The Basics of VATSIM

I would like to dedicate this blog post to the memory of my dear mother who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago.  As a young person, she always encouraged me to write and while she really had no clue what I blogged about here (most of the time), she still read my work.  I began this article back in March and after returning back from Texas have been somewhat motivated to get it finished.  Here you go Mom…this one is for you. 

The subject of this tutorial has been on my to-do list for many years.  I began blogging about the hobby of flight simulation in September 2010 and at that time I created an Excel spreadsheet and noted a few topics I wanted to cover in tutorial style.  The Basics of VATSIM was added to the growing list but unfortunately just kept getting bumped down the list.  Or I would start the article only to delete it later because I just simply couldn’t convey my thoughts on the subject in a way that met my approval.  I’m just funny like this…I guess I could say I’m a perfectionist and everything I’ve ever featured on my blog site has been as accurate and as detailed as I could make it given my experience and knowledge on what ever subject I’m writing about. 

I was first introduced to the online world of virtual air traffic simulation even before VATSIM was born.  Sometime in either 1999 or very early 2000, I signed up for and became a member of SATCO (Simulated Air Traffic Controllers Organization).  However, I really didn’t do much online flying.  At this particular time in my life I was busy traveling and also I must admit that I was absolutely terrified of the thought of flying online.  SATCO eventually collapsed and was succeeded by VATSIM which I signed up for almost immediately.  Things were beginning to slow down on the real world travel schedule and I met a few new online friends who helped me get over my fears (mainly mic fright) and BOOM…I was hooked. 

The Basics of this Tutorial

As with most of my tutorial style writings, this is not meant to be the “Be All, End All” or even a absolute complete guide to the subject of VATSIM.  I’m going to first encourage you to do some of your own research and reading which I’ll point out in the very next paragraph.  Then I’ll share some of my own tips, tricks and perhaps some of my very own experiences.  But you really need to read a few things on your own before you decide to login to the VATSIM network for the very first time.  Unfortunately, unless you are a real world pilot, VATSIM is not the place to fake your way through.  While VATSIM can be a very friendly and helpful environment, it’s also an extremely serious online community.  More about this later.

Rules of Life

There are many rules I follow in life and the one that has worked for me, has helped me become successful in many different ways is as follows:  “What you put into life is what you get out of it”.  Of course, I’ll also admit (and my wife will vouch for me), I’m stubborn.  Yes, a square peg will go into a round hole if you have a big enough hammer and I almost never stop to ask for directions.  But I digress…

If you are a flight sim enthusiast and you are absolutely new to VATSIM, I would first recommend (almost insist) that you first do a bit of reading before you key up the mic and ask for ATC clearance at your favorite airport.  As previously mentioned, VATSIM (for the most part) is an extremely friendly and helpful environment.  However, it’s not the place for “on the job training”.  Meaning, you should spend some time bringing yourself up to speed on the ways of VATSIM and I’m going to help you do just that. 

Flight Simulation Experience

When I began the outline of this tutorial, I must admit I began writing it with the more experienced flight simulation aviator in mind.  Perhaps someone similar to myself who has been flying computer based sims for many years and who truly is capable of controlling his/her aircraft both while on the ground and in the air.  It’s difficult for me to explain to you just exactly how much experience you need…but will just say that if you’re not capable of operating your aircraft, familiar with basic flight navigation, don’t understand how to read SIDS/STARS charts, refuse to follow instructions/directions….then YOU are not ready for VATSIM.  In other words, if you are absolutely brand new to the hobby of flight simulation and don’t recognize that a computer based flight simulation program such as FSX, Prepar3D and XPlane is MORE than a video game…then YOU are not ready for VATSIM. 

However, if you have spent a few hundred hours enjoying your favorite flight simulation program, have a good understanding of flight navigation, understand how to operate your favorite aircraft, can listen and follow instruction and want to take your flight simulation hobby to the next level, then please continue reading. 

Getting Started with VATSIM

Your first step should be to visit the “Getting Started” section on the VATSIM website.  You’ll find a step-by-step outline for getting started with VATSIM.  This one page will point you in the right direction for all things VATSIM including directing you to the Pilot Resource Center and a “must read” on Expectations and Requirements for Pilots.  Again, I really can’t stress enough that the very first experience on VATSIM will be equal to exactly what you put into it in the form of self-study/research/preparation. 

One of the reasons I’m encouraging you to really prepare yourself for the wonderful fun that awaits you on VATSIM, is simply…VATSIM is a really serious place.  Unlike other online multiplayer communities where users seem to disobey the rules (I’m looking at you TruckersMP), the world of VATSIM is really for serious individuals who truly want to simulate the world of aviation.  While I won’t lie to you and tell you that you’ll never encounter fools doing some really crazy stuff on VATSIM, they will be dealt with quickly and sharply.  In my almost 20 years of enjoying VATSIM and accumulating almost 2000 hours on the network, I’ve only encountered a small handful of idiots and as I stated before, they were dealt with quickly.

Additional Tips, Tricks and Advice

Please don’t let some of what I said discourage you from giving VATSIM a try.  It really is an “As Real As It Gets” experience.  As you gain in experience, some of the large events which VATSIM hosts on the network will have you seeing and experiencing the crowded airspace and airports all over the world.  I’m going to wrap things up here in just a few minutes, but before I do…allow me to share some additional information which might come in handy.


