Expert John Davison reckons he has flown just about every flight
simulator going, so we got him on a real one on the Microprose stand
at the PCW show! Not so easy, John!
At the PCW Show a few months ago there was an item on
display guaranteed to make the flight simulation fan drool - the
fabulous Microprose Gunship Attack Helicopter Simulator. If you
haven't heard, Gunship is Microprose's finest flight simulation
product to date. It's very similar in concept to Digital
Integration's Tomahawk, being a combat simulator based on a Hughes
AH-64 Apache helicopter. The Gunship software has recently been
built into a 'real' flight trainer rig, a massive machine standing
about 8 feet high and weighing nearly one and a half tons! It's no
wonder the Microprose stand was so popular.
LINK FLIGHT TRAINER
The original hardware was built in the USA by the
Link company sometime in the 1940's. Yes, it's one of the legendary
Link Trainers used to teach instrument flying techniques to many
thousands of pilots. You'd never guess its ancestry by its current
appearance, though. At some stage it was converted into a helicopter
trainer, a role it fulfilled until the early 1970's, when it was
donated to a flying club in the USA. Its history from that point is
unclear until about 5 years ago, when it was discovered mouldering
in the unlikely surroundings of a scuba diving equipment shop! It
was found by inventor and computer enthusiast Marty Peck, who
persuaded the shop to let him take it off their hands. Marty then
reconditioned and rebuilt it in his garage as a hobby project,
taking 18 months just to get the trainer's instruments and basic
movements working again.
He then decided to bring it completely up to date by
incorporating modern computer technology, custom designing and
building special electronics to interface the trainer's flight
controls to the onboard computers. A customised IBM PC-AT clone does
most of the work, running the Gunship software and driving a
specially designed soundboard. There's also a Commodore 128 involved
somewhere in the works. (Wot, no Ataris?) -
Unlike the original Link Trainer, Marty's machine
provides the pilot with sight and sounds of his surroundings - by
courtesy of the Gunship program, of course. Graphics are displayed
on a Sony 19 inch colour monitor in front of the pilot, while the
sounds of engines, rotor, and weapons receive full stereo
reproduction through the integrated 20 watts per channel sound
The entire cockpit control panel has been redesigned
to interface with the Gunship software, so the pilot can use real
panel switches instead of a computer keyboard to operate the
program. Although the monitor displays the Apache's essential
instruments, the panel also carries a number of 'real' instruments
such as altimeter, airspeed indicator, etc. And to start the engines
there's a proper ignition key!
The pilot controls the Apache using authentic rudder
pedals and collective and cyclic pitch control sticks. These affect
the program just as a computer joystick would and cause the display
on the monitor to react accordingly. The horizon rises, falls, and
tilts convincingly, and the scenery pans across the screen if you
turn, with ground details sliding under you realistically as you fly
But now for the clever bit - the controls are also
linked to the trainer's motion system. The cockpit is able to
physically pitch or roll up to 30 degrees up/down or left/right and
to horizontally rotate through 360 degrees, so the pilot gets a
physical sensation of movement as well as seeing it on the screen.
It's a flight simulator fan's dream machine.
BY INVITATION ONLY
Thanks to the efforts of the Editor I was lucky
enough to get an invitation to fly the machine. (I always knew
Editors had a use!) Marty Peck himself was there acting as
instructor, and he carefully explained all the controls to me before
closing the door and sliding the hood shut over my head. This
provided complete isolation from the crowds outside - I really was
in a simulated world of my own! Marty directed me from outside and
we both wore headsets so we could communicate during the flight.
Marty's microphone was also linked to the public address system on
the stand, so everything he said could be heard by the watching
crowds. The stand also had monitors slaved to the simulator's
monitor, giving everyone a pilot's eye view of the flight. It also
meant that any prangery by me would be VERY public!
Marty talked me through the startup sequence, and
with the rotor spinning a gentle pull on the collective pitch lever
caused the ground to smoothly drop away and we were airborne. Then,
a forward movement of the cyclic pitch control caused the whole
cockpit to tilt forward and the horizon to rise on the monitor, and
the Apache began to accelerate rapidly
forwards. Following Marty's instructions I flew a series of
manoeuvres designed to locate an enemy ground target. At one stage I
was skimming along very close to a mountain and had to take rapid
action to avoid hitting it, causing the simulator to pitch, roll and
rotate in an alarming manner. It feels much worse on the inside than
it appears from the outside, I assure you!
Suddenly, we found an enemy tank. I selected a
Hellfire missile with the appropriate panel switch and locked the
aiming system onto the target. A squeeze on the firing trigger
caused the missile to streak away, and after what seemed an eternity
it blew the enemy to smithereens.
Then Marty told me I was about to have an engine
failure, and would have to perform an emergency landing. Under his
guidance I uncoupled the rotor from the engines and got the Apache
to autorotate, the helicopter equivalent of a glide. This resulted
in a rapid descent, cushioned at the last moment by a judicious
tweak of the controls. Emergency landing? Semi-controlled prang,
When Marty opened the door I staggered out with knees
trembling and hands shaking. To prove I'd survived the ordeal I was
presented with my 'Gunship Test Pilot' wings.
The Gunship software isn't out in Atari format yet,
but has received rave reviews on other machines. From this short
experience I can see why - it's got all the hallmarks of a classic
simulator. An ST version should be in the shops by the time you read
this, but don't hold your breath waiting for an 8-bit version.
Microprose say there won't be one (shame on you, Microprose). If the
ST version's anything like the one I flew here it should be a real
treat. I hope to give it a detailed review as soon as I can lay my
hands on a copy.
Finally, I'd like to thank everyone on the Microprose
stand for making my visit such a memorable one, with special thanks
to Marty Peck and Fred Schmidt for providing the material for this
article. And thanks, Les, for making it all happen.