01/07/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Take Your Flight Gaming Into the Real World


Many video gamers spend a lot of time flying virtual fighters and spacecrafts, but few know about opportunities to trade the couch for the cockpit and actually try out their skills in the real world.

There's nothing wrong with being adept with a game controller. In fact, skills developed on gaming consoles and in simulators have real-world application for those who fly unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs"). But an experience in a real aircraft in a real sky can add to your appreciation of gaming or even create a new avocation or profession.

Fly a Warbird

Several operations in the U.S. can give you the experience of flying warbirds like the ones you fly virtually on your gaming system.

For example, Stallion 51 in Kissimme, Florida, offers flight experiences in the T-6 Texan (the advanced trainer that prepared fighter pilots for combat in WWII), and a version of the mighty P-51 Mustang (actually the very rare TF-51, which has two sets of controls). Either aircraft offers you a chance to fly the aircraft yourself with a capable instructor on board. Experiences start at $525 for a session in the T-6 and you can customize your experience to the level of money and thrills that accommodates your budget and your enthusiasm.

Air Combat USA offers opportunities to go up in an aerobatic aircraft with a former military pilot and dogfight with your friends. Or enemies. The company operates Marchetti SF 260s and Extra 300Ls equipped with cameras and sensors. The company is based in Fullerton, California, but its aircraft and pilots tour nationally. $1,350 gets you a basic air combat experience with ground instruction and then 5-6 dogfights and video of your heroics (or your shame).

There are other operations that offer experiences like these. A little time on the Web will likely turn up an opportunity that's to your liking.

Learn to Fly Yourself

If a tamer, yet potentially more fulfilling experience is the order of the day, you can probably learn to fly all by yourself. You start by heading to one of many airports in the US that has a flight school and asking the flight school for a "discovery flight." The flight usually lasts between 30 minutes and an hour. You'll fly a single-engine airplane with two or four seats. The instructor will help you taxi and will handle the takeoff and the landing (most often with you following on the controls). Once in the air, you'll get to do most of the flying. Discovery flights usually run between $100 and $200.

If you like it, you can continue training. Depending on the rating that you pursue, you can get your private or light-sport certificate in at little as 20 hours of flight time, although most people take between 40 and 80 hours. Training aircraft generally rent for between $100 and $200/hour. Instruction goes for between $30 and $80/hour.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association ("AOPA"), the USA's largest association of pilots, offers a page of resources, including a directory of flight schools and lots of other information about learning to fly.

How it's Different

Video games have gotten pretty good at modeling actual aircraft behavior. That's especially true of purpose-built flight simulation software. Microsoft Flight Simulator X, X-Plane, and similar software packages do a good job of modeling pitch, roll, and yaw, as well as cockpits, instruments, and the external environment. Packages like Digital Combat Simulator World ("DCS World") allow users to purchase and modify current military inventory aircraft to use with the simulator and there's even a team of gamers that flies virtual demonstrations as the Virtual Blue Angels.

By the time you get to the console games, accuracy gives way to gaming fun. There's usually no way to make rudder inputs or fine throttle adjustments and the responses of the aircraft are more geared toward facilitating a shoot-'em-up than giving an accurate experience.

The experience in the actual aircraft is very different from either sims or console games.

  • For one thing, you get to feel the G forces pushing you into your seat, side-to-side, or even trying to pull you out of your seat if you go negative. A flight experience can be as wild or as mild as you like. You needn't go more than +3G/-1G on an a basic aerobatic ride and even an air combat ride will likely stay within +4G/-2G most of the time. A discovery flight at a flight school usually stays within +2G/+1G.
  • Getting to see all around you is the next big difference. You don't have to use a hat switch or controller button to look this way and that. Just swivel your melon. Most aerobatic or combat aircraft have very good visibility and you'll be able to see the sights (and/or your opponent) pretty well.
  • On most rides (and especially discovery flights), you'll get to fly the aircraft with the help of the instructor. Ask to see what the stick or yoke and the rudder pedals do. Compare those inputs and results to what you experience in the game world. Maneuver. Experiment. Have fun!
  • There's another sensation that you might feel, but shouldn't fear: Nausea. It's a natural reaction to moving around in three dimensions. Many pilots have hurled in aircraft and others lie about it. You're in great company. Worrying about it actually contributes to stress that can make you hurl when you wouldn't have otherwise. Just keep that little white bag close and relax. The other good news is that initial flight experiences like these tend to be short and you'll very likely return to the airport with your lunch right where you put it. And, if you hurl, embrace it as a badge of honor that you'd be very unlikely to earn sitting on your couch!

Go Find Out

Flight sim and air combat gaming are great for what they are. But you can add depth to your gaming passion -- or maybe even start another lifelong love -- by going up and seeing what the real thing is like.

Photo credit: Paul Bowen, courtesy Stallion 51