Wednesday, December 20, 2006

flight sim geekery.

One of the reasons why I don't have any consoles is that the types of games I like to play just aren't feasible on a console. I've blogged at length about our World of Warcraft addiction, so MMORPGs are definitely up there in my "Favorite Games" category, but my absolute favorite waste of time have always been flight simulators.

In my Commodore 64 days, we used to gather at my friends' homes to play Gunship, flying wire frame vector graphics-modelled Apache helicopters on vector graphics battlefields. Later, I graduated to an Amiga 500, logging countless hours in the Airbus flight simulator, climbing back into the Apache with Gunship 2000, and bombing sub pens in Murmansk with F-117 Stealth Fighter. When I got my first PC, the primary concern was not the kind of productivity software loaded on it, but rather its feasibility to play the state-of-the-art Red Baron and Comanche flight sims. Ever since then, flight sims have had permanent tenure on the hard drives of my successive PCs, and I got years worth of fun out of classics like European Air War and Longbow.

My current tastes have moved away from the military flight sims. I do enjoy a good WWII sim on occasion, even firing up the still-fantastic European Air War on occasion. Props and machine guns require more piloting skills than jet engines and air-to-air missiles. However, most of my virtual stick time is spent behind mundane civilian aviation aircraft in Microsoft's Flight Simulator series. The current iteration is Flight Simulator X, and while it's hard even on beefy systems, the visuals beat anything previously available in the civilian simulator market.

My favorite plane in Flight Simulator used to be the lovely Beechcraft Baron 58, a sleek twin-engined modern plane with wonderful control harmony. With the introduction of FS X, I splurged for the Deluxe Edition, and one of the new offerings has eclipsed the trusty Baron 58 as my favorite. It's the Grumman G-21 Goose, a 1940s-vintage seaplane, and it's an absolute blast to fly. As a flying boat, it can land damn near anywhere in the world, and its runway requirements even with gear-down landings are so low that you can literally put her down on a 500-foot grass strip with room to spare.

Here's a picture of the Goose after a landing in Glasgow--notice how little runway I used before turning onto the taxiway.

I made a trans-Atlantic crossing with the Goose, which has remarkably long legs for a plane of its size. Still, the Goose won't quite make it all the way without refueling stops, so I went from Knoxville to Glasgow by way of Bangor, Goose Bay, Narsarsuaq on Greenland, and Reykjavik on Iceland.

Scottish Lowlands as seen from the cockpit:

Final approach into Glasgow:

Having a digital photo album of simulated trips in digital aircraft is, of course, prime geekery. However, PPLs are expensive to get and maintain, and shared aircraft ownership and hangar rentals are expensive, and this is the closest I'll come to my own plane for the time being. I have watched the progression of realism in flight simulations first-hand for the last decade and a half, and these days you can get commercially available software at CompUSA for a fifty that is good enough for realistic pilot training, complete with IFR flight planning, ATC traffic, fuel management, equipment failure simulations and all.

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