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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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“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.

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