Flying online with my mates.
(The “granddaddy” of them all, and our MSP LAN group’s first serious “study” type flight simulation…Microprose’s “Falcon 4.0”)
Fast forward a few more years, and I’m now living in the sprawling suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota. By now, I’ve summoned enough courage to delve into the swamp known as the internet (not flying mind you, just lurking on the flying forums). I was new to all of this and learned that this collection of pages whereby folks discuss aspects of the hobby, ask/answer questions (very helpful for us “noobs”), and sometimes just bitch about stuff (and each other) was a totally foreign universe for this new citizen of the cyber world. I learned tons of stuff about the flight sims that I was enjoying (and that helped keep the frustration level down about a jillion notches), and when asked, I answered questions about real-world flying. So, for the most part, I generally enjoyed my time with my new “cyber” mates. On one occasion, I noticed that the forum poster was from my neck of the woods…literally. He was a scant few miles north of me, so I sent him a PM. Terry and I chatted a bit and decided to meet for lunch (the year was 1997, and to this day we fly online often, we text, we phone, and I consider him and my other LAN mates some of my close, “go-to” friends). We did indeed meet for lunch, and he brought along his neighbor Dale (another flight sim junkie). We had tons of fun and began to explore the idea of meeting online to do some flying. Apparently, he had done it before and convinced me how much fun it happened to be, so I consented. I was going to be the proverbial online virgin…” all I ask is that you please be gentle”.
Terry was (before recently retiring) an important management “mucky-muck “at a large, nationally known dairy conglomerate in the upper mid-west, and like pretty much everyone else in the hobby has a fascination for aviation. We set up a time for a call, he rang up “the virgin” (me), talked me through the online hookup (dial-up no less, and off we went. Note: our inflight “COMMS” being holding the telephone in the crook of the neck with your head bent over like Quasimodo at a head bashing concert)! He walked me through finding each other online in the simulation he had chosen (“Hornet Korea”), and briefed me that our “mission” was to depart our airfield, fly to a certain point, merge and dogfight with two “bad guy” Hornets flown by two dudes in Florida (apparently he had flown online with them before). We were to “do some of that Pilot sh*t Mav!”, send them to “bad guy” hell, and return to base (RTB) as two victorious warriors, awaiting laurels and medals (and bragging rights) beyond our wildest dreams.
(This is what it looked like that fateful day when my online virginity was lost. I was flying number 2 on Terry’s wing, and about to be embarrassed…several times.)
This is most assuredly NOT how the mission played out. I found myself in the cockpit of this F/A-18C Hornet, mentally going through how I was to set up all the “Air to Air” weapons and sensors that would be needed, and how I was to program the “countermeasures” (chaff and flare dispensers and jammers). I then tried to figure out our routing, and fuel requirements before we released the brakes, but time was running out, so I just decided to follow Terry. We taxied to the duty runway, lined up on the pavement, and departed as a “two ship” of battle-hardened (at least one of us) jet-borne killers. I figured that all I would have to do is keep him in sight, hang on to his wing (meaning DO NOT RUN INTO HIM), stay off the COMMS, call out threats, protect him when I could, and become cannon fodder when the situation called for it. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
We raced down the runway in afterburner, rotated, sucked the landing gear up, flaps up, all the while me being so proud of my ability to stick on Terry’s wing like glue when….WTF?….he snapped rolled to the left, dove for the deck, rolled inverted, and FLEW UNDER A BRIDGE just off the airfield boundary! Holy guacamole…I was in way over my head! All the while he’s yammering in my ear about how good these two guys were that we were fighting against, how he was picking them up on his radar (I couldn’t detect a thing), how he had them on his RWR (Radar Warning Receiver…I barely knew what it was), and we were going to be displacing the right (or did he say left?). I was back about “row 10” in my struggle to stay ahead of the jet, barely holding onto his wing, not sure which Air to Air Mode I was in, which missile I had selected, and where the bad guys were! It was all happening too fast, and was a complete mystery to me! BTW…WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT FUNNY WARNING IN MY COCKPIT? WHAM! Suddenly, I’m a roman candle, and I have no idea where it came from…that was fun! Less than five minutes flying to find out that I’m the online equivalent of Pee Wee Herman, and I’m flying around, at 400kts, hair on fire, in a very sophisticated war machine, looking like (to quote the movie “Dodgeball”) …” a retard humping a doorknob”! We reset the flight (thank God dead is NOT dead), tried it again several times, and guess what? Same result each time. Lovely…they were not gentle at all. I think I needed about fifty puppies AND a balloon.
This was quite an eye-opener. I had spent some quality time flying/fighting against the A/I (artificial intelligence) bad guys that each flight simulation had written into its code, and I felt I could hold my own. Granted these aerial duels were in the “Single Player” world, against the A/I, and since I was in a “pre-radar” Sopwith Camel, or P-51 Mustang, I could always see the antagonist…not this BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile stuff. I had dabbled into the fast jet thing but CLEARLY had not spent the required amount of time to be proficient in that 4-D chess world of 400kt death. The folks that have a handle on this type of stuff have spent years learning it (some are actual ex-Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps types). They know exactly how to use the different radar-guided missiles from very long distances. In that world, you can’t see the victim that you’re about to turn into a flaming ball of (virtual) teeth, hair, and eyeballs (read ME). They know how to get in close and use the “heat-seeking” Sidewinders that were made famous over the skies of Vietnam. And when that “Maverick moment” arrives (“…too close for missiles, switching to guns!”), they know the proclivities associated with that type of knife fight in a phone booth. PLUS…they can air to air fight their way into a target, bomb or rocket said target into the next dimension, then escape unscathed back to the airbase or aircraft carrier (OH…and can hook up to the re-fueling tanker on the way home for a sip of jet fuel). I had a HUGE amount to learn about how this online world worked, and I had a HUGE amount to learn about how flying a modern warplane with its spider-web of systems and weapons worked. I also had volumes to ingest about air-to-air tactics and the procedures for attacking a ground target. And lastly, I had a large amount to decipher about how a person goes from being the “bumbling uber-noob/here I am, come kill me” boat anchor, to being able to survive in the online skies for more than the time required to film a Tony Romo fumble. It was going to be an uphill battle, but if I could fly as the Commander in the left seat of a Boeing 757, then I could certainly figure out how to NOT be a complete idiot in the virtual skies. (I hoped)
Our LAN Group.
My savior(s) came in the form of a group of like-minded individuals, and the large 700-page manuals you USE TO to receive with these hard-core, up-scale “Study” type flight sims (nowadays you get PDF files…. oh, and tons of YouTube videos…quite helpful actually). By the way, many of these “hard-core, study type” flight simulation software programs originated in the actual military aviation world as training aids, then are purchased by the simulation folks, re-worked to remove the “sensitive” stuff, re-cleared through the aircraft makers and the govt/military types, and then released to the public. A particular A-10 flight simulation, for instance, was born in the world of transitioning real-world National Guard A-10A pilots into flying the “C” model of the Warthog. It’s accurate to a gnat’s ass (except for, of course, the parts that can’t be part of the public domain). After the debacle known as my first foray into the world of online flying, Terry (and his neighbor Dale) brought up the idea of a “LAN” (local area network) get-together. I had no idea what they were talking about. Essentially, your homies show up at someone’s house (or another venue), hook all of your computers onto one network, and fly the piss out of them not having to fret about things like how fast the internet is working, or having to use a telephone for COMMS, etc. Plus, you get the added benefit of lots, and lots (did I say lots) of “chin music” back and forth to each other. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention also, that learning a hobby in close proximity to others that are more advanced in that endeavor is a real plus. Remember Terry flying under the bridge INVERTED on my first online sortie? Yeah, these guys were damned good flying in the virtual world (but I’m not sure I’d hand them the keys to the big Boeing…lol.)
(Two pics of the 700-plus page manual for the flight simulation “Falcon 4.0”. One of the design team members was an ex-Air Force F-16 pilot.)
(Pics from our very early LAN days. LOVED lugging around those 25-pound CRT monitors!)
(Top: most of the original LAN mates. Some really ugly mugs to be sure. Bottom: my original online partner, “TBob”… “Mr. inverted, under the bridge” himself!)
(August of 2002. L to R: Son, Daughter, the one and only Mark “Frugal” Bush, yours truly, and my second LAN mate, “Olieman” at an airshow at Fleming Field, St. Paul.)
