Austin & Goliath

One unorthodox programmer takes on Microsoft´s Flight Simulator.

Photograph by John B. Carnett

This is a story about software, but bear with me. At the moment, we’re hanging sideways in a rented Cessna 172, slipping from 7,000 feet toward the patchwork fields and forest of central South Carolina. A lanky 32-year-old aeronautical engineer named Austin Meyer holds the controls. “Ready?” he says. “Three, two, one-now!” He whips the yoke around, and we lurch into a belly-twisting bank to the right. I click my stopwatch as the attitude indicator swings past 0 degrees, then 30. I look up to see that the sudden bank has left us pointing nose-down toward the distant earth, a perfect setup for a fatal spin. Fortunately, Meyer, who has not flown a real plane in a while, remembers to level the wings before he pulls back on the yoke. G-force hauls us into our seats as the horizon disappears behind the instrument panel.

“Time?” he asks.

“One point two-two seconds,” I answer, swallowing my nausea. He scrawls the figure on a scrap of paper.

“OK,” Meyer says. “Let’s do it again.”

Using a hand stopwatch to measure the performance of a half-century-old airplane may not be the most efficient or sophisticated way to go about building a computer flight simulator. But extraordinary missions call for extraordinary means. And when you’re single-handedly taking on the world’s largest software corporation on its home turf, there’s no taking shortcuts. Over the past 15 years, Meyer has devoted his existence to building the world’s most realistic PC flight simulator. Working from a small room on the top floor of his suburban Columbia, South Carolina, home, Meyer has built what started as a few lines of impromptu Pascal code into X-Plane, the second most successful flight sim on the market after Microsoft’s mighty Flight Simulator.

So far, Microsoft, which just released Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, may not have much to fear–more than 10 million copies of its Flight Simulator have been sold, compared with X-Plane’s 100,000. But the kid is on a roll. Meyer’s efforts have attracted a fanatically devoted customer base that includes real pilots and aviation companies employing it for serious aeronautical modeling–not to mention legions of dedicated armchair pilots, for whom X-Plane is the closest they’ll ever get to a cockpit. Like the Wright brothers 100 years
earlier, Meyer has shown what the little guy, working far from the centers of mainstream industry, can accomplish with enough determination, imagination and skill.

“X-Plane is extremely accurate,” says aviation entrepreneur Jay Carter, who uses a version of the program for previewing test flights of the CarterCopter, a revolutionary gyrocopter he is developing. “It does a very good job teaching our pilots how to fly the aircraft.” Back on the ground at Columbia’s Metropolitan Airport, Meyer explains the madness behind his method. “I’m obsessed with accuracy,” he says. “The Microsoft guys, they don’t need an accurate flight model. All they need is for the Sears Tower to look pretty, and they’ll sell their copies. I’m a pilot and an engineer, and X-Plane is written to be useful for pilots and engineers. So I have to get that flight model right. It’s not a matter of sales, it’s a matter of integrity. I have a moral duty to make it fly as realistically as I can.”

Hence, today’s ride with the stopwatch. “You can get numbers like rate of climb from a plane’s operating handbook,” he explains. “But not things like roll rate, so those are harder to verify. In the past, it’s turned out to be hard to correctly model roll rates in the Cessna 172, because the flaps are hinged at the top rather than the middle, and that reduces efficiency.”

Sure enough, when we perform the same tests we ran in the air on the computer back in Meyer’s office, most match up: length of takeoff roll, rate of climb, etc. But the roll rate is twice what it should be. “I’m going to have to think about that,” Meyer says unhappily.

When you first meet Austin Meyer, two things become immediately apparent. First, he’s incredibly hyperactive. His standard
outfit of blue jeans and spiffy new Nikes
makes him look like a superannuated teen-ager, but he talks like a deaf traveling salesman: loud, fast and with monomaniacal purpose. When he plops his 6-foot-3 body down at his desk and talks on the phone, he spins around and around at 20 rpm, reversing direction every few minutes.

You also can’t miss that he’s an aviation nut. The garage of his suburban house is half taken up by the wing of a Glassair kit plane. In his living room sit the two halves of the unassembled fuselage. Posters of military jets and experimental aircraft hang on the wall. Meyer has aviation in his blood. One of his uncles was Leighton Collins, the founder of AirFacts magazine and a pioneer in aviation safety. When Meyer was 12, Collins let him fly an early mechanical flight simulator that he kept in his cabin in the North Carolina woods. “It was just a little panel with six or eight instruments in it, and gyros that make the things move and spin,” says Meyer, “but it’s what got me interested in flying.”

Meyer took his first flying lesson at 15 and got his pilot’s license at 17. In September 1988, at age 19, he sat in the computer room of Carnegie Mellon University playing with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator and wondered if a more sophisticated program might serve as a training tool–his pilot’s license was becoming expensive to maintain. By the end of the night, he had cobbled together a primitive version of X-Plane: a single horizontal line that moved up or down, depending on how you moved the mouse. “I got hooked that first night,” he says. “I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.”

His manic energy had found its conduit–a problem complex and promising enough for him to spend a lifetime chewing it over. Building the perfect flight simulator became a holy grail. At the heart of Meyer’s creation lies a powerful technique based on blade
element theory. Formulated in the 19th century as a way to analyze rotor and propeller dynamics, this theory allows one to split each segment of a rotating airfoil into minuscule pieces, then sum the forces exerted on each. Meyer expanded the technique’s power by applying it to an aircraft’s entire surface, treating the wings, flaps, fuselage, empennage and ailerons as if they were slowly rotating rotor blades. The program sums the net dynamic effect over the entire airframe and repeats the calculation as often as 100 times per second.

“Basically, what you’ve got is a virtual wind tunnel,” says Graham Hodgetts, president of Pittsburgh-based Fidelity Flight Simulation, which uses a modified version of
X-Plane as the guts of its professional full-motion flight simulators. Recently, the company won approval from the FAA to use its simulators for real-life pilot instruction. “The program is scarily accurate,” Hodgetts says. “Every time we get to a point where someone says, â€Wait, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing,’ the answer usually is, â€Yes, it is, but you’re asking it to do something different from what you meant to.'”

The competition uses a very different methodology. To calculate aircraft dynamics, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator refers to tables of empirical data, then modifies those numbers to take into account pressure, temperature and other conditions. Flight Simulator also incorporates aspects of blade element theory, but relevant data have to exist in order for an aircraft to be modeled by Microsoft, whereas X-Plane calculates its own data based on the design of the aircraft.

The average user will probably never be aware of the difference in the two programs’ computational methods. But their cosmetic differences are striking. Flight Simulator comes in a printed box with a manual, and the program includes video tutorials and niftily packaged flight plans–users can just click on “Hong Kong at Dusk,” for example, and enter a beautifully rendered approach to that mountain-shrouded metropolis.

X-Plane comes in a much simpler package: no box, no paper manual. But fire it up and you feel the power under the hood. The aircraft controls feel more realistic than in Flight Simulator, and the graphics are more sophisticated and lifelike (both programs incorporate accurate geographic and terrain data). The planes are cooler too. Thanks to the flexibility of blade element theory–which permits any type of aircraft to be more accurately modeled than it would be in Flight Simulator–X-Plane can include some extraordinary flying experiences: launching an X-15 from the underwing of a B-52 to the edge of space, bringing the space shuttle in from orbit to touchdown, and cruising over a digitized Martian landscape in a custom
rocket plane are all on the menu. Or, if you prefer, launch from an aircraft carrier or take off vertically in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Meyer’s program is just the beginning of the X-Plane experience. An application called Plane-Maker lets users create and fly almost any conceivable aircraft, and a lively trade in user-built aircraft has sprung up at Web sites such as X-Plane.org, which has more than 1,700 aircraft available for free download, from commercial airliners and military jets to historic planes, fictional space vehicles, and experimental aircraft like Burt Rutan’s brand-new White Knight. (Rutan, incidentally, uses X-Plane’s graphics in the full-size simulator built for his SpaceShipOne, a suborbital rocket airplane that will be carried aloft by White Knight.) “People who use X-Plane tend to think of it as an aviation tool, rather than a game,” says Mark Roberts, reviews manager at the flight simulation Web site Avsim.com.

Indeed, hardcore X-Plane enthusiasts tend to sneer at their Flight Simulator counterparts as mere game players. And the ill feeling is reciprocated. Like neighboring tribes who have lived at odds for so long they cannot see their similarities, only their differences, the X-Plane and Flight Simulator crowds exist in a state of perpetual enmity. “The majority of people who use X-Plane are very hostile toward Flight Sim,” says Roberts, “and people who use Flight Sim are very hostile toward X-Plane. The two rarely meet.”

On the surface, X-Plane’s technology obsession is all about aviation, but the cutting edge that it’s actually riding has nothing to do with airfoils or planiforms. What has truly enabled its success is the Internet. The Web’s instantaneous global reach has not only allowed Meyer to spread his gospel without any advertising or marketing, but has also provided a forum where his 5,000 worldwide aficionados can bond and share their creations.

