Flight Sim 98: Into the West
I'm not sure how to start this, or even exactly what I'm supposed to be writing - good start, eh? Martin thought my story might be of interest to some of the readers of his magazine, but is it supposed to be a software review (which in a way it is) or a diary (I've got my diary in front of me to help with the details) or - well, I'll let you judge.
I should say up front that although I've read The Lord of the Rings several times I'm not a Tolkien buff like some of you out there. On the other hand, maybe I've learned some stuff about Middle-earth that very few of you have discovered ...
I suppose I'd better start with telling you about myself. My name is Mike Thompson and I'm seventeen years old. My main interest is civil aviation. Most of the local kids call me a plane-spotter, but I'm not really into that. I just love the aircraft: watching them in the air. I also love listening to the pilots and ATC [Air Traffic Control] on the air band radio.
It takes a while before you can understand what they're saying, but if you keep at it you can follow it fine. I've got this cool scanner Mum and Dad bought me for my last birthday. It's got squelch control (okay, so all scanners have got squelch, right), ten memories and, well, you can listen in to just about anything on it. When I was five my uncle took me to an air show and I was hooked! Since then I've been mad about planes. Funny thing is, I've only been in the air twice, but both times I threw up!
I do fly, though, on my PC. I've got Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 with a couple of add-ons. Like I bought an extra UK scenery pack because it's got our local airport, so I can take off and fly over our house and up and down the coast. Dad says I spend too much time on the PC, of course, but Mum says it's better than me hanging round on street corners. Yeah, right! Sometimes I try my hand at the 747 (too big) or the Learjet (too fast!) but mostly I fly this cool Cessna Skylane 182S which I call Eleanor (from the Lindisfarne track "Lady Eleanor", right?) - now she's been customised she's unique and I couldn't really imagine flying anything else.
I'm jumping ahead of the story, though. Okay. We live only a couple of miles from the airport so I spend most of my spare time there. One Saturday I was there as usual. There's an observation deck upstairs that looks out over the apron but it was closed that day so I was sat in the cafe. Drinks are a bit expensive but it's warm on a cold day and if you can get a table by the window there's a good view of the runway and the approach. As long as you use a headset no one minds about the scanner, so it's quite cosy. Most weekends you'll find a few of the guys from the air club down there, though that day I'd been there a couple of hours and no one else had turned up.
It was a pretty routine morning. The usual scheduled traffic and stuff but I'm more interested in the light aircraft and there hadn't been too many of those. I was listening in to the ATC frequencies, though, so I wasn't bored. With my scanner you can follow a plane all the way down to a landing. It's fun trying to work out what it's going to be - the type of aircraft and the operator - because it's not always obvious from the call sign. I mean, everyone knows "Speedbird" is British Airways and most of the big airlines use standard sigs. But some private and commercial sigs leave you guessing until the plane turns for final approach and you get a proper look at it.
That's how it was with Echo Lima Foxtrot Two Seven Zero. I'd been following her for maybe twenty minutes, since she entered LARS [Lower Airspace Radar Advisory Service, I think! - Ed] from outside the area to the east. I'd never heard the call sign and it wasn't in my reference book either. Although there's nothing too unusual in that it was enough to catch my interest.
The pilot's voice was strange, too. You get used to different accents, with pilots from all over the world. Some of them really struggle with English, but the phrases are so standard there's never really any chance of anything being misunderstood. Just as well! With this guy, though, it wasn't that his English was poor - it was almost too good. That sounds stupid. I mean, if some foreign pilots have trouble with the language, most of the British ones sound like they come straight out of some old black and white movie. Clipped isn't in it. Echo Lima Foxtrot's pilot wasn't anything like that, though. His voice didn't sound posh, or clipped. Just - well, pure, somehow. Even when he was giving his position or confirming information and directions from the ground it was like I was hearing the words fresh for the first time.
