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The Disabled Guys Soaring to New Heights in the Vast Universe of Flight Simulation

‘It gives me the sense that I’m actually achieving something, that there’s a purpose to my existence rather than just sitting around feeling like crap all the time.’

David Neely peered through the windscreen of the 737, hoping to spot any sign that the hazy gray that filled his view would recede. Initial weather reports had suggested Neely would see clear skies on his descent into Incheon International Airport in South Korea. Instead, he couldn’t even make out the airport, located on an island in the depths of the Yellow Sea, somewhere in front of him.

He would have to land nearly blind. Neely took a breath and began activating the 737’s instrument landing system. He clicked two buttons and watched as the horizon dipped and leveled out on the altitude indicator. A few more clicks engaged the flaps, slowing down the plane a touch. Out of the windscreen was more gray. When will I see the runway?, Neely wondered.

Too late to bother now. He flipped a switch to lower the landing gear, then brought his gaze down to the altitude meter. Neely held the yoke in one hand and the throttle in the other as the plane settled into its final glide down to the runway. “Two hundred,” a computerized voice announced. “One hundred.” He punched a button to disengage autopilot.

Eighty. Seventy. Fifty.

Now, just 50 feet off the ground, Neely could finally see the stripes of the runway and the lights flashing up from it. He grinned, and flared the plane with a gentle tug on the yoke, landing it with minimal impact. Like buttering a piece of toast, he thought.

“Everything else around me, I didn’t care about. I only thought about what I needed to do to keep it straight and level,” says Neely. “You end up focusing just as much as you would in a real flight, even though if you screw up it and throw the plane into the ground all you see is a message that says you’ve crashed and asks if you want to try again.”

It was just another trip for the seasoned flight-simulator veteran, but the sensation of stress from landing a digital plane in haywire conditions never gets old for Neely. His first flight simulator came on a series of floppy discs way back in the mid-1990s, as a mess of pixels and rudimentary controls that still opened Neely’s young eyes to the craft of flight. Now, at age 48, he plays programs that replicate a commercial aircraft’s controls with stunning complexity and accuracy.

Neely used to fly real planes, too. He still recalls special flights in his Cessna, like the one off the coast of Cayucos, California, where he followed a pod of humpback whales. Flying was an escape from his work as a correctional officer, and it took the edge off the PTSD he developed on the job. But the escape disappeared when, one day, he responded to a suicide attempt in a jail cell. Neely was the only one carrying the weight of the body when the noose was cut. He fell straight on his pelvis with the body on top of him, shattering a vertebrae.

It left his right foot numb and less responsive. That meant an end to his flying career. “I went through the whole range of emotions with that injury. But I had a good friend I knew through flight simulators, and he told me to shut up and just buy X-Plane and get back into the sim,” Neely recalls. “He kept at it for years. And you know what? Once I got back into the simulation, I was doing 17-hour flights across the polar ice caps. I was excited again. There was bitterness about not being able to actually fly. But with the simulator, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would.”

A lot of video games allow you to fly a plane, but top flight simulation programs plunge the user into a brutal learning curve as they figure out the systems and procedures of aircraft and create realistic flight plans, even communicating with virtual air traffic controllers on takeoff and landing. Titles like Microsoft Flight Simulator X, X-Plane and The Jay by Redbird offer unprecedented levels of detail, and hardcore players gather in networks to operate virtual airlines and embark on epic, long-haul flights across oceans.

Amid this community are those who have always dreamed of flying but never had the opportunity, or had to give up flying later in life (like Neely), because of a disability. Whether because of vision problems, a loss of hearing or the inability to move limbs, those faced with flight limitations turn to simulators as the vessels for their passion. “It’s such a strange hobby. It’s not something that I tell everyone I do because people think it’s weird. It’s geeky. But I don’t know. There’s just something about it,” says Chris Clarke, a 40-year-old in London who deals with chronic body pain and fatigue. “Because they’re so accurate that it gives you a sense of accomplishment. It’s not just something that you can pick up like FIFA or whatever. You need to prove your dedication.”

