Over 1200 simulator pilots have taken part in VATSIM’s bi-annual Cross the Pond event, which sees hundreds of VATSIM’s air traffic controllers team up to provide seamless coverage across the Atlantic ocean for over 14 hours. 1213 aircraft departed from participating airfields in North America during the event, over 1000 of which had pre-booked a slot on the VATSIM website to ensure a smooth journey.
What is VATSIM Cross the Pond?
For those unaware, Cross the Pond is the world’s biggest online flight simulation event run by VATSIM, an online air traffic network. Pilots are invited to cross the Atlantic ocean with full air-traffic control coverage throughout the journey via one of the North Atlantic Tracks (NAT-Tracks). The event runs twice a year, with a westbound leg in April preceding an eastbound leg in October.
In order to maintain a steady flow of traffic and not to overwhelm controllers, a slot booking system is used where each slot has an assigned departure time. Simmers this year had the option to choose from one of over 1100 slots. Uniquely for CTP, this time an additional 100 slots were also on offer for non-transatlantic flights across the European continent.
Simmers were also free to fly without a booked slot but were told to expect late clearance, delays on the ground and a low flight level throughout their transatlantic crossing. VATSIM had 1102 slots available in total departing from participating airports this year, but over 1250 took to the skies.
8 American and 6 European airports were used during the event. This edition of eastbound also featured a city-pairing between São Paulo and Johannesburg. 127 slots were available for this routing.
VATSIM’s Cross the Pond is a massive operation involving hundreds of volunteers and enthusiasts all coming together to create an event like no other. Approximately 220 controllers staffing positions all across North America, Gander, Shanwick and Europe all coordinate to get simmers across the ocean in a herculean effort.
This year’s event was also another big test of the new VATSIM Velocity update, which was introduced in February 2022. VATSIM Velocity updated the refresh rate of VATSIM’s servers, meaning aircraft connected to the network would see each others’ positions updated with significantly higher frequency, making the experience more realistic and seamless.
Interview with VATSIM’s Erik Quinn
I was curious about how the event has evolved over time, and wanted to know what lessons learned from past iterations of Cross the Pond have been extrapolated into more recent editions. To find out some answers I spoke to Erik Quinn, a member of VATSIM CTP’s planning team ahead of the big day.
Q: Has anything changed or been improved from the last CTP that is being implemented this time around?
A: A few things come to mind. We have improved tools for controllers to assess who does and does not have a slot, as well as a system for coordinating non-event traffic (routes and flow control constraints) for the other side of the ocean while they’re still on the ground. We have also shortened the departure window from 5 hours to 3 hours to relieve the controllers from needing to work 9 hour continuous shifts at maximum (now maximum of about 7 hours in a worst case scenario). The start time is 2 hours later, giving some relief to early-morning wakeups. We have also added European domestic slots to keep those airports active before the transatlantic traffic arrives. There are improvements to the natTrack infrastructure to ensure uptime, and a slight improvement to oceanic capacity by dividing the airspace by altitude rather than by track, allowing for more granularity to ensure even workloads for oceanic controllers. Since we assign the oceanic crossing altitudes we can force traffic to be distributed more evenly among controllers to get the most out of each controller without overloading them
Q: What time does the very first CTP departure lift off?
A: Departures are staggered from their origins so that they all reach the ocean at the same time. That is done because the limiting factor to the overall size of the event is capacity of oceanic ATC. So by having everyone hit oceanic airspace at once, we minimize the number of controller hours needed. And since controller hours are fixed, the result is that we get the highest possible number of slots that controller staffing can support. With that said, Seattle-Tacoma Intl. Airport is obviously the furthest away so they start the earliest, with the first slot Seattle-Tacoma Intl. Airport – Düsseldorf Airport at 1050 UTC (which is 3:50 AM Seattle time). The controllers were eager to participate, so they’re waking up early to make it happen!
Muhammad Azka took part in Microsoft Flight Simulator using the PMDG 737-BBJ variant.Azka flew Toronto to Heathrow, saying ‘the ATC was amazing all the way’. He also livestreamed the event on his YouTube channel, 380Film.
You can watch Azka’s full flight on his YouTube channel here
Q: How many aircraft flew in CTP westbound back in April?
A: There were 1388 slots available, of which 1313 were booked. 1045 sim-pilots with slots flew at least partially, with 810 flying the entire route. 136 additional non-event flights departed with proper ECFMP/DCC coordination and releases.
Q: Is there a reason why the eastbound event has fewer slots on offer than the westbound event?
