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Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Reno Air Races expansion is utterly terrifying

No, for real, this is actually pod racing

The new Reno Air Races are the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in Microsoft Flight Simulator. As someone who has gone to great lengths to try dumb, dangerous stuff in-game, it’s the most white-knuckle ride I’ve had yet. Polygon was given early access to the new add-on module over the weekend, and while we haven’t been able to give it a full test with eight live human players, even the time trials and a one-on-one race were particularly harrowing.

The Reno Air Races, also known as the Stihl National Championship Air Races, are a real thing that our Federal Aviation Administration lets people do in real life. Pilots rocket around a variable course up to eight miles long, tearing around in several different kinds of airplanes ranging from pokey little sport biplanes to combat jet trainers. The main event is called the Unlimited Class, and features World War II-era fighter planes at speeds approaching 500 miles per hour. In the real world it’s just as challenging as it sounds, and plenty dangerous for pilots and spectators alike.

A close-up of a biplane with pilot, respirator in place. Image: Asobo Studio/Xbox Game Studios
The controls of an L-39 Albatross jet trainer. Image: Asobo Studio/Xbox Game Studios
The flight line showing a row of vintage P-51 racing planes. Image: Asobo Studio/Xbox Game Studios

The in-game rules are simple: Keep your plane below 250 feet of altitude, don’t clip any pylons, and make it through eight laps faster than everyone else. Maintaining altitude is the hardest part for me, and requires a lot of rudder work. For comparison, the clearance below the Golden Gate Bridge at high tide is 220 feet. Keeping a plane straight and level that low all along an eight-mile loop is an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, and should be even more so in multiplayer, considering the P-51 has a wingspan of 37 feet.

It’s actually even more complicated than that. The trick is we’re talking about 250 feet AGL, or above ground level altitude. The terrain around Reno isn’t flat, and the course itself winds up and down Juniper Ridge to the east before leveling out on the return leg toward Reno Stead Airport. The terrain elevation at the airport itself is 5,050 feet, but the uphill section of the course rises another 300 to 500 feet as you climb the ridge. Once you hit pylon 4 — about a third of your way out into the course — you’re heading downhill at an incredible speed. The wash of my wingtips actually kicked up dust off the desert floor, making it both look and feel like a scene from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Turning in the fastest time isn’t just about putting the throttle down and hanging on for dear life. Pull too hard in a turn and the tail will slip right out from behind you, sending you into a spin that’s simply not recoverable that close to the ground. Messing up that bad isn’t nearly as dramatic in-game as it would be in the real world. Instead of a fiery, tumbling wreck, it feels more like falling off the track in Mario Kart, with some unseen hand plucking you from certain death and placing you back onto the course. Hitting the pylons just right took a lot of concentration, and by the end of each nine-minute race my legs and arms are sore from working the controls.

The final product comes in two flavors, including the Reno Air Races: Expansion Pack for $19.99 and the Reno Air Races: Full Collection for $59.99. For aviation buffs, the real draw here is the Full Collection which includes 10 different North American P-51 Mustangs, 10 North American T-6 Texans, 10 Aero L-39 Albatross jets, and 10 Aviat Pitts special S1S biplanes. They’re all modeled after actual planes that have competed in Reno for years, including “Gold” champions Miss America, Strega, Voodoo, Baron’s Revenge, Radial Velocity, Six-Cat, American Spirit, and Pipsqueak.

Reno Air Races: Expansion Pack and Reno Air Races: Full Collection will be available for purchase in-game on Nov. 18. That’s the same day that Microsoft Flight Simulator: Game of the Year Edition will be available for purchase — and for free through Xbox Game Pass for console and PC. The upgrade includes the VoloCity eVTOL helicopter, the Pilatus PC-6 Porter, the CubCrafters NX Cub, and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, originally intended as part of the Top Gun: Maverick movie tie-in expansion. The module has been bumped out to align with the film’s delay into 2022.

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