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The dark synthetic sky: flying and dying in the analogue atmospheres of flight simulation

Sat, September 1, 9:00 to 10:30am, ICC, E5.4


Throughout the 1930s, pilots were blamed for 80% of aviation accidents. One response was the introduction of flight simulators. Developed from early servomechanical units, by the 1950s new Dehmel-type simulators comprised sophisticated human-machine interfaces at the vanguard of analogue computing. Yet all but the most elaborate installations lacked visual projections. Aircrew instead ‘flew’ beneath opaque or translucent hoods, imaginatively traversing a dark synthetic sky. This absence of visual stimuli disciplined flyers into obeying their instruments and radio signals (Jeon, 2015). As closed-world environments idealising man-machine integration (Edwards, 1996; Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2012), simulators recursively gamed routine missions while leaching affect from ersatz crisis scenarios (Crogan, 2011). Indeed, the early 1960s saw simulator hours endorsed as surrogates for ‘real’ cockpit time, while mastering their synthetic missions was considered more demanding than most operational flights. Yet with pilots now held accountable for just 50% of crashes, escalating simulator use highlighted human fallibilities. From the earliest models, aviators’ shortcomings were captured by the recording devices integral to simulator installations, habituating aircrew to forensic monitoring well before ‘black boxes’ were mandated aboard airliners (Siegel, 2014). By 1970, these accusatory flight-data traces again saw pilots blamed for 80% of crashes. Simulators were thus complicit in the technological appropriation of airborne agency, diminishing perceptions of human capability and accelerating demands for automation. Triangulating aircrew performance studies (Holmes, 2014), the ‘software-simulated airworld’ (Budd and Adey, 2009) and the ‘dronification of state violence’ (Shaw, 2014), this paper historicises the role of flight simulators in emptying the skies of human agents.