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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:

Chicago Approach: “Delta 6461, you are climbing out of my airspace. Chicago Center not online. Radar service terminated, frequency change approved. Thanks for flying.”

And with those last three words, the simulated flight ends. Breaks in radar coverage are nothing new to Ward, who in real life is a 57-year-old systems engineer for General Dynamics. As a student at the Naval Academy, he logged about 75 hours in different aircraft, but these days Ward spends his time on one of the hottest digital pursuits aloft or on the ground: the virtual airline game.

Virtual airlines mirror real-world airlines. Although it might come as a shock to most passengers (as well as their flight crews) who are plowing through the skies on any given day, there are also, on that same day, hundreds if not thousands of virtual pilots flying the same, though virtual, routes. The Web site Air Seychelles VA and Ocean RIA/Ocean Airways, which AVSIM describes as “a German airline based in Palma de Mallorca.” Then there are virtual charter and bush airlines (22 total), virtual cargo-oriented airlines (19), and 57 virtual airlines that don’t fit into other categories.

Nor are these outfits merely imaginary entities or complex, extended jokes. Each virtual airline has its own Web page, some of which are detailed, realistic, and sophisticated beyond belief. “There used to be a UPS Virtual,” says Terry Eshenour, Delta Virtual Airlines’ president and CEO. “They had a cease-and-desist order because they were using [UPS] logos, and it was difficult to differentiate whether you were dealing with UPS or UPS Virtual.” (The Web page for today’s UPS Virtual Air Cargo, upsvac.com, now includes a disclaimer saying, in part: “This virtual airline is operated by aviation and simulator enthusiasts. All ‘real’ logos of UPS (United Parcel Service) are copyrighted material for the corporation of UPS (United Parcel Service). We are not affiliated with UPS (United Parcel Service).”)

Delta Virtual Airlines’ own Web site, deltava.org, also includes a disclaimer (“We are in no way affiliated with Delta Air Lines”) but is otherwise hyper-authentic. Here you will find predictable stuff like Delta Virtual Airlines news, a fleet gallery (with images of real-world Delta jets), and a “Who Is Online” link. Further down the page is an archive of Delta VA’s inflight magazine DELTA FLY!, a “Water Cooler” forum that logs 300 to 400 posts per day, a pilot roster, and a pilot locator, which depicts a map of the world dotted with teardrop-shaped pushpins, many of them clustered around big cities. Clicking on a pushpin brings up a balloon giving the pilot’s name, Delta ID number, and approximate home base. “Approximate” because Delta Virtual Airlines emulates real-world airlines’ tendency to suppress and distort certain information “for security reasons.”

Even more impressive is the Web site’s live map: Based on the real world’s Airline Communications Addressing and Reporting System, the map shows the current status of Delta Virtual Airlines’ flights, using color-coded pushpins to show whether the flight is on the ground, climbing, descending, or at cruise. Clicking a given pushpin brings up a trove of information that borders on the surreal: the pilot’s name, rank, and Delta VA seniority number; the flight number and type of aircraft; its departure and arrival airports; its exact geographical coordinates in degrees, minutes, and seconds; its airspeed, ground speed, vertical speed, and Mach number; heading; percent of rated power in N1 and N2 compressor engine sections; total fuel flow in pounds per hour; autopilot and auto-throttle settings. If you want more, you can superimpose the airplane’s current position on a Google Earth map.

While tracking virtual aircraft is easy, knowing the exact locations of flight crews is less so because virtual pilots are not required to remain seated in their virtual cockpits for entire flights. While flying from Atlanta to Tokyo, for instance, Eshenour flew a Delta airliner as far as Alaska, then turned the flight over to the aircraft’s flight management system and went to bed. He woke up in time to start the descent and made an on-time landing. Such allowances might seem like cheating, but real-world pilots do almost the same thing, napping in crew rest areas on long-distance flights while co­pilots take over.

The question arises: Why do a bunch of sane, calm, and levelheaded people go to such extremes to make something essentially fake seem real?

