Guest contributor “Chuck Owl” takes a look at the Heatblur F-14B Tomcat as it nears a wider Early Access release…
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last four years, you most certainly have heard that a simulation of the F-14A/B Tomcat is being brought to DCS by Heatblur Simulations. The stakes couldn’t be higher – you’ve got one of the most iconic and coolest American planes ever built, a community with sky high expectations, and a team hell-bent on providing a quality product. The result is a trip back through time, back to the glorious 80’s: we are at the height of the cold war, the world is on the brink of a nuclear conflict, and disco is dying. To put you in the mood, I suggest that you go on Meteor’s Soundcloud and start listening to his amazing synthwave music. His soundtrack for the DCS Tomcat is an absolute masterpiece and will release with the module. I highly recommend it.
Enough chit chat, back to the topic at hand. Heatblur’s Bossman Cobra was kind enough to provide Mudspike with an early build and let us preview their baby. Keep in mind that what you will see here is a work in progress and is subject to change. Let’s see what’s in store for us.
Starting up the Tomcat
The Tomcat start-up procedure is quite interesting since it is basically a two-man job. First, you need to ensure the parking brake is set before pressing the Communication Menu key [ \ ] and contact the Ground Crew by pressing [ F8 ]. Since the Tomcat does not have a battery switch nor an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) – its electrical systems run strictly on either engine generator power or an external power source. We need to connect Ground Power by pressing [ F2 ] (Ground Electric Power menu) and [ F1 ] (Power On). Our GE F110 engines have pneumatic starters and require an external air pressure source, which can be provided by contacting the Ground Crew [ F8 ], pressing [ F2 ] (Ground Air Supply menu) and by pressing [ F1 ] (Connect).
Then, we verify that the Emergency Wing Sweep Lever is in the OVERSWEEP position (fully aft). We now need to bring our RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) “Jester” to life. Simply set the ICS (Intercom Set) switch to HOT MIC, which will allow you to communicate with Jester without having to physically key your microphone. After that, you will have to tell him to start his own start-up procedures. Use the Jester Contextual Menu by pressing [ A ] and press [ LCTRL+3 ] to request start-up. After a few seconds, Jester will start talking to you and request a Comm Check. Open up the Jester Contextual Menu again by pressing [ A ] and answer him by pressing [ LCTRL+4] .
Jester will then start flicking switches on his own and run through the RIO checklists. You will hear switches moving and systems being started like the UHF radio, but don’t let that distract you. Like I said, starting the Tomcat is a two-man job and you still have plenty on your plate.
Jester will eventually ask you to arm the ejection seat. You can do this by clicking the ejection seat arming handle or pressing [LSHIFT+E]
Jester will then automatically close the canopy for you once your ejection seat is armed properly. He will then resume running through his start-up checklist. I have to admit…the sound of the canopy closing will make you weak in your knees.
I will spare you the details on the numerous tests you need to run with the Master Test switch, which is operated by pulling it up with a right click, turning it to the desired test position with a left click, and pushing it back down with a right click.
MSL PREP (Missile Preparation) and SW COOL (Sidewinder Cooling) switches need to be set to OFF, and the MSL MODE (Missile Mode) switch needs to be set to NORM. Then, verify that the Air Source selector is set to OFF, the Emergency Flight Hydraulics Switch is set to AUTO (LOW) and the Hydraulic Transfer Pump switch is set to SHUTOFF…
To start the right engine, verify that you have the Air Pressure Cart connected first. Then, set Engine Crank switch to R (Right Click) and wait for engine RPM to increase to approx. 20 %. Then, click on the right throttle to set it from CUTOFF to IDLE. Engine should lightoff within 5 to 15 seconds. The Engine Crank switch will automatically disengage at 50 % RPM. The TIT should not exceed 890 deg C during the start.
