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Cockpit capers

Ready for take-off ... Matthew Sheil at the controlsof his flight simulator at Chipping Norton.

Ready for take-off ... Matthew Sheil at the controlsof his flight simulator at Chipping Norton.
Photo: Robert Pearce

May 6, 2006

Fly around the world and never leave home. Nick Galvin checks in to the world of flight-simulator enthusiasts.

I'm a guest on the flight deck of a Boeing 747-400 jet. We've just taxied up to the domestic terminal at Sydney Airport after completing a routine flight from Canberra. The tension in the cockpit has subsided after a safe landing. It's about 3pm.

We spot a jet alongside in the familiar livery of a rival airline. Having established radio contact, we chat with pilot Norm Blackburn, swapping pleasantries and industry gossip for a while before going our separate ways.

On the face of it this would seem a pretty ordinary exchange in the workaday routine of a domestic flight crew.

We're not on the tarmac at Kingsford Smith. We're in a truck parts workshop in Chipping Norton, while Norm is sitting in his house in Larne, Northern Ireland, at 4am. Welcome to the surreal, contradictory world of virtual aviation, where disbelief is suspended at 33,000 feet and nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Flight simulators have been around for as long as the personal computer. The early versions were crude affairs with clunky graphics that required a lot of imagination from the pilot sitting at his desk.

Time and technology have moved on and programs such as the wildly popular Microsoft Flight Simulator (www.microsoft.com/games/flightsimulator) have developed an astonishing level of realism. And now, with the widespread use of broadband internet connections, virtual pilots can connect to servers allowing them to share the same virtual airspace and see each other crisscrossing the skies in real-time.

Only a few "sim" fans go to the lengths of Matthew Sheil, the owner of the Chipping Norton simulator.

By his own admission, Sheil is unusually hard core when it comes to the virtual flying game. You don't spend $300,000 and five years scouring the world for used aircraft parts without being pretty committed.

He says there are five years to go before the project is completed but even at this stage the simulator is unbelievably realistic.

Sheil joins fellow enthusiasts Terry Scanlan and Rob Hooley to demonstrate the machine with a brief domestic flight.

As Scanlan and Hooley settle into the pilot and co-pilot seats, with the runway of Canberra Airport through the cockpit window, they begin their preflight checks following the exact procedure of their real world counterparts.

As the "plane" gathers pace the virtual runway begins flashing by until we are airborne, climbing through clouds and turbulence that mimics exactly the weather over the ACT.

Approaching Sydney Airport, I crane to look out a side window to spot my suburb thousands of feet below. For me the illusion is almost perfect.

"It really does mess with your head, sometimes," says Sheil cheerfully as he points out Prospect Reservoir. "Daytime, night time, sunsets ... Everything you see in the real world you see out there."

His enthusiasm is infectious but he refuses to take himself or his hobby too seriously - something I suspect some of the hundreds of thousands of other virtual flyers around the world may struggle with.

"This is just a big boy's toy," he says. "At the end of the day it's just like a big Nintendo game."

Unlike most other virtual pilots, Sheil is also a veteran real-world flier, piloting light aircraft around the country to visit the various branches of his business. But, he says, he keeps his real-world and simulated aviation mentally separate - even if virtual flying can often be more fun.

"I enjoy simulated flying sometimes much more than real-world flying because you can fly under the Harbour Bridge and do a barrel roll," he says. "You can't do that in the real world. There are no rules, no limitations [in sims]."

As we continue our trip from virtual Canberra to virtual Sydney, the flight is punctuated by radio contact from our virtual air traffic controllers. When the virtual skies are crowded with virtual aircraft, naturally you need virtual controllers to maintain order.

Like the virtual pilots, these air traffic controllers are enthusiasts from around the world whose passion is learning the skills and procedures of real-world air traffic control.

Scanlan is one of the founders of the Pacific Region Division of the Virtual Air Traffic Controllers Association. Worldwide, he says, there are about 90,000 members of the parent body, about 30,000 of them active.

The virtual controllers are usually virtual pilots who want to take a step up and train with Scanlan's organisation to look after a slice of air space. They use software that allows them to "see" where aircraft are and bring them safely into hundreds of airports worldwide.

