posted 4/22/2008 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble
One Page Platforms: PC
A well-known and easily observable hallmark of things in life that inspire passion in people is that they nearly always have some form or another of a never-ending debate. An obvious example would be religion, of course, given that throughout history epic wars have been fought over differences in fundamental tenets of belief. Other examples? How about professional sports: have you ever heard of a soccer riot? Formula 1 racing drivers have received death threats. Even at the collegiate football level, you don’t have to live in Columbus, Ohio for very long to realize that it is the absolute last place in the world where you want to wear a University of Michigan sweatshirt in November.

Unless you suffer from it yourself, you may not realize that aviation can (and does) rise to the level of passion in many, many people. Personally, I was diagnosed at a very early age as having a nearly terminal (slight pun there – did you get it?) case of aviation passion. If you spend any appreciable amount of time hanging around in areas where the infected gather, you will no doubt learn that there are debates within the clique that well never, ever be resolved. High-wing or low-wing? Fixed-gear or retractable? Those are the high-level arguments, but as you dig deeper into the cult you will find ever more granular and esoteric bones of contention. In the case of my personal airplane, a Van’s RV-6, the argument as to whether the tip-up canopy or the slider canopy is to be preferred can go on-and-on for days on end in some of the Web forums. And please, don’t ever mention the topic of overhead break approaches: that’s 100% guaranteed to start a flame war.

The thing about a passion for aviation is that it cannot always be pacified. It’s no secret that flying is expensive. Strike that: flying is damned expensive. The thing about a passion, though, is that people will do whatever they can to feed it. In aviation, it is often the case that the closest one can get to actual flying is the PC-based flight simulator. It’s no accident that Microsoft Flight Simulator is perennially one of the top selling software titles each and every year. It is a very approachable simulation, and doesn’t require extensive learning or effort to use. It is eminently suitable for everyone, whether they are passionate or not about flying. There are those sim users, however, that are, in fact, very passionate about flight simulators. And because there is passion involved, there is also almost by definition an unanswerable question: Microsoft Flight Sim, or X-Plane.

How that question is answered is, as is often the case in aviation where the only way to address all needs is by owning at least two (but no more than five) airplanes, very dependent on the user’s primary mission. When you think back to the high-wing vs. low-wing question, consider the pilot that stores his airplane outside in a rainy area: he appreciates the high-wing when it shelters him from the rain when he’s getting in and out of the plane. Even the hangared high-wing has benefits over the low-wing if the owner is one of those folks that uses the excess space in the hangar for the storage of boats, motorcycles, or whatever won’t fit in the home garage. There’s much more empty and useable space below a high-wing than there is under a low-wing. Is that the deciding factor for a lot of airplane owners? Maybe it is, maybe not, but it is most assuredly a consideration.

When the decision has to be made between Microsoft Flight Sim and X-Plane, a number of factors come into play. As this essay is intended to be a review of X-Plane Version 9, I will try to concentrate primarily on telling you as much as I can about it in particular, but to provide a fuller picture of its abilities and efficacy to your personal mission, I will have to lean very heavily on comparisons with the much better known standard of Microsoft’s offering. One of the more obvious examples is whether the sim pilot intends to “fly” IFR or VFR. Both sims will allow for both modes of flight, but they each have relative strengths and weaknesses. Microsoft Flight Sim X (hereafter referred to as ‘FSX’) concentrates primarily on VFR flight in that it provides a much richer visual world for sightseeing and navigation via pilotage. Depart from McCarran airport in Las Vegas and fly for just a few miles, for example, and you will be able to fly up “the strip” and see the fountains in front of the Bellagio. Make the same flight in X-Plane and you will see only generic buildings and, oddly enough, a lot of oil tanks in peoples back yards. Because of this, for the casual sim pilot FSX is probably going to be the winner in the sightseeing category. While X-Plane provides the ability to have global scenery, out-of-the-box (in other words, without installing custom add-on scenery) this means only that the ground beneath you will be topographically correct, all navaids will be available for use, and all airports will be where you expect (and need!) them to be. This is not to say that the default X-Plane scenery is not attractive; nothing could be further from the truth. Mountainous areas, in particular, are quite striking. It’s just that you shouldn’t plan on a whole lot of aerial tourism.

When it comes to flying IFR, the question becomes much more nuanced. There is one area where I think FSX has an advantage over X-Plane in flying IFR, and that is in the ATC voice communications. In FSX, the ATC controllers vectoring you around and providing you with the required clearances sound more or less human. In X-Plane, the voices are clearly machine-generated and somewhat grating. Again, FSX wins in the category of fidelity to the real world in the aesthetic realm, but where X-Plane wins the trophy in IFR flight is in the response of the instruments (which, obviously, play a very critical role in instrument flight) used to fly and navigate when the view out the window simply isn’t there to help. The response of the flight instruments in X-Plane is the smoothest I have ever seen in a PC-based flight sim; there is no jerkiness or lag at all in their motions. This is an absolutely critical factor in simulated (and real, for that matter) IFR flight, and is quite possibly one of the reasons that X-Plane can be (NOTE: this capability requires significant hardware upgrades, but the underlying software ‘engine’ at the core of such a system is X-Plane) used to actually log FAA-approved flight time.
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