This was originally a story about experiencing Microsoft Flight Simulator while in lockdown during COVID-19. There was something almost romantic about being able to see the entire world from the air even as I was stuck indoors during what’s likely to be the most memorable pandemic of my lifetime. Along the way something strange happened, though. That dusty box we call memory peeked into view, tucked away as it was on a shelf in the back corner of a closet in my mind. Something in that box was calling to me, long forgotten and yet comfortingly near. The closer I came to opening that box back up, the younger I felt myself growing.
I don’t think I ever truly appreciated, growing up, how much my parents enjoyed games. My first video game console was actually their hand-me-down Atari, and in hindsight they played on our early home PCs about as much as I did. I remember all the games they bought for me on our computer, both educational and purely for fun, but I struggle to remember the other scenes my eyes must have recorded. Things I saw even as my brain filed them away, paying them no mind. Somehow I dig up a number of discarded images. My parents’ preferences clearly have a hand in defining mine.
My dad really liked planes. I think he thought, like many dads do, that passing a love of a thing onto his child meant it could perhaps grow into something the two of us could share. I’m not totally sure about this. It’s just a feeling I have based on the way I remember the past. I don’t exactly remember when and how I got into jets and airplanes either. I just remember them being there, a part of my life. Inside that dusty box of memory I’m pulling down from the shelf in my mind, I see child me gripping a blue and yellow model plane, “Blue Angels” written on the sides in looping cursive script, running around the house pretending it’s flying from one room to the next, landing finally on a table or a bed.
The Blue Angels are known for their amazing skills in formation flying.
Prior to 2020 I hadn’t played a flight sim in longer than I cared to remember. My Twitter, on the other hand, was abuzz with news of Microsoft’s newest installment in its classic series, games that stretched all the way back to the 80s. I remember those old days with their blocky, flat polygon graphics. They were state of the art at the time! Three dimensional graphics, and you could fly planes in a simulated environment! Though extremely dated now, the future had never felt so close as back then.
I can’t remember exactly how old I must’ve been when I tried my dad’s first flight sim game, but my math says I was probably somewhere between 7 and 10 years old. I didn’t know anything about lift and airspeeds, trim and glide slopes. I put power into the plane and pulled back on the stick. The little prop plane Cessna or speedy Learjet hopped into the sky. That was it. I flew around until I was done, usually ending my flights by accidentally crashing into things I was trying to fly around or between. Like that one scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I don’t remember landings being a thing I did. “Fly, yes. Land, no.”
Throughout the years, installments of MS Flight Sim had always remained somewhat—simulated, not that I played any of them. They always looked like that image I burned into my brain, barely tall enough to sit at the computer seat and pull a polygonal plane into the virtual air. And that was good enough for me. Even the last installment of MS Flight Sim, FSX, had that same appearance of flat surfaced instruments stretched over a clearly blocky dashboard. My apologies to all the FSX fans out there, but you have to admit it. That game spanned a lot of years, and while it did a lot of work, it also showed its age by the end of those years. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, on the other hand, was breathtaking. It looked real. It looked like the modern flight sim that players had no doubt been dreaming of for years, the kind of game where you could pull a VR set over your head while flying and believe you were actually there. I was intrigued, and for the first time since my childhood I could feel that little 7-year-old aviation geek poking at the back of my head. Maybe we could try this game.
A Cessna 152 is quite possibly the perfect plane for local sightseeing.
It’s funny, thinking about being a gaming kid who’s grown into an adult gamer. When we’re kids, we have all the time in the world to play but none of the disposable income to buy games. I didn’t get any kind of allowance either, so new games were pretty much reserved for good report cards, birthdays, and holidays. Being an adult on the other hand meant that now I had more disposable income for games but limited time to play them. I’m sure somewhere out there is a philosopher devoting their life to this juxtaposition.
I wasn’t totally sure yet if this would be a good use of my limited time and money, but the little kid that was me, still in love with planes, wouldn’t stop tugging on the back of my shirt. Our curiosity was insatiable. The install was, of course, much simpler than the days of inserting (usually multiple) diskettes into a PC. Just a simple online purchase, a download, and a bunch of gigabytes later the game was ready to go. The flight stick was the biggest challenge, as even low-end flight sim peripherals were pricey, and let’s be real here. I definitely wanted the tactility of a proper stick for flying. My dad, thankfully, still had a multipurpose Logitech stick collecting dust at his house, because of course he did. A few loosened screws, YouTube repair videos, and a can of compressed air later, we were ready for takeoff.
MS Flight Sim 2020 frequently flabbergasted me with its spectacular sights.
