We take a look at the new flyable VTOL vehicles that are a part of the massive Arma 3 Apex expansion. While I’m no expert on A3 gameplay, I am a huge fan of the A3 helos due to the fantastic feeling of flight they impart over the super-detailed landscapes that A3 features.
Available as “preview” content in mid-June, and fully released in mid-July, the Apex DLC add-on to Arma 3 touts some impressive additions:
- 100 km² South Pacific island archipelago Tanoa
- New Syndikat faction, NATO & CSAT special forces, and Pacific expeditionary units
- 13 new weapons, new uniforms, headgear, backpacks, NVGs, weapon optics
- 10 new vehicles including new vehicle classes: VTOL, LSV, and more
- 1-4 player co-op campaign supporting online drop-in/drop-out
Of particular interest to me were the two new VTOL air assets which have some really cool features that I was excited to explore. Of course, the added bonus is that we get to test out these new aircraft in a really interesting new theater of operations: Tanoa. Featuring lush jungles, airports, dirt strips, beautiful seascapes, and a huge variety of structures, Tanoa is a low-altitude pilot’s dream location.
The first unit we’ll take a look at is the CSAT Y-32 Xi’an VTOL. Described as a joint project between CSAT forces and the Chinese PLA, the Y-32 is arguably the less traditional of the two new VTOLs. Featuring rotating jet nozzles and wing mounted lift fans, the Y-32 is the smaller of the two new VTOLs, but also speedier, and it sports some significant armament.
Now, I’m no aeronautical engineer, so take the following with a whole salt shaker full of salt, but from a pure layman’s point of view, I have to make the observation that the lift fans and the vector nozzles do appear to be quite small for the large job they are tasked to do. But you know what? I don’t really care if this is a flight of fantasy, because the Y-32 is a kick-ass ride!
The tandem cockpit layout, 30mm chin mounted cannon, and stub wings with rockets (Skyfire) and missiles (Scalpel) are very reminiscent of the Mi-24 Hind gunship – a lineage that should command respect from those on the receiving end. An aft cargo ramp drops down to accommodate vehicles or troops depending on which variant you are in. I neglected to count the aft seats, but I believe it seats somewhere around 16-18 troops. In the cargo variant, you can load one of the new Qilin LSV vehicles in the aft compartment with up to six soldiers in it. Unfortunately, the loading graphics are non-existent, instead the vehicle just pops into and out of the loading compartment. It is also possible to air-drop the vehicle, which should provide for some interesting moments over a hot battlefield.
Climbing into the cockpit of the Y-32, you are presented with a beautiful gunship type of layout with a narrow body and several multi-function displays arrayed in front of you. Unfortunately, the beauty of the panels is only skin deep and they suffer from only displaying the basic flight information such as the attitude indicator, airspeed, altitude, and vertical speed. The bottom left mini-display shows the vectored thrust position, but the engine gauges don’t reflect thrust setting, so it can be a bit of guesswork on what power setting you have and how much you have left. And I was doubly surprised to see that neither of the new VTOLs feature a HUD, which would be a very useful feature for night insertions and extractions. The pilot helmet looks pretty exotic, and one would think it would have some embedded HUD or virtual targeting type technology within. Lettering is in Chinese, which is a nice touch, and since inside reference isn’t really needed for flight, there is no real ramification due to that.
Flying the Y-32 is the typical exercise in A3 efficiency. The scroll wheel menu can be used to turn the engines on/off, set the VTOL mode, turn lights on/off, and drop cargo from the cargo bay. An important button to map is the VTOL mode engage or you risk having the aircraft transition from hovering flight to forward flight accidentally at such a low airspeed that a crash is inevitable. The Y-32 achieves VTOL by rotating the exhaust nozzles downward. Transitioning to and from forward flight can be achieved by mapping your flaps key and gradually cycling through a few different preset nozzle positions until they are full aft or full down. There is no negative angle (a braking/forward thrust angle) which would actually be a bit useful. It would also be cool if the nozzles could be mapped to an axis input to allow for direct nozzle angle control.
