Community Experience in Perspective [Part 1]

February 14, 2018
Goose Wright
nobody, apparently.

Maybe this should be a history of the groups that have evolved over the years in and around the X-plane flight simulator, but does the idea feel oddly out of place to you? Perhaps even the concept is something out of time, long gone? After all, the idea of groups attached to what is, when all is said and done, a solitary experience, feels a little out of place.

But maybe that has something to do with the idea of flight itself? And, perhaps, you can trace that feeling all the way back to the windswept dunes along North Carolina’s coast…to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first tentative flights out there over the Outer Banks.

One man…climbing into a contraption that few today would recognize as a “flying machine.” One man, sitting at the controls, all his hopes and dreams rattling away around him…the sea by his side, a stretch of lonely beach ahead. Who could tell on that day where events would lead?

Or…a woman, sitting in a modern, full-motion flight simulator. An instructor-pilot in the right seat, an FAA examiner sitting behind her as she taxis a 787 away from “the terminal,” out to the “active runway.” Can you imagine being in that woman’s place? Alone? Her every movement scrutinized, judged, as if one mistake might result in a perilous catastrophe? Because it might? What of her hopes and dreams? What did it take to get there, to be in this position?

Or a boy, perhaps not even in high school, sitting at a small desk in his bedroom, a small computer running a desktop flight simulator in front of him, a set of flight controls astride a keyboard. Maybe he’s about to “fly” a 747 for the first time in his life, but he’s studied all the procedures he can look up online and he thinks he’s ready. What about this boy’s hopes and dreams? Will he, one day in a not so distant future, find himself behind the controls of an airliner? And how will that day feel to him? Will his journey be a lonely trek?

There’s a thread running through this arc, too. A very simple arc, but a very basic lesson.

Nobody gets “there” – alone.

We all need people to help make our dreams come true. Maybe it’s your mother or father, in the beginning, or perhaps, like Orville and Wilbur, even a brother. Teachers will come and go, too, but one of them leave a vast impression of life’s possibilities, and maybe one day you’ll realize how just one person can change the trajectory of your life. For some of us, that one special person may come along in the form of a flight instructor, and that person might set you on the path to unexpected places.

So, the point here is that even when you’re sitting alone at your desk, firing up X-plane for a short hop across Kansas in a Cessna 172 – or about to make a trans-Atlantic hop in a Boeing 767 – you’re not alone. Whether you realize it or not – you’re part of an extremely diverse community that is united by a common interest in, indeed, you might even say a passion for, flight. 

And, while quite often flying feels like a solitary endeavor, it’s not. It never has been, not even when you’re alone in a thunderstorm over the Kansas prairie, and no, not even when you’re alone at your desk.

So, later that Christmas morning, our starry-eyed teen has opened all his presents and he’s  upstairs trying to figure out how to configure a joystick on his PC, inserting the X-plane installer disc in the drive, but pretty soon he’s stuck. Something’s not working and he has questions. Where does he go? Who does he turn to, for answers?

Well, he reaches out – on the ‘net. He Googles and finds himself at the gates of knowledge, so he registers at a forum and finds his way inside.

But there’s so much knowledge “out there” its overwhelming. So many people!

Where to begin?

Maybe this happened to you, and just like this too, or maybe some variation of this story played out as you struggled to learn, because at some point along all our personal arcs within X-plane, we’ve all had to reach out for help. And we’ve found that, a lot like life everywhere, there are good voices out there waiting to help. Strong voices, sure and clear, who understand your problem and help you through the maze, help you find an answer. You run across other voices, too, those perhaps “in it for a buck” who are willing to steer you to a product they’re trying to pawn off on unsuspecting “newbies.” Or a harsh, screeching voice, a loud, mean-spirited cry who tries to tell you to do things his way, or else…

Yup, these are the characters from a story that plays out across all human endeavor, every day of our lives, too. X-plane isn’t immune to this. No, and because, oddly enough, X-plane resides in the heart of aspiration, in the maelstrom of our dreams, we are susceptible to forces we’d often, in other circumstances, be primed to ignore…

Because somewhere along the way this whole flight simulation thing comes to mean much more to some people than other passing interests have. Some of us grow personally invested in this search for knowledge, then we run across like-minded people, people who want to share all the positive things they’ve run across over the years – in flight simulation…within X-plane…

And pretty soon communities form around those ideas – ideas within X-plane.

Communities form that represent certain very segmented points-of-view. Communities for people who develop the files that all of us use in X-plane. Other communities arise for those more broadly focused on the one kind of user experience. Questions and answers in a binary dance, dancing in a safe place where ideas are shared and, perhaps not so unexpectedly, a place where friendships take hold and grow over the years.

So, the teenaged boy of our little arc strikes out on his own, in search of answers to a vexing question, and maybe he finds himself wandering within the vast archives of knowledge at The Org, or over at X-Aviation, or, perhaps, even at Laminar – where this story really began, decades ago…

Because, up until quite recently, these were the places where all the answers were stored, where the voices of experience gathered.

And soon enough, our teenaged dreamer finds out that, much like life everywhere, there are helpful voices out on the ‘net, and there are those trying to make a quick buck. Those willing to help you find your own answers, and others trying to sell you a quick and easy solution to all your problems. But there’s nothing new about this, is there? Some kids will see integrity and hold on tight, while others – drawn like moths to a flame, will fall into a charlatan’s grasp every time.

And it’s fun, over the course of a lifetime, to watch this propensity to splinter take shape across almost all human endeavor. Ford vs Chevy? Audi vs BMW? Saab vs Volvo? Sound familiar? Remember VHS vs BetaMax? CD vs Vinyl? How about Manchester United, or Real Madrid, or, heaven forbid, New England vs Philadelphia? Or, a little closer to home…Boeing vs Airbus? Cessna vs Beechcraft?

Or…what about The Org vs X-Aviation…?

Because, over the years and like in every other human endeavor, the communities within X-plane have been found, for the most part, within these two entities. These two have been, to date, the prevailing dichotomy that defines our community…but things change.

Over the years, a sort of George Lucas view of this state of affairs developed, too. We embraced this worldview as our own, perhaps because it was so easy to fall that way. The “Org” became, in this one, peculiar arc, The Empire, while the little band of struggling rebels held out at X-Aviation. The Org, in this weltanschauung, was an authoritarian, almost dictatorial force, while the stragglers and hangers-on at X-Aviation were seen more as benevolent Jedi, seekers of truth and the ways of The Force. The Org, in this popular dichotomy, took on hues of the Evil Empire, while X-Aviation looked more and more like R2-D2, twittering away warnings in the cold and dark, but, like in the films, warnings almost always came too late, and were often ignored.

And, like it is with most simplified dichotomies, there were elements of truth to be found in that arc, but there were other, more twisted arcs hiding in there too. In the end, that dichotomy within the X-plane community withered and passed as the personalities involved mellowed and drifted away. True, there were unwarranted triumphs and unnecessary, some might say unfair defeats, but that too is life.

And our teenaged boy on Christmas morning knows nothing of all this Sturm und Drang, does he? He goes where the answers are, unaware of all that history around him. Time has swept all those personalities to the side, to the shadows now, but to those old hands who’ve been around X-plane for more than a few years…a bad taste lingers in those shadows. Now, we walk gingerly around the darkness, afraid to wake the slumbering beast.

But…things change, they fall apart…for the center cannot hold. It never has, and it never will. Because change is necessary.

And change is coming – you might even say we’re on the threshold of change…so stay tuned – because this story isn’t over.

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