Combat flight simulators are vehicle simulation games, amateur flight simulation computer programs used to simulate military aircraft and their operations. These are distinct from dedicated flight simulators used for professional pilot and military flight training which consist of realistic physical recreations of the actual aircraft cockpit, often with a full-motion platform.

Combat flight simulation titles are more numerous than civilian flight simulators due to the variety of subject matter available and market demand. Many free flight simulators, such as the open source Linux Air Combat, Falcon 4.0, Digital Combat Simulator and Rise of Flight, can be downloaded for free off the Internet.



Prior to the rise of modern-day video games, electro-mechanical games (EM games) were produced that used rear image projection in a manner similar to a zoetrope to produce moving animations on a screen.[1] This technology led to the rise of flight simulation arcade games, initially in the form of EM games. One such EM game was Jet Rocket, a flight simulator released by Sega in 1970 that featured cockpit controls that could move the player's aircraft around a landscape displayed on a screen and shoot missiles at targets that would explode when hit.[2] The game displayed three-dimensional terrain with buildings, produced using special belt technology along with fluorescent paint to simulate a night view.[3] Upon its debut, the game was cloned by three Chicago arcade manufacturers, which led to the game under-performing in North America.[4] Sega released several other similar EM flight combat games, including Dive Bomber (1971) and Air Attack (1972).[5]

Combat flight simulator video games began appearing from the late 1970s. In 1975, Taito released the arcade video game simulator Interceptor,[6] an early first-person combat flight simulator that involved piloting a jet fighter using an eight-way joystick to aim and shoot at enemy aircraft.[7]

Sega's last EM combat flight simulator was Heli-Shooter (1977), which combines the use of a CPU processor with electro-mechanical components, screen projection and audio tape deck. The gameplay involves the player piloting a helicopter using a throttle joystick (to accelerate and decelerate) and pedals (to maneuver left and right) across a realistic three-dimensional landscape and shooting at military targets across the landscape.[8][9] In Japan, it was one of the top ten highest-grossing EM arcade games of 1977,[10] and it released in North America the same year.[9]


The 1980s experienced a wave of more advanced simulation video games, with companies such as Atari Inc. releasing their own game called Red Baron in 1980, which used QuadraScan graphics and sound effects to simulate first-person flight combat.[11] Other games such as the earliest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982) had crude graphics, simple flight models, and a combat option with "dog fighting" in a World War I Sopwith Camel. Shortly after Microsoft Flight Simulator was released for the 8-bit computer, Microsoft released Jet in 1985. This simulator used simple filled wire frame graphics and a small generic battle space to allow players to fight MiGs in an F-18 or F-16. There were also titles released for the Atari 2600 that simulated flight combat, two examples being Mattel's Air Raiders (1982) and Milton Bradley's Spitfire Attack (1983).

Later in the 1980s, it became a trend for arcade flight combat simulators to use hydraulic motion simulator arcade cabinets.[12][13] The trend was sparked by Sega's "taikan" games, with "taikan" meaning "body sensation" in Japanese.[13] Yu Suzuki's team at Sega (later known as Sega AM2) developed hydraulic motion simulator cockpit cabinets for flight combat games such as Space Harrier (1985), After Burner (1987) and the R360 games.[12][14]


In the early 1990s, arcade flight combat simulators began adopting 3D polygon graphics. Taito's Air Inferno (1990) was a 3D flight simulator utilizing a motion simulator cockpit cabinet. Atari Games followed with the 3D flight combat simulator the following year, Steel Talons (1991).[15] Namco then followed with the 3D arcade combat flight simulator Air Combat (1993).[16]

During the 1990s to early 2000s, there was a transition from traditional video game platforms like arcades, to consoles such as the original PlayStation, for their ability to be played at home. PC games remained popular during this time, as many publishers continued to produce games primarily for the PC platform. Due to the limitations and the relative simplicity of the controllers available for gaming consoles at the time, flight simulators remained largely absent from consoles for years to come.[17] Several rival publishers rose during this period such as NovaLogic with titles like the Comanche Series that simulated helicopter combat, and Electronic Arts with Jane's WWII Fighters which improved upon features such as detailed visible damage.

Newer software in the genre include Digital Combat Simulator (released in 2008 and mostly simulating modern aircraft), Rise of Flight (released in 2009 and set in World War I) and IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover (released in 2011 and set in World War II). These three are examples of accurate simulation PC games, as opposed to arcade-style air combat games such as Bandai Namco Entertainment's highly-successful Ace Combat series.


Combat flight simulators are classified according to their historical period, type of aircraft, and level of detail. This method of classifying means that many simulators belong to more than one category, which leads to arguments about what can be considered actual simulations instead of games. Generally, simulations are expected to be imitations of real-world technology, while games are not; therefore, every game with flying in them does not fit into the category of "flight simulation."

Simulator realism can be classified as the following:


Arcade-style combat flight simulators have various elements that are less realistic than other simulators, such as simplified controls and physics models, compressed or non-existent start up times, emphasis on close-range dogfighting over beyond-visual-range combat for modern jets, and the ability to carry a physically impossible amount of weapons compared to real-life aircraft loadouts. Examples of console or PC games include Ace Combat, H.A.W.X., and Project Wingman.

Many arcade combat flight simulators in amusement arcades are housed in cockpit arcade cabinets that use motion simulator technology, often incorporating hydraulics. Popular examples include the original arcade versions of After Burner, Thunder Blade and Air Combat. Sega's R360 motion simulator cabinet notably features full 360-degree rotation, used by the arcade games G-LOC: Air Battle and Wing War.[12]


A survey simulation is a classification of simulator that includes a variety (or survey) of aircraft from the period in question. This type of classification applies to many historical combat simulators, and typically includes aircraft from all nations participating in the conflict. Early simulators suffered from flight models and instrument panels that differed little between aircraft. As the technology got better, so did the diversity of aircraft, which forced the virtual pilot to learn the carefully modelled strengths and weaknesses of the various types of aircraft (e.g. the different fighting and flying styles of a Spitfire versus a Messerschmitt 109 in IL-2 Sturmovik or a Mitsubishi Zero versus a US Navy F4F Wildcat in Combat Flight Simulator 2).

Modern jet survey simulators have been developed as well, such as US Navy Fighters (USNF) and Jane's USAF by Jane's/Electronic Arts, typically with simplified and generic modelling of radar, navigation, and weapons. The turn of the century saw advancements in technology that increased the capabilities of these simulators, simplifying and improving their weapon handling and flight models, as well as updated visuals. Titles featuring these improvements include Jane's Combat Simulations, a line of flight simulations originally developed by Electronic Arts and later continued by the company Third Wire, as well as the series Strike Fighters: Project 1 and Wings over Europe.


The "study sim" is a genre of simulation games that focuses on modelling an aircraft's systems as accurately as possible. Advancing computer technology made this possible, with the development of highly detailed models that improved upon the fidelity of avionics, weapons systems, physics, flight models, graphics, etc. and allowed for fully interactive cockpits where virtually every control was mapped and functional. This was important as modern jet combat aircraft and helicopters have a variety of complex electronic and weapon systems that are specific to a particular aircraft.

Early iterations of simulators in this genre include the release of EF2000 by Digital Image Design (DiD) which quickly garnered a dedicated following, including a user group that produced a detailed online manual of weapons and tactics, as well as the popular Falcon 4.0, a detailed simulation of the USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon. Other development of these simulators includes a collaborative and specialized effort between Electronic Arts and Jane's in the 1990s, with titles such as Jane's Longbow, Jane's Longbow 2, Jane's F-15 and Jane's F/A-18.

Helicopter simulations began in 1986 with the title Gunship by MicroProse. Nine years later, in 1995, Digital Integration Ltd. released Apache Longbow, the most sophisticated helicopter simulation of the time. In 1996 it was exceeded by Jane's AH-64D Longbow, a game created by Origin Systems and released by Electronic Arts as part of the Jane's Combat Simulator series. The sequel, Jane's Longbow 2 (1997), was one of the earliest simulations to take advantage of hardware accelerated graphics, including advanced lighting. 1998 saw the release of Enemy Engaged: Apache vs Havoc by Empire Interactive, which allowed players to choose to fly for either the US or Russia.

The sophistication and intricacy of these simulators continued to grow, and in 2008 the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) released DCS: Black Shark, the first of a series of simulations that featured a complete and detailed cockpit with all the relevant switches accurately modelled and functional, and mapped over 500 key-commands. DCS also supported a variety of input devices aside from the traditional joystick, throttle, and pedals, featuring built-in support for TrackIR and virtual reality with 6 degrees of freedom which, in conjunction with the interactive 3D-cockpit, created a very realistic experience.

Modern jet

Modern jet simulators are usually classified by their historical context or level of details (study versus survey). There have been many modern jet sims that concentrate on existing fighters (several AV-8 Harrier II sims, and others such as Fleet Defender by MicroProse, and F-22 Lightning 3 and F-22 Raptor by NovaLogic), whereas others concentrate on future fighters (e.g., F-22 Total Air War by Digital Image Design in 1998). While many simulators either classify as a study sim or a survey sim, Lock On: Modern Air Combat is an example of a game that attempts to bridge the study/survey gap with highly detailed models of several US and Russian aircraft.


