With PilotEdge Live ATC Feed, Online Sim Training gets Real

 - February 1, 2014, 4:09 PM
Flight instructor Michael Phillips uses PilotEdge for new instrument pilots, recurrency training, pinch-hitter programs and even for student pilots.

With PilotEdge live ATC feed, online sim training gets real

by Matt Thurber

The next step in hyper-realistic flight simulation is here, and it isn’t a more sophisticated motion base, better aerodynamic modeling or super-high-resolution visual displays. Rather, it is a long-missing link in flight simulation: a live air traffic controller, and a company called PilotEdge has figured out how to provide this capability.  

Imagine that, during the line-oriented flight training segment of your initial type rating or recurrent training, instead of the simulator instructor’s voice, what you hear in the headset is a trained controller working not only your flight but other active (but simulated) flights as well. And that your instructor can communicate with the controller to conspire on challenges that you and your copilot will face. And that if you bust an altitude or violate restricted airspace or if you need to declare an emergency you’ll experience what it really is like in a comfortable environment and without worrying about the FAA knocking on your door.

 PilotEdge was created by Keith Smith, a professional software developer who got involved with the Vatsim community after learning to fly. Smith spent seven years and logged 4,500 hours gaining experience as a simulator air traffic controller on Vatsim, but he found that the system wasn’t able to support a commercial training environment with professional ATC services. “It occurred to me to identify all the problems with Vatsim and fix every one of them,” he said. PilotEdge is the result.

Realistic Traffic

PilotEdge provides live ATC services to simulator operators, both home users and commercial training providers. The region covered by PilotEdge is primarily the Los Angeles air route traffic control center (ARTCC), Las Vegas and San Francisco. PilotEdge controllers are retired from ATC careers or highly trained enthusiasts like Smith, who train in the same manner as real controllers. That means the controllers have to memorize all the details in the ARTCC and use correct phraseology. Controllers see PilotEdge traffic on their computers, which simulate the view on controllers’ radar displays.

PilotEdge isn’t the first system to replicate the ATC environment, but it is the first to do so in a way that allows users to expect professional service from live controllers. “The idea of online ATC is not new,” Smith said, “but the idea of making it commercial and reliable, nobody had done that.” Some simulator manufacturers have developed automated systems, such as Redbird’s Parrot (VFR only) or CAE’s True Environment (developed by Adacel). With these systems, said Smith, “At no point do you feel like you’re talking to a real controller, which is why I built PilotEdge. ATC is human-to-human interaction. If it’s not convincing, it’s not worth doing.”

To make PilotEdge even more convincing, users who are flying at the same time can “see” each other if flying in near proximity. The PilotEdge software knows where each simulated aircraft is flying, and if there is a possible conflict the controller will call out the traffic, and the user will see that traffic on his display. PilotEdge also injects additional traffic, called “drones,” into the system. These are what might be typical traffic in the Los Angeles area, such as military flights at 13,500 feet or VFR targets overflying the Burbank Class C airspace and so on. Controllers will also call out these targets if they are near enough. “That is the purpose of the drones: to add workload,” Smith said. 

For instructors, PilotEdge offers the opportunity to add more realism to simulator sessions by injecting unexpected situations. For example, the instructor can communicate surreptitiously with the PilotEdge controller, via text messaging, and ask the controller to put the pilot into a hold or divert because the destination runway is closed or fly a non-precision approach because the glideslope is out of service. 

PilotEdge is available for both commercial training providers and home simulator users and runs on Microsoft Flight Simulator (FSX) or the commercial Prepar3D version of FSX (now owned by Lockheed Martin) as well as Laminar Research’s X-Plane. While Smith is trying to get large simulator providers to adopt PilotEdge, he has signed some smaller companies. These include ProFlight, a Cessna Citation CJ3 simulator training company in Carlsbad, Calif., and flight training organizations such as Aviation Simulator Training in Camarillo, Calif. For home users, Pilot Edge offers a two-week free trial, after which it costs either $19.95 per month for unlimited service or $4.95 a month plus $2.00 per flying hour. PilotEdge guarantees to supply live controllers from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Pacific time.

To use PilotEdge, a home user needs to install a software plug-in for either FSX or X-Plane. Before takeoff, the user logs into PilotEdge and files a flight plan (either VFR or IFR) and then connects to PilotEdge from within the simulator software. For the simulated flight, it’s just like a real flight: the pilot needs to contact clearance delivery, if necessary, then ground. Once the clearance is copied, the PilotEdge controller will clear the user to taxi to the runway. After calling the tower controller, the user takes off and is handed off to departure and then various sectors until reaching the destination. 

It isn’t required that users start with taxi and takeoff, unless there is something complicated about those operations that the user wants to practice. It might be more efficient to set up the
simulated airplane in the air then call the controller for a clearance to fly some IFR approaches and holds. 

Live ATC Test

I tested PilotEdge using X-Plane 10 (only the 32-bit version works with PilotEdge) on a MacBook Pro, with the X-Plane Cessna 172. Smith recommends that before flying with PilotEdge users become familiar with their simulated airplane and how to work all the avionics. The 172 works well and its avionics are simple enough that they function properly for the most part. It helped to add the S-Tec autopilot to the 172’s panel because it includes vertical-speed mode. While some simmers insist on hand-flying, I found that I get more out of practicing IFR procedures in X-Plane by using the autopilot.

