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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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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.

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