Skip to main content

Virtual Planes, Virtual Airports And Absolutely No Rogering: Inside The Fascinating World Of VATSIM

Explaining the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network.

The last time I tried my hand at flying a plane on my PC was while exploring multiplayer Grand Theft Auto V. I couldn't master the craft at all and crashed and burned my way through a wind farm as friends expressed horror and mirth. I suspect that my own utter incompetence in the face of flight versus the skill of others is part of what fascinates me about VATSIM.

VATSIM is short for Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network. It's a system which populates a flight sim by connecting enthusiasts who each take on piloting or air traffic controller roles. I found out about it through Graham who had spent time on one of the VATSIM forums picking through people's stories and relaying them to me over Gchat (as in Google Chat – Graham doesn't have his own chat client yet).

Obviously I was concerned about gaining access myself (the ruined wind farm still loomed large as a relatively recent trauma despite GTA V not being in any way a flight sim). That's why I got in touch with Justin Friedland. He's the Vice President of Communications and Marketing at VATSIM and has been flying simulated aircraft since Microsoft Flight Simulator, which was released in 1982.

"I'm a frustrated pilot is the short answer," Friedland tells me when I ask how he got involved with the network. He began training as a pilot in Chicago but the city's weather and his day job as a field producer for a television network conspired against him on that front. "I gave up on learning to fly because I could never put all the time together and started jumping out of airplanes instead - skydiving - until I got too old to do that anymore. But simulated flying gave me the fun I was looking for and it's only gotten better."

Before we talk about the sims themselves or VATSIM in particular he starts to tell me about the rigs people set up to augment the flight sim experience.

"You've got devoted flyers [who] will have three monitors in front of them so it's as if they're looking outside with the two side windows, you've got a yoke, you've got rudder pedals, you've got throttle quadrants - you can duplicate all of the instruments that are on almost any aircraft. I mean all it takes is money but this stuff is available and it just plugs into your computer. You don't have to be an electronics genius to wire it up, it's basically plug and play USB. I know guys who have invested a couple of thousand dollars and have really built virtually a 737 cockpit with every switch, dial and gauge in it."

The is a lot of terminology in this conversation and the names of the planes as well as all their different bits are things I needed to go away and look up for the most part. If you're in a similar position, the yoke is the part of the plane control system that looks closest to being a steering wheel. Rudder pedals are foot pedals you use for extra control and sometimes for braking. Throttle quadrants generally look like boxes with levers sticking out of them and add extra control options.

Here's one home cockpit being used for a VATSIM event:

Watch on YouTube

A full on cockpit is one option but you can imagine that most people don't get that far. Friedland's setup is simpler. "I only have two monitors, a couple of throttle quadrants so I can fly four engine airplanes - each throttle quadrant only has three levers on it and you can configure the levers any way you want so I can fly four engine aircraft, I've got rudder pedals, I've got a yoke, I have a radio module that lets me tune my radios, I've got a trim wheel if I'm flying small general aviation aircraft. That's pretty much it."

To me that still sounds like a decent chunk of hardware, then again I remember the amount of peripherals involved with Rock Band and Rock Band didn't let you fly a plane at all.

In terms of cost, Friedland explains: "The yoke, rudder pedals, trim wheel and throttle quad all come as a package. Let's say you'll spend $450 on that package, you already own the computer and you'll spend $60-70 on your flight simulation software. Either Microsoft Flight Simulator X or X-Plane or the new one from Lockheed which is called Prepar3D. There's another one called Microsoft FSX Steam version. You've got 4 choices and each one is only going to cost you $65 or so. From then on everything on VATSIM is free."

Ah, yes. VATSIM.

VATSIM divides users by whether they're using the service as a pilot or an air traffic controller (ATC). Obviously you can switch between the two but the requirements are very different. Friedland tells me he has racked up around 700 hours as an air traffic controller in addition to his time as a pilot. I'll get to how ATC works in more detail in a moment but I want to note that learning how each side works helps inform the other.

