Have you ever wanted to take charge of a commercial airliner and fly around the world? Well X-Plane is about as close to the real thing as you’re ever going to get on your PC. Claiming to be the world’s “most comprehensive, powerful simulator” it’s so accurate that the US and Canadian aviation authorities have given it official approval to train pilots towards their commercial licence.
Of course, those guys are not sat behind a PC in their bedroom - their training is done in a $150,000 simulator - but what they see is exactly what you get on your PC. What’s more, you’re not limited to Earth – in X-Plane you can even fly around Mars!
Firstly, be warned. X-Plane is one MASSIVE program. Don’t be fooled by the 1.8MB file size in the game description – that’s just the installer. Once you’ve installed that, a very swanky download dialogue opens to download the other 1.3 gigabytes of the game. All those scenarios, vectored graphics and flight controls take up a lot of hardrive space. Depending on your bandwidth, you will be looking at hours, if not days to download the whole thing.
In this X-Plane demo, you are limited to just one aircraft and five minutes of flight but in the full version, you can take control of props, jets, single- and multi-engine airplanes, as well as gliders, helicopters and VTOLs such as the V-22 Osprey and AV8-B Harrier. It also offers subsonic and supersonic flight dynamics, sporting aircraft from the Bell 206 Jet-Ranger helicopter and Cessna 172 light plane to the supersonic Concorde and Mach-3 XB-70 Valkyrie. In all, about 40 aircraft spanning the aviation industry (and history) with several hundred more which can be freely downloaded from the internet. There’s even a plane builder option which allows you to build your own model.
You can pretty much fly to any location around the world and choose from over 18,000 airports to test your landing and take-off skills. You can even test your mettle on aircraft carriers, helipads, frigates that pitch and roll in the waves, and oil rigs. X-Plane naturally features the whole range of weather conditions you might face and the plane reacts realistically to them. The graphics are vector based so they’re not exactly brilliant but they’re what you’d expect from a simulator .
The biggest problem you’ll have is working out how on earth to get started. X-Plane's controls are incredibly complex to mirror a real commercial airliner. I spent the best part of 10 minutes just sat on the runway trying to work out how to start the engines whilst Air Traffic Control went crazy at me. You are prompted with a few guidelines at how to get rolling (such as “hit spacebar to release the breaks”) although you’re not told how to start the engines.
There are so many switches and dials in the cockpit that there’s no knowing what to hit without studying the huge flight manual in detail. In the end, the best I managed was to race around the airport before crashing into and destroying a control tower, killing all on board. For those that do have more patience, they need merely move the mouse cursor to the top of the screen where a drop down menu will present access to preferences, instructions, control configuration and many other options.
For those that just want to fly free as a bird and admire the scenery, X-Plane is not for you. For those that want the challenge of mastering a real airliner or are training for a professional license, it’s the best program out there and will have you absorbed for hours.