Flying my iPhone

Growing up, I was a serious aviation geek. I used to pedal my bike to the library every week so I could check out the latest books on flying. I eventually took flying lessons (enough to solo, but I never got a license) and I majored in aerospace engineering in college. So you might think I’d really be into computer flying simulations. But I haven’t really fallen for any. Flight simulations are extremely accurate these days and often gorgeous to look at, but it’s still hard to translate the kinesthetic sense of looking around a cockpit in three dimensions to staring at a flat screen on a desk.

So I was intrigued when I came across a little flight simulator for the iPhone called X-Plane. With the tiny screen and limited memory, you lose a lot in terms of display richness, but with the accelerometer-controlled input you get a surprisingly immersive experience. Basically, you tilt the iPhone as though it were the control column of an airplane. It sounds odd, but it works very well. It’s also entertaining for other people in the room, since the “pilot” is constantly swaying left and right while hunched over his cell phone.

Here I am flying my plane into the side of a mountain. As I said, I never actually got my private pilot’s license.


Seeing the plane in the display is pretty for the newspapers, but it’s not a good way to fly. Here’s what it looks like with the Head-Up Display.


If you prefer, you can fly with your head down in the instruments, and you can even practice some basic instrument flying by dialing in your radial to the nearest VOR station.

A note on the price. This is expensive for an iPhone app: $10. It got uniformly great reviews until the same company released two other flight simulators for only $5 each. You’d be amazed how many people who bought the $10 sim went completely apeshit cuckoo bananas insane with rage once they realized they might have paid five dollars instead of ten. Murderous, spluttering fury over less than the price of a roast beef sandwich. Micro-economics is a funny thing.

A day in the life of FedEx

All roads lead to Rome, but all skyways lead to Memphis. Watch this video and you’ll see what I mean. I defy you not to think of ants crawling into an ant hill.

You’re watching 25 hours worth of FedEx flights, and there’s no better way to understand the hub-and-spoke nature of the business. Everything they ship (almost everything) gets routed through Memphis, regardless of its ultimate destination. As you watch this counterintuitive stroke of logistical legerdemain, remember that FedEx founder Fred Smith is the guy who invented the whole hub-and-spoke idea. It’s the same idea that was adopted by every airline and ultimately sent you through Minneapolis on your way from Schenectady to St. Louis. Fortunately, overnight packages don’t mind the layover in Memphis.

If you liked this video, watch the visualization of flight deviations around a Memphis thunderstorm.