I got it into my head recently that now is as good a time as any to work on some bucket list items. One such item is flying.
To that end I hopped onto Steam and acquired DCS, i.e. Digital Combat Systems. By “acquired” I mean “downloaded for free”. DCS provides a highly realistic flight simulator environment with a variety of aircraft available as purchasable modules. Fancying helicopters, I opted for UH-1H Huey.
I also wanted some reasonable gear with which to do the flying. Looking around for a Joystick, the Saitek brand came up repeatedly. The X-55 controller seemed to offer the latest revision of what I sought, but a bunch of reviews marked it as a step down from the X-52. I ultimately acquired an X-52, doing so via eBay on account of availability issues, and rounded out my kit with a set of Saitek’s Pro Flight Combat Rudder pedals. I find both pieces of hardware suitably pleasing. One forum commenter, a professional helicopter pilot, indicated that he liked the X-52 but actually preferred the X-45, though I could not find one for purchase at the time. One of his reasons involved the centering spring on the X-52 that acts to bring the stick back to neutral, something that when piloting helicopters is not particularly desirable. Various other comments mentioned the possibility of removing the centering spring, but I’ve not yet found the bravery for such a thing.
I have thus far spent a moderate amount of time in the training environments. These consist of a mix of demonstration by an “instructor” and the opportunity to take the controls and work through a scripted session. The scripting is not incredibly rich, but it’s decent, and will get you up and running. I won’t profess any particular greatness, but I can pick up to a controlled hover, take off, land, and do a tolerable job of hitting targets that aren’t firing back at me. In other words, I have enough experience to have gained a substantial amount of respect for the actual professionals that fly these things.
So far I have bumped up against a few bugs in the game that represented an in congruous lack of polish on an otherwise extremely sophisticated game. Firstly, the weapons training script would jam at the step where it wanted you to take one of the door gunner positions, on account of the helicopter for the training mission not actually having any door guns installed. I had to dig up a Youtube video that walked you around that bug by firing up the in-game mission editor. Hrm. After that I got stuck again not being able able to aim the door guns or use the flexible sight until a forum post yielded the bizarre fix of disabling and then re-enabling the “TrackIR” checkbox under the special options section. Bah. Having to do these things was a little bit ridiculous, but I managed.
There were other control-related challenges as well, though perhaps these were not the game’s fault, but nonetheless represented additional stumbling blocks. One such problem involved the joystick not controlling pitch and roll if my Logitech G-27 Racing Wheel was also plugged into my computer. Sigh. And then there was the confusion of the rudder pedals defaulting to messing with my roll if I activated the toe brakes. Good grief.
But… Onward! Having gotten through all of those initial challenges I’m really enjoying figuring things out (like how differently loaded and unloaded helicopters handle). One of these days I think I shall take lessons in an actual helicopter. I believe I’ll limit my experience with helicopter combat operations to the simulator, but it would be awesome to get up in the air eventually. It’s pricey, at an apparent $300/hour for in-the-air time as per some preliminary Googling, but once I’ve done enough simulator time that I’m a little less concerned about killing myself I believe I’ll go for it.