The call sign and the pilot's voice had caught my attention but then I saw the plane. My first sight of her was a sudden flash of light way off as she turned onto final. Through my binoculars I watched her all the way down. She was a Cessna Skyhawk F172E: a deluxe version of the basic model. Uncommon enough to be interesting, certainly, but as she touched down - oh, so gently - and taxied from the runway there was something else ... But like with her pilot's voice on the R/T [radio telephone] I couldn't put my finger on it.
He parked her on the northern apron and I watched him gather his things together, clamber down from the cockpit and walk across to the terminal building. From my seat at the window I had a superb view of the plane and without knowing why I found myself scouring every inch of her as if something desperately important depended upon me discovering - something.
But what? What was it about Echo Lima Foxtrot Two Seven Zero? I knew the Cessna. Every line and curve. I knew all the stats, I'd watched them from the ground for years. I'd flown "Eleanor" over two hundred hours on the Flight Sim. Binoculars racked to maximum 20x magnif- ication I scanned her from prop to tail. Everything about her was just as it should be. Perfect.
"She is lovely, isn't she?"
I lowered my binoculars and looked round. Standing next to me was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
I know it sounds really corny, but believe me, she was stunning - what most of the guys I know would call a "Real Babe". Tall, blonde, a figure like you wouldn't believe. Even now I don't think I could tell you how old she was. Her looks and that body were like maybe mid twenties at most. But her eyes were deepest blue and seemed somehow older than that. Much, much older. It was her voice, though, that really got me (honest!) It was clear as a bell and pure in a way that reminded me of the pilot's.
I guess I must have been looking at her kind of surprised, or stunned - or maybe she could tell what I was thinking (and believe me, that's not a very comfortable feeling when you're two feet away from a woman with a body like you only see on Baywatch!) - because after a minute when I hadn't replied she laughed and the sound was so sweet and lovely I found I was laughing too.
"I saw you watching her," she went on. "You like aeroplanes?" In the circumstances the question was pretty dumb but it broke the ice, which was probably what she intended.
"Yeah - I mean, yes. I love them! The Cessna's beautiful. Is she yours?"
"My husband's, but I pilot her sometimes. Do you like to fly?"
The pilot was her husband. Of course, she had to be married. Suddenly I wished more than anything else in the world to be able to say yes. To tell her my father, or an uncle, or someone I knew had a plane and took me up regularly. That I was going to start studying for my licence just as soon as I was old enough. But as I looked up to say all that I found I was staring again into those eyes, deep like the bluest skies. Or maybe like the sky reflected in the deepest of oceans. "No - I mean, well, I wish I could, but I get airsick." I half expected her to laugh at me or say something kind but condescending. She didn't, though. In fact she didn't say anything at all for ... was it only a moment? When she spoke again I found I had been staring into her eyes, almost falling into them. It probably was only a moment, but it could have been forever.
"But, Michael, you do fly, do you not?" It only occurred to me much later that I had not told her my name.
"Only on the flight simulator, on the computer."
"But you know, sometimes flight simulators can be very - realistic, don't you think?"
"Yes!" I answered, suddenly exhilarated, enthused with the simple joy of flying that I did feel when I was on the Sim. "But not as good as the real thing."
"Hmmm, maybe not. But sometimes there's no other way of, how should I say, rehearsing, a flight. Practising."
There was a pause, then. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I was sure she meant something beyond the words themselves. I looked again into her eyes but the skies in them seemed a long, long way away.
"Are you flying today?" I asked at last, suddenly afraid I was about to lose my new friend."Yes".
"A long way?" Are you coming back?
"Yes, I'm afraid so. A very long way." You won't see me here again. But don't worry, my young friend. Maybe there is a way.
At that moment there was a movement behind me. I looked up to see the Cessna's pilot - her husband - standing there. He was tall, too. Blond. His face lightly tanned. At first glance I'd have put him in his late thirties, but he had those same ageless blue eyes.
"Hello," I said. "She's beautiful." I meant the Cessna, of course, but I was suddenly afraid that maybe he could read my mind too. That he could tell how deeply I had fallen in love with his wife. He smiled, a broad open smile that included the three of us and left me still wondering.
"Hello, Michael. Yes, she is beautiful."
"I wish we could take you for a ride with us," she said. "But we have to leave now."
"That's okay," I added as casually as I could manage, knowing I was hiding nothing from either of them. "It'd be a shame to throw up all over your lovely plane." They both laughed this time, but it was a gentle laugh.
"I don't think you will have any more problems with that," he said. Somehow I believed him. I guess feeling air sick and stuff is mostly in your mind anyway, but I have flown since then - we had a school trip to France - and I was fine. Not even queasy.
"Elanor is right, though, we do have to leave. We have a long journey ahead of us. Farewell, my friend."
I watched him walk away. Elanor. The lady Elanor sat silent beside me and for a moment I almost believed she had changed her mind and was staying behind. Her eyes, though, remained the colour of distant skies and I knew in my heart I was about to lose her.
"Before I leave, Michael, I have a small gift for you."
She reached into a finely embroidered velvet bag hanging at her waist. I don't know what I was expecting but I was a bit surprised when she pulled out a CD-ROM in a bright orange case, a shorthand notepad and a pencil. She tore a page from the pad, wrote a few words across the sheet of paper and folded it in two. Then she handed me the CD with the folded sheet on top.
"Will you be listening to us as we go?" she asked, pointing to my scanner on the table.
"Yes - sure."
"Take care, Michael. Who knows, we may yet meet again." And then she bent down and kissed me on the mouth.
I was so surprised I could hardly think straight but I managed to mumble "Thanks." I looked down at what she had given me. Through the plastic case I caught the words "Flight Simulator" on the CD and the image of a light plane flying over the ocean towards high mountains. I looked up again but of course she had gone. The piece of paper had just six words on it, in a lovely round hand:
Into the West - 270 - Namárië - Elanor
Afew minutes later I saw her, again, walking across the apron to the little Cessna. Her husband was already aboard but I noticed he was in the co-pilot's seat. Through my binoculars I watched as she made the customary pre-flight inspection of the aircraft. Bending over to inspect the tires and undercarriage. Reaching across the wing to examine the fuel and control surfaces.
Even at this distance (they're good binoculars!) her body was doing strange things to me and after a minute or two I decided I'd better concentrate on the lines and surfaces of the aircraft instead. Meeting Elanor - both of them - had distracted me from the plane but there was still something not right about the Cessna. No, that wasn't it at all, she was too right. Too perfect. What was it, though?
Sunlight glared from her immaculate paint work, a fiery rainbow arc of dazzling hue. Suddenly I realised what was wrong. It wasn't paint work - somehow the Cessna's colours were worked into the very metal itself. Or, rather, they played in the metal, like colours reflected in a film of oil on water. But these weren't the pale blues and mauves of an oil spill in the rain. The Cessna was liveried in vibrant forest green trimmed silver and gold, and the deep, deep blue of winter skies.
Over the radio I heard Elanor's pure clear voice request clearance to taxi to the holding point. The last clear view of her was as the plane swung away from me. There was a small device on the engine cowling I'd not noticed before. Seven stars in the shape of the Plough above a single tall mountain peak, with three words underneath: Into the West. So the first words on the paper were the plane's name. The Cessna moved into position on the runway. A moment later and it began moving.
Echo Lima Foxtrot 270 rolling
I followed her through the binoculars as she climbed steeply into the sky then banked away. I lost her from view, then, and all I could do was listen in for the R/T communications.
Echo Lima Foxtrot 270 airborne heading two seven zero for a journey into the west
"Echo 270 contact Radar on one niner seven decimal one five - bye bye"
One niner seven one five - Namárië
The "bye bye" is customary, if not standard. When I started listening to the Air Band it used to amuse me, it sounded funny with all the standard, coded information and instructions.
