Going vertical. (helicopter flight simulators)(includes product information and related article on RAH-66 Comanche helicopter) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
You're flying low, almost brushing the trees' highest branches. Suddenly you detect a surface-to-air missile (SAM) rocketing toward you. You lift, swerve, and then duck to avoid it. Safe for a moment, you drop and hide along the side of a forested hill. You're not flying the fastest jet, but one of the slowest of aircraft, a helicopter. You've traded speed and glamour for stealth and unusual powers. Almost a secret weapon in modern warfare, your helicopter possesses advantages over all fixed-wing aircraft. It can take off and land in a space no larger than a two-car driveway, fly at arm's length above treetops, and duck into foliage to hide. Lucky for you, you aren't actually risking life and limb during your mission; you're piloting one of the latest flight simulators in the safety of your own home.
Only recently have computers been able to handle the close-to-the-ground rendering necessary for helicopter flight. The most significant of these simulators are Gunship 2000 from MicroProse and Comanche Maximum Overkill from Nova Logic. They use the technology found in the powerful helicopters in action as recently as Desert Storm.
Electronic sophistication: That's the hallmark of the modern helicopter. Apaches, SuperCobras, and Comanches are marvels in state-of-the-art electronics, with multifunction computer displays, laser and infrared targeting, and extensive countermeasure capabilities. Gunship 2000 and Comanche Maximum Overkill are, respectively, modern-era and near-future simulators that take advantage of these capabilities.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a helicopter simulator is that the slower speed gives you time to assess situations. And, since piloting a helicopter involves intense concentration on the terrain, flight is a much more active--and challenging--endeavor.
Gunship 2000: Multichopper Missions
MicroProse's Gunship 2000 allows you to fly a wide array of helicopters, from the Apache to the experimental Comanche. Missions allow you to travel the globe from the Middle East to Europe, the Philippines, and Antarctica (the latter two theaters are included in the scenario add-on disk, Gunship 2000 Philippine Islands and Antarctica Scenario Disk with Mission Builder).
Play begins with a series of training missions, and successful completion earns you a promotion to Warrant Officer First Class. From there, you fly single-helicopter missions until success leads you to full commission. As a commissioned officer, you can fly any of the helicopters in single-helicopter missions or command a multichopper flight. Lastly, a campaign series of multicopter flights tests your expertise.
MicroProse has done a commendable job in bringing the complicated instrumentation of the modern helicopter to the computer. Fortunately, it has included many ways for players to customize the flying difficulty, from allowing the copilot to handle all weapons and countermeasures to taking full charge of the helicopter simulation with varying lift-to-speed characteristics.
The exterior graphics are unspectacular polygon renderings, but there's so much going on around you that they're more than adequate.
Flying the choppers is simple at first, but at the advanced levels it's a true test for your brain's on-the-fly computational ability. You control the cyclic, which is the directional control, and the collective, which controls lift. These controls continually affect each other, requiring you to give them almost constant attention and adjustment, especially when you are swerving and ducking to avoid mountains or incoming SAMs.
During multicopter missions, you must not only fly a helicopter but also issue orders to an entire wing. During the course of many missions, the pilots who are flying with you grow in experience and training, and any green cadets become seasoned combat veterans.
Gunship 2000's scenario add-on disk, Gunship 2000 Philippine Islands and Antarctica Scenario Disk with Mission Builder, adds some flight capabilities, like collective control for a CH Flightstick. But the heart of the add-on disk consists of new theaters and scenarios. City flights are available in the European theater, and you can skim over and through rugged mountain ranges in northern Iraq. The Philippines and Antarctica are also represented. Plus, the disk sports a comprehensive scenario builder.
Comanche Maximum Overkill: Electronics Challenge
Nova Logic's Comanche Maximum Overkill is set in the year 1999 and is based on the RAH-66 Comanche, a helicopter not yet in actual use. There are no flight options and no levels of flight difficulty, but the Comanche is such an unusual chopper (see "The RAH-66 Comanche") that there's plenty to keep you busy.
