Have you ever flown an instrument approach only to find out that the runway you’re expecting to see doesn’t exist in your simulator? Perhaps you’ve been looking at an Airport Diagram and find that the taxiway signs don’t match what you see on the chart. The way the airports look—the buildings, taxiways, signs, gate numbers, and more—is controlled by the airport scenery in your simulator.
When flight simulators are released, they include a series of airports that are relatively generic in nature. Some simulators, like Prepar3D (P3D) and X-Plane, do a reasonable job of placing buildings, taxiways, and signs so that most default airports are accurate and usable, even if they aren’t as visually stunning as some of the high-quality add-ons that are out there.
In the original release of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), although taxiways were generally in the correct places, there were issues with signage and lighting. Although these are actively being improved, community-created add-on scenery is available to greatly enhance the default airports in MSFS.
Of course, real-world airports change over time. They built new taxiways and runways and expand terminal buildings. By default, these changes won’t be reflected in your simulator. That’s where add-on scenery comes in!
On the left, you'll see KBOS as released in Prepar3D v4.5, which represented the airport in 2006. The image at the right shows KBOS after a free update was installed for the same Prepar3D v.4.5. Can you spot the differences?! You can see that quite a bit has changed in the last few years.
Screenshots by Chris R.
The simulation community has come to the rescue by producing thousands of free scenery updates for various simulators. In addition, developers have spent hours creating highly-realistic, nice-looking renditions of airports that give your simulator an entirely new look.
Installing these updates will help bring your sim up-to-date, so the taxiway layout and signage at the airports matches the charts you’re using to navigate.
This article contains more information on finding free and paid airport scenery updates for the most popular desktop simulators: MSFS, Prepar3D, FSX, and X-Plane.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS)
Of the simulators mentioned on this page, MSFS’ default airport scenery leaves the most to be desired. Even the “hand crafted” airports available in the higher-priced versions of MSFS tend to have incorrect or missing taxiways, incorrect taxiway signs, and poor attention to detail. We expect that, over time, the add-on community will come to the rescue and fix these issues.
Even though MSFS was just released in August, there are already hundreds of free airport updates available. The website Flightsim.to is a great place to search for airports created by community members. In addition, the payware development community is quickly improving many of the world’s most popular airports (see the "Payware Scenery Options" section below for more information).
In general, installing user-created scenery in MSFS is as simple as downloading the package and placing it in the "community" folder (where all community-created add-ons, livery packages, and other files are placed).
Prepar3D and FSX
Prepar3D v4 and earlier, along with FSX, rely on airports created as early as 2006. As a result, runways, taxiways, and layout changes from the past 15 years might not be reflected in your simulator. However, the advantage of a 15 year legacy is that people have had plenty of time to create great scenery updates for these simulators. A great place to find free airport updates for P3D and FSX is the AVSIM Library. With a free account, you can search more than 220,000 files for various simulators. Searches can be refined by simulator and the type of file you’re looking for:
Once you’ve found the file you wish to install, download it. Almost all downloads will include a "readme" file that explains how to install the scenery update in your simulator. In most cases, installing scenery is as simple as placing it into a folder. Always read the instructions included with downloads.
We recommend creating a custom "scenery area" for Prepar3D or FSX to store all of your free add-on scenery. This will allow you to keep things in one place and make the installation consistent.
Creating A Custom "Scenery Area" for Prepar3D or FSX
By centralizing your add-on scenery in a single folder, it will be easy for you to search the directory to add and remove updates in the future. It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve added: you’ll see strange visual effects when you have more than one scenery add-on installed for the same airport.
- Somewhere on your computer, preferably outside of the main simulator file structure, create a folder. You can name it anything you want, but
Custom Sceneryworks well. This is the place you’ll store all freeware add-on scenery.
- Within this folder, create two sub-folders:
- Open the simulator and access the Scenery Library from World > Scenery Library (or just click "Scenery" on the Scenario menu).
- In the Scenery Library click "Add Area...".
- In the "Select scenery" directory, select the folder you created.
- In the Scenery area name text box, type the name as you want it to appear in the Scenery Area list.
- Select "Cache this scenery" or "Use this scenery directly".
- Click "OK".
Once the scenery area has been added and the scenery cache reloaded, close the simulator. Each time you find a new airport scenery to install, you can place the files from the download into these two
texture folders. When you re-open the simulator, the newly-downloaded files will be active.
Some users prefer to create separate areas for every scenery they install, while others like using this one “Custom Scenery” area and placing all scenery files there. Either method works.
For more information on P3D Scenery Libraries, visit P3D’s Learning Center.
Prepar3D v5 significantly changed how airports are rendered, meaning that airports designed for FSX and earlier versions of P3D may not appear correctly. However, v5 also released updates to 24,000 airports around the world, bringing the simulator’s stock airport library up-to-date as of about April 2020. You’ll begin to find P3D v5-compatible free airports on AVSIM and other sources, and the installation process is the same as in previous versions of P3D.
Most freeware updates for FSX and P3D make use of the same textures and objects you’ll see in the default simulator. While they will improve the accuracy of scenery, in most cases you won’t notice a dramatic difference in how the airport looks. If you’re looking for the picture-worthy scenery you may have seen on screenshots across the internet, look at our Payware Scenery Options section below. (Most payware scenery options include their own installers, which will place the scenery and automatically add it to your library.)
X-Plane is the only simulator to fully embrace crowd-sourced scenery updates. Laminar Research, creators of X-Plane, have made a program called WorldEditor (WED) available to the community. This allows any user of X-Plane to use the stock library objects in X-Plane to edit and submit airports for approval.
Using the X-Plane Airport Scenery Gateway, users can search approved updates and can download them. In addition, staff “recommend” specific airport updates for inclusion into future versions of X-Plane. This significantly reduces the need for users to search for and find third-party airport updates on places like AVSIM.
The X-Plane Airport Scenery Gateway features scenery with X-Plane’s default object library. Beyond that, there are many other third-party sources offering great freeware scenery that make use of custom objects. X-Plane.org is a great place to search custom scenery packages for X-Plane, which will generally be installed into the
.../Custom Scenery/ folder of your simulator’s installation. As you’re searching, you’ll come across various “libraries” that scenery packs will require. You only need to install these libraries once.
In addition to airport scenery, X-Plane users love the simulator’s ability to pull GPS imagery from sources like Bing and Google Maps and display it in the simulator. While setting this up takes some work, the results can look pretty good. An AVSIM user posted a guide to setting up Ortho4XP for Windows back in 2017 that offers step-by-step instructions.
Like MSFS, FSX, and P3D, X-Plane also benefits from some incredibly high-quality payware scenery. Read the section below for more information on the paid scenery upgrade options.
Payware Scenery Options
Like with other Software Add-ons, there are free and paid options for add-on scenery across all simulators. Before jumping into paid scenery options, we encourage users to look to the freeware community. There are thousands of updates that will improve the accuracy of your simulator, and even some freeware scenery files (like this one for KBOS by MisterX) that look like payware quality!
In addition, some payware developers also provide free products. For example, If you fly in FSX or P3D and have purchased any of Orbx’s Global products, you need to install their Global Airport Pack...like, right now. Available free to any Orbx Global customer, the Global Airport Pack contains hundreds of stunning airports with custom models, animated people and trees, static aircraft, and more. In general, the pack is focused on smaller, general aviation airports in unique settings.
In general, payware scenery tends to go beyond simply modifying airport layouts for accuracy. These days, you’ll often find custom-built 3D terminals, moving jetways, custom ground textures, and a whole lot more from payware scenery.
In addition to just updating taxiway layouts, payware scenery often adds custom models and textures. Compare the default KBOS on the top with the $28 version from FlyTampa on the bottom. You're paying for the extra detail on the hangar, terminals, and even the ground textures on the FlyTampa scenery.
Screenshots by Chris R.
Because each simulator is different, you’ll find a variety of scenery options available for each sim. Some of the community’s largest scenery developers create products for all sims, while others focus on just one or two.
There are two ways to find great-quality payware options. If you are looking for an update to a specific airport (perhaps because you like flying there), search the airport and simulator on Google (“KBOS Scenery Prepar3D”). You may find one, or several, payware options. You can also search FSElite for the latest news on payware products. Use the URL https://fselite.net/tag/KBOS, changing the last four characters to the ICAO code you want to find. Finally, you can search the simulator marketplaces like Aerosoft’s web store or SimMarket.
Alternatively, you might just be looking for beautiful stuff. If so, names like Aerosoft, FlightBeam Studios, FlyTampa, LatinVFR, and Orbx tend to top the list of the community’s favorite and large-scale payware airport developers.