Elanor hadn't replied with "bye bye" though. What had she said? The word on the paper: Namárië. I was sure she had said it for me.
Obviously, the first thing I did when I got home was put the PC on and see what was on the CD. It was clearly some sort of add-on for the Flight Simulator - the insert card said as much - but it took me several weeks to discover just what it really was.
Basically, it's a scenery pack for Great Britain, together with some customisation options for the standard FS Cessna. Like larger in-wing fuel tanks and an improved engine for non-stop long haul. There's also a new suite of liveries including (obviously, as I now realise) Into the West's forest and winter sky colours.
Well, I installed all the scenery (remembering to disable the standard FS libraries first, because if you don't you get really weird effects with both lots of scenery - almost - superimposed!) I decked out my "Eleanor" with all the custom options, until she was nothing less than a copy of the Lady's own little plane.
I then put in hours of flying, soaring over the hills and fields of England. With the modifications she felt and responded differently, and there was a lot to get used to all over again. But somehow I wasn't satisfied. There had to be more to it than this: a couple of custom options, a new paint job and some finer (much finer) mapped landscapes. I was sure Elanor meant more by her gift than that. I was missing something. Again and again I went back to the piece of paper and the words she had written there.
Into the West - 270 - Namárië - Elanor
"Into the West" was her Cessna, obviously. Two seven zero could be a compass heading: 270 degrees magnetic - due west. That reinforced the message, or maybe it was the heading I should fly on the simulator. What was it she said to me?
... sometimes flight simulators can be very - realistic, don't you think? ... sometimes there's no other way of, how should I say, rehearsing, a flight. Practising.
Yes, that had to be right. They'd used the Sim to rehearse the journey they were taking. I went back to the PC and night after night I took off from the city airport, turning just like she did onto a heading of 270 magnetic. Nothing happened. What was I expecting? The airfield fell away behind me. I over flew the same familiar fields, roads, towns. Eventually I reached the sea. Time and time again. Nothing. If I kept to the same heading, eventually I ran out of fuel and ditched into the Atlantic. Every time.
What was I expecting?
After a week I was getting desperate. I thought back to that Saturday at the airport. I went over everything I could remember, from the first time I heard the Echo Lima Foxtrot call sign to the last words I heard her speak, over the R/T. The last words I heard her speak ...
One niner seven one five - Namárië
Namárië. Funnily enough it was the one word on the sheet of paper I thought I knew the meaning of almost straight away. I guess that's why I'd then forgotten about it altogether. Like I said before I'm no Tolkien buff, but I had read The Lord of the Rings only the summer before. I enjoyed it, too. It wasn't the word itself - it took me ages to find it because it's not in the index - I think it was the funny accents on the letters than made me think "Tolkien". Anyway, like everyone knows, it means Farewell and that seemed to fit with the way we parted. Did it mean more than that, though? She had used it again in her R/T message.
The Flight Sim doesn't have proper Air Traffic Control. You can request clearance from the Tower and it comes back on a running banner across the top of the screen, and some of the training flights have recorded R/T conversations, but that's it. I mean, you can get ATC add ons but I haven't got any and there wasn't anything like that on the CD she'd given me. Was there?
It was another book that finally gave me the clue I needed. Have you ever read "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco? There's one part where the narrator (I've forgotten his name) discovers the password to Belbo's (no, not Bilbo's!) computer Abulafia.
"Do you have the password?" I typed: NO.
The first time I read that it made me think of Gandalf at the West Gate of Moria, because the answer's so obvious - when you know it!
Pedo mellon a minno
I didn't have a microphone on the PC, so I couldn't speak a password. But I could type one. Even before I tried, I knew I had cracked it. I knew something was going to happen. But I had - could have had - no idea what. I went back to my room and started up the Flight Sim. I checked everything. All the settings. Fuel tanks to full. I set the screen resolution to its highest setting. Scenery Density to "Very Dense" with all the trimmings. Image Quality and Speed to "High/Slow".
