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Introduction to Flight Simulators Part 2: Non-combat Flight Simulators

Welcome to part 2 of my Introduction to Flight Simulators series! If you followed my advice in Part 1 you now have all of the equipment you need to start flying. All that remains is to find yourself a simulator. The flight simulator market isn’t as saturated with games as, say, the first person shooter market, but you should be able to find something to suit your tastes.

In this article I will be focusing on civilian flight simulators. Forget shooting down bandits or strafing ground targets, these simulators are all about finding joy simply in flight. Some of the sims I’ll talk about do include military aircraft, but, other than a few exceptions, you won’t be using their weapons systems. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, just a broad overview of a few of the more popular flight simulators.

Let’s get started!

Microsoft Flight Simulator X

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series has a history spanning more three decades. Flight Simulator X, released in 2006, is the most recent full sim (more on my choice of words later) in a long line of high quality simulators, and probably the most popular simulator on this list.

Flight Simulator X makes an excellent choice for a first sim if you’re new to the genre. It features a wide variety of aircraft (everything from the iconic Piper Cub to the sound barrier-breaking F/A-18 Hornet), an entire world to explore, and an excellent ‘flight school’ of sorts for new fliers.

Thanks to an accessible software development kit, FSX has also seen tremendous third-party support since its release. Browse FlightSim.com’s Pilot Shop and you’ll find pretty much any aircraft you could wish for, many of them recreated in extraordinary detail.

Even five years after its release FSX can be a bit demanding on the hardware side of things. If you find your computer lacking after giving the demo a try, consider going back a generation to Flight Simulator 2004. Not only is it a bit cheaper, it’ll run on nearly any hardware out there today while still providing a high fidelity simulation.

Microsoft Flight

Earlier I called Flight Simulator X  the most recent full sim in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, as Microsoft Flight, while not a complete sim in the traditional sense, is the most recent flight simulator release from Microsoft.

Instead of offering a full world sandbox like its predecessors, Flight narrows its scope to a single US state: Hawaii. In another break from tradition, Flight is free to download and play, up to a point.

The free version of Flight gives you two planes and the largest island in the Hawaiian chain to fly around in, with additional planes and the rest of Hawaii available as paid downloadable content.

Flight makes an acceptable introductory flight sim, especially with its unbeatable price, but only gives a taste of what larger scope simulators can offer.

X-Plane

If for some reason you don’t want to get Flight Simulator X, or are looking for something a bit different, the X-Plane series is another high quality simulator to consider. It isn’t as newbie-friendly as Flight Simulator X, but if you don’t mind figuring things out on your own it’s a good simulator in its own right.

X-Plane 9 is roughly the equivalent of Flight Simulator X, and a good place to start for new simmers. X-Plane 10 may be new and shiny, but it’s also quite a bit more expensive and not nearly as polished as it could be.

The X-Plane series does have a few advantages over Flight Simulator X. X-Plane features a robust plane creator, allowing you to let your brain run wild designing a plane and then see how it flies. The X-Plane series is also multiplatform, running on Windows, OSX (both PowerPC and Intel), and Linux with a single set of installation discs.

If you’re looking for a sim with low entry requirements just to try out, take a look at X-Plane Mobile, available for iOS and Android. It’s relatively inexpensive, and other than owning a compatible device there’s no additional hardware to buy.

Take On Helicopters

Both Flight Simulator X and the X-Plane series are able to simulate helicopter flight, but Take On Helicopters is the only helicopter-exclusive sim on this list. Bohemia Interactive, the development studio behind Take On Helicopters, took the flight model they created for ARMA 2, expanded it, and released it as a brand new game.

Unlike many popular flight sims Take On Helicopters doesn’t simulate the entire world. Instead it concentrates on modeling a few smaller areas in higher detail. Also unusual for a civilian flight sim, it has a story-based campaign mode along with the usual free flight modes.

Take On Helicopters went through some growing pains immediately after its October release, but now, several patches later, it has matured into an excellent simulation of helicopter flight.

FlightGear

FlightGear is unique among the entries in this list in that it is completely free and open source. As such, it has a few quirks not found in the other sims on this list.

Without the financial backing of a major publisher, FlightGear‘s flight model lags behind commercial simulators. It’s acceptable, especially for a free game, but you’ll notice the difference moving from a sim like Flight Simulator X to FlightGear. In addition, FlightGear can be a pain to set up. It didn’t recognize my joystick right of the bat, so I had to spend a half hour just trying to figure out how to configure the controls properly.