The most striking feature of Maximum Overkill is its terrain graphics. The mountains, hills, and riverbeds appear as fractal landscapes based on actual topographical data. Thanks to native-mode assembly language programming (no memory manager is needed, but you do need 4MB of RAM), the graphics are smoothly rendered and awe-inspiring. Nothing quite compares to whipping down a river canyon at 190 knots with cliffs blurring past on either side.
Maximum Overkill is easier to operate than Gunship 2000; consequently, it sacrifices some realism. For instance, the only graphics besides the rolling terrain are the threats (missiles and other hazards that your enemy sends your way); there are no incidental buildings or cities, nor are there trees. Also, you fly the missions in the immediate vicinity of the threats; you do not have to struggle with navigating your Comanche.
The flight model is also easier to fly than that of Gunship 2000, but that's partly because of the projected ease of flying the Comanche, which automates many of the controls. Since there's no hard flight data yet for the Comanche, it's impossible to know just how realistically Maximum Overkill flies.
That doesn't mean this simulation isn't entertaining: Gameplay is fast and exciting, and there are plenty of tactics to learn. With the complexity of the terrain modeling, you truly can utilize "nap of the earth" tactics, popping up to target and order an artillery strike and diving low over a riverbed to avoid an incoming missile.
Take the Challenge
Helicopter simulators are a fascinating and addicting way to learn about the flight models of one of our most unusual inventions. Rotary-winged aircraft are common enough, but the details of their operation are something very few of us know about. The battlefield of the future will be nonlinear. No longer will massive deployments of troops cover hundreds of miles; rather, small, discrete combat units will be asked to perform small, very specific missions in discontinuous locations. At the heart of this type of strategy is the helicopter: elusive, dangerous, and capable of transporting troops and armament deep behind hostile borders. If you're ready for new challenges and a fresh gaming (and a true learning) experience, climb behind the cyclic of a rotary-winged simulator and give helicopter flight a whirl.
THE RAH-66 COMANCHE
Both Comanche Maximum Overkill and Gunship 2000 allow you to sit behind the controls of the Comanche, but just what is at the heart of this high-tech helicopter? The Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche is an experimental helicopter that will reach its first prototype flying stage in 1994. Already, the U.S. government has committed to purchasing over 1200 of these nimble combat and scout choppers.
The Comanche's small, thin, and aerodynamic body will be constructed entirely out of composite materials. The scooped cockpit holds a crew of two, each in sealed, identical chambers. The pilot sits in front, enjoying a panoramic view, and the copilot is a fully trained pilot as well.
The instrument panel is dominated by twin Multi-Function Displays, each able to display a wide array of instruments from digital maps to television images and damage control. The units are redundant, which means that if one unit fails, the other can replace it. Prior to each mission, the pilot loads a 650MB optical disk into the chopper's computer, which then relays such information as targets and maps.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Comanche is its ability to pop into view of the target area, record data, and then retreat. The pilot and copilot can then review the images in relative safety to plan their attack.
The Comanche's design is totally modular, with ergonomics and efficiency factored in at every juncture. Currently, when Apache helicopters are in the field, an entire electronic testing laboratory must accompany them for maintenance and repairs. The Comanche needs only handheld computers to diagnose its problems, and its modular nature allows a new part to be fitted almost instantly while the malfunctioning part is repaired off line.
The Comanche is a fly-by-wire helicopter, which means that the pilot's control actions aren't linked directly to the control surfaces but instead are linked electronically to the computer. Based on the context, the computer can then take whatever actions are necessary to achieve the pilot's desired results. When flying a Comanche, a pilot no longer has to control the throttle, tail rotor, cyclic, and collective; the computer handles all of the calculations and adjusts each system automatically.
Undoubtedly the most advanced helicopter yet designed, the Comanche is expected to see service well into the next century. With user-friendly designs such as this being possible with today's technology, one wonders what the future holds for rotary-winged aircraft.