Virtually Flying

by Glenn Norman

It’s been my pleasure to know Jonathan Bach since he was 4 years old! We took him flying in our Thruxton Jackaroo biplane at the end of our first Trans-Continental Air Dash (full story coming soon),  and got him up again a few years later in his Dad’s old ’39 Reid Clip-Wing  Cub (then owned by “Hippies” Joey Giovenco & Chris Kask).

After reading Jon’s wonderful book, “Above the Clouds” (on board a 747 – literally, above the clouds – en route to New Zealand), we got in touch with Jon and became friends again … this time as adults. So when he wrote me an E insisting I get in touch with his friend, Hal Bryan (a man whom he claimed was like my twin-brother, separated at birth), I had to take the request seriously.

Secretly, I knew suggestions like these never work out.

… Shows how much I know.

Jon was right. Hal & I got along like a freshly-laminated, sitka-spruce spar (so tightly-bonded, that we weren’t exactly sure where one of us left off and the other began). We had so many shared passions that, despite a 20-year age difference, we soon began referring to ourselves as either GN-20 (in Hal’s case), or HB + 20 in mine. And as our friendship grew, I began to receive packages in the mail from Hal.

One of the first was two copies of the tin-box, collectors’ edition of Flight Simulator 2004 (one for me, the other for The Widge).

“Um, Okay,” I thought. “But …Why?”

I’d tried earlier versions of Flight Sim (FS) and – like many pilots I know – had soon put it aside because I couldn’t land any of the damn planes. And when you’re “a legend in your own mind” (like me), you quickly deduce that there must be something wrong with the software.

I scratched my head over the generous, but curious gift, then called Hal to thank him – and get an answer to that all-important, “Why?”

“Oh,” said Hal. “I thought Jon told you. I work at The Aces Studio.”

(A long silence followed on my end.)

“… We make Flight Simulator,” Hal explained.

“I thought Microsoft made FS,” I answered.

“Yes, Glenn. That’s where I work,” came back the somewhat disgruntled, you-really-should-know-who-I-am, reply.

“Ah!” I responded, as the light finally begin to flicker in my aging brain.

As Hal had been kind enough to send us FS, Widge and I loaded the software onto our computers. It soon became blatantly clear that Michelle’s ‘puter – the faster of the two – was the only one that would run the program properly. So I took to getting up early in an attempt to master the beast while Michelle (who tends to write through the night) was still fast asleep.

However, as before, I couldn’t land any of the damn planes.

This was now more than embarrassing as I knew Hal wanted to know how I was enjoying his gift. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get any of the virtual machines down in one piece.

(During this period, The Widge tells me she was frequently awoken by colourful language emanating from her office.)

My salvation came when Hal happened to mention there were web sites you could visit where it was possible to download other aircraft and extremely-detailed scenery.

Intrigued, I happened to visit first and it was there I fell in love with FS. Why? Because they had an entire section dedicated to my favourite category – antique airplanes! And there, amongst all kinds of intriguing beasts, was a Grumman Widgeon (like the one Richard Bach used to own {and does again … last I heard}).

The rusty gears in my head began to turn.

Wait a minute! I can take off in these virtual-monsters. Suppose I depart from an ocean-side airport, pull the gear up, then land on the water? If I don’t have to worry about running off the runway, I can concentrate on figuring out the flare. Eureka! That just might work.

Thanks to excellent tutorials, I quickly learned how to “add new aircraft” to FS and soon had the Widgeon sitting on the button at Princess Juliana Airport on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin (or, more accurately, Sint Maarten {as our Dutch partner Francois will undoubtedly correct me}.) I swerved into the virtual air, pulled up the gear, turned towards the Ocean, pulled back on the throttle … and went “straight in.”


On my next attempt, I gave myself an outside, rear-quarter view of the airplane, bled the power off slowly, then discovered I could see the shadow as the bird approached the surface. To my utter amazement, my next landing was a “greaser” (or whatever you call it when you make a perfect water-landing).

That moment was my “epiphany,” and after a dozen or so take-offs and landings from “the ocean,” I was ready to put the gear down and turn back to the airport.

Where I immediately crashed.


But I got the Widgeon down in one piece on the second landing, then achieved some semblance of actual control on my third.

From there on, I was an FS fan (which, it’s important to remember, is short for fanatic).

Every morning, I couldn’t wait to jump out of bed, dash to Widgie’s computer and see what wonderful new (or, in my case, old) airplanes had been added overnight.

I was soon adding five or more each day – so many, in fact, that Michelle told me I’d have to upgrade my own computer as I was filling up her hard drive (a fact I found hysterically funny … and she did not).

