Review: DCS A-4E Skyhawk v2.0 by the Community A-4 Developer Team
When most people think of DCS World they usually have in mind aircraft like the mighty Hornet or the recently released Mi-24P Hind. But there is one aircraft out there that not only satisfies every single criteria to be considered an excellent module but also one that has been built over the years by a group of passionate developers whose sole purpose is giving the community a full-fidelity module for free! This is none other than the A-4E-C!
Today, we will be taking a look at the "Scooter" to see if it is a fit for you as in the pre-release version of the upcoming v2.0 of this mod (Release Candidate 3 or RC3). As always, our review will be separated in several sections for ease of reading:
External and internal 3D models
Visual and sound effects
Ease of use and learning curve
By and for the Community
Is this aircraft for you?
OF NOTE: This is a free community-made mod. Not an official product. Additionally, this review was made using the latest release candidate version of the mod (RC3), which has feature parity with the upcoming v2.0 stable version.
EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL 3D MODELS
The Skyhawk, despite having been made by a very small group of people, has nothing to envy from official modules as the external model has received quite the uplift from the previous version (v1.4.2). It now has normalmaps and improved roughmets. Both of these have made the model look as sharp as it has ever looked. Does this mean it is perfect? No, of course not. If one wants to be nitpicky you could point out at the unwrapping in the nose and on other surfaces, but this has not once detracted from how 99% of the model looks.
Here, have a look for yourself!
To me, the biggest difference between versions would be the look of the cockpit and the internal 3D model as a whole. Just like the external model, the cockpit has also received updated textures, normalmaps and roughmets. The changes might look subtle at first, but they start coming into their own when you spend time in the cockpit. From the wear on the throttle and stick to the stitches on the cockpit walls and the amazing-looking gunsight, Plusline's attention to detail has made the Scooter's office into a pleasant one!
Once again, have a look! I have included day and night pictures as well as some other examples:
VISUAL AND SOUND EFFECTS
One of the most noticeable changes that v2.0 brings to the mod is its audio in addition to some very welcome visual effects. There might be some slight changes here and there between now and the final release, but let's have a look at the almost finished product.
Under high and sustained G scenarios, visible vapor can be seen over the wings. This is an effect which is impressive, even on official modules. This, to me, is one of the best implementations of wing vapor on a community-made mod. It looks really good. Other noteworthy visual effects would be the cockpit shake when the aircraft is under stress and the navigation lights at night!
When it comes to sound, the mod has received a complete overhaul of both external and internal sounds. Which means that you will no longer hear the very noticeable Su-25T sounds (or at least you will not under most circumstances). Everything from start-up to the haunting noises of your old radar warning receiver, the noise of passing wind, airframe stress and even pneumatic actuator sounds. The best part, to me, is that now the aircraft has the most crucial part of a module: auditory feedback for engine and maneuvering.
When you start pulling Gs, you can hear the aircraft react to it. You hear your slats deploying with a very noticeable "THUMP" noise that helps in understanding in which part of the envelope you are. Saying that what the audio and 2D artist, plusline, has made is great would be an understatement. Here are some extracts from the mod so you can hear it and judge it for yourself:
Full start-up sequence sounds. Notice the turbine spooling up, then the ignition sparks go and after that, the full spool-up to idle. Amazing detail.
Aborted take-off. Engine spools up to 100%, then the slats come up with their thump sound, after that the wind noise starts ramping up. Then, engine goes back to idle.
Fly-by at 360kts. Engine was at 100%. Notice how the engine changes from front to back. VOLUME WARNING.
Just like with any of my reviews, I will disclaim here that I will not judge realism or accuracy as I have never piloted a real A-4, so my opinion does not hold any value in that regard. But with that being said, this has got to be one of the most realistic-feeling flight models on any mod I have ever tried. It is also one of the most accurate, if one guides itself with performance charts.
