A Coward in a Camel - An Iron Man flight sim diary

Tim Stone


For the last 30 years, sim developers have been slogging their guts out furnishing us with vehicles that live and breathe... machines that leak oily history into the tin drip trays of our lives. They've given us realism by the shedload and what have we given them in return? Apart from money, obviously.

I'm hull-down in a Steel Fury sunken lane when a thought hits me like a speeding Panzerschreck rocket: for most of my gaming career I've sought out super-realistic digital steeds, then proceeded to use those steeds in a manner that, while not exactly reckless, was hardly honest – hardly reflective of the person I suspect myself to be. What if, just for a change, I repaid a sim's gift of authenticity with some authenticity of my own?

WWI aerial combat explorer Rise of Flight is one of those games that's forever winking at me from the shelf. Since I last surrendered to its charms, it's gone free-to-play and been bolstered by a circus of payware aircraft and a staffel of substantial patches. I'm rustier than those heaps of mud-encrusted munitions you see in the corners of Flanders fields, yet eager to return. This visit will be different though. No ego-massaging compromises this time, no sly, death-cheating restarts or out-of-character glory hunting. What follows is what happens when a person who's uncommonly fond of life roleplays a Great War pilot who's uncommonly fond of life. This, gentle reader, is the story of a coward in a Camel.

November 10, 2012

In for a penny, in for a pound. If I'm going to do the permadeath, full-realism thing I may as well do it in a machine as famous for its bad habits as its good ones. Four hundred and thirteen Allied pilots lost their lives flying Sopwith Camels in combat during WWI. A further 385 perished in accidents. Choosing Biggles' and Snoopy's favourite cloud chariot in a RoF campaign means I get to join the war in mid-1917, a time when the German Air Force was on the back foot and the armistice was 'only' 17 months away. Less encouragingly, it also means I'm pinning my survival hopes on a bus that, knowing RoF's impeccable physics, will attempt to murder me on a regular basis. Without careful preparation, this sim memoir, and my fledgling career in the RFC, may not last the page.

I spend my first morning swotting hard. The Camel was a notorious trainee slayer, and I'm determined not to end up its next victim. Many greenhorns, and (gulp) a good few veterans too, seem to have been caught out by its sensitive-yet-powerful rotary engine and tail-heavy flight posture. With no interactive instructor or squadron oracle to quiz, I find myself Googling 'RoF Camel tutorials'. Moments later, I'm introduced to Requiem10NS, an Australian with a remarkable way with sim biplanes and wonderful knack for crisp communication. I pay particular attention to his spin recovery tips.

November 11

There's no point putting it off any longer. Joystick connected and configured, desk draped with sheets of scribbled notes, I nervously place my simulated buttocks in the simulated wicker seat of a RoF Camel for the very first time. Throttle closed? Check. Fuel mixture lever to full-rich? Check. Here we go. The 130hp Clerget engine clears its throat then starts burbling like a bee trapped in a foxglove. The mahogany prop just beyond the muzzles of my twin Vickers MGs becomes a blur. Everywhere, wood and canvas vibrates impatiently. After a few moments of engine warming, I give... Catherine... Candice... Camilla the Camel a bit of gas and we begin to trundle forwards.

And leftwards and rightwards. A light crosswind and the gyroscopic effects of that spinning motor make for a drunken comedy of a take-off. The important thing is, we're airborne. Now what?

I gingerly toy with the mixture lever, observing how its position influences revs at different throttle settings. Rambling over untended Artoisian farmland I risk a few gentle dives and climbs. A British artillery battery finds itself the target of a mock strafing run, then the time comes for the first real test. Come on Camilla, let's get you back on the ground.

Windsock inspected, I line up and begin blipping the throttle to bleed speed. The row of deserted hangars and tents see-saws then settles. Things are looking just dandy until France and flying-machine actually meet. That's when the sickening bounces begin, followed by the dipping of the starboard wingtip. Before I know it, Camilla's tail is 18 feet above her nose, and her shattered prop is pawing the turf. We're down and I appear to be unhurt, but the fitters have a got a bally long night of repair work ahead of them.

November 12

Six landings this morning and all have them ended in a lurch of splintered struts and ripped canvas. Frustrated and baffled, I begin recording my touchdowns then studying the tapes for clues. Maybe I'm coming in too fast. Is something awry with my stick? Perhaps the Camel is simply too feisty for this past-his-prime PC pilot. I try tweaking my input curves and just using thumb and forefinger on the controller. Finally something clicks. Yes, I'm still bouncing like a wallaby on a hot tin roof, but at least I can get down in one piece fairly consistently now. Next: spin recovery.

To survive a Camel spin you need three things: knowledge, faith and height. Requiem10NS has provided me with the first part of the equation (basically, chop throttle, rock stick forwards and back, and wait). A couple of hours of stressful-but-successful practice has furnished the second. I fear only remarkable good fortune can guarantee me a regular supply of the third.