But if the add-on airplanes hooked me on FS, it was the extraordinary add-on scenery that tipped me over the edge into a full-blown fanatic.

I discovered a group named Flight Ontario ( ) were building exact scenery for all the airports in our area. And when I saw Brampton Airport was on their list (where Michelle and I had flown for many years), I immediately downloaded the file and installed it.


The Airport was accurate right down to the signs on the buildings! So Virtually Flying out of there was like flying from Brampton for real.

It was right about then that I heard rumours the Flight Ontario gang were working on scenery for our home airport at Guelph Airpark. So, I decided to get in touch and received a wonderful response from the group’s Al Gay. Al not only confirmed that the Guelph scenery was almost ready for beta testing, but also asked if I’d be interested in contributing a history of the field. As the Airport was founded by our friend, the late, great Len Ariss, I jumped at the opportunity. So when the Guelph Airpark scenery was released, my history was included as one of the add-on’s extras.

Not only that, but if you taxi up to the pumps, and look closely at the ramp man’s face, that’s me waiting to serve you! (And before Michelle moved out of her Hangar, a pretty fair replica of her Pietenpol sat inside it – with Michelle standing by the open door! I believe various ramp personnel at Hamilton Airport also bear our faces {and Hal’s}.)

In the meantime, Hal was suggesting we come up with some clever reason why he should visit Southern Ontario so we could meet in person. I wished he’d asked us earlier because this was less than a month before the Canadian Aviation Expo (then held at Oshawa, Ontario).

I had forgotten Hal worked for Microsoft.

He arrived just three weeks later, along with a phenomenal display case designed to show off the latest version of Flight Sim … FSX. And for “icing on the cake,” he “volunteered,” Michelle, myself, Al Gay, and several other Flight Ontario members to act as demonstrators at the show.

It was there Michelle and I ran into Hal (literally – in the motel hallway), and over the next three days, using the “land-on-water-first trick” (one of the new FSX standard aircraft was a Grumman Goose), we “checked out” a whole whack of Pilots on the new Flight Simulator.

We must have done something right as Hal invited Widge and me to demo FSX at Oshkosh. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse (including a motel room ON the airport), so off we went … and by the end of that week we were immersed in the world of Virtual Aviation and had made many, new, real-world friends.

I should point out that throughout this experience we had our pick of The Tiger Boys antique aircraft to fly whenever we wanted (thanks to the kindness of Tom Dietrich and Bob Revell {who even arranged for Hal to fulfil his life-long dream of soloing a Tiger Moth}).

So my love affair with FS didn’t stem from necessity (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but from choice. Because what I quickly realized was that FS is so realistic, it allowed me to stay “current” through the long Canadian winter (when you really “gotta wanna” fly to go through the rigmarole of getting one of those cantankerous antiques ready to aviate).

I even began learning how to shoot instrument approaches, and finally learned how an Omni works (thanks to a program feature which allows you to “turn on the beam” you’re attempting to fly so you can actually see it!)

I’ll finish up this overly-long “Ode to FS” with a story of the night I downloaded some breath-taking new scenery of the Italian Alps. Once I had it installed, I found an airstrip in a mountain valley, selected a 172 (as I only planned to “fly” for a few minutes), then took off and started climbing towards the towering peaks.

An hour later, I was still flying; desperately trying to coax the Cessna over a high-mountain Col. I was exhausted from battling turbulence (I’d sprung for a force-feedback joystick) and my hands were sweating. But as I cleared the Col (just), I saw the most-amazing, high-mountain lake laid out before me. It was a totally unexpected surprise and a delightful “reward” for all my hard work.

It was only as I wiped off my sweaty palms that it suddenly dawned on me, “Wait a minute. This isn’t real.”

It wasn’t? Well all I can tell you is, we’ve flown through both east and west coast mountain ranges – twice … and that Virtual Flight in the Italian Alps stands out just as strong in my memory as any of the flights I made “in the real world. “

That’s why “I get” the Simmers’ passion for FS.

That’s why I’m proud to count myself as one of them.

And, by the way- Hal … thanks for the gift.

Postscript: Our partner, Francois Dumas will have me strung up if I don’t mention the SUPERB add-ons offered at his just-opened/still-under-construction site: FSAddonshop

One Comment

  1. Guest Subscriber

    I HAD to go and get NC4 and “have a look” … very Kewl!! Widge’s Piet is indeed there! I didn’t see the “ramp man” however. Perhaps I ran him over in my enthusiasm. (Restlessole)

Leave a Reply