Opinion

The calming secret of Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator got Big Issue deputy editor Steven MacKenzie through lockdown. Where are those calm pilot's voices now when we need them?

“Welcome aboard flight TBI 1473…”

I’ve been flying a lot lately. For escapism in lockdown I bought an Xbox, and they’ve just added Microsoft Flight Simulator to their Netflix-like subscription service.

I’ve chased the shadow of my plane across the pyramids, flown over the crater of Vesuvius, splashed down on Bora Bora just short of the runway and taken in my hometown from the cockpit of a 747.

Many of us won’t be jetting off on summer holidays but besides the beaches, menus with pictures, traffic driving on the wrong side and finding out how long it takes to get through immigration as an ex-EU citizen, it’s that voice I miss most.

There must be special classes at flying school to make pilots sound the way they do. They tell us the cruising altitude of the plane, journey time, temperature at the destination in a tone so relaxed and nonchalant. Unflappable at the flaps. It shouldn’t be reassuring but it is.

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s definitive history of the early days of the space race, he identifies the origin of pilot-speak. Aviation pioneer Chuck Yeager had more stuff than anybody else. He was the first to break the sound barrier in the days where test pilots had an average life expectancy of weeks. (He died, aged 97 last December.)

Beyond his heroics in the skies, it was his attitude that had most influence. Even when strapped into a rocket-powered trashcan he spoke “with a particular drawl, a particular folkiness, a particular calmness”.

Cool, authoritative voices can be drowned out in the general Covid conversation by the howling heretics

Fellow pilots were listening in and started imitating, if not his daredevil feats, his speech. As they left the military and entered commercial service, this style spread and became a stereotype.

“It was Pygmalion in reverse,” Wolfe writes. “Military pilots, and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginian drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents.”

The spiritual descendants of Yeager still fly our skies. We have calm and composed experts in other fields. You hear them talk about infection rates on the news, the importance of getting your vaccine. You might still get infected but chances are you’re 100 times less likely to die.

Yet cool, authoritative voices can be drowned out in the general Covid conversation by the howling heretics, the rabid RTers.

They’re the plane passenger who really wants to smoke in the toilets or crack open a window. Often a faded Eighties pop star.

A captain in the cockpit wouldn’t put up with a minority who endangers the rest. Neither should we. Although pre-pandemic flying had become so routine, it’s an inherently dangerous activity, as is navigating our socially less distanced, tentatively opening up world.

On a plane, when every second we could plummet to the ground, would we give any credence to someone in the cabin who thought their opinion on the laws of physics were of more value than the pilot’s?

Now day-to-day life is filled with risk that wasn’t there just 18 months ago. But that too is becoming more routine every day. All we can do is tune into those we can trust, tune out the bawling baby kicking the back of your chair.

Hoping for clear skies ahead, we’ve taken care of your in-flight entertainment. In this week’s magazine we have Hollywood highfliers Matt Damon and Guy Pearce as well as a map of film festivals closer to home. And plenty more, of course.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.

Steven MacKenzie is deputy editor of The Big Issue

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