Catch Me if You Can

MOSTLY UNNECESSARY DISCLAIMER: I’m just a guy playing a video game. Don’t use anything I say as actual aviation advice.

Like many things, it all started with James Hayden.

When I first wrote 43 Seconds, I wanted an authentic ATC exchange between James and the airport, so I researched air traffic control dialogue. It’s easy to find channels streaming ATC exchanges on YouTube. If you listen to them, they’ll sound like a foreign language spoken much too quickly, and you’ll wonder how anyone understands what’s going on.

This seemingly innocuous research started a daisy-chain of events which led to me not only wanting to understand the secret code of ATC but also how flights worked. Next thing you know, I wanted to know what all the gauges and buttons did on an airplane. Soon I was landing my own virtual planes in XPlane, and not long after that I found myself on PilotEdge, virtually flying with other simmers and actual pilots in a real-as-it-gets environment with authentic air traffic control.

PilotEdge raised the bar. I actually needed to know the correct procedures and how to fly them. If an air traffic controller instructs you to “enter the left downwind for runway two-six and report midfield” then you will need to know what and where the downwind is, how to fly there, where midfield is, and what to say when you get there.

I’ve been flying between non-towered airports, which doesn’t involve interacting with ATC but does require making CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) calls to other pilots. There’s a lingo and standard for this as well, and knowing what the say and where to say it is a challenge.

Feeling confident in my CTAF skills, yesterday I was ready to step up to the next level and depart from a towered airport. One of my favorite flight areas is near Palm Springs, so I chose Palm Springs International Airport. Out of the towered airports, it’s the lowest class - Class D - and the nearby Jacqueline Cochran airport is non-towered airport in Class E airspace.

Palm Springs on the left with a blue ring around it.. The ring is actually dashed, signifying that it is in Class D airspace (the ring looks solid because it overlays another color). Jacqueline Cochran is on the right, surrounded by a dashed magenta ring, indicating Class E airspace. The entire area is surrounded by both a shaded magenta block and also a gray line, indicating Class E airspace and also a TRSA (terminal radar service area). The TRSA will unknowingly come into play in my flight. Confusing, yes.

Palm Springs on the left with a blue ring around it.. The ring is actually dashed, signifying that it is in Class D airspace (the ring looks solid because it overlays another color). Jacqueline Cochran is on the right, surrounded by a dashed magenta ring, indicating Class E airspace. The entire area is surrounded by both a shaded magenta block and also a gray line, indicating Class E airspace and also a TRSA (terminal radar service area). The TRSA will unknowingly come into play in my flight. Confusing, yes.

If all of that is mumbo-jumbo, just know that for VFR pilots Class B, C, and D airspace requires talking to ATC, while class E does not. So, in theory, to fly out of Class D Palm Springs I would need to do the following:

  1. Contact the ground controller and tell him I’d like to fly VFR south to Jacqueline Cochran. VFR = visual flight rules which means I’m be using my eyeballs, much like driving a car, and not relying on ATC to give me explicit navigation instructions. The Ground Controller will pick a runway for me and tell me how to get there. They may also give me departure instructions (what direction to fly once I take off).

  2. Contact the tower when I’m ready to go on the runway. They’ll let me know it’s safe to take off. They may give me instructions until I”m out of Palm Springs airspace, to keep me from bumping into other airplanes.

After that I’d be on my own, flying merrily to Jacqueline Cochran, and only on the radio to make CTAF calls as I get near. CTAF calls are basically saying, “To anyone listening, another plane in the area. Here’s where I am and what I’m going to do.” It’s the equivalent of using a blinker on your car.

I recently rewatched the movie “(500) Days of Summer”. In it, there’s an expectations versus reality split screen scene.

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My Palm Springs flight would make a nice montage in this format.

The first divergence came when I tuned into Palm Spring’s automated weather service. I knew the Ground Controller would ask for the code word which was part of the weather message to verify I’d listened to it. Normally, XPlane generates a Siri-like weather message based on real-life weather data (“winds out of 330 at 6 knots, skies clear”). At a real airport, however, this message is recorded by a person and has lots of info in it - which runways are in use, any hazards, special instructions, etc. To add this extra level of detail, PilotEdge records its own weather message for ATC airports. So, when i listen to Palm Springs, it has a special instruction - “VFR flights contact Clearance Delivery”.

I wasn’t expecting to talk with Clearance for my simple VFR flight. When I contact them, and tell them I’m flying VFR, I’m surprised to get a squawk code assigned. Normally, I “squawk VFR” which means my transponder transmits the code 1200, indicating I’m flying VFR and generally not communicating with ATC. Instead, now I have a unique code identifying my aircraft so they can track me. They also give me the SOCAL Departure frequency.

Okay, we’re starting to get deep, now. It’s another guy I wasn’t planning on talking to. In my mind, once I was clear of Palm Springs Tower’s area of concern (the dotted blue circle around the airport on the map above indicating its Class D airspace), I was on my way in Class E airspace, squawking VFR, flying on my own. Now I’ve got a handoff from the tower to SOCAL Departure which manages the airspace outside the tower’s control.

This was my first time doing this, so the gears were turning a little more slowly in my head than they should have. I think okay, let’s roll with it.

After talking with Clearance and Ground and Tower, off I go into the wild blue yonder, flying runway heading. And I keep flying runway heading, because ATC doesn’t tell me to do anything else. When I’m fairly far north, SOCAL tells me to resume own navigation, which is my cue to steer the airplane where I want it. I do a one-eighty and head back south to Jacqueline Cochran, avoiding the Palm Springs airspace.

Unbeknownst to me, as far as I can tell in hindsight, my call to Clearance Delivery was interpreted as a request for Flight Following, with SOCAL keeping an eye on me while I was in the TRSA (terminal radar service area) and providing traffic advisories while on route.

Fast forward to my approach to Jacqueline Cochran when I’m getting ready to make my CTAF call, thinking I’m alone in the sky, when you can imagine my surprise to hear SOCAL hail my tail number on my second radio (which was still monitoring SOCAL Departure frequency) and ask if I had the weather for the destination airport. Afterwards they tell me “radar services terminated, resume own navigation, squawk VFR.” At which point I think, wait - I had radar services this entire time? Oops.

It’s interesting just how nervous I was from this pretend experience. I think, in part, it’s because I know that many of the other people on PilotEdge are actual real-life pilots, and some of the ATC controllers are actual retired ATC controllers. I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”, learning the lingo to try and convince everyone I was an authentic pilot.

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So, it was an awesome experience. I made some mistakes, but still managed to get my plane from point A to point B, and, as odd as it may seem to say about a video game, had a sense of accomplishment from doing it. You can watch an edited-for-time version of the flight here: