Richard B. Russell, the former Horizon Air employee who took to the skies in a stolen airplane in Seattle, gleaned what knowledge he had of flying planes from video games.
Russell, now deceased, went down with the Q400 turboprop aircraft after commandeering it to fly around for around an hour. The New York Times reports that, when asked by air traffic controller if he was comfortable just “flying around,” he stated “I played video games before, so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.” The craft ended up crashing. Horizon Air chief executive Gary Beck stated that Russell was without a pilot’s license, and that he “didn’t know” how Russell “achieved the experience he did.”
In terms of utilizing video game simulations to learn how to pilot airplanes in the real world, experts do believe it’s possible to gain enough knowledge from one to at the very least start up a plane.
Fly Away Simulation founder and executive director Ryan Barclay, along with president of the National Association of Flight Instructors, believe that it’s “improbable” but possible that Russell could have learned enough from simply playing simulation games to get the plane airborne and pull off the various moves he did while flying: loops, an upside-down roll, and other complex maneuvers.
Meanwhile, others like Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security program, stated that you “cannot” safely operate aircraft utilizing only the knowledge you could potentially gain from simulators. It’s a sentiment shared by Barclay, who also noted that some aspects of flight, such as landing, take much more than practice via video game.
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While simulators are indeed a useful tool and can be utilized for fun and educational experiences, the important takeaway from this situation is that no one should be piloting commercial aircraft without the proper training and experience. Not even if you’ve played hundreds of hours in flight simulators.