So you want to be a virtual pilot?

So you want to be a virtual pilot?
by pragerfan

Last Updated: May 8, 2016

When I was in my early 20's, I seriously thought about becoming an airline pilot. Life got in the way, of course - the best laid plans of mice and men - and the hope of getting a pilot's license, much less landing a job at a U.S. airline, have since all but vanished. The time commitment, the financial commitment, the fretting of wife and children over safety - these things and more have conspired to make real world piloting an unattainable goal for me at this time.

In the mid-1990s I learned how to simulate flight (or "simming" as it's now known) on my personal computer using the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator. In 1999 I signed up with Gateway Airlines. After logging around 260 hours or so with Gateway Airlines, attaining the rank of senior commercial captain, I decided to start my own virtual airline in 2000. I remained CEO until 2004, when I "retired" from the airline. At its height while I was CEO, we had 60+ pilots flying, at four hubs (St. Paul, Dallas, Denver, and one other location which I cannot now remember).

With nearly a thousand hours under my belt, I tried to start a couple of other virtual airlines, but both went into bankruptcy. In the real world, bankruptcy means an airline runs out of money. In the virtual world, bankruptcy means an airline runs out of pilots. I flew off and on between 2005 and 2013, just enough to keep my practice up and my skills sharp. At the beginning of 2014 I returned to virtual aviation in earnest: I signed on with Delta Virtual Airlines ( I liked the airline's rigorous but flexible approach. Their equipment program structure also piqued my interest. Where most virtual airlines separate pilots into geographic hubs, at Delta equipment programs correspond to the type of aircraft for which the pilot has been qualified. Each equipment program is managed by a Chief Pilot, who may have one or several Assistant Chief Pilots assisting.

The purpose of the virtual airline is to emulate, to the furthest extent possible given limitations of computer technology and varying time commitments of its member pilots, actual airline operations and flights in the real world. Here at Delta Virtual Airlines, we emulate the real world Delta by adhering to the Delta flight schedule, using simulated aircraft corresponding to the aircraft flown by real-world Delta pilots, interacting with live air traffic control (ATC) when available, and flying under, through, and above real world weather, all over the world.

I'll get into the details in a bit, but first let's go over some of the basic qualifications to be a pilot at a virtual airline. To borrow from the old mission statement I wrote for SPA, the most basic qualification is that the pilot "has a PC flight simulator and knows how to use it to complete scheduled flights."

In years gone by, due to the price of graphics cards, it was fairly expensive to build a high-end flight sim PC (known as a "rig"), but today a nice rig can be had fairly cheaply, especially if you build it yourself. My rig consists of an ASRock 970 Extreme 4 motherboard, an NVIDIA 970 graphics card, 16 gigs of RAM, an AMD FX-4350 quad-core processor running at 4.2 GHz, and a Samsung EVO SSD for storage. One of the best measures of the performance of a rig for flight simulation is video frames per second (fps), and anything above 30 fps is passable. State-of-the-art rigs are capable of close to 200 fps with good graphics cards. I get about 50-60 fps flying the Level D 767, and 120+ fps flying less complicated (i.e. less bells and whistles) aircraft. The choice of simulator is yours, but most people opt for Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX). Some pilots have moved to Lockheed Martin's Prepar3d, and I suspect that this trend to continue as FSX is no longer supported by Microsoft, and Windows 7 is an aging, albeit still stable, platform for FSX.

Completing scheduled flights requires some aviation knowledge and the time commitment to turn that knowledge into successful logged flights under the auspices of your virtual airline. At a minimum a beginning virtual airline pilot should be able to fly a commuter twin engine aircraft safely from one airport to another airport at least 50 miles away. Because he may be asked to fly at night or in any kind of weather (just as the real-world pilots are), he should be proficient in instrument navigation and instrument flying in general. The ideal is to be able to navigate solely on instruments from shortly after takeoff to shortly before landing, maintaining the glideslope using instruments until just a mile or two from touchdown, or about an altitude of 1500' AGL. He also needs a working knowledge of standard instrument departure and arrival routes, which serve to make the virtual experience "as real as it gets." These "SIDs" and "STARs," as they are colloquially known, are the very same charts used by real-world pilots. Fluency with SIDs and STARs is essential when flying on VATSIM, the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network, which takes its mission as the arbiter of virtual airspace very seriously - they won't scramble F-16s if you don't respond to an ATC call, they'll just disconnect you entirely from the VATSIM network. I'll have more to say on VATSIM later.

