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

Welcome to Cyberairspace

Where you can fly from Chicago to Atlanta without leaving your living room.

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.”

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