It’s a clear, sunny day and Frank Durrans is flying his plane high above the picturesque Dorset coastline.
“There’s Bournemouth Pier,” the 85-year-old says, pointing to a line in the sea far below. “That’s Christchurch Harbour, and Brownsea Island, and the Isle of Wight over there.”
He banks the plane left and heads back to Bournemouth Airport. “I love it up here,” he sighs.
Frank loves flying so much that he takes to the skies every afternoon, travelling to Manchester, Germany, Scandinavia, Asia and Australia.
And he does it all from the comfort of his Andover home using Microsoft Flight Simulator, which helps him relive his time serving in the Army and feel closer to his family, who are spread across the UK. Frank lives alone but is a father of three, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of eight.
“I often fly from Thruxton to Manchester and imagine I’m picking up my family,” he says. “I also like to fly to Bodmin, where my son-in-law lives, or go to see my brother in Jersey.”
Frank has owned every Flight Simulator game since the series was released in 1982. According to the former air dispatch crew commander and parachutist, the current title, released for PC in 2020 and Xbox in 2021, is the best yet.
“There’s no comparison between the previous Flight Simulators and this latest one,” he says. “This one is so real – the weather, the graphics, the planes and how they handle. You really have to know what you’re doing when you’re flying. I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
To immerse himself in the full flying experience, Frank has an impressive setup in his home – a high-powered PC, curved monitor, floor pedals, yoke and a throttle quadrant to control the plane’s throttle, flaps and trim.
Even though Flight Simulator gives you the chance to fly a range of aircraft, including fighter jets and commercial airliners, Frank prefers the Cessna 172, a small, single-engine aircraft.
He explains: “I don’t like the big jets as much, because you take off, switch on the autopilot on and that’s it. It’s all programmed. You can even programme it to go to the gate at the airport. With smaller aircraft you actually have to fly them. I get pleasure out of navigating, getting from A to B.”
Frank spends two hours a day on his PC, taking full control of a Cessna from take-off to landing – and even parking the plane at the hanger, while being guided in by ground crew. He points out how the weather in the game replicates the weather outside his window, in real-time.
It’s that level of detail and realism that brings back such fond memories of his time in the Royal Army Service Corp, which he joined in 1959. His first ever trip in an aircraft was in a Handley Page Hastings from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, to Watchfield, near Swindon. Frank admits he fell in love with aviation after that.
“The Beverlys were like double-decker buses with wings,” he remembers. “You could get two three-tonne vehicles in the freight bay and 38 fully equipped troops up in the tail boom. It’s a huge aircraft. Those were the best six months of my Army life. I was flying every day.”
During his 24 years in the military, Frank was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal, the General Service Medal with Borneo Clasp, the United Nations Medal, Cyprus, and other medals for long service and good conduct.
After leaving the military in 1982, Frank became Chief Administration Officer at a college in the UK. He also started to get his pilot’s licence but soon realised that the courses and plane costs were going to be “very expensive”. An alternative solution presented itself – at the college, he met an IT technician who introduced him to Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Frank has been flying planes in the game ever since, and the series has come a long way in 40 years.
“I was watching YouTube videos of the development of this latest Flight Simulator and I knew it was going to be the best there has ever been,” he says. “Quite early on, I decided that if I wanted the best flight simulator, I needed the best hardware as well. So me and my friend Des commissioned someone to build a computer that was slightly over the best specifications recommended by Microsoft for the game. It means I never have a problem with frame rates when I’m flying. I use the maximum settings and the computer copes with it.”
It means Frank can relive the joy of flying without ever leaving his home, whether it’s looking down at the jungle on a journey from North Malaysia to Singapore or savouring the Italian countryside between Naples and Rome.
He says: “One of the greatest journeys I’ve made in the game was taking off from Berlin, flying through the Scandinavian countries, back down into Germany again, around Holland and then landing at Frankfurt. It was fascinating. I just enjoy being up there and finding my way around.”
After 40 years of playing Flight Simulator, flying various planes and seeing everything the world has to offer, is there anything new that Frank wants to experience?
His eyes light up and he sits forward. “Flight Simulator in virtual reality,” he says. “I think that would be an incredible experience.”