Early flight sim

Other than a glowing instrument panel, there was total blackness inside the monster machine that was meant to represent the cockpit of a T-something. In 1969, the surplus simulator with its primitive computer took up most of a room in the Aviation Building at Lewis College. My roommate, Newt, was a student at the aviation school. I was an undeclared sophomore, on more or less of a BA track.

Eyes in dark

It sometimes feels like you’re fighting a monster when you’re flying a sim.

While I sat inside the machine, Newt stood in front of the control console, staring at the switches and dials, scratching his head. How hard could this be? Without benefit of supervision, two model airplane nerds managed to fire up the donated beast and took turns testing non-existent piloting skills. As I fully expected, my takeoff was great. However, my attempt to land the thing left me roaring along inverted (cool!) at what the instruments indicated was 200 feet BGL. I may have been overconfident.

Shortly after the state eliminated its college grant program, I left Lewis to begin a dazzling career as a commercial artist drawing stick figures for gum balls. (Hey… those things don’t draw themselves.) Without me inhibiting its potential, Lewis College grew into Lewis University. Newt went on to become an honest-to-goodness A&P mechanic and landed what turned out to be one of the briefest jobs in aviation history with an aircraft maintenance shop at a busy GA airport near Chicago.

The good news is that Newt’s decision to place a hot work light under the unbuttoned engine of a Cessna while loosening a fuel fitting left him more stunned than seared. The bad news is that his career in aviation ended that day with only an extra-crispy Lycoming and a sooty smudge on the hangar ceiling to show for it.

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois, two more-capable roommates wrote a computer program for their Apple II, calling it A2FS1 Flight Simulator. Bruce Artwick, a computer graphics guy, along with marketing student and pilot, Stu Moment, formed a company named SubLogic to sell their home-grown computer games. With their program a person could fly a simulated aircraft over a five-square-mile grid of primitive wire-frame graphics. It was outstanding! By 1984, they ported it to the more affordable Commodore 64, where the program gained color graphics and additional scenery. It even had a dogfight game built into it. My very first computer was a C64 purchased specifically to run Flight Simulator II.

In short order, Kraft, a manufacturer of radio-control systems for model airplanes, used their expertise in three-axis gimbal controller technology to manufacture joysticks for computers. Things were getting real!

Soon it was possible to buy six additional scenery disks that covered states in the western US. At the time, Computer Gaming World noted that the disks should really be referred to as “airport disks more than scenery disks, as the airports are there but the scenery is sparse.” Nevertheless, our imaginations filled in what was lacking.

Microsoft came knocking at SubLogic’s door in the early 1980s to get them to build an IBM version of the flight simulator. With the power of 16 bits and more available memory, an improved instrument panel, shaded graphics, and views from a chase plane and control tower became possible.

Early flight sim

We’ve come a long way from here…

In the mid 1990s, an exceptional computer geek by the name of Austin Meyers, frustrated with “the obvious lack of anyone else doing the job right,” created his own flight simulator program. Meyer’s brainchild, X-Plane, earned kudos for its highly realistic flight physics due to its use of blade element theory to compute the forces, moments, and parts of aircraft in real time. I have no idea what any of that is, but it sure sounds cool. Today, Meyer and his company, Laminar Research, continue to push X-Plane 11 to new heights.

As always, computer hardware and software keep leap-frogging each other. The ability to run the latest version of a flight simulator becomes the primary reason for serious simmers to upgrade their computers. Like most mortals, I’ve never been able to afford the heavy-duty computer hardware needed to watch sim scenery run smoothly at blazing refresh rates. It still amazes me when the view out of a real airplane window doesn’t stutter.

This past year, after 14 years of ignoring the last edition of their flight sim program, Microsoft released a completely reworked version with what appears to be astonishingly realistic graphics. Running it might dim the lights at Fermi Lab, but it gives my old laptop something to aspire to.

Though this pandemic year of self-quarantines may have put a cork in my ability to log actual flight time, there have been bright spots. My 2006 version of MS Flight Sim X and its Garmin 430-equipped Cessna 172 is capable of linking wirelessly to ForeFlight on my iPad to make it think it’s in a real airplane. That may not help with pattern work, but it’s a useful way of keeping navigation skills fresh.