Before multiplayer games became popular, many simulators could only be played by a single player. This continued to be the standard until the late 1990s when most titles included some sort of multi-player/network capability. In single-player combat simulators, every entity other than the players' own aircraft are controlled by the program's "AI" (artificial intelligence), and modern video games create very sophisticated and intelligent AI with independent behavior for adversaries and allies. Multiplayer games, which usually also contain AI, allow players to oppose one or many human players. After the growth of the internet, many simulators were created that exist only or primarily as internet multiplayer versions (e.g., Air Warrior, the massively multiplayer Fighter Ace, WarBirds, Aces High, World War II Online, Ace Online, War Thunder, Fighter Wing 2 and others).


Missions, campaigns, mission builders

Many players of both video games and simulators seek games for their replay value. Simulators enhance the replay value by offering a variety of single missions consisting of short, randomly generated missions as well as longer campaigns consisting of several smaller mission or objectives. Most campaigns are "dynamic flowing," which means they change according to the results of each successive mission (e.g. if the player destroys a "target of opportunity" which turns out to be a truck carrying an enemy leader, then the campaign starts to take a different path). Some campaign models have been developed which are fully dynamic, and where successive missions take place in an environment which is persistent (if a building is destroyed in one mission, it remains destroyed in the next and will only be rebuilt in view of limited resources, realistic time and strategic priorities, etc.). A notable pioneer in this area was Andy Hollis, producer of the Jane's Longbow series (Jane's AH-64D Longbow and Jane's Longbow 2). Digital Image Design, with their release of F-22 Total Air War in 1998, allowed for a transparency into the larger strategic battlefield by use of multiple screens and a "God's eye view." Many simulators also include "mission builders" which allow the player to create their own missions.

Controls and other hardware

Combat flight simulators are among the most computer and graphics demanding applications at any given time, as they are real-time applications with multiple processes happening at once. This leads many simulation fans to constantly upgrade their hardware, including the most advanced graphics cards. These sims have also given rise to a variety of hardware add-ons such as "HOTAS" (hands on throttle and stick) controllers that allow full control of most functions without touching the keyboard. Voice control and head-tracking view control systems are also available for home flight sim enthusiasts.


The tables below define rough guidelines of what might classify as combat flight simulation games.

World War I

Title Publisher/Developer Year Notes
Knights of the Sky MicroProse (1990)
Red Baron Sierra Entertainment (1990)
Wings Cinemaware (1990)
Blue Max: Aces of the Great War Three-Sixty Pacific (1990)
Warbirds Atari Corporation (1991)
Dawn Patrol Rowan Software (1994)
Manfred von Krashenberns Flying Circus Cosmi (1994)
Wings of Glory Origin Systems (1994)
Flying Corps Empire Interactive (1997)
Red Baron II Sierra Entertainment (1997)
Red Baron 3D Sierra Entertainment (1998)
Dawn of Aces iEntertainment Network (1998)
Dawn of Aces II iEntertainment Network (2002)
Wings of Honour CI Games (2003)
Skyknights of World War I: Dawn of Aces III iEntertainment Network (2003)
Over Flanders Fields OBD Software (2005)
Wings of Honour: Battles of the Red Baron CI Games (2006)
First Eagles: The Great War 1918 Third Wire (2006)
Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War 777 Studios (2009)
Wings Over Flanders Fields OBD Software (2014)
IL-2 Sturmovik: Flying Circus 1C Game Studios (2019)[18]

World War II

Title Developer/Publisher Year Notes
Ace of Aces Accolade (1986)
Battlehawks 1942 LucasFilm Games (1988)
Bomber Inline Design (1989)
Their Finest Hour LucasFilm Games (1989)
Hellcats over the Pacific Parsoft Interactive / Graphic Simulations (1991)
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Electronic Arts (1991)
Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe LucasFilm Games (1991)
Fighter Duel: Corsair vs. Zero Jaeger Software (1991)
Aces of the Pacific Dynamix Sierra (1992)
B-17 Flying Fortress Vektor Grafix (1992)
Aces Over Europe Sierra Entertainment (1993)
Reach for the Skies Virgin Games (1993)
1942: The Pacific Air War MicroProse (1994)
Overlord Rowan Software (1994)
WarBirds iEntertainment Network (1995)
Air Warrior Kesmai (1995)
Fighter Duel Jaeger Software (1995)
Fighter Ace VR-1 Russia / BST Soft (1997)
Air Warrior II Kesmai (1997)
Air Warrior III Kesmai (1997)
European Air War MicroProse (1998)
Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator Microsoft Games Studio (1998)
Luftwaffe Commander Strategic Simulations, Inc. (1999)
Fighter Squadron: The Screamin' Demons Over Europe Parsoft / Activision (1999)
Jane's WWII Fighters Jane's Combat Simulations (1999)
Aces High HiTech Creations (2000)
B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th Wayward Design (2000)
Combat Flight Simulator 2 Microsoft Games Studio (2000)
Rowan's Battle of Britain Empire Interactive (2000)
IL-2 Sturmovik 1C:Maddox Games (2001)
Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe Microsoft Games Studio (2002)
Secret Weapons Over Normandy LucasFilm Games (2003)
IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles 1C:Maddox Games (2003)
World War II: Pacific Heroes City Interactive (2004)
Pacific Fighters 1C:Maddox Games (2004)
Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory A2A Simulations (2005)
Combat Wings City Interactive (2005)
Heroes of the Pacific Transmission Games (2005)
IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946 1C:Maddox Games (2006)
Air Conflicts 3Division Entertainment / Frogster Interactive (2006)
Combat Wings: Battle for Britain City Interactive (2006)
Attack on Pearl Harbor Legendo Entertainment (2007)
Dogfights: The Game Kuma Reality Games (2007)
IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey Gaijin Entertainment (2009) Wings of Prey on PC
Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II Cowboy Rodeo / Graffiti Entertainment (2009)
Heroes over Europe Transmission Games (2009)
IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover 1C:Maddox Games (2011)
Air Conflicts: Secret Wars Games Farm / bitComposer (2011)
Birds of Steel Gaijin Entertainment (2012)
Air Conflicts: Pacific Carriers Games Farm / bitComposer (2012)
Combat Wings: The Great Battles of World War II City Interactive (2012)
Dogfight 1942 City Interactive (2012)
IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles 1C Game Studios (2013)
World of Warplanes Wargaming (2013)
War Thunder Gaijin Entertainment (2013)
Wings over the Reich OBD Software (2018)

Korean War

Title Publisher/Developer Year Notes
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Electronic Arts (1991)
Sabre Ace: Conflict Over Korea Eagle Interactive (1997)
MiG Alley Rowan Software (1999)
War Thunder Gaijin Entertainment (2013)

Vietnam War

Title Developer/Publisher Year Notes
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Electronic Arts (1991)
Flight of the Intruder Spectrum Holobyte (1991)
Wings Over Vietnam Third Wire (2004)
Jane's Fighters Anthology Jane's Combat Simulations (1997)
Strike Fighters 2: Vietnam Third Wire (2009)
Mach Storm Namco (2013)
Air Conflicts: Vietnam Games Farm/BitComposer Entertainment (2013)
War Thunder Gaijin Entertainment (2018) Vietnam-era aircraft added from update 1.81[19]


Title Publisher/Developer Year Type Notes
Fighter Pilot Digital Integration Ltd. 1983 F-15 Sim
F-15 Strike Eagle MicroProse 1985
Jet (video game) subLOGIC 1985
Jump Jet / Harrier Mission Anirog Software Ltd. 1985
Tomahawk Digital Integration Ltd. 1985 AH-64 Sim
Falcon Spectrum HoloByte 1987
F/A-18 Interceptor Electronic Arts 1988
F-19 Stealth Fighter MicroProse 1988
F-15 Strike Eagle II MicroProse 1989
F-16 Combat Pilot Digital Integration Ltd. 1989
Fighter Bomber Vektor Grafix 1989 Released as Strike Aces in the USA
F29 Retaliator DID 1989 The F29 is a fictional fighter jet.
Apache Strike Activision 1989
A-10 Tank Killer Dynamix 1990
Chocks Away The Fourth Dimension 1990
Falcon 3.0 Spectrum Holobyte 1991
F-22 Interceptor Ingram Entertainment 1991
F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0 Microprose 1991
LHX Electronic Arts 1991
Top Gun: Danger Zone Konami 1991
Birds of Prey Electronic Arts 1991
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Electronic Arts 1991
AV-8B Harrier Assault Domark 1992
Harrier Jump Jet (video game) MicroProse 1992
Air Combat Namco 1993 Arcade Arcade video game
Combat Air Patrol Psygnosis 1993
F-15 Strike Eagle III MicroProse 1993
Tornado Digital Integration Ltd. 1993
TFX DID 1993
Dogfight MicroProse 1993
Super Strike Eagle MicroProse 1993 Super NES console game
Strike Commander Origin Systems 1993 Arcade
Fleet Defender MicroProse 1994
Comanche Novalogic 1994
Flying Nightmares Domark Software, Inc. 1994 Harrier Sim
EF2000 DID 1995
Apache Longbow Digital Integration Ltd. 1995
Su-27 Flanker Eagle Dynamics 1995
A-10 Attack! Parsoft Interactive 1995
Air Combat Namco 1995 Arcade PlayStation console game
Coala Empire Interactive 1995
Comanche Novalogic 1995
Navy Strike Empire Interactive 1995
F-22 Lightning II Novalogic 1996
Jane's AH-64D Longbow Jane's Combat Simulations 1996
A-10 Cuba! Activision 1996
Bogey Dead 6 SCEE 1996
iF-16 Digital Integration Ltd. 1996
Ace Combat 2 Namco 1997 Arcade
Jane's Fighters Anthology Electronic Arts 1997
JSF Eidos 1997
Hind Digital Integration Ltd. 1997
F/A-18 Korea Graphic Simulations Corporation 1997
F-22 Raptor NovaLogic 1997
F-22: Air Dominance Fighter DID 1997
iF-22 Raptor Magic Labs 1997
Jane's Longbow 2 Jane's Combat Simulations 1997
Comanche 3 Novalogic 1997
Jane's F-15 Jane's Combat Simulations 1998
Jane's IAF: Israeli Air Force Jane's Combat Simulations 1998
Falcon 4.0 MicroProse 1998
Enemy Engaged: Apache vs Havoc Razorworks 1998
Aero Fighters Assault Paradigm Entertainment 1998
Comanche Gold Novalogic 1998
Hell-Copter Ubisoft 1998
Mig-29 Fulcrum Novalogic 1998
Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere Namco 1999 Arcade
F-22 Lightning 3 NovaLogic 1999
Jane's F/A-18 Jane's Combat Simulations 1999
Jane's USAF Jane's Combat Simulations 1999
F/A-18E Super Hornet Titus Interactive/Digital Integration Ltd. 2000
AeroWings 2: Airstrike Crave Entertainment and CRI 2000
Airforce Delta Konami 2000
Gunship! MicroProse/Hasbro 2000
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies Namco 2001 Arcade
Eurofighter Typhoon DID 2001
Comanche 4 Novalogic 2001
Flanker 2.5 Eagle Dynamics 2002
Aces of the Air Highwaystar 2002
AirForce Delta Storm Konami 2002
Lock On: Modern Air Combat Eagle Dynamics 2003
F/A-18 Operation Iraqi Freedom Graphsim Entertainment 2003
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War Namco 2004
Airforce Delta Strike Konami 2004
Falcon 4.0: Allied Force Lead Pursuit 2005
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War Namco 2006
Red Jets Graffiti Entertainment 2006
Wings Over Europe Third Wire Productions 2006
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation Namco Bandai Games 2007
Strike Fighters 2 Third Wire Productions 2008
Digital Combat Simulator Eagle Dynamics 2008 Study
H.A.W.X Ubisoft 2009 Arcade
H.A.W.X 2 Ubisoft 2010 Arcade
Apache: Air Assault Gaijin Entertainment 2010
Take On Helicopters: Hinds Bohemia Interactive 2012
Strike Fighters 2: North Atlantic Third Wire Productions 2012
Air Missions: HIND 3DIVISION/Games Farm 2016
VTOL VR Boundless Dynamics, LLC. 2017 Uses near futuristic aircraft while maintaining realism
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Namco 2019 Arcade
Project Wingman Sector D2 / Humble Games 2020 Arcade

See also


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  13. ^ a b Horowitz, Ken (6 July 2018). The Sega Arcade Revolution: A History in 62 Games. McFarland & Company. pp. 96–9. ISBN 978-1-4766-3196-7.
  14. ^ Lendino, Jamie (27 September 2020). Attract Mode: The Rise and Fall of Coin-Op Arcade Games. Steel Gear Press. p. 331.
  15. ^ "Looking At Taito's history As They Turn 60". Arcade Heroes. 27 August 2013. Retrieved 19 May 2021.
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  18. ^ "Update 4.001 – Battle of Bodenplatte and Flying Circus Officially Released!". IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Official Website. 7 November 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2021.
  19. ^ "[Development] UH-1 and Mi-4: Early Birds". Archived from the original on 23 September 2019. Retrieved 23 September 2019.