Off We Go Into The Virtual Yonder

It was perfect flying weather. The sun was shining, and there wasn't much cloud cover, which gave me a spectacular view from the canopy. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to appreciate it. Sometime between my takeoff and the scant 10 minutes it took me to fly to this particular spot of desert wasteland, I had picked up some company, some very unfriendly company.

Although the Falcon F-16 fighter jet is regarded as one of the best-designed and most agile planes in the U.S. arsenal, I couldn't shake the enemy fighter off my tail. Slamming my plane left and right through the air helped to keep the "bandit" from getting a "lock" and shooting me down with a radar-guided missile. But I was getting dizzy. I knew I couldn't keep it up forever. Traveling at nearly twice the speed of sound, the bogey was closing in for a kill.

MAYDAY TIME. Like all rookie pilots, I was at my wit's end and did something foolish. The only fancy move I knew was the Immelmann Turn, which calls for the pilot to pull back on the stick, looping the plane until it's upside down. The pilot then rolls the plane around until it's flying right side up and, theoretically, above and facing the enemy. But in my panic, I had yanked back on the controls too hard, which put some nine times the force of gravity on the plane. My vision blacked out from the G-forces, and by the time I could correct my error, the damage was done.

Still on my tail, the bandit launched a heat-seeking missile that exploded close to my jet. Bitchin' Betty, a computer-generated female voice that draws a pilot's attention to the instruments, intoned: "Caution...Caution...Caution..." Multicolored lights on the control panel blinked, indicating I had lost the plane's engine, main hydraulics, weapon systems, navigation instruments, flight controls.... I had turned a multimillion- dollar engineering masterpiece into a flying coffin. As the plane began its death plunge, Bitchin' Betty's voice became more urgent: "Warning...Warning...Warning..." As I bailed out of the flaming ship, I thought of how grateful I was for the wisdom my parents had displayed in talking me out of joining the Air Force.

Thanks to software makers such as Spectrum HoloByte Inc. and MicroProse Inc., my boyhood dream of becoming an air ace lives on--in cyberspace. The two companies are among many that make flight-simulator games that put you in the cockpit of a high-tech combat jet even as you sit in front of a common desktop computer. Long before the Persian Gulf War drew new recruits, there were thousands of Walter Mittys like me--by day, just another midtown New York office worker, by night a fearless Top Gun hero.

Victor D. Zaveduk, an independent computer consultant in Chicago, is one of them. Although his father was a private pilot and he grew up next to an Air Force base, Zaveduk, 34, never actually had the opportunity to fly his own plane. "I've been enamored with flight," he says, "but I just didn't have the money for flight school." He also had no use for the military life and pursued a professional career in computers. But his fascination with planes lingered, and when he tried his first flight-simulator program, he was hooked. In fact, he went out and bought nearly every flight-sim package he could get his hands on. "If it's got wings, fixed or moveable, I've got it," he says.

And he's part of a virtual air corps that exists on computer bulletin boards all over, including one on CompuServe Inc. After logging on, the armchair aces share tips, tactics, war stories, and opinions of the latest flight sims coming to market. "Duke," as Zaveduk is known in cyberspace, also helps run CompuServe's "Falcon Ladder," a tournament that pits one member's virtual F-16 against another's in "real-time, simulated aerial combat" via PC modems. Members challenge each other to duels and arrange convenient times for their PCs to connect with each other and dogfight.

Other, similar groups are also cropping up. One of the more infamous is the 510 Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Alameda, Calif. The 510 (named for its local area code) consists of the first pilots to fly Spectrum HoloByte's popular Falcon 3.0 package for PCs. Although the 35-member group is geared mainly to local competition in the San Francisco Bay area, the one-year-old club is planning a regional convention of more than 200 Falcon fans later this year.

But the ultimate virtual air-combat school today has to be Fighter Town in Irvine, Calif. Not to be confused with the military's actual air-combat school of the same name, Fighter Town was founded by Dave Kinney to give the average Joe a flying experience far beyond what he gets in his den.

Kinney served in the Marines as a flight engineer and never got to pilot a modern combat jet. But, like many others bitten by the fighter-sim bug, he thought that it would be the greatest ride ever. For about $28 per hour, jet-jockey wannabes such as myself get suited up in a flight suit, helmet, and knee board. Fighter Town staffers provide a half-hour briefing, including a description of mission "targets." Fighter-pilots-of-the-hour are then strapped into a full-size mock-up of a Falcon cockpit and, with a little coaching from the "tower," are airborne in no time.

TEAM EFFORT. To simulate the camaraderie of The Dawn Patrol or Twelve O'Clock High, Fighter Town also has established bowling league-like squadrons, where teams of six fighters can link up and fly joint missions or go head-to-head against each other. So far, the setup seems to be a huge hit with the local fly-boys, both wannabes and actual


Victor V. Vance, a captain for a commercial airline (he declines to say which one), was one of the first pilots to try Kinney's Fighter Town. "I've flown simulators before," he says. "I've never done anything like this." Vance, whose call sign is Vulture, vividly recalls the first time he was shot down. Psycho, a member of his squadron, had a tendency to shoot down everything in sight. So, during one mission, Vance and the rest of his teammates decided to teach Psycho a lesson. Although Vance and the four others simultaneously turned on Psycho, who is a tax accountant by trade, the resulting dogfight was so confusing that Vance was one of the first to go down in flames. "I had to sit out the rest of the fight in the 'ready room' feeling like I had a dunce cap on," he says.

If a tax accountant can "wax" a professional pilot, there may yet be hope for a writer-by-day to turn into a vicious dogfighter-by-night.

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