That said, if you don’t mind putting up with FlightGear‘s deficiencies you’ll find an acceptable simulator that can give you a taste of simulated flight without the need to shell out any cash.

That does it for my list of some the most popular civilian flight simulators. In part 3 of my Introduction to Flight Simulators series I’ll delve into the real fun stuff: combat!

An Introduction to Flight Simulators Part 1: Getting Started

My mission is simple: Fly over the enemy’s fortifications and snap some reconnaissance photos. Resistance should be light, and I’m one of a three-man flight group. Fly there, fly back, land in time for breakfast. Easy, right?

As my Spad XIII lifts off from the makeshift runway, Earth’s features slowly blending together beneath me as I gain altitude, I relish in the flight. This is where I was meant to be. Kilometers above firm ground, the wind loud in my ears.

Explosions fill the air as we pass over enemy territory. It looks like their AA gunners have spotted us. I veer left and right, hoping to create a more difficult target. As we pass the enemy’s main encampment I dip my wings slightly, pull out my camera, and snap a few quick photos. My work here is done.

We turn towards home, our mission a success. Off to my left I notice a small speck, and I roll towards it for a closer look. The form of an enemy zeppelin slowly emerges from what was, just a few seconds ago, an amorphous blob of nothingness.

I look over at one of my wingmen and I can tell he’s thinking the same thing – we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do, but why not go for a little extra? I follow him in his dive towards the zeppelin, firing in short bursts as he pulls out of his strafing run.

Success! The zeppelin ignites as I pull out of my dive, and I can’t help but grin as adrenaline pumps hard in my veins. My grin fades as I feel a sharp pain in my chest. Dazed I look down and see blood trickling out of several bullet wounds. Looking behind me I finally see the enemy bandit that managed to sneak up on me while I was preoccupied with the zeppelin. My arms slump and my plane stalls, entering a nosedive that can only end one way.

Spiraling helplessly towards the ground only one thought fills my slowly fading mind: I should have left that stupid zeppelin alone.

So ended the career of Gerard Girard (hey, the computer picked the name, not me), Italian nobleman and World War I fighter pilot. The story above was an actual mission I flew in the career mode of the combat flight simulator Rise of Flight.

Flight simulators attempt to replicate the physics of flying as closely as possible. Things like weather, air flow, the aircraft’s engine performance, and even the buildup of ice on the wings or rotor are continuously monitored and simulated. Flight sims have tremendous learning curves, but the payoff is oh-so-rewarding.

Because of their complexity, flight simulators can be intimidating. Just watch this video for a ‘quick and dirty’ startup for the Ka-50 Black Shark. Sure, you don’t have to manually flip all those switches yourself if you don’t want to (there’s a simple key combination that does it all automatically for you), but there’s no feeling quite like starting it up by yourself for the first time without a checklist. You feel like you’ve actually accomplished something worthwhile. It’s a skill that has no applicability to real life (unless you somehow manage to get kidnapped by Russians, taken to a Russian airfield, and need to make quick escape), but the feeling is there all the same.

Through a series of articles I’ll attempt to ease you into the complexities of flight simulators. First up is a preflight checklist of sorts. I’ll go over everything you need before venturing into the wonderful world of simulated aviation.

Getting started with flight simulators

Your computer

The first thing you’ll want to consider before getting into flight simulators is your computer’s hardware. Most recently released flight simulators require a reasonably powerful computer unless you want to play them on the lowest graphical settings. I’d recommend at least a  dual core processor (Core 2 Duo for example), 2GB of RAM (more is better), and an Nvidia 8800 GT/ATI 4850. You can probably squeak by with less if necessary, but by doing so you’ll have to seriously sacrifice graphical quality.

If your computer isn’t up to snuff, don’t worry! Along with the latest and greatest flight simulators I’ll also be recommending some older sims that run fine on almost any hardware.

Input devices

Next up you’ll want to get your hands on a decent joystick. Most flight simulators are technically playable with just a keyboard and mouse, but at that point why even bother? If you don’t mind spending a bit of extra money, go ahead and get Saitek’s X52 HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick). It’s generally considered to be the de facto mid-range joystick. If money isn’t an issue at all you can go crazy and get yourself something like Thrustmaster’s A-10C Warthog replica HOTAS.

