Virtual Wings

Serious game: A pilot trainee shows the Navy how to learn to fly on a PC with popular software


Ensign Herb Lacy was in trouble.

True, he'd fulfilled a lifelong dream by making it into the Navy's highly competitive flight school, but now he was competing with classmates who had already taken private flying lessons -- or even held a pilot's license.

Lacy, who had never flown, needed an edge. He found it in an unlikely place: a computer game.

By the time he squeezed into a real cockpit for the first time, Lacy had logged nearly 50 hours on Microsoft's Flight Simulator 98, a version of the oldest, most popular PC simulation on the market. The training paid off: After Lacy's first flight, his stunned Navy instructor pulled aside experienced students and bellowed, "This guy is kicking your tail."

Today Lacy is one of the top students in his class at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. "Everything on the syllabus I can do at home on my computer," says the 23-year-old Bowie resident, who attended Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997.

Now the Navy is investigating whether Microsoft's $60 Flight Simulator can help other rookie pilots sharpen their flight and navigation skills.

"The students will be able to spend their time in the air learning practical skills instead of using that time to become oriented with the environment," says Cmdr. Michael Kennedy of the Naval Education and Training Command in Pensacola, Fla., which is overseeing the program.

The Navy says computer games will never replace its high-end, mechanical flight simulators, which can put pilots through real-life loops, spins and stalls but cost $40 million. Each fills a building.

But the PC games offer other advantages. They're portable, so they can be installed aboard aircraft carriers so pilots can practice during down time. They also give student pilots -- who rarely if ever have the chance to use a full-scale simulator -- a way to practice at home. As a result, the Navy is considering handing out a CD-ROM to every trainee who wants one.

This would be a sea change for rookies, who for generations have relied on their imaginations -- and whatever odds and ends they can scrounge -- to practice on the ground. Eyes shut tight, a student pilot will often sit in a chair and squeeze a golf club as though it were a throttle, or twist a pen cap to lower an imaginary landing gear.

They do this for good reason. Learning these basic skills in the sky can be a daunting experience.

"It's like trying to learn how to drive in downtown Manhattan," says Bruce Williams, a private pilot and flight instructor who works on the Microsoft Flight Simulator design team. Controllers bark instructions. The engine drones. Instruments blink and jerk.

"An airplane is the worst classroom you can imagine," he says.

Using software tools freely available on the Internet, Lacy set out to modify Flight Simulator's stock Cessna 182 Skylane to look and fly like his Navy trainer, the T-34C, right down to the rivets.

When he got stuck, he tapped into a far-flung network of Flight Simulator pilots who'd been flying the virtual skies for years.

There are plenty of them by this time. Developed in 1979 by University of Illinois engineer Bruce Artwick, Flight Simulator is one of the longest-running franchises in the computer game business. It has sold so many millions of copies over the years that even Microsoft has lost count.

"I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me at conventions and stuff over the years and said, 'I became a pilot because of that game,' " says Micro-soft's Williams.

Lacy sent e-mail to computer pilots in Germany and England who helped him re-create the radio and other instruments in the T-34C cockpit. Using the maps handed out in flight school, he added bridges, gas stations and other landmarks to the game's terrain so the view from his monitor would match the view out the window as he flew training runs over Corpus Christi.

He set aside his keyboard and mouse and bought a stick, throttle and rudder pedals designed for PC flight simulators. At night he practiced maneuvers such as touch-and-go landings, stalls, spins.

"You can actually sit there and practice your procedures and do exactly what you do in the airplane," says Lacy. But he concedes there are physical limits: "There's no simulator out there that's going to exactly simulate flying. Nothing feels like it."

Still, his modifications are so good that many of Lacy's classmates and instructors want a copy. "My phone is ringing off the hook," he says.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration does not officially recognize Microsoft Flight Simulator as an instructional tool, that hasn't stopped others from using it.

FlightSafety International, a flight school in Vero Beach, Fla., that trains commercial pilots, uses the popular game to acclimate new students to the physics of flight as well as teach specific skills, such as getting in and out of hairy traffic patterns.

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