Microsoft’s Flight Simulator franchise has been going strong for nearly 40 years. The latest addition, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, is the greatest the series has ever looked, with a swath of new plane models and airports. As is the case with most simulator games, though, Microsoft charges a pretty penny to get in on the action. At full price, the game runs $120 for all of the planes and airports, and that’s just with the launch content. Microsoft isn’t alone here, either. X-Plane 11, a game that released three years ago, still regularly sells for a full $59.99, and as of late 2020, has over $2,000 worth of DLC.
Getting into flight simulators is an expensive affair. It doesn’t have to be, though. Our list of the best free flight simulators 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.
Old-school civilian flight sims
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 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, 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 €9.99 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 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 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.
Honorable mention: X-Plane 11
Available on: 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. The demo is limited to 15 minutes, and it only lets you fly over the KSEA area. Still, it’s a free way to play an otherwise $60 flight sim. 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.
Flight sims with a side of combat
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 in 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 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.
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.
- Every confirmed and rumored Xbox Series X game so far
- Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is coming to consoles
- Here are the best video game releases for August 2020
- The best free-to-play games for 2020
- The best free-to-play games for 2020