WorldFlight. Where virtual pilots save real lives. ​

WorldFlight. Where virtual pilots save real lives. ​

This article was first published on LinkedIn in 2018.

The initial thought of most people, should you mention the world of home flight simulation, is to picture a 50ish something man, resplendent in a cardigan and slippers, pottering in a shed or spare bedroom. It’s a stereotype, and like most stereotypes, it’s not without a basis in truth. In reality, flight simulation attracts all age groups and genders, though it’s still the preserve of men for the most part. Flight simulation itself has been around since the first home computers, and whilst it’s not quite as popular a pastime as it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s currently enjoying a little renaissance. Its roots may date back to the Radioshack TSR-80, today, the world of Flight Simulation is complex. At the top of the flight sim tree, sits the full-size simulator. Everything from the humble Cessna 172 and beyond can be recreated, with Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320 being the most popular built types. A plethora of companies have sprung up to serve this niche within a niche community. From complete real-world cockpits right the way down to individual replica panels, if you have the money, time and space, you can build the simulator of your dreams. It’s a big community and one that, once a year, comes together to do something special. Welcome to Worldflight.


Real time display of pilots leaving Sydney on day 1 of Worldflight.

Every November, beginning on the first Saturday, Teams from across the globe come together to take part in the flight sim world’s more gruelling event, WorldFlight. The rules are simple. Teams must fly in a full-size replica cockpit that must have a real-world range similar to the B737 or A320. The teams must be available for the whole week. Finally, teams must nominate a charity to raise money for. Over the week, in a non-stop event that continues on 24 hours a day, the various teams and crews fly around the world, with over 40 legs to cover. All the while, their progress is broadcast live via Facebook, Youtube or Twitch. The internet is essential as every team that takes part, flies online with virtual ATC, known as VATSIM, guiding their progress. Logistically, the event is massive. It’s challenging, exhausting and its also extremely popular. This year there are 14 official teams. Joining them on the ground at Sydney are hundreds of other pilots, logging into the VATSIM world to follow the teams along the way.

Meet Team JetSim.

Meet some of the team at the start of the week.

Team JetSim is one of three UK based teams taking part in WorldFlight 2018. Based in Peterborough, the team run a Boeing 737-800 simulator called Janet. Janet’s owner, team leader Jonathan Lockton shows me around. He began building the sim around 5 years ago, and today, as I stand in the beautifully constructed passenger cabin, complete with overhead bins and business class seating for 8 people, it’s clear that this particular sim sits near the top of the tree. The main cockpit has been remade using real parts from an old SAS aircraft, then augmented with the replacement panels, all sourced from numerous suppliers. I sit in the cabin for a while and enjoy the newest edition to the sim, realistic packs for air conditioning. The packs even switch off as the engines spool up. Combined with wing views from the cabin windows and the effect is immersive.

The view of the cabin.

Keeping CALM for charity.

This is the 3rd year Team JetSim are taking part in WorldFlight, and this year, they’re chosen charity is called CALM. CALM or the Campaign Against Living Miserably is a charity that specialises in offering support to men who can’t or won’t talk to other organisations, like the Samaritans. Men often keep things bottled up, enduring suffering for many reasons, some of which is the belief that talking about those feelings isn’t manly. CALM is trying to change that. They offer men a no judgement zone to let them pour their hearts out, and to offer advise and support to help them deal with the problems they’re facing. Its estimated 85 men week will take their own lives. CALM has phone lines as well as chat rooms, dedicate to reducing this number. Team JetSim are hoping to raise £7000 during WorldFlight this year, and a single £8 donation funds a telephone call that could save a life. The crew are all behind this and they talk about it a lot during the flights. During the week, They’ve even had a visit from CALM themselves, where they discuss the problems men face between WorldFlight legs.

Over Half way.

Person Sleeping in the cabin.
Holly grabbing a quick nap between flights.

By now its Thursday night and Team JetSim’s crew have been flying non-stop for several days. Eyes are bloodshot and heads are slightly bowed due to sheer exhaustion. I’ve arrived just as Holly Freeman, one of the teams youngest pilots, completes her leg, landing somewhere in Russia. She’s a more than capable pilot, having recently completed her ATPL. That makes her one of the most experienced pilots here. She’s also tired. Worldflight is all about irregular hours and a bad diet. Out in reception, where I’m casually chatting to a few of the crew, you can’t help but notice the trays of Red Bull sat in a corner. As Holly passes us, she smiles, greets me warmly, before heading off to her hotel bed. She’ll be back in a few hours, so any sleep she can grab is a bonus.