Engine steady-state parameters at IDLE should be:
- RPM between 62 and 78 %
- TIT around 500 deg C
- Fuel Flow between 950 and 1400 lbs/hour (pph)
- NOZ (Nozzle) position at 100 %
- Oil Pressure between 25 and 35 PSI (15 PSI minimum)
- Flight Hydraulic Pressure – 3000 PSI
Once the engine is stabilized, disconnect ground power. Hold the Engine Crank switch to L (Left) to start the left engine. Wait for engine RPM to increase to approx. 20 %, then click on the left throttle to set it from CUTOFF to IDLE. Once engine is stabilized, set Air Source to BOTH ENG and set the Hydraulic Transfer Pump Switch to NORMAL and close its cover guard. Verify that Flight Hydraulic Pressure is around 3000 PSI and Combined Hydraulic Pressure is around 3000 PSI as well. Don’t forget to disconnect the Ground Air Cart as well.
Now that our engines are started, the RIO will automatically start flicking more switches to start the INS (Inertial Navigation System) alignment process. Switch your VDI (Vertical Display Indicator), HUD (Heads Up Display) and HSD (Horizontal Situation Display) Power switches ON. Then, set the HSD Mode switch to “TID”. This will make the HSD screen act as a repeater for the RIO’s Tactical Information Display (TID) and allow you to monitor the progress of the INS alignment. Use the Jester Contextual Menu by pressing [ A ] and choose your alignment precision by pressing either [ LCTRL+4 ], [ LCTRL+5 ], [ LCTRL+6 ] or [ LCTRL+7 ]. If you choose the FINE precision, the INS alignment takes about 8 minutes.
Now that we have some time to kill, let’s run through the remaining items on the pilot checklist.
- Turn all SAS (Stability Augmentation System) switches ON
- Set WING/EXT TRANS switch OFF
- Set UHF Function Selector to BOTH
- Set TACAN function selector to T/R (Transmit Receive)
- Set ARA-63 ICLS (Intrument Carrier Landing System) Receiver Power switch ON
- Set Radar Altitude by turning the control knob one click clockwise. The RADALT will display 6000 ft for about 2 to 3 minutes while it is warming up, then revert back to 0 ft once the BIT (Built-In Test) is complete.
- At least 2 minutes before takeoff, erect the standby attitude gyro (ADI) by clicking on the control knob and turning it until the indicator matches the current attitude.
- Press the MASTER RESET pushbutton (very important).
- If you are operating on a carrier, set ANTI-SKID SPOILER BRAKES switch to OFF. If you are operating from an airfield, set it to BOTH.
- Trim the aircraft stabilizer using the hat switch on your stick. Trim setting should be as per NATOPS recommendations (which depend on your weight & center of gravity emplacement). As a personal preference, I usually use 1 to 3 AoA Units Nose Up for light configurations, 3 to 6 AoA Units Nose Up for heavy launches. I prefer to climb out very smoothly from launch to around 450 ft and keep it for about 7 nautical miles following the carrier’s BRC (Basic Recovery Course)…
Now, time to unsweep our wings for takeoff.
Set the Emergency Wing Sweep Handle all the way forward to 20 degrees (scroll mousewheel or left click & drag), then push the lever down with a right click and flip the handle cover over it. Then, press the MASTER RESET button (very important or the AUTO mode will not work properly). Use the Wing Sweep AFT & FWD buttons on your Wing Sweep Thumb switch (throttle) to exercise the wings through their whole range of motion. Then, set the Wing Sweep Thumb Switch UP to AUTO mode. The Wing Sweep Angle indicator should then automatically set themselves to 20 deg.
Once the INS alignment is complete, the HSD (Horizontal Situation Indicator) will switch to the page below and the RIO will tell you that he is ready to taxi.
To start taxiing, make sure you release the parking brake handle (must be pushed to be released). Use the Nosewheel Steering button on the stick and rudder pedals to steer the aircraft.
Line up on the catapult shuttle, then set flaps lever to FULL and set the NOSE STRUT switch to KNEEL. Press [ U ] to hook the catapult’s shuttle to launch bar. The JBD (Jet Blast Deflector) will then be deployed and you will be ready for launch.
Verify that takeoff trim is set and verify that Nosewheel Steering is disengaged.
Set throttle to MIL power, then press [LSHIFT+ U ] to salute and launch. Catapult launches with the afterburners on were considered too dangerous because the yaw would be too great if one of the burners of the F110 failed.
And off we go into the sunset…
…to the Danger Zone.
Notice the (prohibited) catapult launch with manly afterburners on. Let’s fly dangerously!
Flying a Fighter Pilot’s Plane
We’ve already seen a number of YouTube videos showcasing the DCS Tomcat’s flight model, and the general consensus is that it is just plain superb. Heatblur went through great lengths to bring their aircraft to life. The switches click and snap, the wings flex with wind and pulling Gs, the whole fuselage rattles and shakes, the afterburners roar, the landing gear “thumps” during a hard landing… Heatblur’s artistry is truly jaw-dropping when it comes to convincing you that you are operating a Navy fighter jet that’s engineered for combat. Their product has to be one of the most immersive I’ve ever seen.
With the Tomcat being one of the most iconic aircraft in popular culture, and quite the looker, reproducing the seductive jet’s curves is quite the challenge. Despite the sky high expectations of the community, Heatblur went above and beyond to surpass them. The visuals in the Tomcat are nothing short of spectacular. Lighting showcases the painstaking lengths the Heatblur team went to in order to model rivets, oil stains, creases, and bent aluminum skin panels…it’s a screenshot junkie’s wet dream.
The texturing work is breathtaking from top to bottom, both inside and outside the cockpit. You can almost lick the paint off the panels.
The Heatblur F-14 isn’t just pretty though…its flight model is also scarily believable. While the Hornet vs Tomcat debate has been raging for years, my first impressions of the Tomcat flight model are that it’s a wild, dangerous beast that is merciless to the pilot that doesn’t know how to fly it properly.
LCDR Joe “Smokin” Ruzicka, who was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) who flew the last F-14 Demonstration before the Tomcat’s retirement in 2006, once said that “the better way to understand the differences between the F-14 and the F/A-18E/F is using the analogy of a muscle car to a mini-van, with the Tomcat being the former and the Super Hornet being the latter. The muscle car doesn’t have much to it in the way of fancy technology, just some raw speed and the coolness of a Steve McQueen movie, but it gets the job done. The mini-van on the other hand is a very nice car, complete with DVR’s for the kids, Air Conditioning, power windows, and lots of places to put your sippy cup. It’s a great car… but it’s still a mini-van. […] In the Tomcat, I think you had to be a better aviator because the technology just wasn’t there. It was up to the aircrew to maximize its performance (or minimize it if you sucked).”
Having spent a couple of hours in the DCS Tomcat, I can completely understand why. As with all inputs in the F-14, you have to know about them before doing them, and then perform them smoothly and precisely. Erratic stick and rudder movements are a recipe for disaster. As an example, one should not try an all-rudder constant slow roll turn all the way through a barrel roll; use the rudder to turn in increments with controlled inputs instead. When flying a low angle of attack (AoA) high-speed roll, you should roll the aircraft with the stick and progressively add rudder. The higher your angle of attack, the more your rudders should replace your lateral stick inputs, especially when turning in BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers). If you find yourself in a nose up high AoA near stall, gently release pressure from the stick, nudge some left or right rudder into the turn and the Tomcat’s nose will glide back down, then you can feed throttle back in during the recovery.
The Tomcat has many aerodynamic peculiarities and the majority of them are deadly (I’m looking at you, roll reversal!). Adverse yaw can be quite dangerous if you don’t pay attention to it. Combining roll and rudder input while pulling on the stick is the last thing I would recommend. It’s a bit like the “Good-Fast-Cheap” quality triangle, but with control input. Out of roll, yaw, and pitch input…you should try to only pick two at once at any time in a high AoA fight. Above 16 “AoA units” (nope, the AoA is not calculated in degrees in the Tomcat but in its own arbitrary units), forget about using roll – use rudder instead.
Carrier operations are tons of fun and you will need a lot of practice to land on the boat properly to catch that magic third wire. The carrier landing procedure is quite similar to the Hornet’s, but this time you have to fly without fancy fly-by-wire augmentation. Luckily, you have some tools at your disposal.
