How to Use ATC in Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane: 2024 Guide

Learn how to fly with air traffic control with our comprehensive guide - covering the best online networks and add-ons.
Mike Catalfamo
Mike Catalfamo

FAA CFI, CFII, ATP

Train with Me

Ready to take your flight simulator’s realism to the next level? Using Air Traffic Control (ATC) is the perfect way to do that.

This comprehensive guide will cover the best options for ATC add-ons and services in your flight simulator (whether you use MSFS, X-Plane, or Prepar3D).

Let’s get started!

Why use ATC in your sim?

In real life, ATC is a critical part of keeping the skies safe, orderly, and efficient. But why is it also a must-have part of your flight sim experience?

It’s Realistic

Comparison of online ATC traffic with real life traffic from flightaware
VATSIM is a popular online Air Traffic Control network

In reality, the skies are never empty. Thousands of aircraft crisscross the globe daily in an impressive dance, all orchestrated by ATC.

By incorporating ATC into your simulator, you get to be a part of that.

It will make your flights more dynamic and realistic — full of new learning experiences.

It’s Interactive

Without any ATC, your flight simulator experience might feel relatively dull and isolating. ATC will transform this solitary experience into something dynamic and interactive.

In fact, results from the 2023 Navigraph Community Survey show that 47.9% of the simmers surveyed have flown online in the past 12 months.

Data from navigraph survey showing how many people use online ATC.

You won’t feel alone anymore!

It’s Rewarding

Communicating with ATC can be both exhilarating and rewarding.

Successfully navigating through busy airspace, responding to instructions with proper, concise verbiage (called “phraseology” in the ATC world), and precisely adhering to instructions adds layers of complexity and satisfaction to your flight experience.

Don’t be surprised if you even find it a bit addictive!

It Can Save You Money

Many student pilots who use sims will tell you how practicing ATC at home was a game-changer in their training. It reduces the anxiety normally associated with real-world ATC interactions.

One of our online training students put it this way:

Flying with VR in MSFS using VATSIM for controlling changed my flightsim world. As a perpetual private pilot in training, this was the most realistic experience next to the real thing. The only thing missing was the loud rumble and vibration of the engine, sensory orientation and the smell of aviation fuel.

Howard Rhett, Student Pilot

In my own flight training journey, I found immense value in mastering ATC communications on the ground. Even during my first couple of lessons, I was able to key the mic at a busy Class C airport with relative ease.

That meant I could focus less on what to say to the controller, and more on paying attention to my instructor (who was probably telling me to push more right rudder!).

If you progress more quickly because of this and can meet the required standards in less time, it will save you money.

This applies both to student pilots going for their private pilot certificate (VFR flying), as well as those training for the instrument rating (IFR). The communication skills, situational awareness, and procedural knowledge gained from interacting with simulated ATC will greatly benefit your real-world flying lessons.

Simply put, talking to ATC is one of the top priorities for any student to practice in their home sim.

Human vs. Automated

When exploring ATC options for flight simulators like MSFS and X-Plane, you’ll find two main categories: (1) networks with real, live human controllers and (2) automated systems.

Each will cater to different preferences and simulation objectives.

Online Networks (Human Controllers)

Services offering human-operated ATC (such as PilotEdge, VATSIM, and IVAO) immerse you in a live, interactive environment. These platforms connect you with real people acting as controllers, offering a level of realism and unpredictability that automated systems can’t match.

Engaging with these services typically involves using a microphone for communications. A standard computer headset will do – no aviation headset is required.

Just like in real life, you’ll encounter a variety of unexpected scenarios and instructions. This diversity helps sharpen your adaptability and decision-making skills.

These human-operated ATC services are invaluable for both student pilots seeking real-world training, rated pilots looking to maintain proficiency, and sim enthusiasts wanting maximum realism.

Beyond the technical benefits, these services often bring a sense of community to your sim experience. They provide a platform where you can connect with fellow aviation enthusiasts, controllers, and pilots from around the world.

Automated

If you’re completely unfamiliar with ATC and want an introduction that doesn’t involve you having to talk with real humans, you might consider an automated option.

  • Built-in Sim ATC: Most flight simulators (including X-Plane and MSFS) come with their own default ATC systems. Interaction is primarily through keyboard and mouse commands which allow you to select various communication options.
  • Add-On Software: There are numerous third-party ATC software options available. These enhance the default experience with more realistic procedures and voice interactions. Some developers are even working on AI-driven ATCs, offering more dynamic and responsive communication.

