Taking Wing: Virtual Airports of My Digital Dreams

(And their real-life counterparts.)

Maho Beach
A Boeing 757 flies over world-famous Maho Beach while landing at the Princess Juliana International Airport on the French/Dutch island of St. Martin.Sam Weigel

Airplanes, pilots and airports: Where you find two, you’ll find the third. In my airplane-obsessed childhood, this indisputable fact led to an early acquaintance with every airfield within a 20-mile radius. These were quiet country fields, mind you, but every so often a Cessna would drop in to do a couple of touch-and-goes, or maybe even stay awhile, in which case I’d shyly approach the pilot and ask inane questions about his bird in hopes of being invited to take a look inside — or even, be still my heart, take a quick spin around the patch.

Later, once I started taking flight lessons, my circle of familiarity expanded to perhaps 40 miles, and I started noticing the differences in layout, amenities, activity and even culture between the various airports. Some had a preponderance of old taildraggers and associated old duffers kibitzing on the pilot lounge porch; others buzzed with training activity at all hours of day and night; some attracted strange ­machines like ultralights or helicopters and their ­equally strange pilots. Some even had control towers, complete with air traffic controllers who mildly terrified me with their rapid-fire jargon and expectations of aerial perfection.

But overall, my aviation domain stayed pretty small in those years — about a half-hour’s flying time from my home airport via Cessna 150, the natural byproduct of one hour of dual instruction being the outer economic limit of my monthly ­dalliance. My flights of fancy, on the other hand, took me much farther afield, and as befits a child of the ’90s, those dreams were largely fueled by the newly ubiquitous personal computer and the nascent World Wide Web.

My family’s first PC was bequeathed to us by my late uncle Dick Farrand sometime around 1990; it was a 386DX-33 sporting 2 MB of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive that ran MS-DOS. In short ­order, I had procured a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.0 and was soon “flying” a Cessna 182 (using the arrow keys) around a heavily pixilated version of Chicago. Hey, it had the Sears Tower — which was about all I knew of Chicago. In 1993, ­Microsoft released version 5.0, which was a giant leap forward in every way. It merited a major expenditure on a joystick — now this was flying! By the time I started flight lessons the following year, I had ­already “logged” hundreds of hours on Flight ­Simulator, much of it instrument time. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage in learning to fly, for my instructor had to undo all my self-taught bad habits. A few lessons in, he covered up all the ­instruments to get me to look out the window.

Those early versions of Flight Simulator came with a limited scenery collection featuring a small handful of U.S. and European cities. The scenery was flat and fairly monochromatic; structures and landmarks were mostly simple, marginally recognizable renditions of the real thing. In all, there were something like 250 airports ­included; I landed at most of them. The airports generally had the runways, taxiways and buildings in the right places, though airline terminals seldom looked much like their real-life counterparts. Flight ­Simulator famously opened with the ­Cessna 182 on Runway 36 at Chicago’s Meigs Field, the better to show off the Chicago skyline — one of the more well-executed pieces of eye candy in the early Flight Simulator world. While the user could change the start-up scenario, most did not, and Meigs became forever associated with the game. I took off, landed and crashed at Meigs many more times than I can count. The virtual Meigs Field was, in many ways, my first home airport.

Naturally, flight-sim enthusiasts soon desired a wider range of aircraft and scenery than that which came with the game, and a small cottage industry sprang up producing add-on software. The advent of the Internet greatly increased the availability and lowered the cost of add-ons as hundreds of would-be developers gave aircraft and scenery design a go, with varying degrees of success. Most amateur developers ­distributed their work as shareware or freeware via FTP and, later, dedicated flight-sim websites. I myself started with a repaint that turned the stock ­Cessna 182 into N704XX, the Cessna 150L in which I was training; then I turned a freeware DC-9 into a McDonnell-Douglas MD-82, complete with a flight model replicating what I thought an MD-82 must fly like. I started designing scenery with my real-life home airport (KCBG), moved on to ­nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International (KMSP), and then ambitiously took on the entire MSP metro area. Presumably, these files and ­others I churned out are still out there somewhere, perhaps in a dark, cobwebbed corner of some ­forgotten server.

