Zero-G Dogfighting for Dummies

(Citizen Star News/Gryphon Osiris) - 2014-04-29 - Originally an RSI Forum thread but compiled here for you citizen stars in cooperation with the author.

Updated - 2014-05-24-214 - New Sections: "...You never, ever leave your wingman" and"Keep your distance, Chewie, but don't look like you are trying to keep your distance"

Updated - 2014-04-29 - New Section: "Remember - the enemy's gate is down"


Zero-G Dogfighting for Dummies

A handbook for new pilots in Arena Commander

by Gryphon Osiris

For all those aspiring jet jockey's out there the sight of X-wings and Veritech's engaging in space combat was a thrilling thing to see as a kid. However, both used atmospheric flight styles and limited what they could really do as combat craft. Other series like Babylon 5, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica took a more realistic approach at how a space based fighters would fly using reaction control thrusters and inertial drift. With that said, we are going to take a brief look at how to fly your Hornet using Newtonian physics to your advantage as well as using your thrusters to make maneuvers impossible in atmosphere combat.

"The Basics"

Before one can dogfight in Zero-G one needs to have an understanding of how to dogfight under atmospheric conditions.

In the first world war the edicts of modern air combat were born from trial an error by the first combat pilots. Failure then meant death or grievous injury and it was a lesson learned quickly by all pilots. Many famous pilots that are still spoken of in legend and history were made famous by the bi-plane duels over the Western Front. Some like the Infamous Red Baron were killed in action, while others like Eddie Rickenbacker went on to form modern air forces around the globe. One in particular, Adolph Gysbert Malan, made famous his 10 rules of air combat, which still holds true today.

1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 to 2 seconds and only when your sights are definitely 'ON'.
This is also known as 'Fire Discipline', waiting until you have a good shot before firing your weapon and taking a measured, short burst rather than spraying bullets. At the time this was because of the limited number of bullets carried, along with the very real possibility of the weapon jamming. However it is a rule that still applies in modern times with foot soldiers and combat pilots alike, and even in the Arena Commander for many of the same reasons. In the case of in the game it's due to weapon over heat, along with the number of rounds carried in projectile weapons. Spraying fire down range blindly will give away your position and can cause your weapons to overheat or drain their capacitors, leaving you defenseless. Simply: Make your shots count.

2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of the body, have both hands on the stick, concentrate on your ring sight.
Ok, this one is situational for the first world war, but the point of it does hold true, keep your eye on the target while shooting so you don't waste ammo.

3. Always keep a sharp lookout. "Keep your finger out!"
2 and 3 actually go together. Focus on your target but don't fixate on the target, that can be worse than missing, as you may get the other guy's back-up slinging plasma up your tail pipe.

4. Height gives You the initiative.
This applies to atmosphere more than space. Height equals potential energy, and that equals speed for diving on a target. With that said, you want to keep your velocity up because if you slow to a crawl you are easy pickings. However it is a fine balance because as you increase velocity you also decrease maneuverability and will be unable to keep within the arc of a turning fight.

5. Always turn and face the attack.
Running is the worst thing you can do. It lets your opponent line up a shot right to your vulnerable engine and puts you into a defensive rather than offensive position. You want to keep your guns pointed towards the enemy as much as possible and keep theirs off of you.

6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
Inaction will get your killed faster than poor flying skills. If you sit and do nothing while another ship is lining up a missile shot on you then you should probably find a new hobby.

7. Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
In the case of Arena Commander I would move this down to 10 seconds. The reason behind this is flying straight and level makes it really easy for the other ship to either pull up on your six, angle a deflection shot, or pounce on you from above. Keep moving, keep aware.

8. When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
Situational, however the principal is sound. Never attack en mass, always have back up in case you get in trouble.

9. INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are the words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.
Make the first attack, keep on the enemy, be disciplined on your gunnery and work together. All of these make what would just be a marginal bunch of lone wolves into a juggernaut formation.

10. Go in quickly - Punch hard - Get out!
Don't linger. Get your shot, pounded them and get the hell out of there to come at them again. This is commonly known as a 'Boom and Zoom'. Buzz down fast on them, spray them with bullets, and use your speed to get out of there and come around for another pass.

"Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space!"

