Picture this: You’re flying a helicopter as a flight of two aircraft. It’s a beautiful day and thankfully, you and the other aircraft in your flight have split up communication duties.
You’re on a designated air route, making the required radio calls and doing everything correctly. Shortly thereafter, a C-17 tries to join your formation flight as a third aircraft. That doesn’t sound very funny does it? Sadly, it’s a true story, it happened to me.
That’s why radios are important! The non-participating C-17 had been vectored into us by a confused controller. Although, we didn’t bend any metal that day because we were able to talk to the C-17 crew.
Sim pilots have an immense advantage; typically, we know the people we’re flying with. We also are only limited to a few aircraft at a time in a session. Although, if you also dabble in other simulators (such as Digital Combat Simulator), sometimes its not uncommon to find yourself in a server with 30 or more, other people flying. In that instance, you have a mixture of fast jets, slow helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, geese and whatever-else trying to hit our fragile, little helicopter.
Much like real life, sometimes servers can get busy. Additionally, like real life, in those servers you do not always know who you’re flying with.
You could be the only helicopter or one of many while sharing the same airspace with people flying formation, airliners or people in Cessna’s doing the airport circuit and even, frustratingly, the lone guy (talking to no one) buzzing the runway repeatedly trying to get as close to your helicopter on each pass (I think everyone who’s flown on DCS has experienced this). That’s when having an armed helicopter has its advantages.
Having the ability to rapidly and efficiently deliver your intentions and requests to controllers and other pilots around you is important. In real aviation, its paramount – our lives depend on it. On a simulator, being able to communicate is more of a convenience and sometimes a great way to meet other online pilots and grow your network.
Hopefully through this tutorial, we at can help you learn the basics. For the purposes of clarity, this tutorial will closely follow many of the same procedures and rules as if you were on the real radio flying an aircraft but with special concessions for things that do not apply to simulating.
To start talking online, you need some basic equipment and software setup.
Headset with a microphone: most people have one of these. But its worth the money to seek out and buy a quality headset (not only for better sound immersion) but also because the microphones will provide better voice quality and help eliminate feedback, echoing and static.
Ensure that when you plug in your headset, you test it and take the time to tweak the settings for audio, simulation and voice before trying to do any flying.
Voice transmission software will be necessary. Different servers and different games use different options. These are the most common:
How to start talking like a Pro
There are some general, basic guidelines one should follow before just hopping on a channel and chattering away with everyone else. Following these guidelines will make the experience more enjoyable and productive for everyone on the channel.
- Know who you’re talking to. Knowing when you enter a channel what’s expected in terms of voice communication. Specific servers in multiplayer simulators like DCS will often have a squadron page or a discord channel with the correct software address, rules and expectations listed.If the server has a channel open for a certain mission and you join that channel but are not an active participant, other players might not appreciate having a stranger enter the channel and discussing off-topic subjects. That leads to guideline two.
- Know which channel you’re using and ensure its for the right simulator. Some Teamspeak servers will have multiple channels for different simulators or for several versions of the same simulator (A red server or a blue server as an example). Make sure to join the correct channel and for the correct game.
- If its your first time on the server and time permits, introduce yourself. Some of the servers don’t mind non-participants joining and using the voice channel. In fact, in some instances, its encouraged if you’re going to be using their server. Everyone would rather have other players on the voice chat because that increases everyone’s situational awareness.Don’t be shy to join up and say hello. Often, if joining a mission server or large session, this is also a great opportunity to ask what’s the mission and what the status is of the mission or flight. When I fly on my squadron server and enter into the game my first call is often as short and sweet as I can make it. “Good evening blue team, CALLSIGN, joining, what’s the mission status and what do we need?” or “Good evening blue team, CALLSIGN joining in a Huey with rockets and mini-guns.What’s the mission status?” These are short and quick calls that emphasis brevity. But before you make that call…
- Listen before you transmit, especially if you have just changed channels or joined the chat. Simultaneous transmissions are counter-productive. Also, you may hear exactly what you need to know without transmitting. Take two or three minutes while you do the startup sequence or adjust simulator to listen in and figure out what’s happening on the channel.
- Think before you transmit. Knowing what you want to say will shorten the transmission, increasing efficiency of communications. Keeping the microphone switch depressed while you think of what you want to say will simply congest the frequency and perhaps deprive another pilot of critical information.We’ve all flown with the person that can’t spit the information out or keeps their PTT depressed while they chug back a soda. It’s annoying. Please don’t be that person.
- If you’re new to talking on the radio, don’t sweat it. It is a simulator after all. Often, if you mess up a radio call, the consequences will not be disastrous.
Basic communication techniques follow a standard format:
- Who you’re calling
- Who you are
- Where you’re at
- You’re request
- Airport information, Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS – if available)
So, a standard radio call would sound similar to this:
“Costa tower, Bell 12345, west ramp, request present position departure to the east with information India.”
