Virtual Airlines 101: A "Crash" Course

By Sean "Crash" Reilly

Full Throttle Cover

In the later part of the evening and occasionally into the wee hours of the morning, a hearty group of individuals – most of them seemingly rational, grown men – sit perched in front of computer monitors with sweaty palms tightly clenching flight yokes. Distant cries of, "Honey, come to bed" have long since fallen on deaf ears as, with razor-sharp concentration, these airmen skillfully guide their aircraft down glideslopes to airports across the world. The late night silence is shattered by loud screeches of rubber on runway immediately followed by the deafening whine of reverse engine thrusters and finally by sighs of relief from the flight deck. The equipment, crew and thousands of virtual passengers have safely arrived at their destinations. Just another routine day in the life of a pilot flying for a virtual airline.

Are you one of those people whose eyes are constantly cast skyward, watching aircraft pass overhead? Ever dreamed of flying the heavy iron or wondered what it would be like to be a pilot for an airline? Want to develop a greater understanding of, and/or appreciation for, real-world aviation? Looking for more structure from your flight simming than booting up to the trusty Cessna at Meigs and then having to figure out where you want to fly? If you answered yes any of these questions, I highly recommend you consider pursuing a "virtual career" with a virtual airline.

Virtual Airlines (VAs) are not a new concept – they’ve been around for several years. Though I’m not certain of their exact origins, I believe their birthplace can be tracked to Flight Sim forums of online services like AOL or CompuServe. VAs were started by a small group of individuals with a passion for flight simulation, who decided to create the virtual equivalent to a real-world airline. They created a structure where flight sim enthusiasts could fly specified routes in aircraft other than the Cessna 182. With the introduction of a software program called Flight Shop by the now defunct BAO Software, it was possible for these enthusiasts to create custom designed aircraft of all types and colors. This further stimulated the growth of the virtual airline industry. Now it was possible to fly a much wider variety of aircraft not included in the default Flight Sim program.

While VAs based on the on-line services grew in popularity and number, it really wasn’t until the boom of the Internet that – if you’ll pardon the pun – VAs really took off. As a conservative estimate, there are 100+ virtual airlines operating either on the Net or online services today. They employ (virtually speaking) thousands – probably tens of thousands – of pilots of varying skill levels and aviation knowledge. These numbers will only increase as Microsoft continues to improve on its versions of Flight Simulator, as computer hardware improves and as outstanding add-on software and programs designed to enhance the virtual flying experience (like Squawk Box and Pro-Controller which enable you to fly with real-time ATC!) are introduced. The future of flight simulation, and of the virtual airline industry, is extremely bright.

To back up a step, to give you a better sense of how a virtual airline operates, let’s compare the structure of a typical VA to that of a real-world commercial airline. Let’s say, one day you wake up and decide you want to pursue a career in aviation. The first thing you’ll do is get over to your local airport and sign up for flying lessons. You’ll begin in a small, single-engine aircraft and eventually work your way up to more complex, multi-engine aircraft. During the process, you will earn various ratings. After you’ve accumulated the necessary hours and secured the required ratings (and shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in the process) you’d race down the personnel office of your favorite airline, fill out an application and – with some luck – be issued a polyester uniform and be hired on as an entry-level pilot. Most entry-level pilots begin by flying twin turboprops.

Switching to the virtual world, this is the jump-in point for most virtual airlines. Most assume you have secured the necessary training and accumulated the minimum number of hours to step into a twin turboprop aircraft such as a Beech 1900D or Brazilia. Your first step, once you decide which VA you want to fly for, is to log on to their web site and follow the links to the pilot application form. Fill out the form and wait for a letter of acceptance. Once accepted, many VAs will require you to take basic training in their entry-level aircraft. Training varies from one VA to another. If you are looking to increase your knowledge of, and appreciation for flying, I highly recommend you select a VA with the most realistic training program possible. A few VAs, including the one I fly for, offer training programs crafted by real-world certified flight instructors (CFIs). Some even go so far as to provide downloadable, custom-designed training center scenery! Our training file introduces some "hairy" weather conditions that makes for quite a landing challenge.

Much of what you learn in a virtual training program will mirror what you would actually learn in a non-virtual program. The more realistic the program, the better. If you survive the training exercises and return the training aircraft in the same condition you received it in (wheels round on all sides, no scratches on the bottom, wings attached and props unbent) you are issued virtual wings and your career begins. Congratulations and welcome aboard! As important caveat for those who may be wondering… there is no charge to fly for any of the VAs I’m familiar with. Even the virtual avgas is free!

Okay back to the real-world for a moment… when you fly for an airline, you fly aircraft painted in your airline’s colors. In the virtual world, VAs offer a livery of aircraft – ranging from small turboprops all the way up to heavies like the Boeing 747 and 777 – painted in their unique colors. When choosing a VA, I recommend you not only consider the fancy paint job of the fleet, but also how well each aircraft actually flies. Better VAs offer both attractive color schemes and highly accurate flight models of every aircraft in their fleet. Some VAs also offer pilot operating handbooks (POHs) for each aircraft. In case you are wondering, VA aircraft can be downloaded, free of charge, from each VA’s respective web site. The process is not complicated nor is the process of loading those aircraft into your Flight Simulator program. Most aircraft come with readme.txt files that walk you through the process. Some VAs, including ours, offer self-installing aircraft files for maximum pilot convenience. A real plus.

