It’s a peaceful evening in the sky above O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The air is still, barely a hint of clouds overhead. Visibility extends for miles. Conditions are perfect for flight. In fact, air traffic control just gave a pilot word that they are clear for takeoff. The sky’s the limit, it would seem. But the controller isn’t seated at O’Hare, and neither is the pilot. They are located thousands of miles apart, brought together by a Discord channel and a multiplayer server for Microsoft Flight Simulator, both operated by a bustling community known as fsATC, or flight simulator air traffic control.
Formed in the summer of 2019, fsATC is one of a number of communities that have cropped up around flight simulators with the goal of keeping the game as realistic as possible.
Perhaps you remember entering the cockpit of a classic version of Microsoft Flight Simulator and buzzing the Eiffel Tower or landing on the Golden Gate Bridge—the type of reckless feats that become possible only within a video game. Members of fsATC and others in the flight sim community would rather not have the skies littered with daredevils. Instead, they fly by staying grounded in reality. Air traffic controllers keep tabs on flying conditions and are tasked with clearing flight plans proposed by pilots looking to complete a journey. Success is declared when a plane safely lands at its designated destination.
If this sounds a little mundane, well, consider that a virtue. When everything goes right—when air traffic controllers and pilots cooperate—planes take off and land without the slightest hint of a problem. The community as a whole operated on a similar premise: As long as everyone kept the cooperative spirit, it continued to grow. That worked until one founding member of fsATC, like a pilot flouting the directions of air traffic control, decided to go rogue and veered directly into turbulence that shook the whole community.
Evan Reiter, a real-life airline pilot and cofounder of the Flight Simulation Association—an organization dedicated to the growth of the flight sim community—says that the flight simulators, a relatively forgotten genre of games that seemed to be relegated to memories from the early 2000s, have been given new life in recent years. This is thanks in large part to the release of Flight Simulator, a reboot of the classic Microsoft title that dropped last year. The two versions of Flight Simulator available through Steam—Microsoft Flight Simulator X and the newer Microsoft Flight Simulator—average more than 6,500 concurrent players combined at any given time, according to SteamCharts. That’s enough to put the games around the top 100 most played.
“There has been an influx of people, new ideas, and support for enthusiast flight simulation with the recent Microsoft Flight Simulator release,” Reiter says. “We’ve seen plenty of new simmers, but also lots of people who had dropped the hobby coming back, both due to the new release and the pandemic.”
One of the primary appeals of the title is its emphasis on realism and the capability of modern computers to reliably deliver a simulation experience. According to Reiter, the title has “made it much further into the real world, both gaming and aviation, than other simulator platforms.” He says that he has seen more people involved in the aviation industry, “from aerospace engineers to airline pilots,” talking about flight simulation, and Flight Simulator is the biggest driver.
Reiter says that the flight simulator community has done such a solid job accurately replicating the flight experience that he believes some “could probably manage to fly an aircraft, at least for some period of time and in the right conditions”—though he notes he’d rather stay on the ground for those flights.
A Community Takes Flight
A member of the fsATC community who goes by DorkToast said he got sucked in by the realism after briefly becoming obsessed with all the ins and outs of air traffic control. “I went in there and you had these people ranging from real pilots to real air traffic controllers that actually do this in their spare time because they love air traffic control,” he explains of his first visits to the fsATC Discord.