With the dream of becoming an airline pilot, pumping away in the heart of most schoolboys, their first entry into the virtual reality of flying an airliner usually comes with a few games of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is touted by the company as "as real as it gets".
Over the past ten years, I have seen Bill Gate's simulation brainchild evolve into the most amazingly authentic graphical representation of a pilot's world. Everything down to the baggage handlers at the airport have been animated and with third party design companies spending millions on developing more accurately modeled aircraft and scenery, one can only imagine what they will produce in another decade.
Having an almost miniaturized Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 on your computer screen can however lead some people into the false sense of security that they can fly an aircraft in reality, just as well as they can in the virtual world. They also think that they know about as much about the inner workings of an aircraft as a real airline pilot does. A trait that drives me and my fellow professionals crazy!
Amongst the more hardcore flight simmers, is a second program that has been evolving almost at the same rate as Microsoft's game, albeit going down a different development road.
Meet Laminar Research's 'X-Plane' - a flight simulator with a difference that only the more astute simmers know about.
The design team at Laminar have developed an entirely different simulation that moves away from the graphic intensive gaming experience that is Microsoft Flight Simulator, instead prioritizing on delivering highly accurate flight characteristics first and then adding in high-quality graphics.
The difference is in the flight-modelling. While my grandmother could land a Jumbo Jet in Microsoft Flight Simulator, I get the feeling that she would have major difficulties doing the same in X-Plane. The main reason for this is that unlike Flight Simulator, X-Plane designs its aircraft according to how the air flows over the wing. Something called "blade element theory" where they break down every surface of the airplane, making for a far more realistic flight experience. Even airline pilots say that the out-the-window behavior of X-Plane is far more accurate.
Bearing all of that in mind, if you want a fun and graphically real experience, get a copy of Microsoft's Flight Simulator. However, if it is solid aircraft performance realism, for example what a student airline pilot might need, you might be better choosing X-Plane.