Since the launch of X-Plane 11, the platform has been improving at a steady pace with new features including native Virtual Reality (VR) support, city landmarks and a G1000 glass cockpit. The latest 11.30 version is arguably the largest point release to date, adding new particle effects, a revised ATC voice system, an enhanced flight model and updated systems to name a few. So, in this article, we will look at how X-Plane has evolved since it was first released in 2016.
The graphical user interface (GUI) was one of the most significant upgrades in X-Plane 11, transforming the old interface in version 10 with a much more user-friendly experience. Since then, the GUI has undergone several refinements. It is now possible to create profiles with custom joystick and keyboard assignments, which can be assigned to individual aircraft. This is an excellent way to quickly load different aircraft types without the need to reconfigure the controls every time. In version 11.30, the profiles were enhanced with the ability to adjust the response curve of each axis using a visual editor. The response curve is linked to a joystick profile, enabling you to fine-tune the controls for each aircraft.
Although the global base scenery hasn’t changed much since the release of X-Plane 11, the autogen is continually evolving and developers are now able to create countryspecific scenery objects. We are already starting to see regional autogen being released by third-parties. For example, there is an excellent freeware autogen scenery available on x-plane.org for Japan (https://forums.x-plane.org/index.php?/files/file/49095-japan-pro).
In 11.30, the scenery in the US was updated with industrial-specific autogen and ground clutter, while urban areas received new street-level detail such as new fences, bins and vegetation for added variety.
Laminar also introduced custom city landmarks for some of the major cities around the world, including Chicago, Las Vegas, London and Sydney. We can look forward to seeing new landmarks for other cities in future updates. For example, in the latest release, new buildings have been introduced in Dubai, New York and Washington DC such as the Monument and the White House.
W hen X-Plane 11 was first released, the default aircraft were overhauled with improved flight dynamics, 3D cockpits, removable yokes and detailed interiors. New manipulators (mouse controls) were added, including scroll wheel support, which makes tuning the radios and operating the various switches, knobs and levers more intuitive. The default aircraft are regularly updated to take advantage of new features in X-Plane. For example, a G1000 version of the Cessna 172 and an Aerolite 103 ultralight were added to the fleet and the default King Air has undergone engine upgrades as the PT6 turboprop model has been improved.
Air traffic control
O ne of the major updates in version 11.30 was the introduction of a new text-to-speech technology to expand the vocabulary of virtual air traffic controllers in X-Plane. Where the old system relied on human recordings, the new system makes it much easier to customise the ATC vocabulary. Currently, this has expanded from just over 100 phrases in the old system to more than 50,000. To allow further expansion, Laminar has created a public database of spoken phrases and the community can add the correct pronunciation of airports, airlines, manufacturers, models and VOR names. The database will then be updated in future X-Plane releases.
Native VR support was implemented in version 11.20, and Laminar has done a great job of integrating this technology into X-Plane.
For example, the default aircraft have been updated to be virtual reality-compatible and a dedicated menu interface was added along with VR controls and manipulators using either a VR handset controller or laser pointer manipulation. Support for different headsets is excellent with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) all being X-Plane-compatible. It is worth noting that while the VR experience adds a tremendous amount of realism to the flight simulation experience, this technology is very demanding on computer resources. Consequently, you need to make sure your hardware can run X-Plane consistently at a minimum of 45fps. As a rough guide, most VR manufacturers recommend an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 processor and an Nvidia GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480.
Laminar Research introduced a new particle system in X-Plane 11.30, enabling custom effects to be added to individual aircraft. With visual detail such as contrails, smoke, engine intake condensation, wingtip vortices and heat blur coming off the engines or Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), developers will now be able to take their aircraft to a whole new level. The particle system takes advantage of X-Plane’s HDR rendering engine, so exhaust heat from jet turbines, afterburners or even engine fires will light up the surrounding area. Third-party developers will however need to update their aircraft to take advantage of these effects.
The default aircraft fleet in X-Plane has already been updated to use this system.
Flight model and engines
X-Plane creator, Austin Meyer has gone to town with updates to the flight dynamics and engine modelling. The list of features is extensive and well beyond the scope of this article, but the main highlights include a refined propwash model (the thrust generated by the airflow through the propeller) and downwash (the aerodynamic properties of aircraft in ground effect). He has even gone to great lengths to accurately replicate the aerodynamic forces acting on a fuselage in flight. To test new flight model changes, Austin has introduced a new research mode in PlaneMaker. This will allow developers to test cutting-edge flight model changes in X-Plane before they are released in ‘live’ products.
As for engine dynamics, the PT6 turboprop model has been further refined. The latest changes include a more accurate compressor stall model and the beta range and reverse thrust now more closely matches the performance of real PT6 engines.
Twin-spool jet engines are now correctly modelled in X-Plane, which in technical terms means the high-pressure N2 compressor now works independently from the low-pressure N1 compressor. Finally, piston engines have been given some love with improved carb ice and manifold pressure modelling.
Minimum Hardware Requirements:
Processor: Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 CPU with two or more cores, or AMD equivalent. (Users with dual-core CPUs slower than 3GHz should try the demo before purchasing.) Memory: 8GB RAM. Graphics card: a DirectX 11-capable video card from Nvidia, AMD or Intel with at least 1GB VRAM.
Recommended Hardware Requirements:
Processor: Intel Core i5 6600K at 3.5GHz Memory: 16-24GB RAM. Graphics Card: DirectX 12-capable video card from Nvidia, AMD or Intel with at least 4GB VRAM (GeForce GTX 1070 or better or similar from AMD).
Intel Core i7-4770K 4.2GHz. Nvidia GTX 6GB. RAM: 24GB DDR3. Hard drive: 2GB SATA III.
Oxygen and icing
Like the flight model and engine updates, the list of features for the various aircraft systems is equally impressive. X-Plane can now simulate two independent vacuum systems, so the instruments for the captain and co-pilot’s side can be powered from two different sources. On vintage aircraft, it is even possible to fit a venture-driven vacuum system.
The effects of hypoxia are already simulated in X-Plane, so if you climb above 10,000ft in an unpressurised aircraft, you will black out. In 11.30, it is now possible to add an O2 bottle oxygen supply to aircraft. The bottle has a fixed volume, so just like in real aircraft the amount of available air will depend on how many people are plugged into the supply as well as the altitude of the aircraft.
Realistic anti-ice and de-ice systems have also been added. For several years, X-Plane has modelled aircraft icing effects on the wing, propellers, engine inlets, pitot/static ports and cockpit windows. It is now possible to simulate different types of anti-ice and de-icing equipment that can be fitted on aircraft. This includes electric heat, bleed air, chemical TKS de-icing fluid tanks and inflatable boots. Each of these accurately replicates the equipment found in real aircraft, so electrical anti-ice will place a load on the aircraft’s electrical system, bleed-air anti-ice will increase the load on the engines and reduce available power etc.
In simple terms, aircraft fitted with constantspeed propellers use a governor to change the angle of the propeller blades to maintain a selected RPM. There are many different types of governors depending on aircraft (and engine) type, and they all have distinctive behaviour and failure modes. For example, an engine failure on a single engine piston aircraft will cause the governor to put the prop blades into fine pitch while piston twins will usually place the props into coarse pitch. Similarly, turboprops are either fitted with freewheeling turbines such as the PT6 which will autofeather the prop, or fixed-shaft turboprops which are fitted with start-locking propellers.
With the 11.30 update, X-Plane now accurately replicates many of these engine and prop governor combinations as well as the different failure modes. This provides developers with huge scope to create aircraft with realistic engine and propeller operating characteristics.
X-Plane now features several types of fullyfeatured general aviation autopilots. These include a simple single-axis autopilot from the 1960s to more complex modern-day units such as the GFC-700, which is normally fitted alongside Garmin G1000 avionics.
The Bendix King Kap-140 and the S-Tec 55 dual-axis rate-based digital autopilot have also been added. As with the above system updates, aircraft developers are now able to slot these ready-made autopilots into their cockpits without the need to model complex auto-flight logic. It is worth mentioning that the default Cessna 172 has been retrofitted with the S-Tech 55 autopilot.
Finally, for airliners, full dual- or triplechannel autoland with flare and rollout guidance is now possible. Even the checks and preconditions of a dual- or triplechannel autoland system are simulated. In addition, support for more advanced modes such as N1/EPR thrust modes, Boeing CWS steering, etc, have also been implemented.
As well as releasing new features and fixes, Laminar Research is continually optimising X-Plane to improve performance. I did not see a marked difference in frame rates compared with the previous 11.25 version, but having said that, on a mid-range system (refer to accompanying box-out for system specification), I found performance to be very acceptable. On average, I was seeing between 30 and 50fps, which is plenty for a smooth flying experience. X-Plane is very scalable and as long as you are mindful of not overloading the graphics card or CPU, you should be able to achieve acceptable frame rates.
X-Plane still takes time to load but I have Prepar3D on the same hard drive and both simulators take about the same time to get going - around two to three minutes. Simulators as a whole load a lot of data on start-up and a conventional hard drive can only pump so much data through. The only way to speed up the loading process is to invest in a solid-state drive (SSD) or an M.2 drive if you are after ultra-fast loading times.
Finally, we can’t talk about X-Plane without mentioning WorldEditor (WED). Essentially, WED enables the community to create or improve 3D airports that can be submitted to the X-Plane Scenery Gateway. Once approved, the new airports are included in future X-Plane updates. Since WED was introduced, it has transformed the X-Plane world. To date, the database has grown to more than 35,000 airports and approximately 9,000 of those have 3D buildings, including 50 of the largest airports around the world.
During the development of X-Plane 11, WorldEditor has been upgraded alongside the platform, adding new tools for airport developers. This includes new art assets such as airport buildings, a jetway and terminal kit. Most recently the object library was reorganised to make it easier for developers to find objects.
All these improvements provide developers with better resources to create even better airports. The selection of airports in X-Plane is superb and will only continue to get better.
X-Plane 11 has evolved into a realistic and flexible simulator that is approachable for beginners and expert flight simmers alike. In fact, it has become evident that it is rapidly becoming the primary platform for an increasing number of flight simmers. The latest 11.30 release not only adds a significant amount of updates to the core simulator, it also lays the groundwork for future improvements as well as giving developers the resources and tools to take add-ons to the next level. With even greater updates on the horizon, such as the new Vulkan graphics engine, the future for X-Plane is looking very bright indeed!
By Richard Benedikz
PC Pilot Verdict
At a glance: The X-Plane 11.30 release is a massive update to the platform that not only adds new features to the core simulator, but also gives developers the tools to take add-ons to the next level.
Manufacturer: Laminar Research
Price: $59.99 (£46 approx)
Flight Model: Good
PC Pilot Score: