“You’re too low. Pull up.”
My dad replies, “Up. Pull up.”
“I’m trying. It’s not pulling up,” I answer. I really am trying.
“Pull the yoke and increase the throttle. You don’t have enough power.”
“I’m trying to turn, but it’s going down.”
“You’re stalling. Pull up!”
And that’s how I crashed my virtual Cessna 152 in Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s probably a costly vehicle to crash in real life, but in the world of the 2020 version of Flight Simulator, all it costs is about 30–60 seconds of load time to start over and a frustrated dad shaking his head at you because you didn’t pull up in time.
This is new for me, virtual flying lessons with my dad. Last year, my brother donated his old gaming computer, and I contributed a spare hard drive. We managed to cobble together a decent-enough gaming rig that my dad could play the latest edition of Flight Sim with many of the graphics bells and whistles he’d been missing for many years. Before this, my dad had been playing Flight Simulator X, a game that dates back to 2006.
My dad, Juan Pablo, served in the U.S. Air Force from April 1972, before I was born, until May 1996, when I was in college.
We did all that work so that my dad could play the one video game he really has any interest in, Flight Simulator, along with a few other flying-oriented games like Project Wingman and Star Wars: Squadrons, where it’s more dogfighting than combatting air currents with proper flap usage. On top of all that, my dad got an Oculus Quest virtual-reality headset for Christmas, which allows him a whole other level of immersion that he swears is as close to being a pilot as is possible on a computer.
Airplanes matter to my dad. I’ve known this since I was a little boy. My dad, Juan Pablo, served in the U.S. Air Force from April 1972, before I was born, until May 1996, when I was in college. I knew from toddlerhood that my dad didn’t fly the planes in the Air Force, but I knew that he had something to do with the airplanes because that’s what the Air Force does — fly planes. My dad says now that he was interested in flying as a teenager, even before getting into the Air Force. But the path to get to the cockpit as an officer would have taken about five years and required a 10-year overall commitment. Instead, he stayed on the Air Force’s enlisted track, working in various jobs, including recruiting, ground radio, real estate and cost management, and inspecting electronics at military bases all over the world. Dad tells me that he wanted to take flying lessons after he retired as a master sergeant and after he stopped working a subsequent job. The Veteran Affairs GI Bill would have paid for flying lessons, but by that time, health issues kept him grounded.
Growing up, my brother and I always did the thing where you try to please your dad by alerting him to stuff you see related to his interests. For us, it was always news about the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s aerial demonstration group, or movies we bonded with him over like Top Gun and Iron Eagle. I see my own daughters do that now, when they relay news to me about new video games or when they learn songs from bands like The Beatles.
Flight sims were a good middle ground between the interests of my brother and me (video games) and my dad (flying). But we never actually played Flight Simulator with Dad all those years. We thought it was boring (it kind of still is, I think) and required remembering a million different keys to press to get the aircraft anywhere off the ground.
But sons being sons, we still tried to find ways to let him know we cared. When I was a young reporter starting out in Austin, I had a friend who did public relations for Jane’s Combat Simulations, a part of Electronic Arts that at the time was still putting out flight sim games. As part of their promotional tour for a new title, my friend got me a flight on a prop plane with a stunt pilot who took me up into the air for a stomach-churning 15 minutes of rolls and dives. My brother and dad watched from the ground as I risked death. The experience did make it into a story I wrote about the state of flying games at the time. But, honestly, I didn’t really want to go up there. I just knew my dad would love it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why I am here, in my dad’s house, in front of his computer, learning how to juggle a throttle and joystick controller, each with about 100 buttons on them. When I come into the room, my dad just says, “Get in the chair,” and I try to get comfortable with the pilot seat as my dad fires up Wingman.
Wingman is what I’m used to from growing up with games like the space-flight action game Wing Commander. It’s dogfighting and shooting targets but updated with more realistic missions and physics. In the first game I try, I get shot at by enemy planes and can’t seem to get myself out of a damaged tailspin. It’s a mess. But a second try allows my gamer instincts to kick in, and soon I’ve laid waste to about a half-dozen ground targets and a few enemy planes. Then, a high score secured, I crash again because that’s usually how games like this conclude.
But the real reason I’m here is Flight Simulator, the long-running series that I never took the time to learn. Since my dad started playing it last August with an Xbox Game Pass (I got him the full, premium version for Christmas), he’s logged 317 flights. He’s flown in snow and at night and from airport to airport, racking up flying hours on a variety of commercial and private aircraft.
Now it’s my turn, and instead of Dad trying to yell commands at me as I flail at the controls, we do the built-in tutorials that slowly guide a new player into the game. The first lesson just teaches you about the instrument panels and what the “aileron,” “flaps,” and “rudder” are for (I still don’t quite understand). You are in the air above beautiful Sedona, Arizona, at about 7,400 feet. The lesson teaches you how to look around the cockpit and what buttons to press for some of the basics.
We breeze through tutorials 1 and 2, which teach how to climb, how to descend, and how to make turns. Tutorial 3, though, seems significant: It’s how to take off from the runway.
This is what I think my dad has been preparing me for all these years: how to check for runway traffic, position for takeoff, accelerate, and fly. He teaches me how to twist the joystick to activate the rudder and get to the centerline of the runway. My dad, along with the on-screen prompts from the game, tells me to push the throttle all the way forward and remove the brakes. I do, gaining speed on the tarmac. “Pull up,” Dad tells me as the prompt suggests the same. I do, slowly, and then I am airborne. The plane is in the air, not wobbly or erratic, just smoothly rising as if I’ve done this before.
I gather altitude, rising, rising.
Then I rise too much, and the plane stalls out, and I crash.
It’s disheartening, but Dad just tells me to try again.
The second time, I go through all the same steps, but this time, in the air, I steady my climb and make sure I have enough speed to support the craft. Tutorial 3 ends in triumph. I have done flying!
Over the years, in a lot of different ways, I’ve been asked by people who aren’t gamers why video games are important, what they offer to us that other entertainment mediums don’t.
Tutorial 4 is landing, the other hard part of flying. There are a few dicey moments when it feels as if I’m not quite lined up on the runway and will overshoot it, but in the end, on the first try, I am able to glide onto it without landing hard. “Brakes, brakes, brakes!” my dad yells, and I hit them before rolling off the tarmac. I have landed, survived, conquered flight.
Dad doesn’t jump up and down or cry in triumph like he does when the Dallas Cowboys score a touchdown, but I can tell that he’s pleased. I’m pretty sure he was not expecting this first landing attempt, guided or not, to be a success.
Over the years, in a lot of different ways, I’ve been asked by people who aren’t gamers why video games are important, what they offer to us that other entertainment mediums don’t. Movies, music, visual art — they all can bring us together to bond over and discuss something we consume and love. But video games are different. Because it’s not a passive experience, gaming feeds our innate desire to perform the same actions and achieve the same sensory experiences even though no two video game playthroughs will ever be exactly the same.
For decades, my dad has wanted me to know the experiences of piloting planes in the only way he has been able to do it: on flight simulators. I don’t know why I resisted for so long, but in these quick lessons, piloting a Cessna across the ones and zeroes of virtual clouds and over photorealistic landscapes, I understand why he loves it so much. Why, even though it’s not my passion, I can grasp why this is his; I get it now.
I think I get it, Dad.