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1. Split esse: A maneuver where the pilot rolls the plane inverted and pulls back on the stick.
2. G's: The force of gravity.
3. Blackout: Occurs when the pilot pulls too many G's (approximately 5.5 G's for the average individual) causing the blood to drain from the head.
4. Redout: Occurs when the pilot pulls excessive negative G's, causing the blood to rush to the head.
5. Dogfight: Enemy airplanes turning in tight circles or loops attempting to get a shot at each other. So called because it looks like dogs fighting, whirling in tight circles.
I was cruising at 8,000 feet in my big twin-engined World War II prop fighter, the P-38J Lightning, when I spotted two enemy fighters far below. The two German Bf-109K-4 models were intent on making it home, oblivious to my presence high above them.
Scenting blood, I yanked the stick over, rolling the heavy fighter into a split esse. As my speed increased, my vision dimmed with the pressure of 4.5 G's pulling the blood out of my head. The graceful, gray shape of the number two plane filled my gunsight. My four 50-caliber machine guns and big 20-mm cannon roared as tracers slowly bracketed the German fighter. The stricken plane rolled into a spin and plummeted, exploding when it hit the ground. All that remained of the German plane was a crumpled and blackened tail section imbedded in the earth.
The dogfight took place far from the World War II battlefields of Europe. In fact, the pilots - ill-fated as well as victorious - were comfortably seated in front of their personal computers playing Fighter Ace, Microsoft's first-ever pay-for-play premium game on the Internet Game Zone, Microsoft's online games network.
Very few people alive today have piloted a P-38 fighter against living opponents. Fighter Ace lets players touch that historic experience for a moment, at least in their imaginations, participants say. The WWII pilots flew unpressurized, unheated planes, suffering the bends as they climbed to an altitude of 30,000 feet or more. The temperatures in the cockpit could plummet to -17° F, but the pilots flew and fought for hours straight without a break. By logging on to their computers, players can experience the adrenaline rush of aerial combat, but from the safety of their own living rooms.
"Fighter Ace allows players to experience what World War II aerial combat was really like, by taking on over 100 live opponents at once in a massive dogfight for air supremacy," said Chanel Summers, the game's program manager. "Fighter Ace delivers cutting-edge 3D graphics, with real-time, texture-mapped terrain and high-resolution, detailed aircraft accurately modeled after the actual fighters."
A worldwide team effort to develop the game combined the talents of technicians at Microsoft as well as developers from VR-1 Corporation, a software development firm based in Boulder, Colorado. Development and test teams were spread out between Boulder; St. Petersburg, Russia; Toronto, Canada; and Redmond, Washington.
"This was truly an international effort," said Brad Steele, the technical lead for the Fighter Ace team. "Remarkably, with so many borders and languages to hurdle, we were all able to work together as a close-knit group and ship a world-class product."
Launched in December 1997, the game is visually breathtaking, participants say. Players can choose to fly 16 World War II-era aircraft from the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Russia. And the landscape, which is detailed down to the individual pixels, gives players an uncanny sensation of actual flight. According to experienced pilots, all that is missing from the experience are the inner-ear messages telling you that the plane is banked, or level, or changing altitude.
Living (and Lively!) Opponents
What really distinguishes Fighter Ace is that multiple players can play online at once, linked via the Internet. Fighter Ace players are pitted against other living, breathing, thinking human opponents. And not only do the other players react with the infinite variety of human response but they also improve over time. When players strap themselves into a Fighter Ace plane, they are up against a virtual world of possible opponents.
"After a short time on any game, you learn the (artificial intelligence) routines," said Andrew Bagdonas, the first Fighter Ace player subscriber who goes by the moniker "Ender_in_MA." "With Fighter Ace, you are piloting against other humans, some are hard to predict, others are not. We play games sometimes to get away from human contact, but ultimately we yearn to reconnect with other people, and compete with them."
"Fighter Ace allows me to fly against all kinds of pilots," Bagdonas added. "Young, old, experienced and inexperienced."
This unprecedented addition of the human element to computer gaming has created another new virtual phenomenon: social organization. The game has attracted a community of individuals who love the old warbirds and the feelings the era evokes.
The players communicate by virtual radio transmissions; that is, typed messages to teammates and opposing players. This game-time communication has blossomed into the Fighter Ace newsgroup, where players discuss suggestions for future versions, sportsmanship and game etiquette.
After a free one-day trial, players can experience unlimited hours of game play for $1.95 per day or $9.95 per month. Players attain rank from sergeant to general by accumulating kills and points. They can choose to play in an arena where they are pitted against the virtual world and every player is their enemy, or they choose to play on a team: German, American, Russian, or British.
Or players can check out the Deathmatch arena. That's Fighter Ace's version of the ultimate reality: blackouts, redouts, limited ammunition, and cockpit-limited views, among other challenges.
"If you love to fly, but are tired of lasers and shields, come to Fighter Ace. If you dream of dogfights where the air is thick with targets, Fighter Ace is the place to be," Bagdonas said.
Back in my virtual cockpit the radio comes alive. It is the pilot of the downed Bf-109K-4 offering his congratulations. But there is no time to rest on my laurels. The other Bf-109K-4 has whipped around in a tight turn aiming his 20mm cannon and machine guns at me. But he's too late! The high speed of my dive carries me back into the safe haven of altitude, as the 109 leader's impotent epithets fill the airwaves.
David Pierot, an experienced sailplane pilot with seven years online gaming experience, is a writer for the Internet Gaming Zone's Fighter Ace simulation game.