There are plenty of lower end joysticks that work just fine if you’re on a budget. If you decide to pick up one of these, you’ll want to make sure it has a few things:

  1. A twist axis. If you opt not to get rudder pedals (more on those later), a joystick’s twist axis is generally used for the pedals’ functions.
  2. A throttle lever. Throttle control can be relegated to the keyboard if necessary, but the importance of the fine control provided by even a simple throttle lever cannot be understated.
  3. A hat switch. Some people like to use the numeric pad on the keyboard to look around in-game while others prefer the hat switch on a joystick. If you aren’t yet sure which camp you fall into, you might as well get a joystick with a hat switch just in case.

Extra peripherals

Lastly we come to any additional peripherals you might want to pick up to enhance your experience. None of them are by any means necessary, but if you have the cash to spend they can certainly make your simming life easier. Rudder pedals are much less awkward to use than the twist axis on a joystick. TrackIR, while expensive, completely changes the way you play sims by using head tracking software to map your real life head movements to in-game head movements. Saitek also makes a wide range of additional peripherals for you to play with.

What’s next?

Once you start playing around in simulators you will invariably have questions. Sims are complex beasts by nature, and some things would be near impossible to figure out on your own. Thankfully the simming community is welcoming to newbies and generally happy to answer your questions. Most games have forums set up by their publishers, or you could check out FlightSim.com or SimHQ. Both websites publish excellent simulator-related articles, and both have forums set up for game discussion.

That covers all the basics you’ll need to start flying (in the virtual world, at least)! Keep an eye out for part 2 of my Introduction to Flight Simulators series, in which I’ll be discussing various non-combat flight simulators that are available.

Google Earth Secret: Flight Simulator Mode

Google Earth is a revolutionary application that allows you to explore the entire planet in 3D using Google’s satellite imagery data.  Users are not just limited to terrestrial earth anymore either – you can journey under the oceans, gaze at the night sky, travel to the moon, and visit Mars.

Sure, there are plenty of practical uses for Google Earth, but a fantastic hidden feature allows you to turn Google Earth into a global (and interplanetary) flight simulator.

Activating Flight Simulator

To activate Flight Simulator mode, press CTRL + ALT + A in Google Earth.  You will be able to select either an F16 fighter jet or the propeller-powered SR22.

You can start your flight at your current location or choose from a list of airports.  You will also be able to connect your joystick to control the aircraft at this point.

When you’ve selected your plane and starting position, click Start Flight to take off.

Flying

Google Earth’s flight simulator is surprisingly complex but can be controlled (fairly) easily with the mouse.  A few keys you’ll want to know to get started are:

Increase Thrust: Page Up

Decrease Thrust: Page Down

Toggle Landing Gear: g

Aileron Left: Left Arrow

Aileron Right: Right Arrow

Rudder Left: Shift + Left Arrow

Rudder Right: Shift + Right Arrow

Increase Flaps: ]

Decrease Flaps: [

Exit Flight Simulator – Esc

You might want to consider getting a joystick if you plan to do some serious flying.  Check out this guide for the complete list of flight simulator controls.

If you happen to crash the plane, you’ll be given the option to exit the flight simulator or resume the flight from a safe altitude.  Just like real life, right?

Enabling 3D Buildings

3D buildings are automatically disabled by default when you enter flight simulator mode due to performance concerns, but it’s very easy to re-enable them (and it makes it much more fun to fly near cities with a lot of 3D buildings like San Fransisco or Chicago).

Here’s how to enable 3D buildings in flight simulator mode:

  1. Enter flight simulator mode with CTRL + ALT + A and start the flight.
  2. Press CTRL + ALT + B to bring up the sidebar and enable 3D Buildings under the Layers tab.
  3. Press CTRL + ALT + B again to close the sidebar.

Now you’ll be able to buzz the Golden Gate Bridge!

To Infinity… and Beyond?

Google Earth pilots are not just limited to their home planet, they can also travel to the moon and even Mars by selecting them under the planet icon in the toolbar.

It’s not every day you can fly over the peak of the tallest volcano and mountain in our solar system.

Conclusion

For a hidden feature, Google Earth’s flight simulator is remarkably enjoyable and is a great way to explore the planet.  I’ll leave you with two videos of my poor piloting through Chicago and the Grand Canyon.  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Google Earth is a free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  [Google Earth]