I started up my now very familiar flight. "Eleanor" sat on the runway, ready for takeoff. Parking brakes on. Flaps at twenty degrees. The flight clock was set to real time. It was 21:37. It was just starting to get dark.
I requested clearance from the Tower. A moment or so later the familiar banner text ran across the top of the screen. Cleared for takeoff. I hit F4, the engine revved full on, and released the brakes. Weaving slightly from side to side (it's so hard to correct that swing!) I watched the airport buildings slip past. One eye on the airspeed indicator. When it reached 60 I eased the stick back and "Eleanor" lifted me gently into the sky. The deep, deep blue sky.
Five minutes later I was at one thousand feet. I turned left onto a heading of 270 magnetic. Due west. Holding her straight and level I typed one word on the keyboard.
And nothing happened! I don't know what I was expecting. A surge of power, a pre-recorded message from the Lady. Something. As time passed and the sky darkened to night I watched the too familiar fields, roads, towns passing beneath me. Eventually I reached the sea, as I had done a hundred times before over the past weeks. I was confused and angry. Angry with myself for thinking there could be more to all this than a nice lady's gift to a seventeen year old schoolboy who had fallen in love with her in an airport cafeteria. Angry with her for leading me on. I was also exhausted. I felt weak and dizzy from too many late nights on the Flight Sim. Looking at the clock I saw it was nearly midnight - and I had school the next day. Maybe Dad was right, I was spending too much time on the PC. Somehow, though, I couldn't turn the machine off that night.
The coast was a long way behind me now - just a distant line of light when I switched the view to look back through the rear window. The cockpit lights were the only other things I could see. You can't turn the cockpit lights off in the Sim, but I closed the cockpit 'window' altogether. The screen exploded with stars, which had been too dim to see before. A million silver and gold stars spangled across a cloudless sky of deepest midnight blue.
I went and lay on my bed but I didn't get a lot of sleep. From time to time through the night I got up to check the trim, keeping the aircraft level and true to the 270 heading. The fuel gauges, which on previous flights would have long since run empty, still showed seven eighths full. How far had I travelled? There was no direct way of telling because I was well out of sight of land, and out of range of any navigation beacons, but for the past four or five hours I had been trimmed to a cruise speed of around 150 knots ...
I took screen prints of the sky ahead, filling the hard disk with star patterns. I'm not really sure why. I think I just wanted to prove to myself that this was all happening. Whatever "this" turned out to be.
I must have dozed off, because I remember waking up on my bed in the early hours of the morning - still fully clothed. My room was dark except for the light from the PC. On the Sim I could still see stars but the sky was growing lighter and I could see reflections in the water beneath me. We seemed to have dropped a little in altitude but the heading remained true. Two Seven Zero. Into the West.
I went back to bed, my head spinning from lack of sleep. In the morning I went to school but I left the Sim running with the monitor powered off (I told Mum it was something for a science project!) I couldn't think about anything else through the day, but when I got home the Cessna was still stuck on the same heading. Except for the sky - now clear and blue with only the lightest of clouds - nothing had happened.
I grabbed a sandwich and settled down in front of the PC. "Eleanor" seemed to respond normally as I took up the controls and gently banked to left and right. Returning to the 270 heading I dropped down to skim the glittering surface of the sea. I reset the altimeter and climbed back to two thousand feet. After half an hour I was getting bored. I reckoned the program must have got into some sort of loop, where the plane would fly on forever, never getting anywhere, never running out of fuel. Wait, though. The fuel gauges had dropped, in fact they were showing a lot less than quarter full. Either I was reaching the end of my journey, or I was going to be taking a dip in that endless ocean beneath me.