"When we stage structured events, that brings people out," Scanlan says. "We could have 10 air traffic controllers, say, and 30 or 40 aircraft up in the air."

Dean Bielanowski, the editor of Computer Pilot Magazine, has long pondered the compelling attraction of virtual aviation.

"I think as young kids you always look up at the sky and wonder how planes stay in the air," he says. "I think there is an inbuilt fascination with flight in general. For the cost of a flight sim package and a computer to run it - maybe $1500 - you can be the pilot of a 747 in a virtual world whereas in the real world the opportunity to do that is very limited. That's the core fascination for people."

Many virtual fliers take that fascination with aviation to the next stage by joining one of the hundreds of virtual airlines that operate around the world. Virtual airlines have been around as long as flight simulators themselves.

"They were first created to give a purpose to flights," Bielanowski says. "Instead of just flying here to there, people join a virtual airline and fly routes.

"Some go as far as to set up virtual bank accounts for their pilots to earn money based on how many flights they have done and the airline has management where they can factor in costs and buy new virtual aircraft based on how much money they make."

But for sheer dedication in virtual aviation it's hard to beat the effort Shiel and his mates put in each year in a charity event called Worldflight, which raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Fifteen virtual flying enthusiasts take Sheil's simulator on a 130-hour round-the-world trip, calling in at 45 airports. For a week the pilots do little else but fly the simulator, often accompanied by dozens of other enthusiasts worldwide who come along for the flight.

To add to the sense of realism, they even restrict themselves to genuine airline meals in the cockpit.

"Qantas provides all our food," Sheil says. "You've got the smells, the sensations, the weather, the air traffic controllers of the country you're flying through. Sometimes, you walk out the door and have to remind yourself you're in Chipping Norton and not going down Patpong Road in Bangkok.

"My wife says when I start booking accommodation at these places I fly to she'll get worried."

Take to the skies

To take to the virtual skies in your own flight sim you will first need to check your computer is powerful enough to run the software.

"Because the flight simulator software is more demanding on your computer's system than pretty much any kind of software, short of 3D rendering, you need a pretty good system to start with," Dean Bielanowski says.

"You can run it on an older machine but you don't get the full experience because you have to turn down a lot of the scenery and graphics."

The minimum system specifications for Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2004 ($99.95), which is used almost universally by enthusiasts, are a 450MHz computer with 128MB of RAM, but Bielanowski says 2GHz with at least 512MB RAM or, preferably, 1GB is nearer the mark.

A decent video card is also a must for a smooth virtual flying experience. There are many different models available from the two big names in video cards: ATI and nVidia. The minimum spend here is about $200. The next item on your shopping list is some kind of input device. You can operate Flight Simulator via your computer keyboard but that soon palls and you'll want at least to spring for a joystick after a while.

"A basic joystick is about $100 or if you want to make things more realistic you can go for a control yoke and a set of rudder pedals," says Bielanowski. "The cheapest decent set is a bit over $500 for the two."

Online flying with other pilots and perhaps even a virtual air traffic controller make up the ultimate thrill for many enthusiasts, but it makes sense to attain some proficiency before joining up. That way you can crash as many times as you wish in the privacy of your own home without the whole virtual aviation world looking on.

Once you know your way around the cockpit of your aircraft, you can head to the likes of the popular Virtual Air Traffic Controllers (www.vatpac.org) to start your online virtual flying career. Another option is the International Virtual Aviation Organisation (www.ivao.org).

For more information on getting started in flight sims, Computer Pilot Magazine (www.computerpilot.com) is a great resource. On Avsim (www.avsim.com) and Flightsim (www.flightsim.com), you'll also find heaps of information plus a mass of downloadable files to add on to your flight sim program.

Infofile

If you suffer from airsickness and can't think of anything worse than piloting a virtual plane, a more down-to-earth option is the world of train simulators. Microsoft Train Simulator (www.microsoft.com/games/trainsimulator) is a leader in the field and allows you to recreate classic journeys using trains such as the Flying Scotsman and the Orient Express. Virtual train spotters can surely only be around the corner!

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