Learning to fly an airplane can be compared to learning to play a musical instrument—you need to practice to get good. This is particularly true for IFR pilot certification. The big difference in the skill acquisition is that you can practice a musical instrument at home—flying IFR at home is more difficult, but that challenge is what drove Austin Meyer, the creator of X-Plane flight sim software, to develop the simulation technology.
X-Plane 12.0 was released just in time for the holidays, and it’s already gaining rapid use the aviation community.
According to Meyer, a 3,000-hour private pilot, the development of X-Plane grew out of his frustration when he was trying to achieve an instrument proficiency check (IPC). He had completed his training in Columbia, South Carolina, where the airspace was relatively uncomplicated, but found himself in southern California for the IPC. He was quickly overwhelmed by air traffic control, which put him behind the aircraft.
“With an instrument proficiency check, you can’t actually fail those. You just keep going until you get the sign off. I had to do four flights to get the sign off, and I found it very frustrating,” he recalls.
“I decided never to put myself in a situation where I have to go up four times to get an IPC again. I need to practice at home.”
Meyer, who was flying a Piper Archer II at the time, looked at Microsoft Flight Sim but noted they did not have a Piper Archer II in the program.
“I knew they wouldn’t put one in just for me, so I wrote my own simulator program. It was called Archer II IFR, and it was [an] instrument currency check in that it was highly optimized for instrument training.”
Meyer didn’t have all the performance data for the Piper, so he studied the geometry of the airplane and determined “how it must perform to the laws of physics and when I did that, I had an airplane that flew just like a Piper Archer II.” Meyer realized he could expand this model to any airplane, “and X-Plane was born.”
That was in 1995. Since then Meyer has been refining the product which is now in its twelfth iteration.
The challenge with writing a program like this, he says, is that when you change one variable it can potentially impact others in the program, so making changes takes much trial and error—in short, it takes time.
Bring on the Clouds
In this version of X-Plane the focus was on creating what Meyer calls four-dimensional clouds. The clouds change as the pilot flies through them just as they would in the real world.
“The clouds are volumetric,” said Meyer. “I actually felt [like] I used to feel in my old Columbia 400…where it is like ‘oh my gosh! I am not getting over this cloud build up, and I am not getting around it,’ and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a three-dimensional maze of clouds. You wonder what kind of scud running is going to be in front of you, if you want to get under it, or if turning around to get out of it is even an option—just like you would in the real world.”
According to Meyer, he is hearing from users of X-Plane that the flight modeling for the aircraft has improved as well.
“They love that the aircraft flies more accurately. They also love how the lighting changes,” he said.
The scenery, which Meyer describes as “basic,” has also been enhanced for the seasons—if you want to go to New England in the autumn and watch the trees change color, you can. However, says Meyer, as many pilots are clamoring for more of a Google Earth scenery experience.
“People want to fly over their house, that’s not what X-Plane was made for,” he said. “That’s not how I use my airplane when I write a simulator. What I am looking at is the airport environment. When my 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 start up to shut down. That is the type of aviation I am experiencing all the time, and that is the simulation I want to bring to people.”
What Is Next for X-Plane
Meyer notes there are 30,000 airports in X-Plane right now, and more can be added via the Airport Scenery Gateway. “Anybody can take an airport they want to any level of detail, and load it onto our service. We have someone check it to make sure it is the best version of that airport and boom! We load it onto the master database and everyone gets it. All it takes is one person to build that airport.”
Because X-Plane uses a physics-based flight model that moves any aircraft through four-dimensional weather, it is a good training tool, says Meyer, adding that 2023 will be spent focusing on the professional use application of X-Plane. There are already simulator manufacturers that use X-Plane in their products, such as Precision Flight Controls. “They have gotten very good at this,” said Meyer.
Getting the Best Home Experience
X-Plane 12 can be downloaded from https://www.x-plane.com/. To get the best experience from the product, users need to find a controller, such as the Honeycomb yoke and pedal combination, or a joystick controller like the Logitech 3-D.
The price, says Meyer, is still $59.99, and that has not changed in several years.