Enjoy camel dangling and Pawnee pranging? Get Thunder Helix and FS One.

I don’t attend school reunions for the same reason I don’t go back to the village where I spent my formative years. The memories of those times are too precious – I’d hate to muddy them with modern versions. A small, financially illiterate part of me thinks gaming landmarks should be similarly quarantined. Do you fancy doing a Red Baron or an Aces of the Deep retrospective for us, Tim? Sorry, no. I couldn’t do that without resurfacing Memory Lane and felling the magnificent oak trees that line it.

Fortunately, these days it’s possible to revisit your youth without actually revisiting your youth. Synthetic relics such as Early Access Thunder Helix stir memories without supplanting them or scratching rose-tinted spectacles.

Released last week the first public build of David Walters’ proud-to-be-pixelated chopper sim makes up for in style, polish, and whimsy, what it currently lacks in content.

In late March fifteen quid buys you vivid VGA or EGA visuals, three fun flyables, and one multi-stage mission set in a fictional Middle Eastern locale.

Gazing through the glazing of an Apache-style ‘Avenger’, a Huey-reminiscent ‘Lewis’, or a Novalogical ‘Raven’, it’s up to you to clear a coastline of hostile AFVs, mosey inland to trash a radio tower, airfield, and SAM site, before heading home to your mothership, clobbering a convoy en route.

Even if you shun the three training aids – invulnerability, infinite ammo, and passive enemies – you’ll have probably gained the skills and knowledge necessary to complete the solitary sortie within a couple of hours. What then? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ll attempt to repeat your success in the other two steeds before moving on to a spot of camel-bothering and SAR.

Thunder Helix’s ASMs, rockets and chainguns, produce satisfying smoke columns and turret tosses, but I reckon I’ve derived as much enjoyment from the game’s winches as I have from its weaponry. Somewhat counter-intuitively, you can’t refuel or rearm by returning to the destroyer or alighting at the nearby FOB. All of the helis replenish by winching up the ammo boxes and fuel drums found in various spots on the map.

Almost as illogical is the repair technique. In order to refill a hitpoint bar shrunk by AA fire, tank shells, SAMs, or enemy gunships, it’s necessary to RTB with a prisoner or two aboard. For some inexplicable reason the survivors of eviscerated enemy vehicles not only willingly embrace captivity if you hover over them and lower a ladder, they persuade indolent erks to leap into action when deposited at friendly facilities!

In a heavyweight sim, daftness like this would fracture the fantasy. In a game as in-tune with its quirky touchstones as Thunder Helix, I’d argue it merely ramps up the charm. Gamers with long memories and playful sides have already taken TH’s silliest feature – winchable and stackable camels – to their hearts.

One clear advantage faux DOS flight sims have over real ones, is framerate fluency. TH’s bespoke engine has no trouble supplying sufficient FPS for delicate low-level, low-speed manouveres. A damage model that doesn’t kick you in the plums every time you clip a palm tree or structure, also helps keep frustration at bay. Even though I played with keyboard and mouse rather than a joystick, the vast majority of my demises were down to unspoofed SAMs not CFITs.

This roadmap suggests Thunder Helix’s early scenario paucity will be short-lived. Additional multi-objective ‘campaigns’ and simpler single-goal scenarios figure heavily in David’s plans for the remainder of 2024. If Campaign 4 – ‘Helix in Paradise’ – doesn’t involve tropical islands I’ll eat my hat switch.

* * *

Not all topnotch RC sims cost a HobbyKing’s ransom. One of the best, FS One, has been free since 2022.

Helicopters aren’t supported, controller configuration can be complicated, and the 3D graphics aren’t Aerofly RC or RealFlight standard, but in all other respects Michael Selig’s creation is a class act.

Being a Professor Emeritus of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois, Michael knows a thing or two about aerodynamics. The 140 included flyables benefit from sophisticated component-based flight modelling specially devised by the dev to simulate aerodynes with unusually large control surfaces, control surface deflections, and thrust-to-weight ratios. In other words FS One is a model aircraft sim through and through.

While you are watching your chosen winged whippersnapper soar, swoop, corkscrew, sideslip, stall, tumble, or hang from its prop, behind the scenes the sim is speedily pondering and processing heavyweight stuff like this.

Those who would rather potter than hotdog should quickly bond with relatively sedate models such as the Piper Pawnee, Piper Cub, and AT-6 Texan. They are also likely to appreciate the simple integrated aircraft rescale tool. Bigger/weightier tends to equate to easier in FS One.

Like its pricey peers, FS One offers a good selection of both photo-based panoramic sceneries and true 3D flying grounds. In the former your feet are nailed to the ground, camera options are limited, and now and again photo and collision detection don’t perfectly align. In the latter, prangs always make sense, models and textures are a little dated, and you can wander about, and view aircraft from any angle.

In the unlikely event aimless aviation ever loses its allure, there’s pylon racing and bombing challenges waiting in the wings.

Users who don’t own a real or ersatz RC transmitter may move virtual servos with a gamepad or joystick. Because profiles for such controllers aren’t included and the configuration interface is a tad intimidating, FS One isn’t as approachable as some alternatives. After much unsuccessful experimentation I’ve given up trying to assign undercarriage controls to my gamepad, and must reach for the keyboard when retracting or lowering the Dunlops on models such as the Spitfire, Corsair, and Fw 190. Given the sim’s myriad attractions and unbeatable price, it’s hard to get worked up about minor annoyances like this.


  1. Thanks for bringing this RC sim to my attention. Considering taking up this hobby again I wonder which interface would work best with FS One and the computer.

  2. Hmm, might wait for Thunder Helix to be a bit more fleshed out before buying, but it does look promising. The refuelling and reloading winching stuff is straight from the Desert Strike and co series of games, but it is a bit odd you can’t also get fuel and ammo when landing back on the ship.

    You know one thing I miss from the classic 90s era flight sims and that none of the retro style games have is the 2d briefing room screens you used to get, usually with a pixellated chap in the corner and other stuff about. Really used to add to the atmosphere and atmosphere is something really lacking in modern sims.

    • They aren’t a big thing in the UK, so I think I’ve only missed one or two. If I bumped into an old schoolmate in the street I’d happily stop and chat, but the thought of mingling with dozens of barely remembered contemporaries in some drafty school hall while A-Ha, Bronski Beat, and Madness numbers play in the background, doesn’t greatly appeal.

      • Fair point. I’ve had one so far and while I don’t regret going, the fact that most of my social group from the time didn’t show up was a big bummer. Thankfully, they didn’t put on any of the late 2000s pop hits either.

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