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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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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.

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