While flight-sim enthusiasts will know about Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, fewer people will have tried X-Plane.

Notable for its cross-platform operation – with versions running on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X – this simulator is renowned for its accurate flight modelling. This means that, while it may not always look as pretty in terms of scenery, it’s respected for being more faithful to the real flying experience.

You can set the program to start your flight at almost any airport in the world, and thanks to six dual-layer DVDs in the package, you can install suitable graphical scenery to match most of the world’s land masses.

There are several planes installed by default, from light aircraft such as Cessna through to big airliners like the Boeing 747 Jumbo – and with a large community of enthusiasts behind this long-standing project who are ‘building’ their own aircraft, many more are available to download and install. The range is vsat, from the Wright Brothers’ first craft through warbirds like the Spitfire, Lancaster and Mustang, to modern fighter jets and passenger craft. Some are free, while the more detailed and accurately rendered usually carry a nominal price; but you can be sure that with the amount of time gone into modelling the core flight physics, they should handle quite faithfully to the real craft they’re based on. In fact, there’s even a version of X-Plane available that’s certified for pilot training by the US federal aviation authority (FAA).

In the latest version, installation is easier, with a graphical world map asking you which areas of scenery you’d like to install from the outset, covering every continent bar Antarctica. X-Plane 9.0 still demands a certain amount of patience in setting up – for example, when first installed it complained that global scenery was not installed, as the program had put the necessary files in the wrong directory.

Once started, you can either fly by joystick – with or without extras such as rudder pedals – or simply by using the mouse to move the stick in a virtual head-up display. A full range of weather conditions can be engaged, as well as other aircraft, road vehicles and pedestrians.

You can treat X-Plane as an educational tool for learning to fly, as a means for ground-bound trained pilots to keep their hand in; or as a way to escape the earth entirely, either by taking the sub-orbital Space Shuttle gliding course or with a trip over Mars, trying to fly in quite different gravity and atmospheric conditions.

See the next page for more screenshots and our verdict