Library introduces new virtual reality flight simulator

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

After flying more than 90 combat missions in Vietnam, Barney Ballard gave up flying in 1974. Thanks to a new piece of technology at the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library, he can jump back into the cockpit anytime.

Brenden Bobby, standing, instructs former combat pilot Barney Ballard on the controls for the newly acquired X-Plane 11 flight simulator at the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library District. Photo by Ben Olson.

X-Plane 11 is a virtual reality-based flight simulator now offered as part of the library’s VR experience.

“We’ve mostly had younger kids and tweens coming in for VR,” said Brenden Bobby, who spearheads many of the tech amenities at the library. “We have had some adults — one who said they flew planes in the Navy. He took one step in the headset and said, ‘Nope, I don’t like it,’ so I thought, ‘What if we had a flight simulator?’”

Enter the X-Plane 11 flight simulator, which comes prepackaged with several different commercial and military aircraft, as well as a multitude of global scenery options covering most of the Earth. X-Plane 11 is a step above many other flight simulators because it implements the blade element theory, which helps the simulated aircraft fly similar to its real-life counterpart.

When Bobby invited the Reader to test out the new flight sim, we thought we’d run the program through its paces by inviting Ballard, a real Air Force pilot who flew combat missions during the Vietnam War.

Bobby (who readers may recognize as our weekly “Mad About Science” columnist) began our flight training with a brief explanation of the controls. If you’ve never experienced virtual reality before, it’s a unique feeling. Once the headset goes over your eyes, the room disappears and you find yourself in an airplane hangar, choosing which plane you’d like to fly. 

“You’ll see some floating paddles coming your way,” Bobby told us. “These are your controls.”

Sure enough, two floating controls walked their way over into our hands. These became our connection to the virtual world, emitting a laser sight to help choose the airplane we wanted to fly, the weather we’d like, the time of day and where in the world we chose to fly.

Bobby took the first flight to show us the general controls. We decided to fly the F-4 Phantom, a fighter jet used extensively during the Vietnam War. I asked Ballard if he flew the F-4.

“I didn’t want to,” he said. “It was a two-seater. I wanted to fly by myself. I flew an A-1, a leftover from World War II and the Korean War. It was used to fly rescue missions in support of helicopters going out and saving people. I could rationalize my involvement in the war more easily that way.”

Bobby chose his flight location as Sandpoint and took off right from Sandpoint’s airport, banking over the town and heading across Lake Pend Oreille. The cockpit wrapped around the bottom of the frame as we watched him fly smoothly over the water with those familiar Green Monarch Mountains in the distance.

“There’s Trestle Creek and the Pack River delta,” said Bobby, pointing at the floor to the left, but in the virtual world he was pointing outside his cockpit. After a short flight, Bobby showed off his prowess by landing right on the Long Bridge without crashing.

When it was my turn, I chose to fly the Grand Canyon at sunset. I was struck by the immediate feeling of being inside a fighter plane cockpit, reaching out and “touching” the controls with my VR paddles. It isn’t like a video game, in which you press a button and take off into the air. One must follow rough guidelines to achieve flight, such as throttling up, putting the flaps in the correct position, releasing the brake and engaging the afterburner while taking off. 

I crashed shortly after taking off, but was able to get into the air on my second flight and zoomed in and out of the canyons, watching the screen gray out from time to time as the G-forces kicked in during sharp turns. The controls were very responsive, not arcade-like, but quite realistic. I was curious how Ballard, a former combat pilot, would compare it to the real thing.

Ballard’s turn came and he was unable to fly his first location choice, which was an air base in Vietnam, but succeeded in his second choice of Luke Air Force Base, where he flew F-111’s.

Though he’d never experienced VR before, Ballard quickly got the knack of the controls.

“There’s my altimeter, vertical indicator, horizontal display and engine instrumentation temperatures,” he said to himself while exploring the virtual cockpit. “When I flew, I was so big, I couldn’t turn in the cockpit, so I had to memorize all of these switches and hit them without turning around.”

Ballard punched it and soon the F-4 was airborne.

“This is pretty neat,” Ballard said as he leveled off. “I think as soon as you learn to relax, it gets easier. That’s the whole secret of flying, actually. You have your hand on the throttle here, but you just try to keep it between your fingertip and thumb.”

During his flight, Ballard told stories about some of his real flights in the past. He spoke about what it feels like to put on a speed brake: “It feels like putting a sled down,” or the feeling like he was on the “edge of darkness” when flying 40,000 feet into the air and looking at the curvature of Earth. 

“You know, it was 50 years ago on Easter when I fought the North Vietnamese who were invading Vietnam,” Ballard remembered. “They were 60 miles from Saigon.”

After our VR flight experience was over, I was struck by how even the most newbie pilot (me) could enjoy the experience just as much as someone like Ballard, who spent countless hours in the cockpit during his time in the Air Force. It’s fun entertainment, but it can also be a chance for former combat pilots to experience time in the air without leaving the comfort of a desk chair. 

Those interested in checking out the virtual reality room, including the X-Plane 11 flight simulator, can contact the library at 208-263-6930 to make an appointment or email Brenden Bobby at [email protected] Bobby said the VR room is usually open from 3-5 p.m. on Thursdays by appointment, but the second week of August he plans to run it Saturdays as well. Time slots are in 15 minute blocks, but those wishing to run the flight simulator might want to indicate that so they can request more time.

Visit ebonnerlibrary.org for more information.

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