There are a lot of mindblowing aspects of aviation, but perhaps one of the greatest is the sheer rapidness of innovation the industry saw following the first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Just 66 years later, less than an average person’s lifespan, we were landing on the moon. Digital technology has also experienced rapid growth, and interactive programs and video games were no exceptions.
A flight simulator is much more than a video game—it’s a program and corresponding equipment that can truly educate pilots and provide the closest thing to real-life piloting experience without leaving the ground.
Virtual reality advancements have allowed flight simulators to become even more immersive, but standard desktop simulators still offer plenty of instruction… and fun!
This article will take a look at 5 of the best flight simulators options available for the home market.
If you’re looking for the next level for in-home flight training, pair some simulator hardware by checking out the best flight simulator rudder pedals and the best HOTAS Flight Sticks.
Today’s flight simulators are continuously shortening the gap between digital flight and physical flight. No longer are the days of traveling to a training facility and climbing into a five or six-figure device to simulate flying an aircraft. With a comparable home computer and today’s leading-edge software programs, you can create a tangible training platform in the comfort of your own home. The Flight Sim Starter Set includes our most popular yoke, the best throttle on the market, and highly popular pedals to assure you stay on the centerline.
Quicklook: Best Flight Simulators
- Best for all around: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
- Best for mix of usability and realistic features: X-Plane 12
- Best for professionals with limited download space: Aerofly FS
- Best for viable flight simulator: Infinite Flight (IOS – Android)
- Best for tech heads willing to wait for upgrades: FlyInside
5 Best Flight Simulators
Here is a look at the 5 best options for flight simulation programs you can have in your home.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
The list of adjectives users of the newest iteration of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator include “breathtaking,” “unbelievable,” and things of the like. There are more than 24,000 destinations you can fly around, and you can choose to pilot anything from small helicopters to the biggest jets in the world, all with a competitive price tag.
Control options are also plenty, meaning you can use the program to simply control speed and pitch, or you can activate a fully-immersive experience with instrumentation.
Best For: All around
- CPU: Intel i5 9600K.
- RAM: 16 GB.
- OS: Windows 10 64-bit.
- VIDEO CARD: NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti.
- PIXEL SHADER: 5.1.
- VERTEX SHADER: 5.1.
- DEDICATED VIDEO RAM: 2 GB.
- STORAGE: HDD.
Controls: Controls are not included; Keyboard and mouse usable, but not recommended for experience
Memory: 42.4 GB (online); 59.7 GB (offline)
- Unmatched graphics
- One of the first PC flight simulators (dating back to 80s)
- Maps made from aerial photography (you can fly to your house!)
- 35 aircraft
X-Plane has been aviation’s most realistic flight simulator for the past decade, with incredibly life-like scenery, detailed cockpits, and realistic aerodynamic modeling. The latest version is a major upgrade, with an update to aerodynamic physics in the digital world as well as a complete overhaul to the weather engine.
X-Plane 12 is certainly keeping Microsoft honest, and this iteration of their flight simulator program is quite fantastic as well. It also has beginner to expert features, and can be used by kids just getting an interest in flight, or professionals wanting to test their IFR skills at one of 13,000 airports around the globe in one of (some for a fee) thousands of aircraft.
Best For: Enthusiasts looking for a nice mix of usability and realistic features
- CPU: Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 CPU with 2 or more cores, or AMD equivalent. (Dual-core CPUs slower than 3 GHz should try the demo before purchasing.)
- Memory: 8 GB RAM
- Video Card: a DirectX 11-capable video card from NVIDIA, AMD or Intel with at least 1 GB VRAM
Controls: Controls not included; Many compatible options
Memory: 73.6 GB
- Some airplanes outfitted with Garmin G1000 integrated flight deck simulated interface
- IFR flight options on all aircraft
- VR compatible (Oculus, HTC, WMR)
- Thousands of add-on aircraft
Aerofly FS is a simulator that offers a lot of the same features as Microsoft, just on a much smaller scale. Aerofly FS supports virtual reality, has realistic features including wind effects and accurate stall and spin simulations, and can be used on your phone or tablet, making it a very versatile option for people on the go.
There aren’t as many maps nor aircraft as some of the other options on this list, but that also means a much smaller download size, at approximately 2.6 GB.
Best For: Interested professionals with limited download space
- CPU: Info
- CPU SPEED: Intel Dual core CPU 2.4 GHz
- RAM: 4 GB
- OS: 64bit Versions of Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10
- VIDEO CARD: OpenGL 3.0 compatible 3D graphic card with at least 1 GB of RAM
- PIXEL SHADER: 4.0
- VERTEX SHADER: 4.0
- SOUND CARD: DirectX Compatible soundcard
- FREE DISK SPACE: 35 GB
- DEDICATED VIDEO RAM: 1 GB
Controls: None included; Use in VR does not require new controls; Compatible with most PC controls
Memory: 2.6 GB
- Mobile version available (compatible with VR)
- Small download size (shouldn’t slow down your PC)
- Flight school in a Cessna 172
This simulator is fully mobile (i.e. an app for your phone or tablet) but doesn’t lose all that much compared to the much larger PC-based programs. It’s available on iOS and Android devices, and has a wide range of aircraft, a surprisingly large number of maps for a mobile app, customizable conditions, and multiple skill levels, including IFR.
