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The Big Stuff! looks at flying airliners for fun in our latest flight sim guide.


The PMDG Boeing 747-400 in our opinion wears the crown as the most realistic airliner simulation ever made. Considering a team of Boeing engineers and test pilots were instrumental in assisting PMDG in its development, this is hardly surprising!

For many of us Flight Simulator affords a chance to do something that we may never do in the real world, be it embarking on a wilderness odyssey in a trusty Cessna or land a jumbo jet at a busy international airport. For others the simulation affords a chance to polish skills, with many airline pilots practising systems procedures on the more complex simulations.

The sheer volume of airliners available, both as commercial expansions and freeware offerings can be an obstacle, especially for newcomers to the hobby. Matching the aircraft to your personal interests and current level of simming expertise can be something of trial and error. At the other end of the scale, the seasoned simmer is often on a search to find a high fidelity simulation that closely replicates the actual aircraft. This guide aims to shine light on all corners of the virtual hangar and to illuminate the wide range of airliner expansions for Flight Simulator 2004 and Flight Simulator X. By using the cream of the crop as examples, we hope to present a useful buyer’s guide regardless of your level of simulation expertise. Many marvellous aircraft are available for free to download from a wide range of websites.

FSX saw the inclusion of an Airbus A321 for the default fleet of aircraft.
Keeping it simple
For novice simmers developing an interest in airliners, their first exposure is undoubtedly going to be with the default aircraft included within Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. Included as an integral part of FS2004 are a Boeing 737, 777 and 747. Within FSX the original Boeing 737 has been replaced by a more modern 737-800, the 777 has been removed entirely and replaced with an Airbus A321 and the 747 has had something of a cosmetic facelift. We are often asked how realistic these aircraft are in comparison to their real-life counterparts - the reality is only vague realism. The external modelling is usually to a high standard but the actual functionality is severely limited. Cockpits bear a passing resemblance to the actual aircraft, but most of the equipment has been omitted. The flight dynamics have also been grossly simplified making the aircraft much easier to fly than would normally be the case. It is all too easy for the serious simmer to deride these default aircraft, but they are there for a very specific reason. If you are a casual simmer who wants to fly with the minimum of fuss and have no interest in the complexities of a real airliner, then the default fleet can be fun to fly. They can serve as an excellent introduction to airliners bearing in mind that they bear very little resemblance to the real thing in their handling, instrumentation and cockpit systems, providing a useful ‘entry level’ stepping stone to more complex airliners. It is rather like learning to ride a bicycle with stabilisers - these aircraft will transport you from A to B in the virtual world but after a short while you’ll want to remove the stabilisers and progress.

Many people soon step up from the default aircraft to something a little more complex. The F-Lite range from Just Flight is aimed at those wishing to progress from the default aircraft without incurring the complexity of a high-fidelity simulation.
Intermediate offerings
Having decided to progress beyond the default aircraft, a number of choices present themselves. It is entirely possible to upgrade to a complex simulation of an aircraft but this will, of course, bring with it a steep learning curve. Alternatively, a number of intermediate simulations are now becoming more prevalent, recognising that many simmers wish to gain experience beyond the default aircraft. A number of expansion publishers are now filling this sector of the market; one of the most high profile ranges is the F-Lite range from Just Flight. It has chosen to release simulations of a wide range of popular aircraft that have been heavily simplified yet still manage to offer much more than what is on offer with the Microsoft default fleet. The decision you have to make in relation to the F-Lite range is whether you wish to fly older ‘classic’ airliners or something more modern. The older aircraft use a number of analogue instruments while the more modern simulate the electronic display screens that are now in common use. We can heartily recommend the Just Flight ‘DC-10 Collection’ package as an exciting representation of a classic analogue aircraft that will allow the novice simmer the opportunity to fly flights of almost any duration from domestic to long-haul. If something more modern is to your taste, then Just Flight’s ‘Airbus A340-500/600’ pack is also extremely attractive to the novice simmer, offering the opportunity to fly one of the world’s largest jets complete with electronic display screens. Both of these aircraft have the advantage of being designed with the novice simmer in mind and are aimed squarely at those taking their first step up from the default fleet. A further bonus is that both aircraft packages will install freely in either FS2004 or FSX.

We consider the Flight 1 ATR 72-500 to be the ultimate regional turboprop. The aircraft was designed in partnership with the manufacturer.
The Just Flight F-Lite range is certainly not the end of the story when it comes to mid-level complexity airliners, though in our opinion they are the current jewels in the crown. Other publishers are also starting to make headway in this category of simulation - fans of classic airliners will find themselves amply rewarded by the simplified ‘Vickers VC-10’ and ‘Trident’ packages on offer from First Class Simulations, both aircraft providing a fascinating insight into these jet airliners of yesteryear. If you find yourself nostalgic for the lost Boeing 777 that failed to make the transition from FS2004 to FSX, Wilco Publishing offers a version of reduced complexity in its ‘Fleet’ range that goes a long way towards filling the gap.

Getting complex
Taking a further step in complexity takes us into the realms of simulated realism. It has to be emphasised at this point that the concept of total realism is a fallacy; it is simply not possible within the current confines of desktop simulation to produce an aircraft that is an absolutely perfect replica of the real aircraft. We can get very close, but despite the best intentions of the developer it is not possible to be 100% accurate - most noticeably in terms of feedback. The sense of motion and feeling of the control yoke or joystick can never match the actual aircraft being simulated. This holds true from desktop simulation, to hobbyist cockpit projects, to full-sized commercial simulators used by the airlines. However, the massive advances made in our hobby do now allow the desktop simmer to operate an aircraft that is a hair’s-breadth from the real thing in its replication of systems and operation. These high-fidelity simulated aircraft also vary greatly in their complexity, for the simple reason that the actual aircraft being depicted incorporates a wide spectrum of equipment that reflects its age and intended role.

