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Cheapskate: FlightGear

Special Note from Cheapskate

While I was working on this review, Typhoon Soudelor rolled across the Pacific and absolutely clobbered my home island of Saipan.

The storm tore the roof off our power plant. I still have nightmares of hearing the 200 mph (320 kph) gusts of wind, followed by the crash of breaking glass and the thud of collapsing utility poles.

I’ve spent the last week on six hours per day of generator power and no running water. If you could donate a couple of bucks to help people here tide things over until the power comes back on, I’d appreciate it.

And now, on with the review…

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FlightGear

Civilian flight simulators are more toys than games, really. There’s no way to win and no way to lose. And yet, there’s still a big enough market for them to support several commercial flight simulators, as well as the subject of this review, the free, open-source simulator FlightGear.

I’d played a little bit of Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.0 back when I was a kid, and I remembered a few basics: putting the flaps down gives you more lift, there are things called VORTACs that have something to do with navigation, and so forth. And FlightGear uses the same keyboard controls MSFS did, so I had no trouble working the rudders and the ailerons. (The controls use the numeric keypad, so if you’re on a laptop, you might not be able to play unless you want to try touchpad control.) But once I fired up FlightGear, I learned that flying a plan is really God-damned hard and is best left to the experts.

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A typical takeoff.

For instance, I learned that propeller-driven planes have a habit of skidding right off the runway on takeoff. Not a big deal for me if I’m taking off from someplace huge and flat like O’Hare, but if I’m at a single-runway airport, I find myself slamming on the 0 key in a desperate attempt to avoid falling into a river.

MSFS’s scenery was largely flat, apart from the hills of Seattle and San Francisco. FlightGear, like all modern flight simulators, offers the entire world as potential scenery. (The San Francisco area is the default, but you can download anywhere else.) This means mountains, and mountains mean weird air currents that screw up your flight path. It took me twenty or thirty tries before I was able to sneak out of Sun Valley because the mountains kept throwing me into a death spin before I could gain enough altitude to get over them.

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Weaving through the Grand Canyon.

Landing is the cherry on top of the suicide sundae. In MSFS, you could get close to a target airport and then let your autopilot do your work for you. In FlightGear, your autopilot won’t account for the wind, which means you’ll get flung off-course and land nose-down in a field somewhere. If you want to do a proper landing at an airport, you’ll need to master your instruments, and if you’re trying to land at a rural airstrip somewhere… well, I counted my flights to the unimproved airstrip at the abandoned island of Pagan as successes if I managed to put one wheel on the grass runway before rolling off the island to my demise.

I eventually hit upon a solution: switch to an amphibious plane, like a Bombardier 415or a PBY Catalina and land in the water somewhere. Coming down in the Great Salt Lake was easy, the Mississippi River a little trickier, Yellowstone Lake more challenging, Crater Lake a nightmare.

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Preparing to land in the Dead Sea. AAAAHHHH WHAT’S WRONG WITH MY ALTIMETER

So FlightGear, much like Gozer the Destroyer, is an elaborate method of letting you choose the method of your annihilation. There are hundreds of flying contraptions available for download, so you can admire the lovingly-rendered cockpit of a 747 as it plummets off a bluff, or lose your respect for German engineering as your experimental Hitlerplane (with a less-lovingly-rendered cockpit) stubbornly refuses to quit stalling. You can even try out the HM 14 Pou du Ciel, which looks (and handles) like it was cobbled together out of plywood, kites, and a Radio Flyer wagon.

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Reichsmarschall Göring, the test pilot has blacked out again from laughing too hard.

As I mentioned before, you have the entire world to work with for scenery, but its quality depends on where you’re flying. FlightGear seems to appeal mostly to Europeans. Airports in Western Europe have extensive 3D models, and even midsized Europeans cities have their landmarks modeled. Modeling is sparser in the U.S. Chicago has the Sears/Willis Tower but not, say, Wrigley Field; Las Vegas has the MGM pyramid but not Hoover Dam. Other cities have no landmarks at all. You won’t see the Reunion Tower in Dallas or Flinders Street Station in Melbourne.

Landscapes are mostly rendered well, presumably because they’re pulling directly from LIDAR data. I immediately recognized Mt. Baker and Mt. Fuji. The placement of water is occasionally suspect. Many of the floatplane lakes in Minnesota appear as dry land, rivers tend to run uphill in central Idaho, the Gateway Arch stands in the Mississippi River, and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is entirely submerged.

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This is a pretty good rendering of Anatahan, an uninhabited island about 65 miles (120km) north of my house.

Open-source projects are frequently buggy, but FlightGear is mostly solid. It slows down when you’re in an area with a lot of rendered objects (like Paris). My total ineptitude as a virtual pilot makes it difficult for me to tell if my plane is going nuts because there’s a problem with the program, or if my plane is going nuts because I pulled the wrong lever or hit the wrong switch.

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Uh, Tower, we’ve got some propeller trouble, over.

So what are you supposed to do with this toy? My review of FlightGear forums reveals that many users treat this like an airline pilot RPG. They fly jets for virtual airlines on cross-country routes, following all appropriate FAA regulations and tuning into the text-to-speech voices of the control towers. I’m nowhere near that patient.

I’ve used FlightGear for an equally valid purpose: attempting foolhardy stunts that would get your pilot’s license revoked in real life, assuming the Air Force didn’t shoot you down first. Landing in tiny lakes is one challenge, especially at night when they’re totally unlit. I’ve also had fun finding things to fly under. I’ve zipped under Tower Bridge with a 1930s biplane and flown a Boeing 777 under the Golden Gate Bridge. (My attempt to fly under the Eiffel Tower in a Beechcraft turboprop went wonderfully until I got greedy and tried to follow it up with a flight through La Defense, where my left wing clipped the tower and ruined everything.)

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In the event of an insane pilot, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.

If you want serious flight simulation, you’re probably better off spending the money for X-Plane, but if you just feel like carrying the Dwarf Fortress creed (“Losing is fun”) into a new genre of game, FlightGear should keep you entertained.

About the author

Patrick Alexander