When it comes to flight simulators, players have a surprisingly large pool of games to choose from. While Microsoft Flight Simulator might the most well-known of the bunch, you’ll have to throw down some cold hard cash to join in on the fun. Thankfully, the genre also offers plenty of free titles for those looking for an authentic flying experience.
Here are the best free-to-play flight simulators on the market, broken down into two categories — civilian flight simulators and aerial warfare simulators.
Old-school civilian flight sims
GeoFS (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 sim, you can take off and fly across the world in one of 20 aircraft using a joystick, mouse, or keyboard. You’ll likely never run out of places to see either, 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 change too, which are 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, select a starting altitude, and you’ll instantly appear in the same location.
The paid version offers better imagery with a higher resolution, but it certainly isn’t the prettiest-looking flight simulation on our list. That’s the trade-off when your browser-based game targets virtually every machine. Still, soaring above the African desert is truly beautiful, even when your plane stalls and you plummet thousands of feet to your grisly doom.
YSFlight (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 caters 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 AI-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.
YSFlight includes joystick support as well as standard controls for your mouse and keyboard.
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 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 over 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 taking 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 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 11 (Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS)
Laminar Research’s X-Plane 11 is not for the faint of heart. The game features more than 3,000 different airports, all meticulously detailed with hangers and terminal buildings. 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 are the current 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 for 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 can fail randomly, which, while frustrating, helps create a more realistic simulation experience and goes to show just how much work went 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, but you will be doing barrel rolls with a little practice. And a plane that can do barrel rolls.
Though the full version of X-Plane 11 is not free, you can download a demo from the game’s website. Older versions of the software are available to purchase as downloads or USB sticks. If you prefer to play on the go, X-Plane 10 is also available on iOS and Android.
Google Earth Flight Simulator (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 a drop-down menu. Alternately, you can type CTRL + ALT + A on Windows, or press Command + Option + A on MacOS.
Once you open the simulator, you first select an aircraft: The F16 jet fighter or the SR22 four-seat propeller airplane. After that, you can choose a starting point: The current location loaded on your screen or from a specific airport somewhere across the globe. The “current view” option, however, provides an interesting twist in our entry.
Before entering flight sim mode, click the “Saturn” icon located on the Google Earth toolbar. A drop-down menu lists Earth, Sky, Moon, and Mars. Select one of the three terrestrial bodies and you can soar their skies once you enter flight sim mode. The Martian and lunar landscapes used in the sim are based on maps provided by NASA.
If you remain on Earth and simply want to lift off from an actual airfield, you can tap the Page Up key to increase the thrift until you lift off the pavement. After that, you can use the arrow keys for pitch movements or fall back on the mouse to steer your course. There’s no cockpit view but merely a panorama with a HUD overlay depicting your speed, throttle, altitude, and more.
You can also experience Google’s flight sim using a joystick. Unfortunately, it’s an extremely basic simulator — probably the least “authentic” on our list — offering absolutely no sounds or tactile feedback. If you simply want to zoom over your neighborhood without physically crashing into the neighbor’s rooftop, this flight sim is for you.
Flight sims with a side of combat
War Thunder (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 (Windows)
Despite the ongoing 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 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 re-creates 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, 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.
In the beginning, players only have access to the Great War’s primitive warbirds. Players earn currency through winning, which they can spend to unlock more advanced aircraft. Earning enough to buy a new plane can take a while, however, and there are scores of vehicles you can unlock too.
Warplanes is probably the most arcade-focused 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. You can start a dogfight easily, but 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 visually, so players can enjoy the view even if they aren’t blown away by the title’s inherent lack of depth. The progression system and its resulting hearty plane selection should 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.
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