Providing you have a computer and an internet connection there’s not much you can’t do from the comfort of your own living room in the modern and increasingly futuristic age. That includes a flight or two around the world, albeit virtually, through the array of simulation packages just waiting to connect you to highly detailed and ultra-authentic destinations around the planet.
Whether you’re a grizzled veteran with multiple online flying hours to your handle or a newcomer who is one click away from entering the virtual hangar for the first time, there is a plethora of options and packages available. And, as technology continues to improve at a seemingly accelerated pace, so do the intricacies of the world’s waiting to be explored from the skies of the superhighway.
So, click away the wheel chocks and start up your digital engines as we look at some of the best flight simulation packages out there. And we will start with one of the most popular.
This article is quite lengthy so you can jump to individual simulators using the jump links below;
Steam Edition Breathes New Life Into Microsoft Flight Simulator X!
The Microsoft Flight Simulation series has its roots in the SubLOGIC flight simulators of the late 1970s. After releases of simulators on such systems as Apple, Atari, Amiga, and Macintosh, the Microsoft company developed the first flight simulator compatible for home PCs and IBM in 1982. It has released several installments since, culminating in the Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) in 2006, widely regarded to be one of the finest flight simulator packages available.
Air Transat A310 in flight in Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition.
In December 2014 the package was released by Dovetail Games on Steam – “the” streaming site for gamers – meaning that it was widely available to a real-time audience and instant updates and add-ons were also available. As much as the Microsoft flight packages had been invaluable in training young pilots, they were often labeled as “boring” by critics who would site the combat simulations as being more interesting. However, with the Steam edition come many more options that look to make for an overall exciting, varied, and realistic experience.
The graphics and absolute attention to details – including the textures of the surroundings – are hugely realistic. Perhaps the main gripe you might have, however, is the, at times, repetitive nature of the surroundings. This overall attention to detail, though, is replicated in the cockpit giving you, the pilot, control over every action as much as you would if you were sat in your plane for real. Furthermore, the choice of planes is ample, with details for each individual aircraft authentic, accurate, and unique.
Should you feel the need to make a tweak here or there, however, the huge editing suite allows you to just that, even allowing you to create and build your own aircraft. And once you’ve done that, you can choose from one of the 24,000 airports from which to fly from.
Accommodating but Unforgiving!
There are also 50 unique missions to carry out, with each mission taking you on an equally unique adventure regardless of how many times you choose it. And of course, as it is streaming in real-time, you can find other users and compete against them, which in itself opens up a whole other realm of possible scenarios you and your virtual pilots might find yourselves in.
The Steam Edition’s overall ease of use makes it appealing for longtime fans and newcomers alike, right down to the simple “Download-Install-Run” of obtaining the program from Steam in the first place.
Emirates A380 in FSX.
As accommodating as it is to use it is just as equally unforgiving when it comes to pushing the user in terms of the actual flying and maneuvers required to complete the various missions, which just further adds another helping of reality that makes this package all the more appealing.
The overall strength of the Microsoft Steam package is in the actual flight simulation and the unique experience it presents to the user with each different aircraft. If you choose to fly a small one-engine plane, then the cockpit will look and act in sympathy with your choice. Likewise, for a huge commercial plane or a small helicopter and so on. If it is realistic flight conditions that test your skills as a pilot you are looking for then the sometimes lack intricately detailed landscapes outside of the cockpit will likely be of little concern to you.
Microsoft Flight Simulator runs on all versions of Windows - from Windows XP to Windows 10. Also, you can get it running on a Mac too with a little tweaking which you can read about here.
Runs on: Windows (all versions) and Mac (with Bootcamp).
You can download a demo version of the Microsoft Flight Simulator X here. We also have over 23,000 freeware add-ons and mods for FSX which you can view in the file library here. The short video below features a demonstration of the Steam version with an Airbus add-on pack.
X-Plane 11 Is Professionally Slick
If it is realistic “out-of-the-cockpit” scenery you are looking for then the X-Plane 11 package certainly offers some of the most realistic simulations of well-known parts of the planet. As you fly to new destinations, that scenery changes accordingly. And if 24,000 airports just don’t quite cut it with you, X-Plane 11 offers in excess of 33,000 destinations or starting points. Or, should you feel the need, you can even start your flight mission from the middle of the ocean onboard an aircraft carrier.
