The Virtual World in the Sky

Most of what thrills me about being up in a plane is visual. There’s a perspective, which I often have in my mind when I am on the ground, that I finally get to see in reality when I fly. There are other pilots of the same plane who complain that eventually the great visibility is a liability because you roast in the sun. I don’t care, I just want to see more. If I could, I would have the entire cockpit Plexiglas, including the floor. (Helicopters are like that, huge globes of visibility that you float through the sky in. I would be more interested in learning to fly helicopters if they weren’t twice as expensive and twice as fragile.)

I love the visual aspect, but I have come to realize that there is a virtual part of aviation that I enjoy as well. When I am sliding over the desert at ten thousand feet and I hear on the radio, “Los Angeles Center, Cirrus five five three Charlie Delta at nine thousand five hundred,” I picture that plane. Air traffic control (ATC) sometimes helps by asking for more detail on their position or route. Sometimes the pilot will volunteer it. “Ten miles north east of Dagget VOR.” I imagine the plane in my head, either way, speeding arrow-straight over the same terrain, and I try to picture the convergence with my own path. Where is that other plane in this great big sky?

As I enter the traffic pattern at an airport I concentrate even more to create a picture. “Cessna five eight one Tango Zulu, enter the right downwind for two-one, traffic you’re following is a DiamondStar on right base, wing up turning to final.” So the tower is telling another airplane about me. They are behind me, about to fly downwind parallel to the runway, heading toward my position. They are looking for me. If I build a picture in my head of the relative positions of the other aircraft, I have a better idea of where to look for them, and I will have an easier time avoiding them. That’s even more critical at an airport without a tower, where the traffic is all self-reporting.

There is a virtual world of navigation as well. These days a lot of pilots fly with a global positioning system (GPS), which allows a direct straight-line flight to a destination, but before this technology was so widely available pilots would be up in the sky tuning in navigation radio sources. A Very High Frequency Omni-directional Range transmitter (VOR) is a radio that sends out coded signals. When decoded, your navigation set can tell you exactly which compass radial you are on heading towards (or away from) that point on the chart. Not only that, but the way a navigation radio displays the information (a needle swinging in a range) it is possible to “see” a particular radial and which direction you need to fly in order to get closer to and intercept it.

And there they are, lines in the sky. Before the GPS that’s how pilots navigated, flying from VOR to VOR (and, occasionally, to points between them). While I am on a long leg of a flight, cruising along, I will tune in the nearby VORs, to check my equipment and correlate my position on a chart. It’s another connection of the virtual to the real.

My work with computers contains a similar characteristic. A lot of my daily communication is in electronic mail or instant message with a virtual correspondent. Most I have met in real life, but some I have not. (There’s a thrill in radio work in the plane when I hear another pilot I know. The other day as I was practicing landings I heard my instrument instructor say in the tower frequency, “We’re watching, Colin.”) I designed a dot-com (now defunct, shut down by the people who bought it), which was all about creating virtual communities. In fact, I don’t think of them as virtual communities, but just as communities which don’t have a real life counterpart.

Architecture, which I practice (practice practice practice), is entirely virtual for a significant portion of the creative process. We create models (both real ones, out of paper and cardboard, and virtual ones in the computer), sketches, and hard line drawings of the building. We never get to see the finished product during our design process, we rely on our imagination to picture it, correct it, and finesse it. As we walk the site we have to imagine the virtual lines that we will eventually cut into it or build atop it. We have to picture our clients walking through the non-existent spaces, looking out to views through windows not-yet-there.

In both cases, the imagination is a tool used to create an analog of the real situation, and it has to be adjusted to match new details as they are gathered. (“Cessna five seven two Charlie Bravo turning downwind…” is a new piece of information and my virtual image of the traffic around the airport changes to include it.) I enjoy this, a gradual pairing of information from the real world and a model I am creating in my mind. I especially enjoy when bits of the virtual world finally show up in reality, like when the business jet the controller has called out as “traffic at eleven o’clock” sails past my left wing a few hundred feet above me.

Instrument flying is an even more extreme case of this effect. When you are inside a cloud there is no visual information to start with. So everything is virtual. The path of my plane, other planes, the position of the plane over the terrain, the maneuvers necessary to effect the next change in altitude or navigation. Everything must be imagined. The indications on the control panel, the notations on my kneepad about my flight plan, and the calm words from the air traffic controllers all have to paint the entire picture. I fly through a cloud of visible moisture, and along virtual lines, past plotted points that I know about, my airplane’s avionics know about, and that the controllers know about. Meaningless intersections on the chart, defined in the sky usually as an intersection of two radials off of two nearby VORs, that slide by like the landscape I am usually studying as I fly.

Next time it’s grey, look up and think of me, drawing a line through those clouds.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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