747 cockpit

Everyone’s heard of Microsoft Flight Simulator and other consumer flight simulators for PC’s, but the real McCoy is X-Plane, an unbelievable simulator written (and re-written and re-written) by a manic flight (and gadget) crazy independent programmer named Austin Meyer.

While difficult to set up and learn, the experience of flying a 767 in X-Plane from San Francisco to JFK (with actual weather and way-true-to-life instrumentation) is almost an eery experience. X-Plane (unlike the other consumer toys) has even earned FAA approval towards the airline transport certificate. All you need is a PC and $50.

Like many tools, X-Plane allows you to deeply immerse in a “place” where most people never get to go (especially these days): the cockpit. You can pilot virtually any aircraft you can imagine (including helicopters, zeppelins, and even Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne). I’ve heard of pilots spending a lot of time in an X-Plane cockpit (say a new all-glass Cirrus) before actually buying a plane (Austin owns a Cirrus).

For others (more like me) it just offers a potentially immersive glimpse into an area I find fascinating but may not be able to experience. MSFT/FS is fine for just playing around — most newbies would actually find X-Plane boring compared to MSFT/FS. But taking an evening — with spouse and kids gone — and working through a successful (and extremely realistic), sunset round trip from SFO to the little un-manned airstrip in Half-Moon Bay in a Cirrus – using all the instruments including the GPS — makes this sim a unique thing.

X-Plane is a lot closer to “open source” than the consumer-friendly sims like MSFT/FS. As such, lots of people actively contribute to the world of X-Plane in terms of new (unbelievably accurate) planes, scenery, even tower and ground crew radio chatter. Here’s a sample of the detail in one update: “New engine failure type option: engine fire. If you specify an engine fire, then the engine smokes as it fails…regular engine failure does not leave a trail of smoke though. Pilot system failure resulting in airspeed indication error. Engine SIEZURE, and engine INDICATION failures. Low battery failure, resulting in an inability to get up to starting N1. Transponder can fail.” Or, on a more positive note: “Real-Weather now checks the entire planet, not just USA!” There are weird third-party websites for pre-flight checklists, obscure throttle controls (that strap to your desk), PDF scans of antiquated aircraft manuals, logbooks, menus… So the “world” of X-Plane (Google X-Plane) changes more frequently than other packages.

– Tim Smith

Mac, Windows, or Linux
(Version 10)
Available from X-Plane

Or $70 (Version 10) from Amazon

See open source and freeware add ons, X-Plane Freeware