PC Pilot

The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith


And Who This Book Is For

Did you know there are only ten of World War II's famed B-17 Flying Fortress bombers left in flying condition? Of the 10,000 P-38 Lightnings that once filled the skies over Europe and the Pacific, only six are still airworthy. Of the 10,499 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen fighters—the one we called the Zero—only one remains flyable today.

The sole surviving Messerschmitt Me-262, the world's first operational jet, sits in a museum—it will never fly again. And of the planned hordes of Gotha Go-229 "flying wings," not one exists, except on paper.

Legendary, mythical, heroic warbirds…. Yet I've flown them all. And so can you. Without the slightest fear of injury to yourself. Or to these priceless relics—a run-of-the-mill P-51 Mustang would run you a cool million these days.

I fly in an area no larger than my desktop. I'm a computer pilot. I have every airplane a kid could ever want. My hangar? No larger than a paperback: my hard disk. It holds literally hundreds of planes, from Fokkers and Spads, B-17s and Me-262s, Sabres and MiGs, to stealth bombers and designs that are still on the drawing board.

At my keyboard, I've test-flown the world's best aircraft, experiencing everything from the screaming power dive of a Stuka to the astonishing straight-up performance of the F-16 Falcon (the closest thing to an airborne Grand Prix car). From graceful hammerhead stalls in a Spitfire to the bone-rattling depleted uranium cannonfire of the A-10 "Warthog." From the grit and guts of the World War II Mustang to the glitz and glamour of the F-117A "Wobbly Goblin," hero of the Gulf War.

Welcome to the startlingly realistic world of computer flight. "Human beings," said T. S. Eliot, "can only take so much reality." Ah, but what we have here is virtual reality—a world in which you are in control, in which your life is a movie you direct and star in. Sure, most computer flight simulations are just fun and games, barely able to make you suspend disbelief. But some are so serious the Air Force and the airlines use them to train real pilots. And some are so convincing that it's easy to think you were really flying, that the dream is real.

I've seen downtown Baghdad, the white cliffs of Dover, the Arctic by day, Dresden at night, and the cold gray of dawn over the Amchatka Peninsula. I've fought legions of Hitler's secret weapons to a standstill in Europe, and shot up observation balloons with von Richthofen in World War I just for the hell of it. I've survived wars in the next century and soared with condors on invisible thermals high above Silicon Valley in this one.

The computer pilot can go one-on-one against Soviet MiG-29s over Southern California…compare the supersecret YF-22 and YF-23 fighters against each other (and see if the Air Force didn't make a big mistake)…climb into the "glass cockpit" of a three-hundred-ton Boeing 747 and practice touch-and-go landings at any airport in the United States. Or try to land a "heavy" on the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz. Or touch down on the Brooklyn Bridge. No way? Way! You can do it.

All of these adventures are out there, available at your local software store, for a lot less than the price of an airline ticket. "Hours of harmless amusement," as my friend Weasel, a hard-core couch potato, is wont to say.

Ah, but which flight simulation package is for you? "A misery of choice," as Dr. Ernst Dichter, the late marketing guru, used to bemoan.

Perusing the serried racks of shrink-wrapped software in the computer store tells you nothing about how they'll look on your computer (or how they'll sound—an increasingly important part of flight simulation).

Critical reviews of flight simulation programs in those computer magazines aimed at business users harrumph with disdain at the very idea of "entertainment" software.

Computer game magazines aren't much help, either. They seem to be written for—and, I suspect, by—the Nintendo generation, who are more interested in how many times they can press the "Fire" button than in the accuracy of the flight model.

Kids aren't much interested in simulating reality, anyway—reality is what they're trying to escape. Kids buy arcade games, action/adventure, role playing, Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy…. True simulations require adult levels of patience and persistence, and Zen-like concentration.

Of the five billion dollars that are spent each year on entertainment software, probably less than 1 percent is spent on simulations of all kinds: flight, driving, and sports like tennis, golf, football, and baseball. But between five and ten million people have taken up flight simulation—they buy a million programs a year—and their ranks are doubling every five years.

Most flight simulation enthusiasts own a computer for some perfectly serious real purpose—like SoHo: Small office/Home office—and many are actually licensed pilots. (At first, I wondered why a real pilot would have any interest in a busman's holiday, but they tell me it enhances the flying experience, often in ways the real thing can't, or for which the FAA would tear up their licenses and scatter the pieces to the winds.)

For the rest of us, most computer pilots don't have the time, the money, or the inclination to go up in a real plane, but we enjoy simulating it from our armchair perspectives. This is our book, then; as much an aviation book for people who have computers as a computer book for people who have an interest in aviation.

PC Pilot will tell you everything you need to know about computer flight programs. It will introduce you to an armada of electronic aircraft—the warbirds that enthralled me as a kid, and many that came later. Fighters, bombers, sailplanes, commercial jetliners, commuter aircraft, puddle-jumpers, experimental prop- and jet-driven planes, ultralights, supersonic transports, seaplanes, one-off specials, exotic might-have-beens, and top-secret prototypes that only a handful of test pilots have ever seen, much less flown.

Rare and wonderful aircraft, indeed. All as close as your keyboard.

PC Pilot has chapters on Microsoft's pioneering Flight Simulator (and its cottage industry of add-ons), Spectrum HoloByte's insanely complex Falcon, Origin's cinematic Stike Commander, MicroProse's Stealth and Strike Eagle series, Electronic Arts' personable Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, LucasArts' World War II strategic simulations, Dynamix's "Great Planes" trilogy, and—as they say—more.

Over one hundred planes in all.

Grouped in about a dozen programs that I think you'll agree represent the best in flight simulation—I'II explain why—and rated, head-to-head, in a chapter at the end.

Along the way, PC Pilot hopes to dazzle you—or at least entertain you—with a collection of cocktail chatter and fascinating factules about aviation history the likes of which you won't find anywhere else.

Any questions? Good.

Fasten your seat belts; we're ready for takeoff.

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