The best flight simulator apps for iPad (if you’re a pilot)

4 min read

Mention “flight simulator” right now and most pilots will think of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, which has been one of the hot topics in aviation since it was released last year. This is an impressive new option, and when paired to high quality flight controls, it’s a valuable resource for keeping current at home (but don’t try to learn crosswind landings on it). If you want the best flight simulator experience this is the way to go.

But not everyone has a Windows computer that’s powerful enough to run MSFS, and sometimes you only have time for a quick sim session. For those reasons—and many more—there is still a thriving market in iPad-based flight simulators. Lots of these have flashy videos in the App Store, but most of them are aimed at casual gamers, not pilots. Here are our top picks for flight simulators that work on the iPad and won’t make pilots roll their eyes.

X-Plane is a familiar name among pilots, as the company has offered a robust desktop simulator for many years. The mobile version has most of the features that have made the original one so popular, including realistic airplane models, stunning scenery, and intuitive controls. You can choose from a pre-loaded Challenge, or select Free Flight to choose your airplane, airport, and weather. The app includes a Cessna 172, Cirrus SF50 jet, Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, and F-22 Raptor by default. Additional airplanes cost between 99 cents and $4.99.

The level of detail in the cockpits is exceptional, with every switch and knob visible (and adjustable). The latest update includes an improved Cirrus Jet, with a surprisingly lifelike G1000 panel. You can push all the buttons, engage the autopilot, and tune the radios. This isn’t exactly like the real thing, but it’s pretty close. For example, when you tap on a light switch, the app will show you what it does. For basic glass cockpit proficiency, it’s a lot more than a game.

The other feature we really like is the option to adjust weather and fail systems. The bottom of every Free Flight launch page includes options for airplane, location, weather, time, and failures. This makes it fast and easy to set the flaps to fail or leave the fuel cap off. You can even set these to “could fail” to add some surprise factor.

X-Plane is free to download, and while it really flies on newer iPad Pro models, it will run on any device with iOS 13 or newer. The free version doesn’t have as many limitations as you might expect: it’s a solid simulator right from the start. In addition to buying additional airplanes, you can subscribe to global scenery for $49.99/year. This adds global scenery, more than 11,500 highly detailed airports, and unlimited access to all aircraft.

Infinite Flight is our second recommendation, and it offers a similarly polished experience with plenty of customization options and a vibrant community. It’s a little more airline-focused (standard airplanes include three Boeings, two Airbus models, and a CRJ-200), but the app includes a Cessna 172, Cirrus SR22, and a CubCrafters XCub.

There are the usual options for choosing an airplane and a location, then you’re ready to fly. The cockpits and scenery are both highly detailed, with the option to fly a heads-up display, a cockpit view, or a variety of exterior camera angles. Like X-Plane, simple buttons on the side of the screen make it easy to adjust throttle or flaps, and the pitch/roll control is your iPad’s built-in accelerometer.

One small feature we like is the option to quickly move the airplane to takeoff or short final position. In the screenshot below, we instantly set up for landing on short final, and the red boxes provide guidance for a smooth landing.

Another helpful feature in Infinite Flight is accessed by tapping the globe at the bottom left corner of the screen during a flight. This brings up a map overlay (Wittman Airport in Oshkosh below), which is helpful during cross-countries or instrument flights.

Infinite Flight is only 99 cents to download, and this gives you access to plenty of options, including 12 airplanes and beautiful visuals, although the geographic areas you can fly in are limited to only a handful of options (including California and the Chicago/Oshkosh area). To unlock all the locations, including live weather, a multiplayer environment, dozens more airplanes, and live air traffic control, you’ll want to spend $79.99 on a Pro subscription. The live ATC feature in particular, where other users act as controllers (after some training), is a fun way to practice your aviation skills.

Both X-Plane and Infinite Flight are mature apps—these don’t suffer the same annoying bugs and frustrating menus you’ll find on more homemade options. But as good as they are, any simulator made for iPad is a poor substitute for real flying. They are all but worthless for learning maneuvers, landings, or seat of the pants flying skills. However, they have value for basic cockpit awareness (where is the trim wheel in a 172?) and instrument scan (if anything, this is harder in the app because pitch is so sensitive). Oh yeah, they’re also a lot of fun…

13 replies
  1. Steve O
    Steve O says:

    Just a note, X-plane also allows you to jump anywhere-including short final. Make sure you start airborne with everything running pull open your map from the left and drag your plane icon to wherever you want facing whichever direction you want.

  2. Mike Olson
    Mike Olson says:

    The lack of cockpit controls in Infinite flight was a deal breaker for me. I had the full subscription. Also airports that have no buildings is a problem. If you are a pilot like me, you’ll get a better flying experience with X-Plane.

  3. APB
    APB says:

    I use X-plane on my iPad, and I think it’s better than Infinite Flight. The only downside to X-plane is that they make you spend money to get some of the airplanes

  4. Captain Rick G
    Captain Rick G says:

    For use with an iPad the only good linkable programs are MS2020 or X-plane. MS2020 is kind of odd to get connected and FlightEvent doesn’t seem very hacker safe. X-plane is a little easier to get your iPad connected and a little more hacker safe then FlightEvent for FS2020.
    Flight Sims have come a very long way since I started looking at just monochrome dots. If you really want flight sim to be ‘training’ and not ‘gaming’, get the best controllers you can afford that best represent the aircraft you fly most. If you are a Cirrus pilot get the high dollar side stick. If you can afford Cirrus flight time you can afford a $1200 side flight stick, though I’ve seen people go cheep and mount regular flight sticks on a 45 degree slant ;-)… Don’t think of sim time as trying to log flight time. It is a learning tool just like the any other video training program. This learning tool also trains your muscles.
    There are many manufacturers out there now making controllers now. Again, Don’t go cheep on the controllers! You will only figure out you need a better one later and the one you wasted money on will sit in the corner. I think have every controller made over the last 30 years. My office looks like a museum of flight controllers.
    My first major flight sim computer with a 386 processor (i skipped the 286 processor and went big) cost $3,500 in the late 80s. A super high end computer will cost about the same today. That computer was useful for about 3 years before it had to be replaced with a 486 processor. You need a good computer for your sim, but don’t go overboard with the computer. You will have to replace it like shoes.
    Controllers however last for at least a decade or longer. I have a Microsoft Force Feedback stick that has lasted 20 years. It is hard to find a force feedback controller now much less for the $50 I paid some 20 years ago.
    The cost of sim software is tiny compared to the cost of the computer and controllers. Software listed here in this article is 99 cents…you can’t get a cup of coffee for that anymore. Even free for X-plane iPad… try to get water for that…;-)
    Remember, spend big on controllers, and not HOTAS unless you are a fighter pilot. Everything else, just keep up with the medium range system. You will be buying another computer in a few years when it is no longer useable for the new software advances.

  5. Mark Stiving
    Mark Stiving says:

    I’d like to fly a sim that includes an Avidyne IFD550 in the cockpit. Do either of these? Do you know of one?

    • Slim D
      Slim D says:

      Single player, yes. You can try multiplayer but I’m having problems on my ipad air. I’ve logged a bug report and there has been an update since i reported but the crashing has got worse. Whenever i contact rortos, they say they are investigating while im still paying subscription.

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