F/A-18 Pilot Gives Virtual Flyers Highly Detailed Explanation Of How To Land On A Carrier

The series of videos is equally as interesting for anyone who just wants to know how exactly real naval aviators pull off the aerial ballet. 

Youtube Screencap

Landing a fighter aboard a pitching and rolling carrier deck is one of the most challenging exercises in all of aviation. Just the idea of bringing a jet safely back to the boat, in potentially terrible conditions, after an already stressing mission has long captured the imagination of the entertainment industry and the public at large. We have even published a first-hand account of how this process occurs in the dark of night and how challenging mastering it can be. But now, thanks to Digital Combat Simulator—better known as DCS—the most realistic realization of this experience ever available to the public can be had for $79, or about 1/230th the cost of a single Hornet flight hour. And with the help of a former Hornet pilot, you too can learn to master this elite skill—or at least understand its complexities better than ever before.

The F/A-18C Hornet module for DCS is a game changer. It quenches the decades-long thirst for a very high-fidelity American naval strike-fighter PC simulator that dates back to the company's legacy Lock-On: Modern Air Combat series. Now that computer gaming power is economically available (relatively) to drive Eagle Dynamics'—the maker of DCS— ambitious software, and virtual reality headsets can literally put you in the cockpit unlike anything else in the past, a golden age of flight simulation is finally upon us—regardless of flight simulation's shrunken market size within the gaming world. 

But acquiring the software and having a computer setup to run it is nothing compared to figuring out how to make the Hornet sting. But before even that happens, executing realistic carrier operations is most virtual fighter pilots' top priority, and it is more akin to mastering ballet than learning a country western line-dance. 

Eagle Dynamics and some of the DCS's most visible players are great about offering how-to videos for long-awaited Hornet module, but nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the instruction one ex-Hornet driver turned instructor pilot has brought to DCS's fanatical gaming community. 

Yet what's most interesting is that this naval aviator's marvelously detailed explainer videos are just as fascinating for someone who has no intention of buying DCS Hornet or a gaming rig to play it as those who live and breathe combat flight simulation. The videos, taught in true instructor pilot style, represent the most complete and detailed description of how actual carrier operations work, both in the real world and in the emerging virtual environment, and will give you a whole new appreciation for just how challenging even the most basic of carrier recoveries are for naval aviators. 

Here is the three-part series:

After watching the videos in fascination, I immediately reached out to our instructor pilot, who goes by the handle "Lex Talionis," to get an interview. I wanted to know his background, how he came to DCS, what sparked his interest in making such informative videos, as well as getting his thoughts on the Hornet simulator and on computer flight simulation in general. Just like his explainer reels, his answers to these questions and more did not disappoint:

What is your background in naval aviation?

"I was winged in '04, finished up with the Fleet Replacement Squadron in '05, was with my fleet squadron from '07 to '09, PCSed [Permanant Change of Station] to the training command in '09, and have been there since. During the time with my fleet squadron, I was fortunate enough to deploy on a WESTPAC and as an individual augment to Iraq (one of my most rewarding experiences). 

My time in the hornet was short-lived. I can't say enough good things about the community and the platform. I miss the jet and the friends I had made. My current job is outstanding. I teach naval aviator students in primary flight school as a reserve officer and in advanced flight school as a civilian contractor. As a washed up Hornet driver, I could not have anticipated that flying as an instructor would be an incredible way to end a military flying career. I remember being in the student's shoes quite vividly and helping to get them from "there" to "here" is an experience that is hard to beat."

Courtesy of Lex Talionis

Lex gets his wings of gold with his proud parents in attendance. 

What brought you to DCS considering that you have actually done the real thing?

"I haven't been too interested in flight simulators since my job has plenty of 'em. Primarily for nostalgic reasons, however, I always had my eyes open for games like the ones that kept me motivated to become a pilot as a kid. For the most part, I was drawn into DCS by friends who were looking for a good 'flying game.' Conversations about military flying, realistic flight models, etc, arose so I decided to dig in a bit and become more knowledgeable specifically about the game. I made a video to help our small group out, got hooked on the game and the rest is history. I would have never guessed there was a community this enthusiastic."

How does DCS Hornet stack up to reality?  

"It has been a decade since I have sat in the Hornet, but I have to say the game has definitely brought back memories. Flight characteristics quickly spark old habits that invoke real world 'procedures,' of which the flight model is accurate to the level at which those procedures work. That is rare. DCS is a great blast from the past whenever I have the itch to rage around in the jet."

Is the existence of DCS common knowledge in the Hornet community?

