Air Osama

The newest flight simulation video games are so realistic that a terrorist can learn how to fly a jumbo jet without ever leaving his laptop.

By Joshua Tompkins
Published July 23, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

It's another sparkling sunset in the airspace over Las Vegas. The earthen wedges of the Spring Mountains are throwing long shadows across the desert tableau, and the casinos along the strip are twinkling like a necklace of huge faux gemstones.

I gaze down at these majesties from the cockpit of American Pacific Airlines flight 485, a puddle jump from Los Angeles that my first officer and I fly on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer travel season.

Tonight's flight, like so many others, has been pure routine. We were wheels-up right on time out of LAX, air traffic control hasn't delayed us in holding patterns or vectored us to Hoboken and back, and the 320 Airbus we're driving is a snappy bird that more or less flies by itself -- pilots call it the "bionic budgie." The Flight Management and Guidance Computer, programmed with the same route American Pacific always uses for this haul, has handled all the navigation, and I haven't touched the stick since 10 seconds after takeoff.

As we descend through 6,000 feet, a zephyr jostles the wings. My first officer and I run the landing checklist, verifying electronic displays and working the controls as needed. Approach frequency and courses: set. Altimeter: set. Radio altimeter: set. Autobrakes: armed. Engine mode selector: ignition. Go-around procedure: reviewed.

Amid the din of chatter on the radio, the next transmission is for us. "American Pacific four eighty-one, turn left heading two eight zero, descend and maintain four thousand two hundred," the female approach controller says in a clipped, bureaucratic monotone like an old counter waitress repeating a breakfast order. "Cleared for the ILS approach runway two five left, maintain four thousand two hundred until established on the localizer." Again, routine.

Except that a few things are very wrong. First, my gin and tonic is tinkling softly on the center console. Second, my copilot is an orange-and-white tabby. Third, a car alarm keeps going off nearby. Fourth, I don't have a pilot's license. Fifth, I'm not wearing pants.

This isn't an actual flight -- it's "Microsoft Flight Simulator," a bestselling video game. Though the airplane isn't real, the procedures I've described certainly are, and the make-believe flight deck on my computer screen is a perfect virtual-reality replica of an actual A320 cockpit. Knobs, buttons, switches, throttles, electronic displays -- everything remotely important is there, situated correctly and functioning accurately. If you can work the autopilot or the flight computer in this simulation, some airline pilots say, you can work their real-life counterparts.

Like the A320 I fly from L.A. to Vegas, some of the third-party add-on aircraft available for "Flight Simulator" and competing programs have become so authentic in recent years, in fact, that they are turning into useful tools for aspiring terrorist hijackers.

Such software may have been exploited by the Sept. 11 pilots to help rehearse their missions, although the time they spent in flight schools received more media attention. Since Sept. 11, home computer aircraft simulations have grown in sophistication -- and they will continue to do so, mimicking real planes with mounting precision until the only limitation is the size of your monitor. This raises a pressing question: The aviation technology reproduced in flight-simulation software isn't classified, but should anyone who doesn't fly commercial jets for a living know precisely how to operate one?

So far, The FBI doesn't seem concerned about the threat posed by flight-simulation games, but that may be because they've been focusing their attention elsewhere. The bureau's Civil Aviation Unit doesn't actively patrol the industry, relying instead on tips from concerned citizens. When I called the public relations office to ask them about the realism of my A320 simulation experience, an agent fielded the inquiry with a slightly patronizing tone until I directed her to a Web site featuring several screen shots of the virtual A320 flight deck.

There was a long pause. Then, with a nervous laugh, she said, "I've never seen this before."

On July 23, 1999, just minutes after All Nippon Airways flight 61 took off from Tokyo and set a course for Sapporo, Japan, a passenger rose from his seat, brandished a large knife, and forced his way into the cockpit. The intruder, an unemployed former mental patient named Yuji Nishizawa, then fatally stabbed the plane's captain and seized control of the Boeing 747, which plunged to within 1,000 feet of the ground before Nishizawa was subdued by the first officer and an off-duty ANA pilot. The aircraft landed safely in Tokyo, and the hijacker later explained that he was an avid flight-simulation fan who commandeered the plane to try his hand at the real thing. "I wanted to soar through the air," said Nishizawa, 28, according to police. He had planned to fly the jumbo jet under Tokyo's Rainbow Bridge.

