Birds of Prey lets you fly 40 different types of aircraft on various missions. These range from the best modern high-tech fighters in the world, such as the F-16, F-15, and Mig 29, to older combat aircraft, such as the F-104 Starfighter, to cargo planes and tankers (C-130, KC-10), reconnaissance aircraft (SR-71, U-2), experimental aircraft (X-15), stealth aircraft (F-117, B-2), and bombers (B-52, B-1, F-111). This is but a small subset of those available. You can fly NATO (both American and European) or Warsaw Pact aircraft, based on land or carrier, fixed or variable wing, and many other types (I haven’t even mentioned most of the Soviet aircraft). Exploring the different aircraft is lots of fun. Absent are the ultra-new fighters (F-22 and F-23), and older piston engine planes (P-51 Mustang, B-17, etc). There are a few prop planes, but this is primarily a jet simulator. There are currently 12 missions available to fly. When you pick a mission, BOP will rule out some aircraft right away (for example, you can’t use an F-15 from a carrier, or fly troop drop missions in an F-4). Other than that, it lets you pick from a fairly large list of applicable aircraft, and makes no attempt to influence your choice. It is possible to pick an aircraft only marginally suited for the job at hand. For example, I once tried to fly fighter escort for a B-1 bomber in a F-5 Tiger II. The F-5 is a fairly lightweight plane, slow unless under full afterburner, and it had troubles keeping up with the B-1. Part of the fun of the game is selecting the right aircraft for the job, you need to pick one which is capable of using the type of weapons you need.
Once you pick the mission and aircraft type, you can pick the armament to carry. This is one of the most well done aspects of the game. A view of each aircraft is displayed along with the exact hardpoint configuration of that plane (A hardpoint is a location on the aircraft to which bombs, missiles, fuel tanks, and other useful gadgets can be attached). You see a list of possible weapons which this plane can use. This list differs for each aircraft type. Sometimes, a particular weapon will only work with one type of aircraft (The Pheonix missile, for example, can only be attached to an F-14A Tomcat). You can attach a weapon to a hardpoint by dragging its icon over the hardpoint and clicking the mouse button. You can remove things from hardpoints and reconfigure the aircraft just as easily. This lets you pick what you think is the optimal set of weapons to take on each mission based on the type of mission, distance, expected threat, and weight of the armament. The only potential problem with this aspect of the game is that a flight simulator novice might be intimidated by the range of choices available, since there is no default or recommended configuration. You could even fly unarmed if you so wished. If the aircraft you want to fly cannot lift the weapons you want, you can reduce the internal fuel supply and meet up with a tanker once airborn. Once you select your weapons and read the mission description posted to the screen, you have committed to fly the mission. You start out sitting in the aircraft in the hanger or carrier. You start up the engines, taxi out on the runway, and stop. Proper takeoff procedure is to apply wheel brakes, set flaps to 15 to 20%, throttle up to 100% power, and release the wheel brakes to begin the takeoff roll. This procedure is necessary with some aircraft, because even though you have increased the throttle control to 100%, the engines may take a while to ramp up to that power level. It doesn’t matter for powerful fighters, but if the aircraft has a long takeoff roll or is heavily laden, it is important. This is an example of the sort of small things that adds realism to the game.
After you air airborn, you can put the gear up and relax for a bit before you get into enemy territory. This is where the autopilot comes in handy. In BOP, distances and times all match real life. This means, for example, that if your target is 600 km away, you might have a 45 to 65 minute flight to even get close. It might also be necessary to refuel en route – more on this later. In any case, since this time is spent just cruising along happily, the autopilot can be used to “compress” time. The autopilot is well done. You can select a waypoint and tell it a cruising altitude. You are then treated to a nice outside view of your aircraft flying past, and a few seconds of real time later, you have arrived. The autopilot will disengage en route if any threat is detected. Also, you probably don’t want to arrive actually AT the waypoint, if that is what you are trying to attack. Rather, you can tell the autopilot to disengage at any distance from the target (such as 60 km, to give you time to get your bearings, arm weapons, get into the right HUD mode, etc., before the attack). Once you arrive, the autopilot dumps you off in straight and level flight at your indicated location and altitude. Many times, your aircraft will not have enough internal fuel to fly the entire mission. If you run out of fuel, you can schedule a rendezvous with a tanker aircraft. Doing this is something of an art. You have to time it so that the tanker gets to your indicated waypoint just as you do. You don’t want it circling there for a long time, since it is a sitting duck for enemy fighters. You also don’t want to wait around for it if you are running out of fuel. Once it arrives, you get behind it, match speed, altitude, and heading, and engage the refueling auto pilot. In theory, it might be possible to pilot the plane in close enough manually, but this would be very difficult, so usually you just get close and let the autopilot take over. You can then watch the refueling from inside or outside of your plane. Refueling is also useful for lightweight aircraft with low take-off weights. You can’t put very many weapons on an F-5 before it is too heavy to take off. To get around this, you can reduce the internal fuel supply to leave more weight available for weapons. Then, once airborn, you can refuel. Some long duration missions in the game may require refueling multiple times.