By Sunjammer 16 Comments
I've had a lot of fun with DCS A-10C, but it was the second DCS sim I bought. I originally got Black Shark when it was released, and immediately hit a brick wall with it. It was easily as complex as the A-10, everything was labelled in Russian, none of the tutorials were interactive, and in general the whole experience of learning was really painful, to the point where I just decided I wasn't up to the challenge.
Now, having gotten to know the A-10 fairly well, and given that Black Shark just got its 2.0 upgrade making it multiplayer compatible with DCS A-10, I decided to give it another spin.
On the upside, Black Shark 2's interface is generally analogous to DCS A-10's, so the mission editor etc are all the same. Additionally, the voice work has been translated to English, along with all the cockpit labels; This might seem like a copout, but I honestly didn't sign up to learn Russian; The language is a stylistic choice rather than a real facet of the aircraft, so I welcomed the change.
The tutorials were still a bit shit though, if not even worse this time around, being replaced with a bunch of grainy videos that refer to videos that don't even exist (yet..?), so back to the manual, and back to the notebook.
The thing is, knowing how to cold start the A-10 made figuring out how to cold start the Ka-50 kind of a breeze. I felt like such a badass going into that cockpit and knowing what battery ac/dc, the inverter, what the APU did and so on, even without looking at the manual I managed to get the engines running and fumble my way off the ground (and into a building). This was already aeons beyond how I fared with Black Shark 1, so it was very encouraging!
Second, I now possessed a nice HOTAS stick/throttle set, as well as the TrackIR5, ready to assign all the useful axes and buttons to. All in all, I felt like everything was there for me to figure out how to fly the thing.
Well, let me tell you, if it wasn't obvious.. For as complex as the A-10 is, the aerodynamics and general maneuvering of a jet is a fairly intuitive thing. A helicopter is something entirely different. Whereas flying a plane around is something you can figure out in minutes, simply making a helicopter stay still is a challenge. The Black Shark has thoroughly humbled me.
A big part of the difficulty is understanding the difference between an inherently stable platform, like a fixed wing aircraft, and a totally unstable one, like a helicopter, where changes in attitude are exponential, and you must learn to compensate in reverse for everything you do. The simplest comparison I can think of is balancing a chopstick on your palm. The "big deal" with the Ka-50 is its degree of automation, however, and god, this thing has one of the most aggressive autopilot solutions I've come across. It's all there to let you perform the roles of both navigator/pilot and weapons officer (whereas the AH-64 has a crew of two to do the same), but the result is an aircraft that feels unusually argumentative.
Theoretically, this means you have a vehicle you "order around", rather than fly by the seat of your pants, and the shift between governing what the helo should try to do, versus what you want to do in the exact moment, can be super frustrating. In the A-10 you may have engaged the autopilot to hold your current heading, but when you take charge, the AP disengages itself. Not so on the Ka-50. You'll be heading in one direction, then try to bank to the left. Forgetting to hold the trimmer button, you come out of your turn with a helicopter that gently urges you to bank to the right, back to your original heading. The AP is designed to constantly be engaged, with you rather temporarily disengaging it during a maneuver before re-engaging after, to give the AP a new set of "orders".
But I really want to learn how to work around this stuff, even come to love it, because as a weapons platform the Ka-50 is kind of amazing.
First of all, a helmet mounted sight (HMS) system lets you simply look at a tank to slew your missile/gun onto it. In the A-10, this process, while not complicated, is book-keeping 2 or even 3 sensors. In the Ka-50, you simply look at a thing and push a button. By constantly slaving the gun to the HMS, you can track a moving target with your head movement while shooting at it. It feels like total science fiction. If the A-10 gets the HMS (as rumored), that plane is frankly going to be terrifyingly effective.
Additionally, there is a directness and simplicity to the Russian design that makes the A-10 seem a little convoluted sometimes. The sensor slew in the A-10 feels endlessly slow when compared to how quickly the Shkval targeting pod lets you scan and move the cursor on a target. While the A-10 TGP is clearly superior, the Shkval still "feels" better to use, and less argumentative than the Litening pod.
I'm going to stick with the Black Shark for a while; I miss the A-10 constantly, but there is something "dirty" and alien to this Russian helo that really makes me want to feel confident in it.