I have to admit that Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020’s presentation was so jaw dropping that I was actually nervous learning to fly. It’s not just me, either. I’ve offered my game chair/pilot’s seat to others I’ve trusted into my home during the pandemic, asking if they’d like to try out the game, even offering to do the takeoff and landing for them so they could just enjoy some time in the air, but they’ve all declined stating it looked too intense. Imagine, gliding peacefully through the sky while looking down at a lovely, verdant world below. Too intense. I don’t blame them, though. MSFS 2020 had a nifty tutorial mode which gave me the basics of takeoff, flight, navigation, and landing, and even then I had sweaty palms learning to put my Cessna 152 back on the ground.
I remember the feeling the first time I had a smooth touchdown back onto tarmac, managing all kinds of things I’d been learning about: power, trim, pitch, and making a smooth descent to ground level, practically kissing the pavement with the wheels. Ok, maybe it took a few landings to get things that smooth, but the satisfaction I felt in my rough early landings was even more intense than the feelings I had while up in the air. The memory box was fully open now, and I knew that even though I was reconnecting with a love of something from my childhood I’d also just done something I’d never managed as a kid. I’d actually landed the plane. This new hobby was nostalgic yet fresh. One part comfort food, two parts the study of something new. And I was hungry to learn more.
Learning whatever this thing was turned out to be both hilarious and nail-biting.
The more I flew, the more I wanted to learn. At first it was just the physics of flight from various videos, some of them by pilots themselves. Then it was learning more intricacies of the different planes. The Cessna 152 was a great learner plane, but the XCub could take off and land with next to no runway. Perfect for flying in hard-to-reach places like dirt strips in the mountains of South America, and the glass canopy made for some fantastic sightseeing. The first time I did a night flight and looked up to see the full moon poking through the clouds directly above me, I remember letting out a wistful, contented sigh.
There were other challenges ahead as well. Learning the Cessna Citation, my first jet, was both frightening and exhilarating. It moved so much faster than anything I’d tried before which presented all kinds of problems around landings. The Airbus A320, a “small,” large passenger jet was even more terrifying. Learning to program the autopilot in both was a total thrill, even programming the planes to make controlled approaches to their destination runways, practically landing themselves when done properly. At every stage it was both exciting and enjoyable to learn more about planes, aviation, the physics of flight, and to sightsee the world. Every new task I mastered felt like an accomplishment. I may have had to cancel real-life vacation travel plans during the pandemic, and I wouldn’t get to see some places at ground level, walk the streets, eat the food, but I could at least fly over them at my computer and marvel down from hundreds of feet in the sky. It was something, and that wasn’t nothing.
Sometimes you just need to take your time looking out the window.
It was around this time, after months of flying the same planes, that I was getting a little bored. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought MSFS 2020 was an incredible game, and I was trying to find fun ways to play it. I’d often chill in our community Discord server, streaming gameplay, and offering “sightseeing” trips to anyone who wanted to join the voice chat and hang out (their choice of destination). We had some fun trips that way, including a friend’s quest to see “the giants of the world,” a trip that took us one day to Tokyo to find a huge Gundam statue and another time to the UK to find a large, naked man depicted on a hillside, both actually rendered in-game. Flying in MSFS 2020 was a bit like playing Minecraft in creative mode only, though. You could go anywhere, but there were no goals or objectives. You had to make your own fun.
Not long afterwards, the sim released a free update, phase two of my flight sim transformation if you will, and with it several new planes to pilot. Among them was the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. I’d been waiting for something like this. Little me, the kid running around with a Blue Angel toy in one hand, an earlier model of what would become the Super Hornet, was thrilled to finally get his hands on the grown-up version of that toy. It was fast, it looked fantastic in the air, and I had to make sure my landing strips were long enough to not go cascading off into the trees. It was a thrilling plane with which to quickly climb several thousand feet and pull endless barrel rolls. The problem? I felt like I was flying a shell of a plane. So many controls in the cockpit were marked “Inop,” short for “you don’t need this button.” The DDIs, screens capable of displaying all kinds of info, had barely any use. It felt like such a shame they remained blank and with it seemingly the character of the plane itself. I was still left wanting more. The kid in me, so excited to finally have a Hornet to fly around again, faced the realization that the plane in his hands was just a lightweight, plastic rip-off rather than the weighty, metal model he remembered from years ago.
And then my flight sim YouTube spat something out at me that changed everything.
Black and white is such a classy look, I think.
