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Students use video gaming savvy to help get new flight simulator lab running

“That’s button 2. What is button 2?”

Thomas Ward had a checklist on his monitor and an instruction manual at his elbow as he sat surrounded by freshly arrived equipment in Norwich University’s new flight simulation lab. In barely a weekend’s time, psychology professor Dr. Kevin Fleming and a parade of students had cleared away a mountain of boxes, plugged in keyboards, mounted controls, assembled seats and started downloading software for the lab on Dewey Hall’s fourth floor.

Five workstations had emerged, each with a curved monitor, computer tower and keyboard, foot-operated rudders and throttle-and-stick assemblies. Colored lights ringed the keyboards, adding a vaguely 1980s video arcade feel. (The students wouldn’t remember.)

“Flight sims were the only video games I was exposed to growing up.” Thomas Ward, U.S. Air Force ROTC student

A half dozen students, all U.S. Air Force ROTC cadets, were testing the gadgetry during a lab session, Dr. Matthew Thomas’ engineering psychology course. Fleming was grateful for the students’ aid; they’d more experience setting up these stations than he. Fleming said students could help coach one another on basics, so they’d be able to take off, fly and land. (Mastering nuances would take longer.) Missions might involve challenges like high winds, or engine hiccups, Fleming said, but not combat

“This is what the class is going to be like, learning at every stage,” Fleming told them, adding that they were welcome outside class if their schedules allowed. “We’ll get everybody up to speed over the next couple of weeks.”

flight sim 8 min
Matthew Thomas, an associate professor psychology at Norwich University, works with students in the new Dewey Hall flight simulation lab in January. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Because his printed manual’s instructions were in 64 non-English languages, Ward, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, was using pictures as guides as he assigned functions to switches to the throttle and stick on his seat’s armrests. He’d already programmed the buttons.

“I’m just trying to figure out what the basic flight controls are so I can change them (to work with) the joystick,” Ward said. “This’ll go right, this’ll go left. Up, down,” he said. “My goal is to get these switches. If I get these switches, it’ll be really nice.”

Ward said he’d flown for real once in a Cessna and has a flight simulator at home in Lexington, Kentucky, but it’s simpler, with a single controller and older software mimicking an F-15. Ward said learned to love flight simulators because his father, a medivac helicopter pilot, brought them home to try.

“Flight sims were the only video games I was exposed to growing up,” he said.

Flight simulator games first emerged in 1979, when SubLogic created the first one for the Apple II. Microsoft Corp.’s first flight simulator, written for the IBM PC, debuted in 1982.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 4, released in 1988, worked on both Macintosh and IBM-compatible computers. Current versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator run on both PCs and Microsoft’s Xbox game console. (Several non-Microsoft flight simulators run on Apple’s iOS and iPad, including X-Plane and Infinite Flight.)

Looking skyward

Charles Herriman, a freshman electrical engineering major, entered the Dewey lab and took over setup as Ward left for another class. Like Ward, he’d flown many simulated flights, having spent five years building a complicated at-home system, which has video screens and rudder pedals. (Friends helped him with programming and calibration.)

“It’s an expensive hobby,” Herriman, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, said, “but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Herriman said he hopes to fly for the U.S. Air Force and has complimented 1,000-plus virtual flight hours with 85 real ones in small-engine planes. He’d been hooked on flying for four years, since his father gave him an orientation flight as a gift.

flight sim sebastian min
Norwich University student Sebastian Mejia Lopez shows a picture he took the day he flew a small-engine plane in summer 2021. (Photo courtesy Sebastian Mejia-Lopez/special to Norwich University)

Herriman said he’d finished ground school and had hoped to secure his private pilot’s license and fly cross-country before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now he hopes to test for the license this summer.

Love of flight grew out of a desire to drive things, Herriman said; he was usually the one clamoring to pilot the all-terrain vehicle or the Jet Ski. Soaring over his house on his first flight pushed him pursue the sky.

“At 1,200 feet, 1,500 feet everything looked so foreign to me from up there,” said Herriman, whose Snapchat handle is the tail number from the first plane he ever piloted. “It just turned into a whole different world that a realized not to many people get to experience or get to see. I just got hooked on living in that world as much as I could.”

Slowly, as software finished downloading and Herriman and Ward’s efforts paid off, the Dewey sim lab’s screens filled with virtual vistas and its air hummed with virtual jet engines.

“Throttle idle off,” Herriman said, pairing a function to a switch. “There’s the speed that I wanted.”

Freshman Sebastian Mejia-Lopez watched the programming progress. He’d flown a real plane once, accompanied by an instructor in the Civil Air Patrol, and said he’d long admired a cousin who piloted commercial airline flights.

Mejia-Lopez eagerly awaited his turn in the virtual cockpit.

“It’s amazing, really,” said Mejia-Lopez, a political science major from Bergen County, New Jersey. “You don’t really think that you’d be seeing this equipment so soon.”

* * *

COMING THURSDAY: The famous F-16 fighter.


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