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Getting started: Some questions about unstaffed or partially staffed airports.


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Hi there,

I'm a real-life student pilot working on my PPL, and I'd like to get some practice with VFR radio communications using VATSIM. I'm feeling a little bit anxious about getting started, particularly when airports are only partially staffed. I've completed the new pilot orientation exam, but still have some questions. For example, here's a current screenshot of the VATSIM map, showing Southern California:

image.png.4e559b527774648d984acd9025a03310.png

Let's say I wanted to fly VFR from KSFO to KLAX.

  • SFO is a class B airport, so in real life, I would first contact clearance delivery before contacting ground for taxi clearance. There's currently no clearance controller, or anyone above that level, online. Does that mean I should just skip that step and jump right to requesting taxi clearance from ground? Would the ground controller give me a squawk code and altitude for exiting the Bravo?
  • KLAX currently only has a ground controller online. However, it is covered by LA center. Does that mean the center controller would be providing approach / tower services? According to the "top-down" model, they should be, but it's unrealistic to expect they'd be controlling every airport in LA center. Is this something I could verify by checking the controller's info on vPilot? If not, are there other steps I should take?
  • On the other hand, let's say I were departing from KLAX. Would I get my takeoff clearance from LA center since there's no tower controller online?

I keep wanting to do my first VATSIM flight, but end up feeling overwhelmed by these uncertainties and putting it off. I understand that some questions like this may only be answerable on a case-by-case basis, but even then I'm not sure of the best way to find out the answers.

Thanks in advance for any guidance!

 

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  1. VATSIM works in a top-down structure. So if a position below is not opened (in this case clearance delivery) the one that is above it will take full responsibility of it. So in this case delivery will be combined with ground so you will need to request clearance, startup/push and taxi with the ground controller. However as this is the United States and I'm a bit unfamiliar it may or may not be the case (please USA folks correct me if I'm wrong haha).
  2. Continuing on my previous point, LA Center will cover anything above ground so that means Tower, Departure/Approach and Center all in one. Sometimes checking the controller info helps to find out their coverage or checking out the relevant ARTCC website. In this case for KZLA you can find it here: https://laartcc.org/
  3. Lastly, yes you would get your take-off clearance from LA Center.
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10 hours ago, Ethan Bleeker said:

SFO is a class B airport, so in real life, I would first contact clearance delivery before contacting ground for taxi clearance. There's currently no clearance controller, or anyone above that level, online. Does that mean I should just skip that step and jump right to requesting taxi clearance from ground? Would the ground controller give me a squawk code and altitude for exiting the Bravo?

Ground is above delivery, so that's who you would contact. Top-down goes DEL -> GND -> TWR -> APP/DEP -> CTR. (There are sometimes additional positions in between, and above, but you don't normally have to worry about those). GND is above DEL, so the ground controller will also cover DEL when no DEL controller is online.

10 hours ago, Ethan Bleeker said:

KLAX currently only has a ground controller online. However, it is covered by LA center. Does that mean the center controller would be providing approach / tower services? According to the "top-down" model, they should be, but it's unrealistic to expect they'd be controlling every airport in LA center. Is this something I could verify by checking the controller's info on vPilot? If not, are there other steps I should take?

It may look like a lot, but that's exactly how it works - when GND is the highest staffed position at an airport, then the CTR controller covering the area will provide TWR and APP/DEP for that airport. And in fact, if no position at the airport is staffed at all, CTR will cover all of them, at least if it's a towered airport. In theory, this could lead to a gargantuan workload for that controller, but in practice it's not usually that bad, because 1) when there aren't a lot of controllers online, there will also be relatively few pilots, so the overall amount traffic should be manageable, and 2) if it gets too busy, the controller is always free to step down to a lower position in the stack, leaving CTR to Unicom. That's because all controllers are qualified to staff any position up to the maximum one their rating allows (this is also necessary to provide top-down control), so if a controller logs on to LA Center and finds themselves overwhelmed with hundreds of pilots in their airspace, they may choose to round things up and "downgrade" to, say, SFO Approach. This is not something you need to worry about, and controllers, especially those experienced enough to staff CTR positions, are pretty good at managing their workload.

Besides checking top-down coverage, there isn't much you need to do either. Essentially, there are only three possible situations:

  1. You have just spawned at an airport and want to depart. Find out whether anyone is covering DEL at the airport (either top-down or directly) and contact them.
  2. You are currently talking to someone. You don't need to worry about anything, they will tell you who to contact, on which frequency, and when. If a controller is available for the next phase of your flight, they will hand you over; if not, they will tell you to "monitor Unicom 122.8".
  3. You have commenced your flight under Unicom, and you are approaching controlled airspace. This is the only situation where you need to pay a bit of attention, because it is your responsibility to make sure you are talking to ATC when there is service. The things to watch for here are FIR boundaries (which you can get from enroute charts), telling you when you might need to contact a CTR controller, and your destination. If you're flying into a CTR controller's airspace, aim to contact them a couple minutes before entry, though they will often send you a Contact-Me message before that point. If you're flying towards your destination and APP is staffed, contact them during your descent, or as you enter the STAR, but definitely a good while before reaching your clearance limit. If only TWR is staffed, contact them when established; if only GND is staffed, contact them as you vacate the runway; if only DEL is staffed, don't contact them at all, because you're arriving, not departing. And of course once you're talking to any of these positions, scenario 2 kicks in, and they will tell you who to talk to next.
10 hours ago, Ethan Bleeker said:

On the other hand, let's say I were departing from KLAX. Would I get my takeoff clearance from LA center since there's no tower controller online?

Yes. LA Center provides top-down service all the way down to DEL for any airport in their area that isn't staffed.

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I am brand new to VATSIM as well and this is helpful.

I have another "newbie" question....
Do we have the ability to log into VATSIM and fly as an "observer" role, so that it doesn't mess anyone up? But we can listen and learn? Is this the same as a shared cockpit? Hope my question makes sense.

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4 hours ago, Jeff McCord Soule said:

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I am brand new to VATSIM as well and this is helpful.

I have another "newbie" question....
Do we have the ability to log into VATSIM and fly as an "observer" role, so that it doesn't mess anyone up? But we can listen and learn? Is this the same as a shared cockpit? Hope my question makes sense.

Yes, press check the "Connect as Observer" box after opening the connect dialog in your pilot client

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51 minutes ago, Mark Doyle said:

press check the "Connect as Observer" box after opening the connect dialog in your pilot client

But don't fly as an observer. You can't expect ATC service if you are simply observing.

Alistair Thomson

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Definition: a gentleman is a flying instructor in a Piper Cherokee who can change tanks without getting his face slapped.

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1 hour ago, Alistair Thomson said:

But don't fly as an observer. You can't expect ATC service if you are simply observing.

Isn't that what Jeff asked? If it was possible to fly as an OBS, so he could just listen in?

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I assume he wants to connect as an observer, to " listen and learn" and that's quite acceptable, but if he wants to fly and listen and learn, how is that different from logging in as pilot?

Alistair Thomson

===

Definition: a gentleman is a flying instructor in a Piper Cherokee who can change tanks without getting his face slapped.

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