Interstate 7, November 1995,
Aviodome, Schiphol-Amsterdam

by Mathijs Kok

History and background

Interstate 7 was organised by The Interstate 7 Organization, this is a group of friends that love flightsims but love organising events around flightsims even more. You might say this organization is the follow-up of our group of friends called FsFan. We run the biggest worldwide network for flightsim lovers, The FsFan NET and organise meetings. The races are also known as the Open European Flightsim Championships and are the biggest events around FS worldwide, as we normally have over 2500 guests. For each year the Interstate Organisation invites new people to join us, which ensures new ideas and new enthusiasm. There is a skeleton crew that will always be in the organization. In a few weeks we will start Interstate 8 Organization (Krefeld, Germany).

Each Interstate is very different. You will read about the version 7 in this article. In earlier editions we flew illegal substances on the Hawaii Islands, did a 4 hour VFR flight over California and in the edition 6 we flew a two hour sprint in Cessna on Mallorca, in this race we asked the crews to arrive at a very specific time over a very specific point, a second late or a few feet to high and they got penalty points. During this whole race we calculated the fuel consumption of the planes and this was also calculated in penalty points. Throw in a few hair raising passages through mountain passes and we ended up with a race that demanded utter concentration, a perfect stopwatch, perfect timing and a steady hand. After the flight they were exhausted.

AII Interstates are different but they all share one thing. We only use 'state of the art' developments, scenery and additional programs. It's the motto we use to organise these events, if we do not find the idea good enough or find enough stuff that's very new we do not organise a new race. It's state of the art or nothing. This is taken to extremes, we are known to change whole races days before the event because we found some new scenery too good to miss. We expect the same attitude from the crews, if they participate we expect them to bring the latest in computer hardware and home build cockpits. What goes for the hardware goes for the pilots as well, don't show up if you are not a experienced pilot and your friends call you a flightsim freak.

The idea behind Interstate 7

The idea behind Interstate 7 was born the day Interstate 6 was flown. After the race which was flown in the national aviation museum "The Aviodome" on Schiphol we walked back to the cars. It was very windy and it rained (we always had pretty extreme weather during Interstate races) and half as a joke I told my friends that I dreamed about a 24 hour race. They loved the idea but all said the museum would never go for it. Amazingly they loved the idea when I called them a few months later. Interstate would be a 24 hour race, now we only needed a idea to start building on.

It was only days later when we first flew the DC9 made by our Italian friend Maurizio Gavioli. This ancient airliner gave me the idea to fly the whole race in this plane, it would be long distance race with many malfunctions in the plane. Although DC9's have been known as very reliable, they have aged haven't they? Now it was only a question of finding the special state of the art elements needed to make an Interstate.

Interstate 6 was flown with Microsoft Flight Simulator 5, using a RS2-232 network to connect the computers to a program than called BGLMAP made by my partner in crime Enrico Schiratti. During the race this network proved very hard to manage and he swore to redo it in a real network. Enrico started working on the network with help from Simon Hradecky, well known by his ATP work. I consider them brilliant programmers who just love a challenge. Not being satisfied with innovation we also decided to add the ultimate in realism and use real spoken Air Traffic Control. For this Hans Stoekenbroek started to design and build an closed voice circuit that sounded like the real thing. It had to work like a radio, if one team used the channel the rest of the stations should be blocked in transmission but all crews should hear all the conversation. Above all it had to be reliable.

The Interstate now 5 months in the future, this left only the route to be planned. We aimed for a round the world trip but even taking a very Northern circumnavigation and a jet stream to help the pilots. This proved very hard to do, so we settled for a route to Tokyo. We plotted a route over Rome, Kos, Tel Aviv, Bahrain, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, final destination Narita, Tokyo. In the latest possible moment we exchanged Rome for Budapest as the latest scenery from Andras Kozma was spectacular (his even better Delhi was just too late to incorporate in the race).

