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What is a Flight Simulator?
A flight simulator is a game for either the PC or a console that allows the player to experience what it is like to fly a plane as a pilot. Do not confuse these games with the professional training simulators that are used to train actual pilots. The best flight simulators will provide a realistic experience but without the cost and danger associated with a real-world flying lesson. Being an expert player in a flight simulator will not qualify you as a pilot. These games are not shoot-em-up arcade-style games, although the first flying games were developed for the arcade machines.
Depending on the age and features of the flight simulator, the experience will be visually like the actual view from the cockpit. The scenery below will be executed in realistic detail – so good that professional pilots are known to use some flight simulators to familiarise themselves with the approaches to unfamiliar airports. The dials and controls will all show the information that a pilot would need to decide how to respond. You as the player will also need to learn and react to that data.
The games can involve piloting a commercial aircraft or other flying craft such as a balloon or a space shuttle from A to B. The challenge consists of completing the flight successfully. A pilot is one with the same number of successful landings as takeoffs. That is your goal in this type of game. The interest and challenge come from the scenery and the hazards – weather, other aircraft, and system malfunctions.
Some flight simulator games have a combat element built-in. In these, you would pilot a fighter or a bomber. The games tend to reconstruct historical battles of World War I or II, but there are some more recent scenarios. Additionally, some flight simulators choose to show space flight with the engines reacting to the laws of physics – exert them too much, and they will blow. Then you are stranded in Space where no one will hear you scream.
What Makes a Great Flight Simulator?
There are many features that you would expect to find in the best flight simulators.
The appeal of just flying one airplane over and over again would rapidly dribble away. It wouldn’t matter how many airports you could visit, or the wonders of the world laid out before you. You would be bored. Most flight simulators will offer a good range of different aircraft to choose from, some quirky offerings such as a hot air balloon, an airship, or a space shuttle. Or you can pick a civil plane or old wooden biplanes or even a state of the art jets.
Some games will include an option to build or customize your plane.
These games attract and appeal to aviation enthusiasts. The details have got to be right. Some even go so far as to build their home cockpit so they can enjoy a fully immersive experience while game playing. The development of VR helmets may overtake this for virtual flyers who demand the highest level of realism.
The view from the cockpit will be the actual landscapes (or historic recreations) as you would see them when flying at height. The best flight simulators will have plenty of maps and airports. The layout of the instrument panels will be as accurate as possible, and the weather conditions will be realistic.
Some of the flights can take place with real-world information supplied by the incorporation of weather data and the flights of commercial aircraft being built-in to the gameplay.
Do you play alone or with others? Some virtual flight simulators take place online and with multiple players. For example, combat games where you might join a team. Others are suited to the solo player or to those who like to play with friends. Some take place online, and some are bought and played with on your gaming rig.
Some of the best flight simulators are available for free. At least a basic form of them. Often you will have to pay for the full version, or offered as a freemium game. This pricing structure gives you the standard flight simulator for free, but you have to pay for advanced features. In some games, you have the option of earning the advanced features by completing levels and missions to earn in-game currency. You can then buy advanced features.
It is possible to start playing a flight simulator at low or no cost. If you find that this type of game appeals, you can progress to buying a game or two. A game will typically retail for around $50, but there are online subscription games for a low monthly fee.
Flight simulator type games are shown as suitable for 14+. Not because the games contain adult content but they are complex and challenging to play. A younger child may gain a great deal of enjoyment if they have good reflexes and concentration.
What Equipment Do You Need?
You can probably get started with what you already have. Some of the games are played in the browser and are light on resource requirements. To get the most out of some of the more highly detailed features, you need a decent gaming computer. A laptop won’t have the necessary processing power. Some of the best flight simulators have been developed to play on a console.
You can play with a game controller or a mouse and keyboard, but virtual flyers enjoy playing the game with a flight stick. Then they invest in a yoke with rubber pedals, and before you know it, you will be building a cockpit. But it’s not necessary to go that far unless you want to. If investing in a joystick, go for the type with a hat switch. A hat switch is a thumb controlled button on the top of the joystick. A reasonable joystick will set you back around $50. For a yoke control system, you can expect to pay around $200.
What are the Benefits of Flight Simulation?
Flight simulators can be a game for fun and entertainment. They can also serve as a real-world training tool for actual pilots. The first simulator – the link trainer was produced in 1927 because flying was just so dangerous. It was a way of getting pilots accustomed to the cockpit without the risk of dying. Since then, simulators have become incredibly advanced and realistic. They are now an invaluable training tool.
As a real pilot training package, they allow pilots to:
- Learn basic and advanced skills for minimal cost
- Maintain skills, practicing rarely used routines
- Practice communication with Air Traffic Control
- Improve navigation skills
- Practice dealing with emergencies.
All of this is great if you are an actual pilot or want to be one, but what does it do for the average player?
The average player is never going to pilot a plane. But the brain responds to the stimulus of having to react to the multitude of information. It develops the capacity to think and act fast to a lot of data. Think of it as fun brain training.
Learning. There is a lot of knowledge involved. You may never visit the African plains, but if you have flown over them in a simulated flight, you will have an appreciation for the feel of them, how far they stretch. You can’t help but develop a feeling for geography or history depending on which type of flight simulator you play.