I have had the privilege of being one of the dedicated quality assurance (QA) testers for the EFM for almost a year now. While I will go over a bit more detail of my experience as a tester later, I will say that the EFM has come a long way ever since I first tested it. From being able to go over Mach 3 when I first flew it to it being recognized as an excellent recreation by an ex-Argentinian Air Force A-4M pilot who helped the project as a subject matter expert (SME).
This aircraft feels good and grounded, from the first moment you take it into the air to the heat of dogfighting. It is easy to fly but hard to master, as your AFCS (Automatic Flight Control System) is very rudimentary and basic. It still aids a lot in flight stability, primarily with the Stability Augmentation (STAB AUG) switch on, which will dampen down your flight controls and apply necessary corrections to increase stability.
JNelson and Farlander, the developers responsible for the EFM (External Flight Model), have done a fantastic job in bringing the A-4E-C to new heights. The slats now react accordingly, changing the way the aircraft behaves as they deploy. You can feel them deploying and sense how they modify the way the air interacts with the wing. Slats also deploy realistically, this means that it is the force of the wind that keeps them in the wings, only deploying when the force from the slats themselves overcomes the wind force.
She can also defend herself pretty well in a dogfight, but you will have to manage your energy very well so that you do not lose it all by trying to pilot her as you would a F-86 Sabre or a F-5E Tiger II. She requires that you fly her with attention, and that your are hands on the stick at all times. Overall, I think that this mod has one of the best-feeling FMs in the sim.
If you set your mind to it, this aircraft can do pretty much about anything. You will need to plan your attacks accordingly but, if you plan well, you could destroy an entire fleet with Skyhawks.
It can carry an absurd amount of weaponry for its size, as well as some pretty unique weapons that allow for some very interesting scenarios. Additionally, this mod is one of the only ones in which air to air refueling is possible! Thanks to a couple of discoveries which we will discuss with JNelson in our upcoming interview with him, radio communications are now a part of the Skyhawk. This means that you will be able to communicate with tankers, AWACS and any other support unit. Pretty damn neat!
Remember, you are a ground pounder by nature but that does not mean that you do not have fangs to attack and defend yourself from enemy aircraft. You are also able to do SEAD missions thanks to the AGM-45 Shrike, a missile that is unique to the A-4E in the simulator as of the time of writing this review. I will go more in-depth into weaponry on the next section.
You also have your ground radar, which is due to receive an update on v2.1 of the mod. It is a rather simple radar that is mostly used for navigation purposes and for terrain avoidance at low altitude under low visibility conditions.
Last but not least, you have the CP-741/A Bombing Computer. This radar-based computer calculates the ballistics of your drop when a point is designated with the radar with it enabled. After designation, you will have to pull up gently and steadily until you hear a release tone. If everything went well, your bombs should be on target!
With all of these tools at your disposal, you have a very capable 3rd Gen fighter bomber!
COLT MK.12 CANNONS
Your internal cannons. These 20mm cannons can be pretty effective, providing that your aim is true. Thankfully, you will not suffer from the defects for which this cannon was infamous, like stoppages and jams after hard maneuvering.
MK.4 HIGH PERFORMACE EXTERNAL GUN (HIPEG) PODS
I would not suggest that you carry more than one of these, or that you be like me and equip all three because "It would look cool". These puppies pack as much recoil as you think a external 20mm cannon would. They are a lot of fun, though.
The well known IR seeking missile. You can carry up to four of these. The most modern variant of this missile that you can carry is the AIM-9P-5.
You have two varieties to choose from. Either you go with ZUNI rockets or FFAR rockets; with their respective pods, of course. They can be really effective or very disappointing, but I blame that on the DCS damage model.
UNGUIDED BOMBS AND CLUSTER MUNITIONS
You have all the unguided bombs that you want, your limit is your maximum take-off weight. Seriously, check out the weapon list:
Mk.81, 82, 83 and 84. Basically, the entire Mk.80 series with all the variants.
AN-M30, AN-M57, AN-M64 and AN-M65. WWII munitions, they still go boom.
CBU-1 and CBU-2 Bomblet Dispensers.
