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Into the wild blue virtual yonder

VatSim gives pilots and other aviation enthusiasts online airspace that mimics real conditions and exotic destinations. Images: Flight sim has users flying high

Travis Faudree, a professional charter pilot, considers himself to be pretty safe behind the controls. But every now and then he likes the challenge of flying into nasty weather--and when he gets that itch, he turns to one place.

Faudree is a frequent participant in VatSim (Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network), a free community-based simulation network that links thousands of real and wannabe pilots worldwide who use personal flight simulators in a real-time massively multiuser global aviation system.

Because VatSim is all virtual, there's no reason for the participating pilots not to treat approaching bad weather as their own personal playground.

"Lousy weather, such as low ceilings or visibility--fog, snow, rain--seems to attract virtual pilots," said Faudree, who is from Hilton Head, S.C. "For instance, the last noreaster that moved up the East Coast of the U.S...pilots on VatSim pretty much followed its path from night to night. One night, Miami was very busy. The next, Jacksonville, all the way up to Boston a few days later."

Other VatSim pilots agree, and point out that the lack of real-life risk lures those wanting to try flying in even the craziest environments.

"When there's a hurricane making landfall in the United States, you will invariably find two dozen aircraft trying to land in that thing," said Luke Kolin, a 33-year-old software developer from Roswell, Ga. "If you try and land a (Boeing) 777 in a hurricane and you screw up, well, nothing bad's going to happen to you."

Beyond flying in fake bad weather, real pilots appreciate being able to replicate other scenarios they might not get to experience in their real jobs.

"I use it to stay proficient by practicing difficult instrument approaches," Faudree said. "Those kinds of things are something that I was exposed to during my initial real-world training in a simulator, and I don't get to practice such things in the real world right now."

Of course, no aviation system would be complete without air traffic controllers, and the nonprofit VatSim has those, too. In fact, many users rotate between playing the role of pilot and air traffic controller.

"If you try and land a (Boeing) 777 in a hurricane and you screw up, well, nothing bad's going to happen to you."
--Luke Kolin, VatSim participant

And because VatSim is a real-time system, a simulated flight between, say, San Francisco and New York, takes several hours and crosses a series of air traffic control regions, each of which is staffed by a different group of people.

For example, Tim Krajcar, a 24-year-old IT manager from Portland, Ore., likes to hold court as an air traffic controller for hours at a time, helping to manage VatSim pilots flying around the Pacific Northwest.

"The main goal of VatSim (air traffic control), as in real life, is to provide separation services for aircraft," said Krajcar, "making sure two aircraft wanting to go to the same place at the same time at the same altitude don't run into each other."

Controllers also provide the virtual pilots with traffic advisories, weather conditions and sometimes even help with flying procedures.

According to Ruth McTighe, vice president of communications for VatSim, the network has had just under 130,000 accounts registered, and has more than 10,000 active users. It formed in 2001 when internal politics in a precursor network, SATCO, caused a rupture that resulted in two rival networks: VatSim, whose membership tends to be American, and IVAO (International Virtual Aviation Organization), which is more European.

But both networks have participants all over the world, as do a couple of smaller systems.

For pilots, VatSim works by linking individuals' home flight simulators--Microsoft Flight Simulator, known as "MSFS," is the most common--to the network via middleware like SquawkBox and FSInn. Similarly, other middleware products allow virtual air-traffic controllers to connect to the network from their home computers.

And while VatSim and other flight simulation networks have been around for a few years, the technology surrounding them is evolving at a rapid pace. Probably the biggest innovation is in so-called "payware," sophisticated airplane packages that give pilots much more realistic control systems, schematics and look-and-feel than the simplified versions included in products like Microsoft Flight Simulator.

"When I first got involved, back in 2000," said Kolin, "you were pretty satisfied if you had an aircraft that looked (somewhat) like the real thing...and wasn't too blocky or pixilated. Now you have payware packages...where it takes 10 to 15 minutes to start the engines because the system management software is so good."

Kolin also said the payware packages are so realistic that if someone using one were to go into the cockpit of a real Boeing 737, for example, their "procedures would be pretty similar and (they) would be familiar with what's going on."

Faudree said he helped test the payware version of a Piper Cheyenne, a plane built from the 1960s until the 1980s, and got a free copy for his time. That's his favorite plane, he said, although he also flies a twin engine Bonanza and a single-engine Baron, both from Beechcraft.

Flight sims in a post-September 11 world
The accessories market is also witnessing constant innovation. Some pilots choose to buy simple add-on flight yokes and rudder pedals to make it seem like they're flying a real plane. Others choose to spend thousands on such products.

For example, one California company, Precision Flight Controls, sells a replica 737 yoke for $1,295.

"There are units that you can buy that allow a (virtual pilot) to control his radios and autopilot systems by turning knobs with their actual hands instead of clicking the buttons on the screen," Faudree said. "Some people have even built full-blown flight decks from scratch (by) going out into the aircraft boneyards in the desert and purchasing actual parts of a cockpit, such as the overhead switch panel, or the throttle quadrant, or the main instrument panel."

And while VatSim and its brethren are mainly the enterprise of individual pilots or air traffic controllers connected to each other through single flights, there are others who have chosen to form groups.

One way they're doing that is to form virtual airlines based on real-life brands.

Thus, there are more than a dozen such "airlines": a virtual Delta, ATA, Southwest, Continental, American and many others.

Kolin is part of the virtual Delta. He said he and others in the "airline" join because they want to fly the kinds of commercial jets that are pretty much the province of the major commercial carriers.

Plus, he said, many sim participants group up by geographical region and the airlines that are dominant in those areas. That's why, since he's from the southeast, he's part of the Delta group.

He also said that because the virtual airlines are largely below-radar, as it were, and do their best not to misuse the real airlines' intellectual property and copyrights, the lawyers have stayed away.

Meanwhile, in the post-September 11 era, one might think that anyone learning flying proficiency through a simulation system might attract government attention.

McTighe said that hasn't happened yet.

"We did get quite concerned after 9/11 about whether there would be fallout for us," McTighe said. "But we've not had a problem. I suspect (that's) probably because not many people in authority are really aware of this little niche of the flight-sim market."