By Mike Singer
One of the new experiences available in the revamped multiplayer system in Flight Simulator X is the ability to be an air traffic controller (Deluxe version only). We’re already seeing people taking advantage of this opportunity, staffing towers in multiplayer sessions every night.
If you choose to host or join a session as a controller, you’ll find yourself in a 3D tower cab at the airport of your choice. At your disposal are most of the tools real-world tower controllers use to do their jobs: a clock, a wind direction and speed indicator, communication radios, a configurable radar screen and — most importantly — a view out the window.
I’ve been fascinated by air traffic control ever since I was a little kid, so when we started dabbling with the idea of including a control tower feature in FSX multiplayer a few years ago, I jumped right in. Throughout the development cycle I championed the feature, and ended up designing most of it — with the assistance of some talented artists and developers.
The result is something I’m quite proud of: a control tower environment that enables users of all skill levels to climb out of the cockpit and see what it’s like to be on the other side of the radio and radar screen. The challenge was to create a feature that was at once appealing to and usable by novices, as well as by more experienced users familiar with air traffic control technology and procedures. Our goal was not to replace the in-depth ATC experiences available on Vatsim, IVAO, and other online networks. We just wanted to give people the tools they need to explore another dimension of the aviation experience. I think we succeeded.
Throughout the development cycle we had frequent multiplayer sessions in which folks on the team got together to fly. A few of us staffed some towers, and the rest flew. Everyone had a blast, and one of the non-pilots got so fascinated by the experience that he actually started taking flying lessons and now has his license. When I asked him what he liked about the sessions he said, “It’s like a role-playing game. I pretend to be a pilot, and you pretend to be a controller. It’s fun.”
As a controller, you get to tell people what to do. You get to watch airplanes take off and land. You get to grade people on their landings, and you get to make fun of them when they bounce. I love flying — for real and in Flight Simulator — but there are few things in aviation that match the thrill of simulating ATC at a non-radar tower. It’s just you and a traffic pattern full of airplanes, and you have to avoid chaos by using the view out the window, the radio, and your ability to visualize in three dimensions.
We knew that users unfamiliar with ATC would be intrigued by this new feature, but we wanted to see what experts thought of it. So we invited a few real-world air traffic controllers to Redmond to check it out. We were curious: would they be able to use it to do what they do all day at work in the real world? Would they like it?
One morning in early October, three real-world tower controllers joined us in a conference room here at Microsoft. Heidi Gilbert and Isabel Cole are controllers in the tower at Seattle-Tacoma International airport (KSEA), and Jeremy Noble is a controller in the tower at Paine Field in Everett (KPAE). On hand to generate some traffic for them were a bunch of capable pilots from the Flight Simulator team. After introductions, we came up with a plan and headed upstairs to the playtest lab.
I set up Heidi and Isabel as Local and Ground controllers at SeaTac, and put Jeremy into the Tower at Paine Field. After a brief tour of their virtual workplace and some instruction on how to look around the cab using the mouse, they all dove right in. After a few minutes I heard either Heidi or Isabel exclaim, “This is great. If they’d just mount a camera on the real tower I bet I could do my job from home!”
Well, the view out the tower cab windows wasn’t real, but it was “As Real As It Gets.” Within minutes we had pilots calling the controllers for taxi clearances, and soon the virtual skies over Seattle were filled with airplanes of all types flying round-robin flights between Seattle and Everett. Our Audio Director David Henry stayed in the pattern at Paine Field since he flies a plane based there in the real world (he’s the guy on the team who just got his license). The experience for him was a weird one, doing touch-and-goes in Flight Simulator, talking via “radio” to Jeremy — one of the real Paine controllers he talks to whenever he goes flying for real.
I consider myself a pretty good virtual controller, but watching the pros in action was humbling. While I sometimes have to glance at airport diagrams and jot down notes, they kept it all in their heads. I guess you get pretty good at something if you do it every day for years and years. I was impressed.
After an hour or so we decided to switch roles and give the controllers a chance to see what the rest of FSX was all about. I relieved Jeremy in Paine Tower, Leon took over Seattle Tower, and Matt handled Seattle Ground. Heidi’s a private pilot and Jeremy flies helicopters, so Round Two got off to a quick start.
When we debriefed later I was curious to hear what our guests thought of the experience. They sounded like air traffic controllers, sure. And using the Tower Controller feature they seemed able to do most of what they do all day at work in a real tower. But did they LIKE it? Definitely.
Over lunch we discussed flying, Flight Simulator, and life as an air traffic controller, then Heidi had to leave to go to work. We apologized for making her “work” on her time off, and sent everyone on their way. Before they left, Heidi and Isabel invited us all down to SeaTac for a tour of the real tower.
A few weeks later we snuck out of work at noon and drove south for our coveted tour of the new tower at SeaTac. The experience is worthy of a whole article in and of itself, so I’ll just mention two things here. First, the view. When you’re standing in a real tower cab (especially one as high up as the one at SeaTac) the whole airport is spread out in front of you. Glancing left or right is much easier than using the mouse to look around. Secondly, it’s quiet up there. We expected it to be a frenetic place, with everyone talking loudly to each other and running around. Nope — just a handful of highly trained professionals calmly doing their jobs. So much for Hollywood fantasies.
My own fantasy of becoming an air traffic controller will always be just that, as I passed the FAA’s maximum hiring age of 31 a long time ago. But a guy can always pretend, right? The new Tower Controller feature in FSX may not be the real thing, but as our real-world controller friends told us, it comes pretty close.
For years I’ve wanted to build a home cockpit. But you know, standing there in the cab of the real Seattle Tower, looking out the window at the jets arriving and departing down below, I started thinking that a home TOWER really wouldn’t be that hard to construct. A nice console, a handful of monitors, a projector…now THAT would be “As Real As It Gets.”
Or maybe I’ll just go visit Jeremy up at Paine Field.