Apple II in flight

November 12th, 2018 10:50 AM
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Once upon a time, before airlines had Wi-Fi, commercial flights were a disconnected oasis where passengers could not be reached by the outside world. It was the perfect time to put away the laptops and catch up on books, magazines, or even handheld games.

Now our computers are with us on every flight — a trend begun in 1983 by Jack McCornack, who put an Apple II on his ultralight aircraft.

"No brakes, no license, no parachute… What is there in this barebones aircraft to hang on to for even the least sense of security? It was designed with the help of an Apple II," writes Melissa Milich in Softalk Volume 3, Issue 5 (Jan 1983).

Jack McCornack of Pterodactyl in flight

Most of the article details how McCornack uses VisiCalc and Apple Writer to run his aviation company, much like any entrepreneur or businessperson might. But on page 125 is a sidebar in which Milich dives into the details of the above photo:

That's an Apple II Plus, monitor, disk drive, and Apple Juice power supply bolted to a wooden mount with foot-long bolts and protective pads. On the two-seater Pterodactyl pictured, the Apple sits where the passenger normally would. The control stick for the canard and winglets is managed with the right hand while the pilot reaches over with the left hand to type on the keyboard.

This sidebar is a fascinating look at the early integration between aviation and digital technology — not only to provide data that pilots and on-ground personnel can use to make decisions, but to actually control the flight mechanics themselves:

In a normal plane, ailerons are controlled by the stick and the rudders are controlled by foot pedals… McCornack is working toward a version of the two-seater in which you can control ailerons with a joystick hooked to the Apple. The computer would control servo motors that activate the ailerons.

Going for a theme, this same issue of Softalk has a similar article on pages 48–54: David Hunter's piece "Exec SubLogic: On Course and Flying High". It's a meandering piece about Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, two other entrepreneurs who developed the early flight simulator A2-FS1 Flight Simulator (and, later, Night Mission Pinball).

SubLogic had many other innovations in development. Decades before Steel Battalion, they envisioned more complex interaction and input devices:

Not just another joystick, this multiplexed, seven-channel contraption will give a more realistic aspect to the flight simulator, possibly including foot pedals, a steering wheel, a separate throttle, and other features.

Softalk was a great magazine, and this issue in particular was a fun look at the Apple II in flight.

(Hat tip to Paulo Alves via Garrett Meiers, with help from Laine Nooney)