Online ATC Networks

These networks utilize either paid or volunteer controllers to provide ATC services across various flight simulators, including X-Plane, Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), and Prepar3D (P3D).

Operating in a multiplayer environment, you’ll interact with real live people, not just simulations. This is the ultimate choice for those who are serious about their flight simulation experience and ready to embrace maximum realism.

Engaging with these networks means you’re not only hearing but also responding to actual human controllers and pilots, offering an unparalleled level of authenticity and immersion.

Let’s explore your options.

PilotEdge

Example of a student taking a remote flying lesson while flying on the PilotEdge network

PilotEdge delivers a professional-grade ATC experience, renowned for its realism and strict adherence to real-world aviation procedures.

It’s operational during specific hours, with live, human controllers providing ATC services.

This platform is particularly valuable for serious training and is widely used by student pilots, flight schools, and seasoned aviators in X-Plane, MSFS, and P3D.

Adding to its credentials, some FAA-certified simulators use PilotEdge, a testament to its high-quality service and reliability. The network primarily covers the Western United States, providing guaranteed ATC coverage in this area during operational hours.

PilotEdge also offers robust training resources, making it an ideal choice for pilots who are serious about honing their communication and navigation skills in a controlled airspace environment.

As of January 2024, the cost of PilotEdge starts at $19.95/month and they also offer a free trial.

VATSIM

VATSIM's pilot client.

The Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM) is a popular choice for sim pilots seeking a realistic and community-driven ATC experience.

VATSIM connects you with volunteer controllers and other pilots in real time. The platform is known for its vibrant community and is compatible with X-Plane, MSFS, and P3D.

VATSIM’s ATC services are provided by volunteer controllers, which means the quality of service can vary more than a paid option like PilotEdge. These volunteers come from all over the world, contributing to the network’s extensive worldwide coverage. This global reach allows you to experience a wide range of airspaces and procedures.

The network is particularly well-suited for pilots interested in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and airliner operations.

One of the best parts of VATSIM? It’s completely free.

IVAO

IVAO's pilot client.

The International Virtual Aviation Organization (IVAO) offers a similar experience to VATSIM.

IVAO has its own client software, which may differ from VATSIM’s in terms of functionality and user experience.

IVAO, while also globally focused, might have stronger activity in regions that are less represented on VATSIM. The network has a significant presence in parts of Europe and some areas in Asia and South America.

What You’ll Need to Get Started

To participate in these networks, you’ll need:

  • A compatible flight simulator (such as X-Plane, MSFS, or P3D)
  • A stable internet connection
  • A headset with a microphone for clear voice communication (note: VATSIM/IVAO also allow you to communicate by text)
  • The respective client software for the network (e.g., VATSIM’s vPilot, IVAO’s IvAp, or PilotEdge’s software)

Automated ATC (For Any Sim)

Pilot2ATC

Pilot2ATC is a comprehensive ATC add-on supporting Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), FSX, Prepar3D (P3D), and X-Plane.

It’s designed to cater to both IFR and VFR flights

One of the key features of Pilot2ATC is its 2-way voice communication with speech recognition.

For those who prefer or require a non-voice option, Pilot2ATC also includes a text interface.

Pilot2ATC offers a free 10-day trial.

Automated ATC in Microsoft Flight Simulator

Built-in ATC in MSFS

MSFS built in ATC.

Microsoft Flight Simulator comes with a built-in ATC system that provides basic functionality.

Being directly integrated into the simulation, the interface is easy to use and you can use your keyboard to select the various communications options.

It’s a reasonable starting point for newcomers, offering a way to get familiar with the basics.

However, those pursuing real-world pilot training should quickly transition to an online ATC network, since the phraseology used by the built-in ATC may have various inaccuracies.

FSHud

FSHud is another add-on option for MSFS and Prepar3D, for IFR flights only.

It offers a variety of voices, integration with Navigraph/SimBrief, and details like the ability to simultaneously listen to multiple radios and independently control their volume.

The voices are generated by a technology called Amazon Polly.

ProATC/SR (Speech Recognition)

ProATC/SR is an ATC add-on for IFR flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS), Prepar3D, and FSX.

Its key feature is the use of speech recognition, allowing you to interact via a computer microphone.

It also offers background ATC communications and worldwide coverage.

Automated ATC in X-Plane

Built-in ATC in X-Plane 12

X-Plane built-in ATC.

