PC Pilot

The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith


Mechanical flight simulators preceded computers, or at least the personal computer. World War II pilots-to-be were squeezed into comical little Link trainers, which looked like nickel rides from some low-rent amusement park or those toddler pacifiers in strip malls. At least they offered the visceral sensations of flight: they would bob and weave on their spindly plinths to simulate banking, climbing, and diving.

Fast-forward to the present. Airlines and the military use huge, fifty-million-dollar "shake ‘n’ bake" cockpit simulators to train student pilots. Mounted on unseen hydraulic rams, the full-size flight deck lurches violently from side to side as the student slams the stick around. The 3-D computer-generated scenery outside the windshield tilts with the flight deck, fooling the middle ear and aiding the illusion. At the moment of touchdown, the rams impart an appropriate thump. When reverse thrust is applied, the whole rig tips forward, giving the sensation of heavy braking.


Flight sims are not developed by anonymous work groups behind some monolithic corporate veil. Each program bears the imprimatur of its principal designer no less than a novel reflects the singular voice of its author. Unlike other software packages—databases, say, or an operating system, where there may be literally thousands of programmers writing the code—computer games tend to be created by incredibly small teams, typically as small as three or four Dorito-munching, Jolt-swilling programmers, and rarely more than ten or fifteen core workers.

Even though under the hood "game play" is nothing more than an incomprehensible datastream of ones and zeros—like the old railroad telegraph operators who could recognize who was on the line by the telegrapher's "fist"—a game's style is as apparent to the cognoscente as a movie director's is to a cineast.

The fine hand of Flight Simulator's Bruce Artwick is recognizable even though the auteur has changed his corporate stripes. LucasArts' Larry Holland's work is identifiable even after he switched from flight sims to outer space sims. The touch of Origin's Chris Roberts is unmistakable even after he went in the opposite direction—from out there to down here. And Dynamix's Damon Slye's signature is obvious on everything from World War I biplanes to modern jet fighters.

Desktop aviation isn't that advanced … yet. But I've already seen true 3-D demonstrations (flying through the Grand Canyon) and heard convincing surround-sound effects. At least one outfit is designing controls with "feedback" (the sense that the ailerons, flaps, and rudder are fighting back). Another is attaching solenoids to a full-size cockpit "tub" to simulate roll, pitch, and yaw. And a third has wired an authentic-looking ejection seat for sound: when you squeeze the trigger, you feel the shake, rattle, and hum of a 30-mm cannon at full chat.

Today's photorealistic, multimedia flight simulation for the personal computer is all descended from Bruce Artwick's crude, wire-frame Flight Simulator program written for the Apple II in 1978. Flight Simulator went on to become not just the best-selling computer game of all time but also the best-selling computer program of any kind, with millions of copies sold. And millions of satisfied users. It still has something like half the market after fifteen years on the best-seller lists.

If you seek a rich and rewarding career as a computer pilot, you need look no further than the current iteration of Flight Simulator (see Chapter Three), despite the forest of other sims that has grown up around the original. But Flight Simulator is no longer the only game in town, nor does it offer every feature and fillip that the armchair aviator might desire, so it behooves us to look afield.

All flight simulators for personal computers (we're talking DOS here—IBM compatibles—see Chapter Two) share these three features:

  1. The bottom of your computer screen is occupied mostly by a representation of the instrument panel in an aircraft cockpit, with—at a bare minimum—a compass, an altimeter, and an airspeed indicator.
  2. The top of the screen represents the windshield, beyond which the outside world scrolls by in three glorious dimensions (not that you need 3-D glasses, merely that outside objects seem to exist—and are viewed—in three dimensions).
  3. You control your simulated airplane's simulated flight by manipulating a—real—joystick (forward to push the nose down, left to roll left, etc.), or a mouse (away from you to push the nose down, etc.), or by pressing keys on the keyboard (sometimes an arbitrary "diamond"; more often the arrow keys—the "up" arrow to push the nose down, etc.). The throttle may be controlled from the keyboard or by some other peripheral.

Table of Contents | Previous Section | Next Section