“This is a way to live out the fantasy,” says Eshenour. He had always loved airplanes and aviation, but had no desire to learn to fly. Now retired, he had been in upper management at the Coca-Cola Company. He was responsible for introducing the company’s Minute Maid brand to Japan, where he and his wife lived for two years. Somewhere back in the 1980s, he bought a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and played it on his home PC.

“In Japan I was using this as a personal escape,” he says. “You can set up in your mind some goal you want to achieve: You want to go someplace, you want to do things under certain conditions. And when you’re pursuing that, you can block out anything around you.”

In 1988 he came back to the States and worked at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. He bought a new computer and an upgraded version of Flight Simulator. “The version for the year 2000 had something in it about ‘online flying,’ ” he says.

Online flying, it turned out, was simulated flying with the added attraction of air traffic control. The surprise was that the air traffic control experience was not part of the Flight Simulator program, nor was it any sort of add-on program. (There are tons of add-ons and plug-ins for simulated-flight enthusiasts: ones for combat flying, navigation, route planning, and crew scheduling, among others.) Instead, air traffic control was provided by real live people wrapped up in their own pet simulation: virtual air traffic control.

For a virtual pilot such as Eshenour, who had been doing all of his simulated flying, crashing, and burning in the privacy of his own home, the question was whether to go public. It was in fact a big decision.

“What happens when you’re online and you have ATC on the other side and they can see you, and you screw up?” he asks. “Really, they can see you screw up! Am I going to be confident enough to do that as an aviator? Do I really understand how to communicate and to navigate under ATC and under IFR [instrument flight] rules?”

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.”

Short of actually leaving the ground, flying a hydraulic simulator is as real as it gets. Flying Microsoft Flight Simulator, by contrast, is a heavily compromised experience. For one thing, unless you’re equipped with a “simpit,” a simulated cockpit, which is a relatively rare commodity in the online world, it’s all too clear that what you’re really flying is a computer. Although the images on the screen may impart a temporary illusion of motion, in reality nothing moves except your hands (and feet, for those who have rudder pedals). And while the onscreen images have gotten more realistic over the years, there is still an element of artifice and staginess to them: They’re canned, cartoonish.

None of this holds true for another kind of simulation, the very one that makes the existence of virtual airlines possible: virtual air traffic control.

Virtual air traffic controllers spend their time looking at a display screen, but so do real-world controllers. The similarity makes all the difference in the authenticity of the simulation, especially considering that the images that appear on the two kinds of screens—real and virtual—are functionally indistinguishable.

Mariano Buitrago lives in Leesburg, Virginia, which coincidentally is the home of the real-world Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center. Buitrago, who is originally from Managua, Nicaragua, is an engineer and MBA with a day job at a large financial company in Washington, D.C. He spends many of his night hours controlling simulated airline traffic from his home office.

“I’ve had the aviation bug for my entire life,” he says. “I grew up reading Flying magazine.” But because his family considered being a pilot risky, he never took flying lessons. He did, however, learn Flight Simulator, which is where, “like most people, I stumbled across VATSIM.”

VATSIM, otherwise known as the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network, is an organization created in 2001 to provide voluntary air traffic control services to FlightSim pilots. On its Web page,

vatsim.net, VATSIM notes that the early FlightSim experience “was a very lonely proposition. There were no other airplanes in the skies while we flew en route, and our arrivals at major airports were like landing in ghost towns.”

All that changed with the dawn of virtual air traffic control, a phenomenon made possible by the Internet and new software. One early program, called ProController, turned an ordinary computer monitor into a virtual radar screen. Servers programmed with complex networking software enabled simulated flights to show up on the radar screens of several different controllers.

Individual virtual flights were hooked to the network by an add-on program called SquawkBox, which transmitted an aircraft’s flight data to VATSIM; in addition, it allowed pilots to communicate with air traffic controllers either by text messaging or by voice, using a headset and microphone. For Buitrago, all of this was a dream come true. “I started out as a student controller in 2004, and worked my way up over a period of two years to be a senior controller,” he says. “There’s a very strict hierarchy in VATSIM. I started in Washington Center and have been there ever since. I was deputy manager for two years, and then manager for about a year and a half.”

