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Flight simulation software enables pilots to view their aircraft from outside the cockpit — at any angle. (Delta Virtual Airlines)

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Although I’m sitting in the living room of a second-floor condominium in Germantown, Maryland, what I see on the monitor of Dan Ward’s Dell computer invites me to imagine I’m in the cockpit of an Embraer 145 regional jet. Visible through a cockpit window is the jetway, which runs from the passenger door to a gate at Terminal 3 of Chicago O’Hare. The cockpit instruments are dark, but after Ward types in a few commands, the control panel lights up like a Christmas tree.

Soon Ward, senior pilot for Delta Virtual Airlines, is keying flight data into the flight management system, the automated device that will fly the Embraer 145 from just after takeoff to just before touchdown while he sits back, monitors progress, and talks to air traffic control. Then he types in the departure and arrival airports (KORD and KATL), flight plan (CMSKY CARYN CYBIL PXV J73 BNA ERLIN5), initial climb rate, cruise speed, altitude, fuel reserves, winds aloft, number of passengers, and so on. The entire process takes about 10 minutes. Finally, Ward is ready to go.

As the jetway moves aside, Ward requests push-back. He starts the engines, which make a whoosh in the background, then speaks into his voice-activated headset: “Chicago Arrival, Delta 6461 with you, IFR to Atlanta.”

Chicago Approach: “Delta 6461, Chicago Approach, standby one.” (Beep. Long pause.)

Ward is calling Approach for a departure because today’s virtual controller is multi-tasking and playing a variety of roles.

Chicago Approach: “Delta 6461, have your clearance. Ready to copy?”

Delta 6461: “6461’s ready to copy, sir.”

Soon Ward is off the ground, with downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan coming into view through the left side of the cockpit.

Chicago Approach: “Delta 6461, radar contact. Climb and maintain one-three thousand, direct CMSKY.”

“Nominal,” as they say. But then a few minutes later, at about 10,000 feet:

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