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Air Combat Simulation - Kick the tires and light the fires!

Getting the best out of your combat sim - a brief guide from


P-51D Mustang and Focke Wulf Fw 190 engaged in a virtual fight in Microsoft's Combat Flight Sim.

People get into combat flight simulation for a variety of reasons. In my particular case, my imagination was fired by reading accounts written by veteran fighter pilots detailing their aerial exploits. These experiences gave one an insight into the thrill, fear and sheer excitement of aerial combat and in a limited way ultimately conveyed what it was like to be a fighter pilot. As detailed as these accounts were, they could only give me a two-dimensional perspective of events. Combat flight simulation presents a virtual three-dimensional view of aerial combat and in so doing brings those written accounts to life - helping to give one a better understanding of the complexities of aerial combat and also a better appreciation of the many facets of military aviation.

“To create a ‘great’ combat simulation, the flight model, avionics, enemy AI and good graphics are only the start. The purpose of the ‘Falcon’ series is not to simulate the aircraft, but the entire fighter pilot experience. Our goal has been not just to replicate the flight dynamics, avionics and visuals of flight, but to include the elements that make up the combat environment,” says Gilman Louie, designer of the Falcon series. As he suggests, the main design objective of any combat simulation is to provide a complete combat experience. However, this often means that ‘compromises’ have to be made in certain areas when it comes to replicating reality. If you were to draw comparisons between civil and combat sims, one would find that they differ in terms of the emphasis placed in particular areas.

Falcon 4 implements full audio Ground Control and ATC.
With civil simulations, focus is placed on elements such as the operation of the aircraft, airmanship, IFR and VFR navigation, etc. Combat sims over the years have tended to focus more upon the ‘combat experience’ – so you tend to find that the designers of these products spend more time and resources on those areas which have the most impact on combat, such as the flight modelling of the aircraft, artificial intelligence, mission design, campaign engine, radio communications and radio chatter, ballistic and missile behaviour, damage modelling and gun camera recording. Combat simulation design is centred on achieving a balance between fidelity and ‘immersion’. However, the inclusion of all of these features comes at a price, and has to be balanced against the prevailing hardware resources available in terms of CPU (Central Processor Unit), GPU (Graphical Processor Unit) and system memory.

To expand upon these points, here’s another quote from Gilman Louie: “…a colonel once told me that if you ask designers to create a simulator without any compromises, they would end up designing the aircraft itself. The art of simulation design is about understanding limited fidelity. Even in multi-million-dollar simulators, compromises must be made. Designers have to consider cost versus fidelity and processor time versus fidelity. Additional trade-offs must be made between graphics, AI, flight models, number of units and more. The basic rule in building a flight simulator is to never ask the pilot what he wants, because he too will end up building an aeroplane. Instead, ask the pilot what he needs to learn.”

Lock-On's SU-27 in Ukrainian markings.
If you are new to this realm of flight simulation, your choice of era will obviously be governed by your preferred aircraft – be it propeller or jet-driven. You should consider that there are fundamental differences in approach between flying and fighting in each type of aircraft. If your preference is with jet aircraft, then you have to be ready to use modern technology such as radar systems, radar modes, Head- Up-Displays, guided missiles, etc. If, on the other hand, your leanings are more towards the propeller-driven fighters of World War One and World War Two, then more of your time will be spent on learning the techniques of aerial combat; although this is not the exclusive domain of prop-driven aircraft, as ‘jet-jockeys’ also have to learn about this dark art! Unlike jet aircraft, with their long-range radar and radar-guided missiles, combat in World War One and World War Two aircraft has to be fought at close quarters because their main weapon – the bullet – has a relatively short range. Jet pilots, on the other hand, are aided by electronic devices that help them to find, target and shoot down their opponent without even seeing them!

Falcon 4 being s ‘study’ sim, replicates the F-16 cockpit in extreme detail.
Combat simulations can be broken down into two main categories – ‘Study’ sims and ‘Survey’ sims. Study sims focus on one particular aircraft in great detail – replicating its full-sized counterpart as far as possible and invariably including an interactive clickable cockpit. This high level of attention will extend to external details as well as the flight modelling. A fine example of a study sim is Lead Pursuit’s ‘Falcon 4.0: Allied Force’, which focuses solely on the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Survey sims on the other hand, spread their attention across a collection of aircraft. There are a number of currently available simulations that fall under this heading. Microsoft’s ‘Combat Flight Simulator’ series focuses on the tactical air war of World War Two with 18 flyable fighter and bomber aircraft, so there is a strong emphasis on air-to-ground missions.