The movement of the waves and their effect on the ship has all been taken into account. You can even opt for a more “out of this world” experience with the space mode, allowing you to depart from the mother-ship in Space Ship One on a re-entry mission to Earth.
X-Plane is powerful and comprehensive, with extensive features and realistic flight modeling. Because it was not originally designed as a game but as an engineering tool to examine flight dynamics, it has very realistic flight handling characteristics.
Cessna 172 in X-Plane 11.
There are even random weather conditions that will challenge your skills on your flights. These use genuine weather data and are as accurate and realistic as the graphical features mentioned above. As are the “system failures” that might strike you at any moment prompting you to utilize all your wits to take charge of the emergency situation.
That’s not to say the flight simulation itself isn’t up to scratch. Graphically, their 3D cockpit offers a decidedly authentic feel, while their use of the blade element theory in calculating the simulation features of each individual aircraft makes it one of the most realistic in the market. This feature, incidentally, is employed when users design their own aircraft. Furthermore, many major aircraft companies actually utilize Laminar Research’s X-Plane technology in their design process. Indeed, such links to the aviation industry seep into the overall professional feel and layout of the package.
X-Plane is based on blade-element theory, which determines aircraft behavior by analyzing the forces on individual components. One of the side benefits of this approach is that complex designs can be modeled for a bewildering array of aircraft including:
- Zeppelin Hindenburg. Based on length and size, the Hindenburg’s were the biggest aircraft ever to take flight.
- V-22 Osprey VTOL. This vertical take-off and landing tilt-rotor aircraft were born from the ashes of the failed 1980 hostage rescue mission in Iran.
- Harrier Jump Jet. Another VTOL craft, the Jump Jet can take-off from very tight areas like the roof of a car park or a small open area in a forest.
- SpaceShipOne. This is a space plane that achieved the first manned spaceflight by a private entity in 2004. It also won the famed X-Prize for $10 million.
X-Plane has everything that blasts off from the ground or flies in the air: rockets and gliders to helicopters and jets. It uses predictive modeling, which anticipates how the aircraft will act in flight, giving the most realistic flying experience on the market.
More X-Plane 11 Add-Ons And Extras Still To Come
Perhaps one of the best things about the X-Plane 11 package is it is, relatively speaking, still new having only been released in 2017. Conventional wisdom should say then that an already slick, professional package can only get better with the inevitable updates and add-ons that will follow. And a package that is already detailed in the extreme is likely to become even more so.
Cessna 172 cockpit and panel in XP11.
The Development Kit will likely head in much the same direction, allowing users to build their own aircraft to ever more precise specifications, with ever more realistically reflective performance measures.
In short, a package that has consistently received high ratings and only looks to improve would be of great interest to flight simulator pilots of all experiences. It is the overall attention to detail – inside and outside of the cockpit – that makes this package stand out.
Runs on: Windows (all versions), Linux and MacOS (all versions).
You can download a demo of X-Plane 11 here. We are also expanding our add-on and mods section to cover X-Plane 11 in greater detail - you can view the freeware X-Plane 11 add-on section here. The video below features a demonstration of what is on offer.
Lockheed Martin’s “Prepar3D” Is Definite Realism
Perhaps another simulation package with distinct links to the professional aviators would be Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D (which is pronounced “Prepared”). And what’s more, as Lockheed Martin worked out a deal with Microsoft to develop the program, all Microsoft Flight Simulator users can use their add-ons in the Prepar3D program, automatically giving it a huge potential audience. So, if you are one of those users, this simulator package might be of interest to you - but be warned, P3Dv4 switches to total 64-bit which makes some of the older freeware add-ons incompatible (mainly gauges).
Maybe what is also an enticing feature of Prepar3D is the fact it also offers a range of land and sea vehicles as well as several aircraft, including the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the Lockheed Constellation, and the Beechcraft King Air 350. The package even goes a stage further, offering users the chance to ride deep under the oceans of the planet in a Neptune Submarine.
Screenshot showing aircraft in P3Dv4. Credit: DocScott from the official P3D forums.
Although this package is ideal for individual users (who might wish to obtain the “Developer Network” version of Prepar3D), just to demonstrate the professionalism of the program it might be worth bearing in mind that universities and aviation schools use “Academic” versions of this program, while corporations, including military departments, use the “Professional” version to assist in the training of professional pilots. Regardless of which license you opt for, the experience will be as close to “the real thing” as possible.