Most conventional video games present the player with a fantastical world where they have an upper hand. Flight simulators revel in mundanity as much as the spirit of flight itself. That attitude is what brought Shawn Fitts, a 31-year-old in Nashville, Tennessee, to the VATSIM (Virtual Air Traffic Simulation) network when he began taking the hobby seriously as a teenager. Run as a nonprofit by a group of volunteers, VATSIM is a network where players treat virtual flying and air-traffic control as seriously as the real thing. In it, Fitts found a world where he could achieve the things he couldn’t in real life.

Fitts was born with albinism, a rare genetic disorder that usually permanently damages one’s eyesight. His vision couldn’t be corrected to 20/20, which meant that he couldn’t get a job as a pilot or air-traffic controller despite dreaming of working in flight since he was a small child. “The fact that I was different hit home when I was 8 or 9 years old. I had to face that reality at school, in interactions with strangers, in terms of problems with driving and especially with flying,” Fitts says.

He began playing Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 as a teen, and he’s sunk thousands of hours progressing in the VATSIM community, serving as an air-traffic controller and instructor on top of his own flights. It also introduced him to the world of virtual airlines, where people work shifts flying real-world paths and can progress in rank within the company. “I’m a realistic player, so one of the routes I like to fly is to pick up my daughter in Florida, for example. I even ran my own virtual airline for a while — not just two or three pilots, but 35,” Fitts says. “Flight simulation gave me an opportunity to explore the world. Not scenery, but procedures I wouldn’t be able to know otherwise. It makes me feel like there’s nothing that could hold me back in terms of things within my control.”

In theory, flight simulation is accessible to anyone with a decent computer that can support modern video-game graphics. Most, if not all, begin playing on a mouse and keyboard. For serious sim players, though, the experience improves dramatically once they begin investing in gear. The basics are a joystick and throttle module to control the direction and speed of the aircraft. Then come pedals for rudder control, and more computer screens so you see the view out of the windscreen separate from your navigational information. The massive learning curve, plus the need to spend money on equipment, new virtual planes and upgraded scenery, has the side effect of weeding out less committed simulation players pretty quickly. As professional Twitch streamer and simulation software developer Matt Davies puts it, “There are plenty of people who would be fantastic flight simmers if they could afford it, so it impacts the financial diversity you see in the top of the game. But to be honest, the majority of the people who can’t afford it are kids. It’s not entirely a bad thing.”

Fitts says he’s spent thousands on software, his dual-screen computer and a flight setup that includes a joystick, throttle levers and pedals. Neely is more specific, declaring with a snort that his investment in the hobby must be “more than $25,000 over my life.” Clarke, who began playing seriously as a 21-year-old, notes that he once even purchased control units that were replicas of a Boeing 737’s actual console panels, costing more than a grand per panel.

Clarke has been battling chronic fatigue for 15 years, and while it doesn’t stop him from being a successful theater and TV lighting director in the U.K., the medical condition and his use of the antidepressant Zoloft basically disqualifies him from being a professional pilot, he says. Cruelly, the pain began growing around the same time a twentysomething Clarke was pursuing a pilot’s license. “It does get me down when I’m going on holiday and we’re at the airport and it’s just so incredibly frustrating that I know I could have done it,” he admits. “Every English boy wants to be a professional footballer, and I never would have been. But I could have been a pilot. And that really hurts.”

One of the worst symptoms of the fatigue today is that it cuts the legs off his social life, as he usually returns home from work with little energy or will to spend on going out and meeting people, Clarke adds. Instead, he stays in and boots up his flight-sim rig. Over time and many shared flights, he’s become good friends with the Twitch-streaming flight sim player Blackbox711 (aka Mark), and even traveled to Germany several times to hang out with him in person. And twice a week, he gets together with a crew of flyers from around Europe, voice chatting about their favorite new planes as well as their lives at home.

