If you’ve ever suffered a spat of turbulence and wondered how you’d do at the controls of an airliner—who hasn’t?—it’s time you took a spin in X-Plane 11, the industrial-grade flight simulator you can download to your desktop.
You’ll first marvel at the instrument panels, the realistic sea of buttons and dials that control autopilot, the engines, flaps, radio comms, among scores of other functions. You’ll take in the high-res scrolling landscape beneath you—or above you, whenever you learn that no, you cannot fly better than the pros. And then, you’ll feel the plane: the flexing wings, the spinning of the engines when you hit the throttle, the deep hum when you deploy the landing gear.
This dedication to the reality of flight has long made Laminar Research’s X-Plane the go-to game for aviation enthusiasts and actual pilots, taking off for fun or honing their real-world skills. The 11th release of the program that helped kill Microsoft’s Flight Simulator a decade ago, just dropped in beta and available as a free demo, has pushed the realism yet further.
Over a week spent digitally flying around the world, from Sea-Tac to LaGuardia to Nepal’s terrifying Lukla airport, I saw X-Plane’s two-pronged appeal: It’s as much fun for the detail-obsessed av-geeks, those spending their free time navigating gate-to-gate simulations of actual airline flights, as it is for the recreational enthusiast who just wants to absorb the beauty and sensation of flight.
The new edition caters to both audiences. For the pro pilots and especially serious rivet-counters, Laminar Research revised the physics engine and flight dynamics. You can now “feel” the plane’s susceptibility to crosswinds, even when taxiing, and engine performance accounts for details like altitude and environment. Even on the ground, the details bombard you: Between flights, watch the fuel, baggage, and catering vehicles swarm around your plane, preparing your return to the skies. Planes bounce in turbulence, stall if you don’t maintain the right speed and pitch angle, and will burn through fuel fast if you pick the wrong cruising altitude.
Disaster is always one wrong button away—that’s the reality of flight—but when everything’s going right, you can arc gracefully through the sky, execute barrel rolls and loops in a light sport airplane, or fly that 747 from Paris to New York with all the drama of a routine commercial flight.
For the noob crowd, X-Plane 11 offers a stunning simulation of the airborne environment. Dial in a sunset, snowstorm, or whatever else you like, then cruise over any city, coastline, or mountain range—all rendered from real-world mapping data, including road placement. Depending on your computer’s graphics capability, the program will add in autogenerated (but accurately placed) buildings, and the design team’s artist is replicating real structures constantly. (Flying bare-bones hardware? Dial back the graphics settings to “minimal” and it should run fine.)
As a virtual pilot, you can fly by the Space Needle, bask in Manhattan’s forest of steel and glass, dip into the Grand Canyon. (I’ve used previous versions of X-Plane to get a bead on airport departure and approach routes, to know where I should sit for optimal photo-ops).
Not a real pilot? Don’t fret. Though the setup demands some av-geek knowledge, you should get the hang of the general controls pretty quickly, and, as in real life, you can automate much of the work. (There are multiple flight tutorials included if you’re truly starting from ground-level.) But the more you fly, the more you’ll want to fly better, so when you clamber into the sky for a sunset tour of London, you’ll soon want to return to Heathrow to practice your runway approaches and landings.
Before long, you might find yourself among the dedicated, hauling planeloads of digital passengers from Chicago to Frankfurt.
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