You might think of Buitrago’s home office as Washington Center’s control room. It’s a small, downstairs den with bookcases laden with IFR charts. On a desk are two monitors, each wired to its own central processing unit. Front and center is the monitor hosting the virtual radar client. On a black background, the various sectors and components of Washington Center’s airspace show up in color: airways, cities, airports, radio towers and other navigational aids. Prohibited areas such as P-40 (Camp David) and P-56 (the White House, Pentagon, and U.S. Capitol) are red.

Flights in progress appear as “tags,” colored blocks of text that give, among other things, the flight’s points of origin and destination, ground speed, altitude, transponder code, and whether it’s in cruise, climb, or descent. A line to the left of the text block indicates the aircraft’s heading.

At this precise moment Buitrago’s radar screen shows about eight targets. He dons his headset and connects to the system (he arranges with other controllers in Washington Center on when to participate). From the controller he’s about to replace, he learns about aircraft on the ground at Reagan Washington National Airport, waiting for clearances. Then, by text messaging over ChatBox, he informs other controllers in the area that he’s about to be up and running. And all at once this 42-year-old MBA magically becomes…Washington Center!

A United flight checks in.

United 4347: “Washington Center, United 4347 climbing out of one six thousand for one seven thousand.”

Washington Center: “United 4347, Washington Center, good evening. Climb and maintain flight level two-seven-zero.”

“The guy who wrote this VRC [virtual radar client] went so far as to add a filter to distort the voice so it sounds like a VHF radio,” says Buitrago. “Otherwise it would sound too clear, too perfect.”

Both virtual pilots and virtual controllers make every effort to mimic real-world air traffic control phrasing and speech cadences, as well as its elaborate politeness and formality.

Buitrago’s other display screen, to his immediate right, is for “flight strips,” which are also artifacts of real-world air traffic control. A flight strip is a rectangular box that duplicates much of the information found in the radar tag but also includes such data as the aircraft’s alternate airport for landing and its complete flight plan.

A flight strip for United 4347 suddenly appears. Soon there are several more on the flight strip screen.

All of this is hyper-realistic with one exception: Whereas a real-world Air Route Traffic Control Center’s functions would be divided among several controllers, one each for clearance delivery, ground control, departure, and arrival, on this particular Monday evening Buitrago is playing all roles himself for Reagan National.

Cactus 2579: “Washington Center, Cactus 2579, standing by, clearance.”

Washington Center: “Yes sir, 2579, you’re cleared to Tampa as filed. Maintain five thousand, expect flight level three-four-zero 10 minutes after departure. Departure frequency is one-two-three point eight-five. Squawk zero-five-zero-two.”

And so it goes, for as long as you want. Sometimes, during Friday ops, when lots of pilots are flying, virtual air traffic controllers can get real-world levels of traffic. Buitrago, who has a wife, three kids, and a dog, usually limits himself to an hour and a half or maybe two of VATSIM controlling a few times a week.

“Do you ever get nervous doing this?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. “You sweat.”

He’d sweat even more should there occur on the screen any flying that constituted a threat to public safety, whether it was an inadvertent entrance into restricted airspace or an intentional flight into a building or nuclear power plant. Virtual air traffic controllers can at their discretion report such actions to VATSIM supervisors, who are always monitoring events. Virtual pilots who engage in acts of simulated terrorism face a range of sanctions, the most serious being a permanent ban from the network. And just as there are virtual airlines, VATSIM has virtual armed forces, though they have not been as active recently as they have in the past. If some of the virtual armed pilots were online during a security incident, however, they could be ordered to intercept.

If both virtual airline flying and VATSIM air traffic control are indeed this realistic, exactly where does all of it take place? These things are not just imaginary, existing only in the minds of participants. The flights also exist in computer chips and on display screens, on Web pages, and in servers networked through the Internet across the globe. It’s as if virtual flights pass through some sort of fifth dimension, a mythic realm also populated by Elvis, the Martian canals, and the Princess of Helium.

So why do people by the tens of thousands indulge in these pursuits? VATSIM controller Mariano Buitrago may be thought to speak for the multitude when he says: “It’s a great mental exercise. It allows me to live my passion for aviation in a safe way, in the comfort of my own home. And believe it or not, it allows me to relieve stress.”

Believe it or not. 

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