My sim software may be outdated by 14 years but it is smart enough to recognize that an indication of 200 feet BGL is definitely a hard stop. Good sim!

33 replies
  1. Sean M
    Sean M says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. While my dad, a private pilot, rented and took me flying occasionally–just enough to whet my appetite–it was with Microsoft Flight Simulator that I lived out my chosen destiny of being an owner-pilot, starting at age 6 or 7 in black & white on an IBM PC and progressing through FSX a couple decades later. Every new flight sim version, and every hardware upgrade, promised a new frontier of realistic experience but required days of frustrating troubleshooting–plug and play wasn’t a thing back then. The add-ons like scenery- and airplane builders were great; since the graphics were primitive to begin with, it wasn’t too difficult as a young hobbyist to create scenery and airplane models that looked about as good as what came with the sim. Little did I know that customizing scenery, aircraft, and instrument panels would be excellent programming experience for a future IT career. And, coming full circle, I’m lucky to now own a Cessna 182 RG, which happens to be the original airplane featured in the early versions of MS Flight Sim. So, the plane I fly now is the same type I “flew” decades ago as a kid.

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      I’m happy that you enjoyed the memories. Fortunately, we’ve all managed to make progress, even if my computer hasn’t! Thanks for adding your story, Sean.

      Reply
  2. Lance D Anderson
    Lance D Anderson says:

    Jerry: I too started out on the early SubLogic FS for C-64. Lots of landings (inverted and otherwise) at Meigs Field. Crude though it was, its kind of amazing what they were able to do with the C-64 ( which really only had 37K executable RAM) I remember those graphics well.
    The early MS Flight sims appear to have borrowed heavily from SubLogic. Currently gnashing my teeth trying to keep the overly complex MSFS 2020 running.
    THX

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Thanks for your comments, Lance. I remember landings at Meigs field being a real challenge on a C64 – but it was easy to find! After reading the recommended hardware specs for MSFS2020, I’ve never bothered to buy it for my otherwise capable ASUS laptop hobbled by limited rendering/refresh abilities. Good luck to you!

      Reply
  3. Gene Woods
    Gene Woods says:

    Jerry,
    We are practically neighbors, I live in Crystal Lake. I started with MSFS on a Tandy 1000 as I used to manage the Radio Shack store in CL. I have upgraded my desktop computers over the years to accommodate the latest versions of MSFS. A couple of years ago I bought a new system to support X-Plane 11, and still use it today. Back in ’06, I went to 3CK and earned my private pilot certificate. Then in ’10 got my instrument rating, Commercial certificate in ’18 and plan to get a CFI certificate when I retire from my real job in a couple of years. I currently share ownership in a Cessna 172 and 182. I use my simulator to keep me proficient with instrument approaches, Foreflight, Garmin G5s, and Garmin GTN650 – all of which I fly with in the real world.

    Reply
  4. Jerry Thomas
    Jerry Thomas says:

    Hi Gene,
    Wow, you’re name sounds familiar. (Maybe we’ve run into each other at the old Radio Shack, 3CK, Menards, the Squire, Julie Anne’s…???) I took a number of PPL lessons at 3CK, then switched to Galt after I became the newsletter editor for EAA 932. You’re right, the integration of the sims with iPads and the availability of a Garmin on board makes sims great for keeping nav skills current. Thanks for your comments!

    Reply
  5. Nevada Hamaker
    Nevada Hamaker says:

    My first flight simulator was a very simple one, written in Basic, for the Timex-Sinclair 1000 computer. The flight area was completely flat and only contained one airport. There may have been a “mountain range” along one side, but I can’t recall. It did, however, also have one VOR. Generally, you started in the air and your goal was to land on the single runway. It took six minutes to load from tape cassette, and it would load successfully about 50% of the time.

    Eventually, my family purchased a far more capable Apple IIgs computer. I had a copy of SubLogic’s Flight Simulator that I had obtained through the most common method high school kids used in the mid-80s. I probably utilized about a third of it’s full capabilities, treating it more as a game than a real simulator.

