Flight Simulators – The Best Available

One of the greatest functions of any computer is the ability to recreate situations, scenarios, and perform simulations. Since they became aimed at the consumer, aircraft simulator sales have been tremendous.

Today I would like to share some of my personal favourites with you. Whether you are an avid hobbiest or just intrigued, this selection should be of some interest you.

X-Plane 9

The first simulator I would like to share with you is called X-Plane. It is a little unheard of, since the simulator and its hugely detailed scenery comes on four DVD’s posted from the U.S. However, just because you can’t easily get it at your local PC World, definitely doesn’t mean it is no good.

A light aircraft passes across what appears to be the Grand Canyon.

The level of realism is by far the best feature X-Plane has to offer. A fantastic physics engine from Laminar Research Inc. simulates flight to a precise level, on par with professional pilot training simulators. It is so well made that if you have a big pilots salary, you can pay about $500 to download and add on an FAA mode. So you can clock up flight time whilst sitting in front of your computer with a coffee.

X-Plane’s visuals are terrific too — the level of texture detail is great though not too outstanding by today’s standards. The best feature has to be the terrain mapping and the level of detail presented. One of the reasons X-Plane has such a huge data repository is solely for all this terrain detail. The whole world is available in a level of detail no other simulator has ever matched. Take a look at the screenshot above for an example.

Now a few downsides. At the time of writing X-Plane has no built in simulated Air Traffic Control or AI aircraft of any kind. It is very boring always being cleared to land. These features are all lined up for the next version, X-Plane 10. For now though, its a feature I personally miss greatly.

Visually, it seems to lack a certain sparkle, like bright groves of trees, and deep blue oceans. That is just the opinion of a Microsoft Flight Sim fan, familiar with their texture style.

I recommend that if you are even slightly interested, go to X-Plane’s website and download the free demo version for a play around.

Look into X-Plane in more detail at its homepage.

Flight Simulator X

Flight Simulator X is as equally detailed and beautiful as X-Plane, perhaps even moreso. Everything seems to have a far ‘brighter’ design. The feature which I value most is that Flight Simulator X does have ATC and excellent AI, it even has ground vehicles which come to wait on and service your aircraft! Waving a plane around in the air is one thing, having to work yourself around other aircraft at a busy airport makes for a lot more fun.

A Cessna 182 flies across the countryside - Note the level of AutoGen detail, the village directly under the left landing gear for example.

The multiplayer support is very sophisticated. If microphone support isn’t enough for you, your cockpit can be shared with someone else, or if you fancy it you can take control of the Tower for a selected airport.

The included aircraft in FSX are all great to fly and striking models, new third-party creations can be downloaded for free from repositories like SimViation.

Sadly, Flight Simulator X was the last from Microsoft’s Flight Simulator line. Since there are no future versions planned quite a lot of people are moving to X-Plane 9, in preparation for X-Plane 10 which is rumoured to be on par with FSX with some notable improvements.

Out of all the simulators I have written about here, FSX is the most ‘professionally made’ of them. This is especially notable with the level of detail shown at airports, and the user interface polish that all the other simulators lack. It has by far the most diverse range of features.

Flight Simulator X is still sold in a lot of games stores or any PC-orientated shop. If you find a copy and don’t mind spending a few dollars (which is what it costs nowadays), then I recommend you give it a a go.

FlightGear

FlightGear is the most popular free and opensource simulator. The community contributing to it have done a wonderful job, giving attractive scenery and well-modelled aircraft. A greater level of attention has been paid to specialist aircraft and features, such as mid-air refuelling through AI tankers, moving aircraft carriers, and so on.

A Concorde at San Francisco INTL, you can see the basic User Interface, but don't be put off!

Just like X-Plane and FSX, the entire world is available for you to fly through. Unlike the aforementioned simulators, FlightGear fetches the scenery off the web in regional chunks and caches them as you fly. So if you fly from Chicago to New York, you will download possibly five scenery chunks along the way, but they will be ready for you on the return flight.

Perhaps the biggest problem with FlightGear is the difficulty in directly selecting airports and aircraft. The simulator is fully functional, but not as much attention has been paid to the user interface as with other simulators. This is something that may annoy some people, however I anticipate many improvements in the next release.

