I did my first VFR flight on VATSIM and I would like to share my experience. Hopefully it helps other people joining VATSIM.
I decided to do VFR (as I have very little knowledge about IFR) using Cessna 172 (non-G1000), as I practiced lot with that aircraft in MSFS. I skip setting up VATSIM account and installing vPilot and start with preparation for flight. At first I checked, which airports are online on VATSIM. I used https://map.vatsim.net/ and clicked to display ATC.
There were lot controllers in US. It was late night there, so probably that’s how some people spend long winter nights. I didn’t want to do night VFR, so US was out of game. There were very few in Europe (early morning) and there were some in Australia/NZ. The least busy airport was NZAA (Auckland, New Zealand). So I chose that for 2 reasons:
- I didn’t want to slow down busy traffic, as I might be slower to react.
- I decided to follow race in one of Top Gear episodes from place near Auckland to the most northern tip of New Zealand. James sailed in racing sail boat and Jeremy drove Toyota Auris. So why not take the 3rd option, by air.
I checked also https://stats.vatsim.net/who.html to see if the controllers are online. It seems it is more up to date than the map.
The most northern airport in NZ is NZKT (Kaitaia). So that was my destination. Then next step was to check weather. I use https://www.meteoblue.com/en/weather/webmap/beta/ website to do that. And I checked following information:
- Wind at ground and at 5000 feet. It was quite strong 15 knots from south west.
- Low level clouds to check if VFR is possible. Just few clouds.
- Temperature and dew point.
Then I opened LittleNavMap. To familiarize with the area and find navigation points. Also to see taxiways at the airport. However, I looked for more precise airport chart at https://chartfox.org/NZAA#NZAA_78487.
Then I prepared my MSFS settings:
- Switch off AI ATC.
- Entered my flight plan and selected Live Players in Flight Conditions. This was the first time I used this setting.
UPDATE!: Please, don’t use this settings. I learned that for VATSIM it is important to switch off multiplayer and AI traffic, so that only VATSIM traffic is in the simulator.
- I selected to start at ramp 80 (definitely not on the runway).
I followed checklist to do preflight check. While checking avionics, I already setup radio frequencies.
- COM1 active: NZAA approach
- COM1 standby: NZAA centre
- COM2 active: ATIS
- COM2 standby: UNICOM 122.80
I finished the preflight check and started the engine. Then I entered my flight plan into vPilot and filed it. For VFR I just entered departure, destination, alternative airport (NZKK, in case I miscalculated my fuel, because of strong wind), cruising altitude and speed.
I tuned COM2 to take notes of ATIS. The wind was 20 knots. Quite strong, but aligned with runway. ATIS didn’t say altimeter setting, so I just set it based on known altitude of the airport. I am not sure, if this is just missing or on purpose, in case people have different weather settings. Then I switched back to COM1 to listen to approach for some time. Just to get used to it. I noticed other pilots reported, they have information L (I got only M). So back to ATIS and update my information. Well, there were just very little changes.
I had to hurry up, because it was only 1/2 hour to sunset and I wanted to enjoy some light during flight. Oh did I mention that Auckland approach and centre were online? So approach controlled ground, tower, and approach. I assume that delivery is not relevant for VFR. Someone correct me, if I am wrong.
Me: “Auckland approach, this is OMDN3T, radio check”.
Approach replied with 4. So I increased microphone level in vPilot to +2.
Me: “Auckland approach, this is Cessna OMDN3T request taxi for east departure for VFR, OMDN3T”
Approach approved northbound departure in 2000 feet and below and that I should report, when ready for taxi. Already at this point I had to ask to repeat, as I didn’t understand few words. But it was nice from the controller to repeat it slowly.
Me: “Ready for taxi, OMDN3T”
Approach reported to follow taxiway K A A3. This was point, when ChartFox chart was helpful. I didn’t need to taxi all the way to the end to runway.
Now I would like to ask more experienced pilots. I started to taxi. Then I found quiet place to turn against wind and did run-up. But was it ok to report “ready for taxi” before doing run-up?
Also during run-up approach contacted me to switch Mode C in Vatsim. It seems it has to be done explicitly in vPilot and not just switching transponder to ALT.
While taxiing approach contacted me to contact tower on new frequency. It seems in the meantime tower came online. So I switched the frequency and got to hold point before runway. I was doing pre-takeoff check and tower pinged me to contact them. So I did.
Me: “Auckland tower, this is OMDN3T ready for departure.”
Then there was some miscommunication, as I didn’t get that I should mind the upper bound (I assume those max alt. 2000 feet mentioned before). But in the end I got cleared for departure. It was smooth takeoff against strong wind and sunset. After sometime I turned north at 1500 feet. Strong wind caused some turbulences. After some time I got cleared to 4500 feet and change frequency to approach. So I started to climb hoping it would be less bumpy higher. It was a bit better. Then I turned north east. I planned to follow east coast where James sailed. When I reached north of Auckland city it was already no sun light. And approach contacted me to change to UNICOM frequency 122.8 and check my airspace. And wished me good flight.
The rest of flight was nice. There was full moon, so visibility was very good. I had to change altitude few times to avoid clouds. Navigation was a bit easier than expected, because country roads had street lights, which wouldn’t be true in real life. In about an hour I arrived to NZKT. I assumed that wind would be similar so I entered left pattern for runway 18. “Kaitaia airport, this is OMDN3T on downwind runway 18.” I flew 1 full circle to compare ground speed and downwind and upwind to confirm the wind direction. It was good that the aircraft had GPS to display ground speed. I couldn’t see wind indicator at night. The landing was rough, because of the direct crosswind, but I made it.
Me: “DN3T clear of runway, DN3T”
Conclusions and lessons learned:
- I think I forgot to say my call sign at the end of calls most of the time. Should improve that.
- Switch on Mode C in vPilot as soon as possible.
- Be aware, when tower shortens your call sign and start using it. I noticed they shortened it, but out of habit I used longer version.
- Prepare your radio frequencies to easy switch.
- Don’t be afraid to ask tower to repeat.
- I could easily understand, when I expected what tower would say. But I had hard time to understand something unexpected.
- Don’t forget that controllers are people too. I forgot to wish them good day after they wished me good flight.
- It may be harder to find controlled airport during day time for good VFR. VATSIM controllers probably work regular job during day.
- The flight was maybe as bumpy (because of turbulences) as Jamese’s sail. But I made it with single aircraft, not like Jeremy switched Toyota for new one on half way.
In the end I would like to thank Auckland controllers for having patience with me. It was very nice experience.