Some context: At its core, DCS World is a combat flight-sim. I often use the “quick mission” function for flights to generate semi-random weather. This also creates a battlefield with opposing forces that will shoot at me. Today, these are Russian Federation forces using modern equipment. I’m flying an unarmed P-51 Trainer (the TF-51D comes free with the sim). This adds a certain amount of “excitement” to many of my flights.

In most PC flight sims, you can safely ignore your engine gauges. The simulated engines are durable and reliable enough that you can operate them at “max” for hours at a time without damage. This is NOT the case for the TF-51D in DCS World. I’ve had the engine overheat and seize while practicing aerobatics – more than once. So, I’ve learned to keep an eye on heat and be more appropriate about manifold pressure and RPM settings when cruising.

We’re flying out of Kutaisi International Airport, with friendly forces coming up from the southwest and engaging hostiles to the east. A flight of F-18 Hornets have cleared out the sparse enemy fighter planes. Several elements of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters are providing close air support and ground-based air defense suppression. I’m practicing drawing fire from the “red force,” so the friendlies with weapons can engage more safely.

I don’t have to worry about putting weapons on target because my plane doesn’t have any. I fly evasively, maintaining a small profile to the guns, heading at large angles off the direction of fire, and keeping low to use hills, valleys, rocks, trees, buildings, road signs and farm animals for cover. It’s not exactly “safe,” but we don’t get hit often.

We’re taunting a ZSU-23-4 (a highly effective soviet-era self-propelled radar-aimed anti-aircraft artillery). He wastes volley after volley, as we tease him into swinging his quad guns away from the Apaches killing a nearby tank platoon. Red tracers whiz by the canopy, then I hear the metallic crunch of a 23mm shell hitting the airframe. It’s a distinct sound – different and unpleasant. We break off and run away. I do a quick check but don’t see anything obviously wrong. We still have two wings, a tail, and nothing’s leaking, smoking, or more on fire than it should be. I bring us back low, level and stable heading east – away from the bullet flingers – and that’s when I notice the engine RPM needle is hanging limply, pointing at “0”.

Zero is a lot lower than the 2500 RPM I wanted. I can hear the prop biting the air, so I know the gauge is wrong, but the pitch doesn’t seem to change when I nudge the nob under the throttle. I conclude that one or more things are wrong.

Good news: I seem to be in control and the working gauges suggest that the engine isn’t about to burn up or explode. Bad news: we’re east of the battlefield, and home base is west of it. The ZSU knows where we are and sits directly in the path to RTB. We need to orbit him wide by 3 miles to stay out of range. It doesn’t seem like much except that we’re about 200ft AGL to confuse his radar, and he’s not exactly alone.

I call Kutaisi for an inbound vector, but they won’t answer me on the radio. The TF-51D’s radio cannot be tuned in flight. It has four pre-sets that are tuned on the ground before startup. Button A is Kutaisi. I have button B set to an alternate 50 miles away, and Buttons C and D are set to a destination and alternate on the other side of the mountain range to the north.

The sim limits my options for what I can say to air traffic control, based on context. There are no options for declaring an IFE nor for asking for a radio check. I can declare inbound, to which they should reply with heading and distance to the initial approach-point, active runway number, and barometric setting. I can request navigation assistance to which they reply with heading to the initial approach point (the TF-51D has no navigational radios). Once in the pattern I can request landing clearance. Or I can abort any of these calls to restart the radio script. Everything I try is met with silence.

We manage to bob and weave over the battlefield, swerving around a few more volleys of ground fire. There is a trio of hostile APCs about a mile and a half from the base. They’re being approached by a friendly armor unit. If they meet, that will be a short fight, but I need to stay away from northeast of the airfield until they do. Fortunately, the active runway is 08, so I’ll be approaching from west-southwest. The plane remains intact and responsive as we get into the pattern.

I try to call the tower to request clearance – nothing. It occurs to me that with those APCs near the east gate, the base may have been marked as overrun. I notice four F-18 fighters in the pattern, two lining up for final approach and two just entering. Okay, those are friendly and AI controlled, so I know the base is safe to land at.

I cannot communicate with the F-18s, and the tower is still not answering. I’ll have a gap of a few minutes between the first pair of fighters landing and the second pair lining up for final. So, I decide to follow the first in as close as we can. My plan is to try to land in as short a space as possible and get off the runway before the second element touches down on top of us. The F-18 has a stall speed close to our take-off speed, so there’s no danger of accidentally overtaking the lead formation.

Broken tachometer, unknown RPM control, not sure if the taillight is lit (the switch is on “bright,” but I can’t see the lamp from the cockpit). We have hydraulic pressure, so the flaps and gear will probably come down when I try.

All that anxiety was for naught. The approach and landing went off without a hitch. We had to sideslip to shed airspeed – a side-effect of trying to keep up with jets and then slam it down – but I’d been practicing that. We set down just short of the numbers and pump the brakes. We manage to turn onto taxiway alpha doing less than 10 knots. Brow wiped; we taxi to the parking ramp to shutdown.

When you exit a flight, DCS World provides a debrief screen showing logs for all the events of the flight. I filter it for just my plane and see all the times we got shot at (hit or missed). It also shows all damage to the systems, very specifically. I had been struck be a half dozen 12.7mm slugs from the machine gun on top of a T-55 (Russian Tank), but they went through without hitting anything but the skin. The 23mm shell, on the other hand, passed through the plane between the cockpit instrument cluster and the engine. The projectile severed electrical lines powering the tachometer and the radio transmitter – which I guess is a valid excuse for why the tower was ignoring me.

Sim: DCS World, single player
Region: Caucasus (Republic of Georgia, east of the Black Sea)
Base: Kutaisi International Airport
Aircraft: TF-51D