Combine the challenge of flying an airliner with the difficult realities of a combat scenario and you have the makings of combat flight simulation. Combat flight simulation is a subset of the broader flight simulation market, and is often pursued by those who are interested in simulating military scenarios, or by those wanting to add an extra level of excitement and challenge to their flying.
The current flight simulation market has both historical and modern combat flight simulators available, depending on your interests. In historical simulators, you may find yourself flying a bi-plane or tri-plane in World War I and dealing with the hazards of early aviation, or perhaps taking a legendary aircraft into World War II’s large scale air battles. Modern simulators replicate state-of-the-art aircraft and offer challenges such as working with sophisticated sensors like radar and FLIR (forward looking infra-red) as well as confronting hazards like short range missiles and surface to air missile batteries. Combat flight simulators also offer unique non-combat military flying experiences such as mastering the art of carrier landings or learning how to conduct air-to-air refueling operations.
This guide covers:
- Why Play a Combat Flight Simulator?
- Getting Started in Combat Flight Simulation
- Combat Flight Simulators Overview
- Companion Software
- Hardware Recommendations
For a more interactive version of the material discussed in this guide, watch our Introduction to Combat Simulation Webinar from July 2021. In the webinar, Colin from Stormbirds discusses how to get started, including the most popular titles and add-ons.
Why Play a Combat Flight Simulator?
Both combat and civil flight simulators offer the same basic flying and those satisfying moments such as the first time you take off and land, or the joys of successfully navigating from one place to another. However, combat simulators include the ability to simulate advanced combat operations, which adds a new level of excitement and challenge to the simulation experience.
Combat Simulation ExperiencesDepending on your interests, challenge yourself with:
Basics of simulation flying
Learn basic skills like taxi, take-off, landing, navigation, and aircraft systems operation.
Try your hand at carrier takeoffs and landings, mid-air refueling, and formation flying.
Challenge and thrill
Engage in a guns-only dogfight, learn different aerobatic maneuvers to ensure success in combat, defeat surface to air missile networks, and more!
Experience systems typically found only in combat aircraft, from managing a 1940’s era piston engine to operating the precision weapons and sensors of modern times.
Combat flight simulators do come with some limitations, the most notable being that none currently simulate the entire world. This drawback means that you can’t fly to or from any airport on the planet; instead, you are limited to the areas that the simulator offers either by default or through add-on products.
Note that civil aviation simulators also offer the ability to fly military aircraft. FSX, Prepar3D, X-Plane, and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 all have combat aircraft available as part of the default simulator or via add-ons from third parties. Many of these aircraft are high fidelity and feature authentic avionics and systems. The difference between these offerings and those of a combat-specific flight simulator typically involve weapons and some systems simulation. Most civil simulators offer limited or no weaponry and don’t have the necessary assets to simulate a complex combat scenario (i.e. air defenses, tanks, naval ships, etc.). However, they can still offer compelling flight experiences in military aircraft types.
Getting Started in Combat Flight Simulation
To succeed in a combat flight simulator, you first need to learn the same basic flying skills as general aviation, such as take-off, landing, flying and navigating from point to point, managing different types of weather conditions, and managing basic aircraft systems. Then you can add to the challenge and excitement by incorporating elements of air-to-air combat and military-specific flying.
The best way to get started with a combat flight simulator is to determine the type of experience you want. Then, pick one of the simulators and content packages that best supports that experience.
Are you looking to fly a modern combat aircraft with guided missiles and precision bombs, make use of radar, or perform in-flight refueling? These are typical in a modern military simulator. Or, would you prefer something from a historical setting like the swirling dogfights of World War I or II? These key decisions will help guide you to the simulator that suits you best.
The next of section expands on some of the most popular combat flight simulators currently available.
Combat Flight Simulators Overview
This guide provides an overview of three combat flight simulators: DCS World, IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles, and IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover Blitz. A comparison table is available below for readers interested in a brief summary, and further sections describe each simulator in more detail. This section concludes with a list of other combat simulators that are also worth researching.
|DCS World||IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles||IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover|
|Era of Simulation||World War II, Cold War, Modern||World War I, World War II||World War II|
|Cost Structure||Free to play with included Su-25T, TF-51D, Caucasus map, and modern assets pack including AI controlled ships, tanks, vehicles, SAM, AAA guns, and supporting aircraft. Other assets are sold separately, with two-week free trials available for most products||Each battle is sold with 8 standard aircraft (+2 in Premium editions), a map, and single player scenarios. Note: Steam Store owners must buy IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad first as the “base game.” Standard edition price is $50 and Premium is $80 USD.||Base IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover Blitz title is available for $10 USD on the Steam Store. Add-on DLC pack IL-2 Sturmovik: Desert Wings – Tobruk is available for $50 USD.|
|Single Player Mode||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Aircraft||Add-ons available for $15-$80 USD.||Additional “Collector Aircraft” can be purchased. Some are available in Premium bundles while others are sold separately. Prices range from $20-25 USD.||All aircraft are included.|
|Scenery||Add-ons available for $50 USD.||Scenery is included in each "battle" pack. All maps are accessible in multiplayer regardless of which battle you own. Single player access is restricted to owned content.||Channel map is included in the base Cliffs of Dover package and the North Africa map is included in the Desert Wings package.|
|Campaigns||Add-ons available for $10-$15 USD.||Add-ons available for $10 USD. Some are included in the battle packs.||All campaigns are included.|
|Other||Specialized add-ons are sold, including vehicle focused DCS: Combined Arms and DCS: Supercarrier, which adds a high-fidelity carrier experience (carrier aircraft are a separate purchase).||Additional “Collector Vehicles” are currently available for pre-order. Regular price will be $25 USD.|
Digital Combat Simulator (DCS World) by Eagle Dynamics is a free-to-play combat flight simulator and that has been built from over 20-years of experience. The free-to-play experience includes a modern Su-25T, the TF-51D (an unarmed trainer variant of the famous P-51D Mustang), the Caucasus modern era map, and a wide variety of computer-controlled air and ground assets.
From there, additional aircraft, maps, and campaigns can be purchased on Steam or direct from the Eagle Dynamics online store. DCS World offers a range of aircraft and theater scenarios from modern air combat back to World War II, depending on the content that you purchase. Specific scenery packages include the modern focused DCS: Persian Gulf, DCS: Syria, DCS: Nevada, and the WWII focused DCS: Normandy (often bundled with DCS: WWII Asset Pack), and DCS: The Channel Map.
Eagle Dynamics offers all DCS World modules, except for campaigns, as a two-week free trial. At the end of two-weeks, you can purchase the module or deactivate the free trial and try a different one. Every two-week free trial can be used once per six month period.
DCS World is focused on high-fidelity, highly detailed aircraft experiences where nearly every button, dial, lever and switch is modelled and accessible using a clickable cockpit interface accessed by your computer’s mouse. A few legacy aircraft do not have clickable cockpits (including the free-to-play Su-25T and the legacy aircraft available in the Flaming Cliffs 3 bundle pack) and have simplified systems, however, the vast majority do. The simulator offers training missions, single player scenarios, campaigns, and multiplayer. Support for VR headsets is also included.
Options for new aircraft are constantly being added, but current highlights include:
- A-10C Tank Killer
- F/A-18C Hornet
- F-16C Viper
- Spitfire IX
- P-51D Mustang
- P-47D Thunderbolt
- AV-8B Night Attack Harrier
- UH-1H Huey
Key Features and Highlights
- Detailed aircraft experiences from World War II, the Cold War, and modern times.
- High fidelity flight simulation experience with detailed flight modeling and intricate systems management.
- Beautiful graphics and detailed weather systems that enhance both visual and simulation fidelity.
- Detailed combat simulations, including a wide variety of offensive and defensive weapon systems such as air defense systems, cruise missiles, point defense systems, ballistic weapons, and a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.
- Single player and multiplayer experiences available with active communities generating new content and running detailed servers.
- Support for VR headsets.
DCS World’s steep learning curve can be made much more bearable by taking advantage of the many developer and community offered tutorials. Below are some resources you may want to consider.
- Built-in Tutorials: Most DCS World modules offer training missions, often with an instructor voiceover, that will help you learn specific features of the aircraft you’re flying.
- Chuck’s Guides: An impressive collection of up-to-date written guides available in PDF format. The guides help break down complex procedures into easy-to-understand components and feature visual and written content.
- RedKite: Renowned for simple and to-the-point tutorials on a variety of DCS World aircraft including the F/A-18C Hornet and AV-8B NA Harrier.
- Spudknocker: Creating both entertaining mission content as well as dedicated tutorials, Spudknocker has a variety of training materials available to help you get started with aircraft such as the F/A-18C Hornet, JF-17, and F-16C as well as tactics-based tutorials.
- Growling Sidewinder: Focused on 1v1 visual range and beyond visual range combat videos, Growling Sidewinder’s channel is great for learning the intricacies of modern air combat.
- Grim Reapers: A popular flying group in DCS World that also creates numerous tutorials. The Grim Reapers bring their own unique style to the lessons often using group learning to help understand a new aircraft. They cover a wide variety of modern and historic aircraft available in DCS World.
- Air Combat Tutorial Library: Offering a mix of DCS and IL-2 content, the ACTL has great general aviation information as well as specific tutorials on DCS aircraft such as the F-5, Spitfire IX and P-47. The channel also offers PDF guides with ‘cockpit flows’ that will help you learn where each button in the start-up process is.
- Tricker: Another excellent source of material for training on different types of operations and aircraft specific tutorials with a focus on the DCS: F-16 and DCS: F/A-18C modules.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series
IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series is the third generation of the legendary series of WWII air combat simulators. It is produced by 1C Game Studios and features a variety of World War I and World War II combat scenarios, with a focus on both eastern and western front battles of World War II.
Each "battle" in the series is sold as a complete package that includes a selection of historically and period appropriate aircraft, a historical map with time appropriate landmarks, single player missions and career modes, and multiplayer.