With the engines running and the nozzles in the full down position, near maximum power is required to achieve liftoff. Amid a small cloud of dust, the Y-32 tends to want to move forward immediately unless a significant amount of nose up input is applied. Thus, the Y-32 appears to hover like a bird of prey. Acceleration via stepping through the nozzle increments leads to a fairly brisk acceleration. Once in full forward flight, the Y-32 is nimble enough to perform rolls and loops and speed tops out at around 725 kph. Obviously, this top speed is quite a bit faster than the rotor wing aircraft of A3, which means you can be on scene for a troop deployment or pickup in rapid order. The Y-32 has some excellent sound effects and cockpit shaking that occur during maneuvering.
Weight seems to affect the engine output required to hover, but there does not appear to be a limiting weight for VTOL, so you don’t have to worry about performance with a full load. Curiously though (and a paradox to the above statement) if you drop a vehicle while in a stable hover, the aircraft does not suddenly lurch up with the release of several tons of weight. During the transition from forward flight to a hover, the aircraft has some unique characteristics that are hard to describe. Sufficient power must be maintained to allow for controllability in pitch or you will run out of aft stick input. The best way I can describe it is that it flies a bit like a jet-ski or waverunner – neither will turn unless you have power running through the impeller – the same is true for the Y-32, it needs a good bit of power to provide pitch authority. Care must be taken to not develop an excessive vertical sink rate because it takes quite a few seconds to develop full power and arrest a sink rate. Snap deceleration maneuvers into a tight LZ require a lot of practice and a recognition of how to plan ahead to reach the hover just as you are reaching the LZ.
The Y-32 can be landed like a traditional aircraft on conventional runways. Oddly enough though, takeoffs from conventional runways using forward thrust cannot be performed. There is apparently some sort of weight-on-wheels logic that puts the vector nozzles in the downward position at all times when on the ground. It would be nice to have the ability to control the nozzles on the ground as well. It was my intent to test the Y-32 on the takeoff roll to check for some sort of translational lift, but the best I could do was push forward on the control stick to achieve some forward momentum at just enough power to stay on the runway. As the aircraft accelerates, a bit of gradual back pressure will take you airborne, so there is some sort of pseudo-translational lift going on there.
In the clean configuration, the Y-32 stalls at around 145 kph, resulting in a slight pitch change which regains flying speed. It is very docile in the stall regime. In forward flight, I could not find a way to trim the aircraft, which would be nice. I might have overlooked it. I suspect that the helicopter flight model (rotorlib) is a bit more robust and it would be great if BIS would eventually get around to tweaking the fixed wing model a bit. As well, the Y-32 could use wheel brakes which would make transitions from the ground to vertical flight a more precise matter in those cases where you don’t apply quite enough back stick pressure as the weight comes off the wheels.
One major disappointment is that neither of the new VTOLs is capable of sling loading vehicles or objects. The rugged landscape of Tanoa is perfect for sling loading items into the jungle, but perhaps that capability will come with later development or a user mod much the way the Mi-290 Taru “pods” were later modified to be winched into position.
The Y-32 is a nice combination of troop carrier, light vehicle lifter, and an effective gunship. The pilot occupies the back seat while the gunner sits in the forward position. The gunner cockpit has exceptional visibility. Though no gunner “hood optics” seems to be shown in the cockpit, the traditional numpad enter key takes you to a close up view of the optics which includes daylight TV, and thermal imaging with both white and black hot modes. Multiple zoom levels can get you up close and personal with the enemy. I was flying with an AI pilot while occupying the gunner station and I think the experience would be much better with a human flying more smoothly and responding to the gunner requests for turns and stable flight. The cannon, rockets, and guided missiles are very effective and the Y-32 can sometimes take a couple of missile hits to bring down, so it is fairly rugged. Self defense is the typical A3 flares system.
