Taking It to the Skies

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mark Glaser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. You can reach him at

Why are computer flight simulations so incredibly popular? Maybe it’s because everyone dreams of flying planes but few of us can afford it. Our PCs are the next best thing, letting us loop-to-loop and barrel roll to our heart’s content. And if we slam into a mountainside or get shot down by the Germans, we only have to hit the reset button.

Flight sims have spread their wings, covering almost every flying contraption from World War I Sopwith Camels to the new stealth F22 Raptor jet. Add to that a growing number of helicopter sims, from attack Apaches to futuristic HeliCOPS, and now even an Abrams tank sim and a bug simulator (Banzai Bug) where you fly from a fly’s perspective. The array of sims is dizzying, and to fully enjoy them, you can get foot pedal rudders or force-feedback joysticks that shudder when you crash.

With the explosion of online gaming, you can also fly in squadrons on the Internet. One of the best is Air Warrior II (Kesmai/Interactive Magic), which became a CD-ROM game after being online first. The CD flight sim suffers, as most do, with blocky graphics and hard-to-see enemy planes. The real joy is flying online in teams and “radioing” other fliers with text messages. You must subscribe to America Online, CompuServe or the EarthLink Network, though, or you can play over a network or head-to-head by modem.


The latest in chopper sims is HeliCOPS (7th Level), a cartoonish shooter that’s set in post-quake NeoTokyo in 2015. Though the controls are relatively complex, with various views and weapons, the movement is choppy and game play isn’t very challenging. I prefer SimCopter (Maxis), which lets you fly through cities you built in SimCity, fighting crime and bad traffic. And for the military-minded, Interactive Magic’s Apache and Hind both bring extra firepower and impressively realistic cockpit details.

Interactive Magic has also brought its realistic touch to a tank simulation, iM1A2 Abrams, a recent release for those of us who’d rather compete in ground combat. Abrams goes much further than any old Tank Command game. You get four points of view: gunner, driver, commander at the consoles, or commander peeking out of the hatch. General Dynamics aided in the game’s development and it shows, with realistic thermal viewers and zoom maps to find enemy targets.

As with many sophisticated flight sims, this tank sim can boggle the mind with details--and its thick manual is intimidating for the casual gamer. In the heat of battle, you must fumble from your joystick to keyboard to mouse, switching from the driver to gunner to a tactical map. Plus you command a fleet of tanks and support personnel, making it even more complicated. Still, the Quickstart missions give attention-deficit players a snappy way to get to battle fast.

For those who crave a more simplistic flight sim, there’s Banzai Bug (Grolier), where you fly as an insect through an exterminator’s home avoiding Robobugs and humans who try to spray you. Unfortunately, the scenery is far from realistic, and most of the humor is geared toward kids. But if you want a sim without the hard-core military warfare, Banzai’s the only way to fly.

What will they think of next? A balloon sim or a dust particle sim? The sky’s the limit.