Learning to fly is not like learning to play a musical instrument, in that for most of us, it is impossible to practice at home—but wouldn’t it be great if we could? Austin Meyer, the inventor of X-Plane, had this idea in the 1990s after a particularly frustrating experience involving an instrument proficiency check. Today, X-Plane is one of the top aviation simulation games in the world. You can put yourself at virtually any airport in just about any airplane. The game continues to evolve—X-Plane 12 was released just before the 2022 holiday season. FLYING caught up with Meyer to get the skinny on the development of the popular pastime that has evolved from game to simulation experience.
FLYING Magazine (FM): As the inventor of X-Plane, you hold a remarkable position in the industry. How long have you been in game design?
Austin Meyer (AM): Since 1993. [The first] X-Plane was the first computer program I ever wrote.
FM: What inspired you to create X-Plane?
AM: I was taking an instrument proficiency check. You can’t actually fail those—you have to keep going until you get the signoff. I had to go up on like four flights to get the signoff, and I found that very frustrating. I decided to never put myself in that situation again. I needed to practice at home, but I flew a Piper Archer II—and Microsoft Flight Sim didn’t have a Piper Archer II at the time—and I knew they wouldn’t put one in for me, so I wrote my own simulator. It was called Archer II IFR. I didn’t have all the performance data for the Piper Archer II, so I said, ‘let’s look at the geometry of this airplane and see how it must perform according to the laws of physics,’ and when I did that, I had an airplane that flew just like a Piper Archer II. Then I realized that if I had that math and looked at the geometry of an airplane and then [flew] it…I could apply it to any airplane you can imagine—so I renamed it to X-Plane.This was in 1995.
FM: I’ve heard that X-Plane allows users to add their own scenery to the program. Is that true?
AM: Yes. [For example,] there are about 30,000 hangars in the [current] X-Plane right now. A person can build it virtually, then load it onto the server.
FM: You mentioned one of the triumphs of X-Plane 12—which was released in December 2022—was getting the clouds to change during the duration of the virtual flight. How was that accomplished?
AM: We finally got the clouds to be honest-to-goodness volumetric. They are three-dimensional, and we had that volumetric matrix to get the elevation, then all you need to do is manipulate it over time—and there is your fourth dimension, time.
FM: Is the X-Plane software designed for a particular brand of simulator?
AM: Our customers buy X-Plane, and once they have their copy…can build a simulator out of it. Precision Flight Controls in particular has [become] very, very good at this. Many companies buy X-Plane and then present it to the FAA for certification, but I would say the percentage of the sims that are certified by the FAA are minute. The vast majority use X-Plane because they love using [it].
FM: You mentioned that users of the software can ‘build’ airports to add to the airport library in X-Plane. How is that done? Does it take a certain level of skill or sophistication to do this?
AM: [You can use] Google World Editor, for X-Plane…sometimes called WED [an animation tool for Google 3D imagery].
FM: For the person who is just beginning their experience with X-Plane, are there any tips for getting maximum enjoyment? Is there a scenario you recommend?
AM: For newcomers, my primary recommendation is that they purchase an inexpensive joystick from Amazon (one that costs $30 or so). That $30 really goes a long way to making the experience with X-Plane more authentic.
FM: If you could go back to 1995 and give the younger you advice about the development of X-Plane, what would you say?
AM: Really I would not need any big-picture advice…I don’t think I’ve ever made a major big-picture mistake with this simulator. If I could go back in time, I would just want to bring my computer back with me with all of the source code on it just to save myself time, that’s all.
FM: Are there any aircraft on your bucket list in X-Plane? If so, what are they?
AM: My bucket list airplane is the T-38. I have not released that in X-Plane yet for contractual reasons, but I [have] flown it in [the software] for many hours, and it is a great airplane in the simulator as well.
FM: You mentioned that sometimes people get a copy of X-Plane and build a physical simulator around it. Are we talking individuals looking for fun or professional pilots?
AM: Both. In 2023 we will be focusing on the profes-sional use application of X-Plane. There are already simulator manufacturers that use X-Plane in their products, such as Precision Flight Controls.
FM: You describe the scenery of X-Plane 12 as ‘pretty basic.’ Any plans to change that?
AM: Many pilots are clamoring for more of a Google Earth experience—you know, they want to fly over their house—but that’s not what X-Plane was made for. When I write a simulator I am looking at the airport environment. When the nose is down, I want to see the airport. I want to see the avionics, I want an accurate flight model, I want to see the weather, I want the engines and systems and air traffic control to be changing just like they do during a flight. I want all those things you do to manage a flight from startup to shutdown. That is the type of aviation I am experiencing all the time, and that is the simulation I want to bring to people.
FM: What’s the most important thing for our readers to know about X-Plane?
AM: X-Plane lets you enter the design of any airplane and then see how that airplane would fly if you were to build it in reality. With that mathematical foundation, X-Plane accurately simulates how existing airplanes fly as well. This gives the most accurate flight simulation you are going to find in a flight simulation system with three-dimensional, ever-changing real-weather, air traffic control, and other aircraft in the sky with you. It’s not a glorified scenery-viewer.
Who’s the one person living or dead you would most like to fly with?
Orville or Wilbur Wright…in my Lancair!
If you could fly any aircraft you have not yet flown, what would that be?
The T-38…with Orville or Wilbur Wright!
What is one airport you’ve always wanted to fly into?
The airport is just the “door”…I get excited about the airplane and the destination.
What do you believe has been aviation’s biggest breakthrough event or innovation?
The modern, reliable, high-bypass turbofans that make modern jet travel possible.
What has been your favorite airplane to fly?
My Lancair Evolution…so far…
When I’m not flying, I’d rather be…
This article was originally published in the April 2023, Issue 936 of FLYING.