by Guest Writer Erik “EinsteinEP” Pierce
Whenever we have visitors at our house, I always make a point to drag them into our second bedroom, which I half-jokingly refer to as my “Man Cave”. There I show off mySilent Hunter IV ship identification posters hanging on the wall, the bookshelf of game-related manuals and books, the file cabinet with checklists, reference sheets, and white papers, and the closet full of PC hardware and peripherals. Then, if I still have their attention (most of The Wife’s friends smile politely and briskly walk out of the room at this point) I seat them in a comfy chair, put a NaturalPoint TrackIR cap on their head, wrap their hands around an X52 Pro HOTAS, and walk them through a simple mission on IL2-1946 or Falcon 4.0 Allied Force. Just about everyone, whether they game or not, drops their jaw and says “Wow! You’re really into this, aren’t you?” I can only imagine what they’d think of the guys and gals at theLowland Tiger Meet.
The Lowland Tiger Meet is an annual event held in Europe that is dedicated to an intense combat flight sim experience. The term “LAN party” comes to mind, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression here: this isn’t the kind of LAN party you and your buddies set up back in high-school, this is the kind of event that takes months of coordination to set up, the support of a vast community of dedicated gamers, and a room the size of a high-school gymnasium to fit it all in.
This year the LLTM was hosted by Tobit Software in lovely Ahaus, Germany. Tobit is a powerhouse in the productivity software business and their office buildings were “posh” to say the least, which means they must be pretty good at what they do. In addition to the arena (“room” just doesn’t describe the area) reserved for the LLTM, there was a humongous (I’m guessing 18′ x 10′?) display monitor, segregated conference rooms with presentation podiums and projectors, a 5-star buffet lunch, and a hundred participants (Tigers) to enjoy it all. And, for four days, enjoy they did.
|One half of the arena at Lowland Tiger Meet 2010.|
Overall coordination was managed by Jan “Ice” Hilt. A very friendly and outgoing guy, Jan has a lot of experience in intense flight experiences: he has been flying Falcon with the 87th Stray Dogs, home of the virtual fighter pilot, for the past 10 years. Their web site greets you as “Fellow Warrior” and assures you this is “As Real As It Gets”. In addition to Jan’s overall coordination, there are section leads for each game, er, simulation: this year the featured products were Falcon 4.0: Allied Force, IL-2: Pacific Fighters, and Lock On: Flaming Cliffs. Each section lead not only has to design a series of missions for the LLTM fliers, but they have to brief the teams on the missions and score each team’s performance at the end of the mission, ultimately helping decide who becomes the top Tiger (see results from 2010 here).
|Jan chatting with visitors.|
The range of equipment the Tigers brought with them was impressive. There were, as one would expect, finely-crafted, highly detailed F-16 cockpits present in the Falcon 4.0 area. One gentleman (I only know him as “Eagle”) had a cockpit that a Viper pilot could have crawled into and not realized was a home-built job. Dials, switches, gauges, knobs, levers, buttons, lights, etc., were all crafted or selected with great care for realism, many components coming from real F-16s. Underneath the flawless facade is a forest of wiring and custom-built interface cards that tie it all together to the virtual aircraft in Falcon for a seamless experience. It came as no surprise to find that Eagle was also the guy who designed the FCC Cougar Mod. Wow, just…wow.
|Eagle’s cockpit *drool*.|
Falcon 4.0 isn’t the only combat flight sim with hardcore fans — the Lock On crowd also brought an impressive array of equipment and cockpits, most of it appearing to be custom-built and of very high quality, and reflecting the more varied nature of the Lock On aircraft.
|An exciting alternative to the ubiquitous F16-style cockpits.|
Although the fancy cockpits and desktop contraptions were impressive, the majority of participants brought some variation of the standard rig you probably have at home: a desktop / laptop with a HOTAS / joystick / rudder pedals and a flat screen / CRT monitor. There were various accoutrements around to spice up the experience, ranging from off-the-shelf items like F-16 style interface control panels and multi-function displays to custom-modded joysticks and rudder pedals to complex interface boxes with custom switches and dials and indicator lights.
|Each cockpit expresses the unique individuality of the pilot who gave birth to it.|
Of course, fancy equipment doesn’t make a Tiger. Authentic-looking flight suits, patches, ranks, and professionally printed kneeboard checklists don’t quite cut it either. To be a Tiger, you have to take your game — your simulation — seriously. Each mission was prefaced by a formal brief conducted in special briefing room were section leads reviewed mission objectives, threats, flight plans, and contingencies, as well as success criteria. Failure to pay attention here could result in mission failure for you and your team.
|A Falcon mission briefing.|
All the toys, glitz, and glam isn’t just for show: the missions put together by the section leads are specifically designed to test the mettle of the virtual pilots. In addition to stressing the usual attributes — teamwork, situational awareness, attack techniques — many of the missions have “surprises” — changing weather conditions, emergent targets, etc. — that test a pilot’s ability to react and think like a Tiger. Slow on the trigger? Unable to make a precise strafing run on a pop-up target? Not sure whether to disengage or press the attack? Then you probably aren’t the Top Tiger!
A Tiger has to know how to have a good time, too. Pilots regularly chatted and joked with each other in between (and even during!) missions and ate lunches together at the fantastic Tobit buffet. One morning the entire IL-2 section got off to a late start due to a late night that had only ended a few hours before the first mission was scheduled to begin! One pilot even brought their lucky stuffed unicorn (wrapped in a sweater).
The LLTM also brings in sponsors, like Saitek, 2connect, and NaturalPoint, who bring goodies to share with the Tigers. This year Saitek was showing off their latest creation, the Saitek X-65F Pro Flight Combat Control System force-sensing HOTAS. I got a chance to try it out and was impressed with the force-sensing technology. You can read Joe Keefe’s excellent review of the HOTAS here. The representative from 2connect hooked me up with a new TrackIR hat (my old one was dusty and worn).
|The Saitek demo table gets all the action.|
Sim-pilots and coordinators and sponsors (oh my!) weren’t the only ones flitting around the LLTM. Visitors poured regularly in and out of the arena, ogling the cockpits, watching the closely coordinated missions, wandering around wondering at the wonder of it all, trying to score a quick flight in one of the advanced cockpits. Pretty much the same thing I was doing!
|A visitor gets a once-in-a-lifetime experience.|
I am thrilled and proud to be able say that I got to experience the LLTM. Not only did I get to see some really cool toys, but I got to meet some really great people (including Jim “Mack” of The Fighter Collection and Matthias “Groove” of Eagle Dynamics!). The effort and enthusiasm these Tigers have for their hobby is contagious. I only hope I get to go again next year!
Although I recognize that SimHQ has a global audience, I can’t help but wonder how the concept of a large-scale LAN event appeals to my fellow readers on this side of The Big Pond. Would our virtual fighter community, spread out over 350,000 square miles (900,000 square km), be able to coordinate an equivalent of the LLTM here? Would you be willing to travel, possibly great distances, bringing along your own equipment, and, for a nominal registration fee, fly and compete with dozens if not hundreds of other virtual fliers for prizes, recognition, and bragging rights? Better yet, could we host an event here and then link up with our fellow fliers in Europe, further expanding the experience of both groups? What do you think?
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