On Friday, June 6, Popular Science assistant editor Gregory Mone and I took off in Cessna 172s from Aspen, Colorado, on what should have been easy 20-minute flights to Leadville Airport, 25 miles to the East.
Neither of us made it.
Perhaps it was hubris—when you’re flying over the Rockies, you’d better respect the mountains and know full well what you’re getting into.
Unfortunately, neither of us did.
Or maybe it was inexperience. After all, Mone had, well, zero hours at the controls of any aircraft. I had one hour of total flight training, plus about 20 at the controls of various PC flight simulators.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what we were flying. I had Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2002 on a PC laptop, and Mone flew X-Plane aboard an Apple PowerBook. The two sims are each other’s only competitors, and their respective fan bases are fiercely loyal. Microsoft’s is the commercial favorite, but X-Plane is quickly earning credibility and respect for its highly accurate flight model (see “Austin & Goliath,” Popular Science, August 2003). We flew the two competing flight simulators head to head in identical scenarios to see which reigned supreme, at least in our minds.
We both flew Cessna 172s because those are two airplanes both sims have in common. I chose a flight through the Rockies to better showcase the scenery. What I neglected to factor in was the challenge of flying at such high altitudes—upwards of 7,000 feet in each case. Leadville is the third-highest airport in the world, and Aspen isn’t exactly sea level. Because of the highly accurate flight models in both programs, the airplanes’ performance suffered at high altitude, due to the thin air. They took longer to climb higher—making the surrounding mountains formidable hurdles.
After I gave Mone an introduction to the flight controls and the instrumentation, we parked ourselves at the ends of our respective runways. They actually were the same runways—just rendered differently in each program.