The software and the net

Now work started in earnest. Enrico started churning out beta-versions of the software we would use during the race. While doing so he decided to add ever more computers to the net, all running different software 'to do special functionsí. The programming however focussed on four programs. Firstly BGLMAP {renamed Schiratti Commander by now, SC for short) which would show the scenery with the planes projected on the scenery. SC was also used for the ATC station. It can project the ILS beam, navaids and other elements on the display so it really looks like a real ATC radar screen. This program was used to drive one of the two presentation computers that projected their images via expensive video beaming equipment. The second PC was a slave FS5, so we could exactly see what the crews were seeing at every moment. It was easy to switch between teams and show the audience what the crews were doing.

The drivers needed for the net were also very important, they had to be very reliable and versatile. They made the complex multi-computer cockpits possible that were shown during the race. There are actually two drivers, one master driver and one slave driver. The slave drivers did nothing else than move the slave FS5 along with the master. This way you can add as many slaves to one master and create cockpits with virtually unlimited number of view screens. Most teams used three computers to create a 120 degree viewing angle in front of the cockpit. with the 21' screens used by the German team this made an impressive visual addition to FS5. The computer that runs the master FS5 only shows the instrument panel; this is the only computer that really counts. All the steering equipment is plugged into this computer.

SATAN etc.

To make life hard for the crews Enrico designed SATAN. This program has the awesome ability to change FS5 via the network. Absolutely every parameter in Fs5 can be read and written back, altered to our wishes. SATAN can do everything you can do via the normal menu choices and much more. It's the ultimate bloody toy and we talked about the program a lot in the months leading to the race to make the pilots nervous. Besides letting us do our funny stuff SATAN controlled the rules we set for the teams. They had to keep to the normal flight regulations amongst which the speed limitation of 250 knots under 10.000 feet proved the most problematic. SATAN warned us when a team broke these rules and all violations were logged.

The last major program we supplied to the crews is FMS. FMS stands for Flight Management System and connects to the master FS5 via the RS-232 port. It drives the autopilot and makes long distance flights much easier. It can do all the calculations and reads BGL files to find it's information. Some pilots I am sure will be talking about this program much more in the next few months so just wait for it. Many pilots called it the best invention since sliced bread, that should say enough.

In addition to these major programs we used a few other programs, like one used to check the fuel on board of the planes. We decided to not to ask the crews for the normal entree fee but to sell them the fuel they needed. The I7FUEL programs prevented them from adding fuel and only allowed us to fill the tanks. We even printed bills of sales during the race!

Another program allowed us to edit the weather. This I7WX program can set all weather parameters in a comfortable environment for all crews or change the weather for just one plane. I7WX made realistic weather possible without the normal two weather area restrictions in Fs5. In certain legs we changed the weather minute by minute and the crews had to keep searching for the most favourite winds. They did this by listening to other crews requesting other flight levels and than study the groundspeed of these teams on the big screen.

The last program to mention is I7LOGGER. Basically this is a very simple program that reads the data from the net and logs it into files. From second to second we can retrace the flight for each team. We did not take the power failure we had into account and lost some data in I7LOGGER. Otherwise the programs functioned as planned.

The network

The net itself was very basic, based upon IPX and the Thin Ethernet protocols it proved reliable when it all was started. We used a Ethernet hub to divide the net into 8 segments to prevent one teams problem becoming the next team's Waterloo. Upon installation it was clear that making a temporary 35 computer network is not easy, certainly not when all the computers are equipped with different network cards, soundcards and very diverse drivers. Let's put it this way, we got the thing running only minutes before the start and even had let the crews fly the first leg outside competition to check a few things. It was an extremely stressful morning. But as said, it proved remarkably reliable once up and running. To get the net working we had some very experienced help from FS friends. Help we certainly needed.

We did not really like the flight model of the DC9 as made by Maurizio Gavioli and his friends. It was just too much like the powerful Learjet and did not feel 'old fashioned' enough. So guided by real airline pilots, some of which have flown the DC9 for years the flight model was tuned by Bert Vierstra. I am proud to say that our flight model has been widely seen as one of the best ever built for FS5. The DC9 is feels very underpowered to pilots who have only flown modern jets but once you get to know it is very nice to fly. You can not 'muscle' this plane out of an problematic situation, it needs to be guided and flown with a loving hand. When you get this plane in a picture perfect landing procedure and it will glide down as if locked on rails, let it fly ahead of the pilot and you will find it almost impossible to handle. A perfect plane for the race.

