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.
Artwick’s original simulator was much more stripped down, lacking the intuitive controls, real-world mapping, and high-def 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 entertainment software developers like Microsoft have put into further refining the title, often with Artwick’s help.
Today’s flight simulators are complex creations that often come with some high costs attached. Noteworthy and highly-regarded examples like X-Play and Flight Simulator X pack in great 3D rendering and realistic controls, but they also place a heavy drain on both your system resources and your 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.
These are our picks for the best free flight simulators available for Windows, Mac OS X, and your favorite browser. Additionally, check out our selection of the best PC gaming accessories if you really want to take your flight simulation to the next level with a quality joystick.
Google Earth Flight Simulator (Windows/Mac OS X/Chrome)
Google Earth has all sorts of borderline hidden features that 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.
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 streaming satellite imagery. On-board controls allow you to adjust speed and altitude, but that’s essentially it. You can peruse the globe (or solar system) in a more immersive manner than scrolling around with your mouse and keyboard. 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 Google Earth Plug-in Chrome — adds additional airports, aircraft, and an element of online interaction with chat functions and a player-laden world. And yes, 1-in-3 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 the most casual users and doesn’t require any external software should you decide to use Chrome instead of the desktop app. Google also offers a basic GEFS user guide if you’re having trouble with the controls.
YSFlight (Windows/Mac OS X)
Sometimes it feels like 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 its basic design and less-than-impressive visuals, yet it is still offers a robust built-in feature set. And at 35MB, who can really complain?
You’ve got more than 60 aircraft to choose from, a diverse selection that includes the Blue Angels F-18 Hornet and an Apache helicopter. There’s also a wide selection of maps that includes the Hawaiian islands and other well-known regions around the globe. Additional features, such as wind variables and day/night settings, can also be tweaked with relative ease. It’s a very customizable piece of software, allowing you to do anything from fly in Delta formation with AI wingmates or engage in aerial dogfights with your friends. All while the Atari-esque HUB delivers details on in-flight speeds, elevation, direction, and other essential information. Gameplay footage can be recorded and replayed directly within the program, a nice touch, and YSFlight also includes joystick support as well as standard controls for your mouse and keyboard.
However, the most incredible aspect of the game 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 years and even now routinely publishes updates to his site. There are far more beautiful flight sims out there, but YSFlight keeps it simple and still welcoming.
FlightGear (Windows/Mac OS X)
FlightGear is the undisputed champ when it comes advanced settings and pure, unrestricted customization. The open-source software’s roots date back to 1997, but the developers and rabid users community have been expanding and tweaking the freemium title’s extensive map and feature-set ever since. The most recent update arrived in February 2013, bringing the game up to version 2.0 status. 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 the default Cessna 172 or choose from a deep virtual hangar of aircraft that includes a Boeing 777, an A6M20 Zero, and even a Zeppelin NT07 airship. The software comes bundled with a limited amount of built-in scenery, but various regions of the globe and more than 20,000 airports can be downloaded specifically through FlightGear‘s website, via BitTorrent or purchased as an all-encompassing 4-disc DVD set if you prefer physical media. The daunting installation process and interface are easier to deal with if you’re willing to spend some time using the FlightGear wiki, which walks you through getting the game set up and learning the basic skills needed for take-off, landing, and the like.
FlightGear is consistently praised for its realism, earning high marks for everything from the overall flight controls to minute details such as lighting, and an ongoing dedication on the part of the development community. 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.
Microsoft Flight (Windows)
The latest incarnation of Microsoft Flight is a rebranding of the once-niche franchise that is meant to reintroduce players to a more accessible type of flight sim. The title leans more toward the well-rounded gamer than the enthusiast focus of previous titles, opting for a series of Achievement-loaded missions centered around the expansive islands of sunny Hawaii instead. There’s more emphasis on fun than there is on showcasing the realistic (and perpetually frustrating) aspects of actually flying. The shift in gameplay is tough for series purists to take, since earlier versions won acclaim as the best and most accurate free-to-play flight sim, but true hobbyists can always turn to the plethora of other options.
Like GEFS, MS Flight places the users in an graphically rich environment, full of scripted missions aimed at teaching the basics of flight. You’ve got only two planes to choose from for the 10 assignments – the Icon A5 and the Boeing PT-17 – but experience points earned from completing these tasks unlocks bonus content like additional paintjobs. The free Flight Mode allows you to alter specific conditions — time of day, season, and weather — as you scour Hawaii’s big island in search of glowing objects known as “aerocaches.” You can also choose to turn off the four default flight assistance controls for an added touch of realism. Hardware requirements are minimal despite the gorgeous and expansive setting, but the world itself is virtually empty unless you tap into the 16-person online multiplayer.
While Microsoft Flight is certainly not what it once was, the new title still appealing, especially for those who are looking for a solid entry point into flight-simulation software.
(Tom Cruise sketch in banner image courtesy of Fog’s Movie Reviews)
What did you think of our picks for the best free flight simulators? Which do you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments below.