My first experience with PilotEdge was in ProFlight’s Level 6 flight training device (FTD), and it was extremely realistic. With X-Plane, I tried a few different scenarios that related to real flights that I planned to make, to see if the simulation helped prepare me. For example, I had scheduled an IFR proficiency flight from Long Beach in a 172, so one of my first PilotEdge flights was IFR from Long Beach to John Wayne Airport. Long Beach has a slightly confusing taxi route from the FlightServ FBO to Runway 25L, which includes a clearance to cross a closed runway. I wanted to see if the PilotEdge controller would give the same instructions, and indeed he did. And a few days later, when I flew in a real airplane, the taxi instruction was familiar and expected, which made me feel more confident.

Another confusing clearance in SoCal airspace is the IFR departure for a light airplane out of Santa Monica. I tested this for a simulated IFR flight from Santa Monica to Long Beach. Again, the PilotEdge clearance was spot on (fly runway heading to the Los Angeles VOR 315 radial, right turn without delay to 250 degrees, vectors to Santa Monica VOR, fly the 125 degree radial from Santa Monica VOR and so on). Compared to the real controller when I flew the same clearance a few days later, the PilotEdge controller spoke more slowly, probably because he didn’t want to repeat himself if I got it wrong. The mental preparation from simulating this clearance was invaluable when I flew it for real.

To further test PilotEdge, I visited Michael Phillips at Aviation Simulator Training. Phillips operates a Redbird fixed-base simulator with PilotEdge installed. “I find [PilotEdge] to be an exceptional tool,” he said, “and so do most of the people who come in [for training].” 

Phillips likes to use the Redbird/PilotEdge system for scenario training, and we tried one where I (pretending to be a VFR-only pilot) was stuck on top of an undercast with only an hour of fuel remaining in a Cessna 182. I told the controller my predicament, and he guided me through the cloud layer to an airport with VFR weather. While I didn’t declare an emergency, it wouldn’t have been a big deal to do so and it would also have been a good element to practice. Another scenario that works well with PilotEdge is engine failure, especially in IFR conditions.

Phillips also uses his simulator and PilotEdge to train pilots how to use their iPad applications in the cockpit, which is much safer than doing it in the real airplane. The Redbird sim spoofs the iPad into thinking it is getting a GPS signal, using the Bad Elf Cygnus Pro to connect the simulator to the iPad. 

PilotEdge is also ideal for pinch hitter courses for non-pilots to learn how to handle the airplane in case their pilot partner becomes incapacitated. Phillips does this, and so does ProFlight. Smith shared the audio from a recent pinch hitter experience in ProFlight’s Level 6 FTD, and the woman who took over the controls sounded overjoyed and full of confidence after landing the simulated CJ3 successfully at LAX. 

Gulfstream and PilotEdge

Even aircraft manufacturers can benefit from PilotEdge. Gulfstream Aerospace used the system for avionics certification testing on the new G650. “[PilotEdge’s] role was to simulate ATC communications during crew workload tests,” a Gulfstream spokesman told AIN. Gulfstream engineers were able to complete all of the crew workload certification tests in the G650 integration test facility (iron bird) using PilotEdge. The “system enabled us to have better control of the type and quantity of ATC communications used during the crew workload evaluations,” he said. “It also enabled us to repeat the tests for different pilots with the same ATC communication.”

PilotEdge covers just one ARTCC because the cost of providing the service in other areas would be prohibitive. “If we had to cover all 23 FAA facilities, our expenses would be at least 20 times as much,” Smith explained. “We’re asking people to give up a little to gain an affordable system.”

This feature is a drawback for some who would like to use PilotEdge but don’t see the benefit of training within the Los Angeles ARTCC. John Hansen, an instructor at Galvin Flying Services who helps set up training programs at the company, tried PilotEdge for three months on Galvin’s Redbird simulators. “I love [PilotEdge],” he said. “I really wanted it to work.” But the problem is that students and renter pilots wanted to simulate what they are going to experience, and that is the local airports in the Seattle area, although one customer consistently used PilotEdge to prepare for trips to southern California.

Even if PilotEdge could afford to cover other parts of the U.S., there wouldn’t be enough traffic to make the training as worthwhile. “Everyone wants to fly at his home airport,” Smith acknowledged. “But assuming that the goal is to learn how to fly in busier airspace, it’s about traffic density. You’ve got to shrink the area.” o


While it's not economical to expand the airspace for indvidual flight schools, sufficiently large customers might elect to have us expand the PilotEdge service to other airspace, either on a part time or full time basis.

Regarding the need to fly locally, while it is human nature to want to conduct simulator training in 'local' airspace, we firmly believe that Class B, C and D procedures and IFR procedures don't really vary across the country. If a student becomes completely comfortable with these concepts while flying in our existing service area on PilotEdge, they will be well prepared to fly anywhere in the country.

Case in point, I live and fly in the New York area, but I do 100% of my simulator-based training in Southern California on PilotEdge. I have since flown, real world, into Minneapolis, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, the tri-state area and more. Other than the accents and pace changing, the procedures didn't change. Being vectored for an ILS in Socal is no different than being vectored for an ILS on the other side of the country. Transitioning Delta airspace or landing at a Charlie is procedurally the same all across the country. Do it enough times in enough 'new' places and it all becomes old hat...which is a good thing. It's a matter of setting expectations with student pilots, as well as helping them realize that, at some point, they may well leave the nest.