In imaginary skies, would-be controllers guide pretend pilots
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GLENDALE, Calif. -- The skies above Southern California were busy on a recent Monday evening as Markian Olesijuk deftly coordinated the departures and arrivals of more than a dozen airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport.
Suddenly, an Airbus A340 from the Chilean airline LAN appeared, perilously close to other planes, with the pilot issuing a demand in broken English for landing clearance. "Where did this guy come from?" a startled Mr. Olesijuk asked, before quickly directing the pilot away from other aircraft and setting him up for a safe landing.
Such near-crashes happen all too often, Mr. Olesijuk said. Fortunately, they don't happen in the real sky, but online in the make-believe airspace of the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network, or Vatsim.
Mr. Olesijuk, 19 years old, was orchestrating the landing from a leather office chair, on a desktop computer at his parents' home here. The community-college student, restaurant deliveryman and licensed pilot is one of the nearly 109,000 registered Vatsim users. The Web network began in 1996 as a way to add a layer of realism to the popular Microsoft flight-simulator programs.
Since then, Vatsim has evolved into a sprawling universe of make-believe pilots and controllers. On simulated transoceanic flights, some pilots sit at their computers for eight hours or more, steering their mock planes in real time. The virtual air-traffic controllers use software that puts realistic radar screens on their home computers.
To become a top-dog controller, aviation buffs must train online for up to two years. When they take a shift, the controllers communicate via headsets over the Internet, in English, using official aviation terminology and internationally recognized navigation procedures.
Keith Smith runs the simulated Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center and is nominally Mr. Olesijuk's boss online. The 31-year-old Australian native, who lives in Pompton Plains, N.J., works from home as a software architect. He has his hands full managing the 107 controllers who run some of the busiest simulated airspace. Also a licensed pilot, he says his experience as an online controller "is so satisfying and challenging that I enjoy controlling more than I do flying in the real world."
To be "certified," a simulated controller must pass written tests, available online, as well as undergo monitored training by Vatsim controllers who are designated instructors, Mr. Smith says.
In the network's Los Angeles group, a new controller practices at less-busy airports such as Burbank or Long Beach before moving up to LAX.
Joe Barstow, a 48-year-old San Diego car dealer and avid "flightsimmer," as virtual pilots are called, frequently simulates flights of Honolulu-based Aloha Airlines, the company where his wife works. He'll often fly a route that mimics an actual Aloha flight, such as San Diego-Maui. Using real-world charts and weather data, he plans every aspect of his Boeing 737 flight, contacting Southern California Vatsim controllers when he's ready to go.
Mr. Barstow says when he's flying using Vatsim he doesn't leave the computer, even while crossing long, empty stretches of the Pacific. "I've got my two laptops here for work, but I monitor the flight computer the whole time so if somebody calls me on the radio for my location, I'll be here to answer," he says. "It's just like a real-life situation you could encounter when flying to Hawaii." After Mr. Barstow logged nearly 1,000 hours flying online, his wife got "fed up watching me fly the stupid computer around the house," and told him to learn to fly for real. Today, he is a general-aviation pilot in his spare time.
Anyone can join Vatsim for free, and no experience is required. "I purposely avoid flying near Albuquerque because they've got some kids that don't sound older than 10 years old doing the controlling," Mr. Barstow says. Some interlopers attempt to inject excitement by staging hijackings or crash landings, which the network forbids.
Sometimes Vatsim's universe intersects with the real aviation world. Last year, the Israeli airline El Al ran newly hired 737 pilots through a PC simulation hosted by members of Vatsim in Israel to hone their commercial-airline radio skills in a realistic environment. El Al declined to comment on its Vatsim experience.
Richard Jenkins, the president of Vatsim, says he received an unsolicited email in 2004 claiming to be from a representative of a communist student organization in China who took issue with Vatsim's recognition of Taiwan as a separate entity with its own airspace. Mr. Jenkins, a 39-year-old financial analyst for a health-care organization in suburban Sacramento, Calif., says he told the emailer that he disagreed and took no action.
The network also faced complaints from both Greek and Turkish air-traffic-control enthusiasts over control of the fake airspace over Cyprus. Today, there are 19 Vatsim controllers overseeing Cyprus's airspace, three of them Cypriots running the site and a majority hailing from Greece.
In Vilnius, Lithuania, the local press covered Vatsim's decision in March to officially certify the country's virtual air-traffic controllers. Arunas Stankevicius, a 30-year-old tech manager, runs the effort with only three other controllers. Two have newborn babies and a third is a full-time student, which Mr. Stankevicius says "limits our activities on a daily basis." He says he's already fielded a request for training from a Vatsim enthusiast who wants to begin services in neighboring Latvia.
First Published May 18, 2006 12:00 am