V-44 X Blackfish
Advertised as a third-generation tilt-rotor, the V-44 is an impressively large VTOL that can deliver massive loads of troops or vehicles, or put down a rain of artillery and gunfire on the battlefield as it orbits overhead. Capable of delivering up to 32 troops, or vehicles as large as an AMV-7 Marshall APC, the V-44 is much larger and bulkier than the Y-32. The three variants include troop transport, vehicle transport, and gunship models.
The cockpit of the V-44 is massive in volume and looks like something Boeing would have created for a long-haul airliner. Behind the pilot and copilot are seats for additional crewmembers for the transport variants and gunner/sensor operators for the gunship model. Visibility is exceptional with the front glass uninterrupted by a central post.
Instead of using lift fans or jet nozzles, the V-44 uses a traditional Osprey-like tilt rotor design of massive proportions. On the ground the rotors can be selected to either vertical takeoff or they can be angled slightly forward to provide for a short takeoff. The flap selector increments the rotors through several more stages after liftoff until they are in full “airplane” mode. For me, as a “collective puller” in helicopters, I still struggle with the V-44 in VTOL mode because I want to fly it like a helicopter with a “pull for power” mentality. This has gotten me into trouble several times. The hybrid helicopter/aircraft mentality is tough for me to switch on the fly. That said, the V-44 feels much more stable than the Y-32 in a hover and almost feels like an Airbus with regards to stability. I attribute it to the advanced fly-by-wire capability which makes the V-44 easy to drive around close to the ground in VTOL mode.
Though capable of hauling much greater loads than the Y-32, the V-44 is quite a bit slower, maxing out at around 550 kph in the aircraft configuration. Stalls in the clean configuration occur in a similar area as the Y-32 at around 160 kph. I prefer the panel layout of the V-44 simply because it is more recognizable given my native language. Again, the lack of a HUD or helmet optics system is a curious omission. As with the Y-32, vehicle loading is done via a snap transition. It would be kind of nice to have the ramp move open and closed during the deployment of vehicles, troops, and boats during airdrops.
Of course, the real fun with the V-44 is utilizing the gunship version, which is akin to a VTOL AC-130. Poking out of the left side of the aircraft are a 105mm Howitzer-like artillery tube with 100 rounds of HEAT-MP (High Explosive Anti-Tank/Multi-Purpose), a 20mm Gatling gun with 2,000 rounds of ammunition to hose down enemy positions, and a 40mm autocannon with 240 rounds of GPR-T (General Purpose Round/Tracer) and 160 rounds of APFSDS-T (Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot/Tracer). So yeah, it is basically a moving firebase. Granted, you’d better have suppressed the enemy anti-air capability while orbiting over the battlefield in the enormous V-44, but it sure is fun raining rounds down on enemy positions. Again, I was utilizing the weapons stations (there are two gunner slots) while letting the AI fly, which is not an ideal situation. The AI flies with a jerky style that is not conducive to keeping your weapons aimed where you want, and they won’t really fly patterns that keep your line of sight to the enemy inside the radius of your turn. I can’t wait to play a mission with human pilots and gunners to see how effective the V-44 can be.
The new flyable VTOLs that Apex adds to A3 are a blast to zip around the new theater with. I really enjoy the unique capabilities of both and hope that mission builders will start to create some special missions where we can take advantage of them. Of course, I loved the Mi-290 Taru and CH-67 Huron quite well too, but A3 is and always has been primarily an infantry level sandbox, so mission content isn’t always very prolific for these more support geared platforms. Truth be told, there isn’t much more that the new VTOLs bring to the table over the standard A3 helicopters that are already in place, with the exception of perhaps the number of troops that can be airdropped and the heavy lift ability of the V-44. And certainly the V-44 gunship variant can bring a lot of fire support to bear for moving infantry. The Y-32 is no slouch as a gunship either and can double as both an LZ sanitizer and a troop insertion vehicle in the same mission. As usual, A3 is about doing the things you want to do with it – and it remains the ultimate sandbox for that.
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth