Landing a jumbo Atari. (evaluation) Danny Goodman.
Landing A Jumbo Atari
I thought the best way to test a program titled 747 Landing Simulator would be to have a real Jumbo Jet pilot grab hold of the joystick and compare the Atari 800 to the Boeing 747. Unable to coerce 747-qualified volunteers, I found two willing guinea pigs who agreed to give it a whirl. Both are experienced co-pilots for major commercial U.S. airlines, one in the right seat of a 737, the other in a 727. Their reactions in a moment.
The 747 Landing Simulator program, written by William Graham for the Atari 800, was one of the earliest offered through the Atari Program Exchange (APX), a valuable source for low cost Atari software. The program is written in Basic and is available either on cassette (24K RAM required) or disk (32K RAM). All controls are handled by a joystick and the row of numbers on the 800 keyboard.
The object of the simulation is to make a safe landing approach to a runway from 19 miles out at an altitude of 5000 feet. You need to follow the glide path onto the runway while slowing airspeed and making minor course corrections caused, presumably, by cross winds.
The view is out the cockpit window, with your instrument panel in the lower quarter of the screen. The ground is black, and the sky a bluish color, giving you the impression you are landing a little after sundown.
From the blackness of the ground flash runway lights--at first very small in the distance, ultimately filling out the whole area on final approach. The "flashing' of the runway lights is a clever way to allow the computer to update the runway display smoothly even though it does so in Basic, instead of much faster machine language.
While players may be tempted to watch the runway lights, attention should really be focused on the instrument panel. Pilots are provided the following information: altitude in feet, range in feet to midway point of the 10,000 foot long runway, bearing deviation in degrees left or right, airspeed in feet per second, elapsed flight time in seconds, fuel units remaining, bearing and glide slope correction needed, and landing gear up/down. If you wander from the correct course, the letters for the affected instrument (e.g. RANGE) turn from yellow to white.
If you think that's too much to keep an eye on, you're right. Actually, you can forget about the time, fuel and landing gear indicators for most of the flight. But that still leaves an awful lot going on.
Controlling the plane is no picnic either. It takes a great deal of practice to learn the combinations of joystick direction and red button pressing to make the plane react as you want. You have the flexibility to climb and dive at both 50 and 3 feet per second, make turns, climb/dive during turns, drop/raise landing gear, activate autopilot, and abort landing.
Airspeed is controlled by the keyboard numbers, each representing airspeed in hundreds of feet per second. This is the easiest factor to control during landing because there are guidelines to follow in gradually slowing the plane from the starting 900 feet to zero on the runway.
If you don't follow the glide path correctly, several things may happen. The most common is the mid-air collision as your errant path crosses that of a nearby plane. You must be alert to the warning sound of impending danger, then immediately determine corrective action and take it. Otherwise, it's good-bye, Ace. As (if?) you begin the final approach at the foot of the runway (your instrument panel politely indicates when this is), the sweaty palm part really begins. If you don't have enough fuel, or if you descend too quickly, you'll drop to the runway like a stone.
You can't dawdle, either, because you can overshoot the runway before the plane comes to a halt. If, at an earlier stage of the approach, you abort the landing, you see the runway pass below you as you veer away for another try.
A complete landing sequence takes between five and ten minutes, and the closer you get, the more you want to make sure you don't blow it. Successful landings or aborted landings earn scores, based on the difficulty level (instruments, IFR, or visual, VFR), amount of fuel and time used, and whether you invoked the autopilot. The program documentation provides the formula executed in figuring your score.
It took me perhaps 30 attempts before I made my first successful landing--and that was with the help of the autopilot and the easy-to-follow strategy suggested for novice pilots in the documentation. Soon after, I graduated to the instrument landing without autopilot, but, again, it took many attempts. A successful visual landing has so far eluded me.
Upon making the first landing, I was rather disappointed. I suppose after working so long to accomplish it, I expected something more dramatic in the cockpit view than just grinding to a halt on the runway. Anything more elaborate, however, would probably have enlarged the program beyond the capacity of the 24K cassette version (a beast of a long program to load as it is).
Also, it seems that any safe landing is hailed on the screen as a PERFECT LANDING, even though some are definitely better than others. There is room, I believe, for a pilot rating system, which would be a more concrete way of tracking your progress and skill. At least it would lead me to try more often to reach higher rating levels and refine my technique.
But, as I learned from my pilot friends, it ain't like the real thing. We surmised that the association with the 747 was an intelligent way of disguising the slowness of the Basic program. Apparently, the hydraulic system of a 747 is slower to react to cockpit controls than those of smaller jets.
The instrument configurations of the simulator were not what the pilots expected, especially the bearing and glide slope indicators. The computer version was more difficult for them to interpret. Thus, the pilots will probably not like this program, but those who don't know any better will find it a mental challenge.
As it turned out, neither professional made it to the runway, after a combined effort of about 20 approaches. Practically all ended as mid-air collisions. One pilot turned in his computerized wings saying that if flying real jets was as difficult as this, he would never have become a pilot. And, after seeing these pros demolish plane after plane, next time I'm taking the train.
Products: Atari 747 Landing Simulator (computer program)