Crossing the virtual Pond

Crossing the virtual Pond

This Article was first published Linkedin In March 2019

Within the aviation community at large, there exists a subsection that’s dedicated to replicating the real world from the comfort of their home. Home flight simulation has been with us since the dawn of the home computer itself, and these days, the entire world is available for you to fly in and around as many times as you like. It’s a genre that’s been my home for over 30 years. (Probably more.) What fascinates me is the ever-growing drive of average people to study how an airliner operates, and to then take that knowledge and fly a complete replica of a real-world aircraft within a simulated environment. It’s not just the aircraft that have become as complex as they’re real-world counterparts. There are several online ATC environments out there that have virtual ATC controllers working alongside the pilots in the air. As a community, it’s impressive.

 One of the oldest Virtual ATC Providers is Vatsim. Harking back to the days of 1440 dialup, the network has grown from message boards to a vast network of servers encompassing the globe. They keep the skies open for those who want to experience what an average day in the life of an airline pilot is like. One of the ways they do this is with regular events. The most popular event is known as ‘Cross the Pond’ or CTP. This biannual event sees pilots fly from east to west, or west to east across the Atlantic. Last year I had the chance to fly in it myself. It was… experience. Read on. 

Jumping in.

The idea is simple. On a given Saturday, pilots take off, fly the difficult North Atlantic tracks and arrive at a destination on the other side. Spring takes us westbound from Europe to North America whilst autumn reverses that. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Well here comes the hot sauce to spice things up. Pick five separate airfields in Europe and assign them a number of slots. Each slot is a single flight that’s available. Then pick the same number or more of destination airports for arrivals. Factor in an average amount of extra pilots without slots and you have chaos, in a good way. On average the CTP event last for 15 hours or more and will see over 1000 pilots online at any given time. This is the mother of all events that will test both pilots and ATC to the limit. And I’ve got a slot. Gulp! 

Prior preparation prevents…..

Planning begins around 3 months before the event, with a team of 8 working on the logistics. Airports from all over Europe and North America are tossed into a pile. These are sifted down until a wide selection is agreed upon. Not every airport selected at this point will be an official CTP participant. One airport from each side of the pond is chosen to definitely appear, while the rest are put out to a vote among Vatsim members. This year Heathrow and Toronto were the preselected airports. The selection of airports is always tricky. Balancing the want for new airports alongside the favourites is difficult. In the end, some will be disappointed while others will be more than happy. Joining Heathrow this year is my own home airport in Vienna, Warsaw, Barcelona and Amsterdam. On the other side joining Toronto is Calgary, Miami, JFK, Chicago and Atlanta. There are 600 slots assigned between all the departure airports, and the quest for these is intense. 

 The Slots open for a reservation around two weeks before the event. They go quickly, often within just two hours, sometimes sooner. I’ve managed to grab a slot at Vienna heading to Calgary, one of the longest flights available. The next two weeks you’ll find posts on Vatsim’s Facebook page asking if anyone has a dropped slot or if you’re lucky, someone giving up a slot. 

 While pilots are sniffing around for the odd slot, the events team are in full-blown planning mode. This culminates the night before, where everyone gets online and sorts out the 600 pilots routing for the next day. This isn’t an easy task. Going Oceanic isn’t like a regular flight. Pilots assigned slots will use the North Atlantic Tracks or NATS for crossing the Atlantic. These tracks change twice daily and only become available the day before. I’ll talk more about those later when I have to fly them. 

A booking confirmation from the 2019 event.

The briefings complete and pilots have they’re routing, the next challenge is staffing. Every departure airport, ATC centre and arrival airports will be fully staffed. Essentially Europe lights up like a Christmas tree. This brings even more pilots online, hoping to take advantage of the full ATC on offer. It’s gruelling for the controllers and as the day progresses, the stress can Mount. The CTP team try their best to rest controllers, especially those on the tricky oceanic sections.

Belly of the beast. 

For me, it’s time to prepare. Preparing a sim isn’t as easy as loading the program and off to go. In a sign of how complex the flight sim world has become, there are several programs that will need to run alongside the main sim for today’s flight. To begin with, a route plan needs to be generated. This is done using a program called PFPX, or Professional Flight Planner X. This software is on par with many operations departments at any airline. Winds, Weather, NOTAM’s and more are correlated alongside our load sheet and route. Since Vatsim has provided the route for us, the program can use that information to create the OFP for us. I add in some extra fuel to the trip amount as holding is quite common at arrival airports.

PFPX in use

Alongside that is a Weather Generation program that feeds real-time weather into the sim, while a third program ensures the correct cloud and sky type are loaded as we fly. 

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Next up is a program that corrects the time within the simulator. Finally, there’s a program to connect to Vatsim itself, enabling the sim to talk to the servers, and for the controllers to talk to me. I’m running all these on a single machine but its more than possible to run each individual program on an individual PC.  

With the route is sorted, and the aircraft loaded with maximum fuel and zero passengers. Since this is transatlantic stuff and I’m looking at a flight time of 10 plus hours, the Airbus A320 I’m familiar with stays where she is. Instead, I’m going big, I’m going Boeing, I’m going 747. I’m familiar enough with Boeing’s to get the main flying right, but I’ve no doubt the Queen will throw plenty at me today. Long haul flying isn’t normally my thing. My slot time is 11.49z or 13.49 local. That time is my ‘wheels up’ time, and Vacc Austria advises pilots to push back at least 20 minutes before this. The 747 I’m flying is known as one of the most accurate and in-depth aircraft around. Created by PMDG, or Precision Manuals Data Group. (Hence PMDG), their 747, now in its third iteration, has been build alongside input from Boeing themselves. Not only has the aircraft been modelled down to the wires almost, but there’s also a fantastic array of optional features like a turnaround timer and service vehicles that add a level of authenticity to any flight. I set the turnaround time for 1 hour 30 and log into Vatsim at Gate F44. ATC isn’t even online yet and already the airport is starting to fill up. Next, to me, I have an Austrian A330 and an Austrian 777. There are Air Canada flights and countless others as well, filling the gates.

