Radio control hobbyists frequently use RC simulator software to practice flying helicopters and planes before trying to fly new models in the field. Radio controlled helicopters and airplanes are tough enough to take some bumps, but-like full size vehicles used to ferry people-they can be severely damaged in harsh crashes. Thus, new pilots are often advised to practice simulator flying first to get the hang of a bird's general handling characteristics. An RC simulator is also handy to have when the weather prohibits outdoor flying. Pilots have several major options for flight simulator packages. In order of increasing cost, we have:
1. FMS. This is a free package available through the internet for Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP systems. It allows you to fly a variety of radio controlled helicopters and planes using a keyboard or other controller, either a gamepad or a USB port device like the Esky simulation transmitter which is built to resemble a regular RC transmitter. Most of the available models are planes. One main drawback to FMS (Flight Model Simulator) is that it is not available for Windows Vista, Windows 7, or OSX. A second drawback for simulating helicopters is that the ground effect is not reproduced very well in FMS. The primary advantage of FMS, of course, is that is a very good way to get started to learn orientation and basic flying. This is particularly true if you are not certain whether flying radio controlled toys is something you will really enjoy and you don't want to invest much in a simulator. The graphics are not that attractive when compared to other packages, but the basic functionality is there and the price certainly cannot be beaten. FMS is definitely a flight simulator and not a game; there are no options for aerial combat or multiple pilot flying.
2. Clearview. The Clearview RC simulator costs approximately $40 (US dollars) and works with Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows XP, and Windows NT. The graphics are definitely improved over FMS. Clearview includes many helicopters, planes, and one glider. Training modes are available to help you fly in predefined patterns so you can get a feel for the controls as quickly as possible. Clearview also allows water takeoffs and landings, which many other packages do not. Like FMS, it is designed more as a simulator than a game, but does allow multiple pilots to fly together. Flight recording is also available. Multiple pilots, flight recording, water takeoff and landing, and training modes are not available with FMS. A controller is not included with the cost of the software.
3. Heli-X. This java-based RC simulator is designed specifically for helicopters. The cost is 49 Euros, or $66.67 US. (The software was free in an earlier version, but not anymore. Version 0.9 can still be downloaded without charge.) It is one of only a very few RC simulators available for Macintosh OSX (64-bit Intel processors) and it also runs on Linux and Windows systems. Heli-X requires an OpenGL compatible graphics adapter and a USB joystick controller such as the Esky 0905A. This is an obvious choice if you want to simulate helicopters on a Mac, but it is not a good choice for planes or gliders since it does not include any plane or glider models. Heli-X currently offers cargo training as well, which is a fun feature to have. This allows some game-like functionality since you can pick up cargo, transport it, and drop it off at a designated target location. A drawback to the package is that models for FMS cannot be incorporated directly into Heli-X, since Heli-X uses wavefront format models.
4. Reflex XTR. This package has versions available for Windows XP and Vista computers and is designed to be controlled by a radio transmitter. The RC simulator is a very solid general purpose package that includes models for helicopters, planes, and gliders. This software does not provide support for a gamepad, as Clearview and FMS do. Graphics for Reflex XTR are top of the line in RC simulation and it is an excellent helicopter simulator, including good modeling of ground effect. Unfortunately, it does not yet include water takeoffs or landings. The Reflex RTR package features training modes, flight recording, and multiple pilots as does Clearview. The Reflex XTR system currently costs around $200+ US without a controller.
To summarize, there are several good options for RC simulator packages. The major factors to consider are, of course, price and feature set. Clearview and FMS are general purpose simulators and Clearview is probably preferable if you are interested in helicopter simulation. Clearview also offers two useful features, training modes and flight recording, that FMS does not. Heli-X is newer and is currently the best option for Macintosh OSX or Linux, but only if you are interested in flying helicopters. Reflex XTR is superb general purpose simulator for planes, helicopters, or gliders, but it is also the most expensive package we've discussed.