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What is a Computer Flight Simulator?

By Brad Cole
Updated May 16, 2024
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A computer flight simulator is a re-creation of an aircraft piloting experience. As the name implies, it is run mostly through a computer. A Computer flight simulator differs from a full flight simulator (FFS) in that a computer flight simulator is commonly found in a home while the much more complex and expensive FFS is primarily a commercial or military simulator. Both types of flight simulators have computer components, but the computer flight simulator can be run on a personal computer (PC), while a FFS often requires much more complex digital and analog systems to run it. Computer flight simulators are often referred to as flight simulation video games in order to more easily distinguish them from their industrial counterparts.

A computer flight simulator usually takes the form of a computer game that can run on a PC. Common computer flight simulators include the extremely popular Microsoft Flight Simulator™, the ultra-realistic X-Plane™, and the venerable cult classic Falcon™ 4.0. They are not limited to Windows-based systems, and can be found for Linux, Macintosh, and even the iPhone. Video game systems also have flight simulation video games available, but those are considered to be much less realistic than their computer counterparts.

Most computer flight simulators do not require additional hardware beyond what is commonly found in a home computer, though some additional items may be desired. The dials and other instruments inside of the airplane’s cockpit are displayed on the computer’s screen, and flight control occurs through the mouse and keyboard. Most computer flight simulator enthusiasts will also want to purchase a joystick to better simulate the flight, and a headset may be desired to communicate with other players in multiplayer mode. The most extreme enthusiasts build or purchase their own simulation cockpits, or simpits, which can cost even more than a typical home computer.

Computer flight simulators can be divided into three primary categories: traditional flight simulators, combat flight simulators, and science fiction flight simulators. Traditional flight simulators allow players to fly various types of aircraft in a realistic environment. Activities like flying in an air show, landing at an airport, or taking off from a small private airfield are examples of possible game play in a traditional flight simulator. Combat flight simulators take place in battle situations, and usually require that players accomplish military objects.

Engaging enemy planes in a dog fight, bombing targets in a war zone, and landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier under enemy fire are all examples of this type of game play. Science fiction flight simulators represent games that simulate vehicles that do not exist using correct technology, but that generally comply with the natural laws of the universe. Games of this style might have you flying a TIE fighter, piloting a spaceship full of colonists to another planet, or trying to smuggle arms through intergalactic spaceways.

Computer flight simulators have a significant following online. Some of these online communities provide plug-ins, modifications, and additional content for computer flight simulators. Others provide players with a means to meet and play with each other. Online gaming experiences can be both extremely complex and interesting, and include online fighter squadrons, virtual airlines, and virtual air traffic controller/pilot interactions.

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