The following pages are my attempt to pass on some comments, observations, and advice about a game. If you have got this far you already know which game I am talking about – the virtual recreation of a real life activity that is fascinating and absorbing to many - FSX. My hope is that by referring to these pages, you, the reader may be a little better informed about flying or controlling in virtual airspace. And in so doing my hope is that some of you will learn something that you will be able to put to good use and make your game experience more enjoyable...
I had played FSX for several years before trying the on-line Multiplayer version of the game. Over time I have racked up roughly 800 flying hours in a variety of aircraft types, the majority of which are the Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Baron. Of those hours of flying I have managed over 700 landings without mishap, along with about 200 hours of night and 100 hours of instrument flying. I have been doing virtual air traffic control on FSX since August 2011 during which time I have amassed over 700 hours of ATC time in over 200 sessions. The first airfield I did ATC for was Southampton (EGHI). But these are recent events, my fascination with aviation and ATC goes back much further.
Free flight with FSX's built-in ATC was something of a realisation of childhood dreams, I just had to wait about 40 years for it to come true! Going back to the early 70's my father used to occasionally teach at a local squadron of the Air Training Corps that along with several cockpits from ex-military aircraft also had a working radar. It has to be said that this radar was crude in so much that all one saw were the 'blips' of an aircraft in the air but no information as to its ID or what it was doing aside from seeing what direction it was flying in and its range. Irrespective I found watching the radar screen fascinating though by comparison the radar display in FSX is rich in information.
When I left school in 1978 I was lucky enough to find work soon after. Not far from where I lived was the then world famous College of Air Training at Hamble (the old ICAO code was EGHM). I was one of 8 apprentices taken on by the College to be trained in aircraft maintenance. My first year was spent in Luton (EGGW) learning basic engineering, leading on to specialising in instrument and electrical systems when I later returned to Hamble. During this first year I started attending technical college to gain a City & Guilds certificate in aeronautical craft studies. At Luton I spent a year in engineering training along with several months at various aircraft maintenance bases there which included work on Boeing 720, Boeing 737, BAC 1-11, DC-8, HS-125 types among others.
Having spent a year at Luton I was back at Hamble working on light aircraft, mainly Piper Cherokee's and Beechcraft Baron's. Although I specialised in electrical and instrument systems I also worked in other trades including airframes, engines, and hydraulics. The College at Hamble was the initial training base for British Airways pilots and a few other airlines. For over 20 years the College was responsible for training most of the flight crew for British European Airways and British Overseas Airways Corporation which were later merged to form British Airways.
I used to fly from there quite often and was allowed to take control of the planes on occasion. One of the bonuses of working on the aircraft was that after a certain level of maintenance each aircraft had to go on a test flight. Of those who had worked on that aircraft one had to go up on the first flight - it was a good way of ensuring that we did our job properly! I often used to go back to work in the evenings in my own time and scrounge flights as well, I can't even begin to work out how many hours I spent in the air.
It was a sad day when it was announced that British Airways, which sponsored much of the training at Hamble, was withdrawing their funding and in 1982 I was made redundant. The College itself staggered on for another 2 years before closing for good in 1984. The last aircraft to leave Hamble took-off in 1986 thus bringing to an end an aviation heritage that stretched back to The First World War, Hamble was one of the earliest centres of British aviation.
In the mid 80's a friend had a Commodore 64 computer that had a cassette tape loaded program called 'Heathrow Control' (I think) and in the early 90's I started using a program called 'TRACON' on the Commodore Amiga. At the time that was about as realistic as it got. I cannot be certain how many hours I spent playing that program but it must have been well in excess of 1000 hours. The only real difference in that program was that all the 'pilots' were computer generated (as were the voices) and if two aircraft came into conflict the program would alert you (and deduct points). (You also lost points for delays.) Otherwise, the appearance of the radar screen and its functions was broadly the same as that of FSX. In that I learned the basics of Approach, Departure, and Centre/Radar roles.
The computer generated ATC in FSX Free Flight (off-line) is a fair starting point for picking up the rudiments of ATC as is joining a well hosted ATC session on FSX. It was not until FSX came onto the scene that Tower and Ground control became a realistic prospect. Such is the depth of FSX that it is possible to have several controllers in a game taking on different roles. Among the most satisfying sessions I've ever been involved with are those where there are at least 2 controllers at different airfields with aircraft flying to and from these airfields.
Despite FSX being a game, it is not that difficult to imagine that some of the players really could be pilots, that some controllers really could handle that role in real life. But like any game the variations of player ability is huge. The really good pilots make life easy for an FSX controller and it is always a pleasure to provide them an ATC service. Even the novices and those of limited ability make things interesting, especially if they are willing to learn. On many occasions I have made sessions especially for learners on a one-on-one basis, that way they can practice without hindrance.
Of course, the beauty of FSX is that it is a game, albeit one that can be taken seriously as you like. On occasion I have listened in on some ATC sessions and it is apparent that there really are some excellent pilots and controllers out there in the FSX 'community', to the extent that an outsider could have difficulty telling the difference between the game and the real thing. In that respect it is to some players credit that the game is surprisingly realistic. Like any game, and like the real thing, there are the variations of live interaction with other players that injects an added interest to these simulations - no two simulations are identical.
As to my own ability as ATC I leave it to the readers judgement. I don't play to exactly copy what a real ATC does and have found that it is impractical to be too realistic. A flexible, helpful, and informative approach to pilots seems to get the best results. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been asked if I am a real ATC, I am not, and never have been - I just enjoy playing the game, while trying to provide an effective service, even if it is not strictly by the book.
At the time of writing this I had hosted ATC sessions at: Southampton (EGHI), Bournemouth (EGHH), Jersey (EGJJ), St. Mawgan AB (EGDG), Brize Norton AB (EGVN), Boscombe Down AB (EGDM), Liverpool (EGGP), East Midlands (EGNX), Manchester (EGCC), Birmingham (EGBB), Newcastle (EGNT), Manston (EGMH), Isle of Man (EGNS), Glasgow (EGPF), Cardiff (EGFF), and Ascension Island AB (FHAW), plus several European airfields. The longest 'shift' at any airfield was six and a half hours.
That aside, these pages are
my attempt to pass on some of the knowledge of virtual flying, ATC, and
aviation in general, accumulated from over 25 years of virtual aviation and
over 40 years of interest (with some professional experience as well) of
aviation as a whole that may be of use and interest to virtual pilots and
controllers. But, don't forget that
FSX itself has a good selection of lessons, articles, and missions that are
worth exploring. The following pages
may be regarded as references and observations that I hope players can make
use of to improve their skills and knowledge.
And who knows, maybe a few of you out there will go on to do it for
real one day. I know that some of you
© Derek Haselden 2017