History of Flight Simulator
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article number 1
article date 01-25-2017
copyright 1983 by Softalk Publishing Inc.
Bruce Artwick: Cleared For Runway 8088  
by David Hunter


From February 1983 Softalk for the IBM Personal Computer Magazine.

* * *

A week before he put the finishing touches on Microsoft’s ’Flight Simulator,’ Bruce Artwick almost lost the whole thing in a blaze of destruction. The office building where he works was evacuated because of a bomb threat.

“It was against the IRS, which is one floor above me,” says the tall, quiet, Illinois-born Artwick. “I unplugged my Winchester disk drive and ran out the front door with it under my arm.”

Such incidents are not unheard of in Champaign, Illinois, but they certainly aren’t commonplace. Champaign’s big claim to fame is the University of Illinois. That makes it a college town as well as a farm community, which would account for occasional rowdiness. But bomb threats?

Luckily the threat was a fake and no bomb went off. (“The perfect placement for it would have been my ceiling.”) Artwick finished his opus and IBM pc owners are now being treated to one of the finest programs available anywhere for a microcomputer.

Mr. Deeds Comes to Town.

That it was only possible in the sixteen-bit world is the real story; but the designer of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is a fascinating character, one who has experienced much and yet remained true to his conviction that fame and fortune are secondary to the goal of developing superior technology. A software publisher and author, Artwick is something of an enigma, not the stereotypical programmer, not a playboy, not a laid-back software kingpin.

Gary Cooper, that’s it. Tall, but unimposing; radiating inner strength, but not patronizing. Quiet, but active. Approaching thirty years of age, Artwick is part youth, part intellectual, part software engineer, part musician, and part daredevil.

“I’ve owned a total of fifteen motorcycles,” Artwick says. “I sell them, I don’t crash them.”

Whether it’s motorcycles, cars, skiing, volleyball, or assembly language, Artwick likes speed. He likes hard disk drives, BMWs, tearing down the Angeles Crest Highway on a Suzuki at a dangerous clip, and zooming through undergraduate and graduate school in four years.

The president of SubLogic Communications Corporation, Artwick is a licensed pilot; he flies the company plane, a Cessna 150, when the need arises or the mood strikes. He’s also liable to tear off on his motorcycle through the nearest cornfield.

Owners of Apples, TRS-80s or S-100 computers will recognize Artwick and SubLogic as an unusually cerebral publisher of graphics programs and of the biggest selling flight simulator in the world.

Both the TRS80 and the Apple Flight Simulators were incredibly popular; Artwick and his partner at SubLogic, Stu Moment, believe there are more copies of Artwick’s program sold than any other flight simulator of any kind in the world.

The good news for IBM Personal Computer owners is that Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is a great deal better than the eight-bit versions published through SubLogic. Artwick already made several improvements to the 13K TRS-80 version with the bigger capacity of the Apple (three, count em, three more K in those early Apple days). Comparing the Apple version to the IBM pc version is akin to comparing Valentino’s ’The Sheik to Lawrence of Arabia.’

There is no comparison.

Picture from article: Screen shot of the first Microsoft Flight Simulator.

How Realistic Is It?

Sure, you’ve read the ads. If it “got any more realistic, you’d need a license.” This kind of claim is not characteristic of Artwick, but it is of Microsoft, who is distributing, packaging, and promoting Flight Simulator. Nevertheless, the boast is not without basis in reality.

Microsoft approached Artwick in late 1981 to do a flight simulator. Artwick recalls those days:

“Microsoft Consumer Products had a few good games for the IBM Personal Computer, but they wanted more than just ’Olympic Decathlon and Adventure,’” he explains. “They wanted to demonstrate the difference between eight-bit and sixteen-bit technology.”

Actually IBM approached Artwick before Microsoft did; they were looking for a nifty program to show off the color graphics potential of the pc.

“I went down to Boca Raton and talked with those folks. They had a good attitude and an outgoing development team, but we couldn’t strike a deal that made everyone happy.”

Once he made the choice to collaborate with Microsoft, Artwick approached the task of creating a second generation flight simulator with enthusiasm and gusto.

“Microsoft wanted a strict conversion of The TRS-80 Flight Simulator into the sixteen- bit format at first, but I told Alan Boyd [manager of product acquisition] we could do much more with the pc’s 8088 processor.

“We started fairly modestly, and then began adding things—and adding more things. Once I was reasonably familiar with the Personal Computer’s capabilities, the project really took off.”

“We” was Artwick, Alan Boyd, and Vern Rayburn, former president of Microsoft’s consumer products division, who recently left Microsoft for Lotus Development. In the future they may come up with a name for the kind of collaboration that produced the Microsoft Flight Simulator. It was more than an engineer just taking friendly advice and forging ahead alone. It was less than a group of screenwriters beating each others’ work into Frankenstein’s monster.

“Microsoft was very helpful in providing development tools. The whole thing ran smoothly as soon as I had a good assembler and linker. ’PMATE’ is a good editor, and the pixel editors on the pc are faster than on a Z80-based system.

“Generally, you can’t just go out and buy good graphics design tools, like pixel editors,” says Artwick.

Artwick was like the chief architect of a team building a monumental structure. The project took close to a year from inception to delivery. Artwick and Microsoft were patient; they knew they had a winner and didn’t want to cut a lot of corners just to get it on the market at any particular time. Still, the Christmas ‘82 season was highly desirable. Artwick delivered, but not without sacrificing a few things.

“There were weeks when nothing was done, but the last three months I worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day.

“There are still little additions I can make to the program. I actually ran out of time, as opposed to space,” Artwick explains. “The shading of buildings and mountains and more details to the landscape are improvements you’ll see in the update.

“There are also a couple of bugs that never showed up in all the beta testing. The kind that are easy to fix, but almost impossible to find.”

By the time you read this, Microsoft should have Artwick’s updated version in the stores. Tentative plans call for a still more improved version to appear later this year.

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100K and a Personal Computer.

Artwick can be forgiven for the few minor imperfections. Creating the Microsoft Flight Simulator was not a trivial task. “The uncompiled source code is about 800K. The listing is three and a half inches thick,” says Artwick with all due modesty. “The final compiled version, including databases, is a total of 100K. Loaded into the Personal Computer, it takes up a full 64K.”

Twenty real airports, a World War I dogfight simulation, full instrumentation, night flight, easy mode, reality mode—the list of Flight Simulator’s wonders is long. Most impressive of all is the powerful illusion of flying an actual plane.

“Stu and I spent a lot of time flying the company plane, seeing if my mathematical calculations led to the same results in real flight. Most of the time I was accurate enough, but the simulation is not one hundred percent like the real thing.”

For instance: “You should be able to perform a complete loop. The testers at Microsoft have tried, but no one has done it yet. It should be easier.”

Learning to fly is not something you do in an afternoon. Artwick knows all the trials and tribulations from his own days as a student pilot. At first, he and planes did not get along, but through the help and guidance of Stu Moment, Artwick eventually grew to love the fragile and complicated machines.

Artwick met Moment in the early seventies when they were both attending the University of Illinois. They roomed together with a dozen other spirited students in a big old house dubbed ’Gamma Ray Zappa.’ The house was evenly split up among AV (aviation) jocks, parachuters, and electrical engineers.

A Pretty Crazy Bunch of Guys.

Moment was one of the AV jocks. Artwick was one of the electrical engineers. “We agreed that Stu would teach me to fly if I taught him about digital electronics,” he remembers.

When he wasn’t entrenched at the university’s digital computer labs, Artwick was doing the things only college students and devil-may-care parachuters can think up. He enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere and the chance to learn about flying.

An electrical tinkerer for years, Artwick surprised no one when he started to build his own computer. On his homemade BACS 1000 (Bruce Artwick Computer System), Artwick “did some 3-D stuff and even a real-time runway. I just had to have my own real-time 3-D graphics.”

He completed the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in four years.

Artwick says that when he started college, there was a fifty-fifty chance that he would study music instead of engineering. The excellent curriculum at the University of Illinois helped seal his fate, and once he had committed himself to engineering Artwick pursued with ferocious passion his love of computers. When he finished school, he landed a job at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, California.

Through most of his college career, Artwick was hardware oriented and was particularly interested in computer design. Then his thesis project called for creating a realtime simulator on the PDP-11. As it turned out, that thesis project had quite an influence on Artwick’s career in microcomputer software.

Picture from article. Title picture: Bruce Artwick: Cleared For Runway 8088.

“Pinball Wizard, There Has To Be a Trick.”

Until recently, Artwick did most of his programming on a S-100, Z-80-based system and then translated it to other machines. Now that he’s discovered the pc, those days are coming to a close. Artwick now plans to use the IBM Personal Computer as the central development system for most of his programming.

For instance: “I translated A2-PBI: ’Night Mission Pinball’ to the Atari through the pc—from Apple to IBM to Atari. As a byproduct, I ended up with an IBM version of the pinball game.”

One complaint that Artwick does have against the IBM Personal Computer is its lack of a hardware reset button. “I don’t like to spin down my Winchester twenty times a day,” he says.

