Lockdown has encouraged us all to explore new ways of doing things. I’ve spent a lot of time refining and tinkering with my X-plane flight simulator over the past year, and more recently investigated using various online multi-player networks to add realism. VATSIM is by far the most popular and this article shares my personal views on what to expect and how best to use it.
What is VATSIM?
You’ll need just a simple USB headset and a free software plugin to access the network, allowing you to talk with ATC controllers around the world. You can see other users aircraft on your screen, realistically portrayed on the ground and airborne, and will receive similar clearance, ground taxi and airborne instructions. You’ll be expected to read those back correctly and comply. Both VFR and IFR traffic is accommodated, so you can fly some circuits or be vectored onto the ILS to land.
It is compatible with all the leading flight simulator programs (X-plane, FSX, P3D and the new Microsoft Flight Simulator).
The great news is that VATSIM is free to use – the network equipment is provided by sponsors with the really expensive aspect of development, management, ATC and pilots all handled by volunteers. Founded in 2001, traffic levels tripled over the last year with over 100,000 active members worldwide. Although US based and still quite US centric, over 50% of users are based in Europe. Many regions have their own divisional organisations which provide local information, training and events.
Bear in mind that the primary target of VATSIM and many similar networks is aimed at ATC enthusiasts. These can be anyone who wants to learn how ATC works in a fairly realistic environment through to retired real world controllers who want to pass on their skills. I know of several pilots in training and/or under-employed who have used it to kick-start or complement official training programs or during the current slowdown just remain current. For anyone seriously considering an ATC career, it could be a low cost (in money, not time) way to establish whether you would enjoy and suit it.
VATSIM for GA Pilots
Most of the flights on VATSIM are commercial IFR made by virtual pilots flying airliners – think EasyJet, RyanAir, KLM, BA etc. Many involve city pairs representing typical short haul routes, while others choose long haul across the pond. For those flights you are allowed to “step out” of the cockpit for up to half an hour at a time, while you leave your simulator running on autopilot. At other times, you are expected to listen on the correct frequency, ready to respond and comply to ATC instructions just as in the real world.
GA traffic, such as the single engine propellor Cessna 172, is accommodated and it’s quite acceptable to logon and fly a few circuits. One of my first flights was doing that one evening at East Midlands. It was eery finding a DA42 doing a similar thing, hearing the pilot announce downwind and final, seeing his strobes and landing lights visible ahead of me. When you turn on/off your lights, these become visible to other pilots.
The value of this extra realism is that it puts a bit more pressure on when flying a mission – you need to be well prepared beforehand, know who you expect to talk to, have the frequencies and phrases ready. I would imagine that it would help new students become more confident on the radio, which can be a big step for some. It mostly services the larger regional and national airports, so is less suited to simpler GA airfields with just Air/Ground or a FISO.
On the worldwide network, you can fly almost anywhere, from Australia to Alaska. It opens up the potential to fly SIDs and STARs from larger airports that typically wouldn’t be open or accessible for GA. While I’ve stuck with the aircraft I fly in the real world, you could choose to upgrade to a King Air, PC12, Citation Jet or larger. I particularly enjoyed flying the RNP Y 33 into Salzburg Austria. This approach normally requires special training and extra equipment in the aircraft, and doesn’t appear as a choice from the normal list of approaches in my real world aircraft. Final approach involves both turning and descending along a 3D flight path using GPS down to a minima of 379 feet AGL, with high mountains on three sides.
Many kids (and grown-ups) are playing a variety of multi-player games these days. It’s quite a social occasion, chatting in the background while shooting the baddies, playing football or building your dream home. I’ve tried this by having a Zoom session running the background during a fly-out on VATSIM. You can brief and decide on a route first, discuss what to expect, ask your friends for help with a frequency or navigation, and hear them talking to the controller – a bit like sitting alongside when buddy flying. Then subsequently debrief about what went well or not, and what to do next time. While this may sound quite geeky, it doesn’t take that much more technical ability beyond flying a simulator once you’ve got it all setup.
Key points to note are:
- You must register with your real name
- No abuse, profanity etc. Tolerance is encouraged.
- Don’t chat on frequency. There is a private texting facility you can use for that.
- Never use 121.5 Emergency Frequency
- Don’t connect when on a runway/taxiway – you should be parked somewhere sensible
- Squawk Mode C whenever moving, even on the ground
- Use 122.800 whenever outside actively controlled airspace, even if your local airfield uses something else
- Don’t pause (or accelerate) your flight sim without prior agreement from ATC.
