be an ever so slight vestige of a pitch/power couple still present in the flight model. In the aircraft when you lower the collective to increase your rate of descent, your attitude won’t change, meaning your speed stays the same – in the sim, lowering the collective makes the nose drop ever so slightly, meaning your speed can start to trickle up, or vice versa – not by much, but just enough to mean you have to pay slightly more attention. I also really struggle to hover the sim accurately, especially when it comes to gauging height about 10ft off the ground, but other than that its very good. Especially useful is the ability to practice catastrophic emergencies that you can’t replicate in the real aircraft – things like complete tail rotor failures, stuck tail rotors, double engine failures, autorotating (which you do practice for real, just not all the way to the ground, which is when the important bit happens!) etc.
THC: Were you a ‘natural’ when it came to flying or did you struggle with certain aspects of airmanship?
James: I must have a modicum of natural talent as some of it came quite easily, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘natural’ (having known one or two ‘naturals’ who were/are head and shoulders above my ability level!). I have relatively good hands, I’ve never had a problem with being able to think in the cockpit and I am naturally good at certain elements (instrument flying of all the boring things!), but there are certain disciplines that I’ve really had to work hard at, such as navigation. I am not a natural navigator and it took me quite a while to realise (longer than it should really!) that if you’re not a natural, then you have to trust that the science works and keep to a disciplined work cycle (it’s taught that way for a reason!). If you fly an accurate heading, an accurate airspeed to give your planned groundspeed and hold it for the required amount of time, you can’t be anywhere other than where you planned to be, especially if coupled with good planning giving you large features to work your way onto something much smaller. Some guys can glance at the map and know instinctively where they are and how to get from A to B – I am not one of them, especially at low level where one village, wood block and low hill looks very much like all the others! Every time I go flying it gets a little easier, but I still have to work hard at it.
I also don’t think there has been any stage of training where I haven’t had a few bad trips on some element of the course and had to work pretty hard to overcome whatever the problem was. Having decent hands has definitely helped, but handling the aircraft is probably the simplest aspect of being a pilot, particularly a military one, where being good at the ‘flying the aircraft’ bit is taken for granted as you’re devoting most of your attention to what you’re actually trying to achieve.
THC: What do you remember of your first solo?
James: Not a huge amount actually, other than that the Grob Tutor I did it in climbed like a rocket with only me in it, as I was warned it would and as I warn my students before their first solo. I remember the solo circuit consolidation trip that I did after that much more clearly though. St Athan was operating on runway 26, the threshold of which is adjacent to some fairly large hangars with very pointed roofs. The wind had a northerly component in it which swept it over the hangars and onto the threshold making the crosswind extremely gusty and unpredictable. There were two of us the circuit, the other guy being a direct entry RAF pilot (so doing full EFT, not a UAS student like me) at a similar stage of training, and neither of us could seem to land! Each time I thought I’d got it nailed, I’d get hit by a gust that spooked me and around I’d go – the only thing that comforted me was that the other guy kept going around as well! Eventually he managed to get down and decided that after 30 minutes of bashing the circuit without landing he’d cut his losses and remain on the ground. Thankfully I also managed to put it down on my next attempt and did the same. He later admitted that he was also glad it wasn’t just him – last I heard he was flying Typhoons. I don’t think the conditions that day would even register now, but they were certainly tricky for a second (or was it third?) solo. On that note, 02 at Rochester airport where I also used to teach can be extremely sporty on a windy, warm summers day (and this coming from someone who absolutely loves gusty, thermally, really gnarly crosswinds) and all my students there coped with it just fine, so perhaps it was just my ham fists!
THC: After years of fixed wing flying was making the transition to helicopters difficult?
James: On the whole the fixed wing flying probably made my life significantly easier – although helicopters are clearly very different, certain aspects of handling them are very similar to fixed wing flying. I also arrived on the Squirrel course with much more experience of just being in the air than most people do which probably freed up a lot of my mental capacity to concentrate on what I was being taught as opposed to also having to concentrate on using the radios, joining airfields, worrying about the circuit or what I could and couldn’t fly over etc. The thing I’ve found most challenging, and this will sound silly, is getting used to the fact that helicopters don’t need airfields – any field or clearing will do the job! It took a while for my brain to start thinking of every field as something I could happily fly an approach to – basically being more flexible. For a long time I thought of myself as fixed wing pilot who just happened to fly helicopters, but at some point in Afghanistan that flipped and I now consider myself a helicopter pilot who can fly fixed wing – although some of my friends who are straight rotary pilots and have taken to it more naturally than me would probably still disagree!
