Finding the best flight simulator software is a difficult task. I have been in this situation dozens of times since my father introduced me to flight simulators back in 1997 with Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat. There are multiple options to choose from. Finding the best one depends on what your needs and wants are. I will break down the most popular and modern flight simulators and what makes them great.
Bottom Line Up Front
Microsoft Flight Simulator is unbeatable for civilian flights. If you like modern combat, try out Digital Combat Simulator. You can scratch that vintage itch with the Il-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles series.
Not all flight simulators are born the same. The options in the genre are not as abundant as in other genres, but there are still enough flight simulators to make choosing hard.
We will describe the software presented in this article based on the following criteria. This article will be a qualitative assessment rather than a quantitative one.
Price: How Much Does the Simulator Cost?
There are two factors to consider in this field. The first is the cost of the simulator itself, and the second is the cost of additional content, when available.
Content: How much is available to you in this simulator?
Today, most flight simulators split their content into two parts. The base game consists of what you get right out of the proverbial box for no extra cost. Additional content is a catch-all term for things you can download that expand your enjoyment of the game. These can be new aircraft, terrain areas, campaigns, and a host of tools, among other things. Additional content can be paid or free, and we will also judge its quality.
Hardware Requirements: What Do You Need to Fly Comfortably in This Simulator?
As a rule, flight simulators are some of the most demanding programs widely available to the public. Almost all of them require a modern gaming computer to run well, their storage drive footprint is traditionally large, and virtual pilots need to have some sort of flight control hardware to enjoy their flights. Some simulators can run on a modest PC and a joystick, while others need a powerful computer, a throttle, and a stick with plenty of buttons.
Virtual Reality Support: Does This Simulator Support VR Headsets, and Is the Implementation Done Well?
Virtual reality headsets have become a staple of high-end gaming. Most flight simulators available today incorporate this in one way or another, but the quality of this implementation, hardware demands, and ease of use can vary.
Future Development: Is This Simulator still Supported, and Is New Content Coming Regularly?
Diamonds are forever, but flight simulators need some help to get there. Official and community support are essential to guarantee the longevity of a flight simulator. Here we evaluate what the future holds for each of the entries here.
Downsides: What Are the Worst Parts of This Simulator?
Self-explanatory and essential to honest discussion.
Personal Recommendation: What do I think is a must-have to get the most out of this flight simulator?
Personal recommendations are friendly tips based on my personal experience with each software.
Best Flight Simulation Software
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator had arguably the most successful flight simulator launch in 2020. The game sold a million copies within the first two months, and it set the bar for the genre.
The pricing for Microsoft Flight Simulator is tiered. You can choose between the Standard, Deluxe, and Premium editions. They cost $59.99, $89.99, and $119.99. The software is identical, but the Deluxe and Premium versions have more aircraft and hand-crafted airports.
To date, no flight simulator can match Microsoft Flight Simulator’s base offering. Its virtual pilots receive 29 aircraft (up to 34 in the deluxe and 39 in the premium editions). Among the 39 are three airliners, two business jets, three turboprop utility aircraft, one supersonic fighter, one amphibious aircraft, one eVTOL prototype, and 28 general aviation or aerobatic aircraft.
What makes Microsoft Flight Simulator stand out is the world. Having the whole world modeled has been the standard for civilian flight simulators for two decades, but Asobo Studios took this to new heights. Flight sim enthusiasts previously had to choose between good scenery and disk space. Asobo created an engine that allows both incredible quality and a low footprint.
The scenery in Microsoft Flight Simulator combines streaming and procedural generation. This technology allows Asobo to deliver players beautiful terrain on demand. Microsoft Flight Simulator can still produce great results procedurally without an internet connection.
Pilots wanting to practice specific procedures or who like exploring can enjoy any of the over 37000 airports included. Asobo Studios also added hand-crafted airfields to represent more iconic ones. My personal favorite is Galeão (SBGL) in Rio de Janeiro, and like most, it comes with the standard edition. The Deluxe edition comes with another five, and the Premium one packs those plus another five of its own.
