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How video games can make you a better fighter pilot

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Does playing video games and desktop simulators, such as Microsoft Flight Sim, prepare you to become a fighter pilot?

As a fighter pilot, much of our training takes place in a simulator, which is the ultimate video game. Stepping into these rooms, you’re dwarfed by a giant sphere that projects a 360-degree view of your surroundings. After climbing into an exact replica of the cockpit, a motor pushes you into the middle of the sphere and it’s “fight’s on.” You’re anywhere in the world with any weapons you want and adversaries that can be dialed-up in difficulty as needed. And it’s not just you in there, other pilots are in their own pods fighting alongside you on the same virtual battlefield.

The inside of the cockpit of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Full Mission Simulator accurately replicates all sensors and weapons to provide a realistic mission rehearsal and training environment for pilots. (Courtesy Photo/Released)

Flying a modern fighter is difficult – these machines are designed to merge man and machine into a lethal combination that can have a strategic level of impact on the battlefield. The stick and throttle alone have dozens of buttons on them. Most of these buttons can give 5 or more commands – forward, back, left, right, and down – as well as short pushes and long pushes and multiple master-modes that completely change the function of each button: It’s a PlayStation or Xbox controller on steroids.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, my generation was one of the first to have widespread access to video games. Super Nintendo, PlayStation, N64, Xbox, I played them all growing up. Using a controller was second nature by the time I got to pilot training. Nowadays trainers like the T-6 and T-38 don’t have a lot of buttons on the stick and throttle – they’re designed to teach students how to fly. However, the F-16 was a huge jump as we learned not just to fly the aircraft, but to employ it as a weapons system.

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The F-16 comes with a few more buttons than your average X-Box controller. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

There we learned what, at the time, seemed like complex sequences to track targets, launch missiles, and drop bombs. What I noticed was that my time playing video games allowed me to synthesize information while quickly and accurately passing decisions I made off to the jet. Many of my classmates also played video games growing up and collectively, the feedback we received was that we were a lot more advanced than our instructors were when they were in our position.

Now, a decade later, I can say the next generation, who grew up with smartphones and iPads, have an even greater capacity to process the multiple streams of information coming at them than older pilots like myself. The avionics in jets like the F-35 – which are essentially two large iPads glued together – are second nature to them. So, to answer the question, do video games help prepare you to become a pilot? The answer is yes, to an extent.

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How else are you supposed to master the wing-mounted laser blasters that come on the F-15, if not by playing Ace Combat 7? (Bandai Namco Entertainment)

For future fighter pilots out there, I would say playing video games a couple of hours a week can help with processing information, making quick decisions, and accurately passing it off to the controls. Anything more is likely a detriment in that it is taking time away from other things you could be working on.

As for which type of video game to play, it doesn’t matter. Realistic fighter simulators like Digital Combat Simulator aren’t any better than Mario Kart: the procedures and tactics in civilian sims are off by enough that it won’t give you an advantage by the time you’re flying the real thing. If a civilian simulator helps stoke the passion, great – that’s the most important trait for success – but not playing them won’t put you at a disadvantage.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2021; it has been edited for republication. It was written by U.S. Air Force F-35 pilot, best-selling author, and prominent YouTuber, Hasard Lee. Make sure to check out his “The Art of Clear Thinking” book if you like this article.

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