This final class in a group of 3 on using VATSIM considers the best part of the whole system, interacting with real people. The heart and soul of the VATSIM system is the group of controllers. There are different ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) areas. Those in the area of the country that Green Mountain Airlines flies in are Boston, New York, Washington, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Memphis, Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Each ARTCC has a website. They are all linked to www.vatusa.org. Each ARTCC has a chief, instructors, controllers and students. Students have to study and sit in the _DEL and _GND positions until they can pass tests to advance. Students aren't allowed to use voice until they have shown they can handle the job then voice on top of that. As students pass tests they are allowed to fill higher positions until they are full fledged controllers and can run V_CTR.
Now to go through the positions and how a pilot interacts with them. Remember these positions will have a _V_ in them to show that the controller has Roger Wilco support. A _VS_ usually means there is an instructor nearby watching how the student is doing.
In the following examples I use APT as the airport name like BOS or BTV. Some airports, like Fort Lauderdale KFLL are covered by Miami MIA. They will let you know who to contact as you approach or if you are taking off and contact the wrong one they will guide you to the proper person.
APT_DEL - Delivery. Only seen on real busy nights or a when
putting time in while he learns the ropes. If this position is filled
contact Delivery to get your clearance to fly. Be patient with them,
are most likely learning the ropes.
A typical request goes "Boston requesting IFR clearance to Burlington at FL180 with information Bravo". You tell them you want IFR as opposed to VFR. Tell them where you are going and how high you expect to fly. If there was information in their ATIS when you tuned to their channel it will have a version. The version is typically changed hourly. As for height, don't forget FL starts at 18,000 below that you would say 15,000 (spoken one five thousand).
The typical response is "clearance on request, standby". That means I hear you and am going to try to find your plane on the ground, look up your flight plan and check to see if it matches the standard departures and routes. Since you should reply to everything they say you should probably reply with "Standing by". Soon they should come back with "are you ready to copy?". Grab your pencil and say "Ready to copy". Typically "Cleared as filed, climb and maintain 5000 expect FL180 in 10 minutes squawk 3501" comes. You need to reply with the important information "c/m 5k expect FL180 in 10 sqk 3501". A lot of the time when things are busy and they need you to stick to a specific departure they will mention one and say "vectors to LUCOS" given that LUCOS is your first waypoint. That means they will guide you there, don't expect to fly straight there from the end of the runway. That is about all Delivery can do for you. They can't give you clearance to move and they should tell you who to contact or what to expect next.
APT_GND - Ground gets you from the gate to the runway. Don't move your aircraft until you hear "pushback approved call for taxi". You reply "roger will call". Now you can release the brakes and hit the Shift-P key to push back from the terminal. Now pull out your taxiway chart and call "ready to taxi". They should reply something like "taxi to 22L via Kilo Sierra". That means taxi to runway 22L (you should be traveling in the direction of 040) via taxi ways K and S. Listen for "Hold Short" which means don't enter the taxi way. If they say "Position and Hold" that means get into position and hold. Typically Ground will tell you to go there but half way there they will hand you off to Tower.
APT_TWR - Tower has control of the runways. If you are going to be crossing an active one you should be under tower's control. Tower will give you clearance to taxi onto the active runway and position your aircraft at the end to prepare for takeoff. Once it is clear they will give you the weather and a "cleared for takeoff". Once you clear the runway you will be handed off to Departure or Approach (if no departure).
APT_DEP - Departure is you don't see too often because the same area is covered by Approach. On busy nights the Departure position will be filled. I have even heard both Approach and Departure on the same frequency. Maybe they were in training. Departure is in charge of getting you away from the airport on to your first waypoint. Departure typically has a 10 mile radius control up to something like 12,000 feet. Leave that and they will hand you off to Center.
CAP_CTR - Center has control of a large area. They will get you up to your first waypoint then "as filed". Once you approach the edge of their space or your destination they will hand you off. Sometimes they have to vector you to a certain point that they have agreed upon with the next controller. Neighboring ARTCC's have Letters Of Agreement that defines where traffic is supposed to be handed off. Approach controllers need you down to something like 12,000 within 10 miles of the airport to take you.
