The VATSIM Organisation
VATSIM, or Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network, is likely the largest, most ubiquitous, simulated ATC in existence today. With 80,000 users active within the past six months and as many as three times as much registered, Vatsim spans the entire world, with larger pockets in the United States Europe and Australia. It also has an extended presence in Asia, Africa and many other areas globally. Minimum membership age is 13. Vatsim is a registered non-profit organization, created by a Founders’ group in 2001 and managed entirely by volunteers. The day to day management is handled by a Board of Governors and an Executive Committee.
For more information on the daily workings of the organization, we spoke to Matt Bartels, Vice President, Marketing & Communications at Vatsim’s Board of Governors:
“Our Board of Governors does all the strategic thinking behind Vatsim, much as the VPs in a corporation. As Vatsim is divided in regions, the Executive Committee is made up of our regional directors and they are responsible for the day to day tactical handling of things concerning their areas. It then cascades from the region down to the division.”
“So, for example, your country is going to be your division and then under the divisions we have the individual local facilities. In the United States, the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) would be New York Center or Boston Center, Los Angeles, etc. At Vatsim, local centers handle all the training and the local specific procedures for that area.”
“As an example, New York ARTCC is responsible for training their controllers. We have a top down approach where, say, if there is only one controller online in a given area, he or she handles all the facilities below Center. So if nobody else comes online one controller will handle New York Center and all the frequencies of the airports below it, such as JFK, La Guardia, and all the way to Philadelphia. If I come in as a controller at JFK, I will take care of all five frequencies, namely tower, ground, clearance and then approach and departure at the metropolitan airports around JFK, relinquishing the center controller from that responsibility.”
Let us clarify that in Vatsim you can join as two distinctive roles, as a controller and as a pilot. Both require training and assume that you will respect the rules enforced in that division.
Matt: “In the US we follow the FAA procedures and the FAA phraseology. We teach all of that to our trainees. Once they are ready, we do an over the shoulder examination, live on the network. The trainees are talking to aircraft and we try to assign them a lot of airplanes. Once they’re comfortable and pass the exam they’re allowed to control whenever they want on the network. New controllers would be trained differently in Europe than in the US to accommodate their local rules, but the training would follow the same sort of process.”
Matt shared a screen of his ATC scope and explained what he saw in his Minneapolis area, pointing out that larger lettering were aircraft flying, small ones are on the ground, just landed or waiting to depart.
For those who have visited a real ARTCC, it doesn’t look much different from what a controller sees in a real scope. Matt goes through a round the world look and says: ” Australia is quiet right now, it’s the middle of the night”.
Before we discussed the pilot side of things I asked Matt about software needed to be part of the service: “We are constantly working at improving our software on both sides. If you join as a controller head to this page and download the software most suitable to you. If you join as a pilot, depending on what type of simulator you use, we do have several offerings, and one is in the works that will handle any type of simulator. At the moment, you can download the software you need (here) on our site.” There are also several third party apps that run on your tablet, like Vatmap, and others for your Mac like Qutescoop and pretty much any other platform, like Vat-track for Android.
For new pilots Vatsim’s Pilot Academy avails itself of the services of many ATOs (here). or training organizations like VATSTAR that have been certified by Vatsim to deliver quality training to virtual pilots. Let’s remember that some simulator enthusiasts have never taken real flight lessons, so this is a brave new world to conquer.
Vatsim, for the sake of keeping the quality of their service as high as possible, places substantial emphasis on proper training. This enables pilots to learn the fastest, and to extract the most out of the service and the virtual community using it.
Matt says: “We prize our pilots and we encourage them to learn as much as possible. We also want Vatsim to be a place where you can make mistakes and learn from them. So if someone does something really wrong on Vatsim, we may send them a private message to explain what happened and that’s all. We try to encourage people not to “fear” ATC.” But still, he noted, some people are intimidated and disconnect from the service when they are contacted. “We are here to help you learn”, he adds.
Pilots can enroll in one of many courses, depending on their skill levels. They can learn VFR, or IFR rules all the way to Flight Instructor. Matt: “There’s no training requirement for the pilots but we do recommend that the pilots take the time to learn about IFR procedures and VFR procedures, this is the kind of stuff that makes flying on the network less stressful. We’re trying to make everything more accessible and encourage people to learn how to do it like in the real world.”
Vatsim is well known for its awesome community events, where members fly in large groups. ATC services are provided from start to finish, and the destinations are as exotic as they sound like ‘Paris meet Venice’, or reflecting major historical events, like ‘Berlin Airlift Memorial‘, in memory of one of the greatest feats of cargo transportation to date. Events help people get fired up about participating from anywhere in the world, and really foster the community spirit.
Vatsim membership is free and we strongly encourage our fellow pilots to give it a try, either as controllers or as pilots. The community is huge, organized, and there are plenty of activities that are sure to please every level of expertise.