X-Plane’s newest version (12) continues the tradition of featuring an integrated ATC system, now with various improvements.

It offers capabilities for both IFR and VFR flights.

X-ATC Chatter

X-ATC Chatter is a unique add-on that lets you hear ATC as you fly.

Although it doesn’t let you talk back, it plays real ATC recordings, making your flight simulation feel more like the real thing and creating a lively, authentic atmosphere.

This add-on is a result of a collaboration with LiveATC.net, featuring over 45,000 high-quality ATC audio clips taken from the LiveATC.net archives.

Beyond its integration with Pilot2ATC, X-ATC Chatter also offers a stand-alone player for X-Plane 11 and 12. This versatility makes it an excellent choice for pilots who do not use Pilot2ATC but still seek an immersive ATC experience.

It’s worth noting the clips you hear from X-ATC Chatter will have the audio edited to remove specific location details, making the communications more universally applicable. For example, it might just say “Tower” instead of “Boston Tower.”

They also offer a software demo to try.

Other Options to Consider

In addition to the traditional ATC networks and built-in systems, there are several other interesting options available for enhancing your flight simulation experience.

AI-Driven ATC

BeyondATC is an upcoming ATC simulation system that aims to leverage AI.

As of January 2024, this system is not yet available but promises a dynamic and responsive ATC experience with ultra-realistic voices, VFR/IFR support, Simbrief integration, and more.

BeyondATC is being developed for compatibility with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 and the anticipated 2024 version.

SayIntentions.ai is a similar platform in development (currently with a Beta program available) with support for VFR flights.

LiveATC.net

Liveatc.net screenshots.

LiveATC.net offers a unique way to enhance your flight simulation experience by streaming real-world air traffic control communications to your computer or smartphone.

It lets you listen to live ATC conversations from airports around the world. While it doesn’t provide interactive capabilities within the simulator itself, it can still be a highly educational and immersive tool.

You can simply play the live streams in the background while you fly your sim. This can be done through a phone, tablet, or a browser tab on your computer.

If you want this to be integrated more directly into your simulator, consider the X-ATC Chatter plugin discussed previously.

Uncontrolled Airports

Simulating flights in and out of uncontrolled airports presents a different kind of challenge.

In these scenarios, you need to understand non-towered airport operations, self-announce your position and intentions, and be vigilant of other traffic.

While this isn’t a focus of most online networks or apps, you can certainly practice tuning the correct frequencies and making the announcements to yourself.

Getting Involved as a Controller

For those interested in experiencing the other side of the radio, becoming a virtual ATC controller is an option. Networks like VATSIM, IVAO, and PilotEdge offer training for individuals to become virtual air traffic controllers.

This will provide you with an understanding of ATC procedures from the other side of the radar, which benefits your skills as a pilot.

Which Option Is Best for You?

Choosing the right ATC option for your flight simulation experience can be overwhelming. To simplify the process, consider each of these factors:

1. Assess Your Comfort Level

  • If you have mic fright: Start by listening to ATC passively via websites like LiveATC.net. You’ll be surprised at how much you can pick up by immersion. You can also consider beginning with an automated ATC plugin to ease yourself into the lingo. One big advantage is that you can pause as you fly, giving yourself time to think. This is frowned upon when using online networks like VATSIM because it affects the traffic flow.
  • If you’re comfortable speaking or are a real-world student pilot: Engage with live ATC networks like VATSIM, IVAO, or PilotEdge as soon as possible. Especially if you’re a real-world student, this is important to avoid developing bad habits from automated systems, which might not accurately simulate important details in your country or airspace type.

2. Evaluate Your Flying Proficiency

  • If you’re a beginner: Stick with automated systems or single-player ATC until you’re comfortable with basic flight operations.
  • If you’re proficient in basic flying skills: Consider live networks. These platforms offer a realistic environment that can further develop your skills.

3. Consider Your Flying Type

Airliners sitting at gate
  • For VFR flying: PilotEdge, given its orientation towards real-world pilot training, is likely the best choice. Automated systems tend to perform worse at the intricacies of VFR flying, where procedures depend on airspace type (class B, C, D, etc.).
  • For IFR or Airliner operations: VATSIM and IVAO offer especially vibrant communities for airliner/IFR simulations, with a wider variety of routes and aircraft types.

4. Local Procedures and Regulations

If you’re a real-world pilot, try to choose a network or system that offers ATC coverage tailored to your region.

While there are many universal procedures in aviation, there can be differences from country to country, and you can’t assume that procedures in the UK are the same as in the US.

