Real ATC for PC Pilots

PC flight simulators are excellent for sharpening our skills, but with one glaring exception: The artificial ATC communications included with the software just isn’t up to the task of providing a realistic flight experience. I didn’t really understand how important this was until I recently had the chance to fly X-Plane 10 using something remarkably better. is a service that provides live, professional ATC communications for home simulator users. I visited the company’s office in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, to try it for myself, donning a headset and settling behind the controls of a virtual Beech Baron. The experience changed the way I look at flight simulators and how I view the potential value they can offer pilots seeking to stay sharp.

PilotEdge is the brainchild of Keith Smith, the CEO of a small California gaming studio (and a Lancair 360 owner) who initially built the system to help pilots better learn how to talk and interact with controllers. Smith got the idea after joining Vatsim, a virtual community of flight sim enthusiasts, but says he quickly saw the limitations of the amateur online community.

“Vatsim is actually very good if your flight sim experience includes flying airliners on long-haul routes between large international airports,” he said. But the Vatsim community includes a lot of gamers, and doesn’t really cater to the needs of general aviation pilots making shorter VFR and IFR trips.

Since nothing else existed, Smith created PilotEdge from scratch, setting up a virtual ATC environment throughout Southern California and staffing it with professional-level controllers who are paid for their time (although for obvious reasons, Natca, the controllers union, doesn’t allow its members to work for PilotEdge on their time off).

I’ve been an avid PC flight sim user for almost 30 years, starting out with the original Microsoft Flight Simulator on a Tandy 1000 computer. My current setup includes Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10 sim running on a Windows XP machine. I always realized that the ATC communications were a weak spot of these simulators, but it wasn’t until I tried PilotEdge for the first time that I truly understood what I was missing.

For my demo, Smith set us up in a Baron at Santa Monica Airport and filed a tower enroute flight plan to Long Beach. We tuned Santa Monica Ground and requested our clearance, just as we’d do in the real airplane. Here was the response we received from a live controller:

“Baron 1-3-2-Kilo-Tango, Santa Monica Ground, cleared to the Long Beach Airport; on departure fly runway heading until crossing the Los Angeles 315 radial, then turn right heading 250 without delay, radar vectors to Santa Monica VOR, Santa Monica 125 radial outbound, join Victor 64, Seal Beach direct, maintain 3,000, expect 4,000 five minutes after departure, departure frequency on 125.2, squawk 7132.”

Wow, that’s some clearance, and something you’d never hear using the AI controller interfaces in Microsoft FSX or X-Plane 10. After asking for clarification about the Seal Beach VOR’s identifier, Smith read back our clearance and we were on our way.

“If you were to simply file a flight plan and read back that clearance, it would help you immensely as an IFR pilot,” Smith said. I agreed.

Next, we departed Santa Monica, flew our filed flight plan route and before long were given a clearance to fly direct to Long Beach and expect a visual approach to Runway 30. Just then, the left engine in our Baron started running very rough. Oil pressure was dropping and the temps were rising. We quickly ran through the emergency procedure to shut the engine down and secure it before contacting ATC and declaring an emergency.

The ensuing conversation with the controller included a highly realistic discussion of runway options at Long Beach, our number of souls and fuel onboard, and finally a decision to try for Runway 12, which was pretty much directly ahead. Again, the whole situation was handled with a level of realism that you could never duplicate using computer-generated ATC. The flight culminated, I’m happy to say, with a safe landing.

Smith is now hoping to sell training providers, aviation colleges and possibly even the military on the PilotEdge concept. But for the time being he is relying on revenue from the service’s 400-plus paying subscribers. To keep the business afloat, he says he needs more customers.

If you’re a serious sim flier, PilotEdge is definitely worth a look. Pricing starts at $4.95 a month plus $2 per hour of use, or you can pay $19.95 a month for unlimited use. You can sign up for a free 15-day trial at the PilotEdge website to check it out first. My guess is once you get a taste and realize how dramatically PilotEdge changes your sim experience, you’ll want to become a full-time subscriber.

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