Our LANS grew more frequent, and we had more and more dudes showing up (many from out of state). Within a year, our core group consisted of myself, Terry (business exec.), Dale (painter), Chad (State I.T. expert), Roger (also State I.T. guru), Tom (engineer), Bert (world-renowned research physician/scientist), Chad (Police officer), and Dusty (United States Army, Ret.). Soon we were holding at least one LAN per year (sometimes more), and had welcomed lots of “cameo appearances” from those famous in the flight simulation world (Mark “Frugal” Bush), those famous in the REAL world of combat aviation (Lloyd “Bozo” Abel), and a host of others from around the country. Add to this blessing, the fact that my wonderful bride loved these get-togethers (pretty sure some wives would not), for she got to show off her world-class hospitality skills. Being an incredible hostess is a crown she has worn proudly since the dawn of our marriage, and the food, drink, and general “welcome to our home” type atmosphere made the events special to be sure. Her white chicken chili, lasagna, and bar-b-que ribs are legendary among the group…oh did I mention she’s also a world-class bartender? Trust me, that didn’t go unnoticed. One last tidbit concerning our LANs. Once Debie and I had relocated to the back woods of Wisconsin, we routinely carved out one of the afternoons (the LANs usually lasted 3 days), to spend at our personal shooting range. We turned old milk jugs, beer cans, stuffed toys, and whatever else needed blasting into about a zillion little pieces. The local guys brought their own shootin’ irons, and the out-of-towners were welcome to pick from my arsenal. Food, flying, shooting, and “libations” …not sure if it CAN get any better than that…right?
(“Dusty” and “Griff” kicking virtual butt in the A-10C, and “Cat”, “Griff” and “Olieman” turning stuff into junk.)
Somewhere out of the blue the television and print media heard of our little computer flying “coffee klatches” and decided to interview us. The next thing we knew, we were in the print media and the subject of one of the evening news “fluff” stories. The newspaper lady showed up to interview us, and she had her teenage son in tow. During the span of the interview, we (of course) sat her down behind one of the CRT monitors, briefly explained the use of the joystick and throttle, and turned her loose in the F-16. She didn’t last very long, and it was not a pretty sight. We (again, of course) asked her son if he’d like a turn in the barrel, and he jumped at the chance! The kid was a natural! He could fly quite nicely and seemed to be enjoying himself (not like his mother). I’m fairly sure all those hours spent on the X-box were a bit of an “in your face Mom” type moment for him. Lol.
At one point she asked the obvious question, “Why would you want to fly around in little “make believe” airplanes when you fly REAL airplanes for a living?” Fair enough question. The answer seemed pretty obvious to me, but clearly not to her. I offered this, “Well, that’s a good question. I guess the big reason is that at work (at the airline), I don’t get to fly inverted under bridges, and lock onto the tail of the United or American or Delta jet in front of me and launch a missile up their tailpipe!” (big grin on this ugly mug, versus the “huh?” look on her face) … I think she neither understood nor appreciated my flippant remark…oh well.
(TV news dude intently concentrating on NOT ending up “D-E-D” dead in the cyber world of “Falcon 4.0”…”Cat” is in the foreground. I’m giving him a few “priceless” tips…which I’m sure didn’t help at all…lol. Photo circa 1998-1999.)
We met regularly for many years, and though our professional paths were all quite different, we happily shared the bonds of aviation and the fellowship of those times. Sadly, many of us have moved, some have lost the ability to attend the LANs (kid commitments, etc), and some have simply lost their passion for the hobby. I still adamantly hold at least one LAN per year, our last being about a month ago at the new digs here in the sunbaked world of Arizona. One guy drove in from the Reno area, one dude flew in from MSP, and “TBob” flew with us online from back in Minnesota. We had tons of fun, like always. Good friends, good food, good “adult beverages”, good cyber flying, and good (to great) “chin music” (seems the older we get, the better the insults get). Oh, this year we did not load up the truck with a gaggle of firearms and proceed to the local range to kill paper bad guys, but it WILL be on the agenda for the next little “clam bake”.
The next (and final) installment will focus on a few of the simulations themselves…including the principal sim that we’re flying online at this time. Screenshots and videos included.)