The key to managing a sucessful landing is to set your angle of attack to the On Speed AoA (yellow donut) by trimming the aircraft early on in the downwind leg. Make sure you know your altitude and practice flying the pattern around the boat. The throttle can be used to control your glide slope, but this time around it’s a little more difficult since it will also slightly throw off your AoA. The airbrake has to be deployed as well since the F-14 is quite heavy and difficult to slow down if you want to maintain a good approach.
On the control stick, there is a small spring-loaded thumbwheel for the DLC (Direct Lift Control) system. DLC is primarily a function of spoilers to maintain a correct glide slope without power or attitude adjustment. Rotating the thumbwheel aft causes the DLC spoilers to go flush with the wing, thereby increasing lift. This causes the aircraft to climb a little without ever having to adjust either engine power or pitch attitude. However if we are a little above glide slope, rotating the thumbwheel forward causes the spoilers to increase their deflection, thus causing even more drag, making the aircraft descend slightly, again without any needed power or attitude adjustments. You can check if the DLC is engaged by looking over your shoulder and checking if the Maneuvering Flaps/Spoilers are deployed.
To land safely, you have to do quite a bit of mental calculations. While the Hornet’s weight can be directly looked up in a Support Checklist page on high-tech Multipurpose Control Displays…the Tomcat doesn’t have that luxury. You need to mentally calculate your landing weight by adding remaining fuel and ordnance weight to make sure that you don’t exceed the maximum landing weight. If you are overweight you can use the Fuel Dump switch to shed the excess weight and anger Green Peace.
Funny thing…you can “Dump n’ Burn” if you throttle up and the afterburners kick in while you are dumping fuel.
Break ALL the Things
The Tomcat was an aircraft that was known to have high maintenance costs. The F-14A entered service with the United States Navy in 1973 powered by Pratt & Whitney TF30s. By the end of the decade, following numerous problems with the original engine (and similar problems with the Pratt & Whitney F100 on the F-15 and F-16), the DoD began procuring the upgraded TF30-P-414As. While these engines solved the serviceability problems, the fuel consumption and thrust was comparable to the initial model–considerably less than what the F-14 had been designed for. The GE F110 were a much needed improvement and powered the F-14B. The F110-GE-400 engine produced 23,400 lbf (104 kN) of thrust with afterburner at sea level, which rose to 30,200 lbf (134 kN) at Mach 0.9. This provided a significant increase over the TF30’s maximum thrust of 20,900 lbf (93 kN).
Many people tend to focus on the complexity of coding weapon systems, but Heatblur’s team was able to implement an impressive number of other systems under the hood. One such hidden gem is the Augmenter Fan Temperature Controller/Main Engine Control (AFTC/MEC), which provides limiting functions to prevent engine damage and reduce risk of compressor stalls. Engine RPM, TIT (Turbine Inlet Temperature), and acceleration/deceleration scheduling are all limited by the AFTC to ensure safe engine operation. In civil aviation terms, the AFTC/MEC basically accomplishes the functions of a FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Controller), sort of the brain of the engine. I’ve run into a number of compressor stalls, engine fires and flameouts… you will have to learn how to restart these powerful but fragile engines.
All I can say is: Be careful about how you handle the aircraft – things WILL break if you are not careful!
Here is a peek into the not-so-reassuring list of things that can fail in the DCS Tomcat. The damage model of the aircraft is quite extensive and one can only imagine how many kilo-gallons of coffee the coders had to consume to create such an intricate simulation of aircraft systems.
The circuit breakers are not functional in the build I had, but in all honesty I don’t really see the point in coding them since they were notoriously difficult to access during flight. Those who have seen the (nightmarish) RIO circuit breakers will know why.
JESTER, or Why there is no I in Team
Like I mentioned earlier, operating the F-14 really is a two-man job. While the pilot «just » flies the aircraft and operates the weapons release, the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) has a surprising amount of responsibilities. Radio operation, managing navigation systems, radar operation, setting air-to-ground weapon delivery parameters, using countermeasures…these are all part of the RIO’s extensive laundry list of tasks. During the aircraft start-up alone, you’ll hear plenty of switches being flicked and knobs being turned in the backseat. The second you start flying missions in DCS, you will realize that the combat effectiveness of a Tomcat relies solely on the combined proficiency of its whole crew.