Communication Skills. Even solo players communicate with Air Traffic Control. Learning to exchange information boosts communication skills. In multiplayer games, you are communicating with players from all over the world.
Community: There is a thriving community of virtual aviation enthusiasts who are only too willing to share their tips and expertise with newcomers. Friendships are made that will last a lifetime.
A Little History
Bruce Artwick developed the first virtual flight simulator in the late 1970s. It was called ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’. It was quite a simple game, and it ran on Apple II – a minuscule 8-bit computer. In 2020 Microsoft is releasing a new and updated Microsoft Flight Simulator that will make the most of the massive increase in technology since that first game.
So now you know all there is to know about flight simulators, you have your sunglasses on and you are ready to take to the skies. A whole new world awaits and perhaps even the universe.
Best Free or Freemium Flight Simulators
GeoFS – Good for your First Flight
This game runs in your browser, so it has minimal impact on your computer. You can control your choice of 20 planes with a joystick or a mouse and keyboard. This game is capable of being run on virtually any machine, and that includes mobile devices. The controls are easy to use, and you can customize them.
This game gives you the world. There are 30,000 airports. You fly in real-time in actual weather conditions because Open Weather Maps provides the data. As you are flying about in your helicopter, hot air balloon, or plane, then you may cross paths with actual civil aircraft crossing your virtual sky as an exact reflection of where they are at this very moment.
The free player is a multiplayer version. The advantage of the paid game is the better imagery, but for a first foray into the world of the virtual aviator, this is excellent.
YS Flight – Designed by a Student
The student was Soji Yamakawa, and he created this as his university project in 1999. He and a community of enthusiasts have maintained and tweaked it since then. You have a choice of 70 flying machines. We say flying machines because there are all sorts on that list – helicopters, for example.
This flight simulator is light on the use of computing power, and the visuals and design are very basic. You can play using a joystick or with a keyboard and mouse. You can change the wind strength and direction, and you can tweak the day/night cycle. There are a lot of different maps to explore.
In gameplay, you can choose to learn to fly in formation with a bunch of virtual pilots. Alternatively, you can indulge in dogfighting with human opponents. Although old and basic, it is still a popular game today.
It is completely free. You can play it on Windows or macOS.
This opensource software was released in 1977. It has been maintained and updated by community enthusiasts. The downside to this game is that it does use up a lot of computing power. It has some advanced settings, and it is open to a great deal of customization.
The environments are shown in 3D and are pretty basic. You can, however, download some updated scenery from across the globe, covering some 20,000 airports. You can download these directly from the website, or you can buy a Blu-ray disc. One of the many flying machines available is a Zeppelin Airship.
It will play on Windows or macOS. It has a reputation for being difficult to install, but enthusiasts have developed a FlightGear Wiki to talk you through the process.
X Plane 11 – The Engineer’s Choice
Laminar Research developed this flight simulator as an engineering tool to test aircraft design in flight. Standard flight simulators rely on look-up tables to determine how any given flying machine should be performing. This flight simulator relies on the “Blade Element Theory.” The force acting on each component of the aircraft is calculated simultaneously.
This game is excellent when you are testing your custom-built aircraft. The handling characteristics are not as good when you are flying a standard plane. The game features smart modeling of the weather and a vast number of potential system failures. Virtually any component can fail. The faults are not as predictable as they happen randomly. This game tests your ability to recognize a problem and respond to it.
You can’t get the full version of the game for free. You can download and play a demo version. In the whole game, there are hundreds of aircraft, including a space shuttle. The game will play on Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. If you are a fan of mobile gaming, then you can download X Plane 10 for iOS and Android. You can purchase older versions of the game as a download or on a USB stick
War Thunder – Combat in World War II
This game is a freemium game. You can start playing it for free, and you can upgrade your plane by either earning in-game money or by using real-world cash for the purchase. The game can be played as a flight simulator or as a straight arcade-style shoot-em-up. You can play on a multiplayer online game. It will run on Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, and X Box One.
You can choose to pilot hundreds of aircraft from the United States, USSR, Britain, Germany, and Japan. You play as part of a team of 16 online players pitted against an opposing team. The types of aircraft fall into three broad classes. Fighters – these are agile and excellent in dogfights. Then there are larger planes with big heavy weapons that are designed to take out armored vehicles and fortifications. Finally, there are the bombers and their deadly payload. For a team to be victorious in completing their assigned mission, they will need a mix of all the types of planes available.
Rise of Flight – Combat in World War I
World War I was the first major war in which planes featured as weapons of war. This game prides itself on its historical accuracy. All the scenes take place on locations at the Western Front, and you can choose only planes that were available at that time.
This multiplayer game will only run on Windows. It can be played with a flight stick or a keyboard and mouse.
World of Warplanes – Good for a variety of planes.
This game is a spin-off from World of Tanks. The same principle just with planes. All the aircraft that have ever been in combat. It’s not the most realistic of flight simulators as it veers more to the arcade style of play. It is a multiplayer game financed on the freemium model. You can play for free or pay to upgrade. It’s a casual sort of game where you can spend an enjoyable afternoon dogfighting with friends with impossible combinations of planes