“It gives me the sense that I’m actually achieving something, that there’s a purpose to my existence rather than just sitting around feeling like crap all the time,” Clarke says. “It helps a great deal to feel like you’re contributing something.”

In fact, a number of flight simulator players with disabilities say that they’ve made lasting real-life relationships with people they’ve met while flying. Fitts met two of his best friends while working at a virtual airline, and they talk every day. Neely was pushed back into his flight-sim hobby after his injury at the insistence of an old friend he flew with. And Matt Bartels, the volunteer vice president of marketing for VATSIM, says that the people who work at his local air-traffic facility in the simulator get together for a big party at his house twice a year. “It’s led to a lot of surprising friendships. I’ve had a few of these guys stand for me at my wedding,” he says. “More friendships than I’ve made through my job or my regular social life, if I’m being honest.”

Bartels began playing flight simulators at a young age, thanks to his grandfather’s interest in the earliest programs of the late 1980s. He joined the VATSIM network not long after its creation, in 2002, and became a virtual air-traffic controller in 2007. The network today has more than 80,000 active members around the world, and the accuracy of the flying within it is so sharp that the FAA has conducted serious aviation studies using the traffic in the virtual network.

Bartels was so invested in working in the flight industry that, even after giving up his aspirations to be a pilot because of long-term vision problems, he took a job on the runway, just to be close to the planes and the culture. A friend from VATSIM, however, mentioned something he hadn’t considered: “He had gone to aircraft dispatch school. And other people in the virtual airline I worked in had positions in dispatch,” Bartels says. “Through them, I was able to learn more about this career and actually get some direction again.”

Now, he’s responsible for flight planning at a major U.S. airliner, figuring out routes, weather problems, air traffic and the fuel required to navigate it all. It’s the best possible outcome for someone who didn’t think they could have a meaningful role in the flight action overhead. But regardless of whether they work in the industry or not, flight-sim players who can’t fly in real life say that their hobby has allowed them to scratch a deep itch that won’t go away. Many of them choose to not discuss their disability to others, instead stripping away that mental baggage from the second lives they’ve created online.

Flight sim can help those who have more disruptive mental and physical disabilities, too. Aerobility, a nonprofit in the U.K. that has been operating for more than 25 years, works to get people into the experience of flying regardless of whether they struggle with autism or paraplegia. Most candidates are ultimately able to get into an actual plane to take the skies, but sometimes a person’s physical size or their unpredictable behaviors can prevent them from doing so. Instead, they get time in the organization’s full-size flight sim, with curved screens and detailed controls set around a wheelchair-accessible platform.

“We host ‘Ground Experience Days’ for young people with learning difficulties. Everyone who attends these days is able to try the simulator, and we usually find that before this part of the day, the participants are a bit shy and hold back asking questions. After their time in the simulator, they’re enthusiastic and excited that they have tried and succeeded in something entirely new to them,” Carey Ledford, head of fundraising, tells me in an email. “For those who are scared to fly, the simulator is a wonderful alternative and will often spark so much interest they become dedicated to conquering their fears.”

Aerobility is in the midst of fundraising to build a plane from scratch — the first in the U.K. to be constructed and flown entirely by people with disabilities — and to upgrade the simulator, potentially with hydraulic movement if they can raise enough money (donations are currently being accepted). And while the people who will use this simulator aren’t the hardcore players you can find on a VATSIM network, the source of the joy is the same: the feeling that you’ve transcended whatever unlucky, painful incident changed your life, and proven your ability with one of the most technical and complex hobbies in the world.

And, as with any great hobby, the hardcore guys who fly online are hooked for life. Fitts has put in more than 1,500 hours behind his computer, flying around the world, and he can’t imagine stopping anytime soon. “I actually haven’t discovered a community of disabled flight sim players, not really. I don’t usually talk about it. It’s important from a knowledge and skill standpoint that I know I’m as capable as anyone else. I don’t want to be held back, I don’t want to be looked down on,” he says. “It’s nice to feel, for the lack of a better term, quote-unquote normal.”