• Interview With Curtis Olson Of FlightGear


    When did you start developing for flight simulators and what got you interested in it?

    I started developing for flight simulation back around 1995 with a small MSFS based project. I found an online weather map site that had current surface conditions for the USA, so I wrote a program that would decode the graphical map symbology and convert it back to text form. I then spent the next few months researching and decoding the relevant portions of the MSFS situation files so I could automatically inject the current weather conditions into your saved situation file. This allowed MSFS to automatically launch with current real weather conditions.

    Through this experience I began thinking how wonderful it would have been if I could have concentrated 90% of my effort on my new development ideas and maybe only 10% of that effort figuring out how to plug into the software. Instead I had spent maybe 10% of that effort on the fun parts, and 90% of my time on the gruelling, tedious process of reverse engineering someone else's binary file structure.

    Not long after that experience a few people on one of the flight sim mailing lists at the time began to wonder about developing our own flight simulator from scratch. We were young guys back then and didn't know what we were in for. But by the time we realized how crazy/naive we were, and how huge the project actually was, we had a few things running and working, so we stuck with it and here we are today, more than 15 years later, still sticking with it!


    What do you consider your best or most popular work?

    I can't explain why exactly, but from the very start, way back in 1996 and continuing to today without interruption, I've never had any doubt that FlightGear would be successful and popular.

    What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of a project?

    For me personally (over the past few years) I think the most difficult thing has to be time. I started this project when I was a young 20-something guy with all the time and energy in the world. Now I'm a 40-something guy; married, kids, dog, house, and a million and one commitments and demands on my time. As life proceeds, it seems like it becomes more and more difficult to juggle all the demands of life; especially when trying to find some sort of balance so as to avoid frustration but at the same time, be productive at least once in a while. I wouldn't trade this with anyone, but somewhere along the way here I became the grown up that had to carry all the weight of the family and all the demands of life ... it's kind of funny how that happens.


    What have been your favorite projects?

    One thing I do on the side as a portion of my day job, is UAV embedded flight controller work. I did a demo where I converted our F-14 for fully autonomous carrier launch and recovery. That was a lot of fun to get working.

    What software packages and tools do you use to develop?

    I am probably "old school" ... I use text editors (usually emacs) for editing code and compile with "make" and gcc. I've always been frustrated by the constraints of integrated development environments. That's just my personal preference. I've been doing this long enough to know that every developer has different comfort zones, so I support whatever makes people the most happy and productive. For me, that is emacs, xterms, and running make and gcc from the command line.

    Who would you consider to be your mentors or inspiration in the development world if you have any?

    When I first started down the FlightGear path, I met a guy from Texas who had done quite a bit of professional level flight simulator work. I haven't kept in touch with him as much lately, but in those early years he was very gracious to offer support and advice. He was my first flight simulator mentor.


    Can I just stop and say one thing here. I feel mentoring is probably the most important topic in this entire interview. A lot of people pursue an idea or interest for a few months, maybe a year or two, and then move on to other interests or other jobs. That is true for me with many things, but I have been involved with FlightGear since about 1996. That's long enough to start losing count ... can it really be 18 years?!?

    1. DominicS's Avatar
      DominicS -
      Great interview Curt!!

      FlightGear has grown so much over the last few years and it really shows; especially in regards to the scenery and weather.

      The amount of features that it now has is mind boggling.

      Keep up the great work on a truly great sim!!

    1. jcomm's Avatar
      jcomm -
      Very true, and version 3.0 simply turned into my ** only ** general purpose flight simulation platform. It was the end of FSX and X-plane for me, and while I still use my long time companion IFR flightsim ELITE, and also DCS and IL2 Sturmovik just because of the extraordinary flight dynamics, it's Flight Gear the simulator I mainly use now!

      The sophistication of some excellent add-ons, like the B707 and the Tu-154 I started learning to use, places them easily on pair with the best add-ons I used for either FSX or X-Plane.

      Flight Gear, a 64 bit simluator ( already ) has a very promising future, and I am thankful to all of those who made it possible and the way it is!
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