Pilots who had withdrawal symptoms because they couldn’t fly to Oshkosh Airport in Wisconsin for this year’s canceled EAA AirVenture show were able to get a flying fix in a simulator. Thanks to real-time simulation air traffic control service PilotEdge, during what would have been the week of the AirVenture show (July 21 to 25) pilots could simulate flying into Oshkosh and experience the temporarily congested airspace at what in-real-life (IRL) becomes the busiest airport in the world for a week.
PilotEdge partnered with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) not only to set up SimVenture but also to staff PilotEdge with controllers who have worked the Oshkosh tower during the iconic show.
To participate in SimVenture, simulator pilots had to follow the same instructions as IRL pilots, by reading and following detailed instructions in a Notam modeled on the one that is published each year for AirVenture. A PilotEdge account was also mandatory, but non-customers could sign up for a free trial for the SimVenture adventure.
SimVenture was held during specific hours on July 21, 23, 24, and 25 and pilots could fly the typical arrival into Oshkosh and also depart from the airport. Like real Oshkosh, SimVenture participants could see other traffic on the PilotEdge network flying around them on their simulator monitors, including a line of airplanes waiting to depart. All operations were done in good weather, and PilotEdge asked participants to set their weather to CAVU conditions; no IFR arrivals were allowed during the event.
I tried the Oshkosh arrival during the session on July 23, using the X-Plane 11 simulator. To set up the connection with PilotEdge, I selected the PilotEdge plugin and input the airplane’s N-number, type (C172), and color. The color was important because the controllers use that to identify the airplanes flying into Oshkosh. Typically, there is little or no two-way radio communication, and SimVenture replicated that.
According to the Notam, I was to fly counterclockwise around Green Lake then once on the eastbound leg on the south side of the lake, fly toward the RIPON intersection over the town of Ripon then to FISKE in, naturally, Fisk, Wisconsin. If there were other airplanes flying around the lake, I would have to follow anyone in front of me using a half-mile spacing, and fly at 1,800 feet and 90 knots. Faster airplanes could fly at 2,300 feet at 135 knots.
Pilots aren’t supposed to materialize in mid-air near Green Lake or on the route into Oshkosh but take off from a nearby airport or arrive from somewhere else, just like IRL. I elected to depart from Portage Municipal, which set me up for an unhurried arrival at Green Lake from the southwest.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much traffic by the time my simulated Cessna 172 arrived at Green Lake, so I just turned right towards RIPON while flying at 1,800 feet and 90 knots. I saw two other airplanes, but they weren’t really on my path. I thought I was following the Notam instructions fairly precisely, so I motored on while listening to the controller talking to airplanes ahead of me: “White Cessna, rock your wings, good rock, where are you from?” It seemed that the airspace wasn’t that busy yet so the controller had time to chat, although some users seemed unsure of whether they were allowed to respond. “It’s okay to talk,” the controller told one pilot.
After RIPON, I headed to FISKE by following the railroad tracks using the ForeFlight app’s moving map display, waiting for the magic words. I was still relatively alone but could hear a few airplanes ahead of me being asked to rock their wings then being handed off to the tower controller.
Overflying FISKE, the controller said, “Orange Cessna, rock your wings. Good rock.” He then cleared me to fly the transition to Runway 36, which means I had to turn east on a long base leg and follow Fisk Road toward Lake Winnebago and get ready to turn left onto final.
After handing me off to the tower controller, with me not saying anything on the radio, the tower controller asked for a wing rock, then cleared me to land on the green square on 36R “skinny.” What she meant was that I had to land at a specific spot on the temporary righthand runway, which is normally taxiway Alpha. Colored dots and squares are used to enable more aircraft to land in less time, and that means you may be landing while another aircraft is on the runway.
I managed to touch down pretty much on the green square. I had studied the Notam post-landing procedures ahead of time and knew I had to taxi quickly to the end of the runway, then left on Runway 31, left on 23, then onto Taxiway P and pull off to the right into a parking spot.
It was neat because there were hundreds of other airplanes depicted on my display, filling the Oshkosh grass parking areas. I taxied between two airplanes and parked, then disconnected from PilotEdge.
I have never flown myself into Oshkosh using the Notam procedure, and this experience not only showed me how it’s done but also gave me the confidence to try it for real in the future. SimVenture brought a taste of AirVenture to a world still reeling from a pandemic and gave me some hope for the future.
PilotEdge founder Keith Smith and his team worked hard to make SimVenture possible. “It was incredible,” he reported after the first day. “We did it the right way, and the pilots really stepped up. Having the actual OSH controllers was just remarkable. It's pretty amazing what can be built with planning, great people, and a bit of technology. I'm still in shock.”
Asked about how the controllers could see the simulated aircraft rocking their wings, he explained, “I modified the server such that when a pilot does a wing rock, the scratchpad on the datablock temporarily changes to a predetermined value for a few seconds.” The scratchpad also displayed a code so the controller knew the color of the airplane. “This allows the controller to work the whole thing from radar,” he said.
One of the controllers that worked SimVenture cleverly put to use an X-Plane tower visual and the radar display. “He actually saw the [wing] rocks,” Smith said.
During the four days of SimVenture, PilotEdge logged 1,066 arrivals and 666 participants (some flew the arrival more than once).