ATC: The Basics

1.1 How to read the manual

This manual is intended both for those novice to air traffic control, who want to learn the basics, and to those who want to learn more.
If you are new to air traffic control, we’d like to point out that this manual is quite comprehensive, and it is absolutely not necessary to know everything in this manual by heart. You will get an idea of what it is all about, and can later use the manual as a reference to get necessary information. 


Some sections are more advanced than others. The sections are marked according to what level they correspond to in the following way:
  • (unmarked) – Required knowledge for all controllers.
  • [S] – Required knowledge for Students and above.
  • [S+] – Required knowledge for Senior Students and above.
  • [C] – Required knowledge for Controllers and above.
  • [C+] – Required knowledge for Senior Controllers and above.
  • [Ref] – Reference only for all controllers.

In conjunction to this manual you should also read the GUIDE.  The GUIDE contains material that focus more on practical ATC. Aditionally stand alone manuals covering each ATCO position can be found on this site. 

Finally, we would like to point out that our motto is “as real as it gets”, but also always remember to have fun while aiming at that goal. Good luck! 


1.2 The responsibility and role of a ATCO [S]

We start with the most important:

As a controller, your main task is to separate aircraft. Your responsibility is therefore to make sure no collisions occur. You must at all time avoid any risk of collision. 

Now that we have said it in three different ways, we hope that you remember what your main task is. 
But there are other tasks as well..
  • Prevent collisions between aircraft.
  • Prevent collisions between aircraft and ground / obstacles on ground.
  • Expedite and maintain an orderly flow of air traffic.
  • Provide advice and information for safe and efficient conduct of flight.
  • Make it as real as it gets and at the same time understand that all involved shall have as fun as possible.

As a controller, you have a good overview over the traffic, but you never know how the situation is inside the cockpit where the pilots sit.
Your responsibility is therefore to the traffic situation. 
You are not responsible to how the aircraft is flown. Every pilot has a responsibility for his aircraft. 

Sometimes, there is a disagreement between you as as is the most important difference between real life and the virtual world. Try not to get angry, never argue with anybody, but rather point out the problem in a calm and constructive manner.

The above can be summarized in “common sense” and “humility” - two good characteristics. 

If a situation gets unpleasant or hatred, or if a pilot deliberately tries to sabotage our environment, you should try to contact a Supervisor (SUP) or Administrator (ADM). 
These people have a responsibility to act in this kind of situations, and they are also the only ones who can expel pilots and controllers. 

Let's move on from this boring but necessary topic and look closer on your task as a controller. 
Apart from separation, you should also give service to the aircraft. Simply said, you should guide the pilots from point A to point B. 
The pilots are in a never ending need of current information. They need weather acontroller and the pilot as to what is the right action in the current situation. Remember that it is the pilot who has final word in these situations.
This doesn't mean that he can fly his aircraft the way he pleases, but rather that you cannot give the pilot an instruction which he or his aircraft is physically unable to perform. 
To avoid this kind of conflicts, it is always important to give the reason why unusual instructions are given.

It is very rare that disputes occur in our virtual world. We always try to help each other. If you end up in a dispute anyway, try to remember that we are real people in a virtual world. 
If you or anybody else makes a mistake, no lives are at stake. Thind traffic information etc. It is your responsibility to deliver this information as correctly and quickly as possible. 

There is one final task which isn't less important than the others. That is to have fun. We want you to enjoy yourself online VATSIM! 

1.3 Controller functions [S]

One of the most common mistakes made in the VATSIM environment is the misconception of a particular facility's function.

A controller can work in many different roles, where maybe Tower is the most well known. Every role has its own responsibilities and working tasks as described below. 
Note that in the on line environment, we have reduced the number of tasks, in real life, there are many more.

A basic summary of what each position does follows below. The usual practice is that a position takes over all of the “lower” when they are unmanned.

TWR handles all the duties of the position DEL, GND and TWR if none of the “lower” is on-line. 
If DEL gets online, then DEL will of course handle DEL and TWR will handle GND and TWR.
Finally (to make things really clear) if GND gets online, then GND handles DEL and GND and TWR only TWR. 

Note that some positions require a minimum rating. There may also be stricter local rules that apply for certain controller functions. Please refer to your local vACC for more information. 


1.3.1 Clearance Delivery (DEL) [S]
Clearance Delivery gives ATC clearances to the pilot after checking the Flight Plan. 
If the Flight Plan contains error it is DEL’s responsibility to correct them before releasing the aircraft. 
This function is not often in use online during normal operation, but you might see it on very busy airports and during fly-inns. 


1.3.2 Ground (GND) [S]
Ground Control is responsible for exercising general surveillance on the airport movement area - apron. 
Ground gives taxi clearances and restrictions. Note however that Ground isn't responsible for the runways, they are tower’s responsibility. When the aircraft is approaching the active runway, Ground hands over to Tower, who “owns” the runways.

If an aircraft needs to cross a runway, (active or inactive) on its way to it’s destination a specific clearance to do so must be obtained. Ground then needs to coordinate with tower to get approval or hand over the aircraft to TWR for that clearance (the first being the preferable). 
There are a few airports that have runways that are used as taxi-ways. They are controlled by GND, if this is clearly stated and coordinated between TWR and GND. 


1.3.3 Tower (TWR) [S]

Tower is responsible for all take-offs and landings and gives instructions to effect proper sequencing and separation of aircraft for departure.

Tower decides which runways are being used for take-offs and landings depending on wind direction etc. You are also responsible for aircraft on the ground when they are on the runway or are about to cross a runway.

Landing aircraft are handed over to Ground as soon as they leave the runway (or sooner at tower’s discretion)
Departing aircraft are handed over to the next controller when they leave your airspace, which normally means 3000-4500 ft. The hand-off can also be done earlier if coordinated between TWR and next controller. 


