07 January, 2012

I'm not impressed.

I control on the Vatsim network and am currently rated as a C1 (en-route) controller. For those of you not familiar with Vatsim, it's a place where virtual pilots can fly and interact with virtual controllers. To those of us who would love to fly or control in real life and will never have the chance, Vatsim is a wonderful place. We can satisfy our addiction to aviation with people in similar situations. Unfortunately, there's a huge problem within Vatsim that is both the cause of its popularity and the cause of angry controllers. All a pilot has to do to join the network is sign up with a valid ISP based (not Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail etc) email account. There are regulations, of course, such as the Code of Conduct, Code of Regulations and Pilot Requirements, but those documents are not required reading. There are too many pilots who sign up, keep clicking the "next" button and then pop onto the network having no clue what they're doing. A simple check box at the end of each document, each of which would need to be checked during the sign-up process, could solve a whole lot of problems. It hasn't been done. At the very least, a pilot should have to verify that they have read and agreed to the pilot requirements. It's a very short document that outlines simple things such as requiring pilots to be able to maintain an altitude and heading, follow ATC instructions, not to join a live session with their aircraft on a runway etc. Each batch of new pilots seems to get worse. Vatsim is a learning environment and generally speaking, controllers are willing to help new pilots. However, it requires the cooperation of the pilot. A pilot needs to have a certain base of skills in order to have any chance of being successful. I can't tune their radio for them, I can't fly their aircraft for them, I can't tune their transponder for them, etc. When I joined Vatsim I already possessed a thorough background in aviation (virtually speaking), but I read all of the documents and made sure I would be able to hold up my end of the stick. I knew I would have no problems flying or navigating, but I had never interacted with a controller before and was very nervous. My first flight was a disaster. I panicked because I couldn't understand the controller due to my lack of knowledge regarding the tool that enables pilots and controllers to communicate. But, I learned from it, came back another day and had a successful flight. We controllers expect pilots to make mistakes resulting from situations they never considered could happen. Having voice communication issues? Not a problem, we'll just communicate via text and if I have time I'll try and help solve the voice comm issues. Don't have any idea how to fly a route by any means other than direct via GPS? Not a problem. I can suggest some simple things you can do that will allow you to fly a basic VOR to VOR route or I can direct you to some websites that teach aerial navigation. I can even direct new pilots to websites that will generate routes for them. There's all sorts of issues that can crop up, but controllers are equipped to handle them. A pilot still has to be able to fly their aircraft and follow instructions. As I mentioned before, the state of the recent crop of pilots isn't very good. But, what about the controllers?

Unlike pilots, controllers can't simply join Vatsim and start controlling. There are a multitude of controller ratings and new controllers start at the very bottom and have to work their way up. The rating structure is as follows

  1. OBS (Observer). Controller may only observe air traffic control. They are not allowed to work active positions
  2. S1 (Student 1 or GND). They are only allowed to staff Ground or Clearance Delivery positions.
  3. S2 (Student 2 or TWR). They are allowed to staff airport control tower positions or lower (i.e. Ground or Clearance Delivery)
  4. S3 (Student 3 or APP). They are allowed to staff radar Approach/Departure positions or lower.
  5. C1 (Controller 1 or CTR). They are allowed to work en-route control or lower. This is generally the highest the average "Joe" will get.
  6. Misc. ratings. I1 and I3 are C1 or C3 controllers who are allowed to instruct student controllers. SUP are supervisors. C3 is Senior Controller. Vatsim staff ratings are many and are divided by division, region and BoG (Board of Governors). Typical call signs would be something like VATUSA12 (the number denotes their position within their facility), VATNA1, VATUK4, VATGOV8 etc.

A newly minted controller starts with the rating OBS (Observer). They can only watch air traffic and are not allowed to work an active position or interact with air traffic in any way. The new controller must first take the basic ATC test and pass it before moving on. The basic test includes questions about airspace structure, what each position does etc. Once a pilot passes this first test, they're assigned to the region, division and facility of their choosing. Once at their facility they will begin training for the next rating of S1 (Student 1, or Ground/Delivery controller). During this training process the new controller works with an instructor (I1 or I3 rating). When the instructor is satisfied with the students progress, the student is assigned to take the S1 exam. If the student passes, they are given their S1 rating and are allowed to staff an active GND or DEL position. This can vary by facility. Sometimes newly rated controllers are only allowed to work the "quieter" airports until they gain some experience working with actual pilots on the network.