November 13

I think I'm ready. Well, as ready as I'll ever be. The RoF recruitment office is a magical place. Not only do I get to choose my squadron (RNAS 8, Camel-equipped and based at St Eloi, a few miles north of Arras), I also get to pick my past. The Eton-educated Nobleman, the incognito Scoundrel wanted for double murder in London, and the Poet from Leeds scowl as I hurry past. The Commoner is the natural choice, but something in the Infantryman's backstory feels too resonant to resist. Though I didn't spend my youth roaming the Teifi Valley exploring old gold mines, the sight of a fork-tailed red kite sailing a powder blue sky has been known to reduce me to euphoric tears.

July 17, 1917

My war starts at 05.35 sharp. A line patrol with 2nd Lt Gilbert Howard. We saunter south along the line of the shell-churned mass grave that is Vimy Ridge, our bobbing fuselages gold-leafed by the rising sun. Over poor, battered Arras, Howard plunges onto a lone Albatross. I follow him down, more concerned about managing my revs during the dive (Clergets hate to be oversped) than securing any tactical advantage. I'm not entirely sure how I end up sat on the scout's tail or why my wild, amateurish gunnery eventually causes it to dash itself against the ground. Landing back at St Eloi to find a chalked '1' in the kills column next to my name feels distinctly unreal. The news that I've also been awarded a Military Cross (I suspect Rise of Flight's medal algorithm needs tweaking) seems like proof I'm dreaming. I spend the rest day of the day waiting for a batman's “It's 04.30, sir. Time to get up,” that never comes.

July 18

Back to earth with a bump, quite literally. Returning from an uneventful afternoon patrol with Howard and Lawrence, I manage to ding my prop while landing. Yesterday's hero is today's clot.

July 19

Three jobs scheduled for today and I'm not assigned to any of them. A result of my hamfistedness yesterday? As Rise of Flight's commitment to realism doesn't quite extend to mess minigames – ludo, bridge, chess, ping-pong, etc – I resolve to while away a few hours reading James McCudden's 'Flying Fury'. He was primarily a Pup and S.E.5A man but I'm sure I can profit from his tactical wisdom. That's one of the splendid things about historical sims – they're not cultural islands. Dishonored's lore might run to 130,000 words. RoF's is probably closer to 130 million.

At 14.59 the entire squadron is scrambled. Our ragged caravan of Camels (the AI doesn't wait for ditherers) streams eastward towards an alarmingly large swirl of Hun scouts. Before I know it, I'm fighting for my life in a one-on-one duel with a blue-nosed Albatross. None of my turns are sharp enough, none of my tricks canny enough. I find myself flying down a tunnel of fizzing red tracer fire. Death grins at me from the cockpit of a Fokker made of bone and smoke.

Apparently, Heaven is a French pasture pavilioned by skylark song. Ah, it seems it wasn't my time to 'go west'. The screaming dive that destroyed my engine and sprayed my goggles with castor oil also detached my pursuer. I'd walk to the nearest village and phone the squadron if RoF permitted such things and my legs hadn't turned to jelly.

July 20

A quiet trip into Hunland with Davies. Flying top-cover for a pair of dawdling two-seaters, there's plenty of time to mull over uncomfortable truths. “Stone, you're simply not good enough to last long out here.” They say the first month was the crucial period for new RFC pilots. Survive that and your chances increased exponentially. Honestly, if yesterday was any guide, then I reckon I'll be lucky to live a week let alone a month.

July 21

Howard downs another Albatross today, bringing his tally to four, one below Atkinson, the squadron leader. I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a duffer.

July 22

This morning, as one giant fiery orb rises in the east, two smaller ones descend. Out on a crack-of-dawn offensive patrol with Fisher, Butler, Davies and Lawrence, I ignite a couple of observation balloons. Their winchmen start reeling them down the minute they spot us, but it's too late. They say Drachen crews are issued with parachutes, but I don't see anyone jump.

July 24

Two days' worth of sorties and nothing to show for it except frayed nerves and mounting frustration. This morning I made three runs on a balloon, used all my ammo, and still didn't manage to light it up. Bally awful shooting.

July 25

All sims should offer an iron-man option. Sign on the dotted line at the start of a career, and KIA means KIA. Playing RoF this way obviously doesn't generate military-grade dread, (only a fool would crave that) but it can foment a rather potent form of trepidation. I've noticed I've started hesitating before pressing the 'Fly Mission' button. I'm running my own internal pre-flight checks: “Tim, are you sure you're fully awake?”, “Might that lunchtime pint have impaired your piloting abilities?”

