Welcome to Cyberairspace
Where you can fly from Chicago to Atlanta without leaving your living room.
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
Delta Virtual Airlines
(Page 4 of 8)
Eshenour’s fears were not without foundation. Just like real-world pilots, virtual pilots have taxied into terminal buildings, overrun runways, and collided mid-air with other aircraft. In the beginning,
Eshenour’s specialty was crash landings. “These days I go around more than I crash,” he says.
As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to fly a virtual airliner safely, some virtual pilots look for additional responsibilities. Take Luke Kolin, a cyber airline pilot based in Atlanta. Originally from Toronto, Kolin got a degree in history but was also an exceptionally accomplished computer geek, who, as a teenager, operated his own online bulletin board. In 2001, he decided to get involved in the creation of a virtual airline, one that had all the trappings of a real airline: a fabulous fleet, complex route structure, crew training, a rigid system for getting promoted up the ranks, and so on. Since he lived in Atlanta, the home base of Delta, why not make it Delta Virtual?
Headquarters was initially a server in Kolin’s bedroom. (Nowadays the Delta Virtual Airlines server is operated by a commercial firm.) Today, seven years later, Delta VA is the world’s largest virtual airline, with 2,500 active pilots. Anyone 13 and over can join, and membership is free (operating costs are voluntarily funded by a dozen or so members). “The only thing we ask of a pilot applicant is that they have an interest in aviation and a valid e-mail address,” says Eshenour.
Since the whole raison d’être of Delta Virtual Airlines is to enhance pilot enjoyment through knowledge and experience, company policy dictates that a type rating in a given aircraft requires a written examination and a check ride, which is a 30- to 45-minute test of skills under the supervision of a Delta Virtual Airlines certified flight instructor. Senior Captain Dan Ward (who also flies for United Virtual and three other cyber airlines) has type ratings in more than two dozen aircraft. (“I have check rides in all of them,” he says.) Delta Virtual operates its own flight academy and publishes flight manuals for the aircraft in its fleet. Some of those in Ward’s bookcase run to 300 pages, “and I actually read them before flying the plane.”
Does all this mock flying actually increase proficiency in any real-world sense? Eshenour recalls the time that he and Kolin got a chance to fly not a real-world Delta jet but the next best thing: Delta’s real-world training simulator in Atlanta. It’s basically a 737 cockpit on hydraulic legs, which enable actual movement in pitch, roll, and yaw. Real-world Delta pilots have sweated through countless simulated emergencies, missed approaches, and other tortures in the device.
“He and I sat down in the 737-800,” says Eshenour. “He sat in the left seat, I sat in the right seat, and we said, ‘Okay, put us in Philadelphia at the runway threshold, and we’re going to fly and land at JFK.’ We knew what the winds were and what runway we wanted to land on, and we punched into the FMC [flight management computer] where we wanted to go. We set the flaps and took off and flew it. And landed! At Kennedy!
“I don’t want to say it was the prettiest approach and landing,” he adds. “But we got it down on the centerline, at the right speed, and we didn’t break the struts, and we didn’t do a tail strike—all of which we did before, in a 767 [simulator], at Salt Lake City.”