With the latest technology anybody can land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier or shoot down enemy warplanes, at least in the virtual world of video games. The reality is very different.
“THE VIDEO GAME is a lot like flying simulators,” says Capt. Scott “Notso” Swift, deputy commander of the airwing aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. “Simulators are good for training but it doesn’t raise your adrenalin. It doesn’t raise your heart rate.”
The Lincoln, which has its home port in Everett, Wash., is in the Gulf as part of a massive U.S. military build-up in preparation for a possible war against Iraq. In the meantime, its pilots are flying patrols over a “no-fly” zone in southern Iraq.
“Right now when we’re flying in the no-fly zone, they’re shooting at us,” Swift said.
“Every time we fly they’re shooting at us. So it’s not a video game where if you lose there’s an explosion on the screen, there’s a let down, you lose points and you restart for another game. You don’t get to restart in this game.”
Still video games do have something in common with flying, which is why Navy pilots in flight school often use a modified version of a commercial flight simulator game to hone their skills.
“One guy on the course used this program a lot and at the end they looked back and said, ‘Holy cow, your grades are amazing.’ They said, ‘How did you do it?’ He said, ‘I have this video game at home’,” said Lt. j.g. Steve Dean, who flies the F/A-18E Superhornets.
After that the Navy bought licenses for the program and set up facilities for the pilots to practice, Dean said. “It helped me study,” he said.
Dean, from Oak Harbor, Wash., is one of several pilots who plays video games in his spare time on ship, but he says he now prefers football or other sports games. “I don’t play flying games because it’s like work,” he said. Others play Star Wars, Grand Theft Auto and other tactical games.
VIDEO GAME SKILLS FOR PILOTS Cmdr. Dale Horan, executive officer of the “Eagles” Superhornet squadron, says a good video game player does not necessarily make a good pilot but there are some points in common.
“Hand-eye coordination, correlating a bunch of information, processing that information, making a decision based on that. That certainly applies,” said Horan, who comes from Maryland.
One of the biggest challenges for Navy pilots is landing on a 300-foot stretch of deck on an aircraft carrier that is moving at up to 30 knots in the dark. On a calm and clear night the task is difficult. In bad weather after four or five hours in the cockpit, it is something that even experienced pilots dread.
“They’ve got these games where you can land aircraft on carriers, but it’s very mechanical,” Swift said. “You know if you set this power setting and just move the nose this way you’ll land OK.” Not so in a real landing.
“There’s dynamics going on all the time, different configurations on the aircraft, different material conditions. You could have some emergency, some failure, different wind conditions. It’s very windy up here today. Sometimes it’s very calm with no wind and that makes the landing conditions completely different.”
The pilots aim to catch one of four steel wires stretched across the deck which trap a hook on the back of the plane, bringing the plane from 150 miles per hour to a stop in around 300 feet. Missing the wires is fairly common so pilots are told to put the plane into full throttle so they have enough power to take off again if necessary.
Lt. Jerry Schafer, a naval flight officer from Denver, is an avid video games player. His job is to man the electronic surveillance systems aboard the E-2 Hawkeye, which resembles an AWACS plane with a radar dome on the top.
Schafer’s two grandfathers both fought in World War Two, serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
“It seemed much more dramatic for them,” he says. “It was an all-out war. They were actually shooting. My father’s father was a 20 mm gunner on a destroyer. He told me about two Japanese kills he had. One was a kamikaze diving on his ship.”
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” Schafer says. “With the way technology has taken wars, everything is so removed. You drop a bomb, push a button, who knows what happens. We don’t really see any of the horrors of it.”
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