I wrote this about the Scythe for the people I play with, but most of it applies to all ESFs.

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Hardware

I use a PS3 joypad. I think it'll be extremely hard* to be a competent pilot with mouse+kb, since that only gives you 2 analog axes, while the pad gives you 4. On top of that, you can't change what the mouse axes do, so you're stuck with vertical axis being pitch and horizontal being roll, which is natural for a stick but unwieldy for a mouse.

You can set the pad up according to personal preference: I have the left stick handling yaw and ascend/descend, and the right handling roll and pitch. Bind the buttons to taste: I have mine almost duplicating BF3's setup, with the minor change that I put reload on R1 as well as Square, moving Flare to X, since you often need to reload during turns. Alternatively, having vision mode on R1 would be good, so you can easily toggle the cheating IR view if you have it. When I get it I'll probably stick it on Square.

* There are plenty of people who have put the time and effort into learning how to fly with mouse + kb and are amazing pilots.  I think they would have learned quicker with a pad or stick, and if they applied the same amount of learning to a pad or stick they would be better with it than with mouse + kb.

My mapping:

L1 - Fire

R1 - Reload

L2 - Brake

R2 - Throttle

L3 - Afterburner

R3 - Toggle 3rd person (not currently using this, since I never toggle)

Left Stick - Ascend/Descend + Yaw

Right Stick - Pitch + Roll

Square - Reload

Triangle - Toggle Weapon

X - Flare ('Activate Utility', I think)

Circle - Eject (thinking of debinding this, to avoid accidental fallouts during heated dogfights)

Select - Spot

Start - Toggle Minimap Zoom

D-pad Left - Primary weapon*

D-pad Right - Secondary weapon*

*currently doesn't seem to work right, last time I tried.

I also have Right Mouse bound to Free Look, which makes it quite easy for me to have a quick look around the sky with the mouse if I'm not currently engaged.

Flight

How To Fly is a bit of a broad category to go into here; the feel of the craft, basic maneuvers, combat maneuvers... you need to practice to learn all this stuff, if you haven't picked it up from prior games. What I'll talk about here is how the Scythe handles differently to normal jets/choppers.

The ESFs (Empire Specific Fighters, in our case the Scythe) handle mostly like VTOL jets. The main differences are they have very little rudder control and have multiple thrusters, instead of redirecting one.

Having little yaw (rudder) control affects your movement mostly at low speed / while hovering. In an attack heli it's quite easy to fly around a target while keeping your nose generally facing it, while in an ESF this is very difficult. At high speeds you can still use it during a turn to make it sharper: to make a fast turn in a jet you roll almost perpendicular, pull up for max climb, and hit max rudder in the direction you want to go. Here you do the same, but may as well go fully perpendicular since almost all your turn speed comes from nose-up.

Your two obvious options for engaging a ground target are to either hover in place, or come in on an attack run. Hovering gives you the best ability to line up shots, and offload lots of materiel, but leaves you a sitter. Making a pass is generally better: you should be able to fire all your rockets at a target, then make the 180 turn as your reload takes place. However, your target may only be open to attack from one side, and if so making passes will give you less DPS than hovering and shooting. In that case it's really up to how competent the targets are, whether they'll let you get away with the hover. Note that both of these techniques leave you flying in a predictable manner: either sitting in place or traveling in a straight line.

It is possible to accomplish some form of circle-strafe, however it's fairly difficult to be precise with it, so it works out more as the ability to change your position around a target. i.e. you can't simply rotate around a target, firing all the time. What you can do is hover and fire, rotate, then hover and fire again. This also lets you maneuver around a base, lining up against different walls on buildings to see through different windows & doors.

To do so: we begin the maneuver from hover. Roll the ESF in the direction you wish to move, almost perpendicular, and hit Ascend. Once in location, roll back to level (if you're going fast you might need to roll past level and thrust a bit to halt yourself). In effect we are substituting the ESFs good vertical thrust for its poor side thrust. Note that because of important things like gravity, you have to perform the maneuver fairly rapidly. It takes practice.

Note also you are now traveling along your monitors vertical height, rather than horizontal width, thus your viewport is significantly reduced. You need good spacial awareness of any obstacles you could be flying into; you have no LOS along your direction of travel. Be aware of any tall buildings/towers and any friendly aircraft nearby.

With practice you can make this much smoother and less risky: by varying the amount you rotate and the amount you thrust you can make fairly accurate movements, and will be able to peek in windows and doors, or track a running target across open ground, into a building, and out the other side. To start with, though, you'll be making lurches to the side.

Vertical thrust: As this is a separate thruster than your main, flying with both active actually generates more overall thrust than just one. i.e. you can go faster than your main engine top speed by nosing-down a little and keeping your vertical thrust on full burn too.

Practice how the ESF handles with and without the vertical thrust engaged: with is generally better for strafing runs, since it keeps you aimed at the ground, while without is generally better while dog-fighting / attempting dangerous maneuvers (like threading a Biolab), since without vertical thrust what-you-see is where-you-go.

