Flight of the 5150. (evaluation) Will Fastie.
By the most remarkable of coincidences, I find myself in Chicago with some time to myself. I've just recently heard that Microsoft is about to introduce a flight simulator for the IBM Personal Computer, and that the program is being written by Bruce Artwick. What luck! I'm only a short hop from Champaign, the home of Bruce and his company, Sublogic.
My luck holds. It is a beautiful day for flying, and my friends Alan and Tandy offer to lend me their plane. It's gassed and waiting at Meigs, they tell me, so I'm off. Sure enough, I find it without difficulty.
Of course, I find it a little peculiar that the aircraft is sitting in the middle of the runway with the engine running, but i climb into the cockpit and begin my checkout. Let's see, fuel tanks full. Radios on and working. Magnetos both. Engine sounds smooth, temperature and pressure coming up. Visual check out all windows, okay. Control surfaces working properly.
The plane is sitting on the runway facing north, but I'm a little too close to the northern end for my comfort. I like a lot of runway. There's nothing going on around me, and no visible traffic, so I apply a little throttle and turn hard to the left. I'm off, a slow taxi to the southern end of the runway.
The radios are set for Willard Airport, but I decide to cruise at 5000 feet, which puts the VOR (VHF omni-directional radio) at Willard out of range. So I reset the NAV (navigation) radio to 113.2 MHz (megahertz), the Peotone VOR. I also tune the COM (communications) radio to 123.0 MHz, the frequency of the Greater Kankakee Airport control tower. If my navigation is any good, I'll pass just to the west of this airport after I fly over the Peotone VOR. With the frequency set, I immediately hear a report which, except for weather conditions, I ignore.
Ah. I'm at the southern end of the runway. Hard left, line it up due north. Flaps up, full throttle, and I begin the roll. Oops, due north isn't quite right; nudge it a little west, that's good. Now the speed's picking up, looks good, air-speed about 70, plenty for takeoff. Ease back the stick, hold it for a second, and I'm off!
Landing gear up. That's funny, I still see a wheel under my left window when I look down. Hmmm. Now I put the stick forward just a tad and the plane picks up speed. At full throttle, I begin a rapid climb. I sneak a quick glance over my shoulder to watch Meigs slip away, and I take an extra moment to take a snapshot (see Photo 1). The John Hancock building looms up to my left, and I begin a left turn to head south.
Golly, that's a neat building from the air. I decide to fly around it for a full view. I bank right toward the eastern side of the building, then I bank left to head around it counter-clockwise. Ah! Perfect view, another snapshot (see Photo 2). Is that somebody in the building waving at me? Hard to tell. Just my imagination, I guess.
Enough foolishness. I hold the left bank. I'm at about 2000 feet and climbing now. I flip the OBI (omni-bearing indicator) until I find a course toward Peotone. There it is; I head southwest, course 190. Off to my right is the Sears Tower, and there is Chicago-Midway coming into sight. That's about the last landmark I know in Chicago, so I concentrate on getting the aircraft into a stable configuration.
As I pass through 3000 feet, I ease back the throttle to about 75% and return the stick to almost center, just a little back. I'll keep climbing, just a little slower. I pick up a little forward speed. A glance at the OBI and my compass confirms that I'm on course.
At about 4800 feet I throttle back to 65% and begin to level off. I continue to climb about another 100 feet, and then I level. That looks okay, so I begin to get ready for my first course change.
I pull out my chart. I decide to fly from Peotone to the Roberts VOR, then maintain that course until I intercept the 170 bearing from the Champaign VORTAC. I'll then turn left, and I should find myself heading directly for the Willard runway.
Aha. The OBI changes from TO to FROM indicating that I've just passed over the Peotone VOR. NAV frequency to 116.8, Roberts. Spin the OBI, looks like 210 will do it. I gently bank to the right until I'm heading that way. There's greater Kankakee in the distance, just a little to my left. That's really the last landmark I can identify before I get to Champaign.
The aircraft is doing well. Plenty of fuel, although it is somewhat lower than I expected. Let's see, the endurance of the plane is supposed to be 7.5 hours at 65% throttle, but I climbed under full power for a while. Still, both tanks register half full after only 30 minutes of flying. Maybe I've got a leak. I hope I make it.
The OBI flips from TO to FROM, and I know I've just crossed Roberts. NAV goes to 110.0, and I begin to watch the OBI for bearing 170. Shouldn't be too long--there it is! I turn left to heading 170.