After a certain time, the S1 will start training for the next rating of S2. It is the same process they experience while learning about S1. It only involves different training material geared toward working a TWR position. Once the student passes the S2 exam, they are allowed to work live TWR (example BOS_TWR) positions. Vatsim offers what is called "top down" control services. Each controller position, in addition to working their current position, provides services for each position below them if they're not staffed. With our BOS_TWR example TWR not only provides TWR services to pilots, they also provide clearance delivery and ground services for that airport if those positions are not staffed. From the pilot's perspective, when they have filed their flight plan and are ready to get clearance to fly that plan, they would normally look to see of BOS_DEL is online. If not, they are supposed to look for BOS_GND. If GND is not online, they should look for BOS_TWR. BOS_TWR being online will provide flight plan clearance and taxi instructions in addition to the duties of BOS_TWR (mainly take off and landing clearance). The
S2 rating is a controllers first experience with multitasking and can be a bit bewildering until they gain experience. The S2 rating is also, usually, the first time a controller must pass an OTS (Over The Shoulder) test in addition to the written test. The OTS is supervised by an instructor and the controller is watched to make sure they're capable of handling live traffic.

The S3 rating is next. The jump from TWR to APP/DEP is the biggest challenge for most Vatsim controllers. As an S1 and S2, the controller was only working one airport. As an S3, they are responsible for all airports within their TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol). The S2 working towards S3 generally has the most trouble with vectoring aircraft onto approaches separating aircraft, sequencing aircraft and figuring out how to handle pilots calling them for services at a multitude of airports, both controlled and uncontrolled. The same "top down" procedure is followed. Delivery, ground and tower services at each airport within the controllers airspace. The student usually doesn't realize what they're in for. I passed the S3 written exam with flying colors, but failed miserably during my first simulated sessions (no live traffic, just bots on a training simulator) and also botched my first OTS. The student can only be prepared so much. Live traffic is the only real way for the student to gain experience which allows them to figure out how to deal with the situations they'll encounter. When they're ready, the Student is allowed to work TRACONs on their own. Most controllers get an immense feeling of satisfaction upon earning their S3 rating and being allowed to work without supervision.

The last rating most controllers will work for is the coveted C1. The jump from S3 to C1 isn't very difficult. The only major challenge is learning to deal with such a large airspace, alone if there are no other controllers working lower positions. Being able to work a CTR position such as ATL_CTR is a reason to be proud, and rightly so. The road a controller takes from OBS to C1 is a long one. It's easy for some, difficult for others but unless the controller is really bad, most make it to C1.

So, as you may see, controllers on Vatsim are trained to deal with air traffic and must earn their ratings by proving they can meet the standards set by Vatsim. Generally speaking, controllers get better as they gain experience. Some don't, but most do. But what about pilots?

Pilots on Vatsim can generally be expected to know what they're doing. Most will not file a flight plan or fly an aircraft that they are not capable of flying. It's almost like a real world student pilot. Start simple and work up the ladder. There are exceptions. Since there are no pilot ratings (there is a P1 rating so far, but it's only a voluntary program) a new pilot who couldn't hand fly a Cessna 172 can jump into a 747 and fly around. Usually with disastrous results which causes much stress for the controller. When the pilot just goes ahead and does what they want regardless of controller instructions, it will make the controller quite angry. The new pilot has no idea that they might be in the way of other aircraft, or that their incessant use of long-winded transmissions is blocking the controller from giving another pilot important instructions. Here's a typical conversation between a controller (we'll use an ATL_CTR controller) and a clueless pilot who has decided to connect to the network with their 747 sitting on an active runway. We'll begin with the pilot cutting in on the controllers current transmission to another pilot.

N1975: Atlanta tower request take off.

CTR: Last aircraft calling ATL_CTR, say call sign and position.

N1975: request takeoff clearance.

CTR: American 123 turn right heading 2 *N1975 cuts in again*

N1975: Tower do you hear me?

CTR: Last aircraft calling, this is Atlanta Center, not Atlanta Tower. Say call sign and position.

N1975: Center I am at Kilo Alpha Tango Lima airport request take off

CTR: Last aircraft calling from Atlanta, say callsign.

N1975: N1975.

CTR: N1975, ATL_CTR. You have no flight plan in the system. Please resend your flight plan. *controller goes to a local view of KATL*

CTR: N1975, you are blocking an active runway, please move your aircraft to an appropriate parking space and resend your fl *N1975 butts in again*

N1975: I am going to Houston.

CTR: N1975, Roger. I still need you to send me a flight plan. Again, please move your aircraft off of the active runway.

[N1975 finally moves off the runway and blocks the most commonly used taxiway to the active runway. At least he's off the damn runway.]

CTR: N1975 I'm still waiting for your flight plan.