    As the years went by, I played around with newer versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and then X-Plane. Again, I never really used them seriously. In my non-virtual life, I did eventually realize my dream of becoming an actual pilot back in the early 2000s. However, life intervened and I never had my first bi-annual review. In the last few years, I’d thought about getting back into flying, and wondering what type of flying I really wanted to do. Did I want to fly single-engine planes like before? Or did I want to do something simpler like an ultralight or even a powered parachute?

    Then Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 was released, and I checked it out. It is a quantum leap in immersion beyond anything that has come before. For the first time, I used a flight simulator as an actual simulator. I already had a Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS joystick and throttle for playing other games. The effect was stunning. It rekindled my passion for aviation and my desire to fly real airplanes once again. I spent time refreshing my memory with the plethora of online resources that didn’t exist 16 years ago, and then I called up the flight school to arrange for my first bi-annual review. Everything went smoothly; the plane I went up in with the instructor was even one that I’d trained in originally all those years ago, though it had been significantly restored and improved.

    And now, I’ve realized another dream. I now own my own aircraft, a 1974 Beechcraft Musketeer, which I fly as often as I can. And all this because Microsoft FS2020 accomplished a level of realism that was completely unprecedented.

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Nevada,
      Things have indeed changed during the intervening years from MSFS X to the current version. (I’m still with FSX.) I do believe that the availability of excellent on-line resources has given flight training a real boost. I appreciate your comments. Thanks!

      Reply
    • Gerry Jurrens N2GJ
      Gerry Jurrens N2GJ says:

      Great story! I got my PPL back in 1972 and work & family kept me inactive. I got my first home computer, an Apple ][ Plus, for a side biz. I recall playing with a few sims, obtained from a similar source! As a retired, reformed “rusty pilot” I’ve gotten back in the left seat with the goal of becoming current again. I’ve wondered how useful a sim might be now. I licensed ForeFlight on a new iPad mini that cost a couple of hours of dual. Jerry’s excellent article (I love your style) has got me wondering how one connects the iPad to a sim like MSFSX. Intriguing idea. I’ll ask him! Good luck to you with the Musketeer. Great airplane!

      Reply
  6. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    My first flight sim was the Lunar lander sim that I played on a main frame computer at Georgia Tech in the late 60s with my older brother.
    My next sim was the first version of MicroSoft flight sim on a PC located in basically a closet just behind the bridge of the USS Guadalcanal.
    Ive had every flight sim sense then. I currently have three VR systems and a G1000 setup for practicing approaches. I’m pretty sure I will be playing with sims until I die.

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      It sounds like you’ve got the sim setups figured out, Richard! Good to hear that you’ve been able to make it all work. Congratulations! Keep on simming!

      Reply
  7. Frank Merrill
    Frank Merrill says:

    I still have that Apple I+ (It’s even a “Black Apple,” carrying the Bell & Howell logo) and the SubLogic flight simulator that totally astounded my equally geeky circle of pilot friends. Thank you for the vectors to the localizer for Memory Lane muni!

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      I’m pleased to have been able to offer the vectors, Frank. Glad you enjoyed the trip! You’re not alone. I still have an old C128 and SubLogic’s floppy’s stored in the attic.

      Reply
  8. Joe Starr
    Joe Starr says:

    Just a quick note about how the ‘86 Microsoft Flight Simulator saved my life. After three years on the simulator with a Mac and mouse, I started taking flight lessons in a C152. My first instructor was careless and reckless with his technique and led me to believe the 152 (or any airplane) could be man-handled for effect. On one of my very first solo flights, I dutifully practiced power-on stalls at the prescribed 3,000’. As the nose precessed to the left, I crammed down on the right rudder to correct as I had been instructed. The right wing stalled and the 152 rolled inverted and pointed straight down with full power. Having had this scenario many times with the simulator and studying the issue of secondary stalls, I calmly reduced power and slowly pulled back to level flight, wings creaking. I can’t imagine the result without the rudimentary simulator experience. I went on to owning a Turbo-charged 182 with a G1000 and so forth. These simulators are certainly not toys to me. Best regards, fellow aviators, J

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Many years ago, during my first experience flying under a hood, my instructor had me navigate my way back to our home base at PWK. After I approached the Northbrook VOR and turned right onto the runway heading for 34, he quietly said, “You’ve done this before.” I insisted that I had never flown without being able to reference the outside view. We finally figured out that the time I spent practicing at home with my simulator had done a good job of preparing me to rely solely on the instruments. The early MS simulator’s lack of tactile and “seat-of-the-pants” feedback along with it’s primitive external views forced a greater reliance on the instruments than any of us realized. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Joe!