Using Mk.82s as our example:
MER racks up to six bombs on the centerline.
MER racks up to two on the inner pylons.
And one bomb on the outers.
That would be over 6,000lbs worth of Mk.82 bombs. Impressive for such a tiny bird.
This missile is quite impressive. It is an early anti-radiation missile, which makes its operation surprisingly easy. You can imagine it a a gigantic sidewinder that searches for radar emitters instead of heat.
Launching it is as simple as pointing it to target, waiting for tone and letting it fly! But here is where its age catches up with it, as it is quite inaccurate. The devs have taken care into making it realistically inaccurate, so good luck!
COUNTERMEASURES AND RADAR WARNING RECEIVER
Normally, I would not talk about systems like these. But seeing as they are a bit interesting in their implementation for the Skyhawk, I felt that they deserved attention.
For decoys, you have 30 chaff and 30 flares. They are separated in buckets which salvos can only be programmed on the ground by groundcrew. They are not automatic and you will have to have your Mk.1 Eyeballs out and pay attention to your RWR to know when to deploy them. The AN/APR-23 Radar Warning Receiver. It is audio-only so here is how it is interpreted:
0-5 secs is how it sounds when nothing is happening
5-10 secs is how it sounds when something is searching
10-15 secs is how it sounds when you are locked
15-20 secs is how it sounds when you are being fired upon
Pretty neat, huh! I love this archaic system to bits. It is unique and it has been implemented wonderfully. You can imagine the terror of the pilots over Vietnam having this piece of junk as their only way to tell if they were being shot at by a SA-2!
EASE OF USE AND LEARNING CURVE
This aircraft is just good. It has a relatively shallow learning curve, if I am being honest. It is easy to learn all of its systems, despite how analog some of them can be. I think that it is an excellent aircraft if you want to learn how to fly an aircraft that lacks fly-by-wire (FBW). You will be able to get a sense for manual trim, unassisted flight controls (with the exception of the STAB AUG) and hands-on landing and approaches.
With v2.0, the nose wheel steering (system) will be removed as it was found to be anachronistic to the A-4E variant. Now, ground steering will be done through differential braking which can be a bit daunting for newcomers. In practice, I have found that, after some tweaks were made to the way the nose wheel casters, differential braking is neither hard nor complex. It is just a matter of getting used to it. Additionally, the devs have implemented an assisted mod that uses an axis, usually the rotary Z axis on a stick, to determine steering direction to apply breaks accordingly.
It is still a beginner friendly aircraft and one that I recommend to everyone looking for some excitement or for those searching to learn how to properly fly an aircraft of this era.
BY AND FOR THE COMMUNITY
Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that such a good module is available for everyone to enjoy, for free. And even more surprisingly, it is also one that has kept its source code open for everyone to see and learn from it. But one has to understand where and how this project started to comprehend the purpose of it.
It was always meant to be volunteer-made, money was never on the table. Plenty of people have contributed to the module over the years in different levels. Coders, modelers, texture artists, testers, etc. It was a project that was born out of the DCS Community. And one of the only one that has delivered and thrived like no others have done before. I am glad that I have been able to do a very small part in helping the project grow by being a dedicated QA tester for the EFM. Even if all I did was through rocks at the cockpit until something broke or fly the aircraft around like a manic so that I could find holes on the flight envelope.
It is very rare to see a project like this, but when it happens, it leaves a mark.
IS THIS AIRCRAFT FOR YOU?
If what you want in a module is:
An amazing combat experience.
An excellent flight model made by dedicated developers.
To be able to do carrier operations like back in 'Nam.
To carry as many bombs as a heavy bomber from WW2.
A lovingly crafted community creation.
If you don't mind:
The fact that you are not spending ANY money.
The lack of modern systems. If you are a technowizard, this one will matter.
The fact that it not officially supported by ED, not like that matters.
Having your eyes on the pit all the time, as you do.
If all or some of the above is what you want, then the Community A-4E is for you!
About the writer:
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034