Around the World in Eighty Megabytes

Flight simulation—using a computer to pretend to fly a plane—has become both a surprisingly realistic experience and a surprisingly popular hobby  

When Microsoft put the original Flight Simulator program onto the market, in the early 1980s, I tried it for a while and then gave up. I had thought it would be fun to "take off" from Meigs Field, the airport on the Chicago lakefront where the simulator was programmed to start, and fly between the skyscrapers of the city toward whatever destination I chose. But the on-screen scenery turned out to be sketchy and uninteresting. Worse, I had no idea how to "land" the plane, at Meigs or anywhere else, and the program was not much help in teaching me. After ten or twenty flights that ended mainly with nosedives into the lake or countryside, I decided I could have more fun in other ways.

A dozen years later I became interested in learning to fly (and land) real airplanes, and I thought I should look at simulators again. There were now a range of programs, which were much more effective in teaching flying skills—or at least certain skills. They had also become a form of entertainment and virtual adventure captivating enough to attract vast numbers of users worldwide. According to Guinness World Records 2001, Microsoft's Flight Simulator had sold a total of 21 million copies by June of 1999.

Simulators' success is certainly deserved. Not many people fly real airplanes; fewer than 650,000 Americans are licensed pilots. But a larger group probably would like to fly. And even people who have almost no interest in flying (surely everybody finds it a little bit exciting to pretend to zoom through the air) or who view computer games as inherently creepy would find it hard to ignore the best modern versions. On a big, high-resolution computer screen you can find yourself facing an amazingly exact rendition of a Learjet cockpit, flying low over the Grand Canyon at dawn, with flashes of lightning visible in the distance, as you listen to air-traffic controllers direct you to the Flagstaff airport. You can take off in a pontoon plane from a lagoon in Bali, fly over paddies on the terraced hillsides, and then head toward Java's volcanic craters. You can approach Ayers Rock, in the center of Australia, and watch shadows move across it as the sun goes down. You can indulge in much of the visual romance of flying, without the time, expense, and training required to pilot a real plane.

These riveting effects are the result of an intriguing de facto division of labor. The programs themselves are all commercial products, from Microsoft and a number of small firms. But a wide variety of add-ons and improvements come from tens of thousands of hobbyists around the world, who spend countless hours polishing or improving some aspect of a program—and then post their work on the Internet for others to share. The flight-sim culture is a delightful reminder of a long-forgotten era, somewhere back in the 1990s, when people were excited about creating software for the new things it would let them do, not simply as a means of gaining market share and the grail of an IPO.

The flight-sim market resembles the rest of the software business mainly in that the most popular offering is from Microsoft. The current version of Microsoft's program is Flight Simulator 2000, or FS2000, which computer discounters offer for about $50. (A "professional" version costs about $70. It includes more simulated airplanes and a larger number of places whose scenery is presented in extra-realistic detail.) With FS2000 and most other programs you can "fly" from practically any point on earth to any other; the differences among the programs lie mostly in the degree of scenic detail, plus certain aspects of the airplanes' look and performance. With all these programs you can also specify the weather conditions through which you'll pass on any particular trip: clouds, wind, turbulence, rain. The fanciest programs let you download the real-time weather for your route, from aviation sites on the Internet. Then you can see what it would be like to pilot a plane from Buffalo to Detroit through the blustery night weather occurring just now. As with other Microsoft products, FS2000's strengths are related to its role as the industry standard. More hobbyists develop new airplanes or bits of scenery for this program than for the others. Its main shortcoming is its slow "frame rate," which can result in a jerky on-screen image if the program is run on what is now considered a slow computer or one without an up-to-date video-display card.

Although in many software categories Microsoft's product has become dominant, in flight sims there are still lively alternatives. The main ones are Flight Unlimited III (FU3), by Electronic Arts; Fly! 2K, by Gathering of Developers; Pro Pilot 99, abandoned by its previous owner, Sierra Software, but being revived by ETC Interactive; and X-Plane, developed and sold by one Austin Meyer, of Columbia, South Carolina. X-Plane sells for $39; the others cost around $20. Each of these programs has not only dedicated users but also a reserve army of hobbyists creating enhancements and add-ons. Devotees discuss the programs endlessly on the main flight-sim Web sites, which include avsim.com and flightsim.com, and the Internet newsgroup rec.aviation.simulator.

At these prices the other companies won't be able to pour money into further developing their simulators the way Microsoft can, and some of the competitors will probably disappear. But they have lasted this long—creating a far more diverse offering than is now available in, say, the word-processor market—for several reasons. Because they don't cost much, people can own several flight sims and enjoy switching back and forth. The switching is easy, because when the simulators are used with the right settings and equipment, they work in practically identical ways. The right equipment includes a joystick, which lets you steer the plane in a realistic fashion rather than by typing at the keyboard, and (okay, go ahead and laugh) a set of pedals that replicate the ones a pilot pushes to control the rudder of a plane. These attachments cost about $100 apiece; I use and like the Microsoft Force Feedback joystick, and Simped-variomodel pedals from the German manufacturer Hofmann. CH Products, of Vista, California, also makes popular pedals and joysticks. I don't want anyone ever to see me while I'm using this gear, but I do use it, because it makes the simulator feel more like an airplane—and reminds me that I'm not just sitting there doing my normal keyboard work.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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