Microsoft Flight Simulator came out in 2020, and it still lags X-Plane and Prepar3D in the quantity and quality of mods and other add-ons. The developer toolkit for MSFS is easier to work, so expect its ecosystem to surpass competitors soon.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is enigmatic about hardware requirements and performance. This simulator has modest recommended requirements, making it more accessible than other entries. Microsoft’s commitment to having Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox likely played a role here.
However, scaling remains an issue, as it is impossible to satisfy the proverbial beast. Users with top-of-the-line graphics cards and CPUs report that cranking graphics settings makes their machines struggle in 4K and VR mode. Microsoft Flight Simulator remains gorgeous, and it runs well on my GTX 1050Ti.
Virtual Reality Support:
The picture for VR users is like that faced by their flatscreen peers. Microsoft Flight Simulator runs well on modest and high-end PCs, but performance suffers at higher settings. This simulator is easy to configure, unlike many other VR entries.
Thanks to the developers at Asobo Studios, Microsoft Flight Simulator is evolving. The simulator has potential and is bound to get even better over time. According to the masterminds behind the simulator, this is just the beginning.
The degree of authenticity of most stock aircraft is good but falls short of many paid and free add-ons. These flaws are not critical, and you can fix many through community-made mods. Considering how high Asobo set the bar with the simulator, the aircraft included should have lived up to its standards.
The air traffic control system in Microsoft Flight Simulator is disappointing and dangerous. I have had multiple close calls with mountains while flying in IMC because of questionable routing. Free services such as VATSIM can connect you with real controllers, but there is a learning curve and commitment to that.
Get the most out of the aircraft in-game for free with the many mods that enhance their fidelity. My two favorites are the Working Title CJ4 and the FlyByWire A320NX. If you are in the market for paid add-ons, nothing comes close to the PMDG DC-6.
- Beautiful visuals
- Lots of content in the base package
- Good performance
- Simplified systems modeling
- Poor air traffic control
Laminar Research first released X-Plane in 1995. Under Austin Meyer’s leadership, this simulator studio eventually unseated the giants at Microsoft as the top name in the industry. Although Microsoft Flight Simulator had a comeback in 2020, X-Plane 11 remains a leading product, and deservingly so.
X-Plane 11 costs $59.99, available in both digital download and as a DVD.
The list of official free aircraft for X-Plane is small. Players can pick between three airliners, three general aviation aircraft, one business jet, and one glider.
X-Plane models the world in detail, using stored textures and topographic data. The environment in this flight simulator looks realistic out of the box, particularly for airline flying. It may feel dated to those familiar with Microsoft Flight Simulator, but there are ways around this.
While content out of the box may feel meager, X-Plane takes pride in being extremely customizable. The flight simulator has a seemingly endless amount of high-quality free mods and paid add-ons. The only thing stopping you is how much disk space you have.
Finding the right add-ons might be time-consuming, but it allows you to build a simulator custom-made for your needs and wants. X-Plane virtual pilots use Ortho4XP to replace stock textures with real-world satellite imagery. Ortho4XP lets you choose the area and level of detail to install, which helps save disk space.
The hardware required to run X-Plane 11 well depends on the add-ons installed. A stock installation runs very well on modest gaming computers, and it only requires 65GB of disk space to have the whole world available. If space is an issue, you can install only part of the scenery, which brings the install size down to 20GB.
When using Ortho4XP, high-resolution imagery adds strain to the graphics card. Add-on aircraft, particularly newer ones, are taxing on GPU and CPU. Choosing the right things to install on X-Plane 11 requires you to think about whether your computer has more to give or not.
Virtual Reality Support:
VR headsets arrived in X-Plane in 2019, and it has set the bar for virtual reality in flight simulators. Laminar Research has thought the implementation through. The simulator runs smoothly in VR without needing a supercomputer. One of the standout features of virtual reality in X-Plane is the hand controllers. You can play the game very well without needing to use a joystick!
X-Plane has been evolving since 1995. The 11th iteration of the simulator has received many patches since its release in 2016. In 2021, Laminar Research announced the development of X-Plane 12. Most add-ons for X-Plane 11 will be compatible with X-Plane 12, so all you will need to change is the base product when the time comes.
The main problem with X-Plane 11 is its default content. The simulator offers an adequate package, but the offerings put forth by Microsoft Flight Simulator and Prepar3D exceed it by far. It is easy to get around this with add-ons at the expense of software performance.
