Goddamn it, I love that man. Or maybe it’s a woman. I don’t know what they look like, nor what their politics are. I don’t see Trump or Obama, Clinton or Bush, Lincoln or FDR. I see hope. I see power. I see a military-grade Boeing VC-25, a 747-airliner modified for presidential transport operated by the United States Air Force, coming in to land.
I also see a bomb live-wired on the southwest runway of Los Santos International Airport. Ah shit, here we go again.
I’m back roleplaying in Grand Theft Auto 5’s player-made FiveM servers, this time inside the custom-scripted ‘Flight Sim’—a self-proclaimed flight school RP server that’s full of keen aeronautics enthusiasts, which boasts over 120 real-world airplane models. One of those models is the president’s iconic ride, Air Force One. And if I don’t move my arse, the leader of the free world is going to perish in a ball of flames shortly after its wheels touch the tarmac.
I’ve dabbled in GTA 5’s themed roleplay servers in the past (mmm, brains), but this spectrum is the weirdest mix of people who appear to know what they’re talking about, and people determined to blow up the people who appear to know what they’re about that I’ve come across yet.
Before playing here, I did not know what altimeter settings were. I had to Google instrument flight rules and the particulars of IFR clearances on the fly. One chap kept harping on about ASOS, and I couldn’t for the life of me work out how an online clothes retailer was going to help us at an airport. I now know that an Automated Surface Observation System is a weather briefing that’s continuously updated minute-to-minute. Keep up, noob.
Out of context, this probably sounds overwhelming, but when framed by player-orchestrated roleplay scenarios—flight training, air traffic control and collection and drop-off errands, to name but a few—it all comes together nicely. Truth be told, I still don’t understand half the jargon that was thrown around (and I’m fairly certain a fair chunk of the folk I played with were ad libbing), but there is one message I understood loud and clear:
“The President is making an emergency landing, protect Air Force One at all costs.”
The order, handed down by ASOS man himself, causes mass panic in the hangars. Suddenly, the place is abuzz with servicemen clambering into fighter jets, commercial airliners being cleared from the runways, and emergency service workers taking position at pre-determined posts all over the LSIA concourse. One roleplayer plays the Star-Spangled Banner down their headset, and as hulking tanks begin lining the perimeter of the playing area, there’s a distinct feeling that things are about to kick off.
Attack of the clones
One of the Flight Sim server’s weirdest quirks is the fact you can’t choose or edit your avatar. I’ve sampled dozens of GTA 5 roleplay servers in the past, every one of which has let me customise my character in-line with the base game’s customisation suite. Here, each player is assigned a generic middle-aged pilot man profile, decked out in a short-sleeved white shirt, black trousers and silver-clipped black tie.
Amid the chaos, I get so excited by the prospect of defending the Pres, that I get into a wee scuffle with a group of other pilot lads. Seems they all want to help out as much as me, and they’ll step on whoever they need to in the process.
A push leads to a shove, which leads to a couple of punches, a few kicks, and before I know it, I’m getting my head kicked in by four well-presented middle-ages blokes who all look exactly the same as one another.
As we all fumble around on the deck, I can’t help but think of that Treehouse of Horror Simpsons episode with all the cloned Homers. It’s a shambles.
I land a few good ones. I get a bit of a pasting. I black out a few times.
I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.
Okay, maybe you are gonna keep me down, especially if you throw me over a balcony, but we’ve got more pressing things to get on with here. I break free of the melee, leg it down the stairs, sprint across the hangar and spill out onto the runway.
“You!” shouts ASOS. “Come with me. We’re going to round the bases and make sure everyone knows their roles. Stat!”
What an honour. I hop on a motorcycle, and follow ASOS around the complex. We check in with the ground level muscle, the roof-level snipers, the surface-to-air missile soldiers, and the jet fighter pilots before take-off. I glance up to see Air Force One, flanked by air support, powering towards us. Enemy planes are dropped from the sky, and it’s all very exhilarating.
ASOS and I then boot it towards the airport’s entrance to check in with the fire department. He turns, looks and gasps.
“Is that a bomb on the runway?”
Jesus. He’s right, it is. Two small laptops on two small wooden tables with explosives underneath. An assassination attempt. How did they get there? No time to ask questions.
“I’ll grab them,” I say. “I’ll get you back at the hangar.”
I make a beeline for the bomb, swerving a firefight between insurgents and security officers en route. I pull out my phone, and launch Hack.Connect.exe. I establish a connection, and start matching the octet of numbers. Those of you who’ve played Martin Madrazo’s mission The Los Santos Connection (opens in new tab) in GTA Online will be familiar with the mini-game set-up—lines of numbers drop down; you’re tasked with matching eight-in-a-row—but as the Pres and their entourage edge ever closer to the ground I begin to panic.
I mess up two, three, four times, but nail it on my fifth attempt. Bomb disarmed. Phew. Onto the next. Crap. It’s a BruteForce.exe number. Here, I’m required to find key words in a word search and I’m really, really shit at word searches. Fail. And again. And again. Air Force One deploys its wheels. And again. I’m running out of time. And again. Oh, man. I’ve got to abandon this one. I hop back on my bike and clear the area. I cross my fingers, my toes, my arms, my eyes, and pray that one blast on its own won’t impact the armoured jet.
WHAT A SIGHT TO BEHOLD. You absolute beauty! I’m a friggin’ hero. Well, I mean, the comrade that’s just been blown up inside the support craft probably doesn’t think so. But the President lives! Gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelette and all that. As the smoke hangs in the air, ASOS pulls alongside me.
“Holy shit, rookie, that was close.”
I nod solemnly. In real life, ASOS can’t see me, but I sense that he understands. I might have failed on the second bomb, but by stopping the first, I’ve saved the day—whether the President and their peers realise it on the big bird or not. ASOS, however, does.
The President is bundled into a blacked-out limousine, and the convoy takes off for the airport’s terminal. ASOS advises me they’re heading to conference at the Diamond Casino up north, and that we can fly ourselves this time. I hop in his E-8C reconnaissance plane, and we take off over the Pacific. The sun sets before us, and the golden-purple hue reflecting off the waves below is beautiful.
“You did well there, greenhorn,” ASOS says.
I nod once more in real life. He pauses.
“But I’ve got a confession to make.”
I raise my eyebrows in real life.
“I’m raising my eyebrows in real life,” I say. I want to be crystal clear here.
“It was me who set those traps… I wanted the President dead. And it’s me that will end it all for you now.”
We start to spiral. We’re going down. The Vinewood Hills hurtle toward us at a rate of knots. We hit the turf rather anti-climactically, in a non-blaze of un-glory. I haul myself from the capsized vessel and see that ASOS is very much dead.
I stagger to the crest of the hills, and make my way for the highway. Perhaps I can hitch a ride back to civilisation. I lose my footing. I tumble, lose consciousness. And respawn back in the hangar.
Oh, come on.
But this time it’s different. There are no scuffles had, no punches thrown, and I’m now a veteran. I’ve earned my stripes, and before I know it, I’m sounding off orders to the latest group of identical noobs.
“Do we have clearance delivery?” I ask one lookalike. “How’s the crosswind? Uh-huh, and the downwind?
“What’d you mean you’ve never heard of ASOS? Urgh, come with me. The insurgents are coming. And we’re expecting Air Force One in T-minus ten minutes.”