X-Plane Yourself…

I desperately wanted Microsoft Flight Simulator when the uprated edition came out back in 1997. On the front of the box was a Boeing 777 executing a perfect landing at an undeterminable but foreign-looking airport. On the back were screenshots of planes taking off from airstrips in deserts, seaplanes scything through canyons and helicopters hovering over skyscrapers. And on the side was a logo declaring ‘Windows 97 Only’.

The problem with this was not that the game required a ropey version of Windows to work. Nor was it that our computer did not have the required graphics cards. The problem was that my family had a Mac.

This is the year 2010, a time when Macs are cool, a time when the adverts on TV make us want to buy the Apple products that go spinning around on a white background while black Arial writing spells out the machines’ key features. But back in 1997, Macs were the laughing stock of just about everyone who used computers. There were very few products commonly available for Macs, and certainly no games of the calibre of Flight Simulator ’97.

And so there was no flight simulator for me. No chance to land airliners or to cruise around the desert. Although I was sorely tempted to buy a copy of Flight Simulator ’97 just so that I could have it and look at it, after a few years the desire disappeared as I became distracted by racing and football games, as well as – of course – studying for school and later my degree and even later my PhD.

Flying. The easy bit.

As life events continued to weave along their unpredictable course, however, I suddenly found myself taking more and more long-haul flights, each time getting more and more interested in the type of aircraft I was flying on. After a particularly enthralling (well, for me at least) trip on an Airbus A380, my interest was pricked sufficiently to do something I hadn’t done for a long time. Go onto Google and tentatively type ‘flight simulator mac’ into the search box.

The result blew me away. Top of the list was something called ‘X-Plane’, below which I saw screenshots of various digitized aircraft floating round far-flung corners of the globe. Clicking on the link I was taken to a swish site that announced ‘unparalleled flight simulation’. Rifling through the X-Plane page, my mouth slowly drifted open as I saw everything I had longed for all those years ago. Flying 747s. Going to realistic-looking airports. Cruising wee private planes over stunning geological landforms. Before I got my hopes up, I headed to the system specifications page, preparing to be told my standard MacBook wasn’t up to it…but it was. I wouldn’t even need to upgrade the RAM.

After a couple of weeks’ wait to (in hindsight, sensibly) let myself get up to speed with various pieces of university work, I downloaded the demo from the website. For the next hour my computer busied itself downloading and unpacking various files from the internet, until eventually it was time to fly. The screen went black and a loading page faded in. Blue sky and reasonably realistic – we’re talking PlayStation 3 graphics here, not Xbox 360 – mountains popped up, before the camera curved down to reveal a small airstrip. We zoomed in on a small gold jet sitting at the end of the runway, cut to the onboard camera and the air traffic control chatter kicked in. Showtime.

Now, because I am (a) impatient, (b) male and (c) a great believer in the role of embodied experience in forming knowledges, I did not bother myself to read the instructions before attempting to take to the skies. Although this approach did not serve me too badly when I tried to go skiing in real life, it is not advisable if one is attempting to fly a jet, even if it is only a computer-generated jet. Having somehow managed to figure that pushing two fingers upwards on the trackpad increased the thrust, I wasn’t able to get the plane moving. The upshot of this was a plane sitting at full thrust on the runway, going nowhere as flames shot out its rear and scorched the grass.

At this point, the sensible thing to do would have been to go onto Google and download a simple cheat sheet for the controls. The least sensible thing to do would probably be to give up on flying the training jet and instead open the Boeing 777 long-haul airliner, widely regarded as the most technologically sophisticated jet in the world. Cue one brand-new British Airways plane sitting at the edge of the taxiway, thrusting furiously (sorry if you were Googling for an erotic novella and ended up here by mistake due to this phrase) but going nowhere. I capitulated and checked out the controls on the in-game menu, but only to find out how to take the brakes off. Press ‘B’. Ah, it would have been, wouldn’t it.

Trying to land an Airbus at Inverness. It eventually stopped just past WH Smith on the High Street.

This only made the situation worse rather than better. For now we had a full-tilt plane that was veering left off the runway at a rapid rate of knots, with no apparent means of bringing it under control. Arrow keys? No joy. Trackpad? Not a chance. Only one solution, then. Reluctantly, I did what no self-respecting alpha male would and opened the ReadMe. Within a matter of seconds I’d learned there was a wee white cross I had to click on, which would give me control of the plane’s movements. Now I could make the thing go and I could steer it (oh, and by osmosis I’d learned how to bring up the landing gear). What more could a man want?

Thrusters at full, brakes off and controls in hand, I set off down the runway, built up speed and floated up into the air. Yee-haw. But before I had chance to celebrate a red light and vicious parping sound announced I’d stalled. Flight lesson 101: if you pull up too quickly, you stall. Thankfully that kind of stall is not like a car stalling, and can be remedied – in the game at least – by dipping the nose a bit. This I did, and soon after I was retracting the landing gear and speeding up towards the stratosphere….

…only to find myself pointing right back down at the ground seconds later, orange lights flashing and alarms going off all over the place. I’d tried to change direction too aggressively, banked the thing at an impossible angle and made the engines irreparably cut out. Needless to say there was A Big Crash and everyone on board died. Probably.