Today, Meyer’s operation is like a fantasy business model from the Internet glory age: an informal, distributed, virtual corporation. Apart from its name–Laminar Research–the company’s only physical manifestation is Meyer himself. Any work he doesn’t do is taken care of on a volunteer basis by people who feel like doing it anyway. A friend in Kuwait codes the geometry for new planes, another in Italy designs the skins, another in California updates the airport database. “I’m the godfather of X-Plane,” Meyer says. “I don’t have written contracts with any of these people. It’s all just a matter of, if they ask me for something, I give it to them”–a new G4 laptop, maybe, or $1,000 to get someone through to the next paycheck.

Playing nerve center to a global cabal is no picnic. A typical workday runs from noon to 4 a.m. Meyer’s office, across the hallway from his bedroom, is the one room in the house that looks intensely lived in. Atop his desk sits a massive 23-inch flat-screen plasma monitor that lets him run X-Plane, answer e-mail, and edit software simultaneously. When he programs, he pulls chunks of C++ code from a massive library, tweaks them, compiles them into machine language, runs the result, and then goes back to re-tweak the code until it works. When he’s in the zone, coding sessions can run well past dawn, fueled by iced tea and bone-
rattling techno music. “I’m married to my work,” he says. “I don’t do anything else.”

Not that he’s antisocial. He spends hours a day communicating with fans. His inbox is usually clogged with hundreds of complaints, tips, kudos and questions. He answers each customer personally, regardless of how strange the message might be, typing at a breakneck pace, with many typos. Everything is in lowercase, EXCEPT WHEN HE’S ANGRY. To odd messages he replies, “hmm . . . interesting.” “I get bizarre requests where people ask for strange features that don’t make any sense,” he says. “The other day, someone wrote that when they were flying around and saw another plane in the distance, they wanted to be able to jump over to that plane. I mean, why? I just don’t get it.”

His accessibility is one of X-Plane’s biggest selling points. Each copy of
X-Plane carries on its back cover his e-mail address and home phone number. “People will write in and say, â€I really wish X-Plane could do this,’ and he’ll include it in the next update,” says Roberts. “He listens to the people that use the product. I can’t call up Microsoft with a complaint, but I can call Austin and have him on the phone in two minutes.”

Over the years Meyer has tinkered relentlessly with the program, producing some 140 new versions. His obsessiveness has kept him competitive. While several rival sims have withered in Microsoft’s shade–including Pro Pilot, Flight Unlimited and Fly–Meyer has kept plugging along. But there are disadvantages to being a one-man show. It’s hard to imagine Microsoft coming home drunk one night from a party and accidentally uploading its entire source code, as Meyer did a few years back. “I woke up the next morning and found an e-mail from a friend alerting me to what I’d done. My heart stopped. I had basically given away 12 years of work. I thought my life was over.” He was able to remove the files before anyone could spread them around, but to this day he feels like he dodged a bullet. “I don’t drink anymore,” he says.

Meyer throws his 1987 Corvette into fourth gear and hits the gas, gunning around a curving suburban street. He drives like he talks–fast and reckless. He’s bleary-eyed from a long night ironing out the kinks in his latest version, which he’s hoping to release in a few weeks. It will have some nice features, including a landing light that realistically illuminates just part of the runway on landing and takeoff, and a neat visual representation of ice buildup on an aircraft’s windshield. The work kept him up until 6:30 a.m.

It’s not unusual for people to work like crazy when they’re desperately trying to turn their struggling start-up company into a corporate Goliath. But Meyer has no such ambitions. When I ask how big he’d like to grow the company in the next five years, he says he’d be happy to have one more person to help him write the code. “It’s not a question of how many people you have working for you,” he says. “It’s a question of how good the program is.”

In the coming years, he says, he’s excited about the prospect of home computers becoming powerful enough to allow true atmospheric modeling. “When it comes to modeling a dynamic, 3-D sky, I know I can saturate the next thousandfold increase in computing power,” he says. “The sky, it’s awfully big, and there’s an awful lot going on in it. But it will all be worthwhile when you can watch these incredible weather systems moving around.”

Listening to his deafening enthusiasm, I wonder if Meyer could ever grow out of
X-Plane, or if the man and the program are so tightly intertwined that they’ve become like two sides of some chimeric cyberbeing. “Will there ever be an end?” I ask. “A point where you can look at it and say, â€It’s finished,’ and walk away?”

“I hope that never happens,” he says. “I hope that for my entire life computers keep getting faster and faster, so I can keep making the simulator better and better, and customers keep getting excited over and over again. I hope that process never stops. Because as soon as it does, what am I supposed to do? Become like Hugh Hefner or Mark Hamill, an artifact or a relic? What will I do with myself all day?”

Jeff Wise is a New York Cityâ€based writer and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure.