On September 11th 2001, 19 terrorists associated with the extremist group Al Qaeda launched a coordinated attack on the United States, hijacking and intentionally crashing three commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth plane failed to reach its intended target and was intentionally crashed into the ground in Stonycreek Pennsylvania after passengers and crew fought back against the terrorists. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and sparked the Global War on Terrorism, which has killed millions more in the decades since.
Much has been written since about how the attacks permanently and dramatically changed American life and the larger world, but today I want to focus in on one particular niche, flight simming.
Welcome to Simcident Report, where we take a look at noteworthy, dramatic, and historic events in flight simming. Today, we examine how the September 11th attacks changed the flight sim world, and the ensuing backlash against the hobby as a whole.
Or, to phrase it as a cable news network would:
“Flight Sim. Harmless toy for aviation nerds or deadly terrorist training tool?”
Table of Contents
As Real as It Gets
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a somber atmosphere hung over the flight sim world. Not just because of the incredible loss of life, but because of the long shadow the attacks would cast over civil aviation, and in turn flight simming, for years to come. Accounts of local news stations airing recreations of the events of September 11th using footage from Microsoft Flight Simulator were quite common on the forums. Many simmers reported feelings of disillusionment with flight sim and were unable to bring themselves to enjoy the hobby as they had in prior years.
Still, the community tried its best to carry on. Websites and other sim organizations responded to the attacks in various ways. VATSIM would issue a statement condemning the attacks and harshly discouraging anyone from attempting to recreate them or military and medical evacuation flights in a flight sim.
AVSIM would cancel its annual conference which had been planned for October of 2001. The website took a more unconventional step just a few days later when it announced that they had voluntarily turned over their server data to the FBI “in the unlikely event that the terrorists used AVSIM to download 757 and 767 panels and air files to simulate the attack on the WTC and Pentagon.”
Various developers, forums, and virtual airlines would shut down in the days following the attacks, some permanently. Others tried to use their simming for good, organizing virtual memorial fly-ins or other charitable causes.
As for the major sim developers, Laminar Research would release X-Plane 6 as scheduled on September 17th of 2001. The company added a statement saying “There will be no fanfare or hype associated with this release, but we are still releasing it.” The site’s landing page would also include a written tribute to the people and the city of New York.
Terminal Reality, makers of the FLY! series would similarly condemn the attacks and release a downloadable patch removing the Twin Towers from their game.
Microsoft would delay the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002, which had originally been scheduled for an early October release, by a few weeks out of respect for the victims of the attacks. The game would release on October 19th of 2001. They would also remove the Twin Towers from the new sim and release a downloadable patch which would also remove them from Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. The patch would also remove one unfortunate in hindsight joke from the game’s introduction video.
Although the removal of the World Trader Center grabbed the most attention, Microsoft would also quietly disable what was to be a new feature in FS2002: Visual damage.
Rather than the old “Crashed!” message and freeze frame, the new sim would have had the players’ aircraft dramatically break apart in response to poorly planned contact with the ground or other objects. It’s unclear when or why exactly this feature was abandoned, but simmers coming to the game soon discovered that the unfinished remains of the visual damage feature could be reenabled by modifying configuration files, sparking a debate among simmers on whether this was disrespectful to the victims of 9/11 and other aviation disasters.
While the flight sim community struggled to settle into a new normal, the general public and the mainstream media would probably have taken little notice of the simming hobby as a whole. However, this was not to be, as there was one key player in the flight sim world who couldn’t escape mainstream scrutiny. Microsoft.
The Backlash Comes for Microsoft
Early reports from the FBI on the movements of the 9/11 conspirators indicated that several of the hijackers had booked time in commercial flight simulators to hone their piloting skills.
Now, it’s important to note here that when the FBI referenced “commercial flight simulators” they were talking about FAA-certified training centers, NOT home sims like Microsoft Flight Simulator. This distinction was lost on many in the media. A number of outlets published stories reporting on the idea that the terrorists may have been able to practice their flying using off-the-shelf home flight simulator products available to anyone, namely Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Microsoft repeatedly insisted in statements that the sim could only help hone the skills of an already trained pilot and couldn’t be used as the sole instruction for piloting a large airliner, an opinion shared by most real pilots and many simmers.
Still, the backlash against Microsoft Flight Simulator continued to grow. This led several major UK-based retailers such as Virgin Megastores and Woolworths to pull the game from store shelves.
Microsoft would respond to the removal saying that assertions that the game may have been used by the terrorists are “highly inappropriate, speculative, and counter to what the investigators are saying.”
Study Level Terrorism Simulator
Major news outlets and tabloids would continue to publish articles on the alleged connection between flight sim and terrorism, often with inflammatory headlines such as this article from a December 2001 edition of The New Yorker entitled Crash Practice. This article alleges that “a large number of people” responded to the September 11th attacks with “I’ve done that!” referring to users of Microsoft Flight Simulator and their apparent love for crashing into buildings.
Part of the fun of Flight Simulator is that, in addition to simulating flight, it lets you crash, which has the peculiar appeal that comes from playing out a universal fear without consequence. (If you’ve spent any time at all around computer and video games, where “dying” is the coin of the realm, this will seem much less shocking and perverse than if you haven’t.) You can crash into the runway, or you can crash into buildings, including the World Trade Center. You aim for one of the towers, it looms larger and larger through the cockpit window, finally filling it, and then there is a flash and the screen fades out.-Someone who has never played Microsoft Flight Simulator. December 2001.
Rumors that terrorists regularly trained using home flight simulators continued to persist for years following 9/11. In some examples, this included terrorist attacks that had nothing to do with aviation at all such as this Daily Mail article on the 2005 London Bombings entitled The flight software that ‘trains the terrorists.’ The article draws a connection between the suspected bomber and flight sim saying “The ultra-realistic simulation software that Germaine Lindsay has been linked with – Microsoft Flight Simulator – is readily available in the shops and playable on any modern PC.”
Beyond news outlets, the flight simulator connection was brought up by others who became unwillingly associated with the attacks such as Rudi Dekkers, the Florida-based flight instructor who had provided training to hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi. During an event in 2011 promoting his book Guilty by Association he would state, “Bill Gates is guilty on this because he wrote the plans for a flight simulator. See where I’m going with this – guilty by association.”
The discussion of home flight simulators being used as a training aid for terrorist attacks would come up again in 2018 when Richard Russell, a Horizon Air ramp worker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, stole a parked Bombardier Q400 and flew it around Puget Sound before intentionally crashing it into an unpopulated area on Ketron Island, killing only himself. Based on a comment Russel made to air traffic controllers that he had “played video games before so [he] knew what he was doing a bit.” Media outlets ran with the idea that home flight simulators had enabled Russell to learn to fly so he could carry out his deadly flight. Most of these reports ignore the fact that Russell had regular access to aircraft and had flown in private planes before, or that he had previously been spotted flipping switches in a parked aircraft and asking pilots about pre-flight procedures.
These and other examples associating flight simming with terrorism have some common characteristics. They all emphasize the wide availability of flight sim software and they all mention Microsoft Flight Simulator by name.
Microsoft and Video Games – America’s Favorite Punching Bags
The refrain about the wide availability of flight simulators echoes similar sentiments directed towards more violent video games in the wake of shootings and other major tragedies. The mention of Microsoft Flight Simulator specifically, was perhaps a reflection of the growing anti-Microsoft sentiment in the wake of the various anti-trust lawsuits and controversies surrounding the company in the 1990s to 2000s.
The intense media attention paid to home flight sims stood in stark contrast to the lack of attention given to them by federal agencies. In this 2003 Salon article conspicuously titled Air Osama: The newest flight simulation video games are so realistic that a terrorist can learn how to fly a jumbo jet without ever leaving his laptop, FBI spokesman John Iannarelli is quoted saying “Generally, anything that’s commercially available but doesn’t have, by its nature, nefarious intent is not something the FBI would be interested in. Someone learning through a flight-simulator program with the idea of taking over an aircraft still has huge hurdles to surmount — mainly gaining access to the cockpit.”
What’s most striking about this manufactured controversy surrounding flight sim, is that prior to 9/11, the media had paid little to no attention to the idea that a flight simmer could somehow use their sim experience to hijack a commercial airliner.
Even though, it had actually happened before… A full two years before 9/11.
All Nippon Airways Flight 61
On July 23rd, 1999, a man named Yūji Nishizawa stormed the cockpit of All Nippon Airways Flight 61, a Boeing 747-400 with 517 passengers and crew. Armed with a kitchen knife, Nishizawa forced First Officer Kazuyuki Koga from the cockpit and took his seat, and then ordered Captain Naoyuki Nagashima to let him fly the plane. When Nagashima refused, Nishizawa stabbed the captain and took control of the aircraft, rapidly descending to an altitude of just 980 ft.
First Officer Koga and several other members of the flight crew reentered the cockpit and regained control of the aircraft, landing at Tokyo Haneda Airport where Nishizawa was arrested. Captain Nagashima would sadly succumb to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to news reports, Nishizawa had told police that he was a fan of flight simulators and wanted to fly a real plane. His goal was to fly the 747 under Tokyo’s famous Rainbow Bridge and perform a loop, a maneuver he had practiced on his PC.
Nishizawa, would be tried for the hijacking and the murder of Captain Nagashima. He was found guilty, but of unsound mind, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
What’s interesting about this incident is that despite the ongoing debate on video games inspiring real-world violence which raged throughout the 1990s, I could not find any contemporary article which questioned if flight sim could inspire others to attempt similar acts. The flight sim connection is a mere footnote in Nishizawa’s story. This is very different from the hand-full of post-9/11 incidents where any mention of flight sim prompted a deluge of articles and comments questioning if these sims should be restricted.
What’s more, while the case of Flight 61 would receive some renewed interest post 9/11 when a small number of flight sim op-eds and articles made the connection between Nishizawa’s hijacking and the media narrative around flight simulators being used to train terrorists, this incident didn’t gain very much traction. Most articles would instead focus on the hypothetical use of Microsoft Flight Simulator by the 9/11 hijackers, with no evidence provided.
But, just for a second let’s give these articles the benefit of the doubt. If we look into it, and do the research that they couldn’t be bothered to do, can we find evidence that supports the claim that the 9/11 hijackers used Microsoft Flight Simulator in any capacity?
Actually, yes. This physical evidence would come about during the high-profile 2006 trial of the so called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
The Case of Zacarias Moussaoui
Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested on August 16th of 2001 after he raised the suspicions of instructor Clarence Prevost at the Pan-Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota. He was apprehended by the FBI and INS and charged with immigration related violations but the agencies failed to connect him to the September 11th plot until it was too late. On December 11, 2001 he would be indicted by a federal grand jury on six felony charges in relation to his alleged role in the attacks.
Among his personal effects upon his arrest, were a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 Professional Edition, Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, and a Logitech Wingman Extreme joystick.
With this we can establish that at least one of the conspirators at least owned a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator, though to what extent it was used as a training aid is impossible to say. Moussaoui’s 2006 trial would spend considerable time discussing the use of commercial flight simulators to train the hijackers, but Microsoft Flight Simulator was not mentioned during the trial.
Does Any of This Matter?
To me, the fact that almost none of the voices criticizing flight sim could cite actual evidence of its use as a terrorism training aid or could even be bothered to make the connection to past incidents of flight simmers hijacking planes indicates that this was largely lazy clickbait reporting. Ultimately, the fact that Moussaoui owned a copy of Flight Simulator, or that one mentally ill Japanese man once attempted to hijack a plane does not make for a pattern of behavior that points to a problem with flight simming as a hobby.
But, in the end, what was the point of any of this moral outrage?
In a way, we can look at the post-9/11 flight sim world as a microcosm of the larger post-9/11 world, overshadowed by a culture of fear and mistrust where innocuous things and events could be seen to take on a sinister meaning; All to be exploited by people who will use that fear to further an agenda- or just make money from your clicks.
Microsoft was certainly an easy target for criticism and disdain, but it was unfair to blame them for inspiring or helping to prepare for the attacks. Microsoft Flight Simulator has always emphasized realistic flight simulation based on real-world procedures. I mean, it’s not like Microsoft ever took out a two page magazine advertisement actively encouraging Flight Simulator players to recklessly crash planes into the World Trade Center.
But anyway, what about simmers? Was anyone’s personal life meaningfully impacted by the backlash against flight sim? Surely something as simple as an interest in flight simming has never gotten the police called on a 10 year old child. Or something even more ridiculous, like sparked a lawsuit against the federal government… right?
Well… that’s a story for our next installment of Simcident Report:
Non-Crime and Punishment – The Bizarre Stories of How Flight Sim Got the Police Sent to the Home of a 10 Year Old Boy and Landed Another Man in US Federal Court