What to look for in a combat simulator

When it comes to choosing a combat simulator, the most important ingredient to consider is immersion. Immersion can be interpreted in different ways, but ultimately this is governed by how well each of the components contained within the simulator are designed. So let’s examine the most important elements of a combat simulator.

BoBII has some of the largest aerial battles of any simulation.
The Flight Model

The primary concern for a combat flight simmer should be the fidelity of the flight model, coupled with the aerodynamic and structural limitations of the aircraft included within the simulation. Some would even ‘tolerate’ shortcomings in other areas of the simulation, such as sparsely detailed terrain, as long as the flight model was ‘accurate’ within the limitations of the PC. One common problem that some combat simulators have had in the past is that aircraft often possess an unrealistic ability to continually turn with little or no reduction in speed or any departure from normal flight. In short, for ease of use, and to appeal to a wider audience, flight models in some simulators are often ‘dumbed down’.

Artificial Intelligence

An F-15 engaged in a dogfight.
Combat simulation is all about challenge and competitiveness. The single most important factor which determines that level of challenge is the sophistication of the Artificial Intelligence, or AI. To maintain credibility, the AI has to be ‘believable’. In order to be believable it not only has to be a challenge when it comes to dogfighting, but it also has to make mistakes, and be ‘vulnerable’ – in essence it has to exhibit human qualities rather than appear ‘super-human’. In addition to this, a realistic AI is one that also has limitations, in terms of skill, tactical knowledge and dogfighting expertise. Most sims provide you with the option to choose the level of AI expertise to suit your own prowess and level of experience.

Graphics engine

The look and feel of the virtual world that you fly within will also play a major part in immersing you into the simulation. This relates not only to the terrain, but also to the modelling of the external and internal detailing of the aircraft. As a rule you can usually gauge the depth of a combat simulation by how much attention is lavished on the cockpit areas – the greater the detailing, the greater the fidelity of the simulation. Visual damage modelling is also a factor to consider when assessing a combat simulator. The more effort that is put into this area, the greater the sense of ‘realism’.

Microsoft's Combat Flight Sim Gotha Go-229.
ATC and wingman communication

One area that is often overlooked, but is so important in conveying a sense of immersion, is wingman and ATC (Air Traffic Control) communication. The ability to ‘communicate’ with the AI adds that human element to your virtual environment and plays a very large part in immersing you into the simulation. Authentic radio ‘chatter’ also helps to create atmosphere and ambience without which a simulator would be pretty ‘sterile’. In addition, the ability to communicate with your wingmen adds a new dimension to the combat experience - the element of team work. There is nothing more satisfying and immersive than co-ordinating an attack with your wingman using radio communication!

The Campaign

The one area of a combat simulation that will guarantee its longevity and also give you some sense of purpose is the campaign. A campaign is really a series of missions that are either designed to provide a ‘Tour of Duty’ - the objective of which is to either survive a set number of missions - or to achieve a strategic objective. However, campaigns come in different shapes and sizes.

Microsft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 is characterised by air-to-ground missions - here a P-47 beats up an oil refinery.
The first type is the most simplistic and comprises a series of ‘scripted’ individual missions which have no bearing on each other. Scripted missions will play out the same way every time you fly them – with objects and aircraft placed in exactly the same place. With scripted missions events and actions are ‘triggered’ by you the player.

The second type of campaign is a combination of scripted and branching missions. Branching missions offer a choice of possible outcomes dependent on your performance. This means that the next mission you fly will not only be ‘triggered’ by you, but the nature of that mission will be dependent on the outcome of the previous one – adding a ‘dynamic’ feel to events. This format allows the developer to design less predictable and ultimately more challenging scenarios.

Your way to fly a Luftwaffe MiG-29 Fulcrum!
The third type of campaign is created by a ‘mission generator’. New missions are generated automatically by the program – the nature of which will be determined by the events of the previous one. However, the terrain and entities contained within the war zone will be ‘persistent’, which means that objects destroyed in one mission will stay destroyed in the next – or at least for a certain amount of time. If the campaign is historically based, then the designer may choose to adhere to history and therefore your actions will have no bearing on the final outcome of the battle.

The final brand of campaign is open, non-linear and fully dynamic. These types of campaigns are designed to replicate a fully interactive world where, unlike the previous three types of campaigns, events occur with or without your intervention. Other ‘entities’ within the campaign will have their own individual tasks and objectives. In addition, with this kind of scenario, resources will be limited, so both you and your opposing AI will have to manage resources and allocate them to wherever they are most needed in strategic terms. In a fully dynamic campaign the war is going on around you in real time, even when you are planning the next mission.

Immersion in a believable combat environment is a key element of military simulation, that’s why many prefer dynamic campaigns. Scripted mission scenarios are limited because if you fail, all you have to do is fly the mission again until you succeed. In addition, as mentioned, dynamic campaigns involve having to manage limited resources. So losing a resource, such as a pilot, could have an impact on the strategy and tactics that you employ.

Combat Multiplayer

The P-47 Thunderbolt from CFS3.
In my opinion and that of many others, the ultimate combat experience is achieved when flying online with real people rather than against computer-generated AI. The challenge is immense because you are dealing with the unpredictability of a thinking person. This is the closest you’ll probably ever get to dogfighting for real! So you will find that dogfighting online is more difficult to flying offline. Online combat takes things to a much higher level of skill and as a consequence it is more difficult to survive and succeed. Initially you may find the experience a little frustrating as you will probably be shot down quite frequently in the early stages. You will feel like a novice no matter how much offline experience you have had – the online experience is very different to offline.

However, perseverance will be rewarded and you will find that your defeats will gradually decrease as you gain experience and your ‘kills’ will start to mount. In terms of combat ‘arenas’, virtual combat pilots are catered for by dedicated online servers that provide a variety of scenarios. For example, pilots can join ‘sessions’ that provide them with the opportunity to fly in a ‘furball’ where it is every man (or woman) for themselves. Alternatively, a player can choose to fly for the ‘Red’ or the ‘Blue’ team. In these scenarios, team-work comes into play and is essential for survival! Some servers even keep an updated and detailed record of your sorties and combat details, which you can refer back to. Realism varies, but on some servers, if you ‘die’, you are not allowed to rejoin the campaign for a period of time. This affects how you fly and fight and you will find that you fly more intelligently and tend to take fewer risks. Competition is stiff and ‘newbies’ are shown little mercy.

Try out the weird and whacky such as this unusual looking Lerche III B-2!
Knowledge of the attributes and limitations of your aircraft and your opponent’s aircraft is an essential requirement if you are to survive in this hostile virtual world. However, you can increase your chances of survival by joining a virtual fighter squadron – many of which are based on actual historical fighter squadrons. Not only will you be able to gain mutual support when in a combat environment, fellow ‘squad’ members are always willing to offer useful help and advice. Communication between squad members is essential if you want to take full advantage of the mutual support. This can be achieved either by typing your messages to fellow members or by talking to them via microphone and headset, which enables leader and wingman co-operation and tactics. ‘Lone wolves’ seldom survive for long, so a wingman is essential in this virtual environment.

Whether you are into props or jets, combat simulation has a lot to offer the flight simmer in terms of depth, immersion, challenge and fun! For me, air combat simulation helps to bring history to life!

Extracted from an article first published in PC Pilot magazine Winter 2007

Filed Under Flight Simulation Features.


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Ian Guerrero said on the 18-Feb-2010 at 20:24

Images of the P-51vsFW-190, the Gotha and the Lerche are IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 Maddox Games (1C), and not the Microsoft CFS.


sinclair inglis said on the 21-Feb-2010 at 19:53

Good day, As well as the F16 sim, the F18 sim and Adventures, I still fly M/s CF1 and CF2.
Considering I use Windows XP obviously these Flt sims are quite remarkable and never give me a spot of bother.
I use my Shakelton, or Nimrod or EWA to round up my flight Sim life.
Being in my mid 70's I always complete at least one landing per day.
I have also flown in Vampire T11's, MeteorMK7's, Sunderlands and Lincolns with the RAAF on 'strikes'...///Ain't I lucky.

Neil Smith said on the 23-Feb-2010 at 19:57

My favorite combat sim is IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 so I was delighted to find when upgrading to Windows 7 that it will run without having to have the disc in the drive.

Peter Bezemer said on the 12-Mar-2010 at 13:36

My favourite combat flightsim at this moment is 'Strike Fighters 2', there are loads of community-made free add-ons available, avionics are realy good, i love it :-)

For the more civil flying I have FSX

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