February 1, 2001

LinuxWorld: Flight Gear takes off

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

There were dozens upon dozens of companies with slick multimedia presentations at the LinuxWorld Expo in New York this week. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to bring a company's message to the masses, some of the most innovative stuff could be found in the tiny .org Pavilion in the center of the show.That's where I ran into Alex Perry, a member of the worldwide development team behind Flight Gear, an Open Source flight simulation program. Indeed, the Flight Gear booth was one of the more popular destinations within the .org Pavilion, often drawing a crowd that outnumbered most of the software and hardware titans located nearby.

It's hard to describe Flight Gear without gushing: Once you've seen the program in action, it's hard to understand why Microsoft's Flight Simulator program gets any sort of consumer consideration at all. Based on scenery alone, Flight Gear is almost photo-realistic in comparison to the Microsoft offering.

There wasn't much concern about directly competing with Microsoft, understandable considering a more serious goal involved with Flight Gear: FAA certification. "There are very few FAA certified programs, and (Flight Simulator) isn't one of them," says Perry.

It is understandable why almost everyone, including Microsoft, has avoided the government's certification process. Getting the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration is a long and winding three-part ordeal involving the production of full and technically complete documentation, realistic functions of flight controls, and constant program updating that will factor in the latest hardware and regulatory changes.

Combine those requirements with the sometimes-frustrating demands of an Open Source project, and you might begin to realize what a momentous undertaking Flight Gear actually is. It's obvious, however, that this program is a labor of love -- those awe-inspiring graphics (including some for the flight deck), for example, aren't required for official approval.

"It's the controls themselves that have to be equivalent to an aircraft," explains Perry. As long as the basic functions are there, almost everything else is icing on the cake. And what icing there is: Some of the ground scenery, including complex designs for urban populations, is enough to make any novice pilot run his plane into the ground in order to get a closer look.

The FAA certification process presents a unique situation for Open Source software. While the version that Perry is helping along will, he hopes, eventually bear FAA's official stamp of approval, there is the undeniable fact that because it's Open Source, anyone can come along and modify the code and create an entirely new version of Flight Gear. What, then?

In turn, each individual or group looking to create an official FAA-approved version would have to submit its own project to the FAA office in charge of approving such things. Considering the interest in the computer and aviation industries in a comprehensive yet affordable flight simulation offering, Perry expects a near-revolution in at least one part of the FAA bureaucracy.

"That little certification office will be overwhelmed," he says with a half-smile. "I hope they're ready."

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