The fastest way to start an argument online is to have an opinion. The fastest way to lose said argument is to say what it is. There is a question that props up in Sim-Pilot spaces about whether simulators are games or something different.

A college admissions IQ test would pose a question like “if all sims are games, and some games not sims, then which of the following statements is true?” A) Not all games are sims. B) Sims cost a lot more money than other games. C) Sims are time sinks that make most hardcore gaming addictions look like a single afternoon nap. Or D) The comment section is shut off to stop people from queueing up to explain how stupid I am for suggesting there’s a question.

The way I see it, the main difference is practice. Sure, most games have some kind of tutorial designed to take a new player through the basics of which button does what and how to move from point A to B and which pots will explode when you kick a chicken at it, but a sim — a good sim — has a manual, training missions, and hours of tutorials to learn nuances of systems you almost never need. Simulators are something you practice how to play. Why? Because, you get more enjoyment from the time you spend doing a mission, if you’re not trying to remember how to set the auto-lasing timing of your GBU-12s to 8 seconds before impact.

Practice is a necessary part of enjoying flight sims, and doubly so when something changes. We’ve just installed new Thrustmaster band Multi-Function Display (MFD) controllers on our rig, and I took the A-10C to a target range we’ve set up on Abu Musa (a small island in the Persian Gulf). The new controllers let me push physical buttons on my desk instead of moving the mouse cursor to and clicking the corresponding button in the on-screen cockpit.

Reflexes being what they are, I still grab the mouse occasionally, before I remember that I don’t have to. It completely changes how I interact with the plane. The A-10C has a system of buttons and switches woven into its yoke (control stick) and throttle. This system is called “HOTAS”, which means Hand On Throttle and Stick. The idea is you can operate the plane through a fight without ever taking your hands off of the primary flight controls. To change weapon selection, targeting modes, and cockpit displays, you can wiggle your fingers in a sort of dance actuating levers in various directions and durations like a magic user casting an array of Bigby’s hand spells without the verbal components. A-10C_ii pilots on hot-mic in DCS can often be heard muttering “slew to target, tms up short, tms up long, China hat forward long, coolie left long, China hat forward short, TMS up short, pickle!” This is the Warthog Wizard spell for launching AGM-65D Mavericks.

Our new MFD controllers don’t change the spell for firing weapons, but they do change everything about how I select which weapons to fire. As we trapse around the small desert island, I’m putting two six-inch, twenty-illuminated-button controllers through the paces. DSMS page, profile, down to GBU-12, hit “Active Profile”, never taking SOI off the TGP. The complete language of jargon that thrills the sim A-10 enthusiast, just means “I pushed a few buttons instead of a lot of buttons.”

We’re having so much fun as we flip through an array of ordinance and targets, that we almost forget to hit some trucks with the cannon. It’s not a problem, we just flip the cannon arming switch to the “ready to perforate trucks” position and push the nose over to aim the mighty GAU-8 Avenger Cannon at a parking lot.

Having just dropped a Laser Guided Bomb (LGB) on another target, we’re cruising along at 20,000 feet. Even with gravity assist, a 3 mile cannon shot isn’t what any normal person would call accurate. Our angle to the truck park is nearly as high as our altitude which is about half as high as Tommy Chong on the twentieth of April. We’re quickly in a steep dive and picking up airspeed. I pull the throttle back and deploy the airbrakes to give us a little bit of time to line up a couple of shots before we have to miss the ground.

“Brrrrt. Brrt. Brrrrt.” We send depleted uranium rods nearly straight down into deisel engine blocks at a rate so fast that a culturally insensitive mouse would have to mend his hat.

The ground is coming up fast, as well, so I yank back on the stick to not meet the pavement. The nose comes up gently, and I push the throttle forward to the stops. We start to climb, but the “Master Caution” light is flashing and our airspeed is dropping off faster than it should against Two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans producing a combined 18,000 pounds of thrust. It’s awfully quiet in the cockpit. There’s a distinct absence of whining jet noise. The engines aren’t each producing theit impressive push of forward momentum, because they’ve both flamed out.

We’re gliding over water at a comfy six thousand feet but at considerably less than the airspeed we’ll need to continue to glide. We begin to descend to keep airspeed up and stay airborne. I spend a few seconds trying to think which of the completely unarmed targets might have shot out our engines, before it dawns on me that we need to restart the engines — in air. The normal procedure for an in-air restart is to gain speed to spin the turbofan blades up to their run-RPM and give them fuel. It takes roughly six to eight thousand feet of steep dive to hit that RPM. The manual says not to attempt this below ten thousand.

We just dropped below fifty five hundred.

The cockpit is quieter than normal, but there is still a high-pitched whine. I look over and notice the APU is still running at full RPM. Glance down and see that I forgot to shutoff the APU generator before take-off. This is a minor mistake, but today it saves us fifteen seconds of waiting for the extra jet motor to spin up. I pull both throttles back and pull them over the stops to formally shutoff the engines. Fifty two hundred feet. I push engine one over the hump from “off” to “idle”.

The hardest thing for a pilot to do is even harder for a sim pilot. That is waiting to see if it worked. Being a subset of games, sims frequently try to get the player into the action as quickly as possible. This actively discourages the patience necessary for emergency situations. It only takes a second for the fuel flow indicator to show the engine is starting, but that second is fifteen minutes long.

Four thousand feet and engine one’s fan speed climbs to its casual 25% idle reading. I waste no time and push engine one to the stops. It responds and we start gaining airspeed. The plane pushes right, but a little bit of rudder and a little bit of bank and we’re in level flight heading out to sea. We can casually start the left engine.

It’s not my first dual engine flameout in the A-10C. Granted, it’s usually the result of ground fire, but I’ve flamed out the engines on purpose, before. The A-10’s fuel system is gravity fed. It can fly inverted only as long as the engines can suck fuel that’s already in the lines. It takes being upside down for about six seconds to starve the engines. Once that happens your choice is an in-air restart or a dead-stick landing.

What makes a sim different from other games? Sometimes you have to do things wrong on purpose so you’re ready for when you do them by mistake. Sure, I could just respawn after flaming out the engines and making a terrain arrested landing, but all my practice missions are cold start — that just means I’d have to start the engines on the ground instead.

Sim: DCS World
Region: Persian Gulf
Aircraft: A-10C_ii
Base: Dubai International Airport