Then I noticed something in the distance: a narrow pale line between the blue sky and the deeper blue of the water. I switched to map mode and nearly fell off my chair! I was still over water but, many miles off, a huge curved coastline stretched across the screen ahead of me. There was no real detail yet, I was too far off for that, but the Sim wasn't stuck in a loop. I had no idea where the journey was taking me, but it was taking me somewhere.
Over the next two hours I watched the coastline creeping towards me. The thin pale line at the horizon grew steadily clearer and darker. And then I saw the islands. There were too many to count - a narrow chain of rocks set in a wide arc running roughly north-south. The curve of the islands seemed to mirror the coastline and between them they created a vast, oval shaped lagoon.
I turned south before I reached the islands and flew along the chain for maybe an hour. Although the mainland was still away off to my right I could zoom in now (the wonders of digitised scenery!) The waves broke against a long narrow shoreline. Beyond the shore a huge range of snow-capped mountains rose into the air like a wall. Way off, still far to the south, one sharp peak rose clear above the rest. I don't know how high it must have been. Huge.
The fuel was getting really low now and I decided if I didn't want to end up in the sea I'd better try and find somewhere to land. I banked right, flying towards the mainland again on the original 270 heading. As I passed over the chain of islands something happened. It felt like we had hit a down draft - or a wall. The Cessna fell out of the air. The altimeter needle, which had been steady so long I'd begun to think it must be stuck, spun round wildly as we went into a steep, spiral dive. The screen went blue - the only thing ahead of us were the waves. I was too shocked to think about what to do. I reacted instinctively, though I've never had much luck getting out of that sort of situation (I try not to get into them, or reach for the Escape key!) But as quickly as it had begun the force, or down draft or whatever it was, stopped. I was inside the island chain, flying towards the mountains at five hundred feet over the deep blue, almost still waters of the lagoon.
I tried to relax after my shock. I retrimmed for level flight and throttled back to save as much fuel as possible. The map showed the terrain ahead in much more detail now, but so far as I could see there was no chance of landing on the narrow strip of sandy shore. I would have to clear the mountains and hope - pray - that there would be somewhere on the other side flat and wide enough for me to land. That's if I got that far.
I got the shock of my life when I switched back to cockpit view, because the whole screen was filled with mountain! Then I realised I was still zoomed in. I hit the 'minus' key until the cliffs retreated as far as they would go. Not far enough. I was way too low with precious little fuel to climb, or distance to do it in. Desperately I hit F4 and the engine sprang back to full power. Flaps down. I pulled back on the stick. Not too hard. I couldn't afford to stall it now. The altimeter showed we were climbing fast but there was still an awful lot of mountain in my face, and it was getting very close. All I could do was hold on. In those last few moments I was convinced this was the end. I'd screwed up.
Sure, I wasn't really going to spread myself across a snowy mountain peak in god-knows-where. It was only a simulation. I could try it again. Maybe. Then the fuel ran out. It had happened to me so many times in the weeks before I knew it before the engine cut. I was still climbing - just - on fumes and momentum alone, but the vertical speed indicator was sinking towards zero. With a clear sky ahead of me I knew I could trim for a three degree glide that would see me safely down to earth. But the screen was white, not blue. I was about to plough into a snow bank - or maybe snow covered rock. So close.
Then everything went blue - the deep, deep blue of a cloudless sky. Somehow I'd made it. Just. And green! Beyond the Mountains the land fell sharp away to a wide green plain that looked like maybe it went on for ever. Zooming in I saw there were scattered buildings. Roads. Towns. Gliding now I headed towards the nearest, aiming to attempt a landing in the fields nearby. Then the Outer Marker light started flashing - there was an airfield! The map showed a single grass runway off to the left and I banked to meet it on a perfect short final approach. The wheels screeched loudly as I made the rather bumpy landing - but I was down, and in one piece! There was just enough momentum to carry me off the runway towards the small hanger and few other buildings. So, that was it. I was here. Wherever "here" might be.
That was when I saw them - the Lady Elanor and her tall handsome husband - striding hand in hand across the grass towards me.