So far this month, California Air has run 690 flights across its network spanning from San Francisco to Melbourne -- all without leaving the ground.
Its 147 pilots fly the latest Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV virtual models. They can follow commands from virtual controllers and view cockpit instruments and other aircraft in fine detail, said Brent Bain, the virtual airline’s owner.
The homemade flight simulator at the home of Malaysian Air Flight 370’s captain has been seized by authorities seeking clues to the flight’s disappearance March 8. It’s hardly unusual, though, to the global community of hobbyists who spend as much as tens of thousands of dollars to turn garages into virtual cockpits cobbled together from junked aircraft parts, flat-panel screens and off-the-shelf software.
“Instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons, they are flying their simulated airplanes for their simulated airlines in simulated airspace,” John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
Home simulators offer a way for anyone to learn the fundamentals of flying, even how to program a jetliner’s controls.
So if someone entered the cockpit of Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370 and took control from the pilots, switched off communications systems and flew the plane for seven hours at cruising speed, that person could have learned what they needed to know without going to flight school, Hansman said.
The X-Plane flight simulator, produced by Laminar Research LLC of Columbia, South Carolina, has 4 million users, said Randy Witt, co-owner of the company.
Witt said he often hears from airline pilots who use the program to prep for exams or simply enjoy “flying” from laptops.
“I’ve got lots of airline pilots who use X-Plane,” he said in an interview. “They’ll be sitting in a hotel room in Munich and they’ll go over their route for the next day.”
Users of X-Plane or Microsoft Corp.’s Flight Simulator, the program that Flight 370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah described using in an online post, are capable of displaying hundreds of aircraft models. Those include the Boeing 777-200ER, the model that investigators are searching for in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia.
Microsoft, which halted development of its simulator in 2009, continues to sell the software, Letty Cherry, a spokeswoman for the Redmond, Washington-based company, said in an e-mail.
Home simulators can show almost all the plane’s dials, displays and buttons. If pilots want a more realistic look, they can buy hardware to create the look and feel of the real dials and connect them to the software, Laminar’s Witt said.
Flightdeck Solutions of Newmarket, Ontario, sells cockpit hardware such as throttle columns, auto pilots and flight-management computers for simulators, according to its website.
Other companies produce software add-ons providing more realistic scenery, Witt said.
A California man, James Price, bought the nose of a Boeing 737 from an airplane scrapyard and recreated its cockpit in his garage, adding video monitors showing runways and terrain as it flies, according to his website.
Tom Perry of Pepperell, Massachusetts, who’s also a real pilot, said he’s spent about $10,000 on simulators since the 1980s.
“People are very passionate about this stuff once they get into it,” Perry said.
The Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network provides realistic controllers who can guide pilots into imaginary airports around the world.
In addition to California Air, Delta Virtual Airlines, Southwest Virtual Airlines and numerous carriers ply simulated skies.
“Flying in the real world is very expensive these days and mostly out of reach for some, so a virtual airline flight world is the next thing,” Bain, of Brisbane, Australia, said in an e-mail. “I tell you it’s very cool.”
An entry-level X-Plane version for a computer sells for $59.99. The company’s website offers components for mobile devices for as little as $1.99. More complex simulators designed for pilot training have been built using X-Plane and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Zaharie’s simulator had at least four screens, one of which replicated the 777’s flight-control console and three showing views outside the windscreen, according to a video he posted to YouTube.com. The U.S. FBI was called in to help retrieve data deleted last month from the simulator to see if it sheds any light on Flight 370.
To Hansman, though, there could be another simulator elsewhere with more clues.
“The person who turned the plane and shut down the systems would have to have pretty good knowledge of the airplane,” Hansman said. “They wouldn’t have to be a certified pilot.”