Originally Published: Tuesday, 10 April 2001 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Take Flight; FlightGear Delivers

Want to learn to fly, but can't afford the lessons? Ever dreamed of getting behind the controls of a Boeing 747? FlightGear knows how it is... and they're doing something about it. Linux.com caught up with them at LinuxWorld Conference and Expo and got the scoop.

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LinuxWorld Conference and Expo: a grand circus of sights and sounds that overwhelm the senses. Companies will do just about anything to attract your attention to their booths; giveaways, contests, scantily clad... Well, you get the picture. After a while, it's easy to tune it all out, which is why I was surprised that my attention was caught by a small booth in the .org pavilion. Realistic graphics, customizable controls... no, it's not the FPS's you're used to. It's one of the most realistic flight simulators I've laid eyes on.

"There's two categories of flight simulators: hardcore simulations and games," said John Check, a developer for FlightGear. "The average person doesn't have the dollars to drop on the hardcore flight sims., so there's compromises made on the games to keep the costs down. FlightGear, though is very accurate - take the astronomy for example. If you plug in your latitude and longitude, it really looks like it would if you went outside at night and looked.

instrument panel

Detailed view of an instrument panel, designed by David Megginson. The instrument panel is modular to allow for flexibility in modifying which instruments appear and where.

How much for all this accuracy?

FlightGear is 100% free, as in speech and beer. It can be downloaded from their website at http://www.flightgear.org. It's open source under the GPL and works on Linux, Windows, Irix, and Mac.

"We wanted something that was cross-platform and fully extensible," John said. Alex Perry, another developer, added, "It needed to be completely modular and open source was really the only way to go."

FlightGear boasts accurate terrain and land cover, runway markings, roads, urban lighting, ILS approaches, visibility, clouds, wind, sun, moon, stars, and VOR ADF DME aids for cross country. How can they promise all this? Easy. Some of the developers are pilots, so they're building from personal experience. Alex modeled one of the scenarios after the airport he flies out of, and uses it to train other pilots using familiar landmarks. John confided in me that one of the team's ultimate goals is for the program to become an FAA-certified flight trainer. One of the developers on the team has even flown a Boeing 747 and is working on simulating it with FlightGear (although they don't expect that module to be finished for several years).

runway markings

Overhead view of runway markings at KMSP (Minneapolis, MN). The software allows for precision mockups of nearly any airport.


Close-up of runway markings with concrete textures.

Time for the technical stuff.

FlightGear will run on any system from a PII-266 up, but needs a good 3D-accelerated video card with full OpenGL drivers to work. The developers say that they get 30-50 frames per second on one of their older machines equipped with a good 3D card. As mentioned before, it's cross-platform and completely free and open. The engine is based on plib and is modular to allow for customization. Detailed documentation is available on the FlightGear site.

Interested in contributing? FlightGear is always looking for coders to help out with the project. A list of goals is posted on their site, including networking, ground lights at night, adding more airports, and many more. You can join one of their many mailing lists for more information.

Seattle from the air

Seattle from the air. The city is created from an actual satellite photo of the area. The view is from the south, looking northwest across Puget Sound towards the Olympic Mountains.

All in all, the FlightGear project is making leaps and bounds in accomplishing its primary goal: to bring a full-featured flight simulator to the people. If the constant crowd around their booth at LWCE is any indicator, the community is certainly interested in having such a sim. Who knows... maybe one day we'll be able to learn to fly 747's from the comfort of our homes and offices.

Jessica Sheffield (starlady@linux.com) wishes she had more time to play with flight simulators. Or to get her pilot's license, for that matter.

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