In the real world, commercial airlines fly pre-determined regional, domestic and/or international routes. Larger airlines fly to destinations throughout the world using wide variety of aircraft while smaller airlines may fly only regional or domestic routes with a limited fleet. It goes without saying that the types of aircraft each airline files is determined by the nature of the routes they fly. The same applies to the virtual world. Some VAs concentrate solely on regional or domestic routes with few aircraft types while others maintain diverse fleets of aircraft that fly a multitude of routes to destinations throughout the entire virtual world. When looking for a VA, consider the type of flying you most enjoy (short hops, long hauls or a combination) and the type of aircraft you like to fly. VAs with small fleets concentrating on regional routes can be every bit as fun to fly for as larger VAs with diverse fleets flying a full-blown assortment of routes. It is a matter of personal taste. There even one VA I know of that flies only classic (vintage) airliners. Quite specialized and clever.

One area of confusion, for those unfamiliar with the VA concept, that should be touched on is where the flying actually takes place. VA web sites are similar to FBOs at your local airport. This is "home base" where you come to sign up, check out (or download) aircraft, scenery, adventure files and other add-ons. In addition, training materials, POHs, etc. can be read and printed out from the web site. You can also communicate with other members of the VA from the web site. Some VA sites offer bulletin boards or forums for their members. All flying is done using a Flight Simulator program (99.9% are of the Microsoft variety). To be clear, you don’t fly from within the web site of a VA. The world you fly in is determined by the Flight Sim software you are using.

A word about career advancement. In the real-world, most entry level pilots flying twin turbos want to rapidly log as many hours as they can in order to advance to aircraft of more substance – the later promises a pilot greater challenge and a far more attractive salary. Career advancement in most VAs works much the same way. You begin your career in smaller aircraft, build hours (which you should log in your Flight Sim log book) and advance in aircraft type-ratings over time. Most VAs require you to, on regular intervals, report your hours to management. This is usually done via an on-line PIREP (pilot report) form at your VA’s web site or by e-mail. Most VAs have an "honor system" for flight time reporting. A few require you to submit your Flight Sim log book from time to time. As you accumulate hours, you are promoted in aircraft type and gain increased bragging rights. Sorry to say, however, that in the virtual world, salaries are the same for small turboprops as the are for triple sevens – zip, nada, zero. But consider the bright side – you didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars for flight training and you don’t need to wear those polyester uniforms.

A few other things to consider as you search for a virtual airline… first off, please take time to look at many VAs before signing on with one. Download and test fly various aircraft from at least a few VAs to see if they fly as good as the look. Look critically at the management structure/team of a VA – is it well-organized? Do the managers seem knowledgeable? Consider the longevity of the airline. Many VAs disappear as fast as they appear, which is a real frustration for pilots who then have to sign on with another VA and, in many cases, begin their career at the bottom again. Take a good look at the training program, the route structure, the minimum requirements to maintain active pilot status. Are they to your liking? You might also look critically at the web site of any VA you are considering. Look for depth and organization of content. Does the site offer interesting and informative information? Does it offer a "pilot help" section? Has it been updated recently or is the content dated? Does the site contain a pilot and/or visitor comments page? If it does, what are people saying there? Does the VA promote and support real-world aviation? Ours is a proud sponsor of GA Team 2000’s "Stop Dreaming/Start Flying" campaign to increase real-world general aviation pilot starts. Has the site and/or airline received any awards and, if so, for what and by whom? Another great resource to consider are the flight sim magazines – like this one. Has the VA received any favorable press? Does the VA offer specialty divisions such as a Cargo or Charter Division? Does the VA host special events such as fly-ins? While you might not want to choose one VA over another for any single thing listed above, you should consider the bigger picture – a combination of the above – as an indicator of how well-run and stable a VA is, and how seriously the management team takes their operation. Just because it is a virtual operation doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a professional one.

Another thought regarding career advancement in the virtual world… if you would like to do more than just fly for a virtual airline, after accumulating some hours and experience with your VA, inquire about a management position within the organization. The single most important ingredient of any successful virtual airline – large or small – is its management team. It takes more than a few talented people to run a successful virtual airline – it takes many, all working in sync towards a common goal. A virtual airline is only as good as the sum of its leaders. VAs are always in need of creative and talented individuals to fill positions such as hub managers, aircraft and scenery designers, personnel directors, route creators, training directors, special project directors, web designers and others. Though the pay isn’t great – "virtually nothing," in fact – a management career in a virtual airline can be highly gratifying.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing I have found about flying for a virtual airline is the creativity and camaraderie that exists between our members – and the flight sim community as a whole. While our airmen come from literally all over the world, are of different ages, cultural backgrounds, etc., we all have one thing very much in common – a passion for flying, be it simulated, real-world or both. The sense of "community" that exists within the structure of a successful virtual airline, coupled with the common interest we share, is second-to-none. Consider a career with WestWind Airlines, – it’s a blast!

(This article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Full Throttle magazine. Reprinted with permission of Full Throttle)

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