The Embraer Legacy is perhaps the ultimate in executive transport for FS2004 and FSX.
A wide range of regional aircraft is now available as commercial expansions. If your interest is in state-of-the-art technology then the ‘ATR 72-500’ package from Flight1 Publishing is, in our opinion, one of the best simulations ever produced. The software, developed in conjunction with aircraft manufacturer ATR itself, boasts the latest glass-screen technology and an overhead panel reminiscent of the latest jet airliners, despite actually being a turboprop aircraft. The aircraft is also equipped with a fully functional flight management computer (FMC), which will take many weeks of patient study to master, irrespective of the other onboard equipment. It is not without reason that this aircraft is supported by hundreds of pages of documentation in PDF format. The aircraft is available for both FS2004 and FSX.

If you prefer something less technically taxing, another package - the Aeroworx ‘X-Treme King Air 200’ - also available from Flight1, has the accolade of being one of the finest aircraft made for a desktop simulation in terms of graphic quality and realism. However, this is a much simpler aircraft to fly than the ATR, utilising traditional instrumentation, but without a flight management computer. As an additional feature a ‘wear and tear’ module, when enabled, requires the pilot to fly within safe parameters to avoid damage to the aircraft. Should damage occur, it is necessary to maintain the aircraft and pay for repairs from a custom maintenance menu. The King Air is an ideal stepping stone to more complex aircraft, being relatively easy to master, but offering tremendous realism.

The Level D Simulations (LDS) Boeing 767-300ER is one of the most detailed airliner simulations ever created and is an almost perfect replica of the real aircraft in terms of its systems fidelity. The crowded 2D panel is an indication of the sheer volume of instrumentation and gauges aboard this aircraft.
The Big Stuff
There are three aircraft that hold a very special place in the history of jet simulation - the first two of these aircraft are the PMDG Boeing 747-400 and the Level D Simulations Boeing 767-300ER. If you would like to fly an airliner that is an almost perfect replica of the real thing, then these aircraft are for you. Beware, however, as the learning curve is steep for both of these aircraft, with all systems modelled to the very last detail, including extensive failures modelling. The PMDG 747-400 was developed in co-operation with Boeing and had the support of a small army of Boeing engineers and test pilots during its development cycle. Coupled with stunning graphics, super-smooth glass-cockpit displays and custom animations, this simulation is now used by a large number of Boeing 747-400 pilots looking to refresh their systems knowledge, which is perhaps the finest accolade a desktop simulation can have. The 747-400 is available as a download from the PMDG website or in a boxed version from First Class Simulations for FS2004. An expansion pack featuring the freighter version of the 747-400 is also available. Similarly, the Level D Simulations (LDS) 767-300ER is a breakthrough simulation – it has been developed and refined over many years to the point where it is a near-perfect simulation of this remarkable aircraft. The Boeing 767 can operate on short-haul, medium and long-haul routes across the globe, making it one of the most versatile aircraft ever to enter production.

Akin to the 747-400 mentioned above, this aircraft is aimed squarely at those in search of maximum realism and would prove overwhelming to the more casual simmer. Taking the time to learn the Boeing 747-400 and the Boeing 767-300ER is a major undertaking, but the rewards for the simulation enthusiast are beyond compare.

The third aircraft in our spotlight is featured in the ‘Greatest Airliners - Boeing 727’ package developed by Dreamfleet and published by Flight 1. Surprisingly, Flight 1 tells us that the aircraft is often underrated within the simulation community, perhaps because this is an aircraft without a flight management computer and complex electronic displays. The Boeing 727 has only a simple autopilot, no auto-throttle and a basic navigation system and thus has to be flown by the pilot. Luckily, the aircraft is a joy to fly and is supported by breath-taking photo-realistic panels depicting the wide array of analogue gauges available to the pilots and Flight Engineer. This aircraft is the pinnacle of the short-haul fleet in FS2004 for the systems enthusiast and fans of the classic 727.

The sky’s the limit!
In this short guide we have, by necessity, not been able to mention every aircraft that is available to purchase. We do hope that we have been able to offer a useful guide to a range of aircraft that support simmers of all abilities - from the default aircraft to those of intermediate complexity, from the regional jets and props to the iconic simulations of the wide-body Boeings. For the simmer, whatever your experience level, there is an airliner for everyone, just waiting to take to the skies!

Filed Under Flight Simulation Features.


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Wendell Arehart said on the 20-Dec-2010 at 21:18

I have a older flight simulator 2000 or before and have a penium 4 cu. The disc only has 1 airliner . how big a cu must I have to handle FS2004

Mark Wood said on the 21-Jan-2011 at 10:02

Good choices, but I think you missed out on at least an honourable mention for PMDGs 737NG. Not quite as state of the art as the Queen, but even at 6 years old still a fabulously detailed and extremely challenging add-on.

Rosdi Ibrahim said on the 15-Mar-2011 at 15:41

can you explain to me,how to fix flt simulator to my computer. i'm plan to buy it.

John Crowther said on the 5-Jun-2011 at 02:37


james p said on the 5-Jun-2011 at 18:57

yes i would like to know how to fix simulator to computer if i purchase it.

Deborah Lipsitz said on the 8-Nov-2014 at 18:17

I'm a huge fan of the B763, not so much with Level-D. The refusal to support P3D v1.4 is the main reason, and the lengths they have gone to in order to insure it won't work is, well, ugly.

Good thing I've been playing with MSFS since 1984, and designing aircraaft and panels on my own for about a decade now. I will have my realistic B763 yet!

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