- Always be listening and ready to comply with ATC instructions unless agreed with the controller
- VATSIM supports only 25kHz frequencies, so those used in Europe don’t match real world.
- Where a ground control position isn’t manned, the tower controller will provide that service. In their absence, the area controller will cover all three subject to capacity.
Setting it up
I’m assuming you have an X-plane simulator: similar software and procedures are available for other products.
- Register for an account with VATSIM. You can only hold one account, so if you ever did this before then better to reactivate your old account than open a new one. You have to select a division, typically that of your home country. As with almost every internet registration, you have to tick the box saying you’ve read all the rules.
- Pass an entry-level test. This shouldn’t pose a problem for real-world pilots, covering topics such as how to work out the active runway from the current wind, explaining VFR vs IFR and network etiquette. There is a multi-choice online quiz to test your knowledge, after which you’ll be issued a P0 (Pilot level zero) rating. Subsequently, you can upload your real-world pilot licence and be upgraded to P1 or higher status but I haven’t determined any additional privileges or benefits by doing so.
- Install the software.
You must use an approved plug-in to connect. For X-plane, there are three choices:
- XSquawkBox (also known as XQB). The original option. I tried this and it does work, but had several issues with it.
- Swift. An open-source alternative. Users report various issues with it and it doesn’t seem to be as feature rich or easy to use as other options.
- xPilot. My preferred choice. Actively being enhanced (new version updates every other week), this was straightforward to install and easy to operate.
xPilot has three separate components:
- A plug-in that integrates into X-plane. This is installed in the X-Plane/Resources/Plugin directory and will automatically be found and used when you next run X-plane. It remains dormant until you connect to VATSIM.
- A standalone client program with a desktop shortcut. This is installed elsewhere in your computer as an independent program. You need to start this up (before or after X-plane) and it will announce when it’s connected to X-plane and to VATSIM. You can set a “hot key” to display/hide xPilot for which I used F12.
- A library of other aircraft models called BlueBell or CSL. These are independent of the aircraft already in your simulator and are used to represent other aircraft on the network. There is an extensive range of 737’s in various liveries but fewer options available for GA aircraft. Where no direct model is available, the system maps unknown ICAO types to similar models with the Cessna 172 being a common baseline. The standard xPilot installer gives you the option to download these which you should accept. Additional models can be added later. Beware these take up quite a few Gbytes, so will take time and space to download and install.
3. Configure the client
Open up the xPilot client page and enter your details (VATSIM 6 digit ID and password, default aircraft registration and model). Assign a joystick/yoke button for Push-to-Talk and select the audio input/output to be your headset. A little quirk is that xPilot will assign a specific command for the PTT rather than the generic “Contact ATC”. This is important if you later want to use an alternative network and I can’t see what extra benefit the specific xPilot command introduces – either seems to work.
Remove any AI aircraft on your simulator (these are ones that X-plane flies around to make the skies/airports look busy). Do this on the flight configuration screen by actively deleting any models shown, otherwise they will cause confusion with other VATSIM aircraft.
4. Login as an observer and listen
You can connect to VATSIM in observer mode. Your aircraft won’t be visible to anyone else but you can hear and see other aircraft in the area, and listen to ATIS and the ATC chatter nearby. I’d always position myself at a ramp first (just in case I made a mistake) and then connect on the xPilot client by ticking the box marked Observer Mode. You can easily see which controllers and ATIS are online on the left hand side of the xPilot window. Right clicking on any frequency allows you to copy it to the live COM1 frequency and listen to it.
Where you see other aircraft moving around, you should also see a label with their registration. The models can be fairly accurate, including airline livery, but the registration numbers painted onto the aircraft are default/static and don’t reflect the actual ones in use – this is where the labels come in handy. A technical limitation of X-plane only allows xPilot to render these labels on one display screen, so if you have multiple then you’ll only see the aircraft themselves on other screens.
5. Take a flight
Login for real, file a flight plan and make your first flight.
Where to fly
You can become present at any airport in the world, hearing other aircraft being cleared to pushback, taxi and depart, vectoring onto approach and being cleared to land.
Volunteers man the various ATC positions so service varies depending on time of day and day of week. Here in the UK, I find there are about half a dozen popular airports manned most days, generally in the afternoons and evenings: Edinburgh, East Midlands, Bristol, Manchester, Heathrow, Gatwick. More often it’s just the last two or three. Staffing tends to be more frequent in the evenings and weekends.