Pilots at the controls
Lee Wilson in command with Sam Head as First Officer.

Lee Wilson, a local GA pilot and one of Team JetSim’s most popular pilots with the viewers, is up next. However, with one eye on being nice, and more likely, the other on an earlier finish and a few more hours sleep, Lee offers me his spot in the left-hand seat for the next leg. I can’t refuse. I head into the cockpit to find Team JetSim pilot Ed Donald sat in the co-pilot’s seat. We sit and chat for a while before it sinks in that I’m being interviewed live on the team’s Twitch stream. Usually, it’s the other way round, with myself asking the questions. What’s clear, once I realise what’s happening, is that Team JetSim’s audience is incredibly knowledgable and free of that most annoying of internet creatures, Trolls. They fire questions at me for the next 45 minutes, and as Malc Wood, the co-pilot I’ll be flying with, enters the cockpit, I’m relieved to out from under the spotlight. In truth, I’m now out of the frying pan, but firmly into the fire. I realise I have no idea where in the world we are in the sim. Dawn is breaking. Not knowing where I am provides a minor annoyance for Malc, who like the rest of the team, is showing signs of fatigue. The change in pilot means the flight planning as gone out the window. Malc disappears only to reappear a few minutes later with a plan and the aircrafts weights. Plan in hand, Malc settles into the right-hand seat and we begin to preflight the aircraft.

All for one, and one for a laugh.

Snack time. Good food is not really an option
for Worldflight

Throughout WorldFlight, there’s constant chatter and camaraderie with the other official teams. Outside the cockpit window sits UK Team, SimFest in their B747. We flash our landing lights across the tarmac, and a flash of recognition comes back. Meanwhile, word has gotten around that I’m to take the controls for the next leg, and Australian Team, WorldFlight Airbus pass a message of good luck, with a rye smile. The smile is there, despite my inability to see it because I predominantly fly the Airbus A320 on my own sim. The B737 is another country, and I’ve not visited it for many years. Malc isn’t taking any prisoners, however, and with a little help, he gets me through the preflight and onto engine start. Once we’re clear to taxi, I advance the power and begin the short journey to the intersection of Runway 28. Time is always tight in Worldflight, so I set the power, wait for it to stabilise, and as I turn onto the centreline, I advance to full power and get going. Here the first sign of Airbus V Boeing appears and my throttle settings will likely destroy the engines. Quietly, Malc reduces thrust and we’re away. I fly manually to FL100 before I let George take over. Flight time is expected to be around two hours, so I settle into the left-hand seat, and we get chatting. So far, the preflight all the way to departure has been flown just like the real thing, using real procedures and terminology. It’s impressive and I ask Malc about his time with WorldFlight. Malc is a veteran, flying every year since 2006, with more than a few teams. Despite not holding a pilots license, his command of the 737’s procedures is unsurpassed. As we reach cruise, that professionalism relaxes and the fun begins. Both Malc and I hail from God’s own country, Wales, and we figure this is the first ‘All Welsh’ flight crew in WorldFlight history. As we discuss this, Tom Jones filters in over the cabin intercom. Next comes the Welsh National Anthem which Malc and I blunder through, tear in eye more from laughter than national pride. It’s the stuff like this that makes a stream more interesting. as the laughter dies down, Malc Excuses himself to use the restroom. As Malc leaves, I’m joined by Leon Greybe Jnr. Leon, a South African by birth, has a sense of humour. It’s wicked. Having met Leon before, I knew what to expect and Leon doesn’t disappoint. The on-stream banter is humorous, and as the real cabin empties out as the time reaches midnight, The jokes keep coming. We discuss flying, my desire to get my ATPL, his desire to fly again. after 45 minutes, we work out that Malc isn’t coming back. This produces more laughter.

Let Me entertain you!

So Mister Bond…….

