"SAM Launch!" is the last thing you want to hear as a combat pilot.
I've faced Russian-built Surface to Air Missiles in real life and I have a healthy respect for them. I've often wondered what it's like being on the other side of that engagement.
I've been playing flight simulators since I got my first Commodore Amiga back in the mid 1980s. The better ones have featured simulated SAMs. If you really want to have missiles eat your lunch, try attacking the Soviet carrier group in Strike Fighters North Atlantic. It ain't pretty.
My curiosity was piqued when I found a PC-based SAM simulation on the internet. It was developed by a veteran of the Hungarian military who operated many of these systems in the 1980s and 1990s.
The game advertises itself as being "Realistic to the Switch" and I believe it. The best part is - it was free! As I like to say, if it's free it's for me!
So what do you get for spending absolutely nothing? An awful lot of realism. This is a hard-core procedural simulator, not an arcade game. You have to flip the right switches in the right order or nothing happens. Oh, and all the switches are labeled in cyrillic. Good luck.
Fortunately the documentation that comes with the game is excellent and is available in multiple languages, including English.
You get a couple different versions of the SA-2 "Guideline", the SA-3 "Goa", SA-4 "Ganef", SA-5 "Gammon" and the dreaded ZSU-23 anti-aircraft system. He's working on adding the SA-8 to the next release. It's enough to give a B-52 driver nightmares.
You also get several historical scenarios. You can try to shoot down Gary Powers in his U-2 or defend Hanoi against the Yankee Air Pirates in their B-52s. Think you can take down an F-117 with an SA-3? It's been done and the game will teach you how to do it.
So how did I do? NATO could probably put on an airshow directly over my SAM battery and have nothing to worry about. Hanoi wouldn't exist today and the Israelis would have gone all the way to Cairo. It's hard folks!
I did managed to track a stray airliner that happened to fly straight and level through my sector.
The only things I was actually able to shoot were radar reflecting target balloons. If we're ever attacked by an enemy using tinfoil covered balloons - fear not! I've got this!
I found the SA-2 especially difficult. The console looks like something you'd see on Mystery Science Theater. That's because it's late 50s or early 60s analog technology.
Trying to acquire a target is a lot like tuning an old Philco TV set. You have to move your antennas to lock on to the target in azimuth, elevation and range.
You have to switch back and forth between various screens because in real life it took several people to operate one of these.
If you manage to lock on, then you have to select which guidance-mode the missile should used based on what the target is doing. High and fast? Low and slow? Low and fast? Jamming or not jamming?
Then and only then can you push the "ПУСК" button to launch the missile. I think "ПУСК" means "Die capitalist pig!" or something like that.
After all this work the actual missile launch is rather anticlimactic. There are no graphics of your missiles streaking skyward to blast the attacking Yankee hordes. You hear the rocket motor ignite and you see exactly what the SAM operators would see - not much. All you can do is watch the blip of your missile on the scope as it (hopefully) intersects with the target. If the target starts to rapidly slow down and lose altitude you probably hit it.
The historical scenarios are interesting. I never did get a shot at Gary Powers as he blissfully flew right through my sector. In the Arab-Israeli scenario the Israeli Air Force turned me into a greasy spot on the Egyptian desert.
As I already knew, trying to lock onto a rapidly maneuvering target that's also using jamming is pretty tough. I don't know just how tough because I never could do it.
In case your job wasn't tough enough already some scenarios feature Wild Weasel aircraft that fire anti-radiation missiles at you. I can't help but notice that the crew cab for the SA-2 sits directly under the antenna - exactly where the enemy missiles are trying to go. Yikes!
So far all I've played with are the SA-2 and SA-3. The SA-3 being the newer system is a bit easier to use.
So let's take a look at the game. Here's the main menu which lets you pick which type of missile you want to play with and a choice of practice or wartime scenarios. I'll choose a practice scenario for simplicity.
Once we've powered up the transmitter we can switch to the "Spoon Rest" acquisition radar to try to find our stray airliner.
Here's a picture of the "Fan Song" radar control panel. The large dial at left is elevation and the dial at right is the direction (azimuth) the antenna is pointing. The red light tells us we're slaved to the acquisition radar. The three green lights show us locked on in all three dimensions.
To manually lock on you have to mouse-click to move the antennas, which are very sensitive. I probably spent a good half hour before I finally managed to lock up a target.
Since this is a practice scenario we only have dummy missiles. Nobody gets hurt.
In real life these guys must have had nerves of steel. The second you turn that radar on you've announced your presence to the world. You might as well have a big neon sign blinking "Here I am! Come shoot me!"
I've heard stories of North Vietnamese SAM operators being handcuffed to their consoles but I'm not sure I believe them. They were a pretty motivated bunch and I have no reason to doubt their bravery.
I think I like this game because the equipment is so wonderfully old school. It's an interesting look into how "the other half" operated. It's very high on realism but I would rate playability as moderate. Can't complain about the price though.
I certainly can appreciate the time and effort the game designer went through to recreate these systems for us. If you're tired of the same old flight simulators give the Sam Simulator a try. Good luck.