Download Ortho4XP tiles for the areas you fly over often. Watching your favorite airport come to life is a priceless experience. If you love airliners, the ZIBO 737-800X mod is a must-have. This free package brings the stock 737 in the game to the same level as the very best paid add-ons in X-Plane.
My favorite add-on in X-Plane is the Hot Start Challenger 650. This faithful recreation of the Bombardier business jet is the most in-depth single package available in civilian flight simulators. It adds interactions with FBO staff, pre-flight tasks, and even a career mode so you can live out the life of a business jet pilot.
- High-quality free mods
- Excellent VR implementation
- Modest base content
- Outdated terrain
Unlike the previous entries, Prepar3D is not an entertainment product. Prepar3D rose from the ashes of the original lineage of Microsoft Flight Simulator titles. Microsoft decided to close its Aces Game Studio division in 2009. Later that year, aerospace giants Lockheed Martin announced they had penned a deal to inherit and further develop the professional flight simulation tools created by Microsoft. Those familiar with Microsoft Flight Simulator X will recognize a lot of its heritage in Prepar3D.
Prepar3D is priced a lot higher than any other entry. The standard Professional License costs $199. Those enrolled in an educational institution have access to the Academic License for $59.95. The functionality in this edition is the same as the professional one, but it comes with a watermark.
The default hangar in Prepar3D is the largest and more varied of the civilian simulation offerings. Lockheed Martin added many of their iconic aircraft to the series, including the C-130, Constellation, and F-16 families. Modern airliners are curiously not part of the default aircraft set, though you can scratch the long-range itch with the legendary Lockheed Constellation.
The environment in Prepar3D came from Microsoft Flight Simulator X, and improvements have been modest. The simulator uses bland low-resolution satellite imagery and generic textures to paint the world.
You can install high-resolution imagery to replace it, but there is a catch. Prepar3D has very few high-end free services such as Ortho4XP. Users need to purchase packs such as those provided by ORBX to bring the visuals of Prepar3D into the modern age. Most ORBX products cost between $30 and $65 each and have a large drive footprint.
The Flight Simulator X roots helped Prepar3D developers. Most high-quality airliners add-ons are only available for Prepar3D. They often cost more than airliner add-ons for Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane 11, but the quality makes this well worth it.
Prepar3D claims to have improved on Flight Simulator X’s poor performance, but the shared technical legacy still holds it back. The simulator requires a sturdy computer to perform adequately, making it inaccessible to many.
Virtual Reality Support:
The simulator added virtual reality support is part of a Prepar3D v4 update. The implementation is satisfactory, offering performance in line with the rest of the simulator. The hand controllers are not usable as flight controllers like in X-Plane, but this is not an issue for virtual pilots who have physical hardware.
Prepar3D is updated regularly, and v6 is on the horizon. Lockheed Martin has done a great job supporting the platform, but the Microsoft Flight Simulator X legacy code limits it.
The main issue I have with Prepar3D is the cost. You can fly aboard a beautifully modeled aircraft over your favorite part of the country, but it will cost you hundreds of dollars in software. The high minimum system requirements also mean you must upgrade your rig to play unless you already own a high-spec gaming computer.
Pick textures and airfield packs for your favorite airport so you can enjoy it in its full glory. My most-flown aircraft for Prepar3D is the Leonardo Maddog, which adds a highly detailed MD-82 to the hangar. The FlightSimLabs A320X is the gold standard for modern airliners in the simulator.
- Best airliner add-ons in the market
- Compatible with most FSX add-ons
- Outdated engine
- Poor hardware performance
Digital Combat Simulator
Digital Combat Simulator, or DCS for short, has a long history. Eagle Dynamics made a spectacular entrance to the market in 1995 with the release of the Su-27 Flanker. The simulator was the first time western audiences had a faithful recreation of a Soviet military aircraft in their hands.
Flanker evolved into Lock-On, adding the MiG-29, Su-33, F-15C, and A-10A. The series made a leap around the 2010s with the release of DCS: Black Shark and DCS: A-10C. Eagle Dynamics developed both products as military training aids but got permission to publish them for personal entertainment. Those releases set the standard for all follow-up DCS aircraft add-ons, which follow the high standards set by their predecessors.
