Blade element modelling provides a quick analytical method for estimating the aerodynamic forces produced during insect flight, but such models have yet to be tested rigorously using kinematic data recorded from free-flying insects. This is largely because of the paucity of detailed free-flight kinematic data, but also because analytical limitations in existing blade element models mean that they cannot incorporate the complex three-dimensional movements of the wings and body that occur during insect flight. Here, we present a blade element model with empirically fitted aerodynamic force coefficients that incorporates the full three-dimensional wing kinematics of manoeuvring Eristalis hoverflies, including torsional deformation of their wings. The two free parameters were fitted to a large free-flight dataset comprising N = 26 541 wingbeats, and the fitted model captured approximately 80% of the variation in the stroke-averaged forces in the sagittal plane. We tested the robustness of the model by subsampling the data, and found little variation in the parameter estimates across subsamples comprising 10% of the flight sequences. The simplicity and generality of the model that we present is such that it can be readily applied to kinematic datasets from other insects, and also used for the study of insect flight dynamics.