You may view a home flight simulator as akin to a game. True, simulators can be fun to play with, but X-Plane is much more than a game. Twelve years ago, I bought X-Plane 1.0, the work of one pilot, aeronautical engineer and programmer, Austin Meyer. Each subsequent version offers vastly increased capability, and because of the extremely flexible and accurate way the planes are treated, X-Plane has been approved by the FAA to drive several commercial simulators that can be used to log time toward a license. No other home simulator has that distinction. Avionics vendors also use X-Plane: Garmin has a flight-training device built around a three-screen G1000 panel connected to a PC running the program.
|X-Plane offers a choice of views. This one shows the avionics panel as well as the exterior of “the-jet” by Cirrus, which is in a roll.|
X-Plane’s scenery includes more than 18,000 airports, as well as aircraft carriers, helipads on rooftops and oil rigs, and even NASA-generated terrain on Mars. The model plane is divided into hundreds of small areas; aerodynamic forces on each of these are calculated many times per second. These forces are summed up, and physics is used to complete the flight modeling.
I’ve used X-Plane to practice the procedures for FAA-S-8081-29, the Sport Pilot Practical Test Standards. This includes takeoffs (normal as well as short and soft fields), landings, cross-countries and go-arounds, all of which I performed at the simulation model of my home field, Henderson Executive Airport (KHND) in Las Vegas, Nev. Slow flight, steep turns and stalls all handled very well.
There are two things that are difficult or dangerous to practice in the real world: flying in weather and reacting to emergencies. With X-Plane, you can set up your own winds, temperatures, rain, turbulence, microbursts and even thermals. When I tried some real S-turns and turns about a point, I had trouble with strong winds and turbulence, so I immediately re-created those conditions on my computer and practiced until I could do a better job the next time up.
There’s also an option to download real weather from the Internet and automatically update your computer data to match conditions at the weather station nearest your plane’s current location. Once, I was sitting in my darkened office simulating a short flight from KLAS (McCarran International Airport, also in Las Vegas) to KHND. Halfway there, I was surprised by the raindrops depicted on my computer screen. I had forgotten that I had turned on the real-weather function. My office is about halfway between the two airports, so I went outside and looked south—there was a large black cloud, and rain was falling on this desert country.
Emergencies are, perhaps, better and more safely simulated on the computer than they are in the air with an instructor. X-Plane allows almost any part or system of the plane to fail at specified or random times, speeds or altitudes. When an instrument fails on the computer, it’s much more deceptive than when your instructor places a card over the device in a real plane. On the simulator, the gauge is still completely visible—it just isn’t working! This is much more like an actual failure.
X-Plane 9.0 comes on six DVDs, the first of which contains several programs and the airplane fleet. You use the “X-Plane” program to fly, “Plane-Maker” allows users to easily make or modify planes, “Airfoil-Maker” is used to create or change lift and drag coefficients for wings and tails, and “Briefer” lets users plan the simulated flight.
More than 50 airplanes come with the simulator software, and they’re grouped according to class, such as “General Aviation,” “Heavy Metal” and “Fighters.” The most popular plane is probably the Cessna 172, but other aircraft range from Cirrus’ “the-jet” (Meyer is on the growing list of those who have ordered the real thing) to the X-15 rocket ship that can be dropped from a NASA B-52. NASA’s Space Shuttle can be started at very high altitude and flown in glide mode to a landing at Cape Kennedy or Edwards AFB, and the Canadair CL-415 amphibious seaplane can operate on land or water. Any airplane can take off or land on one of several aircraft carriers, although those with tailhooks are best for this operation.
For those who wish for a real challenge, there are two vertical-takeoff planes (Harrier and Osprey) and four different helicopters. Two planes—a jet and a rocket—have been designed to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. You can set up thermals and launch the Schleicher ASK-21 glider with either a tow or winch; I find that flying this ship on my computer is nearly as much fun as the real thing.
Each of the remaining five DVDs includes about 8.5 GB of scenery for different parts of the world. It isn’t necessary to install all of the scenery, because that would require 70 GB of hard-drive space, but once you start to load one part of the world, you must save all of that section.
Using X-Plane requires a fairly robust computer with at least a 2 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, an OpenGL video card with at least 32 MB of RAM and up to 70 GB on your hard drive. X-Plane is developed on Mac computers, but translated so that it runs on Windows and Linux operating systems.
Any USB joystick can work as a controller to get you started, but one with a twisting stick will enable you to control yaw. You can also use a yoke and rudder pedals to make it more like a real flying experience. I use any combination of these depending upon how I feel and how much room I want to allow on and under my desk. Planes can also be controlled using the mouse or the keyboard, but I don’t recommend that.
X-Plane 9.0 is $79 and can be ordered at www.x-plane.com. You don’t have to purchase X-Plane until you’ve tried it: Download a free demo version first (joystick control cuts out after a few minutes). Also online is an impressive list of improvements that have been made from previous versions. Many are the result of Meyer’s work with commercial simulator companies. Meyer updates X-Plane frequently and if you buy any V9.xx DVD, all updates can be downloaded for free until he introduces V10. From time to time, I’ve sent him suggestions for features I’d like to see, and he usually responds favorably in the next release. For more information, log on to www.x-plane.com.