Solo Flight

Reviewed by Steve Pedler



Issue 17

Sep/Oct 85

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(distributed in the U. K. by U.S. Gold) 

48K disk or cassette


Flight simulator programs for micros have become increasingly popular over the past year and there is now a good selection available for the Atari. Unlike the D.A.C.C. simulator (reviewed in Page 6 issue 9), Solo Flight is based on flying a small single engined aircraft in a variety of locations in the U.S.A. On booting the disk, you are given the main menu from which you may select either the Practice Flying mode or the optional Mail Pilot game. If "Flying" is chosen, you may also choose the type of flying you wish to practice - this may be Clear Weather, Landing practice, Windy Conditions or Instrument Flight Rules (low cloud and so poor visibility). You can select the state in which to fly (Kansas, Washington or Colorado) and this is important since it is much more difficult to fly in mountainous Colorado with its tiny airfields than it is in nice flat Kansas. To play Mail Pilot needs a good working knowledge of how to fly the aircraft and so it is best to start with Practice Flying.

The main flying screen starts with your plane grounded on an airfield somewhere in the state of your choice, and your first task therefore is to take off. The screen itself is divided into two halves. The top part shows the view out of the front window (though you can look out of the sides or behind by using the arrow keys). One slightly odd feature is that you can also see a small picture of the aircraft in the middle of the screen. This is intended to aid the user in determining the attitude and height of the plane, since it also casts a shadow. Although a little unrealistic, it is necessary and you very quickly get used to it. The bottom half is a comprehensive set of instruments including the usual altimeter, fuel gauge, airspeed indicator etc., and also Instrument Landing System and VOR navigational indicators. Some of these instruments are dials and others are digital readouts. Controls are provided by joystick and keyboard. The stick controls climb, dive and bank while the keyboard controls the flaps, brakes, landing gear and throttle (with the 0 - 9 keys a la Star Raiders). There is a pause key which is absolutely essential since there is no autopilot in this plane and you could easily crash into a mountain while reading the instructions! In-flight emergencies can be simulated for practice purposes.

Take-off is straightforward. Simply taxi to the end of the runway, set flaps, apply full power, and pull back on the stick when the speed is 85 knots or more. You inevitably make mistakes the first few times. It's surprising how much difference trying to take off with the brakes applied or with no flaps actually makes!

Once up, you can fly around as much as you like until your fuel runs out, but you can't relax - just as in a real plane you must watch your instruments and make numerous small corrections to keep correct course and height In Washington and Colorado you must also watch out for mountains and avoid flying into them. The mountains are one of the few negative aspects of the program, being depicted on the screen as white outlines only (i.e. you car see through them) which makes it hard at first to realise what they are and how close you are to them. Fortunately, their heights are given on the state maps in the program's documentation and with a little practice it is easy to fly over them.

The next hurdle is to land, and this is considerably more difficult than take-off. You must get the approach conditions - airspeed, rate of descent; nose pitch etc. just right of you will stall, bounce or simply run off the end of the runway. Failure to lower the landing gear leads to an embarrassing crash. The package insert gives some good guidance on the landing procedure, but it is still very much a matter of practice. It is also essential to practice routine scanning of the instruments and flying in windy conditions before trying IFR flying. This is very difficult at first since once above the cloud ceiling you can no longer see anything out of the window! Finding somewhere to land demands an understanding of VOR navigation - a system which allows you to work out your current position and that of nearby airfields by means of radio beacon cross-bearings. Again, this is well explained in the documentation.

Having mastered the control of the aircraft, you can then go on to try the Mail Pilot game included in the package. This requires you to deliver five bags of mail to the correct destination in the least amount of time. Not only do you have to be able to navigate correctly, but as the game progresses the weather deteriorates and mechanical emergencies may develop (especially at the higher difficulty levels). After each delivery you are shown a map of the route you took to arrive at your destination, and on difficult airfields in bad weather you may have flown all over the place before arriving! If you crash, the program will tell you where you went wrong. At the end you are given a score depending on the number of successful deliveries, degree of difficulty and technical competence in flying the plane.

Overall, this is a very worthwhile program to own. Once you master the principles of flying the plane, there is the challenge of learning to fly by instruments and the immense satisfaction of bringing the plane in safely with an overheating engine in terrible weather on a difficult airstrip. Instrument flying is very well catered for and the package offers the facility of designing your own approaches to any one 21 different fields! The documentation is excellent and supplies all you need to know about flying the aircraft. No program is perfect, and I did have one or two small complaints. I have already mentioned the mountains, and some of the instruments use artifacting for additional colour, which made the fuel gauge in particular difficult to read. Other than that, it is very good indeed and can be heartily recommended.