      Reply
  9. Roger Houston
    Roger Houston says:

    I still fire mine up to take a sentimental journey to Meigs Field as it was before Mayor Daley’s bulldozers completed their sneak attack on the old place. By the time FS added the San Francisco scenery, my son had taken a keen interest in the program. Remember the aircraft carrier that floated offshore from SF? I used to land on its deck regularly to prove it could be done. Once I did that then had a devilish idea. I slewed the cockpit up a smidge, substituted a 747 for the little Piper that I’d landed there, then paused and shut down in such a way that FS would begin where it had left off, with the view set to show the 747 perched proudly if ridiculously on the carrier deck.

    My middle school-aged son came home from school later that day, dropped his backpack, and headed back to his room where we kept the computer. I listened intently. All these years later, I can still hear his “WHAT THE HELL???” As the prank’s payload cane up on the screen.

    The trap was set. My son came home from school

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Excellent story, Roger! Obviously,the article about my history with flight sims had prodded lots of peoples memories. Everyone’s follow-up stories are adding to a highly enjoyable conversation. Thank you!

      Reply
  10. Gary Hagan
    Gary Hagan says:

    Jerry,
    My first sim experience was on the MACII that an engineer friend used at work..The stick figures “flew” and I managed to “fly” under the arch and around the pyramid…LOL I don’t remember crashing, but I’m sure it happened. This was in 1980 when the oil boom took off in the Patch and I had started working for an oil field instrument co. I taught “oilies” how to troubleshot 8080 based micro processors that displayed all the data that drillers needed to keep them “turning right”..I grew up on a farm in Montana where my first aircraft experience was when the crop duster landed a Super Cub in the field across the road from our house. That started my aircraft experience. From there, USAF taught me all about electronics, radio, and finally Ground Radar..From there I progressed to joining the OK Air National Guard and working on the Hercules, one of heck of a trash hauler. Still haven’t got a license, but fly my X Plane 11 whenever I can..Thanks for all the history of this great invention..BTW Had a friend at the FAA Academy let me “fly” their B727 full motion sim..Same result as you..

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Ha! I’m happy to hear that I’m not the only one that ever attempted to fly BGL. Thanks for relating your experiences, Gary!

      Reply
  11. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Thanks for the story about sims. The first sim I flew was in Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). It was a T-37 sim and it had NO motion and NO visuals, you were in the soup for the entire flight. All that worked were the gauges and dials but, while you could fly an instrument approach, you never saw any runway, so you had to always go missed approach! One day as I was ‘flying’ an approach, the IP who was outside and could view my progress on a duplicate set of gauges and dials looked in through the glass window that was behind me and noticed I was leaning to the right. He asked me if I was OK and I replied “I’ve got a case of the leans!” He broke up laughing as that was the first time he had ever had a student get disoriented in the sim. The last sim I flew was about 30 years later and it was a T-1 sim with motion and a visual. Although I had never flown a T-1, I managed to fly a successful visual approach and landing at an AF base I recognized as one I had flown into in real life many times — what a difference!

    Reply
  12. John
    John says:

    Even more fun was Flight Assignment ATP, which introduced me to the J routes and the B737 that I’m learning (slowly) in XPlane 11. FA-ATP also your performance after every flight. I also recall Tracon II around the same era

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Wow, I hadn’t thought of TRACON for years! I remember really enjoying it. I can visualize the packaging, with a green ATC screen pictured. Thanks for the memory, John

      Reply
  13. Jerry Thomas
    Jerry Thomas says:

    I have no experience in a present-day motion simulator, but I can imagine the enormous advances that technology has made possible since my first “flight” in that vacuum tube-powered beast at Lewis College centuries ago. I’m starting to feel old! Thanks, Dale!

