On Saturday, while the Washington area's airports teem with travelers heading home for the holidays, about a dozen air traffic controllers will orchestrate the complex dance of passenger jets as they take off and land. It's a complicated job, requiring sustained focus, to make sure nobody crashes or runs out of fuel before they taxi safely home.
Not real jets, though.
These are virtual ones, flown by people in their living rooms and basements all over the world. And not really air traffic controllers, either. These are hobbyists, connected to one another on an online platform that knits together personal computer systems across a widely distributed network in a never-ending role-playing game of massive proportions.
Saturday is something of a special occasion, as Washinton's flight simulation community has invited pilots across the world to "fly in" at one time, creating an experience that's as close as possible to the real thing. A few of the "controllers" will get together in actual physical proximity, watching little moving dots on their maps of Reagan National Airport and helping to guide planes in.
"Nothing bothers me, unless it takes me out of the feeling of actually being in the Sim," explains Kyle Rodgers, a 28-year-old federal contractor who's been playing the game since he was 8 years old, and now helps coordinate the D.C. chapter of virtual air traffic controllers. "That I'm not actually in my basement, eating Doritos, that I'm actually controlling, and there's a sense of immersion."
Grand Theft Auto it's not. Flying a virtual plane is complicated and technical, as is directing them from the ground, but there are also long hours of not much going on. Modern aircraft can basically be put on autopilot, once a flight path is programmed in, so monitoring a long flight requires some tedium.
"It's really hard to justify to people," Rodgers admits. "People will ask, 'What did you do this Saturday?' And I'll be like, 'Log onto a virtual network and make a virtual ITC?' In the end, looking back, I spent 14 hours of my day doing little to nothing."
Nevertheless, over the past couple of decades the flight simulation community has grown to more than 70,000 members, spawned a cottage industry of software makers, developed most of the trappings of the commercial aviation industry, and created a complicated system of self-governance -- it's the biggest fantasy league you've never heard of.
Flight simulation is as old as computers themselves.
The hobby began in 1979, when an independent enthusiast named Bruce Artwick created a program for the Apple II. Microsoft, then a startup, picked up the idea and created Flight Simulator version 1.0 in 1982. Graphics steadily improved, adding versions of the Boeing 737 and a Learjet. And in 1998, Microsoft released a new edition that's still in wide use today, with mockups of 3,000 airports and dozens of aircraft to choose from -- as well as capability for multiplayer interaction, with voice communication and mechanisms for ground air traffic control.
The simulation community was loosely organized in the 1990s, but really started gearing up in 2001, when a group of enthusiasts formed the Virtual Air Traffic Control Network, or VATSIM: a common platform for "simmers" to interact in the same virtual world. The founders pay for the server space and volunteer their time to organize registered pilots in nearly every country; some 31,000 are in Europe and 20,000 in North America, with the rest distributed through the world.
Before long, the online universe started to take on the shape of the real industry. Airlines started to form, creating smaller communities within the larger organization -- pilots can now affiliate with more than 500 VATSIM-certified carriers. Some are completely invented, while others mimic the branding and routes of real-world airlines like Delta, Southwest and United. A few are even recognized by the companies whose names they bear, such as FedEx Virtual Cargo, and join global alliances that serve as umbrella groups for several airlines. Occasionally, airlines will merge like they do in the actual economy -- US Airways and American, for example. Meanwhile, many now-defunct companies -- such as Eastern and TWA -- still fly the virtual skies.
It's a kind of entrepreneurship, without the monetary reward.
Vince Hendrickson, for example, started Virtual United Airlines in 2011 from his home in the Virgin Islands. He has a full-time day job in the executive security business and runs Virtual United for fun, limiting it to 550 pilots to keep it manageable.
"It's a hobby, and the more pilots you add, the more it becomes work," Hendrickson says. At the same time, the airlines try to make themselves attractive to members -- passengers don't really enter the picture. "The competition online won't be customers, it'll be pilots," he says. That's also where the only element of gamification comes in: Some airlines will give out awards for the best landing of the day or the most flights flown. Otherwise, there's really no way to win.
The "airlines" might be entirely non-commercial, but flight simulation is still a serious business. Microsoft sold its original Flight Simulator software to Lockheed Martin, which is continuing to update it. Meanwhile, a cluster of companies has sprung up to develop add-ons to make the experience more realistic, with weather scenarios and different aircraft -- like the hotly-anticipated Boeing 777 from Alexandria-based PMDG, which will cost you $89.99. Some Simmers spend thousands of dollars on cockpits, with yokes, throttles and joysticks, which require a lot of computing horsepower to keep running.
If you don't want all that, though, a simple PC laptop -- and plenty of time to kill -- is enough.
In the VATSIM world, the main divide is one of of seriousness: Some people like to keep things as close as possible to how things work in real life, while others treat it more like a video game.
Rodgers is one of the serious ones. He wanted to be a professional air traffic controller, but the recession essentially choked off hiring, so he's put that dream on hold for now. In the mean time, he helps the D.C. air traffic controllers group become as realistic as possible, obtaining actual airport maps through freedom of information act requests and training members to really know what they're doing.
"There's areas that don't have the same culture, and suffer because of it," Rodgers says. "There are also the people who want to fy the 747 under the Golden Gate Bridge. That's the beauty of the Sim, you can have such a wide audience. The difficulty comes in when you have people who want to simulate realistic practices in an area that doesn't really have realistic controllers."
Inevitably, there are lots of ways in which the virtual world is nothing like the real one. You can turn crash settings off, so if you fly an airplane into the ground, it just bounces. You can even speed up time during a long flight so you don't have to spend so many hours doing nothing. VATSIM tries to keep its rules a little loose, to stay welcoming for newcomers (the really hardcore people have already split off to form their own network called PilotEdge, which has much stricter rules).
"We leave some things out, because we have to consider some of the guys who are flying online, they're not going to know all the rules that a real pilot would know," says Justin Friedland, VATSIM's volunteer spokesman. "If we say, 'the Canarsie climb out of Kennedy, radar vectors MERIT' they're going to go, 'Huh?'"
Nevertheless, VATSIM is still a playground for some real pilots and controllers -- Israel's El Al airline even had a bunch of pilots try out the simulation in order to test their radio skills in 2005. And if you want to break into the highly competitive air traffic controller profession, it's a good place to hang out. "If you can make connections through the people you know, or people who know other people, it helps, it really does," says Ryan Geckler, who manages the D.C. air' traffic controllers group from Boston, where he moved to work for Southwest Airlines.
One group that VATSIM particularly wants to recruit: women. Though they're starting to make inroads in the aviation industry, women are nearly impossible to find in the flight simulation world. "Any time a female-sounding voice pops up on frequency, we'll get text messages saying, 'Is that a girl?'" Rodgers says. "We had one girl at one point, but she dropped out."
At the moment, the female role in VATSIM seems to be mostly one of confusion at the long hours their husbands spend flying in cyberspace. In the face of his wife's skepticism, Friedland perseveres.
"She says, 'You realize your sitting at your desk,'" he says. "And I'll say, 'No, no, I'm over Ohio, and you're the stewardess who just brought me coffee."