WHAT'S A FLIGHT SIMULATOR?
The purpose of a flight simulator is to recreate the feel of piloting a plane. Simulators can range from software on a personal computer used as a hobby, to sophisticated full-motion simulators used for training and annual recertification for professional pilots.
An example is Microsoft Flight Simulator, which can be purchased for about $30 and includes the precise layouts of runways for airports around the world. There are other commercially available programs, known as "add-ons," that provide more realistic versions of specific aircraft than those that come with programs right out of the box. One version of an add-on for a Boeing 777, the kind of plane missing since about an hour after taking off from Malaysia to China, costs $80.
The programs are realistic, but run on any computer. Some hobbyists build boxes and panels with physical switches, or buy them separately from companies that make joysticks and other hardware for a variety of games and simulators.
WHO ARE THESE VIRTUAL CAPTAINS?
Aviation enthusiasts have all sorts of hobbies that some outsiders might consider unusual. And some are very dedicated to their hobbies, like those who stand outside in all kinds of weather to take pictures of airplanes landing at their local airports. Some people write down the tail numbers of every plane they have ever flown in as a passenger.
Mike Pohl, who owns ACES Flight Simulation in Minneapolis, where customers can use his flight simulators, says simulators are used by people around the world, and not just pilots. Pohl said the customers who come into his business to use simulators have ranged from children to former space shuttle pilots, and many more have flight simulators at home.
There are more than a few enthusiasts. One popular forum, AVSIM Online, has 138,000 members, according to Tom Allensworth, its publisher and CEO.