This brings us to the Tomcat’s AI for the RIO : JESTER. JESTER is Heatblur’s solution to one of the biggest technical challenges in flight simulation : how to implement a RIO AI (Artificial Intelligence) that is smart, functional, useful, and intuitive to use. JESTER looks deceptively simple at first : you press [ A ] to show a contextual menu with different options/commands available, which can be selected by either using the [LCTRL + 1] to [LCTRL + 8] keys or by moving your cursor with TrackIR. As you start flying the Tomcat for a couple of hours, you will learn to enjoy the elegant yet robust AI solution. You can also have a real person in the rear seat, which makes things even more interesting. The Tomcat brings to DCS an unexpected social aspect to flying in the virtual skies.
JESTER is more than a boring set of macros. His voice is stunningly natural… to a point where you inevitably end up forming a friendship/bromance with him. He is funny, witty and you just can’t help but like the guy. Think of the movie « Her » with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson… but with airplanes in it. Graywolf (who lent his voice to JESTER) did not only a stellar job in creating a compelling voice-over for the AI, but also succeeded in giving different emotions to JESTER based on different situations. He will sound excited and encourage you when you’re on a bandit’s tail, he will sound focused when calling out bandit bearings, he will sound scared when telling you to break to evade a missile, he will sound annoyed when you mess up your landing or bolter, he will crack jokes once in a while…JESTER feels like a living, breathing person. JESTER is more than a set of functions glued together – He’s your buddy.
JESTER will dynamically scan the sky with his radar to find and call out targets. He could, for example, call something like “We have a bogey, BRA 040, 50 miles, Angels 15”, which means that an unknown target has a Bearing/Range/Altitude of 040 with a range of 50 miles at 15,000 ft. Once JESTER calls out a target, you can use the JESTER menu by pressing [ A ]. A contextual and situation-specific menu will appear and allow you to tell him to lock the target. Select STT LOCK RADAR (Single Target Track) with [LCTRL + 2] and then ENEMY TARGET AHEAD RADAR [LCTRL + 2].
JESTER will do what he needs to do by himself and he’ll let you know when he has a solid lock.
“Spiking him. Target 45 miles” is something he would say as an example. If we want to use a Phoenix, we’d simply set the HUD mode to Air-to-Air, set the MSL PREP ON at least a minute prior to missile launch, set our Weapon Selector to PH (Cycle selector to SP/PH, then press it IN to select the Phoenix). Once that’s done, you can set the Master Arm ON and press the Trigger to launch the missile. Take note that you can monitor the RIO’s TID (Tactical Information Display) by using the HSD (Horizontal Situation Display) Mode switch set to TID.
The missile will then loft itself above you and find its way to the target. Needless to say…the range on this thing is scary.
To use air-to-ground ordnance, we also have to use JESTER. You can select your air-to-ground ordnance by pressing [ A ] twice. A contextual and situation-specific menu will appear and allow you to tell your RIO to select bombs and what delivery parameters you wish to use (ripple fire, fuzing, etc.). Bombing isn’t much different than in the Hornet, apart from the fact that you need to set up your wing sweep thumb switch to BOMBING mode (DOWN). Once your bombs are set up properly, set your HUD to A/G, set Master Arm ON and start your dive.
Here’s what my first CCIP bomb delivery looked like. It’s fairly accurate, even without the LANTIRN pod equipped.
Heatblur’s simulation of the F-14B sets a new standard for DCS, exceeding my initial expectations, and showcasing new technologies that no other developer has been able to create properly. Not only does the DCS Tomcat bring a social dimension to flight simming, but it manages to deliver a stellar product that cuts no corners in terms of system fidelity, immersion and level of polish. JESTER is the highlight of this module and is the best and most intuitive RIO AI solution I’ve ever seen. The tech built into him is just too good to not be re-used for other twin-seaters. I can’t wait for Heatblur to show the RIO cockpit so I can start flying this magnificent jet with my friends online. See you guys in the virtual skies!
Heatblur F-14A/B can be purchased: HERE
Please note, the information and screens in this article represent a press release module with features that are not complete or may change prior to Early Access release.