One of the strongest perks to FlightGear is the multiplayer support. With minimum effort, you can latch onto a collection of worldwide servers, which all link together to create a world for FlightGear pilots. If you click on this link you can see some of the pilots who are on the second network node, flying around San Francisco International. Zoom out to encompass the world and you will see a rich world of enthusiasts you can join!

You can grab FlightGear for free here.

Flight Simulator 2004

The older and most ‘classic’ in the Flight Simulator series is Flight Simulator 2004. A graphical and feature-orientated boost to Flight Simulator 2002, and the older brother of FSX.

A Boeing 777 in FS2004, the graphics are still lovely to look at, and it doesn't require a superpowered system to run on.

Flight Simulator 2004 is my personal favourite, since it doesn’t require a powerful machine to run on, has graphics only a few notches below Flight Simulator X, and a superb selection of aircraft. The simulator ticks over happily on a 1.6Ghz machine and a 128mb graphics card. Right now I am running it on my laptop with ease.

The aircraft offered in this version of Flight Simulator are beautifully modeled, with some of the aviational world’s classics. – the Douglas DC3, the Piper Cub, and a range of both civilian and commercial aircraft. Good Air Traffic Control and AI aircraft were included even in this older version. It is a pity that the modern simulators haven’t managed this yet.

You can probably get FS2004 off of eBay for next to nothing, go have a look!

Orbiter Space Simulator

Ever wanted to practice space flight, dock with the International Space Station, or re-enter and land at Cape Canaveral? Perhaps spacewalk to repair a broken satellite? Well with Orbiter you can do all those things, and so much more.

The shuttle Endevour docked to a future version of the International Space Station which is 'complete'.

You should consider yourself forewarned. Orbiter has an incredibly steep and complex learning curve. A lot of instruction reading is needed to familiarize yourself with concepts such as orbital insertion, non-frictional flight, relative three dimensional momentum, and so on. If you do take the time to learn though, the experience which you get in exchange is fantastic.

You are able to download Level 14 textures to give Earth and other planets a huge level of detail from space. Individual areas, such as a Cape Canaveral can also be upgraded. Unfortunately besides spaceports and their surrounding areas, graphical quality of the planet during atmospheric flight is quite low. Think about a 400mb texture file representing the world, then zooming in down to an area the size of your town. That’s why only specific areas feature any good ground detail, like Cape Canaveral.

Amazingly, this whole package is free, and only 120mb. If you are interested in giving this a go, I recommend you download the DeltaGliderIV too. It is a third party vehicle, and in my opinion, both the most realistic and fun one available. The preview icon for this article is a model similar to the DG-IV.

I am planning to write a full in-depth review of this soon, so keep a look out for it.

Orbiter is a single-man project, free, and available here.

Rigs Of Rods

This is a great sandbox simulator, and has absolutely everything. Through an ingenious flexbody model, you can drive cars, trucks, ride boats on the swell, or to be relevant to this post, fly planes! If you fancy, transfer cargo between them, and spawn as many vehicles as you like.

I could put the car in the plane, then lift the nose of the plane with the Liebherr. Why? Because I can!

The graphics were given a huge boost recently too, though you hardly notice any of the cruder graphics due to the distraction of lifting cars up with helicoptors! Damage is fully simulated through a node-seperation system. So you can crash planes into hills and watch them tumble down, and ditch cars over cliffs and enjoy them seperating into a hundred pieces.

A downside is that you do need quite a powerful machine to run this. A powerful processor especially, due to the flexbody physics engine requiring a tremendous amount of calculations to be performed every second.

A variety of aircraft can be installed from the Rigs of Rods repository, everything from heli-cranes to commercial jets are simulated. Most of the maps only have one or two airports, and they are a crude runway and hangar. Trust me though, grab this simulator and try everything out.

I am also planning to do a full review of Rigs Of Rods soon, so keep an eye out for that as well.

Rigs of Rods is totally free, and available here.

Final Thoughts

So that’s it, a collection of my favourite Flight Simulators! Go for X-Plane for realism, FSX for beauty, FlightGear for free/opensource, FS2004 for older machines, Orbiter for Space, and Rigs Of Rods for any vehicle!

If you have any recommendations on other simulators which I missed out and you feel deserve a mention, please leave a comment below!