The news that Microsoft has disbanded the team developing its successful Flight Simulator computer game has come as a shock to virtual aviators like Mike Smartt. He looks back at almost 30 years of taking off and occasionally landing safely in the world's longest gaming franchise.
FSX replicates real airports
It's supposed to be the computer game that grown-ups can own up to playing.
For years, Microsoft's Flight Simulator set the standard. Initially, the bar was low as the processing and graphics power of early home computers - like Sinclair's rubber Spectrum - struggled with the demands of replicating global air travel.
But in the early 1980s, as others were still guiding blips across black-and-white screens playing Pong, the thrill of attempting to land a single-engine Cessna, in colour in Flight Simulator's first iteration, was fun unsurpassed.
Never mind that it looked as if the instrument panel in your plane was cardboard stuck on with superglue and the runway facing you was a single dark strip in a featureless yellow field - and that was supposed to be Heathrow. You just had to use your imagination.
Twenty-seven years and many updates later, FSX - Flight Simulator Ten - uses the muscle of today's high-end PCs to reproduce faithfully most of the world's airports in millions of colours in minute detail. Cities and landscapes look exactly as they do from the air in real life and air-traffic control instructions for final approach crackle continuously, and often confusingly, over the cockpit intercom.
And still the appeal remains a mystery to many.
With today's computer games, you can wipe out an entire German Panzer division, navigate Formula One's most challenging circuits and manage your football team in the European Championships, all without leaving the comfort of the chair at your PC. So flying an imaginary Boeing 757 from Stansted to Sarajevo in real-time can seem pretty tame.
But later versions of Microsoft FS do seem to "flight simmers", as we are known, to be just like doing the real thing. And more importantly, those who actually do the real thing say it's like that too.
As one real-world pilot writes: "As a pilot, I use Microsoft Flight Simulator for training scenarios and often fly to a new airport virtually before flying there for real."
Of course, what every simmer dreams about is being called on to land an actual plane in an emergency. A trembling stewardess announces over the public address that both flyers upfront are suffering debilitating convulsions from the in-flight catering and has anyone flown an Airbus before?
"Er, not really but ….." you splutter.
You are the last hope and with increasing confidence and cool, you inform ground-control that the myriad of dials and gauges you face, once the ailing captain has been hauled from his seat, are second-nature. Eventually, you plop the aircraft on the runway with a couple of harmless bounces, just for dramatic effect, and applause from the passenger-cabin rings in your ears.
Taking the controls of a real plane is a 'simmer's' dream
That, of course, is one of the few times you would actually admit to being a simmer in normal company. My wife once informed a telephoning friend that I was "flying around the Australian outback" which gained me more respect than Aretha Franklin until she explained, after which I was never treated in quite the same way again by that particular mate.
Now Microsoft has announced that the special team of developers who have been updating Flight Simulator constantly for a generation is no more. And when asked why and what happens now, Microsoft HQ have chosen to give about the same amount of information you get at most departure gates enquiring about flight delays. Zilch.
Flight simmers (and there are millions of them, believe me - just google Flight Simulator) are devastated. Branded by many as sad nerds, today they really are, at least, the former.
As one asked quite reasonably, why would Microsoft kill off one of the few activities for which they attract much affection?
It may be that FSX is so good that further improving the franchise on a computer screen is almost impossible. It may be that yes, the number of people who get a kick out of spending hours at the controls of a pretend aeroplane at which no-one is shooting maybe quite large but there are few new recruits.
It could just be that games are not Microsoft's thing and it is true that there are few in-house success stories. So in tough financial times, concentrating on core activities is a good idea.
One could speculate for hours. But sorry folks, my 14.30 take-off to Lucerne awaits and in five minutes I miss my slot.
Here is a selection of your comments:
My dad is a geek, (sorry, simmer) and has been for about 8 years (A simmer for 8 years that is - he's been a geek for as long as I can remember). I do understand to a degree the enjoyment you can get out of this as it is fairly realistic, but you have to draw the line at keeping files of every flight you have done as my Dad does and staying up doing a four hour flight when most of it is on auto-pilot and you are just staring at a cockpit and a lot of sky outside. My dad tells me the weather is in real-time, but to be honest that doesn't sway me. My Dad's obsession with this game (although I can't say it's a game to my Dad or he goes crackers) and incessant drivel about its merits have put myself and my family off the flight sim forever.
John T, Sheffield
They could keep this boat afloat if they figured out a way to link the simmers to a live cockpit.
The development of their Train Simulator has also been "put on hold" which is just as much a shock to some people. I hope someone picks up the licence soon.
Andrew Timms, Essen, Germany
I couldn't agree more Mike. I grew up playing Fighter Pilot and Tomahawk on my Spectrum and slowly have graduated to Microsoft Flight Simulator over the years and have always accepted my nerd status with pride. When I was given a flight around Hampshire as a birthday present, the pilot was very impressed when I started to discuss aileron trim, co-ordinated turns and knew the layout of all the dials.
Stephen James, Chichester
There are other flight simulators available. While Microsoft's is well-established, others will rise up to fill the void they leave. It's hardly the end of computerised flight, and in a few years Microsoft may even return if they think it's lucrative enough to do so. The world of software is a transient place, after all.
Lawrie Matthews, Bristol
My former flatmate still takes the mickey out of me because he once caught me talking to my virtual passengers about emergency procedures for the Boeing 757 that I was flying. Fun times.
Yes, I do sometimes think of flying a real airplane....if only the stewardess would say "can anybody fly this plane?" I would be in heaven!
Tony Metro, Chicago
So Sad. My eight-year-old son used to sit for hours flying all around the world. Today he is a grown man and yes he is a pilot in Australia and still to this day he flies around the world on his computer.
Bob McIlhatton, New Zealand
Some experienced flight simmers prove amazingly competent pilots upon flying a real plane with an instructor for the first time. But others completely choke, and some very good simmers are never able to function in a real cockpit. There is no exaggerating the difference for most of us between "flying" from a den armchair and flying in a pitching, jolting cockpit. So yes, absolutely, let's hear it for all that Flight Simulator and other great sims have accomplished, but let's also be careful about the level of "realism" we claim for them, and the "flying" abilities we attribute to their non-pilot users.
Donald Fireman, Boston, US
Whilst indulging in a bit of online gaming myself but even I sit back and laugh about my mate's passion for flight sims. I recently found out he was flying real time from Los Angeles to Heathrow along with 56 other guys online and would be sleeping all day Saturday in order to be fully alert for his eleven hour flight during the early hours of Sunday morning. I asked him how it worked, being genuinely curious and he said that everyone had their allotted flight time, booked days, weeks and even months in advance and there would be people online in air traffic control in the States and also guiding him in once he reached UK airspace.