The race itself

Ultimately 6 crews entered the race. (PVI-Italy had to declare a missed approach at the last minute, I am sorry to say). We had one Belgium team, one German team, one team made up by pilots from Compuserve (US and UK pilots) and three teams from The Netherlands. They received the network drivers, the plane and the FMS program 6 weeks before the race so they could test their cockpit setup and get to grips with flying the DC9 using the Flight Management System. They also received detailed rules and other information and started to complain about the complexity of the whole affair. This happens every year so we didn't bother too much. On the network the crews started their mental warfare. As long as you do not touch the other crew or it's plane we give allow a lot. It can never hurt to make sure that the whole world knows you consider yourself the best team.

On Saturday September 9th they arrived in the Aviodome at Schiphol Amsterdam, to set up camp for the next 34 hours, this was going to be a non-stop race and we would continue to fly all through the night. Sleeping bags, hundreds of sandwiches, chocolate bars and a truckload of soft drinks and beer were trucked into the hall. Add tens of thousands of francs worth of computer equipment, video beams, cockpits (some very complex) , network cables measured in hundreds of meters and a zillion power plugs and you have a mix that makes the cable mess behind your computer at home look like a organised affair. It took S hours to get it all straightened out and organised.

In these hours the crews got their final briefing and were supplied with maps (as always sponsored by Jeppesen). Some members of each team tried to find a quiet spot in the museum to start planning the race, one team found this place in the model of the European Spacelab that is on display! The crews had to supply us with a flight plan before each leg. This flight plan was checked by ATC and had to be approved. This kept part of the team working all through the race. We noticed that the Belgium team, well equipped as ever had a wireless intercom system between the cockpit and the planning crew, most impressive.

While ATC made sure the teams kept separated, the teams flew their first legs without too much excitement. We showed them what SATAN could do by switching of the AP a few times while experimenting with wind and turbulence. Only at Kos did the race start to heat up. They arrived at Tel Aviv in dusk and flew towards the Indian Subcontinent into the night. During the night they had to battle crosswinds of up to 100 knots {but if you selected the right flight level winds were much more moderate), areas with heavy turbulence, electrical failures which made all instruments slowly show zero readings. We even blocked the pitot tube so all instruments depending on air pressure failed. This was not obvious to many teams and while the AP depends on air pressure, many teams lost thousands of feet before noticing the fault.

The night

At 22:00 the hall was closed for the public and we settled in for a long night. This proved the highlight for many pilot. Isn't it a flightsim lover's dream to be locked up into an aviation museum for the night? It was for many and the mood became very relaxed and mellow. There were guys walking around, talking and laughing with a beer in their hands. They met people who they had already known for years via the networks, now they got a chance to speak to these friends in person. Some deals were made on projects to be done in the future and phone numbers exchanged. In the view of the Interstate Organization this is by far the most important effect of these races and it was very good to see it all come to life as we planned it.

Later that night the pilots who were not on active duty, tried to get a few hours sleep. They took their sleeping bag and headed into the museum. An hour later we walked the halls and found pilots asleep in the strangest places. There was somebody who had pried open a cockpit of a 70's jet and was sleeping in the ejection seat. Others found soft places in balloon baskets and many just crashed under the wing of their favourite airplane. But none got a lot of sleep as they crews had to continue their flight towards the Far East. Even as fatigue hit some pilots real bad they still stayed optimistic and cheerful. Every landing of every crew was accompanied with loud cheering and applauding, all through the night I saw pilots sleeping in the corners of the hall being awoken by the cheering, mutter a few uplifting words to the crew that just landed and slide back into sleep.

An utterly strange atmosphere, something I have never seen before. The fatigue makes it much easier to make the simulator feel like the real thing and we noticed that radio transmissions became much more realistic during the night because of this. Some remarked that it really felt like the cabin of an airliner crossing the ocean at night; the strange mixture of the excitement of flight, the boredom of waiting for things to happen and above all the smell of people who need a shower. Lock up 120 guys in a room for 32 hours and they start spreading a special odour.

