PC Pilot

The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith


Slipping the Surly Bonds

Do you sincerely want to fly? Who doesn't? We all dream of flying. We envy the soaring freedom of birds: if they don't like where they are, they just unfold their wings and up, up, and away. Fools like Icarus have tried—a little too literally—to emulate birds. Geniuses like Michelangelo have designed machines which might have flown, had they ever been built. Now, after millions of years of yearning and thousands of years of trying, man has at last slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Now that flight is a practical, everyday matter, you'd think the sidewalks and highways would be deserted; everybody would be dancing with the clouds. The popular science magazines of the 1930s and 1940s envisioned a push-button "World of Tomorrow" where we'd all live in prefab houses, eat frozen peas, and have an autogyro in the driveway.

It never happened, because flight is the same as it has been since the beginning: difficult, dangerous, time-consuming, and prohibitively expensive. Moreover, the FAA frowns on the kind of flying many of us would do if we could (like buzzing the tower at LAX). And, unless there's a war on, few of us are going to get the chance to prove our manhood (or, by act of Congress, womanhood) in air-to-air combat.

So, after almost a century of aviation, there are still only about seventy thousand FAA-licensed pilots in this country, many of whom don't get to fly as often as they'd like.

For the rest of us, there's simulated flight. For those of us who would like to fly but have some excuse: can't afford it, can't read a map, are on the lam from the IRS, or are just plain chicken. Or for those of us who love airplanes or aviation or history but who have not the faintest desire to spread our wings and fly. Or for those of us who just want to have fun, or who just love computer games. And, finally, for those dreamers among us who are searching for alternative realities.

What the heck is this "virtual reality" stuff anyway, and what's it got to do with flight simulation? Virtual reality—like plain-vanilla reality—is a variable, not an absolute. Like watching a movie, it's the degree to which we get so involved with what's going on on the screen that we forget we're in front of a screen. If it's compelling enough, we go "through the looking glass."

If you're wearing a 3-D helmet and datagloves or floating in a sensory deprivation tank or riding in a "spaceship" at Disney World, you know perfectly well where you are and what's really going on. The only question is what does it take to get you to suspend disbelief, to dissolve the boundary between you and the drama, to imagine yourself in the middle of the action? To convince yourself that you're flying an airplane ("Just a minute, Mom….") when you're really sitting at your desk in front of a two-dimensional computer screen and listening to sound effects no more convincing than your little brother's mouth noises would really take some doing … except for one thing:

You want to believe you're flying an airplane.

Anything that nudges you further into that state of bliss is gratefully accepted. (Corollary: anything that strikes a patently false note will cause your imaginary world to crash.) The more realistic a simulation looks and sounds, the more authentic the aircraft's response to the controls, the more engrossing the scenario … the more you can get into the spirit, the game play, the soul of the sim.

Important note: you're not just a passenger in a simulation. Unlike passively watching TV or a movie or even the three-dimensional reality of a stage play, the strongest hook of all is that simulations are interactive. Nothing happens until you "enter" the simulation; you are the essential catalyst in determining how the plot unfolds. You make choices, initiate actions, cause things to happen. You are a player in the drama. You can be a hero. You will be a pilot.

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