It won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) come as much of a surprise to you when I say that a fairly important component of a flight simulator is the quantity and quality of airplanes that it simulates. Flight models and scenery are very important, but without airplanes to fly, well, they become somewhat moot, do they not? But here we are, more than 2000 words into this review and I haven’t said a word about them. What’s up with that? Well, it’s become a bit of a grey area for me, to be honest. The thing is, X-Plane can simulate just about any flying vehicle ever built, and many that have not. Because of the flexibility of the flight model, you can fly anything from a Piper Cub to the Space Shuttle, and if that’s not a wide enough continuum for you, you can even fly an airplane on Mars! And, as with FSX, the airplanes that come with the initial installation of the program are nothing more than a good place to start. There is a healthy market in third-party expansion planes, both commercial and free downloads. Granted, the free ones are often worth exactly what you paid for them, but that is by no means always the case. Very sophisticated and accurate airplanes can be found for the price of only the time it takes to download them. In fact, you can build your own if you have the desire and diligence to learn how. X-Plane includes all of the tools required to create your own airplanes, up to and including the use of your own airfoils. Oh, you want your own private airport? Well, so do I, but we’re not talking about me. X-Plane also includes the tools needed to build your own scenery, and if you want to use it to build a pyramid in your back yard, have at it.
All that being said, it is still the case that a number of airplanes are included in the initial installation. As with the planes that you can buy or download, there is a spectrum of quality across the fleet. For example, I was super excited to see an RV-6 in the list, but it is unfortunately not one of the better planes in the package. It flies ok, but the instrument panel is bland, and it is not one of the planes that includes a full 3D cockpit – an essential thing to have if, like me, you are using a head-tracking system such as TrackIR. On the other hand, the F-4 Phantom has a wonderful panel which not only includes a full 3D cockpit but also has the only accurate F-4 attitude indicator I’ve seen in a simulator. I worked on F-4s when I was in the military, and the coolest thing on the panel as far as I was concerned was the “full ball” attitude indicator that would also spin on its vertical axis to act as a directional indicator. It’s hard to describe, but it gives the pilot everything he needs to know about attitude and heading on one instrument. Very slick. Another of the airplanes that has the more modern full 3D cockpit is the Cirrus Jet, an airplane that is not yet in actual production. It’s kind of neat to be flying one of those around before the millionaires that will eventually fly the real thing have gotten their hands on them. It’s enough to send me out for a handful of lottery tickets.
While I wish all of the planes had the 3D cockpit, the 2D panels still work pretty well. Some of the other airplanes that I’ve found to be both challenging and enjoyable to fly are the V-22 Osprey and the Canadair CL-415. The V-22 is one of the included VTOL aircraft, and it is very cool to spool up those huge propellers in order to lift off vertically and ease them from the upward-facing position into the forward-facing position to make the change from helicopter mode to airplane mode. The transition back to helicopter mode has been a more daunting task, though, and I’m still not very good at it. I enjoy the Canadair for a different type of flying. The CL-415 is used for aerial water drops on forest fires. While X-Plane doesn’t have the formal ‘missions’ available in FSX, it does have what are called ‘Situations.’ For example, you can load a ‘Aircraft Carrier Cat Launch’ or a ‘Space Shuttle Full Approach’ situation. For the Canadair, I load a forest fire situation and try to drop water on the fire. I suck at skimming the lake to fill the water tanks without either crashing or getting so bogged down in the water that I can’t take off again, though, so it’s been challenging enough to keep my interest in trying to get better at it. Other favorite situations for are ‘Formation Flying’ and ‘Tanker Refuel’, both of which require the challenge of performing precise formation flying.
One thing to be aware of regarding the airplanes, though, is that the avionics (the autopilot in particular) can have steep-ish learning curves. Being the type that uses documentation only as a last resort, I struggled with even getting the autopilot turned on, and oddly enough also had occasions where I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. X-Plane requires your full investment in learning how to use the equipment properly, but once you do make the effort, you will be rewarded with realistic and gratifying behavior. This is not to say that all of the navigation equipment is 100% capable of real-world performance, though; the FMS and GPS systems are somewhat dumbed down, but are sufficient to the tasks at hand.
You really want to get good at managing the equipment before trying your hand at flying in some of the weather conditions you can create using the weather settings because you can put yourself in weather conditions that cause ducks to choose walking over flying. For additional challenge, you can configure X-Plane to provide random equipment failures of dangerous meteorological conditions such as wing icing to keep things exciting. The degree to which this kind of thing can be taken is staggering; forget to set the cabin pressurization to an appropriate altitude in a high-altitude flight, for example, and see how long you last before blacking out. Flying an IFR approach to minimums is challenging enough, particularly if you have set up a healthy dose of turbulence, but try to do it partial-panel to really test your mettle. Or, you can do what I do: let X-Plane download real-world weather on those inevitable days when the Weather-out-the-Window ™ forecast shows that it’s far too cruddy to fly the RV and see how you do.
I can’t decide for you whether or not X-Plane is right for you. Just know going in that it is far more of a simulator than it is a game, and as such requires at least some measure of the devotion to practice and learning that real-world flying does. Aviation is not known for being a pastime or occupation that is forgiving to those that will not put forth the effort to do it correctly and safely, and in that, X-Plane is very similar. But, as with real-world aviation, the effort put into doing it right will be rewarded with immense satisfaction.
X-Plane may not be for everybody because of its focus on accuracy and its sometimes steep learning curve, but it will reward the diligent user with a simulation worthy of the word. It is not a game, nor is it intended to be. Use it as a professional grade flight simulator, and you will be rewarded with professional grade flight simulation.
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