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Exclusive: Inside Virgin America's San Francisco HQ and Pilot Training Center

December 17, 2012 at 4:31 PM | by | ()

What began as one floor is now an entire building, and their original two coast-to-coast flights are now a respectable route network. We're speaking of Virgin America, whose headquarters outside SFO in Burlingame, California we recently visited for a look at the cogs turning behind the scenes.

Virgin America celebrated their fifth anniversary this year. That makes them the baby of the bunch, for both US airlines and Virgin. Heck, Virgin Atlantic has been flying since 1984 and Virgin Australia since 2000. Indeed Virgin America isn't shy about their newbieness; they take pride in it. Google them and the first words you'll see below the link to their official site are "A brand new airline dedicated to making flying good again."

You know what else is new? Their cabin trainer and A320 flight simulator still have that "new plane smell," since they were introduced as recently as October 2011 and May 2012, respectively. Home to many photo shoots (and in-flight service training, duh), the cabin is outfitted with everything from the deep mood lighting to working overhead bins and those massage chairs in First Class. Before a flight attendant can ask if you'd like another in-flight absinthe, she or he must first pass muster here.

We only briefly peeked into the flight operations center as, you know, they had planes in the sky and had to, like, control them or something. It must be said that their HQ location is pretty excellent, since instead of complete reliance on weather forecasts, the team can step outside onto a balcony at any time to check out real-time conditions at SFO; they're just across a piece of San Francisco Bay from the runways. Indeed, before even entering HQ, we stopped in our tracks in the parking lot to watch an Air China 747 ascend beneath a perfect rainbow.

Now onto the real action, which takes place down the street from HQ in a building that can handle the awesomeness of an electric, full-motion A320 flight simulator. If you've never seen one of these babies in person, we can only say that they remind us of the AT-ST Walkers from Star Wars and, watching one in action from the outside, look as intimidating. On the inside, however, it's the Airbus cockpit you've likely peeked into time and again while deplaning a real aircraft.

Virgin America's flight sim instructor Stefan was super enough to let us grab the sidesticks and practice taking off from SFO, some Bay Area flying, and ("survivable") landings at SAN and SEA. Good news: turbulence really isn't that big of a deal.

Inside the Virgin America A320 Flight Simulator from Jaunted on Vimeo.

Formerly of Frontier and Air Wisconsin (which you probably know better as flying for United Express), Stefan enjoys his flight sim instructor position here at Virgin America because it allows him to "just enjoy flying" without a typical rigorous pilot schedule of up-down-up-down, cross-country and back. One day he could be here in the sim, throwing all kinds of weather and tech situations at pilots to test their skills, and other days he's at the controls in a real A320, heading between SFO and San Diego. Why San Diego? Well, it's simply his favorite airport for the picturesque final approach. Love that.

As for the offices themselves, they're very Virgin. A timeline of Virgin Group stretches down hallways, a London telephone booth takes pride of place in the lobby and the individual cubicles of customer service reps are chock full of "flair" from the various route launches and SF Giants events (foam fingers!). Walking in to HQ, there's the thought, "oh man, this is going to be fun"...kinda like the impression you have when boarding a Virgin America plane, hmm?

Andy kicks back in First Class of the cabin trainer

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher/Jaunted]

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