It’s incumbent on you, the aviator, to ensure that the controller knows you understand his instructions and will comply with them. This establishes a verbal contract between you and that controller and allows him to vector and control other traffic around your stated intentions. Therefore, he might say something similar to:
“Bell 12345, Costa Tower, cleared for takeoff present position to the east, maintain at or below 500 feet.”
When responding to the controller and verifying his instructions, it’s not required that you read back the entire message word for word unless there are specific instructions such as a detailed clearance. Although, the important aspects of the instruction should be read back. Information such as airspeed, altitude restrictions and specific headings or hold short instructions should always be read back.
“Costa Tower, Bell 12345, maintain at or below 500 feet.”
Using this statement, its already clear that you are going to take off (because you were the requestor) and to the east was your request. Although, what the controller does require you to read back is the amendment made to your request which was: “Maintain at or below 500 feet.”.
The controller might be issuing that requirement because your under-flying a traffic pattern, approach end of a runway or other traffic might be using the portion of airspace above your helicopter. By reading that back, your stating that not only do you understand his requirement, but that you will comply with it.
That’s a very basic overview of how most radio transmissions should be completed or handled in a two-party controller-pilot relationship. Typically, that’s not always available when we fly online with our friends or team mates.
Dealing with Communication without a tower or controller
What we, as simulator pilots will typically encounter, is a non-towered or uncontrolled environment. The real area your flying in is likely controlled if you would be flying out of the real airport. Instances such as Chicago, JFK, Seattle and such would have many agencies controlling a geographic region.
Although, for the sake of our hobby, I will not delve into airspace and communication requirements of going into complex airspace in this article. I’ll focus primarily on the non-towered and uncontrolled airspace’s. What we call these in real aviation is Unicom frequencies.
Unicom’s are vitally important in aviation. There are hundreds of thousands of non-towered and uncontrolled airports spread across the world. At those airports, there isn’t a tower or controller responsible for de-conflicting traffic and airspace. It’s the responsibility of the pilots flying in the area to de-conflict themselves and try not to occupy the same piece of airspace at the same time.
Non-controlled environments follow a similar format to making radio calls at controlled environments.
- Who you’re calling
- Who you are
- Where you’re at (THIS is very important!)
- Your intentions
- Who you’re calling (again).
Please, enjoy another scenario:
“What’s up fella’s!? I’m in a cool F-15 and I’m on final for the runway.”
Meanwhile, I’m chugging along in a Huey, crossing the runway and slinging some boxes from the ramp and trying to smash jack-rabbits with them a few miles out in the desert. So I respond...
“Erm, cool F-15 dude, roger, I’m crossing the threshold of runway three left, east-bound at 500 feet.”
“Cool man! I LOVE that Huey, it’s the bee’s knee’s! I gotcha in sight, I’m on short final for three right.”
So, I haul back on the cyclic and dump the collective pitching the nose into a wild climb while I watch my sling load arc gracefully from underneath the helicopter, out in front of the nose. A twinkling light flickers at me from 10 miles out from the runway. Meanwhile, the cargo tears the sling, hook and undercarriage off the aircraft, exploding almost on top of another player’s taxiing aircraft.
By utilizing brevity, rough-estimations of distance and easily-identifiable checkpoints, these scenarios can be avoided. Short final for a jet and short final for a helicopter are two different concepts. Short final for a jet can be anything from 5 miles to a mile depending on speed and weight.
Short final for a helicopter is usually only a few hundred feet and typically to a spot, not on the runway. By using brevity and a rough estimation of distance or a checkpoint, that gives the other pilots operating in the area, a rough idea of your intentions.
What right would have sounded like:
“Nellis traffic, single F-15 (or player call sign), over the strip, 10 mile final for runway three right. Nellis.”
My response would have been similar to what I said in the first transmission:
“Nellis traffic, single Huey (or call sign), is crossing three left east-bound at 500 feet, will be no factor. Nellis”
Now, everybody knows I’ll be clear of the runway’s long before he approaches, and I can continue my merry way to smashing jack-rabbits out in the desert. Additionally, there were some key aspects of those two transmissions that were omitted from the first exchange. Information not pertinent to the position report were left out.
“Cool F-15, Bee’s knee’s,” opinions not required for transmitting the time-sensitive information was left out. There is always time to discuss the finer points of simulator flying later or, on a different channel. This keeps the frequency clear for more important traffic that might be more time-sensitive.
It’s always better to be on the radio in the first place talking to people than flying alone in silence. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The more you fly online and in different servers, you’ll understand what’s expected.
If you’re preparing to start actual flying lessons, there are often a few real pilots bumming around the servers killing time. We are happy to help people use actual radio phraseology and help you practice.
Please stay tuned for my next article which will cover, more in depth, towered airport operations, talking with departure and approach control and flight service stations. Those lessons will prepare people who want to start flying on structured air traffic control networks such as VATSIM and they more closely mirror standardized radio phraseology and procedures.