Digital Combat Simulator uses a unique business model. The base version of DCS, containing two aircraft and two maps, is free. Virtual pilots then pay for more vehicles and terrain separately. Each plane costs between $40 and $80, while maps land in the $45 to $60 range.
DCS has the widest variety of aircraft, areas, and eras covered among flight simulators. You can pick from over 25 jets, seven helicopters, and 11 piston-engine planes. Unless you plan to fly the Su-25T and the TF-51 over the Black Sea indefinitely, you will need add-ons.
The base game comes with Southwestern Russia and the entirety of Georgia by the Black Sea and the Marianas islands in the Pacific Ocean. The add-on areas cover many parts of the world.
The Persian Gulf map takes you to the strategic Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, with all the UAE plus parts of Iran and Oman. The Syria map has the most countries by far. Syria and Cyprus are present in their entirety, with portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq making an appearance.
The continental USA appears through the Nevada Test and Training Range map, covering most of Nevada plus small parts of Arizona, Utah, and California. The newest addition to the lineup is the South Atlantic map, covering parts of southern Argentina and Chile, plus the Falklands Islands.
Those looking to satisfy their World War 2 itch will find a home in the English Channel and Normandy maps, faithful representations of parts of France and England in the 1940s. There are eight fighter aircraft to choose plus a separate paid add-on that brings multiple era-appropriate ground units to the simulator.
Digital Combat Simulator is a closed development environment. Third-party add-ons go through extensive testing by Eagle Dynamics to guarantee they are up to the standards they set. There are far fewer aircraft available for DCS than its civilian counterparts, but their average quality is better.
The hardware requirements for DCS are higher than competing combat flight simulators but less demanding than most civilian counterparts. To enjoy DCS properly, you will need a graphics card with at least 4GB of VRAM, 16GB of RAM, a CPU rated above 3GHz, and an SSD to store the simulator.
Besides a decent computer, the bar for flight simulation peripherals is higher here. Most aircraft modeled in DCS have tons of controls. A joystick and separate throttle in a HOTAS (‘hands-on throttle and stick’) configuration are essential.
Virtual Reality Support:
The VR support for DCS is good but using the hand controllers to fly is impractical because of the buttons a pilot needs to actuate. The hardware requirements for DCS are well above those for flatscreen users. A graphics card with at least 8GB of VRAM, 32GB of RAM, and a strong processor are nearly essential for smooth VR gameplay.
DCS development moves forward at a fast pace. Eagle Dynamics and third-party developers constantly push out updates to the simulator, new aircraft, and new maps. The level of authenticity in the latest releases has been incredible. The future looks very bright for DCS.
The main problem with DCS is the high entry bar. Not everyone has a powerful computer and passable controllers at hand. You must purchase some DLC content to enjoy the simulator fully. All of this makes starting DCS an expensive experience.
The level of detail in the aircraft depicted makes the learning curve of DCS very intimidating for newcomers. The flight manuals included with some of them are as big as those for real planes. Virtual pilots not used to such complexity will find DCS hard to get into initially.
To enjoy the full potential of DCS, I recommend trying the Mirage 2000C. RAZBAM and the French Air Force co-developed this aircraft as a training aid for fighter pilots. On top of that, the Mirage 2000 is intuitive to learn and fun to fly. Rotary wing enthusiasts will love the Mi-8MTV-2 released by Belsimtek. To keep the costs down, wait until the many periodic sales to grab new aircraft for as low as half their original price.
- Diversity of eras
- Consistently good add-ons
- Two regions and aircraft for free
- Expensive content
- High hardware requirements
- Steep learning curve
Benchmark Sims resurrected the classic Falcon 4.0 to make one of the best modern combat simulations. Falcon BMS is a free mod developed by a team of passionate fans of the original simulator, and the result is stunning.
For what it offers, the value of Falcon BMS is unbeatable. The simulator is free and only requires the player to own Falcon 4.0, which costs as little as $6.99 on Steam.
As the name implies, the central subject of Falcon BMS is the F-16. The simulator includes different variants of the classic American fighter. Systems depth in Falcon BMS is comparable to DCS. The environment these fighters fly over has multiple operational theaters and a host of aircraft under one of the most capable flight simulator AI systems.