Now I begin a gradual descent by throttling back to about 25%. The plane drops very slowly. Willard is not in sight yet. Check the chart; Willard altitude is 754. There it is! Altitude is now 3000, and I continue my glide. The airport is getting closer now, but I'm too high. I inch the stick forward, and I drop a little faster. 2000 feet now, so I give 10% flaps and inch the throttle back up to 50%. Stick forward to keep the glidepath. I've got a better view of the airport now, but I'm not lined up for the runway like I had planned. I begin to adjust my course to line up. 1500 feet, landing gear down. A little carburetor heat just in case. 65% throttle, 20% flaps. The runway is in front of me now, but I need further adjustment to line up. 1000 feet, about 80 knots, looks good. Oops, I'm over the runway at 1000 feet, or 246 feet above ground level (See Photo 3). I inch the stick forward to drop a tad faster. There we go. 900. 800. Full flaps. Ease the stick back. I'm not stalling, but I'm not going down! Stick forward, that's better. I sink, cut the throttle, ease back the stick, and hear the wheels hit the ground. I'm down!
Hold it now. Stay on the runway, look for the taxiway. Apply some brakes. There it is. Off the runway. More brakes. Oh, heck, stomp on the brakes. The plane stops.
And I stop to catch a breath.
Okay, I'm here. I start to look for Bruce Artwick. He must be around here somewhere. I taxi all around the airport, but no luck. No other planes in sight. You mean I flew all this way and he's not around? I'm crushed. Change of Scenery
I sure don't feel like flying back to Chicago, but I guess I don't have any choice. Here we go. Visual check OK. Radios OK. Fuel tanks topped off. Huh? How'd that happen? Wait a minute, where am I? This doesn't look like Willard. Hold it. The instruments are different. And those indicators. Ammo? Bombs? Hey, what gives?
I'm a little scared. I feel safer in the air, so I hit the throttle and head for the runway. Oh no, forget the taxi: I'm doing this under power! There's the speed, and I'm up. I decide to climb fast so I can get a better look at where I am.
Hmmm. Big river ahead. Is that an airport in the distance? Funny, the gound looks like graph paper. Wait! What's that ahead? Looks like some other aircraft. Can't make them out, though; they're too far away. I think I'll land at that airport and see if I can find someone to tell me where I am.
That's funny, those are biplanes. Wait a minute! They're fokkers! I click off a picture (see Photo 4) in case somebody doesn't believe me. Holy smokes, they're shooting at me! I fire back. I'm a bad shot, and I miss. There's one, right in my sights! I fire! A hit! Uh of. My fuel gauges are dropping, and fast. Both my tanks have been hit from behind. Curse you, Red Baron!
I'm at 2000 feet, and I look frantically for a place to land. I'm only a couple of miles from friendly territory--maybe I can make it. I start to turn toward home. I'm hit again! I begin to bank hard to the left. I yank the stick to the right, but I'm out of control. I'm spinning! Calmly, I salute the victor. I'm going down fast! Arrrgh.... Now For a Snack
It's been an exhausting two hours. I get up, stretch, and head for the kitchen for a snack. Let's see, Coke, munchies, and back downstairs. Get my notes, and reboot the computer.
That's right. For the last two hours the Microsoft Flight Simulator has let me fly from Chicago to Champaign and let me do battle with six German fighters of World War I vintage. And that's only a preview of the capabilities of the program.
Written by Bruce Artwick (see box), the program is described by Microsoft as "a second generation, real-time flight simulator" for the IBM Personal Computer. Requiring a 64K system with a disk drive and a Color/Graphics Adapter (with any kind of display device), the simulator provides an extraordinarily realistic simulation of the flight of a single engine light aircraft.
Visually the product is exciting. Half the screen is devoted to a detailed rendition of an aircraft instrument panel. The standardized instruments (airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, altimeter, turn and bank indicator with two-minute turn marks, gyrocompass, and rate of climb indicator) are included in a cluster on the left side. An omni-bearing indicator (OBI) and an engine RPM gauge are in the approximate center. On the right is the radio stack with COM and NAV radios and a transponder. A digital clock, magnetic compass, ILS marker indicators, fuel gauges, and oil temperature and pressure gauges are provided. Indicators for the instrument panel lights, carburetor heat, magnetos, and landing gear are at the far right. Scattered around the panel are indicators for flaps, elevators, elevator trim, rudder, ailerons, and throttle.
The out-the-window display is stunning. The pilot has a 360-degree field of view through eight "windows." The pilot can also look out his window (left side of aircraft) for a downward view. The display is done in color. The ground is green, water blue, sky light blue, and clouds white and gray. Photo 4 shows the view out the front window when the aircraft is between the two cloud layers. Airports are white outlines on green. When the aircraft is moving, the animation is fantastic. Microsoft claims 15 frames per second which is, of course, the same speed as home movies and half the speed of video tape. The motion of the "world" and the objects in it is very smooth.
The world is very big. It is a square 10,000 miles on a side. The database used to represent the world has a resolution of 2.5 inches, that is, the distance from a coordinate in the system to one of its immediate neighbors is 2.5 inches. North America fits easily into the database.