Best For: People who want a viable flight simulator at their fingertips at all times
System Requirements: Android 7.0 or newer; iOS 10 or newer
Controls: No controls – all either touch screen or via VR controls
Memory: 106.1 MB
- Fully mobile
- Surprisingly immersive (for being mobile)
- Very inexpensive entry options; layered pricing after that
Pricing: Like most apps, there is a base price for Infinite Flight ($4.99) and then a ton of other options. You can pay monthly for the PRO version to try it out, but it’s cheaper if you pay for a full year.
FlyInside was one of the first simulator programs created with VR in mind. It does, however, work on a PC screen, but to get everything out of it, having a VR setup is almost a requirement for users of FlyInside. The program is already wildly immersive, with surround sound and full visibility features not available on programs that don’t utilize VR.
There are only about 10 aircraft available at present, and a limited number of maps, but they are creating more on a rolling basis.
Best For: Tech heads willing to wait for upgrades
- Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system.
- OS: Windows 7.
- Processor: Intel i5 or equivalent.
- Memory: 8 GB RAM.
- Graphics: DirectX 11.1 Compatible GPU.
- DirectX: Version 11.
- Storage: 16 GB available space.
Controls: Not included; Uses VR controllers or added controls for PC
Memory: Minimum of 16 GB
- VR Ready
- Customizable controls (e.g., make a keyboard button your pitch control)
- Frequent upgrades and updates
- Beta, meaning your feedback may actually result in a change
Pricing: Currently it’s only $35 for the program but is expected to increase as more features get added and tweaked
What Is a Flight Simulator?
Generally personal computer-based, a flight simulator is any device that recreates the environment of flying an aircraft. The very basic flight simulators aren’t recommended as training tools, but someone who has never been in a light airplane would still learn a few things from playing around with an entry-level simulator.
More immersive simulators include motion, and can mimic how an aircraft would react to things like turbulence, changes in wind direction and air density, visibility issues, and night operations. The top-of-the line simulators can even receive a designation from the FAA and provide official training for aspiring pilots, all the way up to commercial.
How Do Flight Simulators Work?
All flight simulators use a screen that acts as your window to the digital landscape, some form of a yoke (this can be as simple as a video game joystick controller, or a device designed specifically for use with flight simulators), and an audio interface to mimic environmental noise and communication with the faux air traffic control teams.
Higher-end simulators, like the ones with which you can log actual flight time according to the FAA, may include a mechanism to simulate motion, and the extremely immersive models can pitch across all axes. This list will stick to the simulators that are more suited to have at your home, however.
What To Consider With Flight Simulators
Here’s what to look for when deciding which flight simulator to set up in your home. You should also consider the level of fun versus practicality, as some of these simulators are for Boeing 747s or fighter jets, which aren’t aircraft most people reading this will be flying in real life… but it’s fun to simulate!
With new evolutions in what flight simulators can offer, the system requirements of your PC may also have to evolve. Before buying a simulator, be sure that your home computer can support its functions.
Akin to system requirements, some simulators require additional equipment such as a yoke or headset, so if you have a tight budget, be sure you’re considering everything that is required by a given simulator.
If you want a simulator that is the most realistic, or one that provides the most unique maps (some companies are working towards allowing simulator pilots to see the entire world via their sim), you may need a lot of memory on your computer.
This is kind of a system requirement, as well, but additional memory can be added to your current machine if needed.
Some simulators require frequent updates, so if you’re someone who likes to settle into your ways, you may want to consider a simulator with less-frequent updates.
On the other side of the cockpit, you might be someone who wants all the updates all the time, and reaching for a simulator that frequently releases new versions may be a better option for you.
Pricing varies greatly, and in most instances the adage, “You get what you pay for” is pretty accurate when discussing flight simulators. The five we chose range between ~$35 and ~$200 for the program itself, but there are also controllers to consider, and downloadable content like new aircraft or airport locales to explore.
The Real Deal
Flight simulation continues to evolve, and with advances in virtual reality, some of these simulators are incredibly realistic. If you’ve ever thought about trying out an at-home flight simulator, you can do so now for incredibly cheap, or for not that much more, have a program like Microsoft Flight Simulator that allows you to fly all over the world without leaving your living room.
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Some flight simulators are realistic enough that the FAA allows them to be used for loggable training. These simulators can be either FTD (flight training device), ATD (aviation training device) or FFS (full flight simulator) as approved by the FAA. None of the at-home simulators on this list carry an FAA approval for logging flight time.
Flight simulators serve a lot of purposes, and one is introduction to aviation. Most at-home flight simulators have beginner settings, making them great for beginners, indeed.
First and foremost: fun! Flight simulators are enjoyable experiences, and have a lot of realistic aspects… but if you make a mistake you won’t owe anyone tens of thousands of dollars, either!