A little (very little) logbook bragging: as of this writing, I have 85 combined hours in P-51 variants in DCS World. I’m not good about keeping my logbooks but sims often have one built in. 85 flight hours is actually a long time in an airplane with no autopilot — at all. It’s not even equipped with a basic wings-level hold. I have over 200 successful landings — both I and the airplane would be able to fly again afterward. I also have more than my share of career ending landings and midair incidents where the airplane made dozens of landings as each of its component parts touched-down separately and independently of any control inputs I provided.

Recently, I spent some money with DCS World — when I bought the operational version of the P-51D and the Nevada Test Range (and City of Las Vegas) map. I bought the A-10C “Thunderbolt II” — or “Warthog” depending who you ask. Eagle Dynamics, the people who produce DCS World, had previously produced another combat sim, Lock-On: Modern Air Combat (LOMAC). It covered mostly Russian aircraft, but I found myself drawn to the A-10A. LOMAC was the best A-10 sim I had ever flown. This is because of Eagle Dynamics attention to flight and systems modeling. I revisited LOMAC recently; it is what actually turned me to DCS World.

My custom target-practice mission for the A-10A includes anti-shipping, air to air against helicopters and a jet, anti-armor, air-defense suppression, convoy interdiction on a mountain road, and ground attack against an airfield. The A-10 is incapable of carrying enough ordinance for all the targets, so to clear the map I have to RTB, land, and re-arm — several times.

I probably have a thousand hours in the simulated A-10A. It’s fair to say I am proficient in its operation.

I figured transitioning to the C-model would probably require a familiarization tutorial, and I’d be good to go forth and destroy legions of enemy armor units. DCS World includes training and familiarization missions, complete with highlighting controls and a instructor voice.

Before I even climbed into the cockpit, I had to go into options and set up my sticks. There were options I’d never heard of. Fortunately the airplane download includes a manual which covers the aircraft history, controls, and operation — 691 pages worth. Okay, the best way to do this is going to be going through the training, so I set up the sticks to control the most basic parts of operating the plane — pitch/roll, yaw, and thrust. For me, this means turning off many of the default assignments. All three of my devices have X, Y, and Z axes, so naturally the defaults plug in roll on X, pitch on Y, and thrust on Z. The rudder-pedals make this assignment disastrous — slight movements of my toes control roll and pitch, while I apply left and right “rudder” to throttle the engine. Level flight requires depressing both toe-brakes exactly half way and only half way, so naturally I have to shut all that off and reassign the pedal axes to more appropriate functions.

Satisfied that my control layout isn’t going to pirouette us into the ground unless I perform Siegfried’s accompaniment to Odette’s Curse from Swan Lake, I start the first lesson, and the cockpit renders. Instead of the familiar ordinance panel, a cluster of flight instruments, and a single 5-inch-screen for the AGM-65 Maverick sighting system, I’m struck by two military-style iPads each surrounded by twenty square, context-sensitive buttons.

The instructor begins rattling on about screen display selection using the [conical]-hat switch and four-way data-management control switches. Short and long presses change which of the iPads is “soy” — actually SOI, Sensor Of Interest. The differences between the A and the C are not just layout and new glass-cockpit instruments.

Famously, the A-10A is an airplane built around a gun. The GAU-8 “Avenger” is a rotary barrel (Gatling) cannon that spits out 30mm bullet-shaped grenades so fast that it sounds like a wet fart when firing — you cannot hear the individual rounds being fired. There’s a legend that recoil from firing the GAU-8 in too long a burst can stop the A-10 in flight. It can’t; two General Electric turbofan engines can produce more than 17,000 pounds of thrust, which is plenty enough to resist the recoil*. But, the nose wheel is offset to keep the gun on the centerline of the plane.

It feels like the A-10C was built around a new fighting computer, that you operate without a keyboard. There is a keyboard to the right side, but it’s alphabetical order. This is the same letter layout as the search-function in your typical DVR. Not so bad? Try looking up “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” with your cable’s on demand service while you’re also operating a single-seat twin engine jet aircraft — not typing with actual keys, moving a pointer and clicking each letter you want to press.

It makes me feel old and grumpy. These whiz-bang kid-pilots with their video arcades and disco-grunge-techno-pop music; they think ice is a warning light that you flip a switch and it goes away. They couldn’t navigate their way across a community airfield parking ramp without calling it “tarmac” and asking Siri which way the GPS store is. I have moments when I feel myself channeling other people — certain people in particular (for the one I felt then: if you’re reading this, I have a special love and respect for you).

I’m thinking, “Maybe I should have saved some money and bought the A-10A instead.” I know it; it’s straightforward. Then I remembered: I work in information technology, write science fiction, like techno music, and moved to the south where environmental ice is a distant memory — never mind that I am actively playing a video game to fly this airplane in the first place.

I re-map some switches on my sticks and go into it again. It’s a lot of new methods, and the start-up procedure includes waiting for the aircraft’s operating system to boot up and load your mission plan. But, I’m reminded of a challenge decades ago: show some serious work and earn a joystick. My stick, pedals, and throttle are starting to wear out (they’re going on 15 years old), time to earn a new set.

As of this writing, I have 6 hours in the simulated A-10C, and I have yet to fire a weapon — I haven’t even gotten to the weapon systems lessons, yet. I also have 6 prom-date quality landings — and one that’s more “took your weird cousin” — because despite the glass and computer-systems, the A-10C still flies like an old truck with a cast-iron engine block: durable, dependable, and damn ugly.

Sim: DCS World, Training Mission (A-10C ii module)
Region: Caucasus (Republic of Georgia, east of the Black Sea)
Base: Senaki Airbase
Aircraft: A-10C Thunderbolt II


*While researching the technical details for this micro-story, I learned that one of the original production A-10s (serial number 6) was lost when both of its engines flamed out after ingesting gas expelled from the gun. The problem was corrected for regular production aircraft (by having the gun trigger also activate the igniters in both engines), but this may be part of the origin of the GAU-8 recoil legend.