N1975: Roger tower, I have resent my plan.

[Flight plan is a mess. IFR to KHOU GPS direct, cruise altitude 5,000, Boeing 747-400. The leading the pilot by the hand begins now.]

CTR: N1975, cruise altitude incorrect for direction of flight. Can you accept 10,000?

N1975: Center, I filed 5,000 feet.

CTR: N1975, I see that but flights to the west require even cruise altitudes such as 6,000 8,000 10,000 etc. Houston is to the west of your current position.

N1975: Roger I will take 10,000

[now to see if they can fly to/from at least a couple of VORS]

CTR: N1975 do you know how to use the "direct to" button on your GPS receiver?

N1975: Roger tower (keeps calling the controller different things).

CTR: N1975 I'm going to give you two way points for you to fly. Use the direct function to fly to the first, when you cross over it, use the direct function again to fly to the second.

N1975: Roger. Ready for take off.

CTR: N1975, I have not issued your clearance yet. Hold at your current position until told to do otherwise. Advise ready to copy your clearance.

N1975: Roger.

[minutes pass by]

CTR: N1975, advise ready to copy your clearance.

N1975: Ready to copy center.

CTR: N1975 cleared to KHOU via direct MGM, direct BTR (expecting this idiot to follow vectors is pointless at this time) maintain 5,000 expect 10,000 ten minutes after departure. departure frequency will be 121.35. Squawk 1234.

N1975: Roger.

CTR: N1975, you need to read your clearance back to me so I know you understand it.

N1975: Cleared to KHOU with squawk direct, N1975 (first time pilot used their call sign. A miracle!)

CTR: N1975, cleared to KHOU via direct MGM, direct BTR (expecting this idiot to follow vectors is pointless at this time) maintain 5,000 expect 10,000 ten minutes after departure. departure frequency will be 121.35. Squawk 1234.

N1975: Copy Center. REady for take off.

CTR: N1975, your clearance is not valid until you read it back to me. I will not let you proceed until you read the clearance back to me.

[by now the pilot is beginning to realize how unprepared they are, that the controller is losing his patience and needs to start following instructions. Or they disconnect from the network or just start flying all on their own. If they start flying on their own, not following instructions, I'll find a supervisor and get them to handle the situation. It usually results in the pilot being kicked off the network.]

N1975: Cleared to KHOU as filed maintain 5,000 squawk 1324. N1975.

CTR: N1975 confirm squawk code 1234.

N1975: Squawk 1234.

CTR: Read back correct. KATL altimeter 29.95. Advise ready to taxi. (Pilot doesn't know what ATIS is, much less think of letting you know they've listened to it.)

N1975: Center, ready for taxi. N1975.

CTR: N1975, runway 8R taxi via E, E1.

N1975: Roger center.

CTR: N1975, you need to read back instructions. A "Roger" is not good enough.

N1975: Center repeat taxi instructions. N1975.

[*forehead slap* There's just no end to this pilot's stupidity. The best you can hope for is that these idiots will disconnect before they ever get this far. To be honest, if the pilot is oblivious to even the basic rules of flight, I'll be hard-nosed with the intention of making them disconnect. Problem solved.]

CTR: N1975, runway 8R taxi via E, E1. HOLD SHORT of runway 8R. (competent pilots know that they're supposed to hold short of ANY runway unless being explicitly told to cross/enter it. To avoid more problems than already present, new pilots get told to HOLD SHORT of their departure runway otherwise, they'll just taxi right onto it and start rolling).

N1975: Taxi via E, E1 to runway 8R.

CTR: N1975, you are required to read back hold short instructions.

N1975: Say again for N1975. (See the trend here? A pencil and piece of paper solves all sorts of problems. Write down instructions.)

CTR: N1975, for the third time, Runway 8R taxi via E, E1. HOLD SHORT runway 8R.

N1975: Taxi to 8R via E, E1. Hold short 8R.

[Thank God! He's got it. But wait, there's more.]

N1975: REquest progressive taxi.

CTR: N1975, Look at your airport diagram (he doesn't have one obviously, but it's a nudge to them that maybe they should get one). You are currently on E, facing East. The sign for E1 should be at your 11 o'clock and in plain view. (What I want to say is "How stupid are you? You started on 8R and moved just off of it ten minutes ago. You actually expect me to believe that you can't find your way BACK to 8R? You're a fucking idiot!)

N1975: Roger.

[Our clueless pilot begins to move, blows right past E1 even though it was right under his nose and before the controller knows it, the pilot is at the other end (26L).]

N1975: Center N1975 ready for take off.

