PC Pilot

The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith


Where Do We Go from Here?

Where does flight simulation go from here? I see seven immutable trends. In order:

1. Photorealistic Scenery

Now that they've seen the likes of Comanche Maximum Overkill, Strike Commander, and Flight Simulator 5.0, how're you gonna keep 'em down on the stick-figure farm? Future sims of any pretensions will have to feature photorealistic scenery—it's the new price of admission.

With 3-D photographic downloads from satellites widely available, terrain will not only look realistic, it will be authentic. For example, when you fly your sailplane along Pennsylvania's Bald Eagle Ridge—the greatest soaring locale in North America—what you see out your windshield will be correct as to geography, geology, biology, and topography. It will also be correct as to the time of year and the time of day (even to the direction and length of the shadows). At night, the stars will be exactly where they're supposed to be.

Man-made objects will continue to pose a problem—in the sky and on the ground. The presence of a great many different objects will continue to bring down frame rates, at least until computer code is rewritten to create one generic object and then clone it hundreds of times over. Then you'll see fully built-up cities, maybe even with traffic on the highways. Maybe even with identical (but randomly dispersed) dads mowing identical lawns in front of identical row houses in fractally generated neighborhoods.

Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk

2. The Big Bang Theory

Technically, the biggest bang for the buck is improved sound. As anyone who's added Dolby Pro-Logic to his or her TV setup knows, surround sound has a more startling impact on the audience than, say, doubling the size of the viewing screen. Flight simulations will achieve sound effects (and levels) that would make Hollywood drool—from stereo to spatial effects to lease-breaking subwoofers. Creative Labs has already brought QSound—faux surround sound—to its Sound-Blaster boards—awesome.

3. Steve Jobs Was Right!

Flight sims are grabbing a gargantuan percentage of your hard disk. Program disks number in the dozens. Installations seem to take forever. There's a simple solution: distribute the software on CD-ROM. Steve Jobs tried to convince the world that optical disks were the way to go in 1987; as usual, he was years ahead of his time. Today, everybody either has a CD-ROM or plans to get one. And since CD-ROMs cost only fifty cents each to produce in quantity, the price ought to go down, not up. Anybody that tries to tell you different is trying to rip you off.

4. The Good Old Days

By now, of course, most of the great planes and the best scenarios have been spoken for. The epic air battles and the obvious civilian flights have all been simulated. Once you've done Doolittle's Tokyo Raid and Beryl Markham's brave solo jaunt and Dick Rutan's and Jeana Yeager's "Around the World Without a Fillup," you find yourself down to Roscoe Turner's barnstorming tours or the poet Gabrielle D'Anunzio's "bombing" raid over war-torn Vienna (he dropped peace leaflets).

But just as vintage and veteran cars are now a huge—and growing—part of America's ongoing love affair with the automobile, I sense a ground swell of interest in the Golden Age of aviation. Much of this will be simulated in specific headline events: Lindbergh's solo epic, Amelia Earhart's last flight, Amundsen's first flight over the North Pole, etc. But a lot of it will be low-key sight-seeing—just for the fun of it. Imagine flying with Markham, not on her record-breaking transatlantic crossing, but over the unspoiled African continent in the 1920s. Or flying a mail plane across the Rockies in the 1930s. Or island-hopping the South Pacific in a Pan-Am Clipper in the 1940s. Or test-piloting Northrop's Flying Wing in the 1950s.

There will be programs that allow you to design aircraft and plan adventures—anything from lawn mower-powered ultralights to Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose." Flight Simulator 4.0 sparked this interest (although you couldn't build an aircraft with more than 182 parts), and if BBS volume is any indication, activity in this niche of flight simulation is burgeoning.

5. Putting the Real in Virtual Reality

Have you ever dreamed you could just wake up one morning and be able to play the piano? Without any lessons? Aren't you tempted to believe that just because you've mastered desktop aviation, you could jump in the cockpit of any simple, straightforward airplane—a Pitts Special, say—and take it up for a spin, kite around for a while, and land it without incident? And without any real-world lessons?

That's what the Federal Aviation Administration seems afraid of. Although flying your computer is nothing like controlling a real airplane (it's hard to get upside down, for instance), many of the procedures are the same. Lowering the landing gear before touchdown, for example, or navigating by fathoming the mysteries of VORs, for another. Yet the geniuses in Washington are reluctant to admit that flight simulation has anything to do with real flight for fear that a bunch of hopped-up, thrill-crazed Walter Mittys will take to the sky without any real training whatsoever.

This attitude is changing. It has to. In the old days, if a kid wanted to fly, he or she went out to some dusty airstrip in West Texas and badgered some old Waldo Pepper type into a joyride in a biplane. Today, few kids live in the boonies, there are fewer still biplanes, and the cracker barrel pilot is an almost forgotten stereotype.

In fact, thanks to the liability laws in the United States, the light plane industry has all but disappeared: Cessna no longer builds small planes (like Flight Simulator's Skylane), Piper Aircraft is in Chapter 11, and most of the old marques are gone—only Mooney survives.