During the stream, it’s important that we get the message out that we need donations. To aid this, There are various prizes to give away. These vary from bits of Flight simulator software to large pieces of sim hardware. This year’s top prize is a replica CDU/MCDU for either Boeing or Airbus, Supplied by Canadian Simulator builders, FlightDeck Solutions. Its a gift worth just shy of $1000CAD. I’ve brought with me a few subscriptions to both PC Pilot and Airliner World magazines. They’ll be raffled off later. For now, I have a bet to fulfil. The previous night, I sat manning the chat in the cockpit. The official team Mascot is a pink fluffy unicorn. When A donation of £8 is received, a song plays in the cockpit, simply singing ‘Pink fluffy unicorns, bouncing on rainbows’. Viewers on the stream even see a GIF capturing the moment. The team also grab the cockpit mascot and do a little dance with it. The Pink Fluffy Unincornness of it is directly opposite my own, dressed only in black, Goth nature. To see if we could get some donations in, its suggested that for three £8 donations, I’ll have my picture taken with the unicorn, looking glower as I do. Four donations and a large £20 donation later, Its time to pay up. Grasping the unicorn, I go for a full-on Bond villain pose, expecting Mr. Bond to die, as I stroke my new pink fluffy friend. Leon snaps the picture, and as promised, its posted to the team’s Facebook page. More laughter.

Leon, also feeling the need to visit the bathroom, perhaps in hopes of finding Malc, leaves and for the last part of the flight, I’m joined by co-pilot John Macintosh. A Glaswegian lad, he slips into the right-hand seat like he’s always been there. Being a journalist, and aware that keeping the stream entertaining is important, I ask John how he came to be here in Peterborough. His response was unexpected. John tells us his story, of losing his children, of his pain and suffering following their loss, and of the remnants of that, the PTSD that’s left him with Insomnia. His ease in telling me his story is breathtaking. He found himself in need of the kind of help that CALM provides, and thankfully, John contacted the Samaritans at the time. So this week is personal to him, and the cause something he’s passionate about. He also tells me how the team invited him down to Peterborough after the last WorldFlight even. John’s Insomnia meant he pretty much-kept pace with the team all through the night, and via the stream chat, got to know the team itself. On arrival at Peterborough, the team met him and drove him out to Sibson Airfield, where Lee took John up for a flight. Then they returned to the sim, where John flew a few flights. He was offered a spot on the team, which he now fills.

What goes up!

In the sim, my time at cruise has come to an end and we need to descend into our destination. I’m nervous. Partially because the weather, taken from the real world, has closed in. Lightning and strong winds buffet us as I struggle to get the aircraft down. John is doing a stellar job manning the radios and setting up for the approach. Our descent is being expedited by ATC, with no speed restrictions. Leon lets me know that Captain Mike, A real-world A320 pilot and friend of Leon’s, is watching. So no pressure then. We hit the ILS at speed. The speed brakes are out, the flaps extending and gear down, I’m still struggling to slow us down. The winds are swinging around, and as the runway appears, the strong crosswind has pushed us to the left. I get us back on course and with a boot of left rudder, keep us tracking more or less on the centre line. It feels very much like a trial by fire. My landing is fairly gentle, and I pull the reversers to slow us down. We’re not. I opt for manual braking and still, the aircraft refuses to slow. Braking action is poor and I suspect the runway has Ice on it. We eventually slow and with just a few hundred meters of runway remaining, we backtrack to the taxiway, only for ATC to tell us to taxi via the grass as there’s an inbound aircraft right behind us. I get us there, park up and breath a sigh of relief. Captain Mike congratulates me on a good landing, but all I want to do is go to bed. It’s 1 AM and I’m beat. I thank the viewers on the stream, remind them to donate to a great cause before bidding them farewell. By the time I reach my hotel, a mere 10 minutes drive, John and Leon are already back in the air and heading for the coast of Japan. Worldflight waits for no man or woman.

Party time in the cabin disco

Ever onwards.

My time with Team JetSim was short, but so much fun. What impressed me the most wasn’t the sim, but the pilots. The Team, despite some frayed nerves and tempers as the week goes on, run like a well-oiled machine, keeping the stream, the viewers and the aircraft in the air. WorldFlight is like no other. The aircraft aren’t real, but the lives saved are.