Established in 2000, British Airways Virtual is a voluntary, not for profit organisation, that fulfills a role to provide a structured, hands-on educational environment for aspiring pilots. The organisation is affiliated to British Airways - although it is not financially linked to the airline.
Through partnership with the global Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM) and, more recently, the International Virtual Aviation Organisation (IVAO), British Airways Virtual provides an environment where individuals can learn about the principles of flying for an airline to a fairly advanced level, using commercially available software to create a simulated 'virtual airspace' that is identical in navigational terms to the real world. This highly realistic system acts as a 'knowledge gateway' for aspiring pilots, by allowing them to assimilate some of the more challenging aspects of airline flying but in a relaxed and pressure free environment.
British Airways Virtual has a membership of 1250, including aspiring teenagers, active and retired airline captains, and enthusiasts alike.
The organisation does not charge its members to join and is run by a team of volunteers.
In 1999 the Internet was becoming widely used and appreciated for its many benefits and it was becoming a great tool for all sorts of business opportunities, clubs and hobbies. Flight simulation was a hobby which had quickly seen ways in which to make the use of software, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, more interesting and more challenging.
Virtual Airlines (VA's) were springing up in their 100's, but 90% were based in the USA. For the UK there were only really five credible VA's but all were based on fictitious airlines. So, one man had a dream. He planned to create a UK-based VA modelled on the real British Airways.
That man was Steve Ellis who had just served 11 years in the Royal Air Force.
So, in late 1999 and early 2000 Steve set about creating a very professional looking website which, he knew, would be vital in attracting interest and membership from within the flight simulation community. He registered the domain name www.bavirtual.co.uk - British Airways Virtual (BAV) and persuaded Geoff Butler (Chief Pilot of Britannic Virtual Airlines) to help him launch his idea.
In these early days of the Internet, nearly all websites were pure HTML with no scripts running multiple databases as are common today and, unbeknown to Steve at that time, this simple approach was to be the downfall of BAV in a little over a year after launch.
Within two months of operations more than 200 pilots had joined the organisation.
Some early members should be mentioned here as they subsequently play a vital role in the history of BAV.
Graham Young was BAW 7, Rob Webb BAW 111, Rob Parker BAW130, F A van Aesch was BAW 240 and Jonathan Gorse was BAW462.
Within 6 months there were 500 members and by BAV's first anniversary there were 900 members around the world; making BAV the world's largest VA. It seemed as though everyone wanted to be a part of this very real world VA. The name of British Airways the world over, was, and still is, synonymous with tradition, style, service and safety. The appeal to flight simulation enthusiasts was enormous.
As the original BAV website was designed in HTML there was no automation whatsoever, and all Pilot Reports (PIREPS) were submitted by members by way of e-mail. This meant that the pilot rosters had to be updated manually after each flight, and it was this simple task which was to close BAV after just 13 months of operation.
At this time, Steve was a long distance lorry driver, at the start of each week travelling from his home in Norfolk down to London where he was based. He took with him his whole PC - tower, CRT monitor, keyboard etc (no affordable laptops in those days) which he set up in his boss's office. He drove his lorry from London to Birmingham and return each night, sleeping in his cab during the morning and then spending his afternoons downloading all those e-mail PIREPS and updating the website pilot rosters.
At first, it was manageable, but with the rapid increase in membership, a backlog soon built up. Saturday mornings saw Steve pack up his PC to travel home for the weekend where the whole process started again. It seemed that no sooner has Steve set everything up then it was time to break it all down again, load the car, and head off to London. It was eventually to prove too much.
During this first 12 months, BAV was of interest to the real British Airways in the form of Jonathan Gorse who was employed by BA in their security division. Jonathan was a keen BAV pilot but he soon realized that there was potential for his employers to find out about BAV, to object to BAV's use of their trademarks and international brand, and to follow many other real world airlines in closing down their virtual counterparts. To counter this threat, Jonathan started exploring the possibility of BA recognizing BAV's existence and, if possible, approving BAV's activities and use of BA intellectual property. This was to prove a long and difficult process over a period of about 18 months.
On 29th April 2001 Rob Parker was appointed Director of Online Flying and set about organizing some weekly events which were very well attended by BAV pilots. However, this was all to come to an abrupt and unexpected end when, on 21st May 2001 the management team had to accept that the PIREP backlog had become so huge and unmanageable that BAV would have to close.
This was a devastating blow for our 900 members and Rob was determined to see if something could be salvaged for our pilots.
Over several months he'd been intrigued to see the mysterious BAW 240 F A van Aesch flying online, night and day, over a fairly long period and, during a chance conversation on Roger Wilco (RW) the said Mr. van Aesch offered the use of a RW server which he had set up in his old university in Holland.
He said that we could use it to discuss what, if anything, could be done to salvage BAV. So it was that a meeting was held between Rob, Graham Young and Rob Webb. As host, it seemed right to include Mr. van Aesch, who we now found out was known to his friends as Ferry. Including Ferry in that meeting was to be the best and most important thing we ever did.
There was a consensus of opinion that there was sufficient interest to regroup and to form another organization but there was not universal agreement on the form this was to take. Rob and Graham were very keen to keep the British Airways interest going but Ferry and Rob Webb were more in favour of creating an exclusive club for online pilots only. Ferry was a skilled programmer who offered to create an automated membership system including automated PIREP's. Rob Webb and Ferry came up with a new VA called Red Kite Aviation - totally unconnected with BA or BAV.
Meanwhile, other things were happening. Rob Parker had registered the domain name www.speedbirdonline.co.uk and was designing a website resource for former online BAV pilots. Jonathan was still working on a formal relationship with BA. Ferry was making great progress with his automated systems and, after some arm twisting by Rob Parker, Rob Webb and Ferry agreed to abandon Red Kite Aviation in favour of using the automated systems with a whole new BAV.
The timing of this decision was critical as, at fairly short notice, Jonathan announced that he had made arrangements for us to make a presentation to a panel of British Airways representatives at BA's Waterside Headquarters. To be able to make use of this newly developing system was to be a key feature of our subsequent presentation.
There then followed some frantic preparations of our presentation. As founder of BAV it was inconceivable that Steve would not be part of the presentation team and, on 24th July 2001, Steve, Rob Parker and Graham Young attended the luxurious Waterside buildings to meet representatives from BA's Marketing, Legal and eBA divisions.
Rob made the bulk of the presentation with Steve and Graham assisting in answering the many questions which arose during and after the presentation. We were extremely well received by the BA staff and it was obvious that we were being taken seriously. It probably helped that we were 3 mature men in suits who looked pretty respectable! We weren't shot down in flames or ridiculed in any way and so we came away from that meeting with high hopes for the future.
Buoyed up by our meeting at BA preparations continued apace for the re-launch of BAV and this went ahead as planned, opening our membership application process on 1st September 2001. Thanks to Ferry, this time we were much better prepared and we opened with ASP technology, automated PIREP's, the excellent Offline Schedules Program (OSP) which included a searchable flight plan database and a very comprehensive back-end which gave the management team greater control of all aspects of the BAV operation. At this time Steve was once again CEO, Ferry was Assistant CEO, Graham was Director of HR and Rob was Director of Online Flying.
Speedbird Online went live and for the next 9 years was to run independently of BAV offering many resources for the online pilots.
Membership quickly picked up and we were soon at our then maximum of 1,000 pilots. Ferry continued working to further enhance the OSP with flight plan conversion to most add-on aircraft, moving maps displaying aircraft, airways, airports and FIR boundaries. This was cutting edge software at this time and was a principal reason why many pilots were keen to be BAV members. No other VA offered such automation and sophistication.
In late 2001 we received a draft agreement from BA which the management team passed between ourselves and duly signed. At this stage nothing was agreed by BA and we were to keep the existence of this document under wraps as there were still some hurdles to be overcome within BA.
On 19th July 2002 we finally received news from Jonathan that the agreement had been ratified
and that we were officially recognized by British Airways.