APT_APP - Approach is in charge of getting you down to the runway. They will tell you what runway to expect so you can set your ILS equipment. They will hopefully vector you out to a point 10-20 miles straight out from the runway and tell you "cleared for approach". That means you are cleared to approach the airport, not land. You should be handed off to tower as you approach the runway. Once in a great while you may be given a "short approach". The controller will have to, because of traffic, get you to the approach path only a couple miles from the end of the runway. This makes it very hard to make an instrument landing with autopilot. It is usually only given in visual conditions.
APT_TWR - Tower clears you to land on their runway and will keep you until you cross the last active runway then hand you off to GND. Hand off to APP or TWR is sometimes the most awkward one. You have been been talking with CTR using RW. It takes one finger to activate your mike. APP and TWR can quite often be text only. You get handed off, hit the mike button and accidently say to the previous controller "with you". This takes precious time from your approach for the previous controller to remind you that the one you think you are talking to is text only. Now you are well into your approach, trying to control a slow plane, dropping flaps and gear, watching the airspeed and adjusting throttle and you now have to put both hands on the keyboard and type to the next controler. Fortunately there are short cuts to be use "w/u" for with you and "rgr".
APT_GND - Back to ground who guides you through the taxiways to your assigned gate. Most of the time the gate is up to you. Be aware that different airlines prefer different gates. Check with your hub captain or the forums for a list of preferred gates.
Who do I contact?
This is the hardest part for new VATSIM pilots. Imagine you are sitting at GMA's corporate headquarters in Burlington Vermont. You bring up your ATC Directory. This shows all the controllers that claim to have you in their airspace. When a controller signs on he uses a "sector file" that draws for him the airspace he will control. He also sets a range. If he sets this wrong you may even see ORD_APP (Chicago IL) in Burlington. It is up to the pilot to figure out what is relative. It isn't unusual to see CUY_CTR or NY_CTR in Burlington since you are relatively close to both Canada and New York but you are definitely in BOS_CTR airspace. You are sitting at KBTV so you want to look for BTV_something. Burlington isn't in a metropolitan area like New York City that contains 3 airports or Chicago that contains 2 so you aren't looking for a metropolitan center. Chicago area has consolidated areas like CHI_APR and New York has NY_APR. You are in Burlington and don't see BTV_TWR or BTV_APR so you move on up to BOS_CTR to request clearance. At these smaller "uncontrolled airports" a busy CTR will give you clearance to take off while you are still at the gate and ask you to "report when airborne". If BOS_CTR is not on DO NOT CONTACT NY or CUY for clearance. You are not in their airspace and they are not allowed to control you. Once you are airborne and headed toward their airspace it doesn't hurt to contact them early. They can easily refuse to take you until you are closer. But don't rob BOS of the chance to control you by contacting their neighbors early. BOS_CTR could come online shortly after you take off.
That is about it, just a few notes about handoffs. Typically the will give you a frequency "two two decimal niner" means 122.90. Use SB's ATC directory. It is sorted by frequency which helps you figure out who to contact in a busy area. Don't forget to say "Roger two two decimal niner, thank you" before you switch frequencies. Most controllers back up the hand off with a text message. If you have been using RW it isn't necessary to respond to the text message with a text reply.
Controllers have an ATIS message that they put into their setup. This ATIS is sent to anyone who logs onto their frequency. In there is usually a line like "roger wilco frequency rw.avsim.net/apt_app" that SB picks up. If this line is messed up you may have to tune your RW manually. You can type ".rws rw.avsim.net" into the SB message box to set RW to that server. Type "rwr apt_app" to tune to that room in the RW server you previously selected. If you seem to lose the controller on your RW channel it never hurts to select them again from your ATC Directory. This will cause RW to reconnect to the server. It isn't unusual for you to hear another pilot calling ATC but never get a reply because either they didn't hear the call or you didn't hear them. Be ready to back up a call or reponse with text.