Simulators Have Come a Long Way

When I was in high school, I got a summer job working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Being young and useless, I didn’t do much for NASA. But they sure got me fired up for a career in aerospace. As a young airplane geek I got to see all kinds of cool stuff. One that I particularly remember for its gee-whiz factor was the old Redifon flight simulator. It was huge. Was it huge because it used a giant vacuum-tube computer? No. It was huge because it featured a giant map stuck to a wall! Think of it as an enormous model train landscape turned on its side. With no trains. And an aircraft carrier.

Redifon Flight Simulator

I must have seen it just before it was torn down, because it was still capable of running. But even then it was clearly on the way out. This was the awkward period when the new digital simulations weren’t yet very good even though the old mechanical simulators were on their last legs.

Look at that picture! The terrain is a hand-painted map. The visuals for the cockpit come from a video camera with a periscope attachment that “flies” over the landscape. You actually had to worry about flying the periscope into the ground or a building and damaging the simulator. With a scale of 2000:1, they could pack a lot of detail into the landscape. But the pilots were obviously pretty constrained, so I think it was only useful for take-offs, landings, and other airport operations.

I was thinking about this overlap that I had with the Elder Days because I recently (along with half the rest of the world) bought a copy of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020. You just can’t believe how big and beautiful and complete this simulator is. It has every airport in the world, dozens of airplanes perfectly rendered inside and out, sumptuous clouds, and accurate time-of-day lighting. Moving traffic on the ground! Wandering herds of wildebeest! Migrating flocks of flamingos! It’s hard to know where they can go from here. It just seems like they’ve solved flight simulation once and for all.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

But they’re not quite done. Now what I’d like them to do is model, inside FS2020, the old Redifon terrain map, sideways aircraft carrier and all. Kind of like making an iPhone app of an abacus. Somebody out there has to want to do this…

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