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This scrappy alternative to Microsoft Flight Simulator favors veterans.

In most endeavors, practice and experience can take you from novice to expert, and where you stand in that continuum determines how you perceive milestones along the way. A novice pilot, for example, might find flying the Vought F4U Corsair daunting— and in fact some paid for the experience with their lives. But an expert pilot would likely appreciate the raw power of the Corsair’s radial engine, and would intrinsically understand the dangers of succumbing to the brutal forces of torque at unforgiving altitudes.

X-Plane 9 ($49.95 PC/$59.95 Mac, requires Microsoft Windows XP/Vista or Mac OS X 10.3 or later, 2Ghz processor, 1GB RAM, 12GB hard drive space, 64MB 3D video card, Graphsim Entertainment, is the latest edition of Austin Meyer’s scrappy alternative to Microsoft Flight Simulator. Like the Corsair, it unashamedly favors veterans. There’s nary an online tutorial, and finding the full manual requires digging around in the installation directory. Several of the niceties Flight Simulator provides, like video-based lessons, pilot aids and prebuilt missions spanning several skill levels, are not available in X-Plane 9.

Beyond convenience features, however, X-Plane 9 begins to show its chops. Despite the presence of a combat mode, the title is not a game. The X-Plane series has always followed a different philosophy than most other simulation products. It starts with a physics engine that models how an aircraft should fly based on the design of its wings and fuselage. Most other simulations approach this from the opposite direction, basing a plane’s flight characteristics on recorded performance data that is cross-referenced against input such as current speed, altitude and loads. Neither approach is right nor wrong; they are simply different. Both can deliver simulation experiences of relative fidelity.

All this would seemingly make X-Plane more extensible, however. In fact, while both types of simulations require some artistry on the part of third-party contributors to recreate cockpit panels, insignia, engine sounds and paint schemes, X-Plane 9 comes with an aircraft creator utility, allowing more open-ended aircraft development. Users can essentially design the shape of the craft, paying special attention to the factors affecting airflow, and then literally throw those designs into the wind tunnel that is X-Plane 9.

The basic retail package features myriad airframes to fly, including the Saab JA-37 Viggen, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, the Boeing 747 and 777 passenger jets and the efficient Piaggio P.180 Avanti II. The X-Plane series has long supported zero-G environments, so players can fly the included NASA space shuttle on reentry. The package also has six DVDs totaling more than 60 gigabytes of data, including world scenery and terrain data. There’s also new data for visual effects supported by most modern 3D video cards. In the end, X-Plane 9’s unmatched extensibility and breadth mean a user can simulate almost any element of aviation. Fans of the series have in fact capitalized on this feature. A visit to the Web site provides access to hundreds of downloadable and free user-developed planes, helicopters, scenery files, sounds, cockpit panels, airships, spacecraft, land vehicles and tutorials.

Still, this extremely technical simulation is clearly not for everyone. To do anything other than engage in a basic flight from an airport requires a willingness to dig for information and experiment with sometimes buggy software. And some features are less refined than comparable ones in other products. Although I was impressed with the availability of so many real world airports and roads, cities are missing their most famous buildings. In addition, the ambient traffic seems to consist mostly of hot air balloons instead of other aircraft. Some of the aircraft have bugs, such as the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor, which oscillates pitch heavily at high speeds. It can be fixed, but in order to do so, the user must modify the aircraft’s con – figuration data.

X-Plane continues to see steady refinement, so although it sometimes seems like a work in progress, the developer’s support is legendary. All owners get access to downloadable updates for the software until the new version is released.

Like a touchy high-performance aircraft, X-Plane 9 requires an investment on the flier’s part to appreciate its finest features. Creative souls will reap the rewards of experimentation and sharing airframes with other users. Against its main competition, X-Plane 9 is comparably impressive in delivering the world and its aircraft. PC users looking for more robust cosmetics, easier casual flying and goals-based scenarios are probably better off with Microsoft Flight Simulator. But enthusiasts will find plenty to do in X-Plane 9, and although load times can be lengthy, I found in-flight performance on comparable hardware smoother in X-Plane 9. For Mac users, X-Plane 9 is the only serious option.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here