For years, I’ve been so fascinated by the modern home flight simulator. It’s realism and detail has made it both a great training tool and a great outlet for a love of flight. There are constant innovations that make the sim a fun and beneficial use of time as either a pilot or aviation enthusiast. However, Air Traffic Control is one of those bits of the sim that I rarely use because it just doesn’t add the value that you would hope to get out of simulated radio communication (check out my YouTube video exploring X-Plane ATC here). All that just changed when I tried out a service called PilotEdge, which is professional air traffic control for flight simulators. You’re talking to real people in a dynamic environment. I’ve been eyeing this service for some time and finally tried it for the first time. So how does it stack up? This is a game changer. Here’s my initial experience.
PIlotEdge covers most of the western half of the United States. To participate, you subscribe to one or both of the coverage areas. You can start off with a free two week trial to get your feet wet before choosing a subscription option. Signing up was a breeze, and as a Mac user, installation was as simple as dragging the downloaded folder into the Plugins folder of my main X-Plane folder. I made sure my headset was plugged in before starting X-Plane, and then loaded up on the ramp of an airport in the coverage area. I then assigned the “Contact ATC” command to a button on my flight yoke to make a push-to-talk switch. Connecting to PilotEdge was as simple as selecting “Connect” from the Plugins menu from the sim. I entered my login credentials and my choice of tail number (you can pick any tail number, so choosing the one you use in your training airplane can have some benefits). A computerized voice told me that I was connected, and I followed the recommended radio test procedure of tuning 123.45 on both Com 1 and Com 2. When transmitting for that test, I could hear myself back through the system. It was pretty cool to hear myself over the radio in real time.
The PilotEdge website has a recommended first flight that I decided to try out because it takes you from a non towered airport into a towered airport to ease you into the system. Starting at Sunnyside (1S5) near Seattle, I started up, ran through my checklists, and made my radio calls to the local airport traffic. What’s cool about the system is that it uses real world frequencies so I can reference Foreflight just like I would in the real airplane. They also model factors like reception range based on altitude and line of sight for obstructions. I wasn’t certain at this point that I was transmitting, or that there was anyone around to hear me, but I stayed diligent on my calls at the pilot controlled Sunnyside. “Sunnyside traffic, Cessna 918AP departing runway 25 to the north east, Sunnyside.” Once airborne, I picked up the ATIS at Yakima (KYKM), my destination airport, about 30 miles away. The weather was clear and the automated recording informed me that runway 27 was in use and that it was information Golf (each new and updated broadcast has the next letter in the alphabet so the controller knows which info you have when you report the letter to them). Once in cruise flight, I enjoyed the scenery and hoped that everything was configured correctly and working when I called up Yakima Tower. 10 miles out, I made the call. “Yakima tower, Cessna 978AP 10 miles to the southeast, landing with golf.” I was delighted to hear a real person return the call. “N978AP make straight in runway 27, report 3 mile final.” Wow. If this isn’t the coolest thing, I don’t know what is. As a pilot, sim enthusiast and AvGeek, this was like winning the lottery. As I descended towards runway and 27 and ran my pre-landing checks, I had my first taste of this dynamic environment’s realism – “8AP, had a wind change here, enter right downwind for runway 4, report midfield downwind.” I consulted my airport diagram and set up for the new runway. You can hear the recording of the audio here.
I love mission based flying in the sim. Without it, most flights would get boring after a series of slamming the throttle forward, pulling the airplane off the ground, buzzing around for a few minutes and wondering where the missile button is. Even on a session where I’ve created my own mission, I am the only participant and spectator, and only I can tell how I’m doing. The simulated world can feel empty, like flying as the last person on earth. There are no rules to follow, traffic to look for, other pilots to consider, or consequences of mistakes. Now with other traffic to watch for and interact with, as well as computer driven airplanes that represent those who don’t talk on the radio, there’s a new level of diligence to maintain when flying in this system. Real people to consider , be courteous to, and fly the right way. There’s lot’s to explore ahead, including a rating system where you fly scenario based flights where the controller gives you a passing or non-passing grade on a roster after the flight. Try it out for yourself. See you out there.