John Davison




John Davison 







While on a business trip to California around 1986 I discovered a piece of software for my Atari 400 that really blew my mind. This was Sublogic's Flight Simulator 2. I've been fascinated by aviation from a very early age and to suddenly find that I could run a serious simulation (rather than a "flying game") of a light aircraft on a "home computer" was a revelation. I was so taken with this program I felt I had to tell everyone about it, and the result was I submitted my first ever article to Les at Page 6. I could hardly believe my eyes when "Just Like The Real Thing" appeared in print in Issue 21. This gave me the writing bug, and I continued writing for Page 6 and subsequently New Atari User until publication ceased many years later, having produced over 200 articles in that time. I did some technical writing for the computer industry after that, but this wasn't nearly so much fun (although it paid much better!) and eventually I stopped doing it to concentrate on other activities.

Both of my sons, Pete and John jnr., were, and still are, crazy about computer games and both wrote for Page 6 too. In John jnr's case it marked the start of a highly successful career in games magazine publishing. He's now Editorial Director with Ziff-Davis publications in San Francisco, responsible for a whole clutch of video gaming magazines and websites. Despite operating at a rarefied level of management he still writes pieces for his magazines on a regular basis. Pete is now a teacher and has a talent for writing hilarious accounts of his experiences, which he e-mails out to friends and family. I won't go into more details, as Paul Rixon is trying to get them both to write their own pieces for publication here.

Along with aviation my other lifelong passion is music, and the Atari computers were good at this too, particularly the ST series of machines which included MIDI ports in their specification. This gave a giant kick-start to the use of computers in music making, and it wasn't long before "professional" music software was developed, and STs running sequencing and score editing applications like C-Lab's Creator and Notator could be found in recording studios the world over. Unbelievably, some of them are still in regular use today. There were also "sampling" cartridges developed for the Atari machines, the most well known of which were probably Microdeal's "Replay" series for the ST, which allowed digital sound recordings to be made and played back using that "home computer". Little did we know that in the years to come the idea of digital recording via a computer would revolutionise the music business.

Let's now fast-forward to today. I'm now retired, having opted out of the computer industry rat-race about 18 months ago. I still have our collection of Atari computers: the original 400; an 800XL; a 130XE; and a 1040STE; as well as all the software we collected for them all those years ago. However, they rarely ever come out these days as, like most people, I now use a PC for all my computing needs. But guess what? The PC spends much of its time running Flight Simulator (now in its ninth incarnation, and now produced by Microsoft who bought out Sublogic some years ago) and Emagic's Logic Platinum 5, which is a direct descendant of the old C-Lab Notator package I used on the ST.

It's amazing what the latest versions of this software can do when compared to the Atari originals, and even more astounding are the resources now needed to run it. The Atari 400 needed 48KB of RAM to run FS2. My PC has 512MB plus 64MB on its graphics card - and could really do with more. The Atari's 6502 processor ran at 1.79 MHz (if I remember correctly). My PC's Pentium 4 processor runs at 1.7GHz (a thousand times faster) - yet still struggles to maintain a reasonable frame rate with FS9. The Atari's 810 disk drive capacity was about 90KB of data. My PC has 70GB of hard drive space, but my Flight Simulator software alone (including all the add-ons) takes up some 24GB of it. That's the equivalent about 275,000 of those old 810 diskettes!

I don't want this to turn into a review of FS9 (although old habits die hard!), but it's interesting to see how far it's been developed compared to the old Atari 400 version - especially as Flight Simulator is one of the few pieces of software available on the Atari 400 that's still around on the PC today. FS2 simulated just one light aircraft - a Piper Archer. FS9 has about two dozen different aircraft included, spanning the last 100 years of flight, from the Wright Brothers' Flyer to the latest Boeing airliners. And there are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of add-on aircraft available for download via the Internet, many of them for free. Some of these are real masterpieces, both visually and technically, and simulate their subject to an incredible degree of accuracy.

The simulated world of the Atari version was confined to four relatively small areas of the USA, and ground detail was very limited with airports being the main items of interest. The FS2 world was also a very flat place with hardly any true three-dimensional terrain features. In contrast, FS9 covers the whole world, with a total of over 23,000 airports available. The world is no longer flat either, as a terrain mesh system derived from satellite mapping data has been used to provide ground elevation details, so mountainous terrain now appears as such. Onto this the program overlays further ground texture detail, such as towns and villages, roads, rivers, lakes, fields, etc. and the scenery "Autogen" feature peppers these areas with 3D buildings and trees. Fly over a coastline and you'll even see animated waves breaking on the beach. Add-on scenery is also available to improve the detail and accuracy even further. For instance on my system I have a set of UK scenery textures based on actual aerial photographs covering the whole of England. You can now actually find and fly over your own house. To supplement this further you can add finely detailed 3D models of airports and other scenery, some of which, like the aircraft models, have a beauty all of their own.

In FS2 you were alone in your simulated world, but in FS9 other aircraft fly into and out of the airfields. You now hear Air Traffic Controllers give spoken instructions to you and to these other aircraft, and you hear their replies. "Artificial Intelligence" features make ATC aware of these aircraft, and also make the aircraft aware of each other - and of you - and they react accordingly. If weather conditions deteriorate, ATC will not grant clearance for a flight unless you file and use an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan - under their control, of course. In fact, the weather system in FS9 is now a very complex simulator in its own right. It can reproduce just about any meteorological condition you might care to name, including rain, snow, fog, thunder, lightning, winds, turbulence, haze, frontal systems, and a fantastic range of clouds which form, drift with the wind, and dissipate over time. Via the Internet it can collect real life weather reports from weather stations closest to where you're flying and reproduce the current real world weather for your simulated flight. What's more, it can repeat the process every 15 minutes, so if you fly into changing weather this is reflected in your simulated world. And many of the aircraft now even feature Global Positioning System instrumentation to help you navigate through poor weather.

Flight Simulator has come a very long way since those early Atari days. Even so, I don't think any subsequent version has given me the same initial thrill as that Atari 400 version did. The ST version came close, and even though later PC versions cranked up the feature count enormously, it's still that original Atari 400 version that made the biggest impression on me. In fact, saying that has made me feel guilty at neglecting the 400 for so long, so I'll go and dig it out forthwith and redo some of the FS2 flights to see if they're still "Just Like The Real Thing".

John Davison, October 2003