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Flight Log – VATSIM is a go

August 30th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Gaming

My helicopter flight around Manhattan was done without the built-in simulator ATC because it wasn’t properly recognizing that I was in a helicopter. I said at the time I didn’t want to bother with VATSIM, but I quickly changed my mind when I realized I would end up using it sooner or later – so why not when I need it the most? To that end, I returned once again to good ol’ ground school – this time in the form of the VATSIM Pilot Resource Center, where I learned all the nuances associated with the VATSIM network, communicating with ATC, IFR and VFR procedures, filing a flight plan, etc etc. Fortunately most of it I either knew or had a general understanding of, which meant it didn’t take me long to work through the material. Flying on United Airlines I would always listen to the in-flight ATC chatter, and learned to recognize what people were saying, when and why.

Done with ground school, I then had to install and configure the add-on SquawkBox that would let me connect to the VATSIM network and communicate with the other pilots/controllers. That was quick and easy. Then I had to disable the Ultimate Traffic 2 AI traffic, since the VATSIM network would be showing me all the aircraft that were in my area (within 100mi). Finally, I had to set REX to pull down weather info off the VATSIM network instead of the real-world information site. VATSIM uses real-world weather too but it’s just a matter of syncing up with the same source.

I put myself in a Cessna 172 on the GA ramp at KTEB, where I was last based from. Ironically, when it came time to log into the server I had no idea what to do. SquawkBox didn’t have any default servers for me to connect to, and the VATSIM site didn’t provide me with any direct information on servers. Even their Quick Start guide left out any information on finding out what server to connect to. Finally I realized I could check the Servers tab on VATTASTIC to find the IP address of the eastern US server. Success!

First thing I did upon connecting was to tune my radio to one of the local frequencies. Both KEWR and KJFK were active, so I chose KEWR Ground. I then sat for about 5 minutes and practiced what I was going to say. I’ll admit it – I was way more intimidated than I thought I would be when it came to pushing that talk button – not because I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot when I said it. Like:

“newark ground, cessna seven two uhhh… delta… uhm… november seven two… dammit…”

Yea, that’d be pretty embarrassing. Despite the fact that I remarked on my flight plan I was a total n00b, I didn’t want to sound like one. Plus, there’s that “controller voice” you can’t help but want to match on all transmissions. This says it best:

“Now the thing to understand about Center controllers was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the “Houston Center voice.” I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country’s space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that and that they basically did. And it didn’t matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.”

You can read the full (and hilarious) real life short story I excerpted that from here.

So after a few minutes rehearsing and a couple deep breaths, I keyed the mic:

“newark ground, cessna seven delta sierra, request communications check.”

I let off the talk button and waited… and prayed. A few seconds later Ground came back:

“Cessna seven delta sierra, ground, reading you five by five. How am I coming to you?”

“reading you five by, ground. Thanks!”

“you betcha sir, no problem”

And so went my first ATC communications. If you were confused by my greeting, my tail number (and thus my callsign) is N727DS – which broken down means

N – the standard identifier for registered aircraft in the US
727 – my birth date, July 27th
DS – my initials, Drew Sikora

Since some aircraft registration numbers can be a mouthful, it’s customary to just use the last three digits/letters following your aircraft type when talking to ATC.

After making sure I was being heard okay by the controllers, I checked the VATTASTIC display to see if there was any traffic I could listen to, and saw two flights inbound to KJFK with another on the ground for departure. So I switched over to JKF tower frequency and listened in. One of the cool things is that the various chat programs actually simulate VHF broadcast, which means when people transmit it’s not like talking to someone over Skype. If you’ve ever listened to a real ATC stream, you’ll hear all kinds of distortion and static – well you get that here too. It’s incredibly surreal and immersive.

After a few minutes listening to JFK tower, I got tired of my engine noise in the background, so I shut down the engine for some peace and quiet while I listened. After several more minutes all of the sudden I got the “radio off” beep from SquawkBox and sat up, confused. I checked to make sure SquawkBox was still connected to the server, and it was. Then I looked at my radio stack in my cockpit to find it powered down. What the hell?? So I tried to restart the engine. Nothing happened. So I checked my voltage gauge and, sure enough, the dial was buried in the red. I had run down my battery.

Maybe this shit is just a little too realistic.

After I picked my head off the desk and made a mental note to be wary of battery levels in the future, I decided to log off completely – my mission for tonight, which was to log in, establish ATC communication and then monitor, was accomplished. Now everything is set up for a real flight down the Hudson in a Robinson. I will hopefully be pulling that off sometime this week, without making a complete ass of myself over ATC. Wish me luck!!

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