After the terrific display graphics, the next best feature, but the most important for the product, is the contents of the database. Five major areas of the United States are included with the product: Seattle, WA (near the home of Microsoft), Los Angeles, CA (including Catalina), Chicago, IL (extending far enough south to include Champaign, home of the program author), Boston, MA., and New York. Altogether, there are about 22 airports and 38 VORs. Recognizable landmarks, such as the Sears Tower and Hancock Building in Chicago, are included in each area. Everything is in its place; the "worlk" is geographically correct. The Parameter List
These cities are too far apart to fly between, although New York to Boston can be managed. Since the simulator always comes up with the aircraft at Meigs, an editing mode is provided to let you change a long list of parameters, including your position. It is easy to move from Boston to Los Angeles in just a few seconds.
But those parameters do much more. The first one on the list is called the mode. There are 50 modes, with 0 through 9 preset with the program and the rest available for modification by the user. Selecting modes 0 through 9 causes the rest of parameters (or at least those needed) to be automatically set. The other 40 modes are empty, and can be written with any settings desired.
The parameter list includes settings for two layers of clouds and three layers of winds. If these settings are ignored, the day will be clear and without wind. The time can be set, for day, dusk, or night flight. The season of the year can be selected, which affects the time of the day dusk and night fall.
The state of the aircraft is completely represented by a set of parameters in the list. Pitch, heading, altitude, airspeed, throttle position, rudder position, and elevator position can all be set by entering the appropriate values.
The last item on the parameter list is the reliability factor. If this factor is reduced from 100, then a possibility exists that the aircraft could develop some kind of trouble during the flight.
The default mode is O, called "Easy Flight." It has some characteristics which make flying easier and is especially designed with the novice in mind. One feature is called autocoordination. When this feature is engaged, the ailerons and the rudder move together, and the aircraft is easy to steer. Another feature, reality mode, is off. This keeps the engine running all the time, causes empty fuel tanks to be ignored (you can still fly), prevents the heading indicator from drifting, and keeps the instruments visible, even at night with the lights off. When reality mode is on, these factors and others contribute to increased complexity in the simulator.
The ten preset modes provide a number of flying situations. There is one mode each for fair, moderate, and bad weather flight. Dusk and night flight each have a preset mode. Two modes are dedicated to airborne situations, one normal and one emergency. The British Ace game is started by selecting mode 7.
The only part of the simulation which is not particulary realistic is the way in which the controls are implemented. Of course, there is no control yoke. All controls are on the keyboard. Once learned, however, they are not difficult to use. The stick takes some practice: there is a tendency at first to think that the "up" and "down" cursor keys mean just that, when in fact they mean "stick forward," which makes the aircraft nose down, and "stick back," which makes the aircraft nose up. If auto-coordination is removed, the rudder must also be controlled.
The function keys on the left o the keyboard are used for flaps (the odd keys) and throttle (the even keys).
The letter keys are used for just about everything else. The landing gear switch is G, magnetos M, carburetor heat H, etc. The three radios can be set with C, for COM, N for NAV, and T for transponder. The OBI is set with V for VOR. D resets the gyrocompass, and A sets the altimeter for the current barometric pressure. In British Ace, X drops a bomb, W declares war, and the spacebar fires the machine guns.
The program provides another system for helping the pilot locate the position of the aircraft. It is a radar system which displays a top down (bird's eye) map-like image. I have found it most helpful in two cases. It is invaluable for taxiing around an airport. When you look out the window while on the ground, your perspective is not good and it is hard to see a taxiway, for example. The radar map shows your position clearly. The second case is flying into an airport with which you are unfamiliar. The radar view can give you a sense of the runway layout before the airport is visible out the window. This allows you to get into better position.
Some runways at some airports have An ILS beacon. However, the version of the program i was testing did not have this feature. When complete, the ILS will allow very accurate positioning.
Well, all that sounds very complicated, and it is. The manual that comes with the simulator is over 100 pages long and inclues aeronautical charts (accurate, but for use with the simulator only), an excellent glossary of terms, good diagrams, and a big section on how to fly. I felt one thing was missing: although area charts were provided, I thought that the more detailed approach charts or airport diagrams would have been useful so that runway headings could be known. Since the world in the simulator is accurate, it should be possible to buy commerically available charts for this purpose if you feel it would help. With that exception, the manual is excellent.
And even though the program is complicated, it can be enjoyed quickly. As you grow more proficient, you'll be able to handle greater and greater complexity. The program lets you dole out the complexity in dribs and drabs, at your pace. Summary
It's not hard to summarize my feelings about this program. In their established tradition, Microsoft has again chosen to market a classic program, unique in the market. The program is extensive, and the aircraft simulation is realistic. The graphics are outstanding. British Ace alone is a considerable advancement over Mr. Artwick's previous effort, the SubLogic Flight Simulator for the Apple and TRS-80 (still good sellers, by the way). In short, it's a great program--one everybody is going to want. In fact, I think it's going to sell its share of IBM PCs, and will certainly sell some Color/Graphics Adapters.
The price? I'd though you'd never ask. Incredibly, unbelievably, it costs $50.
Products: Microsoft Flight Simulator (Simulation game) - Evaluation