A few months ago I stumbled upon the YouTube channel On the Glidescope. Its host, a real-life pilot, has constructed a full-size Cessna cockpit for use with X-Plane. His forward view is digital projection and his side windows are mounted monitors. All of the controls are real. This itself is remarkable, but what caught my eye in his videos is that he appears to be talking to air-traffic controllers and listening to other pilots respond.
The service he’s using is called PilotEdge. It offers professional ATC coverage for the western United States and turns X-Plane into a multiplayer simulation. It’s populated by many actual pilots using it to build their radio and procedural skills. It even offers virtual training for correctly executing real-world procedures.
Aside from learning how to use the radio, what really appeals to me about PilotEdge is that it turns X Plane into a living, breathing environment with active flights taking off manned by real people getting guidance from actual ATC. When you want to taxi across an active runway at an untowered airport, you actually do need to stop and look both ways and announce it on the radio because another human being may be landing on it. When you bust Bravo airspace without clearance, you get an ATC scolding (fortunately without the follow-up FAA report).
Tonight I did my first flight on PilotEdge via X-Plane, flying my Piper Arrow III. I was feeling ambitious and decided to go directly for their first Communications and Airspace Training (CAT) certification. CAT-1 is easy - fly from one non-towered airport (L52 Oceano) to another (L88 New Cuyama) making proper radio calls. I have to say, I was actually nervous, which I found amusing, since this is all virtual. It also made my flight require much more preparation than my usual X-Plane flights, and it made my time inside the plane more hectic.
The route was up to me. I chose an intersection I could reference in my GPS as a turning point to take me on a diagonal right along the valley to L88. The GPS was just a safety net. I would be flying entirely manual, trying to use dead reckoning and visual references. For dead reckoning, I divide the distance of each leg by my planned speed to get time to turn, and use the timer on my Piper’s yoke. There’s also a VOR if I wanted to set up my CDI, but it seemed overkill since the valley should be easy to spot visually.
A few of the bigger differences versus playing X-Plane solo:
I had to set up the COMM1 frequencies in advance by looking up the CTAFs (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) for L52 (122.70) and L88 (122.90). I also set COM2 to Guard (121.50).
Just because the airport is non-towered doesn’t mean you make any less radio calls. I needed to make calls when starting to taxi, crossing the runway, entering the runway for departure, departing the pattern, ten miles from destination, when entering the downwind of destination, when entering the base leg of destination, when entering the final leg of destination, after landing and clearing the runway.
As mentioned above, I actually had to stop and look whenever crossing runways, and needed to look for traffic throughout the flight. While taxiing, I watched another plane land on the active runway.
It was easy to miss the details because I was doing many things. For example, I forgot to take my transponder out of standby and didn’t catch it until I was leaving the pattern (technically I don’t need a transponder in Class E airspace, but still).
Although I try to do this in solo X-Plane, I found that I really focused on entering the pattern correctly at my destination airport. It’s easy when playing solo X-Plane to just do straight-in approaches, where in real-life you’d enter the downwind at a 45, probably after overflying the airport to see who is in the pattern.
I felt very pilotish wearing a headset with a mic. The particular one I wore was ginormous - I’d asked for it as a Christmas gift and, I admit, it looked much smaller in the picture. I could’t hear myself talk over the engine noise, which seemed realistic.
So, after saying things like “New Cuyama Traffic, Arrow One Eight Niner Hotel Romeo ten miles west at three-thousand five hundred entering left downwind runway two eight, full stop, New Cuyama,” I passed the CAT-1 certification. Aside from the radio lingo, I found it much harder to fly and land my plane. You never knew who was in the area watching your sloppy pattern work or crooked landing. It was a self-conscious feeling, but an oddly satisfying one.
Next up is CAT-2, which involves flying to a towered airport in Class D airspace, talking with ATC, and following instructions. I’m looking forward to it.
Lastly, although it’s not required for PilotEdge (and other players can’t see your custom liveries or in some cases your correct aircraft type), I had to modify my Arrow livery to match my PilotEdge call sign (you get to choose your own call sign, but it must be a valid FAA designation). Mine is 189HR: