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 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.
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.