The first computer simulation I remember playing with was Bruce Artwick's Flight Simulator on the Apple II computer, about 1983 or so. The program used very simple graphics -- just a few lines on the screen to indicate the instrument readings and the terrain -- but the illusion was realistic and powerful. After many hours with Bruce's simulator, I learned enough to be able to "fly" the program pretty well. I could take off, maintain any heading and altitude, fly circles around objects, find the airport again, and even land most of the time without seeing "Crash!" on the computer screen. I managed to convince my next door neighbor, a corporate Learjet pilot, that I should try my skills in a real airplane. We headed for the nearest airport where he rented a Cessna 152 and we took off, determined to see if I really could fly.
Before I go any further, I need to warn you that this is not a good idea. In fact, this is a really dumb idea. I survived, of course, but mainly because Cessnas aren't that difficult to drive around the sky in if you have somebody along who sort of remembers how little airplanes work. What I recommend that you do, if you are at all interested in learning about real airplanes, is to find a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) and sign up for an introductory lesson with someone who is highly skilled at letting you learn about airplanes in a totally safe environment.
I quickly discovered that sitting in front of my computer and watching the screen is not the same as bouncing around the sky in a real airplane and watching the birds, the clouds, and the 747's. Sure, the dials and gauges all work the same way, but there is more to flying than getting the numbers right. I was able to fly "on instruments" fairly well and my neighbor/pilot managed to keep me out of trouble long enough for me to find out that the real Cessna airplane actually did behave very much like the software version. After practicing for about an hour (whee!), we headed back to the airport.
I found the airport all by myself, which was a lot, considering that the neat grid lines in the simulator terrain don't look at all like Wisconsin farms, barns, and cows. As we approached for the all-important landing, I noticed another major difference between Apple computers and Cessna airplanes. When you blow the landing in a simulator and see the "Crash!" message on the screen, you just hit the Esc key and try again. In the Cessna cockpit, the Esc key is conspicuously absent.
I nailed the airspeed and rate of decent numbers on my very first approach, just like I had dozens of times with the simulator. I felt almost confident as I extended the flaps and entered the final leg of the landing pattern to line up with the runway. But my confidence faded quickly as soon as I saw how fast the very real ground was coming up to meet us. I focused instead on following the landing procedure I had practiced in the simulation: killing the throttle, pulling the wheel back in a final flare, and holding the plane off the runway for as long as possible in what I hoped would be a successful landing. The "chirp" as the wheels touched down on the runway announced that I had actually managed to get the rent-a-plane and us back to earth intact.
Artwick's latest Microsoft Flight Simulator on CD-ROM is great software, but I will always remember his first program and how well it succeeded in actually simulating the behavior of a real aircraft. While fancy graphics and other improvements are nice, the important part of any simulation is getting the basics right. If the physics work, then the illusion can work too.
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