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As PMDG’s ground crew busy themselves with refuelling, I’m sorting through the checklists and checking the various briefing packets for the event. There’s one for Vienna, one for my destination at Calgary, one for sorting my oceanic clearance and a full route printout. Right now I feel more like a secretary than a Pilot. Time passes though, and with half an hour before I can call for pushback, I request my IFR clearance. Vienna delivery is prompt as always and my clearance comes back along with my TOT or take off time confirmation. We’re on schedule. While I wait for the ground crew to wrap up, aircraft are beginning to move, and a steady stream of widebodies begin to taxi just across from me to runway 16. At just past 1330 local time, I request pushback. I’m barely a stone’s throw away from 16, so my taxi time is short. As I pushback, An Emirates Aircraft, parked in an awkward position hits me. They apologise, which surprises me as I can’t see them anywhere. Oh well. I’m passed from delivery to the ground and to tower in quick order, and with no queue visible, I’m airborne at 1338 local, 11 minutes early. Time to settle in and get comfortable. 

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Going Oceanic. 

My route takes me north across the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and into Norwegian airspace. Like much of today’s Calgary bound traffic, we’re crossing the far north via Iceland and Greenland. This may be a blessing, we shall see. For now, I need to request my oceanic clearance. I’ve not flown across the Atlantic before, so this is all new to me, and frankly, I’m a bit nervous. With my track entry point approaching, my controller asks me to contact Reykjavik centre for oceanic clearance. I’m flying track H today, and I request clearance noting my entry point, the waypoints along the track, and exit point, along with my Flight Level and my requested speed. The controller then replies, and gives me an entry time to the track, if needed. I’m lucky. I was one of the earlier departures and the skies aren’t quite as busy so no time restrictions and I can keep my speed up. Nice. 

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 Once in the track, all pilots are expected to make position reports at each waypoint. This is because radar cannot reach the mid-Atlantic, so controllers need to know what time you crossed a waypoint and what time you expect to reach the next one, so they have a picture of who’s where and when. Those of us flying far north today have gotten lucky though as Reykjavik has radar coverage along the whole track. So we can relax.  

Meanwhile at Heathrow…..

Not everyone has had the same flawless experience as I’ve had. At Heathrow, congestion is a huge problem. Pilots are queuing up for 27L with lines stretching back to Terminal 5 and across the aprons. It’s essentially chaos. Alongside the CTP traffic, others as expected, have taken the opportunity to fly with ATC. Pilots with slots are running late, even though priority is given to their pushback clearances. 

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Heathrow is always popular, and that can prove troublesome. Picture by Vatsim

 It’s not just Heathrow. The four main transatlantic tracks are also heaving under the strain. While we in the north are enjoying the peace and serenity of radar-controlled airspace, 

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Shanwick control is a single mass of pilots stepping over each other in an effort to make a position report or request clearances. 

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Passing above the traffic!

O’ Canada. 

With the chaos well to my south, I leave my track and head into Canadian airspace. Amusingly, having missed out on needing to make position reports mid-Atlantic, my routing down across Canada’s far north requires position reports as there’s no radar coverage. I get a taste of the madness of the other tracks as I struggle occasionally to make my own report due to competing radio calls. Gander Control has a great little web app that helps format my reports though, making it easy to announce my position. This is how pilots flew fifty plus years ago and it’s kinda cool doing it now. 

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 Soon enough we’re all passed through to Edmonton Centre and the sequencing begins for landing. After 8 plus hours in the air, suddenly it’s all go. One thing I’d forgotten about flying in North America is the use of Visual approaches. I get assigned a visual approach to runway 35L, and instructions to ‘see and avoid’ other traffic. This is different from what I’m used to and I have to rely on my circuit training from 20 plus years ago. As I turn base, I get an advisory of a 777 at my 11 o clock. I grab him in my sights and watch him as I turn onto final. The 747 is loving it all, and she responds to my flying hand flying very well. With two miles left to go, I’m on profile and the tower clears me for landing, with a note to put her down on the numbers and not to linger. There’s traffic behind me. I make a perfect landing and as instructed I clear as soon as possible. Ground directs me to my parking spot and after 9 hours and 25 minutes in the air, it’s all over. 

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Summing up.

 Cross the pond is one of Vatsim’s most popular events. A record 1454 pilots were logged onto the network during the event, many of whom were participating. It was challenging, not just for the flying skills required, but due to the flight times involved. Keeping your concentration over a long oceanic sector is not easy. What really surprised me though was the level of social media interaction. Throughout the day pilots, myself included tweeted pictures from along the way, mentioning @vatsimctp, who would then retweet the ones they liked. Vatsim’s Facebook pages filled with pictures and comments as well and there were more than a few live streams covering both pilots and ATC, with Heathrow’s tower steam showing the chaos that comes with CTP. 

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Would I do it all again? Yes, without a doubt, though I’d prefer an Airbus next time. The return event, CTP Eastbound will be in the autumn. I can’t wait. 

My thanks to Vatsim, To the all the controllers along the way, and to Vatsim President, Gunnar Lindahl for his help in making this article possible.