Nishizawa was clearly a lunatic, and home computer games weren't to blame for his actions. If anything, in fact, Nishizawa had insulted his fellow "simmers" on two separate counts: first by claiming that PC software had prompted him to hijack an airliner, and then by flying the plane so miserably once he had carried out his plan. Nevertheless, it was the first time a hijacker had cited flight-simulation games as an inspiration, and it came at a time when many flight-sim cockpits were looking and operating more and more like their real-life counterparts.

The march toward verisimilitude began in earnest in the late 1990s, when a few competitors to "Microsoft Flight Simulator" began bravely sticking their necks above the clouds to stake out little corners of sky. Sierra Software's "Pro Pilot" debuted in the summer of 1997, offering nice instrument panels but lousy handling and scenery. "Flight Unlimited II," released by Looking Glass later the same year, had great airplanes and beat "Flight Simulator" to the punch with spoken air traffic control.

Then came "Fly!" -- whose exclamatory title was no understatement. Published by Terminal Reality in 1999, the new game tacitly took "Flight Simulator" to task in nearly every regard -- scenery, flight dynamics and, most of all, cockpits. Whereas each "Microsoft Flight Simulator" aircraft offered users only a single, dumbed-down instrument panel that didn't accurately reflect its real-life counterpart in many cases, the five planes included in "Fly!" sported what seemed like living photographs of everything from the dashboard to the center console, the overhead panel, and even the copilot's empty seat. Everything depicted actually worked, too -- and had to be used correctly. "They could practically call this game 'Engine Start-Up Simulator,'" marveled a review by the Web site GameSpot, referring to the item-for-item, true-to-life procedures necessary just to hear the propeller sputter to life or the turbofans begin to spool up.

Realism freaks were thrilled, for example, to have to crane back to a panel behind the pilot's seat and press a button to start the auxiliary power unit on the Hawker 800 XP corporate jet, the queen of the "Fly!" fleet. "What 'Fly!' did was raise the bar," says Dean Bielanowski, editor of PC Aviator magazine. "To date, it is probably still the best simulation available for the home user."

The bar was soon thrust even higher when the tiny Virginia software firm Precision Manuals Development Group released a Boeing 757 add-on for "Fly!" It merged the avionic totality of "Fly!" with the cocoonlike intricacy of a modern Boeing cockpit, and the result was stunning. Simmers pored through the thick instruction manual, learning minutiae such as whether the electrical bus ties should be open or closed prior to the engine start and how all three of the plane's autopilot systems will engage automatically during a precision instrument approach.

Most important, anyone with a PC could now learn to operate a near-perfect facsimile of a real 757 flight-management computer, the small display screen and keypad located beside the throttles on the center console. The FMC is the brain of the flight deck, technologically speaking, and is used by the pilots to input flight plans, calculate takeoff speed, receive automated weather updates, select landing approaches and runways, and perform many other core functions. Pilots program most of the FMC before pushing back from the gate and usually activate the autopilot shortly after takeoff; the FMC then flies the aircraft to the destination city while the pilots baby-sit the instruments and chat about mortgage rates.

In other words, the FMC does almost everything -- and so did the Precision Manuals 757. "I know of no other add-on that goes to such length to model and give the feel of airliner flying," gushed an editorial review at the popular flight-sim Web site Avsim. "It is by far the 'must-have' for any simmer who wants to fly some heavy iron."

Soon the virtual skies were filled with virtual airliners. Precision Manuals followed its 757 with an even more faithful 767 and then a state-of-the-art 777. Phoenix Simulations Software rolled out several airliners for "Microsoft Flight Simulator," including a comprehensive 747. Other companies launched various planes made by Airbus, the European consortium that is now Boeing's chief rival for the civilian jet market. FlightSoft paid homage to the venerable McDonnell-Douglas DC-10. Wilco Publishing added a new dimension with its "767 Pilot in Command" program, which not only simulated normal functions and procedures but also let users practice in-flight emergencies such as an engine fire or autopilot failure.

The Wilco 767 program, developed in part by an American Airlines 767 first officer, earned exceptional kudos, even from pilots. Veteran Northwest Airlines captain William Ball applauded it in a detailed online review, noting that it reproduced both the technology and flight characteristics of the real aircraft to a degree of precision that other virtual 767s had failed to achieve. "I get the sensation that I'm really handling a 400,000-pound piece of aluminum," he said. "Mr. Ernst [the American Airlines pilot] and company did an outstanding job of replicating what the real Boeing is like."