To the best of my recollection we were all attending a flight simulation event in Birmingham when this news was announced. It was Friday night, we had set up our stand in the Birmingham Motor Cycle Museum and we were spending the evening with our VATSIM colleagues in the Windmill Hotel. A little beer had already been consumed when Jonathan arrived with the news. The atmosphere was electric and there then followed one of the greatest evenings I can ever remember. Never was so much alcohol consumed by so few people! My everlasting memory of this night was of VATSIM member and professional record producer Bill Padley playing the piano and adapting the words of Atomic Kitten's song 'Whole Again' to be a BAV/BA theme. It was truly amazing.
Ferry became an honorary Englishman and Steve, Graham and Rob became honorary Dutchmen. Well, we think that's what Ferry was trying to say but he was having a little trouble with his lips!
The show days on the 20th and 21st were all a blur with many members and prospective members visiting our stand and offering congratulations. Of course, Saturday evening was also a lively event at The Windmill.
After the euphoria of the announcement it was back to work for Ferry who was already working on a new piece of software which was to offer an ACARS function to our online pilots. Membership demand was stronger than ever and the waiting list so long that we decided to increase the total to 1250 members.
In November 2002 the Board received an invitation to return to Waterside, this time to meet with BA's Press and Media chief Paul Parry. So, on 14th November, Steve and I again donned our best suits (Ferry and Graham were unable to attend) and made our second trip into Waterside. The purpose of the exercise was for Paul Parry to produce an article on BAV which was to appear in a future edition of BA's weekly staff newspaper. Once again, we were well received by BA, and Steve and I were happy to pose for photos alongside a model of Concorde and a set of landing gear in the Waterside complex. This was the life!
The 24th November 2002 saw ACARS v1.0 released. Thanks to extensive beta testing by Dave Musselwhite, Graham Laing and Nicola Romano the software was bug free and was an instant hit with our online pilots.
2003 arrived and with it came a double page spread in BA News dated 25th January. BAV was most definitely out in the open for all to see. The BA Agreement and the relating publicity encouraged us to use our now well known, and respected, name to do something for charity and, after some discussion, we settled on the BBC's Children in Need (CIN) annual event. However, there was to be no silly stunts like shaving our heads for money. There was only one thing any self respecting VA could do and that was to build a fixed base simulator and to fly it around the world in 3 days! Events featuring 747's were old hat. As far as we knew, no one had attempted to fly around the world in an Airbus A320. So the challenge was set. Ten months later, after much hard work by member Allan Dawson in constructing the cockpit shell, a team of 10 met at The St George's Hotel, Llandudno, North Wales, where the 3 day event was to be held. The component parts of the simulator had never been fitted together before and it took pretty much 12 hours, and a lot of ingenuity from networking expert Nigel Woodley, to get everything set up. It looked pretty good too! Real world ATPL Captain Michael Koehler did his best to form us into a reasonably disciplined crew and flight deck training ran far into the night. On 19th November the event was opened by the Mayor of Llandudno and Leg 1 took off from Manchester en route to Athens. We had ATC courtesy of VATSIM and real weather from the VATSIM servers - or so we thought! Visibility at Manchester was pretty much zero due to a think blanket of fog. RVR - forget it. We had to get this leg off on time or we'd never complete by Day 3. We managed to find the centre line of Runway 24R, pointed our aircraft straight down the runway and took off pretty much on time. After 3 hours and 25 minutes flying time we had to make a full autoland at Athens as we were faced with dense fog. This seemed very strange, and, upon investigation, we discovered that the weather server was somehow giving fog on the ground everywhere in Europe! We disabled the weather for a few hours and thereafter flew in perfect conditions. The 10 crew members worked shifts around the clock in order to complete the event within the 3 days flying from Manchester to Manchester via Athens, Seeb, Calcutta, Bangkok, Darwin, Marshall Islands, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Denver, Montreal and Keflavik, a total of 20,818nm arriving back in Manchester just 30 minutes later than scheduled! The event raised just under 4,000 for CIN.