A: Basically, because there are three hours of departures rather than five. It would have been approximately 850 slots if we did 3/5ths of the traffic, but we were able to push it over a 1000 with a few tricks and cheats. For example, we’re pushing more traffic per hour through Gander/Shanwick than at any previous event (about 45% more than 2022 westbound!). This was partially offset by New York Oceanic being absent and Reykjavik taking on about a third of their normal volume due to staffing concerns. But the net result was still a higher hourly throughput, as Gander/Shanwick always has the lion’s share of the traffic. We also added São Paulo and Johannesburg this time, who are able to open up more slots to the event without adding to the workload of any other oceanic facility (Reykjavik, Gander, Shanwick, New York, Santa Maria, or Piarco). That adds another 127 slots.
Q: How do you view the future of CTP? Is it headed in any particular direction? How is it going to evolve to meet additional demand for slots from new simmers on MSFS?
A: CTP has a long history as the largest event on VATSIM, but it cannot expand indefinitely. Our priority is to shape the event so it can provide as many slots as our ATC system can accommodate. We want to continue exploring options to make the event more enjoyable for controllers and pilots alike.
Erik provided me with these charts that show the observed throughput of traffic from network data taken on the day of CTP 2022 Eastbound . The blue line shows the rate at which traffic is landing/departing (as appropriate) in aircraft per hour, but measured in a rolling 30 minute period to show more detail than just hour-by-hour.
The orange line shows the highest throughput which has been maintained continuously for at least 45 minutes. And the horizontal white line shows the airport’s ‘assessed capacity’, meaning the level at which delays begin to stack up and the airport can’t cope. Erik remarked “Obviously, we try to be close to the line (so it’s busy), but not over it, so things are smooth for pilots and less complex for controllers”.
Erik also wished me to thank the team at statsim.net, who have provided a lot of the data that made this article possible!
This video from reddit user Snaxist shows a timelapse of traffic from the event crossing the Atlantic ocean. In total over 1200 flights were recorded departing event airports on the day of CTP Eastbound 2022.
A Pilot’s Perspective on VATSIM: Cross the Pond
I also spoke to Gregory Adamov, who is the Events Manager at vACC Ukraine. He took part in VATSIM CTP22E as a pilot. This year’s event had special significance to him as Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport was one of the 6 European fields that pilots were able to book.
Gregory told me that he had flown CTP at least once a year for the past 5 years. I asked him what kept bringing him back to this long and challenging flight sim event.
“I love this event for all the experiences which I’ve received and the atmosphere which everyone is creating every year. Even if you’re not an experienced pilot you won’t get bullied for that. The ATC Team can help everyone. From ATC to pilot to planning team, I know that I will always fly with professional ATC services at this event.”
However, Gregory did point out that the event’s enjoyment value is directly correlated to simmers’ preparation and awareness.
“If you don’t pay attention to ATC Instructions you obviously could get penalised for that (you might be asked to join the end of the queue, for example, or a supervisor might kick you). Pilots sometimes make mistakes and prevent ATC doing their job, either consciously or just because they’re inexperienced. For example, a lack of English speaking skills sometimes gets in the way.”
Brody Baker took part in VATSIM’s CTP22E event on P3D.Brody departed from Boston for Amsterdam using the PMDG 777-300ER.Brody told me that the oceanic portion of the flight was a little chaotic, but all good fun!
Brody also recorded his landing into Amsterdam, with full ATC audio, which you can view here
Despite the intimidating nature of spending 11+ hours on VATSIM, Gregory told me the event is still welcoming to newcomers – as long as they do their homework beforehand.
“If you’re going to fly CTP for the first time, I would really recommend reading all of the briefings carefully (Departure Airport, Oceanic, Arrival Airport). Seriously. It contains all the information which will help you to enjoy the event. Most pilots think that the briefing doc is just a formality, something to have lying around. They might think ‘why should I bother reading this? Boring.’ but it’s very important to understand the briefing.“
“And, obviously, pay attention to all ATC instructions. If you don’t understand something – you can ask ATC for help!”
Michael Hall flew the event and said “I didn’t feel comfortable in the MSFS 747 so I decided I would use the PMDG 737 and have an aerial refuel. The ATC was great, highlight of the day being the approach into Amsterdam. It was my first time doing it and I’m excited for the next time!”
Lastly, I asked Gregory about the significance of vACC Ukraine having a role to play in the event as a destination airport.
“This year has been great for our vACC and undoubtedly, this event was very important for us. We have shown the whole community we are doing everything that we can to keep our virtual Ukrainian skies alive and safe for all who want to visit us during those difficult times – for instance, sometimes we provide ATC from the shelters and during air raid alarms”
Thanks to Gregory and the whole staff team at vACC Ukraine for their help with this article!
VATSIM’s Cross the Pond event will be heading westbound again in 2023, and FSElite looks forward to seeing you all back in the skies for another marathon stint in the cockpit.
You can find more information from VATSIM’s website here.