    Reply
  14. Gerry Jurrens N2GJ
    Gerry Jurrens N2GJ says:

    Jerry, thanks for the thoroughly entertaining article. While I have very little experience in flight simulators, I am intrigued by the notion that it might help me as I progress from Rusty Pilot to current Pilot. I had a friend back in NJ who built a whole simulated cockpit in his apartment for multi-bucks I imagine. As far as I know he’s never taken a lesson in a real aircraft. He “flies” real-time trans-oceanic missions in his “plane!” Have you ever heard of this aspect of flight simulation?

    Also, you mentioned integrating a sim with ForeFlight I have a subscription on an iPad mini and wonder how that works. It might help me to learn FF better. Right now I’m overwhelmed!

    Again, write in, Jerry. I really love your style. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Gerry. I’m always happy to learn that other people appreciate some of my goofier missives. I do know that there are serious sim enthusiasts who have even created sim airlines and “fly” regular routes. There are also those whose passion is to provide them with ATC at larger sim airports. Sims offer something for everyone.
      Regarding how to wirelessly link your computer’s sim to ForeFlight on an iPad, I’m going to refer you to an article that Chris Clarke has written for Sporty’s. It’s much better than any description I might provide. Copy and paste the following link into your browser: https://ipadpilotnews.com/2020/08/foreflight-flight-sim-2020/
      You’ll find that ForeFlight linked to your sim operates just as it would in a real aircraft. (I actually prefer FlyQ which also links to sims but is considerably less expensive for the kind of flying I do.) Sporty’s “IPad Pilot News” can be a great resource for anyone using an iPad with a sim or a real world airplane: https://ipadpilotnews.com/

      Reply
  15. James Hicks
    James Hicks says:

    After a many-stop shopping tour of available sims, I settled on the Gleim Virtual Cockpit running X-Plane. It meets the FAA BATD requirements for various portions of VFR and IFR training but is my key to instrument currency, once an almost impossible drag either finding a rated safety pilot or happening upon a day with the cloud deck at or below the FAF of our local approaches to meet requirements. Though tuning the 530 or 430 can sometimes be a bit tedious, it faithfully reproduces every element of instrument work, complete with an S-Tec 55X autopilot. Now instead of 6 in 6 months I can do a dozen a month at no additional cost. Product support has been reliable and easily available and cost was the least of all the competition.

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Goes to show that quality sims like X-Plane are not simply games, but can be useful tools for training. In your case, the Gleim unit even allows part of your sim time to be logged. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jim.

      Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      It never fails, Dave. No matter how many times I read my stuff before submitting it, dumb mistakes are guaranteed. It’s got to be an unwritten law – otherwise there would be errors in it!

      Reply
  16. Christoff Du Plessis
    Christoff Du Plessis says:

    Due to eyesight issues I was never able to follow a career in real aviation, but since 2002 I became active in the flight simulation genre. What I enjoy most is the wide variety of choices of which plane to fly and where. Also the 3rd party support of the hobby is amazing with all the companies dedicated to creating addons. Because I normally don’t really have anything to add to the real-world discussions, I’m glad I can finally contribute something:), so would just like to say thanks to the people who run this excellent website.

    Reply
    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Thank you Christoff. And I add my sincere thanks to Sporty’s for their continued stewardship of Air Facts Journal, giving all of us the opportunity to further our knowledge of all things aviation and to contribute to the conversation.

      Reply
  17. Charlie Jackson
    Charlie Jackson says:

    Great article. As a CAP cadet in the late 70s, our squadron rebuilt one of those room-filling simulators — http://www.wildfire-productions.com/atd/pictures/Link_C-11B_Trainer.gif as well as a few of the smaller “Blue-Box” Links (https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6637611087 )
    I remember the subLogic sims on the old Atari 800s (I spent many hours on those), and now I’m amazed by the X-Plane teams and the fantastic work they’ve done.

    Reply

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