(Originally Published in Jan 2011 - Updated 4 Dec 2016)
What happens when your boss comes up behind you and sees you flying an aircraft on a PC flight simulator? In my case, 27 odd years ago, he shoved me off my chair, grabbed the mouse and took over the landing of the Learjet-35.
The simulator (Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.0) was running on an IBM XT computer. He quickly managed to land the aircraft, and turning to me with bright eyes crowed that he had “managed to land the Learjet first time”. It was common knowledge in the office that when I flew on my desktop simulator, I crashed far more often than landing safely. Flying a desktop with a mouse and keyboard and an early version of Flight Simulator was really not an easy matter. (Not for me, anyway).
My obvious embarrassment at being so outclassed by my boss who had no previous flight simulation experience was visible to all with much laughter. There just had to be an easier way to fly!
In those days my dream was to save up enough money to buy a brand new 386 which in those days was the ultimate in PC power (and status). (An Intel 80386-based PC – wow… Awesome…!!) In the meantime, I settled for buying my first joystick and at the same time upgraded the PC with a 286 chip. Flying became much easier with the joystick, but it still wasn’t really anything like flying the real thing. However, I did manage to land the Learjet more regularly.
Fast forward 27 years…
You can still simulate flight using a PC with a mouse and keyboard. Many people do. Trust me, you don’t want to – it is painful. Today’s PCs are a lot more powerful, and the software is very much more impressive which together give a very much more realistic experience, but flying a desk with a mouse and keyboard will stretch the imagination well beyond credibility. A few months ago, while setting up an X-Plane system for customer, I did precisely that. I actually tried to run X-Plane using just a mouse and keyboard. I found it almost impossible to control even the simplest aircraft. Memories of crashing that old Learjet flooded back along with the intense embarrassment of supposedly being the guru but in fact committing the ultimate sin in flying (for real or simulated) – not being able to bring that bird back to earth safely.
Today’s software, whether it is X-Plane, FSX or P3D, is so sophisticated that a wonderful experience of flight can be achieved on a desktop computer with a few dedicated controls like a yoke and pedals. But still, the software is capable of much more if you are prepared to invest time (and of course money) on going a few steps further. If you build a life-size enclosure which resembles a real aircraft; add another PC or two to show the virtual cockpit and also the outside view; add some monitors and the whole experience changes. It’s the old story – the more you invest in a flight simulator cockpit, the nearer you will come a realistic experience. What is absolutely amazing is how close we have come to simulating flight so realistically.
Stay tuned for more stories…