Friedland tells me that "[ATC] helps in your flying because pilots have to interact with air traffic controllers and the more you know about what an air traffic controller is doing and why he or she is doing it the better equipped you are to fly your flight properly and with a minimum of hassle."

Via Friedland I also passed some questions to a real-world pilot who Friedland knew from the network. He didn't want his full name or airline used here so I only know him as Andrew. Andrew used to fly on VATSIM but he says that after becoming a pilot in the real world he shifted his hobby to the ATC side.

"I started using the service because I was very interested in flying airliners as a kid," says Andrew. "My grandfather, a WWII B17 pilot, bought me my first flight simulator and I got hooked from a very young age. Now, since I am an airline pilot professionally, the thing that keeps me coming back is the ability to simulate realistic ATC and use my knowledge of the airspace I fly in to provide realistic simulated ATC services to virtual pilots. For me, controlling airplanes is a bit of an adrenaline rush and it helps relieve some of the stress when I get home from a tough day of real world flying."

Since moving over to air traffic control he says "the ability to control the airspace I fly in, albeit in a simulated environment, created an unparalleled situational awareness that drastically increased my safety. I am able to routinely predict what an air traffic controller is going to do with my aircraft. Although I don't make decisions based solely on this knowledge, it does help in making more informed decisions as pilot-in-command. It helps me to keep an efficient operation as well. Often times, I can actually save time by offering to fly routes I know to be available if weather is affecting the route I was originally filed for."

According to Friedland, one of the things you learn as a VATSIM pilot by taking on ATC roles is the sheer volume of information juggling that is being done.

"[Pilots] get a sense of how busy [ATCs] are and how little time they have to spend with you. It tells you how ready you have to be. For example, when you're approaching an airport and an air traffic controller is giving you your initial clearance, he's going to tell you where he wants you, what altitude he wants you at, what speed he wants you at, what heading he wants you on, until you intercept the localiser for the runway you're going to land on. So he's going to give you about six pieces of information in a single sentence. You need to be ready to accept that information and understand it. If you're not it's going to come at you like arglebargle and you're going to be saying please repeat please repeat please repeat. Well he doesn't have time to do that because there may be fifteen aircraft in the pattern so please repeat is an extraordinary request in many circumstances."

Given the requirements of the role you don't just get to wander in and start giving orders or talking to Victor about his vector. No. There is a whole training system in place. The training is free but there's a lot of self-directed study involved as well as mentor sessions over chat clients like Teamspeak or Skype where you can get help with concepts you don't understand or figure out the terminology and phraseology. You'll also get exams and levels of competency you need to pass. "We'll help make you sound like you know what you're doing," Friedland says before adding "Ideally we hope we'll help you know what you're doing!"

As an ATC you start small – at a minor airport in your preferred region with a slower pace of traffic and fewer approaches and departures to learn. You'll gradually build up to the busier airports.

"The New York area has four major airports, each one of which is immensely busy. There's Kennedy, there's LaGuardia, there's Newark and believe it or not Philadelphia is part of the New York flight zone. Those four airports do a huge amount of traffic, both in real life and virtually because when people think of flying to the United States: 'I'll go to JFK'."

There are also levels of responsibility as well as the increasing demands of the airports. "You'll start in what's called clearance delivery," says Friedland. "You're reading a pilot's filed flight route, you're looking at it, you're making sure it's okay and you're clearing him for his flight. You're not moving an airplane, you're not giving any other instructions. You're simply telling them their filed flight plan is okay or making corrections on it.

"Then you go to ground control and you're starting to move airplanes around the airport, helping them taxi out to the runway they have to go to to take off. You're interweaving different planes going to different runways or coming from different terminals to go to the same runway. After that you become a tower control and now you're giving aircraft permission to take off and permission to land so you come up another step.

"After that you go to departure. Now you're working with planes that have just taken off and getting them to their route so they can continue their flight before you hand them off. After departure you become an approach controller and now you're dealing with aircraft coming in from any point on the compass and you're trying to get them into the correct traffic pattern so they can land and you're trying to keep space between them and other airplanes and you're trying to keep them at the right altitude and speed.