- Battle of Stalingrad: A 1942 eastern front WWII scenario
- Battle of Moscow: A 1941/42 eastern front WWII scenario
- Battle of Kuban: A 1943 eastern front WWII scenario
- Battle of Bodenplatte: A late 1944 and 1945 western front scenario
- Battle of Normandy: A 1944 western front WWII scenario
- Flying Circus Vol 1: A 1917/1918 western front WWI scenario
- Flying Circus Vol 2: A 1917/1918 western front WWI scenario
- Tank Crew – Clash at Prokhorovka: A tank focused eastern front 1943 scenario
The series has recently added a tank focused expansion turning the series into a true combined arms simulation. Some additional aircraft and vehicles are also sold separately of the bundled packages as part of the “Collector Plane” and “Collector Vehicle” series that lets you expand your experience with additional aircraft.
Each title in the series is part of an integrated whole that allows you buy what you want with full multiplayer compatibility across all scenarios (provided that you own at least one aircraft in that scenario), making the series easily approachable in multiplayer even without the full collection of content.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles distinguishes itself from DCS World by making a larger number of aircraft available and offering a slightly easier learning curve through automating some aircraft procedures such as start-up and shut down. Other features such as complex engine management, icons, and other features can be toggled on and off to aid in learning the sim.
Key Features and Highlights
- Wide variety of eastern and western front aircraft from the World War II era as well as a growing collection of 1917 and 1918 World War I aircraft.
- Highly detailed flight model and damage model.
- Realistic WWI and WWII weapon simulations including machine guns, cannons, flak, bombs, and unguided rockets.
- Single player experiences include a quick mission builder, scripted campaigns (both free and paid), a dynamic career mode with persistent pilot and “iron man” mode which makes you value the virtual life of your pilot.
- Active multiplayer community with combined arms (tank and aircraft) support on some servers.
- Support for VR headsets.
- Air Combat Tutorial Library: An expansive library of tutorial videos featuring everything from the basics of flying to specific tutorials covering aircraft specifically in the IL-2: Great Battles Series.
- Sheriff’s Sim Shack: Featuring a series of how to fly segments as well as detailed aircraft tutorials, Sheriff’s Sim Shack is a great way to learn about different aircraft as well as learning the tactics and techniques from more experienced virtual pilots.
- Utopioneer’s Flight School Campaigns: Looking for something more hands on? The Utopioneer Flight School Campaign series offers short tutorial missions for every aircraft from IL-2: Great Battles. The campaigns have also been translated into German, French Italian and Spanish to make them even more accessible.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover Series
This version of the IL-2 Sturmovik series is focused on World War II air combat over England in their Cliffs of Dover base title and in the skies over North Africa with their recently released Desert Wings – Tobruk DLC package.
Although the Cliffs of Dover series is slightly older than the Great Battles Series, it still offers plenty of content and has an active development team under the stewardship of Team Fusion Simulations. Cliffs of Dover focuses on the Battle of Britain and the desert air war of North Africa and offers unique scenarios typically not found in other combat flight simulators.
Key Features and Highlights
- Several dozen World War II fighters from the Battle of Britain and North African campaigns including legendary aircraft such as the Spitfire Mark I, Bf109E and F series, Tomahawk Mark II, the Bf110, Ju87 Stuka, He111 and Wellington Mark bomber.
- Fly one of several detailed single player campaigns.
- Enjoy the challenge of flying with and against other human pilots in one of the community-run multiplayer servers.
- Active development continues to improve the series.
For training, the series includes detailed PDF manuals for each aircraft.
Additional Combat Simulators
In addition to the three major combat simulators listed above, consider the following simulators that are also on the market:
In addition to the primary software packages, there are some additional utilities that you may want to add to your experience:
Civil flight simulators and military flight simulators have many cross-over requirements for both computer specifications and add-on hardware. Below are some recommendations you should consider to have a good experience with combat flight simulation.
If you are planning to build a dedicated flight simulation computer or upgrade an existing setup, consult Step 2 of our Simulator Setup Guide. The hardware recommendations in that guide apply to any desktop flight simulator, including combat-specific builds.
Joysticks, Throttles, and Rudder Pedals
A minimum recommended setup includes a joystick with a twist axis (for yaw control), and a throttle control with configurable buttons. More expensive options include a HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) solution that features a stick and throttle with multiple buttons, switches, dials, and other controls. For a more immersive experience, separate rudder pedals can also be purchased.
More details for the above hardware, including popular products across the community, are available on our Hardware Guide. In addition to the existing recommendations for Thrustmaster and MFG Sim in that guide, VIRPIL and VKB-Sim are well-known for specializing in military flight simulation hardware.
Headtracking and Virtual Reality
Most combat flight simulators support a variety of head tracking devices. Although view control and panning can be done with a hat switch on a joystick, via a mouse, or with the keyboard, a better experience can be found when using a headtracking device.
Similarly, virtual reality has become very popular for flight simulators and there are a wide variety of VR headsets available. Popular headsets frequently used by flight sim fans include the HP Reverb, Valve Index, and HTC Vive.
Check out our Virtual Reality Guide for more information on getting started with headtracking and virtual reality!