A few weeks ago I stumbled upon Flightgear, a completely free flight simulator which is available for most platforms. It comes with a dozen aircraft (including some helicopters), and with scenery for the San Francisco Bay area. You can download more scenery for anywhere in the world. If you’re so inclined, all the tools to edit the scenery are available for download as well, so you can add any amount of detail to your local area. For instance, I added the oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. Then I submitted these changes back to the scenery maintainer, so that with the next scenery release those oil platforms will show up for everybody flying in that area.
Flightgear is much more of a real simulator than a game, and since I discovered it I’ve spent almost as much time reading about flight as I’ve spent actually flying. The first thing you learn is that single prop airplanes pull to the left when rolling down the runway. Lucky for you, flightgear does not simulate different surfaces so taking from the grass is no problem. The traditional “full power, pull back on the yoke” will get you in the air, albeit with a significant lean to the left. If you’re me, you then point the plane where you want to go, and hope it works out. After more reading and more practice I can now take off reasonably well and my landings are getting fairly smooth, although not always on the runway.
The rest of the time is spent checking out scenery, figuring out how the autopilot works (the best docs I found were written by the manufacturer), and learning about the million other details you need to know to fly an airplane. The great thing about the simulator is that you can learn the hard way, and it’s OK. For instance, I had a C310 quite literally fall out of the sky when I was flying to the top of Mount Rainier. The engine just suddenly cut off, I think because I didn’t lean the fuel mixture like you’re supposed to. Another time I took the 737-300 for a flight, which involved hitting the ocean. The 737-300 is really hard to fly. It’s much less stable than you’d think, and because it’s so powerful you can drop from 500ft to sealevel before you know it. On top of that, the nose prevents you from seeing the horizon.
If none of this is interesting to you, then Flightgear is probably not for you. But if you are interested in aviation then this is truly a great program. The last flight simulator I played before this one was Flight Simulator 2 so I can’t compare Flightgear to the current state of the art. My impression is that its flight model is as good as any other. There are somewhat less planes available, and I haven’t found any areas that have detailed scenery. On the other hand, it’s free, constantly improving, and you can extend it any way you want if you have the skill. Give it a try, you’ve got nothing to lose.