Flying Flight Simulator

Sky-High Adventure with the Macintosh, Amiga, & Atari ST
by Charles Gulick


When I finished writing this book, I thought it might be interesting to go back and fly an earlier version of Flight Simulator—specifically, the version for the IBM PC. I'd been flying Flight Simulator II on the Amiga for many hundreds of hours and hadn't touched its predecessor for many months.

I had to fiddle with some cables to get my IBM-compatible hooked to my Amiga monitor and to route the audio so that I could hear the engine. That wasn't too difficult. Then, I realized I'd forgotten how to boot the earlier Flight Simulator. Did I need to boot DOS first? And how did I switch from the main program to the San Francisco STAR Scenery Disk?

Finally, I had Flight Simulator on the screen, and I looked at it as if I'd never seen it before. I had written four books on flying this airplane, and I hadn't the foggiest idea where to begin. I couldn't remember where the throttle or flaps were, how to take views, what keys controlled the ailerons and elevators, or anything else. I was simply an utter novice.

Even more incredible was what I saw on the screen. I figured something had to be wrong with the color or focus or contrast or something. And the engine sound was ridiculous: a crazy little buzz that sounded nothing like an engine. Was this the simulator that had enthralled me, even nourished me, for thousands of hours?

I got the airplane into the air, and I was in for more shocks. The Cessna didn't seem to be flying, but acted as if it were being jerked spasmodically through the air. The controls responded sluggishly, and I over-controlled like the worst amateur.

I paused the simulation and checked the manual on how to boot the San Francisco STAR Scenery Disk. That disk, when it was originally released, was the most upscale of all. I was certain that it would restore my enthusiasm and my confidence. The old thrill would come back.

But with San Francisco on the screen, I finally realized that an era was gone forever. I was flying—or rather being dragged in a kind of twitching agony—over an ancient illusion. The wheels of progress had ground my beautiful Flight Simulator of old into a blob of fuzzy unreality. The magic was gone. I could believe in nothing on the landscape below or on the instrument panel in front of me.

But I didn't want to abandon this ancient and lost reverie of an airplane, not in midflight. I turned toward Runway 9L at Oakland. I was alone, but I spoke aloud as I escorted the decrepit, creaking airplane to what I feared might be its last landing (although it wasn't), and the words I intoned, over and over, were, “unbelievable…unbelievable” and again “unbelievable.”

Unbelievable how far Flight Simulator has come in barely a handful of years. If you flew the earlier versions, with or without me in the right-hand seat, and if you are now blessed with an Amiga, Atari ST, or Macintosh and the applicable new version of Flight Simulator, you know what I'm saying. If, on the other hand, the current simulator version is the first you've ever flown, know that you are privileged beyond your wildest imaginings. You have in your possession the most sophisticated microcomputer simulation on earth. It is worth at least ten times and perhaps a hundred times what you paid for it. It is more valuable than all the other simulations—and games, too, including arcade games—taken together.

Don't be misled. Flight Simulator has its share of crazy bugs: overcast skies that are green instead of gray when you fly in them; an exasperating hum that suddenly destroys your illusions (at least, on the Amiga; the problem seems to go away if you boot with Kickstart version 1.2); airports that are on the documentation charts but not in the simulator world; an artificial horizon gauge that consistently (in some versions) reads wrong; the ludicrous “reliability” feature that, at any setting lower than 100%, invariably results in an engine that won't get you off the ground; and many other bugs. But it is still an incredibly beautiful simulation to fly and to watch. The bugs will be taken care of in time, perhaps by the time you read this. But the beauty is there now, as I write. The beauty and the believability—a believability that, by contrast, makes the earlier simulations seem strange, archaic, and almost purposeless.

My intent here is not to downgrade the superb quality of the earlier simulators. If the new Flight Simulator were somehow to be wiped out of existence, I would certainly go back and fly the earlier version. And I'm sure that once again I'd become entranced, as are the hundreds of thousands of devotees who are flying it now. Everything is relative after all.

Meanwhile, I invite you to experience with me the magnificent achievement of the newest Flight Simulator. And while you do so, be mindful that a single individual—designer Bruce Artwick—is to thank for the miracles you will see on your screen. Not that he works alone. He has a talented team working with him nowadays. But he stands alone as the original creator of the program and of the amazing 3-D graphics techniques that drive it. I have never met nor spoken with Bruce Artwick. But I thank him for the inestimable pleasure, thrill, and challenge his accomplishments have afforded me day in and day out (and many long nights too) during the years of Flight Simulator. His work is proof that a single individual can still turn the world around.

And now, for your enjoyment, Bruce Artwick's latest version of that world.

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