With air travel mostly impossible in 2020, it’s tempting to take to the virtual skies. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is probably the best way to do that now, but the game will run you $60, at least, plus the cost of additional planes. And that probably won’t change any time soon.
As is the case with most simulator games, flight simulators have a long shelf life. X-Plane 11, for example, is still a full $60, despite being three years old, and it has over $2,000 worth of DLC. With those kinds of prices, you’ll need the best free flight simulators to take to the skies on the cheap.
There are plenty of free-to-play games out there, and that includes free-to-play flight sims. Our list has civilian flight sims, which are all as realistic as possible, as well as combat-focused sims, where the developers trade a bit of realism for action. Although a game like Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 has more bells and whistles — not to mention better graphics — these titles will at least let you dip your toes in the world of flight simulation without spending any money.
The best free civilian flight simulators
Available on: Web browser
If your internet service has a strict data cap or your PC simply doesn’t have enough space, GeoFS runs entirely in your browser. In this free PC game, you can take off and fly across the world in one of 20 aircraft using a joystick, mouse, or your best keyboard. You’ll likely never run out of places to see, as the sim includes more than 30,000 different runways. Like to game on the go? You can fly using your mobile device, too.
Setting the throttle and taking off for the first time is remarkably simple. You can quickly customize the controls at any time, as well as pull up helpful instructions to aid your maiden voyage. If you aren’t successful in flying multi-engine planes, you can always switch to a more traditional propeller model. The simulator even includes a hot air balloon, a helicopter, and a paraglider — just don’t start in a paraglider from 30,000 feet in the air.
The free version supports massively multiplayer interaction. At any point, you can run into another player flying through the sky or a commercial airliner moving in real time. The weather conditions also change based on real-time data from Open Weather Map. That means the rain or sleet you experience mirrors what pilots currently endure in the real world.
Want to see where you’ll run into other players? GeoFS has a live map that tracks all pilots. Simply right-click on any plane and select a starting altitude, and you’ll instantly appear in the same location.
Although the plane models are surprisingly detailed, the environments are ugly. A city below you looks much less like a collection of buildings and more like a wash of green and beige. For 10 euro per year — roughly $12, depending on the conversion rate — you can subscribe to the HD tileset, which GeoFS pulls from Bing. It’s still a browser-based game, so don’t expect excellent visuals. At most, the HD tileset matches the detail of the plane models.
Available on: Windows, MacOS
YSFlight sometimes feels like it hasn’t evolved much since its humble beginnings, but that’s not a bad thing. The simulator’s basic design and less-than-impressive visuals cater to low-powered PCs. Yet it still offers a robust set of built-in features for just a few megabytes. Who can really complain?
This sim’s homespun history is its most incredible aspect. Soji Yamakawa, aka Captain YS, single-handedly created it 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. You can play far more beautiful flight sims, but YSFlight keeps it simple and welcoming.
Overall, this sim provides more than 70 aircraft to fly, spanning everything from the Blue Angels F-18 Hornet to an Apache helicopter. You’ll also find a wide array of maps encompassing a host of well-known regions from around the globe. You can even tweak additional features, such as wind variables and a day-night component, with relative ease.
YSFlight is very customizable, allowing you to do anything from flying in Delta formation with artificial intelligence-based wingmates to engaging in aerial dogfights with friends. While you do so, the Atari-style HUB delivers details on in-flight speeds, elevation, direction, and other essential information. You can record and replay gameplay footage directly within the program.
The big deal, though, is the community. Although the YSUpload tool was retired in 2014, all of the community-created add-ons are still available. The add-ons include everything from new plane models to maps to ground vehicles. With the breadth of content, YSFlight is much more than a flight simulator. Although we’re highlighting it for its civilian flight capabilities, YSFlight features air combat, missions, multiplayer, and more.
YSFlight includes joystick support as well as standard controls for your mouse and keyboard.
Available on: 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 sim’s rabid community continues to expand and tweak its extensive map and feature set. More recent updates brought it up to current computing standards, making it the most resource-intensive option on our list.
If you’re not accustomed to the barebones nature of open-source software documentation, installation can be a hassle. Once you’re over that hurdle, however, you can navigate beautiful, 3D-rendered environments. You can soar in a Cessna 172 or choose another aircraft from a deep variety that includes the Boeing 777, the A6M20 Zero, and the Zeppelin NT07 airship.
FlightGear’s built-in scenery is limited, but you can download various regions and more than 20,000 airports directly through FlightGear‘s website, BitTorrent, or by purchasing an optional Blu-ray disc. The daunting installation process and interface are also made easier by using the FlightGear wiki, which walks you through the setup process and helps you with take-off, landing, and other basic flight procedures.
FlightGear is consistently praised for its ongoing dedication thanks to an enthusiastic developer community. It’s also praised for its realism, earning high marks for everything from the overall flight controls to small 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.
Google Earth Flight Simulator
Available on: Windows, MacOS, Linux
Did you know the Google Earth desktop client offers a built-in flight simulator? It’s not a heavy-hitter by any means like other options on this list, but it’s a neat way to fly across the rust-covered fields of Mars or over the moon’s barren landscape. To grab Google’s desktop client, simply navigate to the Google Earth website, select Earth Version on the menu, and download Google Earth Pro for Windows, Mac, or Linux.
To access the flight simulator, click Tools followed by the Enter Flight Simulator option in the drop-down menu. Alternately, you can type Ctrl + Alt + A on Windows or Command + Option + A on MacOS.
It’s a basic setup and, unfortunately, a basic flight sim. Google Earth Flight Simulator is a camera with a HUD flying over the map data from Google. There’s no feedback, no sound, and no cockpit view. It’s less of a flight simulator and more of a flight novelty, which isn’t a bad thing. If nothing else, Google Earth Flight Simulator lets you quickly fly over the planet without worrying about, really, anything.
It’s more than Earth, too. Using map data provided by NASA, you can fly over Earth’s moon and Mars by clicking the Saturn icon in the application. Although these scans aren’t nearly as detailed as the world map, it’s a nice change of pace as far as free flight simulators go.
Despite its simplistic approach, Google Earth Flight Simulator still supports joysticks, as well as keyboard and mouse, and comes with two accurately modeled planes — the “Viper” F-16 and SR22 propeller plane.
The best free flight simulators with combat
Digital Combat Simulator
Available on: Windows
Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) is a free-to-play military combat simulation engine. And “engine” really is the best way to describe it. Spanning multiple war generations and featuring countless high-quality models, DCS is a playground for any military enthusiast. The game looks incredible, too, far beyond any of the civilian flight sims mentioned above.
The free version grants you a large mission area in the Caucasus region, spanning much of Georgia and the Black Sea, and it includes two aircraft — a Russian Sukhoi Su-25T and a WWII North American TF-15D fighter. It also comes with a packed level editor, allowing you to design and play missions with sophisticated A.I. weapons systems.
DCS is free-to-play, but you’ll need to spend some money to get the most out of it. And like a lot of freemium titles, DCS charges a pretty penny. In total, DCS has around $2,500 of DLC. The campaigns are inexpensive at around $10 each, but you’ll pay anywhere from $50 to $70 for another plane model. Ground units are a little more forgiving, priced around $40 each.
There is a reason why each aircraft is so expensive, however. DCS also sells modules for many of the aircraft in the games, allowing you to customize the planes you use most often (and they’re much more reasonable at around $6 each). Instead of getting everything, DCS asks you to learn to use the planes you have. And, if you master them, there are plenty of models waiting in the DLC store.
Although DCS is very much focused on combat — it’s right there in the name — it’s not focused on combat with other players. DCS is a single-player experience that excels because of its extensive level editor and gorgeous visuals. Instead of quick dogfights, you’ll participate in elaborate campaigns and missions, either ones made by the community or ones you designed yourself.
Additionally, the game comes with a VR mode that supports Oculus, HTC, and Valve headsets, though you’ll need to use a gamepad or keyboard and mouse while in VR.
Available on: Windows, MacOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
No war stirs as much fascination as World War II. Memorable battles. Stirring narratives of good and evil. It all feeds the public’s obsession with this era. Yet despite all the pain and suffering caused by this war, the resulting fiction typically leans toward romanticism. For flight enthusiasts, this war brings 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 pilot 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 includes an online multiplayer component, with most battles pitting two sides of 16 players against each other. These battles often emphasize dogfighting, with the goal of reducing enemy numbers or incorporating ground-based objectives. Players can also participate by using land vehicles, including tanks and anti-aircraft vehicles.
Pilots gain points they can use to increase their stats as they complete objectives and win battles, which in turn unlocks new planes and adjusts components like vision range and G-force tolerance. Of course, dedicated players can spend real-world 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 offers planes in three broad archetypes. Fighters are agile warbirds good at dogfighting. Attackers are somewhat slower planes with huge weapons designed to take down armored targets. Bombers are heavily armored planes with huge payloads that can wipe out clusters of ground forces. All three categories have unique strengths and weaknesses, thus victory will depend on teams using a healthy mix of the three.
War Thunder operates under a “freemium” model. There is no cost to start playing, but the content isn’t fully available at the start. The game also supports cross-play, allowing PC players to compete against either Xbox One or PlayStation gamers, but not both simultaneously.
Rise of Flight
Available on: Windows
Battlefield 1 brought the First World War back into the mainstream, but it still tends to live in the shadow of its successor. Perhaps this is because the war took place 31 years prior or because Kaiser Wilhelm doesn’t make for as nefarious a villain as Adolf Hitler. Whatever the reason, people tend to overlook the Great War outside of the occasional Ernest 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 to use planes.
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 is the sim’s exceptional commitment to authenticity. It renders planes in meticulous detail, from the chassis down to the gauges lining the cockpit. This attention to lush detailing extends to the title’s various levels, too, which function as massive re-creations of actual locations on the Western Front. While combat is the main draw, the sim may tempt you 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 a 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.
Like War Thunder, Rise of Flight has some costly microtransactions. Still, you can get a lot out of the free version. We recommend reading through II./JG1_Hotlead’s extensive Steam guide to get the most out of it.
World of Warplanes
Available on: Windows, MacOS
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.
At the start, participants only have exclusive access to the Great War’s archaic warbirds. As you continue to win, you earn in-game currency, which allows you to unlock and purchase advanced planes. Making enough money to buy a new aircraft takes a bit of time and effort; however, in the meantime, there are tons of vehicles you can score for a lower price.
The Warplanes game is probably the most arcade-focused setup on our list. Developers whittled the controls down to only the bare essentials. You won’t have to learn or operate dozens of gauges to enjoy the game. While this feature objectively makes it easier for people to learn how to play, it takes away some of the authenticity you’d learn from a flight simulation. Many people value more depth and complexity. For example, in Warplanes, you can easily start a dogfight, but combat lacks the hallmark nuances of more realistic simulators.
If you’re a history buff, the game’s variety of locations will feel mighty familiar, but even if you aren’t, you’ll be able to appreciate the visuals. The view is stunning and enjoyable for players. Fortunately, the game’s consistent progression from plane to plane can keep players coming back for more, even without the depth of a more accurate flight sim. World of Warplanes is an ideal choice for players who’d like a single or multi-player casual combat game.
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