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.”