Over the next few hours I got progressively better, learning to control the airliner and finding out what all the knobs, dials and buttons did. I could have started in a tiny wee propeller plane and worked my way up, but where would the fun in that be? A cheat sheet procured from the official X-Plane site (www.x-plane.com) showed me how to work the elevators, rudders and ailerons, giving extra control over the plane. Eventually, it was time to face the bête noire of flight simulators for lay gamers such as myself – landing.

Ask any casual gamer what they think of realistic flight simulators, and their response will probably go along the lines of “I can take off fine, I can fly fine, but I can’t land for s**t!” I was no exception in this regard, and realised that being able to land in Ace Combat on the PlayStation would do me no good whatsoever in a situation of ultra-realistic physics that I now faced. By the time it came to landing in the demo I had progressed to a Boeing 747 – a pretty danged big plane – and the only location available to land at in the time the demo allowed was Innsbruck, a place where big jets are banned in real life due to the nature of the airport. The second-biggest commercial airliner in the world, and an airport with a notoriously difficult approach, for my first landing. Yes, I probably should have started with something easier but…you know the rest.

Various abortive attempts at landing followed, some but not all of which would have resulted in smoke, fire and explosions. Apparently most planes now are landed with significant help from the autopilot systems, and I can see why. Eventually, I managed to hit the edge of the runway after clumsily and abruptly scrubbing off speed, and, with the help of some grass, brought the plane to a halt on a taxiway off to the side. It wasn’t pretty, it certainly wasn’t textbook, but crucially I had landed. Things could only go up from here (apart from the numerous subsequent times I cannoned off the end of the runway after forgetting to put the flaps down and coming in with way too much speed, but we’ll gloss over that).

Landing a KLM MD-11 at Edinburgh. A lot of acronyms there.

In the interim I had ordered the full version of X-Plane, and while I awaited its arrival – with the associated opportunities to fly anywhere in the world, the Moon or Mars, I familiarized myself with the cockpit controls in the game. On my MacBook at least, the cockpit and graphics are smart, clear and functional rather that being outstanding, but for something that runs on a standard machine without any fancy graphics cards it’s pretty impressive. Aside from the mouse and keyboard controls, all the switches in the cockpit are operated by clicking on them in their position with the mouse. These buttons – in the same position they’d be on their real-life counterparts, control everything from the engine ignition to the seatbelt signs in the passenger compartment. There are also radar screens and instruments for navigation, as well as a fully-functioning and programmable autopilot.

I can hear you nodding off at this point, so to wake you up I should mention that you can fly fighter jets and blow stuff up. In fact, the range of planes in the standard game is pretty interesting, going from tiny two-seaters right up to space shuttles, with all manner of military aircraft and planes like the one you’d take on holiday in between. The actual range of planes that come with the game is okay if not brilliant, but a virtually infinite library of aircraft and liveries are available to download online – which is exactly what I did as soon as the full version of the game dropped through my letterbox from Amazon.

You see, X-Plane comes on a staggering six DVDs, onto which all of the world’s scenery and a number of planes are mapped. What you don’t get as standard, though, are the airport terminal buildings or anything more than the biggest and most obvious buildings. Like the limited range of pre-packaged aircraft, this sounds disappointing, but in fact this is where the online element of the game comes into its own. For online and available to download is an exhaustive array of airport scenery packs, planes and plane liveries, all of which are put together by folk on their machines at home. This to me at least conjures up images of the kind of people who wear headsets with mouthpieces when they play video games, but the detail and effort that goes into some of this stuff is utterly staggering. In a matter of hours, I was able to acquire all of the passenger planes I’d ever flown on, my ‘home’ airports of Inverness, Edinburgh and Tokyo Narita, and a few other things that grabbed my interest. The vast majority of this stuff is available to download for free from an official and reputable site, but given this is clearly not a capitalist micro-economy I feel the responsibility to put something back in for people to download. I can sense a digitized Beveridge Park coming on…

Going somewhere I really shouldn't have been able to - Pyongyang. A very good place to practice, though.

I’ve been happily dodging away in the skies for a good few days since the full game arrived now. I can see how addictive it can be and how easily one could get sucked in to something like this, which is why I’m being super-careful to avoid doing real-time long-haul flights like I’ve seen some people do on YouTube. Come on, who has the time or patience to fly from Heathrow to Singapore in an Airbus in real-time? I perhaps don’t fly in a textbook way, but I’m learning as I go along. And, I suppose what fundamentally matters in what is, let’s not forget, a computer game, is that I’m having fun as I do it. The landings are getting better – I did an absolute peach at Pyongyang in an old Russian freighter the other day – and in a bout of nerdiness I flew from Inverness to Edinburgh in real time. For any lay gamers like me out there keen to dabble in a flight sim let me finish with these sage words of advice:

-if you take off from Inverness Airport and veer sharp left, it is possible to fly under the Kessock Bridge at full speed;

-you can’t land an Airbus A380 at Inverness. You can get it down, but by the time it’s stopped you’ll have demolished Castle Stuart;

-North Korea is a great place to learn to take off and land in X-Plane. Seriously, no traffic, no high buildings and a massive, long, wide Soviet runway to play with;

-if you’re at a reasonably rural airport, watch out for deer running across the runway. You will hit them and they may get sucked into your engines and make a mess.

 

Right, off to price up those headsets…

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