Delta Virtual Airlines, like many other airlines based on real-world counterparts, updates its flight schedule periodically to correspond with that of the real-world Delta. This includes the correct equipment (aircraft) for each route, so if the schedule says MD-90, then that means Delta flies the MD-90 on that route. However, the virtual airline offers pilots the flexibility to fly a route using their aircraft of choice for which they are rated. The flight numbers are real as well; I once tuned into (as there was no VATSIM controller available in my airspace) to have some chatter during my flight, which was flight number 2198 from Minneapolis to Detroit. Listening to Minneapolis Tower, I heard the pilot for the real Delta 2198 on the frequency. Later on, I had the opportunity to fly on Delta 2198 when I went to New York on business. There is much symmetry between Delta Virtual Airlines and the real McCoy.

FSX has the ability to download real-world weather. It is essential for realism that the virtual pilot always enables real-world weather. Flying without weather is not really flying. Weather adds altogether higher level of complexity and realism to your simulation. Be sure to enable maximum weather and overall realism in your simulator settings. As this essay is not intended to provide meteorological or FSX technical instruction, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on these topics.

That brings us to the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM). VATSIM is what really provides the most realism when flying your simulator. VATSIM allows real-time interaction between a virtual pilot and a live, trained virtual air traffic controller. The VATSIM controllers are generally very cordial and trained to high standards. They are sticklers for detail, for a high level of detail produces a high level of realism and concomitantly, a high level of learning. Nevertheless, and there may be some old hands that disagree with me on this, I do not recommend that new pilots begin with VATSIM upon signing up with Delta Virtual Airlines. One reason among others that real world cockpits have two crew members is that the pilot not flying (PNF) handles the radios, navigation, and communications with ATC, while the pilot flying (PF) is, well, flying the plane. While a two-man crew is a mandate in the real world, it is rare for a virtual captain to have a first officer to assist him. This means that he must do double-duty - fly the aircraft, navigate the aircraft, and handle radios and communications with ATC, not to mention flight and fuel planning, weather considerations, ACARs, the list goes on. When on final approach, for example, all of these things together can be a daunting task, and it is not always easy to coordinate everything to a successful conclusion. My advice is to get 15-20 flights under your belt before jumping into VATSIM. Delta Virtual Airlines has an "offline" reporting mode; there is no requirement to be logged into VATSIM to complete a flight. Be sure that you're proficient in all aspects of handling the aircraft, to include taxi, takeoff, fuel management, navigation via SIDs and STARs and setting up the approach, landing, touchdown and rollout, before you jump into VATSIM. Once you experience live ATC, you'll never want to go back. Mastery of the basics is critical to successfully making the transition to VATSIM.

If you sign on with Delta Virtual Airlines, you will be given an initial 10-question aeronautical exam and on the basis of your result you will be assigned an equipment program. Equipment programs belong to stages 1 through 5 depending on the size and in some cases complexity of the aircraft. Most pilots will likely begin at stage 1, though some are assigned to stage 2, and even stage 3 though this is comparatively rare. At stage 1 you will probably fly the Embraer 120, a twin-engine turboprop commuter. You'll begin at the rank of First Officer (regardless of your stage), and you'll be assigned a Chief Pilot and one or more Assistant Chief Pilots to help you get started. Log 10 successful Delta scheduled flights ("PIREPs" in the Embraer 120 or other stage 1 aircraft using Delta's ACARS (Aircraft Communication and Reporting System), and you'll be eligible to take the exam for promotion to EMB-120 Captain. The exam consists of between 20 and 30 questions testing basic aviation knowledge. Be careful as the questions can be tricky. Your exam will be computer-scored, and a passing score means you've earned your fourth bar, which is usually awarded within a few days after passing the exam.

Many new pilots are eager to move out of stage 1 and into stage 2. Although you can take the first officer exam and request an immediate check ride and upgrade, my suggestion is not to do so. Spend and enjoy some quality time as a Captain in each stage (737, 757, 767) before completing the check ride for the next stage. It will help you on your check ride in which you will be asked to demonstrate competent handling of the aircraft. There is a separate Airbus track (A320, A330, A340) for Airbus fans. The Airbus track offers complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres on flights over 90 minutes.

I try to fly at least once a week or thereabouts. Sometimes I will log several flights in a week, other times a week or two will go by when I don't fly. I normally can be found on VATSIM flying the MSP-ORD and ORD-MSP loop; sometimes I will fly Minneapolis to somewhere else. There are no flight "assignments" per se at Delta, but you will not get flight credit for a flight not on the flight schedule. As long as the flight is on the schedule, you are qualified for the aircraft and you use ACARs, you'll normally get credit for your flight.

All in all, Delta Virtual Airlines is a well-run, mature organization with a high level of realism where the new virtual pilot can start a rewarding career. A virtual aviation career offers a piloting experience that is "as real as it gets" for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to pursue real world aviation. Hope to see you in the left seat soon!

Pragerfan joined Delta Virtual Airlines in January of 2014. He became a Captain in the 767, 757, 737, and MD-80 equipment programs. He retired from Delta Virtual Airlines after five years of service.