There are several programs that show the current status of all flights and ATC positions worldwide, including VATTASTIC web page, VatSpy desktop program or VATMAP tablet/phone App. Each has its pros and cons, but again they are all free of charge.
You can also visit the ATC bookings page, where controllers can pre-book their slots including students/mentors and examiners working through the ATC training program. This is supplemented by volunteer controllers who login as and when they have some spare time.
It’s not easy to say when a tower controller might log off, although Vattastic does show how long a controller has been on shift for. So you can be caught out by planning a flight somewhere only to find there’s no one there and you have to continue self-announce as you would at any closed airport.
What I’ve tended to do is to look at who and where service is available, then plan a flight. It can mean that the route is not fully covered by the time I’ve got around to departing (or arriving), but generally it’s been OK. There are also set times/places where ATC make more of an effort to provide consistent service – for example, I’ve enjoyed Austrian nights on Wednesday evenings where several airports are opened. Schipol was also interesting to visit – using the separate shorter GA runway there.
Changing Time of Day vs Flight conditions
With ATC staffed in the evenings, you might not want to fly at night where you can’t see much scenery. The local time on your simulator really doesn’t matter to VATSIM, so you can just set that to the middle of the day. Other users might only see night lighting on their sim, while you see everything bright and breezy. The only minor hiccup might be that any clock times shown on your instrument panel won’t match current time. ATC won’t know or be affected.
The screenshots understate the clarity and detail from a high resolution monitor in front of you.
Local weather conditions are a bigger concern. Winter weather can be challenging, with low cloud and strong winds. The times that you want to use your simulator are often those which preclude real world flights. The main issue here seems to be that the pressure setting on your simulator must match that of other VATSIM users, otherwise you will appear on ATC screens (and physically to other users) at a different altitude.
Real world wind conditions are also used when vectoring aircraft, so changing those would make life a lot harder for ATC.
Ideally you would always set the weather (on the flight startup screen) to match real world weather conditions, but you may be able to remove a low cloud base in particular and reduce wind strength on the ground to make landing easier – it’s something I need to investigate further.
Your first flight
I’d pick a regional airport such as Bristol or East Midlands, aiming either to fly a VFR circuit or two, or just arrive VFR or IFR. Ensure you can do this offline first, being familiar with the airport layout and procedures as well as the sort of instructions you might expect to get.
VATSIM flight plans aren’t mandatory for VFR flights, but strongly encouraged. They are required for IFR. You can submit these directly from the xPilot client quite quickly and easily. For a VFR bimble, just enter the ICAO codes for the departure/destination (which would be the same for circuits or a local), registration/callsign (without hyphen), cruising altitude, speed etc. In the comments box you can mention you are new to VATSIM or similar and what you want to do, eg circuits.
Set your simulator to real-world time and weather, select aircraft type and position yourself on the GA ramp at the departure airport. Connect to VATSIM and file your flight plan (unless just a simple VFR trip). If you have a specific ATC question about the flight, then private message the controller through the xPilot app. I’ve found them very helpful and responsive.
Follow a similar procedure as for real world activity at larger airports:
- Listen to the ATIS, noting the runway, pressure and code
- Call for start on the ground or tower frequency, giving your location and ATIS code
- IFR flights will generally be issued their clearance immediately on first call, while VFR might get theirs at the hold.
- Call for taxi. Make sure your transponder is set to ALT with the correct squawk code. These larger airports can be tricky to navigate around, so do have the airport taxi chart handy. Some of the onscreen panel navigators (e.g. Garmin GTN750) have this facility included, just zoom in.
- Fly as you normally would, using CAP413 phraseology to talk to controllers. The only minor deviation is the use of 25kHz frequencies rather than the official 8.33 ones.
- When in any airspace not manned by a controller, switch to 122.800 and self-announce, even when arriving at a field with its own dedicated frequency or safetycom.
- Where heading towards manned ATC airspace, or when a controller comes online, you can expect to receive a text message (pops up onscreen) asking you to contact and providing the frequency.
You can plan long and short IFR flights as in the real world. These can be inside or outside controlled airspace.
Airways flights allow you to learn and fly SIDs and STARs to and from larger airports. A free route planning service is provided by Simbrief – just type in your airports and cruise altitude and you’ll get an acceptable routing. This seems to work much better than using some of the real-world flight planning apps, but your experience may vary. The webpage even allows you to submit the flight plan directly to VATSIM (and other similar networks), but heavily restricts the choice of GA aircraft types.
