Inside a Boeing 737 cockpit, a co-pilot announces, “We are set to take off from Kai Tak airport... the temperature is set to 15 degrees.” He then tells a young boy in an aviator hat sitting next to him how much throttle the aircraft will require to take off. The monitor in front displays the runway of Hong Kong’s famous airport, while the engine’s roar signals that the plane is ready for take off. Seconds later, the airport’s glittering lights disappear behind the clouds.
The cockpit — with a control column, a throttle quadrant, instrument panels and overhead panels — is only a replica of the real thing. It is a flight simulator, the kind used to train pilots in real life, with a cockpit that resembles a real one, and software/hardware to re-create crises such as bad weather, engine failure and technical glitches.
Of course, this one at Flight 4 Fantasy in Bangalore is purely for “hobby purposes”. It was set up in May this year by Vybhava Srinivasan, an accountant, who quit a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers India to build a replica of a Boeing 737 cockpit in his home. His friend and business partner, Deepak Agarwal, similarly quit his job with the Aditya Birla group. Sourcing parts wasn’t easy, however, and the duo travelled all over the US, Canada and Europe looking for the control column, instrument panels, rudder pedals, throttle quadrants and even the cushy chairs that pilots sit on. The partners have now shifted the cockpit to the Forum mall where they charge a cool Rs 1,000-1,800 (higher on weekends) for hourly sessions. Flight 4 Fantasy also boasts of a 4D fighter jet and a Cessna 172S simulator. The duo have invested around Rs 2 crore into the project.
The aviation industry in India, feels Srinivasan, saw a boom a few decades after other developed nations. Similarly, virtual flying as a hobby has taken longer to come to India, owing to the unavailability of components and flight simulation centres. One such hurdle is the lack of audio-visuals of landing ports in India. In contrast, graphics from European and American airports are easily available. “The regulations to procure them are too strict,” laments Srinivasan. Flight simulation softwares are easily available online and at stores across India. But the challenging part is to integrate the hardware and software, he says.
With virtual flying clubs such as Indian Virtual Aviation Organisation and Virtual Air Traffic Simulation (Vatsim) network finding a foothold in India, flight simulation as a hobby is gaining ground. Membership of Vatsim is free. All you need is a flight simulator software and a joystick. Taking off from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in India, you can connect with ATC controllers in London and land at the busiest of airports in the world.
While the Vatsim website boasts of around 250,000 members worldwide, it has only about 200 active members in India, says Deepan Mehta, owner and creator of Air India Virtual (with no connection to the actual airline), whose airline is a part of the Vatsim network. “Though it is merely a hobby, these flying enthusiasts end up learning the ‘airspeak’, and even pick up the basic protocol involved in flying an aircraft.”
The rewards can be big. Five years ago, Shashank HR, 23, bought the Microsoft Flight Simulator for Rs 1,000 and sitting in his room, flew round the world — Incheon in South Korea and Changi Airport in Singapore are his favourites. In 2011, he won the Gripen India Top Gun contest organised by defence and security company Saab. Shashank’s award was a 50-minute ride on a fighter jet. “It was a dream come true!”