THC: What have been the most challenging and satisfying phases of your RAF career to date?
James: Most challenging has to be the learning curve on almost all of the training I’ve undertaken, both fixed wing and rotary – there is very little chance to consolidate, once you’ve been taught something, demonstrated that you can do it, its then assumed that you can do it and you move on. That said, subsequently being able to do it is very satisfying. I remember a sortie not long after passing my very first instrument rating test – it was solo nav sortie, but the weather was horrendous and I had to depart on a standard instrument departure, fly to the airport nearest my low-level entry point, in order to fly an instrument approach to try and get visual below – I didn’t get visual so then decided to try and let down over the sea which clearly was lower than the airport I’d just tried – I got them to clear me down to the lowest point they could based on their radar vector chart minimum sector safety altitudes, still couldn’t get visual, gave up and went home, clearing the cloud bang on whatever my minimums were at the bottom of my final instrument approach. The idea of being able to do that all in a day’s work two weeks previously would have been unthinkable.
In terms of most satisfying phase, it has to be the three months that I spent in Afghanistan – nothing compares to just being able to fly every day and do your job! If we’re talking flying in general then it has to be the year or so I spent working as a full time flying instructor – nothing gives me a greater sense of achievement than seeing someone I’ve taught from scratch going solo or passing their test with flying colours!
THC: Have you ever found yourself sharing a cockpit with a student pilot with no natural aptitude?
James: I’ve actually been very lucky with students, I’ve never come across one that was particularly difficult to teach, so I suppose they’ve all had some natural talent! Sometimes you have to find a different way of explaining something if someone doesn’t get your usual method of teaching/delivery, but most people find flying a light aircraft well within their capabilities. The few times I have had students that struggled with a particular aspect of flying training, they’ve generally overcome it and gone on to do very well, so no I don’t think I’ve ever taught someone with no natural ability.
THC: Which aspects of aircraft control are the hardest to teach?
James: The flare and landing, without a shadow of doubt! I start explaining what I’m doing and getting the student to ‘follow me through’ on the controls as early into the initial syllabus sorties as I can so that they get a feel for it as early as possible, but it’s still hard to teach when the time comes. Although the procedure is straightforward – close the throttle, raise the nose to hold it off the runway and then continue to raise it as the aircraft sinks until you’re basically holding the take off attitude and the aircraft touches down on its main wheels – it’s very hard to explain the timing and where you’re looking as it happens. Really it has to be done by feel, and some people pick it up immediately and never have a problem with it and others take a while until it all finally clicks. You can have someone who flies a perfect circuit, a lovely, trimmed, stable approach where they hardly touch the controls, and then they just don’t flare when the ground approaches. Conversely you can have a guy or girl who flies a sloppy circuit, but just ‘gets’ the flare and touch down. Other than continually talking them through it, and re-demoing a few, its something that just has to click. That said, I’ve never had any disasters and most people pick it up well within normal timeframes.
THC: Would you rather tutor a student with prior flight sim experience or do you prefer ‘clean sheets’?
James: That’s a very interesting question. I’ve actually had quite a few people with sim experience come for ‘trial flights’, and I have to say they tend to fall into two categories. Now, bear in mind that I am generalising a bit, but I’ve found that people who enjoy combat flight simulators are easier to teach than people who enjoy X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Simulator. Whilst both are relatively familiar with the basics of how the controls work, what an altimeter tells you etc, the combat flight simmer is much more interested in what is going on outside the window than the MS Flight Simmer who’s more interested in the instruments. Flying a light aircraft well is all about setting the correct ‘attitude’ (done purely by looking out of the window!), trimming, and then settling into a good, “lookout-attitude-instrument”, scan, only glancing at the instruments about 3-5% of the time. If the attitude out the front hasn’t changed then nothing of much interest in the cockpit will have changed, and considering that all the interesting and potentially dangerous stuff is happening outside, I’d much rather people devoted their time to looking out! The MS Flight Sim guy tends to be very instrument focused and likes keeping his eyes on the AI and altimeter. Clearly a generalisation, but certainly a trend I’ve noticed. That said, as an avid simmer myself, I don’t think any time playing flight sims is wasted, and I can drum out any bad habits pretty quickly.
THC: What do you get from recreational sims that you don’t get from real-life aviation?