Nowadays, if anybody wants to fly, he or she receives instruction in a geriatric fleet of private planes—the average vintage of general aviation aircraft is circa 1968. Would you want to learn how to drive in a twenty-six-year-old car?

So, gradually, pilots-to-be will get their first "flying" experience through simulation; at first PC-based and later in the big cockpit and flight deck simulators. There are already a half dozen companies manufacturing PC-based training aids…and pressuring the FAA to accept time spent with these professional simulations as "credit" toward real pilots' licenses. Student-pilots won't spend any less time in real aircraft once they finally do get aloft, but they won't have to waste their precious air time just learning the basics.

Smile! You're a pioneer.

Meanwhile, for armchair aviators who just can't get real enough, there is one final step. I mean, this is for the guy with a full-size cockpit "tub" in his basement who's strapped into a surplus ejection seat and barking commands into a throat mike wired into speech-recognition equipment…and he still wants more. I know of at least three outfits (see Appendix II: Resources) which will take you up in a real airplane and—after a chalk-talk indoctrination beforehand—turn the controls over to you and let you dogfight with the opponent of your choice. Father versus son battles are common; the youngsters win four times out of five. You get to take home a feature-length video of your experience, too.

6. We're All Connected

Most of us, however, remain desk-bound…but still seeking real, live opponents. More and more sims feature multiplayer modes, where you can go one-on-one with another player. But usually one other opponent is all you get at a time. Falcon 3.0 allows up to six players to get together on a Novell network, and the GEnie on-line service allows several players to get together in Air Warrior, as does Sierra's ImagiNation dial-up service with the on-line version of Red Baron.

But the desire to stage fly-ins like the real-world get-together at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, every year, where thousands of planes and hundreds of thousands of spectators join the throng, is growing. With some degree of interoperability, you could fly the plane of your choice to such a jamboree, participate in on-line forums (in the CB-like "Chat" mode) and then mix it up in giant furballs—last pilot alive wins. Or you could relive some of World War II's thousand-bomber raids. Or race coast-to-coast in a brace of Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds. Or fight the Last Dogfight in a Post-Apocalyptic World.

It will happen. In our lifetime.

7. The Super 8 Paradigm

I have this theory that PC-based flight simulation is about where Super 8 film was in the mid-1970s, just before the introduction of videocassette recorders relegated the dinky little quarter-inch film format to the dustbin of history.

Just before the end, Super 8 had become a fantastically sophisticated medium. There were cameras as fancy—and costly—as 16-mm cameras (in fact, some of them were 16-mm cameras with half-width apertures). There were tiny Moviolas and miniature flatbed editing tables. There were elaborate sound facilities. There were even Super 8 movie theaters…and not just for guys in raincoats.

But this was a reality-distortion field bound to collapse. Super 8 started out as a simple home movie alternative to expensive professional 16-mm equipment. Then the cost and complexity ballooned. When cheap VCRs came along, Super 8 was dead overnight. Everybody switched; nobody fought it.

Likewise, high-end consumer flight simulation has become only slightly less demanding than professional flight simulation—the graphics levels are closing in on the resolution and detail of Evans and Sutherland equipment in simulators used by airlines and the military. Sims that used to take a couple of guys a year to write now cost the developer up to a million bucks, plus another half million for the marketing. Flight sim publishers are selling more sims than ever, but going broke because development costs are skyrocketing.

The computer pilot, in order to play games at their highest levels, needs a clock-doubled (or tripled) 486 CPU. He needs a motherboard with a local bus slot and video accelerator card. The games won't look really great on anything less than a twenty-inch monitor. If he or she wants to go full-boat, with peripherals like Mil-spec joysticks, the setup could cost ten grand…and that's without any of the noncomputer add-ons like full-size cockpit mock-ups.

How much higher can this all go? I get the sense that the hardware is hitting the wall. There's the Pentium, of course. But that's just one of several stratospheric new hardware platforms: IBM, Motorola, and Apple have the PowerPC; DEC, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and MIPS all have omigawd chips in the works. No current developer of sims could possibly afford to develop new games for all of these platforms: they're not for consumers, they're for power users ("heat seekers," in industry parlance), for scientific and business apps. You could never sell enough sims for even one of these megabuck offshoots to earn back your development costs.

In other words, the air up there is too thin to support life as we have come to know it.

On the other hand, look at the low-cost, high-tech stuff coming in from the other direction: Nintendo, Sega, 3DO, and others are developing sixty-four-bit games served up on CD-ROMS that haven't begun to tap the resources available to them (like full-strength DSPs [Digital Signal Processors]). By the time they've learned to take advantage of what they've got, HDTV will be up and running and make today's computer screens look like…Super 8. See where I'm going with this?

My guess is that high-end flight sims are an endangered species. As leading-edge computer hardware fractures into several incompatible platforms, low-end consumer-oriented sims will suck development dollars out of the high end, and within two years, DOS-based sims will go the way of the carrier pigeon.

By that time, low-end sims will have progressed to the point where DOS-based sims are today, and today's PC pilots are going to be regarded as elder statesmen. Eccentric, but hopefully venerated. We'll get together at old-timers' conventions and paraphrase Winston Churchill: "If flight simulation lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’"

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