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

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.