"Ultimately, once you've really figured life out you become what's called a centre controller and a centre controller basically controls the entire airspace over a flight region. In our world a centre controller is a center controller, an approach controller, a departure controller, a tower controller, a ground controller and a clearance delivery guy if no-one else is online. The centre controller does them all."

Basically you can be expected to do your current job and all the ones below that.

For me as an outsider it seems that the big appeal of VATSIM is the immersion. When I think about how to explain it to other people I approach it in the same way I think of LARPing – a group of people who take their hobby very seriously and want to share it with others while inhabiting a chosen role to the fullest extent possible. The most obvious manifestation of that is in the fact the VATSIM network runs a steady stream of events throughout the year which allow pilots to fly their virtual craft between various airports and promise full ATC coverage along the way. It's a way of guaranteeing that fleshed out, populated experience for an entire route.

Here's the invitation for the Copenhagen - Gatwick event:

"The events serve two purposes," says Friedland. "One it gives the pilots a great place to fly because they have a rich environment where everything is staffed. There's always someone talking to them, helping them, guiding them, instructing them. Similarly for an air traffic controller it's great to work at a fully staffed airport where you're effectively working like a real air traffic controller and you're handing planes off or accepting people as they're handed back to you.

"Big events like that - or even small events - are a lot of fun because you get to work with guys - I'm using guys in a generic sense, sorry - but you get to work with other people who share the same hobby and have the same enthusiasm for this. It can be a really great few hours."

Every six months there's Cross The Pond which alternates flying eastbound and westbound between four chosen European and four US airports. Pilots can apply for a route between their two preferred airports. When talking about it Friedland picks Heathrow to Atlanta as an example which happened to be the next transatlantic flight I was actually booked on.

"You book that route, work out your flight plan and then you have coverage from Heathrow to Atlanta and all the way across the ocean. You talk to everybody on the ground in London and they get you up and off. Then you're handed over to a centre controller, then an oceanic controller, eventually you're handed back to a centre controller as you come into the United States and you work your way down the Eastern seaboard until you make the turn into Atlanta.

"For the entire period - eight hours - you're in communication with people. When you're not talking you're listening to other people talking to air traffic control as they get handed off or report in. Could you do that [flight] and not be on VATSIM? Sure you could, it would just mean you'd be sitting at your computer for eight hours, looking at a screen and watching clouds blow by. This way you're engaged and talking to people, you're hearing what other folks are doing, maybe catching their mistakes, maybe learning something from what they do . It all adds to the experience."

Friedland puts the bulk of the community into the "interested amateur" category with a maximum of 15 percent being real pilots. That's a number which he says is increasing because "as the software for the aircraft gets better and the planes become more and more realistic real world pilots are realising they can get a copy of their airplane and then practice with it".

I'll point out that this is something the pilot from earlier, Andrew, has a slightly different perspective on:

"I can see how some real world pilots may use this to 'try' new routes out, but I must assume those pilots are probably either low time or newly certified instrument rated pilots," he says. "I can't imagine many real world airline pilots flying on VATSIM for fun. Believe it or not, most of the really good pilots on VATSIM are real world ATC doing the opposite of what I do!"

The time he spent as a pilot in VATSIM previously did offer advantages – "my experience on VATSIM, before I was a real world airline pilot, helped me to have an advantage above my peers in phraseology, radio etiquette, etc." - but the experience of flying in a simulator nowadays is simply "too close to work".

He's also less positive about the current state of flight simulators. "Development has significantly slowed down in recent years and it is a shame. We need more people developing for this hobby as it has a very active and vibrant fan base."

When I ask a question related to making tough decisions or dealing with negative outcomes in the game he also adds that "Many of the things we do in the real world cannot be simulated correctly online. This is partially due to limitations with flight simulator development, but also has to do with limitations with the VATSIM network itself."

In terms of demographics, Friedland's estimation is that the community is mostly male and mostly either teenaged or retired.