There is also great support and additional downloads with extra aircraft and scenery choices, as well as an active forum with over 8000 members. Other products are available with Prepar3D such as Model Placer, for example, which allows users to place buildings and scenery into the program. Realism is most definitely at the center of Prepar3D.
Runs on: Windows (7, 8, 10) and Mac (with Bootcamp).
There is currently no demo for Prepar3D, however, you can buy it directly from the Lockheed Martin website here. Most FSX add-ons work in Prepar3D so it's a matter of trial and error when testing them.
You can view a demonstration of the latest version 4 program on the short video below.
AeroFly FS 2 Is An Exciting “Fun” Simulator
Perhaps what is most exciting about AeroFly FS, and in particular the FS 2 package, is it is very much still a work in progress. In truth, the company behind the flight simulator package, German company IKARUS originally developed the software to train remote controlled flights. As the program developed it eventually included a flight component, which then morphed into the AeroFly Flight Simulation program in 2012.
More recently, the second version, AeroFly FS 2 was released, and to largely good ratings. While there are limits in such things as sound effects and most notably a lack of background scenery, what AeroFly really does is focus in on the fun aspect of flight simulation. For example, once you have your settings configured to you, you can start a flight, from an aerial destination and go straight from there. In fact, it seems what most people like about this simulator seems to be the refreshing distance it puts between itself and other more “straight-laced” approaches to flight simulation.
KLM Boeing 747 in Aerofly FS 2.
There is also a fairly large amount of aircraft to choose from, ranging from your normal one-engine Cessna planes to commercial jet airliners and military fighter jets. The control panels of each cockpit are ample in detail and unique to each aircraft also. The multiple camera angles further give the various aircraft an extremely unique feel to each one as well as a most definite sense of realism.
Incidentally, should you wish to give AeroFly FS 2 a try, it is worth mentioning that it is only available on Steam. As such you would need to sign up for a Steam account.
Runs on: Windows (7, 8, 10) and Mac (with Bootcamp).
Also, there are not many freeware mods for Aerofly FS2 yet - you will have to watch this space as we expect modders to create them in due course. You can view a demonstration flight over New York City in the video below.
FlightGear – Ideal For Beginners
If you are a newcomer to the world of flight simulation, or indeed just someone whose interest is more passing than intense, then FlightGear might be a flight simulation package you want to check out, not least because it is free. In fact, it is regarded as arguably the best free, open-source flight simulator available, and as such is highly recommended for anyone who wants to try their hand for the first time. Although don’t be put off thinking FlightGear is a poor version of flight simulation. The program is also used in universities, simulation exhibits, and conventions, and even in aerospace engineering firms.
FlightGear is exciting because any aviation fan that wants to can contribute to its development. It is an open-source project (licensed under the GNU General Public License) that allows any user to create add-ons and enhancements. It was created due to frustrations from a cadre of flight simulation fans who wanted to be able to make changes to the core software in commercial simulation packages.
One of its strengths is an extremely accurate time of day modeling which correctly places the sun, moon, and stars for the designated time and date. The software tracks the computer’s clock time to put constellations and planets in their proper orbit. The system also allows for seasonal changes such as 24-hour days north of the Arctic Circle in the summertime. It also locks in the exact moon phase, tied accurately to the current day and time.
Screenshot showing military aircraft in FlightGear v2.10.
While the scenery and background graphics are superbly improved from their original release version, they are arguably the program's weak spot by comparison to other paid-for packages. They still feature various weather conditions and night lighting for night flying, though, as well as 3D clouds and good atmosphere graphics, which all contribute to an authentic experience for the user. It should be noted, however, thanks to the growing FlightGear community, several airports, and the land scenery is available, and are highly accurate and detailed to boot. These include the city of Paris, several airports including Gatwick in London, as well as several island destinations.
Where FlightGear perhaps excels is in the absolute plethora of aircraft available to choose from. And these range from early aircraft, light aircraft and helicopters, to military jets and bombers, and commercial airliners. If you are a user of Microsoft Flight Simulator, you can also import your MFS aircraft using the FlightGear 3D converter program.
Runs on: Windows (7, 8, 10), macOS, and Linux.
We hope you enjoyed the article and of course, we always love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and suggestions. What do you fly, what are your favorites? Please post them in the comments section below!
Don't forget... We have a huge selection (over 24,000 files) of free mods and add-ons for MSFS, FSX, P3D & X-Plane in the file library. Files include aircraft, scenery, and utilities All are free-to-download and use - you don't even need to register. Browse on down to the file library here.