British 767 charter pilot Nigel Warnick (a pseudonym, since his job contract forbids speaking to the press) uses Wilco's 767 on his home computer to stay sharp during his time off. "The systems, computer, and autopilot are totally realistic," he says. "I can practice the various types of approach, before-and-after failure procedures, and just generally keep current on the major recall emergency actions." He says his fellow pilots often belittle such software until he persuades them to sit down and try it -- then many of them go out and buy a copy for their own PC.

Other pilots praise flight sims among themselves but quickly deprecate the same programs when questioned by the media. In a discussion forum at the popular aviation news and gossip Web site Professional Pilots Rumor Network, one 767 captain raved about the Wilco 767. "Absolutely first class -- I wish I'd had access to it when I was converting on the type," he wrote, referring to his own training for the real 767. "Don't knock it till you've tried it," he urged two fellow pilots who had disparaged computer sims in previous posts.

When asked to amplify his remarks for this story, however, the pilot downplayed the software's training potential. The program "does replicate most of the systems quite well but by no means perfectly," he said, asking not to be identified. "I don't think anyone could learn to fly any aircraft using a PC simulator. You would stand a better chance of either ripping the wings off or stalling the aircraft than flying into a building."

En route to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Mohammed Atta didn't stall American Airlines flight 11, and Marwen Al-Shehhi didn't rip the wings off United Airlines flight 175. While both men were licensed pilots, neither had previous experience in a 767 or the equivalent professional simulator -- at least, not in the U.S. In Florida, each had logged three hours on a 727 simulator, an older and less sophisticated aircraft, which suggests they hadn't received instruction on a 767 simulator abroad.

Yet the mystery behind their skills pales beside the case of Hani Hanjour, the suspected pilot of the plane that struck the Pentagon. Hanjour had been deemed inept even in a small aircraft by flight school instructors in Arizona and Maryland and just weeks before the attacks had failed the checkride exam required to rent a plane at another facility. When the time came, however, he handled the doomed 757 like a fighter jet, swooping down and clipping light poles before T-boning the Pentagon at high speed.

Did the hijackers use flight-simulation games to augment their actual flying lessons and better acquaint themselves with the aircraft they planned to overtake? The FBI refuses to say what, if any, flight-sim software was found on the terrorists' computers, citing the pending trial of suspected al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui, who raised suspicions when he sought instruction at a Minnesota training facility on how to keep a 747 straight and level -- but not how to take off or land. Moussaoui reportedly had flight-simulation software on his laptop computer when he was arrested.

FBI spokesman John Iannarelli says the bureau doesn't really care if realistic computer flight sims get into the wrong hands. "Generally, anything that's commercially available but doesn't have, by its nature, nefarious intent is not something the FBI would be interested in," he says. "Someone learning through a flight-simulator program with the idea of taking over an aircraft still has huge hurdles to surmount -- mainly gaining access to the cockpit."

Warnick, whose flights often take him to the United States, disagrees. "Are we still at risk of getting a terrorist into the flight deck? You bet. We are still allowed visits by cabin crew. The junior girls in particular get lazy and come in with two cups of coffee and leave the door open behind them. If you were sitting on the front row, then you could leap up, slamming the door behind you, while pushing a ballpoint pen into the eyes of the captain and first officer."

Precision Manuals Development Group founder Robert Randazzo, who is also an airline pilot, declined to be interviewed for this story; Wilco Publishing co-founder Fred Goldman says his company has no information about whether any of the Sept. 11 hijackers purchased or used "767 Pilot in Command" and adds that Wilco has never been contacted by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency. A product such as "767 Pilot in Command" takes a year or two to develop, he says, and the heightened accuracy stems from having active pilots on the programming team. Neither Boeing nor Airbus has objected to the software or demanded a licensing fee for the use of their planes' likenesses.

"We are only using publicly available information," Goldman says, although the product literature would have users believe otherwise. The A320's instruction manual says the program offers 1) "a fully-functional virtual cockpit with a perfect, realistic view of the whole flight deck," 2) "near total simulation of on-board systems," and 3) "a precise flight model and a perfect reproduction of the Fly-by-Wire system with which the Airbus is equipped." Nevertheless, Goldman maintains that the program couldn't provide a complete education. "Although instrument flying can be learned on a PC-based simulator," he says, "the handling of a real aircraft cannot be simulated. The use of our add-ons as the only source for a terrorist is not enough."

Some aviation experts refute the training potential of home computer games for the same reason, saying the programs don't -- and can't -- re-create the physical characteristics of the aircraft such as the feel of the yoke or the rudder pedals, and many pilots agree that an airliner under the manual control of a novice would soon veer astray like a horse bolting under a hapless rider. Thanks to the automated design of modern airliners, however, most phases of flight -- even landing, at a properly equipped airport -- can be performed without touching the main controls. Once the autopilot is engaged, changes in course, speed or altitude can be entered with the twist of a knob. If you can set an alarm clock, you can turn a 767 in flight.

This is where simulation software shines, thanks to its faithful depiction of high-tech systems and procedures. "The threat to air travel that these sims produce," Warnick says, "is that once the aircraft is airborne, anyone entering the flight deck could program the latitude and longitude of the chosen target into the flight management computer." Then the hijacker could "engage the appropriate autopilot commands and -- unless intercepted or out of fuel -- watch as the aircraft carries out the attack completely automatically."

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff, who says the flight deck of the Wilco 767 looks identical to the 767s he flew during his 34 years as an airline pilot, doesn't believe such programs would ever be a terrorist asset. After all, using an airplane as a cruise missile ultimately requires more fanaticism than finesse. "If you wanted to point an airplane at something on the ground and crash into it," Schiff says, "you don't have to know a hell of a lot."

For 10 years, "Microsoft Flight Simulator's" motto has been "As real as it gets," and anyone who hasn't seen the game lately might be surprised at how real it has gotten. Gone are the days when the software was good only for a trip around the traffic pattern in a Cessna seemingly made of Legos; users now fly all over the virtual world in everything from light planes to helicopters and jets, viewing detailed cities and landscapes, encountering variable weather, and employing true-to-life navigation systems en route.

A new version of the program, due out this month, is packaged on four CDs and contains more than 5 million lines of programming code. An estimated 7 million people use "Flight Simulator." It is the bestselling PC game of all time. "There's something about flight that resonates well with a lot of people," says Darryl Saunders, a Microsoft product marketing manager for simulations. "People come up to me and say, 'I got into aviation because of Flight Sim.'"

In its infancy, however, "Flight Simulator" couldn't show someone how to fly a biplane, much less a 767. The program is nearly as old as Microsoft, in fact, but the two didn't start out together. In April 1975, at the same time Bill Gates and Paul Allen were founding the future software giant, a graduate student at the University of Illinois was preparing a thesis entitled "A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display." The student, an avid recreational pilot named Bruce Artwick, proposed that a Motorola 6800 processor -- one of the first microcomputers -- could handle both the math and the graphics required for real-time flight simulation.

The concept lay fallow for a few years until Artwick and partner Stu Moment formed the software company SubLogic to develop and sell graphic programs for the budding PC industry. In 1979, using his thesis flight model as the basis, Artwick wrote a game for the Apple II, followed shortly by a version for the Radio Shack TRS-80. He called it "Flight Simulator."

The software reached the market the following year. It supposedly replicated a Cessna 172, a popular training aircraft, but the program's limitations rendered the effect hopelessly generic. With two gauges, eight colors, and ground "scenery" consisting of jagged outlines on a black background, it didn't exactly suspend disbelief. Yet it combined the action of an arcade game with the fantasy of flying and struck a chord deep within the souls of wannabe pilots -- and it beat spending hours typing and debugging lines of BASIC code to play a round of hangman or a dinky anagram game, which was about the only alternative for computer fun back then. By 1981, "Flight Simulator" was the bestselling title for the Apple II.

The success caught the attention of both Microsoft and IBM, and a brief bidding war for a stake in the software license ensued. Microsoft won out in part because Artwick liked what he called the "small-company atmosphere" of the firm. Featuring a new coordinate system, "Microsoft Flight Simulator" 1.01 hit the shelves in 1982 and was soon followed by version 2.0. The instrument panel was creeping toward reality and the scenery was improving along with it: The ground and sky were now distinguishable, and a few skyscrapers were visible in downtown Chicago, the default starting location.