About the same time that the Internet (along with digital cameras and particularly the 56K ­modem) was rendering obsolete the ­long-standing tradition of teenage boys furtively paging through purloined Playboy magazines, it was also ­greatly increasing the availability of, well, airplane porn. Aircraft spotters, once niche hobbyists consigned to labor in the solitude of their darkrooms, ­began to publish their work online; a few became modestly famous for it. Suddenly, thousands of beautiful images of exotic aircraft flying in and out of scenic foreign locales were available at the click of a mouse and a few minutes’ wait. Miraculous. These photos stirred my imagination and prompted a great many flight-sim ­adventures. Spotters made Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport ­famous; a Cathay Pacific 747 and scenery-pack download later, I too was flying the famed checkerboard visual ­approach. There’s Concorde departing Charles de Gaulle to ply the Paris-New York route in less than three hours; a ­supersonic Atlantic crossing seemed a pleasant enough use of an evening at the family PC. Did you know Catalina Island’s short mountaintop airstrip was resupplied by turbine-converted DC-3s? I didn’t until I found a picture online, and I was soon testing just how hard you could apply the brakes without standing the venerable taildragger on its nose.

Meigs Field
Meigs Field was a virtual home airport for many Flight Simulator enthusiasts. The author visited the real-life version in 2000.Sam Weigel

I think the ultimate spotter’s paradise, though, has to be Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) on the French/Dutch island of St. Martin. It’s got everything: a fantastic array of aircraft, from single-engine island ­hoppers to sleek Gulfstreams to ocean-crossing jumbos; beautiful Caribbean water; verdant mountains; a short ­runway; and a golden beach covered with scantily clad holiday-makers that the landing aircraft buzz rather closely. I ­probably saw more photos taken at SXM than any other airport and, accordingly, landed there many times in Flight ­Simulator. Thus, I gained familiarity with the geography of the Caribbean a good 15 years before I ever visited in person.

The adult me looks back on this and wonders if it wasn’t more than a bit silly, all those wasted youthful hours spent idle in the sterile glow of a CRT monitor. At one point, I was not only designing aircraft and scenery for Flight ­Simulator, I was also flying regular routes for a virtual airline called Noble Air (it’s still around) and providing air traffic control for other flight-sim enthusiasts on Vatsim, a realistic voice-over-Internet ATC network. But it kept me involved and enthusiastic at a time when I could only afford one hour of real-world flying per month, and it kept me dreaming of the places I’d go and the airplanes I’d fly later in life.

And, in fact, I have since flown to many of the real-world airports whose digital approximations I once regularly visited. In the summer of 2000, my college roommate and I flew an old 172 to Meigs Field and spent the weekend in Chicago. It’s a good thing that we did, because a few years later that thug Richard Daley illegally bulldozed the place in the middle of the night, abruptly snuffing out a hard-fought battle to save the airport. As a flight instructor in Southern California, I regularly took students to Catalina Island; if anything, the real-world version looks considerably trickier than in Flight Simulator, but it’s a really neat, tranquil place to visit. Kai Tak closed in 1998, so I’ll never get to fly the checkerboard visual, but my airline job has taken me to Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle and many other big, busy airports where I “flew the line” with Noble Air. In most cases, the airports look distinctly different than they did in Flight Simulator, but I still get a little déjà vu with digital roots every once in a while.

And recently, I finally got to land at St. Martin on New Year’s Eve in the Boeing 757. It’s actually not a terribly ­difficult airport to fly in and out of, despite what many passengers assume. There’s no ILS, but RNAV approaches have rendered that a moot point. Runway 10 is plenty long, and the 757 has sufficient performance that the terrain off the end doesn’t present too great a problem. Even Maho Beach doesn’t look terribly close while approaching over it. The main challenge is there’s very little space and a great number of airplanes once you’re on the ground; everything is so close together that they don’t even bother with a ground control frequency — tower handles it all. That part had been missing from Flight Simulator! Nevertheless, it felt oddly familiar, in a pleasant sort of way, and then we got to enjoy a St. Martin New Year’s Eve layover to boot. After checking into the hotel, I put on my shorts and flip-flops and headed over to Maho Beach to do some tropical airplane spotting of my own. Another 757 landed — the afternoon Atlanta flight — and I snapped the photo you see on page 44. Perhaps an airplane-mad teen somewhere will see it, dream of flying to St. Martin someday, and fire up her laptop to give it a go on Flight Simulator X.