Also, consider that PilotEdge only offers coverage in the western United States. If you’re learning to fly on the East Coast and want the possibility of practicing at your specific airport, consider using VATSIM to do that.

That having been said, this shouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor. For example, the principles that you’ll learn at one class D airport in the US (like KBED near Boston) will apply very well to other class D airports (like KSBP in California).

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that you will find ATC coverage on VATSIM during the times of day when you want to fly, which can be frustrating. It would be far better to practice consistently at a different airport (such as one with PilotEdge coverage) than not at all.

5. Time of Day

If you’re considering PilotEdge, be aware that their network only operates during certain hours of the day (8am – 11pm Pacific as of January 2024). If you’re never available to fly during those times, you will need to consider a different network.

On the other hand, volunteer-based online ATC networks like VATSIM and IVAO tend to have the most active controller staffing during non-work hours (evenings and weekends) in the time zone where you want to fly.

6. Community and Events

If community involvement is important to you, consider networks like VATSIM and IVAO, which have vibrant communities with frequent events.

For example, here are some upcoming events on VATSIM and IVAO.

Making the Choice

Your ideal ATC option depends on your personal goals, comfort level, and the aspects of flying you wish to focus on. Beginners might prefer the simplicity of automated ATC systems, while more experienced pilots or those seeking realistic training may opt for live networks.

Remember, you can always switch or try multiple options as your skills and confidence grow.

Many of the options we discussed offer free trials, so consider trying several out first-hand.

The key is to choose an environment that supports your learning style and that you will enjoy.

Learning to talk to ATC

Learning ATC in a flight simulator is like learning a new language. You’ll need patience, practice, and a willingness to make mistakes.

Here are some tips and resources to help you along this process:

Embrace the Learning Curve

Understanding ATC communications is a skill that takes time to master.

Don’t be afraid to make errors. You’re flying a simulator, not a real airplane; if you make and mistake and recognize it, this is a valuable learning opportunity.

While controllers on online ATC networks do expect that you have the basic knowledge (particularly with being able to fly your aircraft to comply with their instructions), they are experienced working with pilots of various skill levels and will understand that everyone starts somewhere.

Listen. A lot.

Tuning into real-world ATC channels can provide insights into how pilots and controllers interact. You can listen passively as you’re driving to work or doing chores.

You’ll naturally absorb the phraseology and flow over time.

Free Resources From Online Networks

Online networks like PilotEdge and VATSIM offer structured training progressions to help progressively build your skills.

For example, PilotEdge offers a series of CAT ratings (for VFR flights) and I-ratings (for IFR flights).

You can watch an example of one of our remote instructors performing one of PilotEdge’s CAT-rating flights here:

Certain areas on VATSIM may offer their own training programs as well, such as the Boston area’s Wings Over New England.

Working 1-on-1 with an experienced flight instructor can be the quickest way to boost your confidence in talking to ATC.

They can simulate the role of an Air Traffic Controller, and help gently correct your phraseology and procedures in a low-stress environment.

The best part is that they can adapt the instruction to your specific situation and learning goals.

We specialize in this type of instruction at Flight Sim Coach. Check out a few of our ATC-related coaching plans to get started.

Any training we provide can be customized to fit your unique needs as a real-world student or sim enthusiast.

Reading Materials and Books

The FAA publishes many free materials that will help you learn important background information about airspace and other air traffic procedures, such as the AIM and the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

There’s also a popular book called ‘Say Again, Please’ by Bob Gardner, which covers the practical aspects of ATC communications in a conversational style (versus the more theoretical, textbook style of the FAA materials).

Training Apps

The PlaneEnglish Aviation Radio Simulator offers an interactive way to practice radio communications without needing a flight simulator like X-Plane or MSFS. They offer an app called ARSim, as well as a corresponding training manual.

Conclusion

Incorporating Air Traffic Control into your flight simulation experience is one of the best ways to make your sim as realistic as possible.

The path to ATC proficiency is a personal journey. While the ultimate realism lies in online networks with human controllers, you can still gain value by starting with automated or passive systems as you learn the ropes.

Find what works best for your learning style and goals.

If you would like some help getting started, Flight Sim Coach is here to help with:

  • Sim setup (we’ll install, set up, and teach you the basics of using ATC add-ons)
  • One-on-one training (we’ll guide you patiently towards developing the skills and knowledge to talk to ATC with confidence)

We look forward to seeing you in the virtual skies!

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