Yea…if you need to know how to do something, and you can’t find it on YouTube…then you know you shouldn’t be doing it.  But on YouTube you’ll find all sorts of flight simulation help (including VATSIM information). 


Yes, Facebook is more than just sharing pictures of cats.  There’s actually a very active Flight Sim following across Facebook with various groups setup to help on all aspects of the hobby.  There is a VATSIM For Beginners Facebook Group which is also a very good resource.  But once again, I encourage you to educate yourself by reading as much as you can from the VATSIM links I provided above. 

Login, Listen and Observe

One of the things I did when I first started out was to park my aircraft at a gate (never spawn directly onto a runway or taxiway) and then connect to the VATSIM network.   I would locate an airport which had at least one controller and a few active aircraft and listen.  This allowed me to listen to how other pilots requested clearance.  There are several online resources which allow you to visually see what airports are staffed with ATC and which have active aircraft.  But generally most of the larger airports will have activity throughout the day.  One such site which I sometimes use is called VATTASTIC.  Although my favorite is an application called VAT-Spy.  It’s an application I have installed on one of my gaming machines so I can keep an eye on where ATC is staffed.  Check it out! 


Don’t you just love acronyms?  Especially when they can really help you.  When requesting your departure clearance, keep the word CRAFT in your mind.  Or better yet, write it down on a piece of paper. By the way…always keep a notepad and pen/pencil handy when flying online.  You’ll thank me later!.  The acronym CRAFT will help you in writing down all the jibberish the controller is going to tell you (which by the way you’ll need to read back).  CRAFT stands for Clearance, Route, Altitude, Frequency and Transponder. 

Typically when I am flying IFR (jetliner type aircraft), I’ll call up and request clearance like this.  “Denver Clearance Delivery, this is American 1066 requesting IFR clearance to Dallas/Ft. Worth as filed.  I have information Bravo”. 

The readback I receive from ATC will fall into the CRAFT format and may sound something like this:

American 1066, you are cleared to the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport (Clearance) via the STAKR4 Departure PYPER Transition (Route), Climb and Maintain 10 Thousand…expect Flight Level 350 10 minutes after departure (Altitude).  Departure Frequency 128.45 (Frequency) , Squawk 2145 (Transponder). 

Aviate, Navigate and Communicate

Things can get pretty hectic when flying online.  Remember, in the real world…airliners are flown by TWO pilots who share the work load.  On VATSIM, all the same amount of work is handled by just ONE pilot, YOU!  Regardless of how busy and hectic things become (and it does get easier with practice) always remember this tip.  Aviate, Navigate and finally Communicate. 

Aviate – Always maintain control of your aircraft.  This is first and foremost.

Navigate – Know where you are, understand the terrain and obstacles around and below you. 

Communicate – Finally…communicate.  As you gain more and more experience, you’ll be able to multitask like a pro.  But until that time comes, always make sure you begin executing all ATC instructions before you communicate with ATC.

Help is Here VATSIM First Wings Event

I realize a few paragraphs ago I said VATSIM isn’t the place for “on the job” training and I encouraged you to read all you can and familiarize yourself as best you can before you show up and try to muddle your way through the procedures.  While I absolutely encourage you to follow this sound advice, VATSIM does conduct various events around the world to help brand new virtual pilots.  These events are called “VATSIM First Wings” and they are absolutely geared to help the beginner online pilot.  While I would still encourage you to read everything you can and also be fully capable of flying your aircraft (this event isn’t geared to teach you how to fly).  Then show up at the appropriate time, location and be ready to learn.  

The next VATSIM First Wings Event is quickly approaching and will take place on 27 April 2300 – 0200z at these featured airports KRST (Rochester), KRFD (Rockford), KCID (Eastern Iowa) and KDLH (Duluth Intl).  You can learn more about this upcoming VATSIM First Wings event here

Other Online Options

Yes, there are other online multiplayer options available.  I chose to write about VATSIM as that is my preference and the one I have the most experience and longest history with.  Just last year I wrote about all the various online multiplayer options available for flight simulation.  The information in this article is still current today. 

Final Thoughts

If you’ve reached this point and you’re thinking to yourself, “VATSIM sounds like the last place I want to be” that was not the intention.  However, I can’t stress enough that VATSIM is a serious online community of likeminded individuals who all share a passion for aviation and we’re all after one thing….”An As Real As It Gets” Experience of interacting with Air Traffic Control and other Aviators.  It’s really that simple. 

There’s a WHOLE lot more information that I would love to share and will do so in the future.  Flying on VATSIM is not something I do each and every time I fly.  However, I do very much enjoy the enhanced immersion it provides.  For me, I’m really not interested in the HUGE events such as Cross the Pond.  I tend to favor smaller events where the balance between ATC and pilots better mirror real world operations.  Regardless whether you enjoy flying small GA aircraft, small to medium sized tubeliners or the giants of the sky hauling passengers or freight from one side of the world to the other, VATSIM really does something for everyone.  I hope you’ll check it out and I hope this tutorial has helped motivate you to do so.

Until next time…

Happy Flying!!!



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