A New Mission
I may have had some fun times as a kid flying commercial planes back in the 90s, but where I remember spending the bulk of my time was on a combat sim. My father, always looking for another fun thing to fly, one day brought home a combat flight sim for the F-117A Nighthawk, an early stealth bomber that to this day I think is a gorgeous piece of geometry. Steam wasn’t a thing back then, so I can’t tell you how many hours I logged on that game. It felt like a lot. There were difficulty options as well, so I was able to fly without getting shot down and I was able to “land” so long as I could nose the plane directly into the runway and cut the throttle, even if my plane bouncing across the tarmac resembled a dolphin skipping over the water. In short, I could fly full missions, and I did. Often.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but combat games gave me everything I wanted in a flight sim. There was the satisfaction of takeoff and landing, of knowing and operating my plane, combined with clear objectives to satisfy. I don’t know why I never thought about looking for a modern combat flight sim when I found myself wanting more. Thankfully, serendipity in the form of the algorithm had my back. A well-edited video from a game called DCS World was shoved before my eyes, a game which was as pretty as MSFS 2020 and where every single button in the cockpit worked. It seemed too good to be true. I knew the learning curve would be steep, but if I was going to jump in the deep end of the pool it seemed like I might as well try to dive all the way to the bottom. The little kid was tugging at my shirt once again. We had to try it out.
The Microprose game that started it all for me.
I thought I knew what I was in for. I thought I realized what it would mean to have to operate every button in the cockpit of my F/A-18C Hornet, the predecessor of MSFS’s Super Hornet and the same jet as the little blue toy I remembered from my childhood. I was wrong. It was one thing to learn to bring everything online from a “cold start.” It was another altogether soaring through the clouds trying not to get shot down. There were times when I would simply, mid-flight, erupt into a fireball with no idea as to why. What had hit me? Why hadn’t my missile warning system gone off? I had reservations.
I also wondered about the community I was wading into. As I watched more and more videos on YouTube, educating myself on my plane of choice, I got more and more ads that... well, let’s just say they were for a particular demographic that I am not. What exactly was the community I was getting to know?
At the risk of sounding like I’m about to crumble to dust out of old age I’ll say that, in the days before the internet as we know it, online multiplayer wasn’t a thing. PC games were largely enjoyed for their single player value. And while DCS included a solo campaign for each purchased plane, the real draw was online. Unlike when I was a kid, playing alone, I wanted to see what was out there. I wanted to experience the missions other players were creating and loading into their servers, fly in formation with real people, and fight back servers of AI-controlled opponents. Maybe even try some player versus player, pitting our chosen jets against one another. But who was out there waiting for me?
I'll tell you what was out there. Missiles. Lots of missiles.
As it turned out, the vast majority of the community seemed to be folks just like me. Some were also simple flight simmers branching out, or they were regular game geeks, or Star Trek geeks. But we were all also airplane geeks. Somewhere along that spectrum of nerd culture, we all shared a love for things soaring through the clouds. Some folks were ex-military pilots or engineers, sure, but there were also those folks who flew planes commercially for their day jobs, who were working up to flying professionally, or who had a desire to get their own private license. And folks like me, still undecided on flight lessons but enjoying the virtual world all the same. I found many people helpful and welcoming, patient with questions, not gatekeeping their little hobby corner of the internet but happy to share it around.
If anything, while some Discord communities I found myself in, looking for folks to fly with, had the tired line of “no politics,” something ubiquitous across gaming culture in general, there were other servers who created dedicated channels for current world events, encouraging community and discussion. I feel rather proud that the place I spend most of my time when combat simming these days is around one such awesome group of people.
We Are Kids Again
On a recent stream I did on our Twitch channel, I mused aloud how many families must’ve also had flight sims when we were kids. It seemed like some strange common denominator that many of our dads were into that sort of thing. Or maybe we’d simply found one another because of this niche love shared with us in our formative years. That image of me standing in my living room, a blue and yellow Hornet in one hand, “Blue Angels” emblazoned along the side in looping script, about to swoop down on my other toys I’d laid out on the living room rug. That image, still so clear in my mind over three decades later. How many other people had shared something nearly identical to it?
Then it hit me, looking backwards in memory. It was as if we’d all become those little kid versions of ourselves again, each of us holding a toy plane, making zooming noises with our mouths as we ran around together online. Here we were in MS Flight Sim 2020 or DCS World, some of us adults with several decades of life between the present and that cherished past, once again ten years old. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Maybe with an inexpensive flight stick, maybe with hundreds of dollars sunk into peripherals. I hadn’t set out to become ten years old again myself, hadn’t gotten back into flight sims out of some misguided sense of midlife coping, a chance to relive my childhood, but somehow I’d ended up back in my old house holding that toy once more all the same. And I was childishly happy.
I’m not sure where the flight plan takes me from here. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't considering taking lessons once the pandemic subsided, once I felt comfortable cramming into a confined space with a piloting instructor a couple thousand feet above ground level. Maybe one day rent a plane and fly it some place fun for the day. But I think perhaps that’s not the point. For a toy, or an online game, or even the real-life thing, these are machines designed to take a person from one point to another, and yet I’m struggling to see a better metaphor for “it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.” From the look of anyone who’s taken their love of flight simming into earning an actual pilot’s license, it’s clear that a love of flying supersedes all. That all-encompassing desire to glide high above the world, to be one with their machine and the currents surrounding it. I think that’s more than enough, and I cannot wait to see where my wings take me next.