Can flight simulator training on a home computer teach you enough to fly a real plane?
Authorities say two teenagers in Utah planned to bomb their school, steal a plane and flee the country. They'd never flown a plane, but police said they'd spent hundreds of hours with a flight simulation program.
Flight simulation software gives hobbyists a highly accurate idea of the layout of airplane cockpits and controls. Many enthusiasts attach control sticks and rudder pedals to their computers and spend hours flying to and from the programs' simulations of actual airports, complete with portrayals of real runways and airport buildings.
The rub is that real aircraft are different from planes on the computer screen. A hobbyist used to smooth flying in the rec room can easily be thrown by the vibration, noise and wind effects in an actual light plane — not to mention the higher stakes of real flying.
It wouldn't be impossible for a hobbyist to get a light aircraft off the ground on the first try, fly it some distance and land it. But the flight could be a rough affair and the landing hair-raising, even in good weather.
"It can be done, but it's a bit of a long shot," said Nels Anderson of Framingham, Mass., founder of Flightsim.com, a website for simulation enthusiasts.
Anderson also noted that "things vary from one plane to another." The instruments and startup procedures you learn in a simulator might not match those in a plane you suddenly find yourself in.
To many enthusiasts, however, the difference in handling between a real plane and a simulation is of little importance. They are more interested in the simulators' detailed renderings of engine, navigation and autopilot systems, particularly in simulations of large jets. Some hobbyists have created entire "virtual airlines," with pilots flying the routes of actual passenger jets.
The most common flight simulation programs for home computers are Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane, produced by Laminar Research of Columbia, S.C. Prices vary from about $50 to $80. A small industry of programmers has created "add-on" software for these programs to simulate specific planes and systems.
Thomas Kent flies Boeing 737 jets, often successfully, in Microsoft Flight Simulator.