"Much to my sorrow we're probably 95 percent male. My New York organisation has some really great female controllers, some of whom are actually real world controllers. We have a great woman who works out of Greece where she is a real world controller [...] She's terrific."

He continues, "In terms of age we have a lot of very young folks. You have to be at least 13 but we have a lot of 13 to 17-year-olds and one of the reasons is once you get into college and then out of college and get a job you don't have a lot of time to do this. This is time intensive and it's real time. If I fly from New York to Chicago I'm going to be sitting in front of my computer for three hours. That's a big chunk of time and as much as you say I'll do something else at the same time you really can't.

"If you're working a job 9-5 and coming home and doing other stuff you might not have time to do that. We tend to have lots of very young people and lots of guys like me who are 95 percent retired and can do what they want to do." He puts maybe a fifth of the userbase in the 25-50 age bracket.

When talking to Graham about VATSIM and about flight simulator message boards he has lurked on he was telling me about a thread which contained some stories apparently from pilots who use the network and who had experienced in-game disaster after making the same decisions they would have made in real life. I bring up the subject with Friedland – those weird "what if" moments but he's pretty matter of fact, preferring to talk in terms of how flight sims let you play with an aircraft's capabilities and challenge your own skill in safety. Andrew, meanwhile, no longer pilots in sim airspace and so those encounters don't come up.

Friedland does tell me one of his own most challenging experiences while using VATSIM. He uses software which populates the sim with an approximation of real-world weather. During one landing in Atlanta he tells me, "I'm coming down through a layer of cloud and I'm coming down through a layer of cloud and I'm coming down through a layer of cloud... and there was no breakout. Fortunately I was in an airplane that's capable of doing what's called Category III approaches - zero visibility. Basically you set up your flight management computer with all the data for the airport you're going to land at which includes the altitude of the runway, the length of the runway, the frequency of the locator beacon and all that jazz. Then the airplane flies the approach. You just keep your hands the heck away from everything. About the only thing you have to do is manage the flaps and the landing gear."

That anecdote came in handy a week or so after speaking with Friedland. I was on a flight home from Germany which had already been delayed as the fog at Gatwick, our destination, was so thick. I love flying but several bumpy landings recently have left me uneasy about coming back to earth (the pilot for one of them termed our touchdown a "firm arrival" and it caused my former lunch to make an equally firm arrival once I made it to the terminal). Hearing the pilot on the foggy flight announce that we had to make a fully automated landing would probably have filled me with apprehension but knowing a bit more about how it worked, I concentrated on remembering that instead.

Relatedly, Friedland says that flight sims have made him a better passenger, although his wife might disagree. It's not about calming nerves – he's a seasoned flyer – it's more about the pleasure of familiarity. "My wife and I flew to Paris and we flew a 757 across. Coming back we flew Paris to London in an A320 and took a 747 from London to New York. I'm familiar with all three of those airplanes having messed around with them in VATSIM and so I was going over the checklist in my head as we were sitting there on the gate. As we start to get pushed back and make our turns I actually bored my wife until she finally told me to shut up!" he laughs.

"It's like singing along. You get to run this whole thing in your head. I had some charts on my phone so I'm watching the charts and watching us go until we got out over the ocean!"

Going back to challenging situations, he mentions one particular airport – Lukla Airport in Nepal, also known as Tenzing-Hillary Airport. It has previously been designated the most dangerous airport in the world but it's busy because of its location:

"It's the gateway to Mount Everest so if you're going to climb Everest you're either going to take a helicopter or a Twin Otter from Kathmandu up to Lukla. The airport's at 9,000 feet. It's a single runway and the runway ends at the face of a mountain. It's a very small number of guys who are qualified to fly into this airport. It gets a tremendous amount of traffic because anybody who's going to climb Everest or hike in that area has to go there. But it's a novel experience to try and fly into as a simulator pilot. If you're too high you hit the mountain at the end of the runway and if you're too low you hit the mountain in front of the runway."

