I grew up within a few miles of RAF Brize Norton — one of the busiest military airbases in the United Kingdom. My junior school years were spent mixing with kids from the US — the children of families posted to Europe during the 1980s — thrown into a foreign country, and an alien culture.
Huge, noisy, lumbering B-52s were a common sight and sound in the skies overhead. You smiled when visitors recoiled in shock at the latest takeoff — with the windows and doors often rattling.
We would go on bicycle rides around the perimeter of the airbase, hanging around at the end of the runway — waiting for the next takeoff or landing — daring each other to stand “in the middle” (of the runway centreline). All manner of almost certainly fabricated or embellished stories entered local folklore about accidents involving people watching from the end of the airfield.
Each summer brought an air show to our doorstep — the base filled with aircraft we had only seen in books, or as plastic model kits in the local toyshop. I spent the day at the airshow when I was about 11 years old — I walked from home armed with a packed lunch — and caught flies throughout the day in an open mouth. Perhaps the strongest memory is of a Lockheed Starfighter making it’s entrance across the base at treetop height, nudging the speed of sound. The deafening roar that followed it across the airfield made me both excited and terrified at the same time. I’ve never forgotten it.
Although I was never a prolific builder of plastic model kits during my teenage years, my brother was. His bedroom was festooned with all manner of fighter planes of various generations — suspended from the ceiling by a spider’s web of cotton.
My interest really began with the arrival of computers, and the opportunity to “fly” aircraft. Of course, to begin with, it was all rather rudimentary — on an 8-bit computer in the late 1980s, quite a lot of imagination was required to translate a few pixels jittering across the television into something vaguely approaching a 737 flying a circuit at Chicago O’Hare.
Computers slowly improved though — as did the flight simulation software running on them. I’ll never forget my first experience of the Atari ST — running a copy of “Flight Simulator 2”. Suddenly there were three-dimensional aircraft flying over a detailed landscape, with all manner of dials, switches, and readouts to obsess over.
I nearly failed my exams because of that computer.
Thirty years later
While I was busy forging a career out of tinkering with computer programming, meeting a girl, getting married, buying a house, buying an even bigger house, and starting a family, computer technology obviously moved on somewhat.
We arrived in 2020 having difficulty telling the difference between special effects and reality in the cinema — and the technology behind it trickled down into the consumer hardware sitting under televisions and desks all over the world.
It turned out the flight simulator software had marched on quite a lot too.
It’s all my Dad’s fault
My parents retired to the coast some years ago — affording us the opportunity to visit the seaside each summer with the children when they were little. Each time we visited, we laughed at the gradual conversion of the “study” at my parents’ house into my Dad’s “man cave”.
Increasingly powerful computers appeared each year, accompanied by more and more bits and pieces of commercial flight deck hardware. My Dad had become interested in flight simulators. We didn’t know how any of it worked, and we laughed endlessly about “Captain Beckett” — buying him a World War 2 flying helmet for Christmas one year.
While visiting, he would retreat to his cave on given evenings and take part in some sort of online “group flight”. We would sneak the occasional look around the corner of the door at him referring to maps, scribbling notes, and talking on simulated radio hardware while surrounded by knobs, switches, buttons, and multiple flat screens rendering a view of somewhere or other from 36,000 feet.
So why do I blame my Dad?
The main reason I seldom played video games was that I didn’t have a computer powerful enough to run any of them. It turns out raising a family is incredibly expensive — and in line with many other families, my wishes joined the back of an endless line filled with school clothes, new shoes, rugby kit, football kit, days out, and a hundred other things.
But then I inherited one of my Dad’s computers.
Flight school 101
Within days I had bought a basic flight controller, and installed a simulator called “X-Plane” on the computer, along with a really surprisingly accurate rendition of a Boeing 737 — one that the community called “Study Level”. I was fascinated more from a software engineering standpoint in the beginning — admiring the simulation as you might the workings of a clock or a piece of industrial machinery.
I can understand how slippery the slope is now though. Within a few weeks, I had grown bored of flying the pretend 737 around like a fool and had begun fiddling with the various knobs, switches, and buttons around the cockpit — slowly teaching myself how everything worked.
Suddenly being able to operate the plane wasn’t enough either. Wouldn’t it be fun if the air traffic controllers and other pilots in the sky were real?
I had become my Dad.
One year on
It has now been a year since the computer arrived in the house. Although I don’t tinker with the simulator quite as often as I did, I’ve realised what the attraction might be — for me at least. It’s an escape. A distraction. Flying a complex aircraft in a simulator allows me to switch off from other concerns in the same way that going for a run does.
I’ve been a somewhat frequent runner for years now — mostly to stop my backside from attaining Jupiter-like proportions. While out running, I tend to think only about running — and in a strange sort of way that has become the attraction of it.
Pretending I’m in control of 70 tons of hurtling metal while calmly talking to air traffic controllers, navigating, and planning ahead seems to be beneficial to the mind in the same way as solving crossword puzzles, mathematical formulas, or any other consuming activity.
I wonder if the distraction and escape provided by flight simulation has helped during this most uncertain of years. Being able to switch off at the end of a working day and join a group of friends for a few hours — even if only in a virtual environment — has been something to look forward to.
I wonder if something that requires so much knowledge, order, process, and precision has helped organise the chaos somewhat. I’m reminded of the classic video games such as Pacman, Asteroids, and Defender — which all pulled at the same psychological strings — and wonder if flying a commercial airliner is not the exact same thing — just on a bigger scale.
Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 26, 2020.