James: The simple explanation is that it allows me to fly aircraft and experience situations that I would never normally have a chance to encounter. There are so many incredible aircraft out there, doing a multitude of jobs, and most pilots only ever get to experience a very small slice of aviation, even if they dedicate their entire life to it. With sims I can fly faithfully recreated warbirds, vintage biplanes, aerobatic machines, commercial workhorses, modern fighters etc and get a small taste of what they would be like. I can read, “The Big Show” by Pierre Closterman and jump into his Tempest to take on FW D-9’s, “The Hunters” by James Salter and get a flavour of what flying an F-86 Sabre in Korea might have been like, or even jump into a Sopwith Camel after reading Yeates’ “Winged Victory”. I can appreciate how tricky flying an asymmetric approach in a DC-3 would be, or how futile trying to outclimb terrain in the same aircraft laden with ice would be after reading, “Fate is the Hunter”. Basically, sims give me an opportunity to experience the many facets of aviation that I will either never have the chance to do, or would never want to do for real! I’m fairly certain flying a Sopwith Camel in combat from your armchair is far preferable to having to do it for real, like Victor Yeates and his protagonist Tom Cundall, and face the awful reality of losing all of your friends to horrifying deaths.
THC: When you fly sims like DCS World and IL-2 do you always fly with the realism settings maxed-out?
James: I tend to fly a compromise – anything that affects the actual flying I have maxed out, so ‘full real’ flight model, including things like G effects, limited fuel etc, but I must confess that I often take unlimited ammo and tend to use any ‘simple avionics’ functions that exist, as well as simple engine management in IL-2. I fly the DCS F-15 in simple avionics mode for example, and use the single button press start functions on both DCS and IL-2. Clearly I’m able to fly an IL-2 warbird with complex engine management turned on, and often do when flying online in servers that only allow such, but for playing offline I tend to avoid it. Once upon a time I would probably have loved learning to manage a complex start procedure and avionics/radar/weapons package, but I suspect it would feel too much like work now! I’m already taking a bit of a busman’s holiday as it is, without wanting to take notes and draw diagrams just to learn how to successfully deploy weapons on a modern fighter! Its probably one of the reasons why I prefer flying in IL-2, pull the trigger and tracer appears!
THC: Which of the main flight sims has the best helicopter flight modelling?
James: I actually tend to shy away from sim choppers for two reasons that I cant seem to find a way around. Firstly, the control inputs required when hovering a helicopter are minute and no matter how I set up my joystick, I can never seem to find settings that don’t end up with a virtual chopper bucking about due to over controlling. Secondly, visual cues and references play a huge part in accurately hovering or flying manoeuvres like quick stops close to the ground, and they are almost impossible to use in a sim. If I try to fly an approach to a specific point, I seem to have very little control over where the approach will actually end as its very difficult to detect subtle changes in speed etc. There is also so much more going on with rotary physics than fixed wing that its very difficult to model accurately. Even the Puma sim occasionally has difficultly accurately reflecting the real machine during various phases of flight (hovering being notably bad) and this difficulty obviously spills over into desktop sims.
THC: Of the current batch of flight sims, which ones do you find yourself turning to most often?
James: Definitely IL-2 Battle of Normandy, although DCS does get a spin occasionally. As an old Tie Interceptor pilot I’ve also just installed, but not played, Star Wars: Squadrons – does that count?! I feel like it’s time to restore peace and order to the galaxy again after a 25-year hiatus.
THC: Are there any upcoming sims or sim add-ons you’re particularly looking forward to?
James: The next iteration of IL-2, so that I can fly the Mosquito! I’d prefer them to fix the bloody awful radio chatter system first though – I don’t really care about having a working R/T menu, but the current AI chatter is almost unbearable. Talking of the Mossie, read “Terror in the Starboard Seat” by David McIntosh.
THC: What peripherals do you use when simming recreationally?
James: This is my current sim setup – Trackir 5, VKB Gladiator and a throttle custom-built to my spec by a guy called GVL for a remarkably reasonable sum. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting pedals, but decided against it as I’m so used to a twist grip stick and they work very well for rudder control. I also enjoy racing sims and have a very snazzy Fanatec CSW 2.5 wheel and pedals.
THC: Back in 2015 you applied for a job with Dovetail. Does the idea of entering game development still appeal?
