New software - Flight sim world
For well over a decade, Microsoft's Flight Sim X has been the most popular software option for pilots. It combines realistic graphics, fun missions, and a low price - but it is beginning to show its age. While Dovetail Games made some minor updates in 2014 in re-releasing Flight Sim X on the Steam platform (including support for newer Windows operating systems), the basic simulator remains essentially the same. It's still a solid option, if for no other reason than the huge variety of add-on airplanes and scenery packs available.
Now there is a new option, and it's also from Dovetail. In 2017 the company released Flight Sim World, an all-new flight simulator built on the foundations of Microsoft's technology. It retains some of the familiar features of Flight Sim X, but the overall experience is a step up. Cockpit switches and instruments are incredibly detailed, the weather options are even more impressive, and the mission setting tools (including the Pro Mission Editor) are much easier to use.
Seven airplanes come standard: Piper Super Cub, Piper Cherokee, Piper Seneca, Piper Malibu, Diamond DA-40, Diamond DA-42, and Van's RV-7A. Other airplanes are available for purchase. You can create your own free flight by choosing an aircraft, location, and weather conditions. Or you can choose one of the pre-loaded missions, which range from simple to quite complicated.
In addition to beautifully detailed cockpits (see screenshots below), worldwide airports, and fun challenges, Flight Sim World also includes a unique Training section. This allows you to choose a flight school (in the US, UK, or Germany) and fly specific flight lessons. For an experienced pilot they will seem simple, but if you're just getting started they are helpful and entertaining. Steve Hood, Executive Producer at Dovetail, even learned to fly during the development of Flight Sim World, which no doubt influenced some of these features.
Flight Sim World is still growing and improving, so it doesn't yet have all the add-on options of Flight Sim X. Since its launch in 2017, though, Dovetail has added a number of new features and we expect this to continue. It's now stable and ready for wide use. It's also clearly a platform for the future, and would be our pick for an easy-to-use introduction to flight simulators.
Updated software - X-Plane 11
For pilots interested in a more complete, powerful simulator it's hard to beat X-Plane - our top pick for a few years now in the flight simulator software market. In late 2017, Laminar Research (the game's developer) released version 11, which is packed with updates and new features. The biggest change is the user interface: while the previous edition worked well, it was very utilitarian and occasionally confusing. The new design is much cleaner and less intimidating: start up X-Plane, pick a few options and go flying.
Another upgrade in X-Plane 11 is the aircraft. While these were always good, the latest versions are simply stunning. There are 11 in all, from the Cessna 172 to the King Air 90 to the Boeing 737. Avionics are also more useful for real world pilots, including a very realistic Garmin G1000 panel. It won't replace time with a CFI, but it is very helpful for getting acquainted with the buttons and knobs. We've also found X-Plane to be very valuable for keeping instrument skills sharp in between flights. Like with Flight Sim X, there are third party companies that sell add-on aircraft and scenery. If you want to fly an Eclipse 550 under the Golden Gate Bridge, you can do it with downloads.
The learning curve on X-Plane is still a little steeper than with Flight Sim X or Flight Sim World, but that's mostly because there are more options for customization and the overall realism is top notch. It will also run on Mac, Windows, and Linux, whereas the other two are Windows-only. You'll need a fairly powerful computer to run it, but if you're more technically inclined this is an excellent simulator with a vibrant community supporting it.
Saitek controls are back
The Saitek line of flight simulator controls was one of the most popular options for many years, but in 2016 the products went away. This left a major gap in the middle of the market, but now they are back. After the original company stopped making the controls, consumer electronics giant Logitech bought the assets and began production again.
Saitek controls hit a nice balance between quality construction and price. All of the individual items are under $200 but they have held up well in extended tests at Sporty's flight school. The yoke, for example, uses a stainless steel shaft for better durability.
There are also plenty of options for customization. The yoke includes a host of buttons that can be configured in an almost endless variety of ways, from electric trim to view selector from the cockpit. The controls on the throttle quadrant can also be changed, for example switching the prop and throttle heads to simulate an older Beechcraft.
Finally, Saitek offers the widest variety of controls. There is the standard yoke/throttle combination, plus rudder pedals. But there are also options for a switch panel (including lights and landing gear), simulated radios, and a multi-engine throttle quadrant.
- - Flight Sim World - DVD or download
- - Microsoft Flight Sim X - DVD or download
- - X-Plane 11 - DVD or download
- - CH Products Yoke and Pedals
- - Saitek/Logitech Yoke, Pedals, Switch Panel, and Avionics
- - Redbird Alloy Yoke, Pedals, and Throttle Quadrant
- - Redbird Jay, TD, and TD2 integrated simulators