"I don't know any other jet guys, let alone Hornet drivers, that play the game. You can't fault them however, it takes an amazing amount of time to stay proficient as a military pilot and it is hard to come home and fire up the computer to do what you do for your day job when all you want is a shower and a beer. 

I can see DCS with the introduction of the F/A-18 quickly becoming desirable by retired Hornet drivers. Even to those who would otherwise not have an interest in a flight sim, flying a Hornet reminiscent of the real thing, without the responsibility of wielding the real thing, is quite alluring."

Have you tried it in virtual reality?

"I have not used VR but I have heard it is quite impressive. Most who have a VR headset have explained that aside from the lack of resolution, the sensation of actually being in the cockpit is hard to beat. For now, I think I will just stick with a multi-monitor set up. If or when the resolution and refresh rates of VR systems improve, it will be hard to pass up."

What are your thoughts on consumer flight simulators in general? There was once a hot gaming market for them, now it is considered a niche.

"When I was a kid, games were hard. 'Perma-death,' create a 'character' and live with the ramification of your decisions good or bad, have only what you brought with you to the battlefield, no endless re-spawning of resources, every rock did not have gold under it. With regards to flight sims, the challenge of learning how to operate and fly an aircraft was as much a part of the game as shooting the bad guys. Now it seems these aspects are considered undesirable. 'Tedious,' 'restrictive,' or the most amusing to me, the ever anecdotal 'not fun.'

A good flight sim is 'hard' by nature with significant 'consequences.' There is a learning curve, if you do not posses the skills bad things happen until you do. Learning to fly is as much an accomplishment as defeating an adversary. Case in point, most questions asked of me are how to more accurately fly around the boat, individuals would then practice for hours without ever engaging a target.

Maybe the niche is that these games pull form the same skill set as something tangible in real life. They are exceptionally challenging and once mastered there is a sense of genuine accomplishment. Others may view this as close to a job and want a break from this aspect of reality, anyone's guess is as good as mine.

Personally, a game needs to make sense on some fundamental level. Ultimately that means it must somehow be rooted in reality. I can only tolerate so much make-believe, sci-fi, and pixy-dust before my brain gets tired of pushing the 'I believe button.' Flight games need to at least adhere to basic physics and DCS certainly does that. That is my niche."

It's an intimidating game for the vast majority of prospective computer pilots. Any tips to someone totally new to DCS that want to get started with the Hornet?

"The beauty of this game is that the complexity can be modulated by the player. DCS world adheres to an un-circumvented physics engine and set of relatively constant weights and measures. This makes the game scale-able, limitless to what can be added and, that which is encountered by the player is logical and coherent. Keeping in mind the initial learning curve may be steep as piloting is a skill in and of itself, a player can learn to fly in a relatively simple aircraft and move those skills to a more complex platform. If that is still too intimidating, I would reiterate the essence of the previous question's answer with 'don't give up, enjoy the process, everyone starts at the beginning, and ask questions.'

To conclude, I can't tell you how taken back I am by all of this. Thank you for the questions. Please understand, as far as Hornet drivers go I am by no means an expert, I am simply sharing what I know about a life adventure I am thankful to have experienced.

I would like to thank you Tyler for the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions. I would have never thought them valuable to this audience. Thank you to the community. I am truly humbled by the overwhelming responses to the videos and look forward to answering any future questions you all may have to the best of my ability.

And finally, thank you to an online friend, Jarus. None of this would have unfolded the way it did if it wasn't for him. Please give him a thumbs up on his youtube channel "Citizen Gamer" when you have the chance."

Courtesy of Lex Talionis

In the hot seat!

It's awesome to see a professional with such a talent for calmly and clearly conveying complex concepts to students share their passion and expertise with the world, and especially with those who will consume it bit by bit in an attempt to better their own simulated Hornet flying skills. But the unique window Lex provides into the nitty-gritty of carrier flight operations is what's most interesting. 

If anything else, Lex has given us all a new appreciation of what it takes to be a real naval fighter pilot and it's amazing to think how little room for error there is in such a hideously complex flying environment. With this in mind, even though DCS Hornet is incredibly realistic, if things go bad real fast it just means frustration and a downgrade in one's ego, not the end of your flying career or even your life. 

Make sure to follow Lex's Youtube channel here and he is also very active in the DCS community on Discord. A big thanks to him for taking the time out of his busy flying schedule to share his thoughts with all of us. As for DCS in general, I will be posting a separate piece about my experience with the game in the upcoming weeks, but here's a hint of what's to come.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com