The game had earned a serious following, and each update brought some of the features and refinements for which fans had clamored yet taxed their hardware's ability to keep pace. Version 3.0 offered the first external view of the aircraft; version 4.0 introduced dynamic scenery. Microsoft began expanding the product line in 1990, introducing an aircraft-design program written by Artwick's new company, Bruce Artwick Organization, that let users create and fly their own planes. Other software makers began writing add-on modules such as regional scenery enhancements -- FlightSoft's "Ultimate Hong Kong" is still a big seller -- and a cottage industry took root.

The rise of the Web saw an entire flight-simulation subculture materialize. Fans met in chat rooms and surfed message boards to discuss frame rates and swap flight plans. Some began to organize virtual airlines, for which other users -- or simmers -- would volunteer to fly designated routes again and again, often in aircraft bearing the imaginary carrier's livery, in hopes of earning promotions and new assignments. Multiplayer gaming eventually became a reality, with simmers seeing each other's aircraft in real time and even talking on the radio via Internet connections or local-access networks. Virtual "fly-ins" have become commonplace, with pilots from around the world flocking to a designated airport at a preset time, and actual flight-sim conventions are now held each year. Last September, more than 300 hardcore simmers attended the 2002 Avsim convention in Lake Tahoe.

Compared with other PC titles, one hesitates to call "Microsoft Flight Simulator" a game at all. It's nonviolent, noncompetitive, reality based, and relatively slow paced. No points are awarded, no winner is ever declared, and the only way to lose is to crash. While other gamers hunt mutants in bizarre fantasy realms or impersonate a drug-dealing Miami hoodlum, serious flight simmers simply want to take off from, say, an airport laid out exactly like Chicago O'Hare in a plane that operates exactly like a Learjet 45 and fly to a city that looks exactly like Tulsa, taking the exact amount of time it would take to get there in real life. The goal, if there is one, is the Zen-like satisfaction that comes with mastering the art of on-screen aviation.

Microsoft has gradually added more aircraft over the years, and the new edition offers 24 choices, from a tiny Schweizer 2-32 sailplane to a hulking Boeing 747-400 and even the recently retired Concorde. Extensive multimedia lessons in some of the aircraft are provided in the "Learn to Fly" section, which offers everything from a comprehensive series of private pilot lessons to instrument and commercial training to a checkride for a virtual Airline Transport Pilot rating.

With such instruction available, it was inevitable that some simmers, even those with harmless intentions, would begin to view "Flight Simulator" as a de facto training program for flying a real airplane. Many armchair pilots fantasize about landing a widebody the way baseball fans dream about pinch-hitting in the World Series, and on popular flight-simulation message boards, they sometimes discuss how a seasoned simmer would fare if asked to take control of an airborne jetliner. One writer referred to such a scenario as a "Holly/Black Syndrome" in reference to actresses Lauren Holly and Karen Black, each of whom has appeared in a Hollywood movie as a flight attendant forced to fly a 747 after the death of its pilots.

A well-versed simmer might do better than expected -- even within the structured, challenging confines of a normal flight, not some lawless suicide run that begins midair. Matthew Sheil, who has spent the last four years building a full-scale, fully functional 747-400 cockpit that runs on flight-sim software at his home in Sydney, Australia, won a visit to a Quantas 747 training simulator in a charity auction in 1999. During the four-hour session, Sheil "had no problems at all manipulating the aircraft, from engine start to programming the FMC, takeoff, cruise, and approach," he says. "The landings took a little longer to master."

Sim enthusiast Niklas Enggaard found an Airbus 320 training simulator run by Swedish airline SAS even easier to use. "First I was very focused on flying and did not relax, but after five minutes in the air I began to feel at home in the cockpit," he says. His very first landing went smoothly. "When touching down there was only a slight bump. It was easier to fly the A320 simulator than the PSS A320 [a popular add-on airplane] in 'Flight Simulator.'"

Could the me-too arrogance bred by such success stories embolden a would-be hijacker to carry out his plan? The brazenness of some would-be heroes is disquieting enough, even if the simmers' boasts contain as much truth as fantasy in some cases, thanks to endless hours in the virtual blue yonder. "Airplanes are airplanes, regardless of how big they are," wrote one unlicensed pilot in an online message thread last August. "Given the right plane (say 767) and some time to analyze the situation, I would have no problem bringing the beast down."

Joshua Tompkins

Joshua Tompkins is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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