James: It does and it doesn’t – whilst I grew up around computers and have a very powerful one sitting under my desk, I have almost no skills that would be useful in game development! I would actually love to make a flight simulator, but I’m not sure I can just parachute myself into running a development team that has all the relevant skills and encourage them to turn my vision into reality! I actually ended up doing a little bit of work for one of Dovetail’s subcontractors, editing for realism and ‘Anglicising’ some of the Dovetail Games Flight School tutorial sessions, which was very enjoyable! By chance I also took some of the development team flying from Rochester Airport where I was instructing at the time, and as a result ended up recording some of the instructor dialogue that made its way into an early version of the game – alas I don’t think I have much of a future as a voiceover artist!
THC: An unexpected inheritance has left you ten million pounds richer! What flight simulation would you make? What aircraft would you purchase?
James: Hmmm, I’ll tackle the aircraft first as I suspect its easier – once upon a time I’d have probably said a Hurricane, or possible a Pitts S-2, but these days I think I’d take a Super Cub with tundra tires and go exploring!
As for the sim, it would have to be a Korean air war sim, kinda like a modern MiG Alley, but clearly made in the style that I suspect I would enjoy most. Unlike the current trend for vast playing arenas, I’d concentrate on a relatively small geographic area (probably no more than 45 mins flying time by 45 mins flying time), but make it as detailed and interesting as possible – airfields, troops, roads, railways, rivers, forests, towns, villages, mountains all buzzing with activity. Airfields would be full of character and places where you could just sit in the cockpit and watch the world go by. The graphics wouldn’t have to be realistic (think modern take on A-10 Cuba! or Art of Rally, but with a few useful things like shiny aircraft skins that respond to light reflecting off them realistically), an atmospheric(!) weather system that can generate volumetric majestic towering cumulus, but also thick overcasts, mists etc that do interesting things to light like produce god rays and gorgeous sunrises. Get the scale right – when you’re flying in formation the other aircraft should feel close! When you’re in guns range, the same.
But most importantly the flying must feel good and the AI must be up to scratch. I’m not talking a perfect recreation of the aircraft that behave like their original manuals – I couldn’t care less about that, or things like detailed cockpits. They must be approximately right, they must respect flight envelopes, with stalls, spins, buffeting, wing drop etc and display their relative handling characteristics versus their opponents’ characteristics. They must feel good to fly rather than be 100% authentic. Same goes for the cockpits – they must have their principal character, their main instruments, modelled enough that they are usable. Possibly clickable, but as the main attraction is going to be the flying, the world and the action, the aircraft would be relatively simple to operate. The Sabre/MiG 15 for instance would have a ‘start’ button (perhaps 4 separate switches at most – fuel, GPU, ignition – then generator on when running), flying controls (+gear, flap, airbrake), guns/rockets/bombs selector, a gyro hold button on the stick and nothing else! The only possible exception would be where a system could require some ‘management’ of battle damage – perhaps a simple fuel arrangement where transferring fuel away from a punctured tank might get you home. Oh, and a working NDB so that instrument departures and arrivals are possible. In formation. Lose the leader in cloud? Better break out and look for him once VMC on top!
There would only be a few flyables, probably only the principal protagonists from each side… Sabre, P-51 and MiG 15 for instance. But the AI would put on a convincing show – formations (think YSFlight style), dogfighting, joining airfields as flights and breaking to land etc, contrails streaming off their wings. The damage model would be functional, making aircraft either fly, fall and break apart or burn convincingly. If possible, I’d try and give the AI individual characteristics – some aggressive, but unpredictable, some rock steady in formation but timid in action etc. Enemy aces would have distinct paintjobs and flying/attacking styles. Oh, radio chatter would also be very important, and whilst wingman commands may be limited to ‘attack my target/cover me/rejoin/rtb’, the airwaves would be alive with RT.
In short, I’d try to pack in as much of the detail that makes a world believable, beautiful, interesting and challenging to fly in as possible at the expense of shiny graphics and detailed systems that don’t add much to the overall experience. Oh, and I’d definitely have a ‘real navigation’ tick box, which would disable any form of digital map or flight planning. You’d have a paper map and compass plotter, be given a target location and goal and be left to draw the lines, work out timings (you’d need your own stopwatch) and fuel burn yourself. Providing CAP over an area and end up engaging the enemy? You’d better have a fuel figure in mind for cutting and running for home, or your nearest div!
The dream team would be to have the developers of YSFlight and Tiny Combat Arena on board. I’d have to learn how to do something useful to pull my weight, other than system designing, world population/sculpting and mission designing, but I reckon we could make an incredible sim! Those guys really seem to know their business and share my enjoyment of that lower poly aesthetic. I’m sure I could tempt them with 10 million quid!
THC: Thank you for your time