1.3.4 Departure Control (DEP) [SS]
Departure Control is responsible for ensuring separation between departures once they are handed over from TWR. This controller may also suggest headings or vectors as appropriate to maintain this separation. 
APP take care of DEP, when this position isn’t manned. 

1.3.5 Approach Control (APP) [SS]
As the name implies, Approach is responsible that aircraft when they approach the airport. 

For arriving aircraft, the hand over point is normally when the aircraft enters the STAR (Standard Instrument Arrival) entry point. Approach is responsible that separation is made in a safe way. In case the STAR doesn't end at the initial approach fix (final), Approach is responsible for vectoring aircraft on to the final with proper altitude and speed. Approach may also vector aircraft away from a STAR or SID (Standard Instrument Departure if this is necessary for safety reasons, or to get a good traffic flow. 

Normally Approach also handles departure’s responsibilities, taking care of departing aircraft which are handed over to Centre Control. 

Arriving aircraft are usually handed over to Tower when they have established ILS (Instrument Landing System) or when on final for visual approach.

1.3.6 Area Control Center (ACC) [C]
Area Control Center (sometimes called Control CTR) provides ATC to aircraft on the en-route phase of flight.
This includes giving information that the pilot needs such as weather and traffic information. 
It usually includes taking care of departing traffic, climbing to their cruising altitude and issuing inbound-clearance to traffic that is approaching the final destination of the flight. 
ACC is also responsible for all airports where Tower and Approach are not manned. 
ACC is a demanding position and requires a great deal of experience. 


1.3.7 Flight Information Centre (FIS) [SC]
Flight Information Centre (sometimes called FSS) is an air traffic facility that provides a myriad of services to the pilot, such as pilot briefings, relaying of clearances and broadcasting of weather information.
At selected locations, FIS also provides en-route Flight Advisory Services.


1.4 The VATSIM community [S]

VATSIM is a huge and quite complex organisation. 
There is only one sort of membership, but you can say that there are three different kind of activity that you can engage in. Many members participate in more then one of these activities.
  • ATC
  • Pilot
  • Administration

As a pilot or ATCO there is little need to know everything about the organisation as such, but from time to time you might want to contact someone from administration to get help or guidance. 
Since it isn’t always easy to know who to turn to, a brief insight in the organisation-tree is presented here for reference. There is also a short description of the history of VATSIM at the end of this section.

It is not in the scope of this manual to describe the VATSIM organisation in detail and the best way of finding the right person is to start looking at your own vACCs homepage. There will be a staff-list with contact information on that page. The staff will guide you in the first instance if your request can’t be handled within your vACC. 

You can also turn to the VATSIM forum and ask for help and further assistance.





1.5 About VATSIM [S]

An Introduction into the Great Hobby of Online Flight Simulation and Simulated Air Traffic Control

It wasn't long ago when the whole world was ours alone. Beginning with Microsoft's Flight Simulator Version 5.0, we could simulate flying to many parts of the world. 
Flying, however, was a very lonely proposition. There were no other airplanes in the skies while we flew en-route and our arrivals at major airports were like landing in ghost towns. 
There was dynamic scenery and beginning with Microsoft's Flight Simulator 98, multi-player capability to keep you company. But other than that, Flight Simulator, as wonderful a program as it has been throughout its history, fell flat when it came to simulating air traffic control.

In 1997, all of that changed with the introduction of SquawkBox©, an add-on program for Flight Simulator 95/98, and ProController©, a stand alone program.
Over time, SquawkBox© has been revised several times and now works with all major Flight Simulation programs including Microsoft Flight Simulators 2002, 2004, FSX, Precision Simulator and the Fly! series of programs. 
Through the use of ProController, and later on more advanced versions such as ASRC, VRC and more recently Euroscopeand the internet, people operating as air traffic controllers could track and control aircraft in real time as they flew in Flight Simulator by utilizing a simulated radar screen. 
Pilots, using SquawkBox and more recently FSINN, could now talk to and receive air traffic control from people using one of the ATC software platforms in use. Soon thereafter, various organizations were established to bring order and structure to this new nîche in the hobby.

The Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network, known as or "VATSIM" was created in 2001 by a group of individuals who came together with a goal of creating an organization which truly served the needs of the flight simulation and online air traffic control community. 
With an eye towards more than just providing a network of computers for users to log into, VATSIM is an online community where people can learn and, at the same time, enjoy the pastimes of flight simulation and air traffic control simulation, all while making new friends from all over the world.

VATSIM is not just for individuals who have experience in online flight simulation and ATC. It is perfect for both the new user, and the long time "simmer".
  • For someone who has just learned about online flight simulation and air traffic control and is interested in real world procedures, VATSIM and its members, many of whom bring real world experience and expertise to our community, offer an ideal environment to learn real world skills.
  • For pilots, you'll be able to fly with radar service by air traffic controllers who issue instruction and assistance in all phases of flight from getting your clearance to arriving at your destination airport.
  • For air traffic control enthusiasts, the entire world is simulated meaning you can work ATC virtually anywhere…from a general aviation airport to the busiest airports in the world. Nearly all of the real world positions are available for you to choose and learn to work.

The best part of all of this is that VATSIM brings real people together who share your passion for flight and air traffic control. When you contact that controller or pilot, you aren't contacting a computer generated voice or image - you will be communicating with a real person who shares the same interests as you! 

All it takes is a few moments to register and join VATSIM. Once you do, prepare to learn and be rewarded with friendships that will span the globe. In addition, you'll receive the appreciation and thanks of the online flight simulation and air traffic control communities.