I’ve used this for relatively short flights (say up to an hour) between regional airports in Europe, but not tried it for longer ones. I do feel it gives a more realistic appreciation of what an airways flight is like, for example flying over the London TMA. You can be asked to climb above FL100 (which normally requires oxygen), and can choose to accept that or not.
Holding is quite common at some of the larger airports when they get busy – there is no Eurocontrol system overseeing capacity and issuing slot times. Busy networks and long holding times have disappointed pilots at times, but the solution is to fly somewhere else and/or at less busy times. Events in particular can be heavily oversubscribed.
The last activity I’ll cover here concerns the idea of a club or group flyout. I’ve shared flights with other friends in a similar way to a club daytrip/flyout. We meet up on Zoom first, look at network service availability, decide where to fly, plan it and fly it with the Zoom audio session continuing in the background on a separate device.
We can hear each other on the VATSIM radio when talking, but at quieter times chat amongst ourselves. It’s both sociable and educational, and keeps the interest and currency level up. Exploring new airports and types of procedures always uncovers some new learning point and is quite enjoyable.
Some VATSIM enthusiasts take this a huge step further, forming Virtual Airlines where they take it in turns to fly scheduled services. Again, potentially quite sociable, although somewhat removed from simpler GA activity.
IFR plates, routes and navigation databases
Publicly available airport charts and plates may be sufficient in many cases, but are not all published to the same high standard. Jeppesen plates are considered the de-facto standard worldwide and are normally very expensive to subscribe to, however simulator enthusiasts can access the entire worldwide set through a subscription from Navigraph. This also provides the monthly database update for your built-in Garmin G430 or G1000 box, so any published approach can be selected. Users of the excellent RealityXP products, which provide very realistic GNS430 & GTN650 simulators use a different database so would not be covered by this but would benefit from access to Jeppesen charts. Other Apps such as Foreflight can also be used.
A free online tool exists for IFR flight planning and route calculation. Simbrief.com requires registration and it’s worthwhile configuring your aircraft details as you would with similar real-world tools. Route calculation is almost instantaneous. What’s more, the briefing tab allows you to download the route into your simulator’s FMS (such as X-Plane’s GNS430 or G1000) and pre-file the flightplan on VATSIM and similar online networks. The data used defaults to March 2019 (at the time of writing), whereas those with a current Navigraph subscription benefit from the latest AIRAC cycle.
Making the most of the opportunity
Flying a simulator standalone allows you to explore almost any airport worldwide, in any weather conditions, at any time of day onboard a wide variety of aircraft types. I concentrate less on the basic “stick and rudder” aspects and much more on the procedural side – setting up the avionics, pre-planning the routes and charts, considering who and when I’d be talking to. VATSIM steps up the realism by adding real-time controller interaction and other traffic which you can see and hear.
For IFR practice, I’ve found it particularly good to appreciate what’s involved when arriving/departing larger airports, flying SIDs and STARs. It’s reinforced how hard it can be to taxi around a large unknown airport at night, such the importance of having printed out the airport chart in advance.
For VFR pilots, I’d suggest it’s less useful to consolidate R/T experience from an air/ground or FISO airfield which are rarely available, but it is realistic for practicing VFR arrivals, departures, transits and circuits at a controlled airport.
Other reference sources
VATSIM itself does provide educational material and guidance, both international and divisional level. Some is more complete and up-to-date, and of course more is going to be focussed for ATC. The pilot training program follows the same path as the real-world, moving up through PPL on single engine to CPL and IR on multi-engine. Personally, I don’t think this matches the user base who are more attracted to flying airliners from an early stage. Perhaps they could introduce some sort of MPL course (a European invention), which would shorten the training and introduce greater use of the automation from an early stage.
The Forum should be a good place to ask questions, but more activity has moved across to the Discord chat platform which I found more responsive but was less easy to search and has more banter/chat. The Forum does include announcements about procedure changes and so is worth checking. This illustrates how seriously the volunteer ATC staff take their roles and how closely they try to match real-world procedures. The only aspect which is quite surreal at the moment is the level of traffic, which remains much higher online during lockdown than in the skies.
YouTube videos on the subject range from concise/clear tutorials to multi-hour livestream flights. I found AviationPro’s series very well produced and easy to follow. PilotStudd’s quick circuit of Bristol gives a good example of what to expect.