Truer words have never been said about space combat, in this case referencing Newton's 1st law of motion: "An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force." Under normal flight conditions a pilot will be facing their direction of travel. Logical, right? It lets you see where you are going, not run into things, ect. Now, a classic trick that can be used is to let inertia do the work for you, so that you can shoot or strafe a target while flying in another direction entirely. Now this does carry some risk: unless you are using lateral or vertical thrust you are flying in a straight line, which is a one of the primary actions never to do in combat, as mentioned before. It does carry the advantage that you can 'slide' past a larger ship while out of view of its guns while still keeping all your weapons focused on it. You have to remember to be aware of your flight trajectory, otherwise you could quite possibly run into something as well, making your opponent's job easier.

"He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking."

One of the classic tricks in a Zero-G environment is the usage of lateral and vertical movement for evasion as well as performing maneuvers to put yourself in a better firing position.

For example: Pilot A is in a Hornet being chased by a Cutlass. Pilot A pulls in front of an asteroid, downward thrusts and does a full reverse thrust to stop momentum to hide in the asteroid's shadow. The Cutlass continues forward without realizing the Hornet is no longer flying in front of them anymore. The Hornet throttles up and is a text book firing position behind the Cutlass.

Alternatively: The Hornet is now chasing the Cutlass, but the top turret gunner is making it difficult for the Hornet pilot to get a well aimed shot. The Hornet pilot engages downward thrust to put them out of the turret's firing arc so that they have a unimpeded shot to the Cutlass's belly.

In many ways zero-G combat has much in common with both modern plane combat and helicopter combat, being able to utilize advantages from both. Like modern aerial combat pilots can use linear acceleration to make fast, smooth attacks like what one normally thinks of for dogfighting, however being able to use lateral and vertical axis also makes for being able to make more creative maneuvers for tighter turns or wider turns that put you on a superior firing angle on your target.

"I have yet to meet someone who can outsmart (a) bullet."

Gunnery is the cornerstone of dogfighting. You can be an ace aerobatic pilot but if you can't hit the broadside of a Kingship then you should look into being an aerial acrobat instead of a combat pilot. The legendary Red Baron was famous for his pride over his gunnery skills. He wasn't the most skill pilot, but he was deadly accurate when he had a target in his sights. This comes back to Fire Discipline: to take well aimed shots over randomly 'plinking' away at a target hoping that you might hit it. When in combat an enemy very rarely will fly still enough for you to take your time and line up that perfect shot, in fact, most encounters are a swirling mess as both ships turn to angle in on the other to get a shot off.

As seen in the dogfighting reveal the Ships in Arena Commander will have an ITTS pipper. ITTS stands for Inertial Target Tracking System; a fancy way of saying 'aimpoint'. It idea of it was actually born out of the Korean War with the F-86 Sabrejet, who had a nose mounted radar system that would calculate the gun deflection needed for the pilot and adjust his sight accordingly. In this environment the ITTS will tell you where to aim, however you must also take into account distance and the other pilot's ability to maneuver. For example, if the ITTS shows that you need to aim 15 degrees ahead of the target to hit, and they are 1000 yards away then that will hold true assuming that the target doesn't decide to alter course or velocity in anyway. A minor change by them between the time you fire and the time on target for those rounds is the difference between a hit and missing completely. This comes back to Rule #1 of dogfighting: get in close. The closer you are the less chance they have to avoid your shots. Just don't stick the nose of your ship up their tailpipe in the process. Close is good, but unless you are flying a Scythe or are Gaius Baltar try to avoid ramming the target.

"They are called 'missiles', not 'hittles'."

Hollywood has given the impression that missiles are the end are, fix all for dogfighting; unless you are the hero then they just barely miss. A missile is a guided munition with an explosive payload that is normally locked on to target via radar or thermal signature. With that said they are rather easy to shake the lock if you are even a marginal pilot. As we've seen the Hornets in Arena Commander come with flares and chaff for radar guided or IR guided missiles, allowing pilots to release these decoys to confuse missiles as they are closing with you. Like a missile they are also not fool proof; pop them too early and the missile won't even see them, pop them too late and you'll end up with the missile right up your stove pipe. The trick is to learn the 'feel' of when to release decoys, and not spam them out. Dumping a lot of decoys 'will' confuse the missile, however you will burn up all your reserves at the same time; when you don't have it that's when you need it.