The terrain detail in Falcon BMS is severely lacking compared to other modern simulators. Falcon 4.0 came out in 1998, so it is no surprise that a simulator based on it will still have technological limitations from the original software.
Falcon BMS will run well on almost any modern computer. The legacy graphics engine is friendly to modest rigs. However, due to the number of buttons on the F-16 throttle and stick, you will need a set with similar capabilities to enjoy the game.
Virtual Reality Support:
Falcon BMS does not support virtual reality.
Benchmark Sims release constant periodic updates for Falcon BMS. Given how much work they have done, this is a Falcon of Theseus situation.
The main downside of Falcon BMS is also its main advantage. It is a fantastic F-16 simulator, but that only matters if you are an F-16 nut. The technical limitations of the original Falcon 4.0 code mean it can only grow so much compared to newer platforms like DCS.
Download the Falcon BMS Alternative Launcher to make your setup smoother. Configuring key bindings and other settings is more enjoyable with this interface.
- Low hardware requirements
- Excellent dynamic campaign engine
- Lack of aircraft variety
- The extremely outdated base game
Il-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles
Cliffs of Dover ended the original Il-2 Sturmovik lineage. The developers at 1CGS, invigorated by the completion of Rise of Flight, decided to bring the Il-2 name back to the forefront. Il-2 now has many campaigns on both the eastern and western fronts of WW2, a WW1 expansion, and even tanks!
Il-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles works in packs of 8-10 aircraft plus a map. Each of them costs between $49.99 and $79.99.
The Il-2 Sturmovik lineup currently has seven packs. Two focused on the western front, four on the eastern, plus Flying Circus in the Great War. The aircraft of Il-2 are faithful recreations, and the series boasts the best damage models in flight simulators today.
The terrain is hand-crafted to simulate era-appropriate versions of the locations depicted. Il-2 Sturmovik manages to make the areas incredibly realistic but also beautiful in their way.
See also: Embraer 120 Guide and Specs
Players love Il-2 Sturmovik for being friendly to modest setups. So long as you have 4GB of VRAM and a processor that breaks 3GHz, you will have an enjoyable experience with the game. Joysticks for Il-2 do not need to have as many buttons as those required for Falcon BMS or DCS.
Virtual Reality Support:
Il-2 has one of the best VR implementations in the market. Excellent performance and good visuals make it a fun and trouble-free experience for VR pilots.
1CGS is working on new DLC aircraft and quietly putting together material for another theater of war. Beyond that, Il-2 Sturmovik constantly receives updates that make the core experience even better.
Virtual pilots who like to move every switch by hand with their mouse will not like the bindings required in Il-2. Setting up the controls is the most annoying part of this simulator, but the result is worth it.
My favorite pack in Il-2, and the most beginner-friendly, is Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Kuban. Set in the bloody battles by the Black Sea in 1943, this pack gives you access to classic Soviet, German, British and American aircraft. Thanks to the multiplayer system of Il-2, you will be able to play online on any map with the planes included in the pack.
My Top Picks
You cannot go wrong with Microsoft Flight Simulator for civilian flights. The base game has plenty of aircraft to choose from, the world is beautiful, and you can access it cheaply with the Microsoft Game Pass.
As far as combat goes, I believe you get the best bang for your buck by using Digital Combat Simulator for all your jet and helicopter needs while leaving World War 2 to Il-2 Sturmovik. Both programs are specialized for those eras, and you get the most atmospheric experience by sticking to what each of them does best.
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Question: What is the best free flight simulator?
Answer: Digital Combat Simulator is the best free flight simulator available, though the free version only has two aircraft and one region to fly over.
Question: What simulator do fighter pilots use?
Answer: American, French, and Ecuadorian fighter pilots use Digital Flight Simulator to train.
Question: How realistic is Microsoft Flight Simulator?
Answer: Microsoft Flight Simulator has the most realistic scenery on the market, and it captures the feeling of flight better than its competitors. Many default aircraft lack systems depth, but there are ways to improve this.
Choosing my favorite flight simulators is difficult, but I have my shortlist. I recommend a three-tier approach.
We live in a second golden age of flight simulation, and I hope new titles come to challenge the current crown holders. As simmers, we only stand to gain by having more variety in this ecosystem.
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