Tips for Talking to ATC in FSX

Tips for Talking to ATC in FSXToday’s article imparts a few tips about talking to air traffic control (ATC) from within Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X (FSX). Many of you will be familiar with the ATC that comes with Flight Simulator X where you select your response to air traffic control. However, this article is about talking to a real person who is taking responsibility of air traffic functions. There are two ways to do this. One, go to Vatsim or IVAO and use their own controllers and servers, or two, set up your own server and learn ATC phraseology and procedures for yourself. I have gone through both and used to know ATC inside and out, but since I’ve not been part of the community for well over two years, I am a little rusty.

I am going to start off by saying that I am assuming you know the basics when it comes to your own server ATC; you know your own aircraft type (e.g. Boeing 737-300), your call sign in its long form (e.g. speedbird-525A), or its short form (e.g. BAW-525A). I know that Vatsim and IVAO have automated forms that make these a lot easier for the novice pilot, but within a private server you will not have this luxury. These tips should help you in both private server ATC operations and within Vatsim and IVAO ATC operations.

Have you listened to ATIS?

The automated terminal information service, ATIS, is a continuously broadcast recorded message that gives pilots the current important information before they contact ATC. ATIS contains weather information, which runway is active, which approaches are available, and other information like NOTAMs (notice to airmen). Once you have listened to ATIS, you can then add “with information alpha — zulu” to your first transmission to ATC. Example: “Glasgow Clearance Speedbird 525A at stand four for flight plan to JFK with information Quebec.”

Keep your transmissions short.

The shorter you can keep your transmissions without omitting vital information, the better the transmission. ATC has to deal with anything up to and above 100 aircraft at any one time, and chances are that someone will want to talk two seconds after you started your transmission. Keep it short, simple, and to the point.

Do you know SIDs and STARs?

This may be a bit advanced for some, but SIDs and STARs stand for standard instrument departure and STandard ARrivals. These are what real world pilots use to get into and out of congested airports. The STARs have holding points that allow ATC to “stack” aircraft. SIDs and STARs generally make your ATC’s life easier because they know that they have the option to “stack” you as needed. It also means that they don’t need to give you any instruction except to track a different VOR or waypoint — if required.

Do you know what VORs are?

I mentioned them above, but a VOR (aka VHF omnidirectional range) is a short range navigational aid for aircraft. They are used for IFR (instrument flight rules) flights where you are using your aircraft’s instruments to navigate versus VFR (visual flight rules) where you are using your eyes and landmarks for navigation. I would certainly advise using VOR flight — although you don’t have to use autopilot to do so — because it’s certainly more realistic.

Do you know what ILS is?

This one seems to mystify a lot of people. ILS stands for instrument landing system and is an automatic way to land your aircraft. This is used by those on IFR flights. However, there are a few who seem to like filing VFR flights with ILS landing. This wouldn’t be allowed in real life so — as you would expect — it isn’t allowed in simulated life. Some people get round this by filing an IFR then switching to VFR for the approach. What I — and most of my fellow controllers — would do is take these people around for a missed approach and then send them to another airport which, in turn, would send them back to me. We’d send them back and forth until they or we got bored of dealing with them. It may sound mean to you, but it got our message across.

Tips for Talking to ATC in FSXKnow the difference between VFR and IFR.

As I mentioned above, IFR and VFR are two completely different things. IFR is for instruments and VFR is for visual. VFR generally applies to general aviation where you are flying at a slower speed than jets and therefore can see more and have a longer time to react. If a jet gets a VFR clearance, it will be for circuit training a pilot on visual approaches in case they ever have to do one in emergency conditions. IFR can be given to both general aviation and commercial aviation. However, I must iterate again that you cannot change between IFR and VFR in normal conditions. If your plane has been disabled or crippled in an emergency situation then yes, obviously, you can change between IFR and VFR.

Take notes.

This is my final and most important tip. Air traffic control can give you a lot of information in one go. If you don’t have a good memory or you find that you have to ask them to repeat the information, then take notes. I am being completely serious here: take notes! I used to have a notebook beside me and those in the airlines I worked with/for will tell you that I could repeat every instruction I was ever given. I took notes when I was an ATC and when I was a pilot dealing with ATC. You have no idea how useful it is. There are times when ATC will say “Speedbird 525A I told you to navigate to the CLYDE VOR” and you can tell them “Glasgow Approach, did not receive, will navigate CLYDE, Speedbird 525A” and, once you’ve landed, you can take it up with the management at Glasgow and get them to check back to see if it was a problem at their end or mine.

Do you have any tips for talking to ATC?

Article Written by

John “Scotsman” McKinlay is a 25-year-old autistic living in Glasgow, Scotland. He has been an online presence since 1998, but has only recently found that his voice and writing skills could bring him into the world of blogging and podcasting -- with a bit of YouTube on the side. He joined the ranks of LockerGnome back in March of 2012 and has been warmly received both by the LockerGnome staff and by you lovely ladies and gentlemen of the LockerGnome audience.

  • MrTechz

    I think the best tip you could give to beginners in learning ATC commands is to listen to live ATC radios. This gives you a good idea of how real world pilots communicate and makes it a tad easier to pick up the ATC language. When I started out I found that this website really helped me out in learning ATC commands: 

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  • Andrew Erhardt

    I Fly on VATSIM all the time, in fact, I used to be a controller on it, but didn’t really get into it. 
    One tip I have is be patient with the controllers online, especially during high traffic. Some of them can be seasoned controllers, while others are brand new and just learning the ropes. The Flight Simulator Community is all about learning, and having fun! :)

  • Guest

    I hate to be “that guy”, but some of the information is incorrect. STAR actually stands for Standard Terminal Arrival Route. You described the basic gist of it correctly, however. And yes, in the real world it is extremely simple to switch between VFR and IFR flight plans. As a commercial pilot, I do it almost daily. Coming into a destination airport, it is as simple as saying “we’d like to cancel our IFR”. ATC then instructs you to squawk 1200, change to advisory frequency. Now you’re operating under VFR.

    Filing IFR in the air is a bit of a hassle for ATC, but you hear it from time to time. As long as you don’t mind giving out the PIC name, address and phone number over the frequency, and ATC has time, go for it.

  • This Damn Scotsman

    You are correct for IFR/VFR in the US but in the UK – as far as I’m aware – under CAP413 aircraft are not allowed to change IFR/VFR “on the fly”.  I should have made that clear.  However, I don’t mind being told I’m wrong by someone with some authority on the matter.  Thank you.

  • Bernie

    ILS stands for instrument landing system and is an automatic way to land your aircraft.

    That’s not exactly true, it’s a way to use your instruments to land your aircraft in IMC (instrumental meteorological conditions). By providing the pilot a horizontal and vertical guidance to the runway. Depending on what category ILS and equipment on board, it might land the aircraft by itself using the autopilot. But still today most of the pilots switch off the AP before reaching the minimums and then land the aircraft manualy.
    And it’s not directly linked to IFR either. It’s just one of the many types of approaches.
    And of course you can fly an ILS approach on VFR! I’ve done it many times myself while training for my Instrument Rating, (the rating you need for flying IFR and in IMC)
    BUT, when you unexpectedly must shoot an ILS due to unwillingly and unexpectedly encountered IMC.. You absolutely ARE allowed and will get clearance to fly that particular approach.
    You can also request to fly an approach as matter of practice for training purpose while in VFR AND being in VMC.

    I hope this clarifies a couple of things..