Using missiles is more of an art that a science; you have to time the shot right, avoid decoys, and avoiding wasting it against shields if you are going for the kill. Missiles also tend to have longer effective ranges over guns, making them good for stand off range engagements or harassment. One common trick is to lock onto the target and just let the enemy listen to the lock tone rather than firing. If they are inexperienced they will immediately go evasive and break off any attack that they may have been on, or at least put them into a defensive position. Ideally you want to fire at them close enough to a target that they can't evade, but at the same time not so close that you might catch part of the explosion. Alternatively they are useful during a period know as 'the merge' when you an an opponent are closing on one another. By locking on and even deploying a missile at that target they would have to either break their lock and evade, or eat your missile while flying right at it.

"We're in an express elevator to hell... going down!"

G-Forces in dogfighting have nothing to do with gravity; it is actually the measurement of acceleration felt as weight. The science behind it is simple, and goes back to Sir Isaac Newton's 3rd law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You may be strapped into to a multimillion credit fighter in deep space, but do a sudden 180 roll over and you'll feel like an elephant just sat on your chest. Yes gravity is not normally as measurable in space as it would be planet side, however inertia still applies whether you are on Earth, Luna, or on the surface of a neutron star. By pulling a hard maneuver you are counteracting the current inertia affecting your body and ship. Inertia itself can be described as laziness, that is to say things will want to continue along the same path unless acted upon by gravity, a solid stellar mass, or RCS thrusters.

Pull a 180 flip and your body is still in motion and wants to continue in that direction even though your main thrusters is telling it otherwise. The resulting opposite reaction to the thruster output is the feeling that you are being crushed by an unseen weight, your blood gets pulled down to your feet by the same force, and you eventually black out. Modern pilots wear a G-suit that has air bladders that fill during high G Maneuvers to force blood back up into the body, along with the pilots clenching tightly in their abdomen to keep blood from being pulled down. The important lesson to take from this is that while you can pull high G's for a brief period of time do it too much and your brain gets starved for blood, or more accurately, oxygen and you will black out. Alternatively if you pull a positive G, nose down instead of pulling up, you are forcing blood into your brain which can be even more dangerous. The result is called a red out and can cause either retina damage or even a stroke. Human limitation to positive G's are even less than that of a negative G. Most people cannot stand more than -2 to -3 without a red out, and more than that is potentially fatal.

For all you math junkies, it is explained as such:

Acceleration is change in velocity divided by time interval. ∆V = velocity change, ∆t = time interval.

a = ∆V/∆t

∆V = 172 km/hr = 48 m/s (V changes from 0 to 172 km/r)

a = 48/2 = 24 m/s² (this change happens in 2 seconds)

g = 9.8 m/s²

the g-force is then 24/9.8 = 2.4 g

For more comparison, these are some recorded G-forces for a variety of aviation and non-aviation activities:

  • A ride in the Vomit Comet = ≈ 0 g
  • Standing on the Moon at its equator 0.1654 g
  • Standing on the Earth at sea level–standard 1 g
  • Saturn V moon rocket just after launch 1.14 g
  • Bugatti Veyron from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.4 s 1.55 g
  • Space Shuttle, maximum during launch and reentry 3 g
  • High-g roller coasters 3.5–6.3 g
  • Top Fuel drag racing world record of 4.4 s over 1/4 mile 4.2 g
  • World War One Aircraft Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Triplane, Fokker D.VII, Fokker Dr.1, SPAD S.VII, SPAD S.XIII, Nieuport 17 in a steep dive or back or front looping. 4.5–7 g
  • Formula One car, maximum under heavy braking 5.4 g
  • Formula One car, peak lateral in turns 5–6 g
  • Luge, maximum expected at the Whistler Sliding Centre 5.2 g
  • Standard, full aerobatics certified glider +7/−5 g
  • Apollo 16 on reentry 7.19 g
  • Typical max. turn in an aerobatic plane or fighter jet 9–12 g
  • Death or serious injury likely > 25 g
  • Maximum for human on a rocket sled 46.2 g
  • Sprint missile 100 g
  • Brief human exposure survived in crash > 100 g
  • Highest recorded g-force ever survived (Kenny Bräck, 2003) 214 g


"Remember - the enemy's gate is down"

Taking the basics and building from them.

