Take to the virtual skies with these free flight simulators

Digital Trends Staff
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So do you feel the need? The need for… rapid forward movement at an altitude of 35,000 feet? Then you’ve come to the right place. Flight simulation games have been around since electrical engineer Bruce Artwick introduced the prehistoric Microsoft Flight Simulator — before it was even called that — on the 8-bit Apple II back in the late-’70s, kicking off decades worth of commercial software and giving players a chance to take to the computer-rendered skies.

More: China is developing a hypersonic space plane that makes the Space Shuttle look primitive

Artwick’s original simulator lacked the intuitive controls, real-world mapping, and high-defintion graphics that grace the most recent examples, but it still managed to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, with more than 21 million copies sold as of June 1999. It was an impressive feat, and its enduring success speaks to the effort that software developers like Microsoft have put into further refining the title.

Today’s flight simulators are largely complex creations that feature 3D rendering and realistic controls, but they also often come at a cost to your machine and wallet. Thankfully, the internet offers a number of free alternatives that require little more than a few clicks and a budget-friendly machine to get yourself into the virtual skies. Here are some of our favorite flight sims, whether you simply want to gently soar peaceful skies or down your enemies in a hail of bullets.

Old-fashioned flight sims

Google Earth Flight Simulator — Windows, MacOS, Chrome

Google Earth has many hidden features we tend to overlook. The interactive, virtual globe allows you explore the vast corners of the universe, from the Orion Nebula to the Vortex Galaxy, as well as comb all regions of our own planet in stunning topographic detail. Also buried within the software? A built-in flight simulator that lets users take control of either a Cirrus SR22 propeller plane or an F-16 Viper. Perusing the globe (or solar system) in GEFS is a little more immersive than scrolling around with your mouse and keyboard.

It’s not the most realistic or feature-rich simulator — there is no autopilot, sound, crash simulation, or much in the way of aircraft variety — but the software does give you a spectacular bird’s eye of the landscape with 3D buildings provided by Google’s satellite imagery. On-board controls allow you to adjust your speed and altitude, but that’s essentially it. Like many flight sims, GEFS lets you lift off from various airports around the globe, start directly in the air, or begin your flight from where you ended your previous session. GEFS Online — a separate flight simulator that utilizes the former Google Earth plug-in — adds additional airports, aircraft, and an element of online interaction with chat functions and a player-laden world. And yes, a third of all players choose Maverick, Iceman, or Goose for their username.

GEFS is not the most pragmatic approach to virtual flying, but it’s easily accessible to casual users and doesn’t require any external software should you decide to use Google Chrome instead of the desktop app. Google also offers a basic GEFS user guide if you’re having trouble with the controls.

YSFlight — Windows, MacOS

Sometimes it feels as though YSFlight hasn’t evolved much from its humble beginnings, but that’s not such a bad thing. The software is incredibly light on system resources — no surprise given the simulator’s basic design and less-than-impressive visuals — yet it still offers a robust set of built-in features. And for just a few megabytes, who can really complain?

The sim provides more than 70 aircraft to choose from, spanning everything from the Blue Angels F-18 Hornet to an Apache helicopter, along with a wide array of maps that encompass a host of well-known regions from around the globe. Additional features, such as wind variables and a day-night component, can also be tweaked with relative ease. It’s a very customizable piece of software, allowing you to do anything from flying in Delta formation with AI wingmates to engaging in aerial dogfights with your friends. While you do so, the Atari-esque HUB delivers details on in-flight speeds, elevation, direction, and other essential information. Gameplay footage can also be recorded and replayed directly within the program — a nice touch, to be sure — and YSFlight also includes joystick support as well as standard controls for your mouse and keyboard.

The most incredible aspect of the game, however, is its homespun history. Soji Yamakawa, aka Captain YS, created the simulator on his own as a university project in 1999. He continued to develop the project as a hobby over the ensuing years, though, the software hasn’t received a substantial update in quite some time. There are far more beautiful flight sims out there, but YSFlight keeps it simple and still welcoming.

FlightGear  — Windows, MacOS

FlightGear is the undisputed champ when it comes to advanced settings and pure, unrestricted customization. The open-source software’s roots date back to 1997, but the developers and the rabid community of users have been expanding and tweaking the freemium title’s extensive map and feature-set ever since. Update 3.1 arrived in September, bringing the program up to current computing standards. However, quality and customization come at a price: the software is the most resource-intensive option on our list.

Once installed — a process that can be a hassle if you’re unused to the barebones nature of open-source software documentation — users can navigate the beautiful, 3D-rendered environments in a Cessna 172 or choose from a deep variety of virtual aircraft that includes a Boeing 777, an A6M20 Zero, and even a Zeppelin NT07 airship. The software makes use of a limited amount of built-in scenery, but you can download various regions of the globe and more than 20,000 airports directly through FlightGear‘s website, via BitTorrent, or by purchasing an optional Blu-ray disc. The daunting installation process and interface are also easier to deal with if you’re willing to spend some time using the FlightGear wiki, which walks you through the setup process and helps you with taking off, landing, and other basic flight procedures.

FlightGear is consistently praised for its ongoing dedication on the part of the development community and its realism, earning high marks for everything from the overall flight controls to minute details such as lighting. And while it may be big, bulky, and full of high-flying muscle, the abundance of user-curated documentation and stellar support functions are enough to keep any newcomer afloat.

X-Plane — Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS

Disclaimer: the full version of X-Plane 10 is a paid product. The demo version includes all aircraft and features, but pilots are limited to the greater Seattle area and flights cannot last longer than 15 minutes. Users can also download demos of X-Plane 8 and X-Plane 9 for free via links on the official website. The forthcoming X-Plane 11 is set for release this holiday season. 

Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10 is not for the faint of heart. Though building and ground detail can be sparse at times, the game more than makes up for it with sheer scale. The default installation allows you to hop into one of more than 30 aircraft and explore the globe to your heart’s content, from London to Los Angeles and beyond. X-Plane takes itself seriously, so much so that the developers claim that it’s “… not a game, but an engineering tool that can be used to predict the flying qualities of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft with incredible accuracy.”

This accuracy is achieved — in theory, at least — through a unique aerodynamic model known as “blade element theory.” This theory simulates flight by modeling forces on each component of the aircraft simultaneously, rather than using the predefined lookup tables that have become the standard for simulating aviation. The Blade element theory is often used to pre-compute aerodynamic forces for simulations that have not been run. This affords X-Plane users more freedom when designing potential aircraft to add to the game, though it can be more finicky (and less accurate) when piloting existing aircraft.

X-Plane is incredibly detailed, with little touches such as detailed weather modeling and the potential for system failures. Nearly every component of a plane can fail randomly, which, while frustrating, helps create a more realistic simulation experience and goes to show just how much work was put into the program. Users can also pilot anything from a B-2 Bomber to a space shuttle, and there are hundreds of additional aircraft available via both freemium and premium add-ons. X-Plane can be a bear at first, sure, but you’ll be doing barrel rolls in no time with a little practice.

Flight sims with a side of combat

War Thunder — Windows, MacOS, Linux, PlayStation 4

No war stirs as much fascination in the public consciousness as World War II — blame it on the memorable battles and the stirring narratives of good and evil. However, for as much suffering as the war caused, WWII fiction tends to lean toward romanticism. For flight enthusiasts, the war is notable for bringing air superiority to the forefront, with aircraft carriers extending the reach of air forces across entire oceans. Set during this period of aerial innovation, War Thunder offers a more action-oriented flight experience, allowing players to fly any of hundreds of different planes for the five great powers (United States, Germany, Britain, U.S.S.R., and Japan). The game features a few different modes, too, allowing for both hardcore simulation and relaxed, arcade-style gameplay. As such, newcomers and veteran aces will feel at home.

War Thunder is also an online multiplayer game, with most battles pitting two sides of 16 players against one another. These battles often emphasize dogfighting, with the goal being to reduce the enemy numbers, or incorporate ground-based objectives. Players can also participate using land vehicles, including tanks and anti-aircraft vehicles. War Thunder operates under a “freemium” model, too. There is no cost to start playing, however, not all of the content is available to begin with. Players gain points that they can then use to increase their pilots stats as they complete objectives and win battles, thus allowing them to unlock new planes and adjust components such as vision range and G-force tolerance. Of course, dedicated players can also spend money to acquire these in-game perks faster, though they won’t have any inherent advantage over those who unlocked them through sheer persistence.

The game’s planes come in three broad archetypes: fighters, agile warbirds good at dogfighting; attackers, somewhat slower planes with huge weapons designed to take down armored targets; and bombers, heavily armored planes with huge payloads that can wipe out clusters of ground forces. These categories all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and victory will depend on teams using a healthy mix of the three.

Rise of Flight — Windows

Despite the recent success of EA’s Battlefield 1, the first World War tends to live in the shadow of its successor. Perhaps this is because the war took place 31 years prior, or perhaps because Kaiser Wilhelm doesn’t make for as nefarious a villain as Adolf Hitler. Whatever the reason, the Great War tends to be overlooked outside of the occasional Hemingway novel. That’s a shame, because WWI is strewn with iconic technological advancements, particularly when you consider that it was the first major war in which planes were used. The ace pilots of the era — like the Red Baron — were international celebrities, fighting aerial duels that became the stuff of legend. Recognizing the gallantry of old-school dogfights, Rise of Flight puts players in the pilot seat of classic WWI planes, including the iconic Fokker DR.1 triplane.

The first thing players might notice about Rise of Flight is its exceptional commitment to authenticity. The planes are depicted in meticulous detail, from the chassis down to the gauges lining the cockpit. This attention to lush detailng extends to the title’s various levels, too, which function as massive recreations of actual locations on the Western Front. While combat is the main draw, it’s tempting to simply fly around and take in the view of Verdun.

The game also features a few different modes, including custom scenarios, multiplayer battles, and a campaign that recreates several historic battles. In addition, there are numerous ways to customize the controls, so whether you prefer mouse and keyboard or the tactile authenticity of a flight stick, you can play Rise of Flight the way that feels most comfortable to you.

World of Warplanes — Windows

An aerial spinoff of World of Tanks, the aptly-titled World of Warplanes puts players in large battles against one another, allowing them to pilot everything from the wooden biplanes of WWI to modern jets. Like World of Tanks, Warplanes follows a “freemium” model — you can start playing for free, but a number of the planes require players to purchase them with real money or in-game currency. In the beginning, players only have access to the primitive warbirds of the Great War. Players can earn currency through winning, and they can later spend this currency to unlock more advanced aircraft. Earning enough to buy a new plane can take a while, however, and there are scores of vehicles to unlock.

Warplanes is probably the most arcade-y game on our list. The controls are streamlined down to the essentials, so there’s no need to fiddle with dozens of gauges. While this makes it easier for rookies to learn, it removes a good deal of the depth and authenticity that many people value in flight sims. It’s easy to start dogfighting, but the combat lacks the hallmark nuances of more realistic simulators.

The game’s various locales — all of which will be familiar to history buffs — are splendid to look at, so players will be able to enjoy the view even if they aren’t blown away by the title’s inherent lack of depth. The hearty selection of planes, and the progression system used to unlock them, will keep many players striving to unlock new tools. For those who want a more casual combat game, especially one they can play with friends, World of Warplanes is an accessible option.