It’s a new year and I’m already onto the first review of the year! This time it’s a look at DCS: Ka-50 Black Shark 3. This is one of Eagle Dynamics earliest full fidelity DCS World modules and its been brought up to the latest modern standards a substantial visual makeover and some new features added on too. What’s changed? What’s been added? And is this worth the upgrade price? Read on!
A bit of history
In the early 1980’s, the Soviet Union began a search for a next generation attack helicopter to replace the Mi-24 Hind. Kamov came up with a prototype helicopter that featured their typical coaxial blade configuration with one set of blades spinning clockwise and the other set spinning counter clockwise. This confers some advantages including alleviating the need to to have a tail rotor with the torque normally caused by the spinning blades cancelled out.
The Ka-50 was revolutionary in that it was intended from the beginning to be flown and operated by just a single pilot. Most attack helicopters are two seat configurations but Kamov was keen to develop systems to enable just a single pilot to do the job. Studies were apparently conducted and found that the workload was similar to that of a fighter-bomber pilot.
Early prototypes in the late 1980s soon gave way to production models, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union delayed the type’s introduction and early acceptance only began in 1995. Production was slow and only 18-19 Ka-50s were ever produced.
The Ka-50, according to various sources, became a helicopter normally attached to special forces operations while other helicopters like the Mi-28 became the standard frontline army helicopter. The two seat Ka-52 variant was produced in far greater numbers and also became a standard issue type – one that we’ve seen a lot of recently.
Meanwhile, the virtual version of the Ka-50 has a long history as well. First released in 2008, the Black Shark was the first DCS World module and the first to start modelling systems in DCS at the level that we now expect. DCS: Ka-50 Black Shark 2 came out a few years later upgrading the helicopter and making it available for the first time with multiplayer compatibility between it and DCS: A-10C. We’ve come a long way since then!
Black Shark 3 readies the module for the next few years with plenty of upgrades. Let’s talk about those.
The visual upgrades
The big changes with DCS: Ka-50 Black Shark 3 can be divided into two different elements. The first part is a visual upgrade and here Eagle Dynamics knocked it out of the park. As usual.
The visual artists at Eagle Dynamics know their craft at a level that is very hard to match in the whole of the flight sim industry. Black Shark 3’s cockpit makes minor refinements to the visual updates that first came to Black Shark 2 a few years ago. Those improvements were aimed at bringing the cockpit up to a more usable level. There are some changes with Black Shark 3 and the cockpit on the whole appears to just look overall more put together.
On the outside, we see a much more massive change in visual appearance. The Ka-50’s model has been redone from scratch and has much more detail in all aspects. This really shines when you get close and look at the aircraft from just meters away from it – virtually of course. Individual panels, sensors, antenna, and various weapon systems are intensely detailed to an extremely level of detail. You’d be hard pressed to find a texture or polygon out of place here! The texture work is also at a modern level with all the usual tricks of the trade to make this look very close to real.
The aircraft comes with 8 liveries which you can see here.
Animations are another area where Eagle Dynamics excels and the Ka-50 has incredibly detailed animations. That includes the main rotor assembly which you can see all of the fine details modelled in. You’d be forgiven for missing some of these things because its just so intensely done but they are there if you go looking for it.
The gun animation is far superior to what we saw on Black Shark 2 as well with the mobile cannon moving around, firing, and ejecting shell casings in an incredibly detailed fashion. Again, no detail is too small here!
The Black Shark 3 also has animated maintenance hatches which open and close revealing insane levels of mechanical detail under the skin of the aircraft. Even among DCS World modules you’d be hard pressed to see all of this.
The systems updates
Black Shark 3 maintains all of the systems that we saw in the past and adds a few new ones.
One of those key new features is a missile warning system which they call simply a Defensive Missile Warning System. I suspect this system is based on a real one model but without the naming scheme and likely with a few liberties taken with its modelling – Eagle Dynamics are at the point where they can surely make educated guesses that match real world capabilities without resorting to fictional capabilities while also walking a careful line between open source data and military secret.
This system is insanely useful as it provides a warning for incoming missile launches. And, when the system is set correctly, it can also automatically deploy countermeasures. A useful capability in a potentially challenging combat environment.
The other feature is the IGLA air-to-air missile. This is a modified version of the shoulder launched MANPAD that is common in the eastern block. The IGLA is a small missile packing a limited punch but it does give the Ka-50 a newfound capability to seek out and engage other helicopters and slow and low flying aircraft. It has a limited time of just 60 seconds from warm-up to use so careful management is required.
Flying and fighting this helicopter
Flying the Ka-50 is a unique experience among the sim helicopters that I’ve flown to date. You feel the power of this helicopter almost immediately after takeoff as the Ka-50 can be flown fast and put into some impressive manoeuvres albeit with the need to keep the whole operation under careful control. Overdo either the speed or the manoeuvres and you could get into a situation where the blades slap into each other causing a catastrophic failure. There is an overspeed warning so that usually gives you a good amount of time to correct.
Thanks to the stability systems and the counter rotating blades, I find the Black Shark to be relatively stable and without some of the torque related quirks that other helicopters have. The autopilot system makes flying longer distances relatively easy too!
The Blackshark also has a hover/hold mode. Get slow enough and engage the mode and it should keep you relatively stationary leaving you free to slew weapons and engage targets at range. It’s tremendously useful.
The Ka-50 is a much more modern interpretation of the attack helicopter style of operation. While the Mi-24 Hind operates best in hit and run racetrack operations, the Ka-50 can more reliably perform like the AH-64D. Using terrain and sensors to locate and lock laser guided missiles from a distance and then engage them while staying out of the enemy’s short range engagement envelope. Here the Ka-50 mostly succeeds although the workload on a single pilot is of course a bit higher than with the two-seater.
Still, it can be quite fun to work hard on getting the right positioning for attack. Unleashing a steady barrage of laser beam riding 9K121 Vikhr missiles on target after that can be quite satisfying.
With missiles expended and enemy air defenses degraded, rockets and the 30 mm Shipunov 2A42 gun can be put to good use as well. Here the Ka-50 once again succeeds as a capable platform within DCS World but the threat of MANPADs in some scenarios means that very careful application of weapons is a necessity.
The biggest complaint I’ve heard is that two or more IGLA air-to-air missiles are required to score a confirmed kill. That is certainly the case with some of DCS’ tougher helicopters while others like the UH-1 and UH-60 seem to go down with a single hit. At least in my testing they did. Its not too surprising given the 9K38 Igla’s small warhead with just 1.17 kg or 2.6 lbs of explosive. An AIM-9 by contrast has about 20 lbs of explosives!
There’s some top notch modelling here too for things like smoke ingestion into the engine. Fire off a barrage of rockets in a stationary position and your engine will suck in too much smoke and send you crashing. Outstanding modelling of the details.
Final thoughts and the upgrade question
Black Shark 3 seems like a worth update of the previous version. The visual upgrade, particularly on the exterior, is impressive while the interior looks great. Upgraded systems add extra capability and the missile warning system in particular has already saved my bacon more than a few times in testing. The IGLA isn’t a super effective missile but it still has the potential to offer mission kills against enemy helicopters.
This also means that we now have top notch representations of both the Ka-50 and AH-64, two helicopters that I feel are roughly analogues to each other. Both are dedicated attack helicopters and both are now offered as a top tier representation in DCS World leading to some interesting opportunities to operate against each other online. At some point I’ll have to compare both types more closely as I fly them more.
DCS: Ka-50 Black Shark has a legacy in DCS World. One that isn’t without its contentions over time particularly as other modules superseded it in the development pipeline. Coming back to this aircraft feels like an attempt to solve that problem and the $10 upgrade fee seems like an awfully cost effective way to upgrade a favoured module. That upgrade price is in place until March so you have time to make a decision.
Fortunately, Black Shark 2 isn’t going anywhere either and if the A-10C and A-10C II-like arrangement continues, it seems likely that friends will be flying Black Shark 2 and Black Shark 3 together on multiplayer servers for a long time to come.
If you’re more casual about flying the Black Shark and only fly it occasionally, upgrading to the new version may not be worth it for you. For the dedicated fan, however, I see this as a must have upgrade with a really good price.