Once one has an understanding of how atmospheric combat works they can begin to look at the Zero-G environment. Atmospheric techniques are the Akido base to zero-G's Kendo; they teach the principals of form that are then molded and changed to fit in an environment without the gravitational or atmospheric limitations found in classic dog-fighting. In Zero-G concerns such as air speed, height advantages and diving are meaningless due to the fact that one is in space, and therefor lacks the limiting factors that can cause stalls, drag and flame outs. Rather a pilot in a microgravity setting can perform tasks that would make most planes fall like a rock, or are limited only to demonstrative displays and use them with relative ease. Most classic dog-fighting maneuvers no longer apply once one breaks atmo, simply because they are designed to use either gravity or drag to put the pilot into a firing position. However more recent maneuvers such as the Cobra hold a very valid place as a ship in space can 'slam on the brakes' and let their opponent overshoot them without fear of a stall. Other tactics such as using a lateral slide using inertial would be considered sloppy flying planet side but in space can give you the precious extra seconds to get guns on target and hammer them.

To that point here are 10 rules compiled from various sources as well as some classical inspiration:

1. Know your self, and know your enemy
Familiarity with ones ship is probably the most important part of space combat. You need to know how it handles in a turn, how it accelerates, the refire rate of weapons, the damage of weapons, shield resilience, armor strength and so on. At the same time knowing how an enemy ship handles help you decide how to approach it. For example if you are facing a Scythe you know that you don't want to be too close to the front end as the ramming blade can rip you in half, or if facing a 325a that it has a high number of maneuvering thrusters, but is relatively lightly armed. Knowing how to attack an enemy and what your ship can do can win a fight before it ever starts.

2. Play to your strengths, not your enemy's
Your tactics are based on both what type of ship you are flying as well as who they are fighting. If you are in a fast, nimble, but light armored fighter you want to avoid getting into a slugging match with a heavier craft. Alternatively if you are in a large, well armed and armored vessel trying to keep up in a turning fight with a much lighter ship is suicide. If you are out numbered and faster, use speed and evasion, or if the opposite is true, hit them hard with heavy weapons to keep them on the defensive.

3. Discretion is the better part of valor
If you aren't at the advantage, best to run and avoid combat. There is a huge difference between bravery and stupidity. An Aurora taking on a flight of six Hornets will get chewed up and spit out in seconds; the same can be said about a Constellation engaging a dozen 325a's. If you see enemies with superior numbers or firepower then bug out, get support, or hide. You do no one any good diving head long into certain death.

4. Down is subjective
In space there is no up or down, there just is a direction of travel. What is up to you may not be up to anyone else. This goes doubly for when flying a turreted vessel. You need to make sure to keep an angle that your gunners can fend off attackers with. If you are in a Freelancer and the enemy ships are below you then roll the ship over so your tail gunner has something to shoot at.

5. Momentum is king
This actually goes back to the principals of WWI. During that war aircraft used altitude and diving to maintain superior momentum on targets, in space the usage of gravity dives don't apply, but momentum still does. If you pull a hard 180 reversal before gunning your afterburner your ship's momentum will slow to a momentary stop before accelerating again. In that time you become a sitting duck as your thrusters counter inertia and bring you back up to speed. If you are going to pull a hard maneuver be aware of the loss of momentum it will cause and how vulnerable you will be in that time.

6. Speed can get you killed
Forward momentum is a good thing, however if you are so fast that you can't turn effectively then you might as well just give up then and there. Short, sudden bursts of speed are good for closing distance and evading fire but if you are jamming along at full throttle in an M-50 in an asteroid field while trying to dogfight at the same time you are more likely to get smeared across the surface of a space rock than kill your opponent.

7. Think in three dimensions
This comes back to using your thrusters for lateral and horizontal movements. The classic flying styles of atmosphere make great show pieces for movies, but it limits what one can really do. Using your thrusters to slide in a turn allows you to cause a pursuer to over-shoot you and put you into a firing position or to duck behind an obstacle to provide cover against incoming fire. Be creative about it, use your imagination, but remember that you still need to consider potential loss of momentum.

8. Press your advantages
If you've taken out their rear shields then hit them hard. If their wingmen have fled or are destroyed then focus fire. This comes back to 'be aggressive'. Don't give them breathing time in a battle, that gives them time to regroup, recharge and change tactics. You want to keep them on the defensive and looking over their shoulder constantly. If you ease off them then its very likely the hunter will become the hunted.

9. What you can't see can kill you
Situational awareness in combat is more than just knowing where friends and enemies are; it's about knowing of any debris near you, what is in your current direction of travel, and hiding places for ambushes. For example, if you do a 180 flip while traveling in inertia mode you now no longer have visuals on your path of travel. You could be flying towards empty space, an ally, into enemy fire, or about to plant yourself into an asteroid. Using inertial drift can give you an advantage if done right, however pay attention to your surroundings and avoid flying blindly for more than a second or two. Ambushes are another side of this as well. Since a craft can power down and hang in the sensor shadow of an object you can fly right past them without ever knowing they are there. The best way to avoid being jumped is to not fly alone. Having a second set of eyes to watch your back can turn a potential ambush to a victory for you. A smart attacker knows not to engage in 2 to 1 odds as the second ship can come up behind the attacker when they are lining up on the first ship.

10. Be adaptable
This comes from Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet-Kun Do, specifically the section about being 'like water'. In this case, it means don't get stuck in a certain flying style or tactic. If you are used to doing boom and zoom attacks but your opponents are countering them, then hit them in a turning fight. If you are unable to use your superior firepower against a more nimble enemy then have a wingman assist you with Hammer/Anvil strikes. If you do it right you can flow and adapt to your opponents tactics without missing a beat, turning their own limitations against them.

"...You never, ever leave your wingman."

Contrary to popular belief, a lone pilot versus a half dozen other ships will normally end up as a kill marker on someone's nose. There have been a few examples of a lone pilot being able to hold off multiple attackers, however these never turn out well for the lone pilot and require them to engage in maneuvers that border on insanity. A good example of this is Werner Voss from WWI, one of the few people Richthofen considered to be equal in flying skill. He engaged in what is famously know as his 'last stand' against in excess of 8 other British fliers and struck multiple hits on all the other aircraft. However, as good as his tactics and gunnery were he ended up getting swarmed, even though he had the opportunity to disengage from combat and run to friendly lines. No matter what macho boasting you may have heard, if you are alone sometimes its better to run if you can make a clean escape.

With that said, only a fool flies through dangerous territory alone. There is a reason why the term 'Wingman' is so closely held in dogfighting circles, and its more than just someone who helps you pick up dates at bars. A wingman's job to to keep the lead alive long enough to take out the enemy. Typically the lead will be flying ahead with their wingman at the 4 o'clock or 8 o'clock position trailing the leader. The lead is the attacker, and the wingman's job is to look out for other enemies that may try to pounce of the lead while they are lining up their shot. If another enemy does try to pounce on the lead then the wingman just needs to drop back slightly to put themselves into a firing position as well. Simple, right?


The concept sounds simple, but in practicality it requires the wingman to stick like glue to their lead. That means you can't engage easy kills, chase down runners, investigate that sketchy looking asteroid, ect. This one comes down to discipline as well, however even professionals will get separated from one another because in the heat of a dogfight everything is moving fast and unpredictably. Many defensive tactics require two ships to be working on close concert with one another in order to be effective, with that said it is possible to survive on your own, but it requires some insane flying skills. This one is a case of simple mathematics; if you are outnumbered 8 to 1 you may drop 2 maybe 3 of them, but the damage they do to you will add up, they will start to get themselves into better positions to attack, and they will eventually wear you down like hounds running down a bear.

"Keep your distance, Chewie, but don't look like you are trying to keep your distance."

Once in the persistent universe you will not normally be in a situation where it will be a fair fight. In other words, it won't be like Arena Commander where you know that there are people there to fight with, or that they know you are there. In the days when spotting a target was done visually they'd always say to 'keep your head on a swivel'. Being able to spot the enemy first opens up your options on how to deal with them and puts you on the offensive rather than into a defensive position. With the thermal and EM scanners that will be available in the game this also gives you passive ways to spot enemies without the tell tale give away of radar pulse.

Even if you spot the enemy first you still need to make the decision of if it's worth it our not. For example you may have a flight of 3 Hornets but if you try attacking a convoy of two Freelancers, a Constellation, with 4 325a escorts you'll probably end up having to test out your ship's ejection system.

To Illustrate this I made the following flow chart:


More to follow...

See Also

RSI Forums - Zero-G Dogfighting for Dummies - Original thread but ran into issues with formatting and post length. Recreated here with permission and cooperation from the author.

French translation courtesy Force Unifiée - Zero-G, le Dogfight pour les nuls !