The Ultimate Simulator

By John S Davison


Issue 31

Jan/Feb 88

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Our Flight 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.


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 system.

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 over them.

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.


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, more like!

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.