Watch on YouTube

VATSIM doesn't shy away from bad things happening on flights, but the network does forbid certain simulations.

"We don't let somebody declare a hijacking, we don't let people duplicate terrorist flights," says Friedland. "We try and keep things respectful and within certain bounds. As I say the software is very realistic and if you set your software to recognise wear and tear and occasional malfunctions it's not unusual for somebody to declare an emergency because one of their engines quit or they couldn't get the landing gear up. We allow them to simulate that. Given there are 50 aircraft in the pattern and we have the time to deal with them we'll do a simulated engine out. We try real hard to keep it real and interesting but not over the top."

The other thing I know is forbidden seems far more innocuous. You're not allowed to say "roger". I wondered why the Leslie Nielsen documentary Airplane! might have lied to me on that front so I asked for the reasoning.

"If somebody gives you a command you're supposed to identify yourself and repeat the command. If I'm taking off and I'm told 'Delta 6655 turn left 310 climb and maintain 170' I've just been told to turn left 310 degrees and climb to 17,000 feet. My response is going to be '310 170 Delta 6655'. They don't want to hear 'roger' they want to hear you repeat what they just told you so they're sure you heard it correctly.

"It's left over from military ops. There's a lot of stuff that's done in military ops where there is no air traffic controller, you're on your own. Roger is a way of acknowledging I heard you. It's the same as wilco which is short for 'will comply'. But it's not what an air traffic controller wants to hear."

To illustrate he tells me about an Aerolineas Argentinas flight from the late seventies or early eighties (I believe it's this one) where the pilot began to descend to 1,500 feet over Manhattan thinking he had been cleared for that altitude when . It put the plane in possible range of part of the World Trade Center. The air traffic controller (and the alarm system) caught the error and immediately ordered the plane to turn and climb to 3,000 feet.

"When you get that kind of command from an air traffic controller all you do is slam the throttles to the firewall, pull back on the stick and turn left as hard as you can," says Friedland. "You don't ask why. When you get a NOW command you just do it."

Repeating commands back is part of trying to ensure situations like that are avoided.

As we start to wrap up, Friedland mentions one last thing (it is like an episode of Columbo). He reminds me that I used the word "play" earlier in the interview in relation to using VATSIM. I'd actually wondered if that had been noticed as I'd said it. It rankles, or at least feels incorrect to him in relation to flight simulators.

"As much as this is not the real world it's not Dungeons and Dragons," he says.

I ask which term he would go with.

"Fly? If you're going to fly with us or control with us? We take this probably more seriously than we should," he laughs, "[But] we want to make the experience a learning experience and a rewarding experience and a fun experience where you're doing something that might have application in the real world. We do have guys come onto VATSIM, get interested in this and either go on to be pilots or go on to be air traffic controllers. It's a way of keeping yourself sharp when you go into retirement. The first thing they tell you is find something that turns you on and keeps your mind working."

I think my definition of play and of games has changed over the years and means so many different things in so many contexts. Relevant here is the fact that I spend a lot of my working life covering professional gaming where "play" can mean something you do to pay the bills, something fun-but-serious, something that can eat up thousands of hours as you train and improve. I'm far more comfy using play in relation to flight sims as a result, I think. It might not be the exact term I want but it doesn't feel like it mismatches what the service actually provides in the way that it does when Friedland hears it.

"I don't think of this as a videogame. I know the men and women I fly with and control with don't really think of it as a videogame. They know it's not real but they don't think of it as a game. It's why we don't let people kit out an F18 with rockets and go flying through the air blowing airliners out of the sky. It's not a game."

He adds "With this even when you're not sitting in front of your computer doing it you might be reading about it or learning something new or on YouTube watching a video about it and trying to pick up another technique or pointer." I cast my mind back over hundreds of hours doing exactly that with MOBAs.

"It might be just me and I'm being oversensitive - feel free to make that judgment," he laughs, "but I think of this as more than just a game. I think of it as a learning experience and a potential path to some other things if you want to follow it."

Read this next