Work in progress: Airbus A320

SubLogic has long been hailed as king by lovers of "serious" flight simulation, but its crown may be in danger - as Thalion points out to Kati Hamza.

Two years ago at a German computer show Thalion's Willi Carmincke was approached by a middle-aged man clutching a disk. "He asked if I was interested in flight sims and when I said I was, he offered to show me his." What Willi saw astonished him: "Usually when you're button-holed by someone at a show they just tell you all about the marvellous game they're about to start programming, but it's once in a blue moon that you actually find someone who's practically completed one. This man had obviously just spent a couple of years quietly programming in his room and he'd come up with something totally exceptional. I'd never come across anything like it and I don't think I ever will again."

The genius in question was Luftwaffe professional Oberst Rainer Bopf, his game: A simulation of the Airbus A320. As a result of their meeting, Bopf and Carmincke struck a deal. Rainer Bopf is an active Luftwaffe pilot who learnt to program back in 1965 (in those days they were still working with punch-cards), when his professional involvement with military radar systems sent him to America. Over the years he's clocked up over 2,000 flying hours in a huge variety of planes and in Germany his rank, Oberst, is just one rung below General. His personal experiences are all based on actual journeys in real planes, so it's not surprising that his primary criterion for a good simulator is realism.

Airbus A320 aims to be a technically accurate flight simulation written by a pilot to a standard that pilots will enjoy - anyone who's expecting a Falcon-style extravaganza that's simple to pick up, pretty to look at and easy to put down is in for a disappointment. In fact, Bopf, who has made a hobby out of simulations, has flown Falcon as well as various MicroProse games - but for him, the flight dynamics just don't feel right. "All I'm doing is sitting in front of some screen while the on-board computers do the flying - and I always get disappointed by the navigation, what the plane looks like or the fact that it hasn't even got flaps to land with." Airbus is aimed at a more specialised audience - the kind of people who share Bopf's enthusiasm for the original of the breed, SubLogic's classic Flight Simulator. Carmincke elaborates: "Basically we're saying: 'OK, you've coped with the single-engine machine in Flight Simulator, now try something bigger.' In one way, anyone who's familiar with SubLogic should find it easier because the games have similar navigation systems. What's new about it is the Airbus flight experience itself."

Right from the start, Bopf's objective was to create a "civilian" sim. He picked the Airbus because, as a piece of engineering, it's always had a special fascination for him. "It's such an innovative machine," enthuses Carmincke. "As it's totally computerised, the pilot is really more of a software manager." This might lead you to believe that Thalion's simulation actually lets you fly by wire - not so! What really intrigues Oberst Bopf is what happens when you turn the computers off. All the controls in his Airbus are operated manually - the only real exception is the auto-pilot for the Instrumental Landing System (ILS) and if you want to get good assessment marks, you even have to switch that off!

The finished product will feature Bopf's original flight dynamics combined with a few new Thalion touches. A career writing routines for radar hasn't given Bopf the most thorough grounding in vector graphics, so that's where Christian Jungen, Swiss programmer and polygon expert, has stepped in. Jungen is also contributing to the landscape detail and helping Bopf in the scanning of the flight territories. When everything has been fully implemented, hopeful pilots will have the chance to struggle through five progressively more difficult levels simulating a career from student right through to chief pilot. This innovative structure was Thalion's idea. Oberst Bopf's personal preference is for total flight freedom. SubLogic-style, with no assigned duties or schedules of any kind, so, in the interests of compromise, that option has been included, too. For free spirits there's a totally unrestricted training mode - fly any place, any time, anywhere under weather, wind and visibility conditions specially definded by you. Career pilots, on the other hand, have carte blanche to go all out for promotion from day one. There are even plans to create "Thalion Airways", with users becoming automatic employees once they've purchased a copy of the simulation. The plan is that "pilots" should notify the airline of their promotions and will receive some kind of medal in return. Carmincke is enthusiastic: "We want to keep up with all our pilots until they make it to chief."

Thanks to some co-operation from Lufthansa, the criteria for promotion are exactly the same as those demanded by the real thing. A pilot's duty-flights are organised according to Lufthansa schedules. You'll have to cope consistently well with everyday duties and checks, react quickly under adverse weather conditions and confirm your ability to hold a licence regularly. And according to genuine Lufthansa regulations, it takes around 400 to 500 flying hours (evaluated at a quality of 75 per cent and higher) to make it to the top. Lufthansa wasn't the only official organisation to contribute, as Carmincke explains: "Herr Bopf said he'd simulated the Airbus A320 and we thought it was important to actually call it that, so we presented it to the plane's manufacturer." And it wasn't just the flight dynamics that met with the Airbus contingent's seal of approval: Oberst Bopf ultimately got the thumbs-up for his whole approach. Keen to get away from the image that civilian pilots just sit at the controls and let the machinery do the rest, several admitted that they prefer to switch the onboard computers off just for the pleasure of taking manual control. Other professionals too, have tried it and enjoyed it. Airbus gained praise for flight dynamics and scenario from another old SubLogic fan, the spokesman for "Cockpit" - the offical pilot's organisation in Germany - as well as from several German pilots.

Meanwhile Oberst Bopf is using what spare time he has left to whittle away at another simulation program. This time it's a civilian helicopter game with a rescue scenario that has you racing to serious accident spots on highways and in the mountains, searching for the injured and rushing them to hospital. Carmincke is clearly impressed: "One of its advantages is that we can use exactly the same landscapes as in Airbus, though obviously the game area will have to be smaller and there'll have to be more detail." Expect to feast your eyes on that early next year.

Airbus airbrushed

He may be a dab hand at flight dynamics, but vectors, polygons and scenery aren't among Oberst Bopf's strong points, so these graphics are all currently in the process of being updated by Thalion. By the time Airbus A320 is released, in addition to all the relevant airports and runways, it will also sport all of Europe's major rivers (The Rhine, the Loire, The Thames, etc.) and all cities with population of over 200,000.

But that's just the beginning. Thalion is stressing that the version to be sold this summer is just one of a series designed to sport gradual improvements. One graphic feature to look forward to is shading, to give the impression of large geographical features such as forests or fields. But Carmincke is adamant that these won't be bells and whistles just for the sake of it: "We want to confine ourselves to flying, so we're definitely not going for gimmicks. That may cause us trouble with the kind of gamers who expect that sort of thing because they've had it before on scenery disks, but I really don't think we want to go so far as to show you the Eiffel Tower." Instead, the Thalion team is working on the problem of introducing features such as mountains at their correct height. "In the Airbus you've got to fly 10,000 feet before you can hit 250 knots - so nothing dangerous could actually happen." The main thing is to create a world that's recognisable even at the Airbus ceiling of 40,000 feet. Carmincke estimates that it'll take about three years to perfect - mainly because all of Herr Bopf's landscape routines will have to be rewritten. Adding detail to the world as it stands won't work - it would just make the scrolling jerky.

The One (Juni 1991)

When A320 Airbus was first brought into existence in 1987 it was destined to be a personal rather than a commercially available simulation. Only at the last Amiga Show in Cologne was the decision finally made to transfer the program onto the home computer.

One of the leading experts involved in the development of A320 Airbus is Rainer Bopf, a 50 year-old Luftwaffe Officer. Rainer became a pilot in 1963 and has now over 2500 flights to his credit. Having flown for over 1000 hours, Rainer has been involved in testing and designing new aircrafts for some time now. He first became aware of computers in 1966, soon becoming responsible for Systems Organization and Management. Rainer bought his first home computer back in 1976, a small 4K machine. He upgraded to an Apple II in 1981 and currently uses an Amiga 1000 which he decided on because of its outstanding sound and graphics capabilities. The A320 Airbus simulation was created by Rainer, who wanted a simulation of a modern aircraft, utilising features such as fly-by-wire and other computer aided systems.

The perfect choice

The main reason that the A320 Airbus was chosen was because the display media in the cockpit is identical to that of a home computer in that both have a VDU. What's more, one of the main processors used in the Airbus system is a Motorola 68000, the same chip that can be found in the humble Amiga! Using the Amiga's capabilities, Rainer was therefore able to make the cockpit simulation as realistic as possible. Rainer has tweaked A320 Airbus following comments and criticisms from both Lufthansa's chief A320 pilot and Deutsche Airbus GmbH. As a result both the flight characteristics and aircraft handling have been upgraded and revised from an earlier version of the program. The end product is a flight simulation that is probably the closest most of us are likely to get to the real thing. The game does not follow in the same flight path as so many of the other air combat games. Instead, would-be pilots are challenged to try their hand at the art of international flight. A320 Airbus will be released by Thalion on the Amiga, ST and PC.