Etiquette

I've titled this section "Etiquette", but in reality it's "How Not To Die By Flying Into Friendlies". Once you get competent at flying and dog-fighting, it's very likely that your #1 cause of death will be collisions with friendlies. There are two main points where this can occur:

1) Chasing an enemy ESF. If you're chasing an enemy fighter, and one or more other Scythes join in the chase, you will naturally all gravitate to the same point behind the enemy, and wipe each other out. If I start to engage an enemy and see he already has someone following him, I'll be extra careful, and hedge on the side of letting the other guy take it rather than try and bull my way in. In the converse situation, where I've done all the damage already and someone else is trying to muscle in on my kill, it's depends how belligerent I'm feeling: break off and let them have it, or risk the collision to get the points.

A good rule-of-thumb is to copy the one snowboarders/skiers use: the person behind is always at fault. Don't be that guy!

2) Airpads*. The most dangerous place in the world for a pilot is a friendly airpad. Frequented by friendlies, half of whom are paying no attention, the chance of collision is huge. You can minimise the risk by conducting yourself well:

When landing come in low, just over the pad. Choose a pad from far out and stick with it, unless you absolutely cannot because someone else is suddenly in the way. Do not come in high then drop vertically: you cannot see where you're going when you move on the vertical axis, and there could be anything below you. To land you simply kill your speed with the brake until you have no forward momentum, then pull down slightly on descend. Keep the craft level: if you nose down you'll generate forward thrust, and you want to be stationary when you come down on the pad. Once you've killed your speed release the brake: holding brake fires your engine, and will actually generate some vertical thrust that'll push you up off the deck. If someone else is slowly making their way to land do not try to get there first and land below them: they won't see you, will land on you, and you'll both likely explode.

Taking off is probably the most hazardous thing you can do in an ESF. The first thing to do is look around, and check your radar for friendlies. Assuming you now know where everything is, there are two good ways to do it, and myriad ways you can screw it up.

The best option is to simply apply some throttle. Hitting the throttle will first automatically kick you up off the pad, then move you forwards. Since you are only moving in the direction you can see, you shouldn't hit anything.

Sometimes you can't do that because there's something directly ahead of you, be it the tower body, a cliff, a friendly, or w/e. In that case, when you're confident there are no friendlies above you, use your vertical thust to fly directly upwards. Do not turn or roll. Once you have enough height to clear you of the obstacle, forward thrust as normal. Obviously the previous option is better: when you go straight up you can't see in the direction of travel.

In both cases, hold your course until you are well clear of the base, in case someone else is taking off beside you.

What not to do unless you absolutely have to: hit max thrust + max vertical thrust + twist to take you clear in a desired direction. If a Mossie is ripping you up on the pad then by all means, but except in those kind of extreme circumstance do not do this.

General tips for flying near a base / airpad: keep your movements slow and deliberate. Don't turn often (or at all if you can help it) - move only in straight lines, preferably in the direction you can see - forward. Getting the hang of coming in hot and killing your speed with max brakes, right over the pad, is good once you can do it: the less time you spend near the pad the better. Conversely, taking off at max speed is bad: on the way in you have a wide view of the big picture, while on take-off you can see very little. Take it slow.

*This section also applies when all the friendly air is huddling in on a base you're about to capture, a situation which is basically the biggest potential clusterfuck you'll find as a pilot. On the smaller bases, with smaller payouts, it's sometimes not even worth trying to get close enough to get paid.

Weapons

Guns:

First up, get the Hailstorm. It seems to be identical to the stock weapon, except it has a much higher ROF. Note that this is it's own disadvantage: you have to aim more carefully before firing, and be a good shot to make the entire volley connect. However, once you can do that it's just better. Hailstorm will happily blow the shit out of infantry if your aim is good.

Rocket Pods:

These are your bread-and-butter. They'll eat up infantry, and are very effective against enemy vehicles, especially if you maneuver to hit them in the rear: one volley in the rear of a Lightning will kill it, and an MBT will need to be on full health to survive it (easily polished off with Hailstorm).

Reloading continues after switching weapons, so you can fire your volley of rockets, start the reload, switch to guns, empty those, start their reload, and switch back to rockets... repeat.

Note that in PS2 rear-armour hits are even more valuable than in BF3 - you can quite happily chew through Lightning or MBT hitpoints with the Hailstorm if you are getting them in the back, while getting the Sunderer in the back is pretty much the only way to hurt it with lasers.

A2AM pods:

I've flip-flopped on these. Initially I put them in the trash pile, like in BF3 where they are very nooby; good pilots engage air with the main gun, and equipping A2AM means you don't have Rocket Pods. Then I tried them out and found out how effective they are. Now, I've sort of switched back to my initial POV: Against an ESF they can be effective, but you'll find that a lot of the time you'll lose your kills to other pilots getting the last hit. As well as that, the Lock On indicator will tip good pilots off, and you'll be unlikely to get them. Meanwhile, getting close behind someone and offloading the Hailstorm into them will do a ton of damage: your second clip should kill them.

Rocket pods used to be very effective against Liberators and Galaxies, but they are much less so after the last patch. If they still were I'd say never use A2AM, but taking out Libs and Gals with the Hailstorm is trying (nigh impossible v Gals), so if you are wanting to go hunt down the big aircraft, equipping A2AM makes sense.

You can use the same reload trick (noted above for rockets) with A2AM, but it's less useful. Against ESF the best attack is to get behind them and put a volley of hailstorm into them, then swap to A2AM to finish them off when they try to run. If you're in a turning fight in close then don't try to switch between weapons: just stick with guns.

Against Liberators and Galaxies: keep your distance and fire missile after missile, until they die or get low enough to go in and finish with guns.

If you have a missile homing in on you then you do have options apart from Flares. As noted below, if you have Racer Airframe level 3 you can outrun it. Most of the time that won't be true though, so your best bet is to get something in the way of the missile. You can't make the missile miss you by jinking, but you can make it hit another solid object. Cliffs/mountains are good, as are towers and bases. You can try and use trees at a push. When doing this it helps to know which direction the missile is coming from.

Conversely, if you are trying to shoot a missile at someone, don't do it just before they disappear around an obstacle: wait til they come out the other side so your missile has a clear run at them.

Light PPA:

This is a very situational replacement for the main gun. It's excellent against infantry, ok against vehicles, and terrible at everything else. Hitting Liberators or Galaxies with it is tricky, and ESFs are impossible. You could have a set up with this and A2AM, so your main gun handles ground and you have missiles for air, but the opposite of Hailstorm + Rockets is just better (for me at least).

Note that the reload trick with rockets works really well with the PPA, since it has a massive clip - you can keep up a constant stream of plasma between rocket salvos.

Airframes

I've never noticed turn speed being all the important in fights, since all the ESFs are extremely maneuverable to start with, so forgetting about that Airframe leaves us with the Hover Airframe and the Racer Airframe.

You may have noticed vertical thrust turning up a lot in this guide, and that's because it's very key to flying. Thus, I really like the Hover Airframe, and I think it should be your go-to Airframe of choice. Having said that, running away from shit is your main way of staying alive, and Racer level 3 lets you outrun missiles, so it's a good choice too.

Combat

Your Scythe is incredibly fragile. You simply cannot brute-force anything. The key to staying alive in an ESF to to not get heavily engaged, ever. Treat it like fencing: fly around in your territory, poking at the edges. Where you meet stiff opposition, fall back. Where you find a weakness on the enemy line, exploit it.

Never go balls deep - you won't make it back. It's very tempting to chase down heavily damaged enemy air, especially Liberators and Galaxies, but if you follow them into their turf you will certainly die, and are unlikely even to finish them off first. The furthest you should get into enemy territory is to be in those which are adjacent to your own territory: you should never go further in than that.

Put another way: you should always have a fallback. There should always be somewhere nearby you feel safe that you can get to within a few seconds of your afterburner running out, be it a friendly base with manned AA, a friendly air force or a friendly armour column or army with Skyguard and/or Bursters. Or, at the very least, something which looks like one of those things which could therefor scare off enemy pilots.

Head-to-head, you cannot win a fight against any ground based AA weapon. Do not try to out-DPS a Phalanx, a Max, a Skyguard... even a Sunderer with the default Basilisk cannons will own you. If they start shooting at you, get the hell out of there. By all means, come back at them from a different angle if you can, but do not, do not, try to out-shoot them.

If you start taking fire and don't know from where, bug out. It's probably a Max outside your infantry render distance (you're inside his vehicle render distance, which is larger). You're better off just avoiding that area entirely. In fact, this is true of all areas covered by AA: avoid them. Unless you have a massive air zerg going on, you cannot attack anything which has AA cover with any significant degree of success. Your strength is your mobility: use it to your advantage. Only engage the enemy on your own terms.

Example Loadouts

Multirole:

Hailstorm + Rocket Pods + Hover Airframe. This is an all purpose loadout which can handle anything. Lately I've been using it more and more, since I always tend to run into the thing I haven't specced for when I use one of the following two.

Gunship:

Light PPA + Rocket Pods + Hover Airframe. This utterly chews ground targets, but you have to run away from any enemy ESFs that you encounter (unless you can bushwack them with the Rocket Pods). Mostly I just use this to retake territory around the Warp Gate.

Air Superiority:

Hailstorm + A2AM + Racer Airframe. Hailstorm is actually pretty effective against ground targets, when you get a handle on it, but this setup is really only great against enemy air. Deploy when you know there to be a lot of it.

Certs

Flares are probably the most important 100 certs you'll spend, then get yourself an Airframe or two. Get the cheap weapon ammo upgrades. I've not bothered with the IR sights, but a lot of people reckon they are OP. Once you've got a level 1 in every slot (I recommend Composite Armour), I'd work on maxing out your Airframe of choice and making your weapons better with clip size and reload speed. For A2AM, Reduced Lock-On Time is better then Reduced Reload Time. As you get better your flight time will increase, so buying the respawn timer down becomes less important. Always worth buying the first few levels, of course, since they're so cheap.

When I get Racer 3 I'm gonna try Scout Radar in the Air Superiority build, replacing Flares.