The day after the night before

When it became light outside (real thing, they continued to fly night in the simulator) some of the fatigue disappeared and we celebrated the new day with some new tricks. During the approach to Karachi we disabled the flaps and in Calcutta they had to deal with another problems. It is well known that although the visibility looks pretty good there, you can get lost in a hazardous layer of fog that is just above the ground and can not be seen by from the air. This proved ground for some mighty spectacular landings. In Bangkok we disabled all navaids and let them being talked down by ATC through thick low clouds. Many pilots told us they loved this landing. ATC was working overtime by now, we did not foresee the amount of work they had to do and the four ATC controllers were obviously close to exhaustion by now. They made it to the finish, just like all of the teams.

It was now close to 13:00 and the hall was filling up with people who wanted to see the teams to finish. It became clear that the race would be decided between the White (Whiskey Tango Echo) and the Yellow (Yankee Oscar Whiskey) teams, they were very close. As the teams flew to Hong Kong and the perhaps the most y difficult landing in the race the presentation team went into overdrive. Playing the radio communications over the intercom system so the guests could hear it and displaying the cockpit view of each team we watched them land on Hong Kong International. The whole setup worked very well and it was very easy to follow for the audience what was happening. During the departure procedure the White team who was in front started their take-off roll before getting the clearance and had to abort the take-off, clear the runway and line up for a second time. During these events the rest of the planes were landing, trying to refuel as fast as possible and ask ATC for taxi clearance.

In the last leg the White and Yellow planes were very close but we had SATAN play some tricks with them. About halfway in this leg we had SATAN flip the plane on it's back. I agree not a very realistic problem but it does show who can really fly this plane. Most of the teams had the plane under control without losing more than of half their altitude. If we had to interpret the massive curse that was heard when we flipped the plane the crews did not like this very much. It was so good to see all those faces go blanc, go into 'what is happening' mode and than slowly shift to sheer horror seeing the altimeter unwind at a most unsettling speed.

One last trick

Anyway, after this little bit of fun we only had one trick up our sleeves. When they got very close to Tokyo and about to start their approach we shut of the right engines of both leading planes. The Yellow crew acted very ingenious and kept starting the engine, this proved more that SATAN could handle as it only checked the engine every few seconds to shut it down again. Enrico, the coolest programmer I have ever seen, reprogrammed SATAN in these vital seconds so that the engine was shut down constantly, amazing stuff.

Yellow also declared an emergency as soon as the engine went down and they got a direct routing with a promised straight-in landing. White also kept cool but decide to stick to the flight plan a bit longer and only declared an emergency after the Yellow crew had overtaken them. But they did handle the emergency better and tried to use as little power as possible to keep the plane in the air without side slipping it too much.

Yellow came in low and had a lot of trouble keeping it steady, stress, fatigue and hundreds of people behind you, giving advice does not help. Team captain Floris Wouterlood did his best but the plane bounced on the runway, landing hard on the nose wheel. Unfortunately the crash detect was off at in this leg due to some installation problem we had earlier in the race (it was on in most teams and certainly during the other legs) and it was not clear if Yellow made a correct landing and won the race. The Interstate 7 Organization can only count itself lucky that the team itself admitted the landing would probably have ended in the feared cracked screen. Now it was up to White pilot Eric Bakker to land his crippled DC9 and win the race. He kept his cool, used as little engine power as possible and understood that a DC9 with only one working engine flies exactly the same as a DC9 with two working engines when you do NOT USE the engines. So he glided the plane in, very smooth, very secure and greased the plane on the tarmac. His cool was in strong contrast to the excited crowd.

Remembering other Interstate races where I had to pull the plug on teams still in the air, we did our best to get the other team at the finish as well. We were very happy that they all did finish although they had to fly the last 30 minutes while the celebrations where already taking place. But isn't that normal in the greatest cycling race on earth, the Tour de France?

from: Micro Simulateur, 1997