2004 sees some Boardroom changes as Graham steps down due to work and Ferry takes over as Assistant CEO. We are joined by Robin Walker as HR Director. Robin was a very popular member from Northern Ireland, always ready to help and give advice on our forums and regularly controlling Glasgow Tower on VATSIM. Robin soon became a great asset to BAV, controlling the active membership list but also keeping his own little 'protected member' list. Unbeknown to anyone, Robin looked after all manner of members who had genuine problems from health to divorce and unemployment. If anyone had real problems and couldn't fly within the 28 day rule then, as long as Robin knew about it, they were protected. Over the years Robin was to become an invaluable asset to BAV.
BAV has entered a period of stability now with all systems running smoothly and with little intervention needed from the Board, however, in April 2005 Steve reluctantly stood down due to pressures from working away from home and Ferry took up the mantle of CEO. On 20th September 2005 Nicola Romano was appointed Assistant CEO and within a short time the Board was further boosted by the appointments of Bryan Clarke and Chris Turnbull. A new Dell server was purchased in order to give us some independence in running our operating systems. The costs were met by the Board and the server was installed in Dublin courtesy of Ferry's employers at that time.
This is a black year for BAV as, in April, Robin tells the Board that he has incurable cancer and has only 6 months to live. The news is devastating. He says that he will in and out of hospital and will be out of contact for long periods. We heard from Robin once more and finally, on 1st October, he passed away. His funeral took place before any of us were notified and so we were unable to pay Robin our last respects. We were all as low as low could be. Ferry took it particularly hard and it made him consider whether he wished to continue with BAV. His own work was very demanding and our software, which had now done us proud for 6 years, was beginning to display its age by bringing the server down from time to time. BAV was starting to be a problem. Bryan Clarke, who had been deputizing for Robin during his illness, becomes HR Director.
In February 2008, Ferry decides to call it a day and steps down from the Board. Thankfully he agrees to remain in the background nursing the server over these little outages. Rob reluctantly takes over as CEO. He's reluctant for two reasons. First, he often works up to 18 hours a day and knows that he cannot devote much time to BAV and second, he knows that BAV is going to need a major overhaul and update in the not too distant future. This is going to require a massive amount of time which he just does not have. Bryan Clarke steps down due to a job change and being absent for the purposes of travelling and Tim Brown is appointed to the Board as Director of HR. Florian Harms is appointed Online Flying Director. The server crashes more frequently and the credit crunch is starting to bite. Everything has to earn its keep and our server is no exception. Our sponsors in Ireland give Ferry advance warning that we will have to pay a substantial monthly fee for our bandwidth or we'll have to remove the server in early 2009. Rob commences some preliminary planning but realizes that he does not have the time to devote to managing such a huge undertaking. He approaches Steve and Graham, encouraging them to return. They think about it for what seemed an eternity but finally agree to take on the planning and organization of BAV III. Rob is relieved and steps down as CEO but remains on the Board. Steve resumes his position as CEO and Graham becomes Assistant CEO. By this time it is almost Christmas.
The New Year begins with bad news. Sooner than expected we have to either pay for our bandwidth or have to remove our server by the end of January. Steve and Graham have already obtained offers of help from skilled programmers from outside BAV but realize that there is no way in which a whole new system can be designed and fully tested in less than a month. It's a tough decision but BAV has to close.
Our members were fully informed before the plug was pulled and a temporary forum was set up to keep the BAV community alive and to use as a medium for keeping members up to date with the progress being made on the new system. As of 30th March the system is well developed and is undergoing integration and further extensive testing. BAV III is alive and will be re-born very soon.
For those who have remained awake whilst reading this - I congratulate you! The facts are as accurate as my ageing memory will permit and any errors will be corrected if I'm told of them. Many members have played their own valuable contributions to the success of BAV over the years; too many to mention individually. Each contribution has been gratefully received by the Board and we thank everyone for their support and loyalty over nearly 10 years.
Rob Parker - 30th March 2009