CTR: N1975, you were assigned runway 8R, you are at 26L. Turn around and taxi to 8R via E, E1. You can find airport diagrams here (inserts URL for pilot).

[normally a pilot this bad will make all sorts of mistakes before finally getting into the air, but we'll give this clown the benefit of the doubt. Again.]

N1975: Center ready for take off.

CTR: Last aircraft calling for take off, say callsign *nudge, nudge*

N1975: N1975 ready for take off.

CTR: N1975 runway 8R wind 090 at 05. After departure turn right heading 110. Cleared for take off.

N1975: Roger.

CTR: N1975 what did I say about reading back instructions?

N1975: Cleared for takeoff, N1975.

CTR: N1975, after departure turn right heading 110. (he won't)

N1975: heading 110, N1975.

[Pilot manages to get a 747 fully loaded with fuel for a short trip off the ground. Immediately starts going direct KHOU.]

CTR: N1975 say altitude leaving.

N1975: 2,500 N1975.

CTR: N1975 radar contact. What was your assigned heading after departure?

N1975: We were assigned 110. N1975

CTR: N1975, and what heading are you flying now?

N1975: 250, N1975.

CTR: N1975, were you instructed to fly something other than heading 110?

N1975: No.

CTR: N1975, in the future, follow your assigned headings and stay on it until told to do otherwise.

N1975: Roger.

[pilot has by now blown through the initial altitude assignment of 5,000]

CTR: N1975, what was your assigned initial altitude assignment, which I might add, you received in your clearance and read back to me?

[pilot didn't write anything down and is simply parroting instructions without being able to understand them, much less thinking to let the controller know they don't understand something.]

CTR: N1975, your initial altitude assignment was 5,000. You are now at 8,400 and have not been told to climb higher than your initial altitude as of yet.

CTR: N1975 climb and MAINTAIN 10,000. Proceed direct MGM.

N1975: REquest vectors.

CTR: N1975, use the direct to function to fly direct to MGM. You informed me that you knew how to use the direct to function.

N1975: direct MGM, N1975.

[At this time, the controller is on the land line with the next CTR controller letting them know that this pilot is a total and complete moron. N1975 finally gets pointed towards MGM. Ground speed indicating 520 knots because, of course, the thrust levers are all the way forward. Upon next contact with the pilot, the "click, click, click..." of the over speed warning can be heard in the background.]

CTR: N1975, maximum airspeed below 10,000 feet is 250 knots indicated. Reduce airspeed to 250 knots or lower until reaching 10,000.

N1975: Roger.

[Pilot didn't read anything back, but at this point the only thing the controller wants is for this idiot to get the hell out of his airspace.]

CTR: N1975, contact Houston Center 125.40

[no response]

CTR: N1975, contact Houston Center 125.40

N1975: Roger.

Now, wasn't that just lovely? Could you sense the controller's frustration? Could you see how unprepared the pilot was? Now imagine having to deal with this idiot while also working with 20 other aircraft on the ground and in the air. Can you understand why it should be necessary for pilots to have read the pilot requirements document and code of conduct? Controllers expect to help pilots every now and again, but as you have read, this pilot needed to be led by the hand through every part of his flight. The pilot's arrival at KHOU will be just as frustrating to Houston center, approach, tower and ground. Regulations prevent controllers from telling pilots that they're fucking stupid, but believe me, if a pilot thinks things are going well even though they're completely clueless, they have another thing coming. Every controller along the pilot's route will know how much of an idiot they are. We'll all remember their name and call sign, too. If I know some of these fucktards are coming to my airspace, sometimes I'll sign off until they're gone. They need to learn, but the frustration and stress of teaching them is just not worth it. I worked hard to get my C1 rating, I should be able to hold pilots to some very basic standards. But I can't. As a matter of fact, I would like to be controlling now, but there's too many new pilots flying through the airspace and I just don't want to deal with them. It takes all the fun out of it. There's also a trend of pilots putting things in the "remarks" section of their flight plan such as "Real world pilot", "VA Hub manager - Chicago", "ZXX controller" etc. "Real world pilot" usually only means they've only controlled an aircraft for thirty seconds during their first lesson. "Hub manager/Lead instructor pilot/Terminal supervisor" doesn't mean jack shit to me. And the "ZXX Controller" thing doesn't mean anything either. It's probably just an observer who just signed up and doesn't know the first thing about air traffic control. These self righteous remarks don't mean a damned thing and have no reflection of the person's abilities. I've seen pilots with comments like these who aren't worth a damn behind the controls of an aircraft. You want to impress me? Don't do it with stupid remarks. SHOW me.

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