July 26

I'm in a field hospital. Yesterday evening the sky over Arras was alive with tumbling Camels and arcing Albatrosses. Two of the latter took a violent dislike to Camilla. I was in the process of making myself scarce when a burst of 7.92mm bale connected. My mount shivered. My vision dimmed. My inner cad screamed “Restart the mission before it's too late!” I told him where to go, and jinking like a whirligig, flick-rolled into a dive. No point checking your six, Stone. Just get this bus back on terra firma before you spark-out or shed a wing.

July 30

Rise of Flight quacks know their onions. After four days of treatment, my unspecified wound has healed and I'm back on squadron. No more marching merrily into dogfights for me. From now on I'm only going to take on the damaged and the unwary. Chivalry can go jump in the Marne.

Lawrence failed to return from a line patrol this evening.

August 1

On the last leg of an escort job with Howard and Davies I spy a Hun scout limping home at treetop level. A three-second squeeze of .303 amputates his top plane. He spins to the ground like a sycamore key while I weave westward, dodging raven-black Archie blooms.

August 2

My first airfield attack. Camilla feels subdued – sulky – with four 20lb bombs strapped to her belly. As we arrive over the target, the locals are loping into the air. Eggs jettisoned I turn my head to see two hangars rocked by muddy fountains of flame and – God – two Albatrosses tethering themselves to my tail. Why didn't I bomb from higher up? Why didn't I wait and watch from a safe distance for a while? Now I'm for it.

August 3

I'm in a field hospital. Again. Yesterday's raid was a proper shambles. Squadron Commander Atkinson is dead. So is Butler. I didn't see them go down. I was too busy praying my bullet-nibbled wings and blood-spattered hands would get me safely across No Man's Land.

I can't stop thinking about the end. When will it come? What form will it take? A bullet in the back... a fiery fall from 10,000 feet... a contretemps with a careless wingman? My guardian angel must be exhausted. I know I am.

August 9

Stalking a Hun two-seater through winding cumulus canyons. It takes a squirt of canvas-shredding MG14 fire to bring me to my senses.

August 10

The newly promoted Flight Sergeant Stone claimed his third scalp this morning – a lone Pfalz. It was a textbook ambush. Well, textbook up to the point when I accidentally rammed my foe's tail, necessitating yet another emergency landing.

Davies was wounded. Gilbert Howard is our new Commander.

August 13

This is madness. A 10 m/s westerly wind is buffeting St Eloi and still we're expected to fly. The moment I lift Camilla's tail-skid off the ground she's pivoted 90 degrees by the gusts. I'm forced to taxi between tents and take off from a neighbouring field. I'm still fuming when we run into a pair of Hun scouts busy molesting one of our gasbags. Take that, red-nose! Blimey, I think I got him. A head-on snapshot sends one Albatross into a flat spin. Moments later, the other balloon-botherer slides obligingly into my Aldis. I keep him there with a touch of left rudder and a blip of the throttle, and thumb the fire button until one of my red-hot MGs jams.

Back at base, an unseen hand chalks a triumphant '5' next to my name on the squadron blackboard.

A few hours later, the same hand will draw a line through the stats of Henry Fisher.

August 14

Too wet for Hun harassing. All jobs are scrubbed.

August 16

Say 'Bonjour' to the latest recipient of the Croix de Guerre. I nailed another three Albatrosses today. An evening of mess excess is just getting underway when the news comes through that Gilbert Howard has gone down in flames over Douai. I guess Davies will take the reins of RNAS 8 now.

A ugust 18

I can't believe it. Davies, Cox, and Knight, all gone. Two days of fierce fighting has ripped the heart out of the squadron, and turned a nervy probationer into a semi-seasoned stalwart. I'm now our leading scorer with 11 kills. Camilla is finally starting to feel like a friend rather than a foe; I know all(?) her wicked ways, and yearn for the comforting familiarity of her cockpit. It's been a month since I arrived at St Eloi. Am I over the Camel hump?

August 19

Rise of Flight's France needs more joie de vivre. Contour-chasing on the way back from a fruitless patrol, I search unsuccessfully for staff-cars to spook, and villagers to amaze. The thrill of rattling rooftiles and rustling treetops never fails to intoxicate, but how sweet it would be to skim a world that lived, looked up, and waved occasionally.

August 20

Evening over Lens. Clouds drift past like Spanish fireships. Is that speck down there one of ours or one of theirs? Only one way to find out.

Where are you off to this fine evening, Herr Pfalz? A particularly warm corner of Hell if I have anything to do with it. I'm on him in a flash, eyes narrowing, guns blazing. Lead kindles flame and flame licks hungrily from engine to cockpit. Out-of-control, the Pfalz careers earthward dragging a pennant of black smoke behind it.

I roll to get a better look at the final moments of Victim No.12. I'm still watching, waiting for that little puff of mud and fire, when the pilot at the controls of the blue-nosed Albatross behind me commences firing.

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