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator posed many unique challenges, some of which Artwick made even greater.

“One of the turning points was when it came time to make the databases for the flying world in the program,” he explains. “The usual approach is to make a fake world. But I thought, ‘Why not make it the real world?’ I developed a coordinate system that includes most of the United States, part of Canada, and all the way down to the Caribbean.”

It’s true! You could fly from Chicago to Seattle; it’s all there in the program. Unfortunately, you’d need to refuel along the way and the program only has airports in four major areas—New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

The 3-D animated graphics of Flight Simulator were another feature on which Artwick worked long and hard. Ranging from five to sixteen frames of animation per second, Flight Simulator’s animation has been justly compared to a movie.

“The technology is called incremental fill and allows for solid graphics instead of line graphics,” Artwick explains. “The shading in of areas fast enough to keep up with the rest of the simulation was a major problem that I solved by using these new high-speed graphics techniques.

“In the program solid areas are filled with color. When the scene shifts on the screen, you only have to fill in the small areas that change. With incremental fill, you don’t have to refill the whole screen every time the scene shifts.”

Sixteen O’Clock High.

When the plane is above the clouds and there is very little on screen, the animation goes at a blazing sixteen frames per second. When there are more visual elements, such as buildings or an airport, the animation is slower but the effect is still spectacular. Artwick makes it look easy.

Hail the wonders of assembly language and the 8088 processor!

“In order to create the 3-D graphics lines, I used an Apple graphics tablet as a map maker,” explains Artwick about another aspect of the Flight Simulator’s creation. “To simulate an approach or taxi slant, I’d trace the map on the tablet and then use the interpreter to put it into the proper graphics language.”

All through his labors, Artwick was looking for ways to improve the simulation.

I wanted it to be more aerobatic than any of the previous simulators, particularly in the World War I dogfight game.”

A nifty feature is the adjustable parameters that allow a user to choose the time and conditions of flying. “The plane itself is not very adjustable, because inside the simulation there are many mathematical formulas that can’t vary,” Artwick explains.

Other details were included more for fun than anything else. “I included the Hughes airport in Culver City because of all my friends who work there. I even tried to make the color of the buildings the same dull Hughes green.”

Artwick also included the University of Illinois Willard Airport, the one with which he’s most familiar. That it’s a good forty-minute flight from Chicago shows how much he’s willing to put in, given the chance.

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Moby Manual.

Flight Simulator has the biggest manual that Microsoft has ever produced for a game product. Complete with maps, references, and detailed diagrams of the flight instruments, Flight Simulator’s manual is almost a work of art in itself.

Artwick’s Flight Simulator is so close to the real thing to a professional flight simulator, that you may be able to satisfy certain FAA rules for instrument currency and practiced instrument approaches.

It’s not good for accumulating flight hours toward a new rating, however; the reason is that the input device is the pc’s keyboard. Real simulators come complete with foot pedals, a yoke for operating the elevators and ailerons, and other physical realities of a small plane.

Artwick and Microsoft are contemplating joystick control for Flight Simulator, but that would entail “writing software to time out the interweaving of the input device with the other functions.”

In the meantime, Artwick and Moment are developing what they call a “universal simulator” for the Apple. Not just another joystick, this multiplexed, seven-channel contraption will give a more realistic aspect to Flight Simulator, possibly including foot pedals, a yoke, a separate throttle, and other features.

Naturally the universal simulator will be adaptable to other kinds of programs. Artwick believes it could add a whole new aspect to computer gaming. One exciting feature would be motion feedback, a software/hardware coordination allowing more precise control and more accurate response.

No plans are alive at the moment for making the Microsoft Flight Simulator compatible with the universal simulation controller, but the possibility is there.

The future looks good for simulations on the IBM Personal Computer, and the present isn’t too shabby either. Artwick’s Flight Simulator takes its place beside 1-2-3 as testimonial of what is possible with the 8088 processor.

The Amsterdam Connection.

Artwick is currently working on a book about interactive computer graphics as well as on an ambitious computer-aided design project with associates in Amsterdam. The CAD project is very close to his heart, and Artwick considers it his most important and complex creation to date. It’s not for the pc—unlucky us.

Between software engineering and running SubLogic, Artwick gets a chance every so often to fly in the company plane with his partner, Moment.

“We flew out of Kansas City one evening and it was beautiful. I decided to include night flight and dusk flight because it made such an impression on me.”

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is a personal effort in some respects and a group project on the whole. It will not fail to make an impression. Wipe off your goggles, put in your earplugs, zip up that flyer’s jacket, and get ready. The PC is taking off.

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