“Vancouver Approach, ACA27MD heavy, mayday mayday mayday! We have lost one engine, request emergency landing!”
“ACA27MD heavy, Vancouver Approach, copied your mayday, expect ILS runway 08L, I’ll have vectors for you in a minute.”
“Roger that, Approach, we’ve lost our second engine, we’re losing control of the aircraft!”
“Copy, ACA27MD, if have some time, can I get your souls on board and fuel?”
“Negative, no time, we try to keep the aircraft level, we’ve lost hydraulics too!”
“Copy, ACA27MD, turn left heading 180 and you’re a bit steep on the descent!”
“Yeah, Approach, we know! Request emergency vehicles standing by!”
“ACA27MD, roger, be advised, there’s a new procedure in place. Due to an overload of requests, we’re now offering a chance in our lottery. If you win, an emergency vehicles slot will be booked for you. If you lose, you’ll get priority over the others next time for sure. Please advise.”
My co-pilot and I look helplessly transfixed at each other while our plane is racing down at 489 knots and rising fast towards Whistler Mountain and then I wake up, sweating, shouting, dazed, heavily panting and slowly realizing it was just a bad dream.
From the moment a passionate pilot joins VATSIM, they very quickly learn some new certainties in their new life: “Aviate, navigate, communicate”, ATC instructions take precedence over any other command when online, including your partner’s, and you don’t actually have to be called “Roger” to be a controller. Oh, and two dates have become your new religious high days: Cross the Pond event dates. The two sets of days that all VATSIM pilots join together to fly their biggest event across the Atlantic ocean.
In just one day, it’s happening all over again: hundreds of VATSIM pilots will ‘Cross the Pond’ Eastbound in an impressive big swarm, following on after the Westbound edition last April. Although for the first time in the eventful history of VATSIM, this edition will leave quite an annoyingly bitter aftertaste.
Depending on how long you’ve been around, you’ll have seen ‘CTP’, as we seasoned pilots call it, expand with every edition, gradually causing more and more pilots to shuffle across the Atlantic and adapt to a huge influx of traffic. The event’s popularity truly exploded during the Westbound event this year when lock-downs around the world meant many virtual pilots and ATC were online taking part in the exciting event.
The popularity of the Westbound event earlier this year was only going to increase people’s apprehension for future events. During April’s event, Microsoft Flight Simulator wasn’t even available, and so it’s only natural that the event would only get more popular. It’s no secret that Cross the Pond is always a much-anticipated event for VATSIM to the point where people are waiting to book their slot. Pilots familiar will know you need to start intensively practising your aim for the entry fields in the booking form weeks before booking time, to be able to select them faster than the speed of light to safeguard your slot. I’m also aware of stories where people informed that ISP to ensure connectivity was ensured to ensure precious seconds wouldn’t be lost to prevent a successful booking. Simply put, the popularity of the event could be put down to it being a victim of its own success.
You don’t need to be a genius to know that with the increasing popularity something needed to change to ensure the event could retain the same appreciation and level of “fun” for both pilots and ATC. The event’s survival is built on a reputation for being organised and able to handle that much traffic in an extended period of time. If nothing changes, that reputation will tarnish and could wipe out the magic of sitting at your PC for 8 hours straight whilst you fly over the virtual ocean.
It probably wouldn’t be an easy fix. Sure, you had the oversaturation of participants to the event, which made it harder and harder to manage. But there was also the oceanic crossing, the core which makes the event to what it is, which was so chaotic, that pilots, and even controllers, dropped out. This left pilots flying unattended over the North-Atlantic. Pilots also complained the same big and well-known airports were automatically chosen every time, the oceanic crossing wasn’t up to real-life standards (position reports instead of CPDLC reporting), and inexperienced pilots caused issues for those looking to have a professional approach to the event.
Confident the CTP event team listened to feedback from the past, and learned from experiences, the team worked diligently to prepare for the end of year Eastbound crossing. As the event approached, people started to get anxious and have high hopes to see what Cross The Pond Eastbound 2020 would bring. Then came the announcement from VATSIM about some of the drastic changes that would happen this time:
- 700 slots will be randomly allocated by some algorithm. Sorry, no more.
- Please don’t fly oceanic without a slot that day.
- ADS-B eliminates the use for position reports in oceanic airspace.
In my view, there were two directions VATSIM could have taken to handle some of the pain points of the event of this size. The first one, like most successful recurring events do every few editions, is to examine the event with fresh perspectives and see what can be optimized, maybe even create something refreshing and new, learning from the limitations and pain points of the previous one. Maybe it would be desirable to keep Cross The Pond in a slimmed-down form, but more frequently throughout the year creating a new common event. The second option was to just reduce the number of participants, so creating some breathing space, call it separation, again. Unfortunately, the choice fell on the latter option. Of course, this is where the disappointment for myself and many lie.
So let me tell you about this pilot, who joined VATSIM in October 2015, who’s flying about 1,250 hours online in an average year, who has flown and enjoyed 8 CTP’s, and who’s active in all kinds of events. Do you know what happened to him recently? He got a message from VATSIM that he could enter the Cross The Pond Lottery, and if he’d be lucky, he would get a slot for his favourite event.
Fun fact: he didn’t get some kind of notification, he was supposed to go and check for himself on the website, letting him simmer a little while to decide if he just didn’t get a slot or if there was something wrong with the website. Turned out he wasn’t one of the 700 happy few, just like 7 other pilots he flies with regularly.
“No worries,” VATSIM said, “you’ll get Priority in the next lottery, we promise!”Still not a guarantee of a slot next time, but an increased chance. VATSIM continued, “Oh, just one more thing, we know we can’t force you, so we won’t try, but could you pretty please with a cherry on top stay away from the ocean that day? We’re having a thing up there with a bunch of happy few, you see, and you wouldn’t want to make them have a bad experience, would you? Would you?? Thank you, and please, come again! Err… just not that day.”
I don’t know about you, but I felt for the guy. He was pretty disappointed about what happened, and actually felt offended to some extent in the way the issues of last time had been handled. Participating again next time? Maybe too early to tell. Many pilots like him will need time to take that in first.
And that’s a shame, because I also know quite a few people on the Cross The Pond team, and know they do their utmost to make this event work, which translates in hours and hours of sturdy work, even up to the last hours to get all the routes right. Last year even, there was a mistake on the booking website, and they even made a route for my flight only, which I thought was remarkable. The routings, slots, coordination, airports, enroute ATC and not the least the oceanic part, there’s a great team behind all that. Just look at the oceanic part, where they’re still working overtime to get everything ready for the big day. A pity so many of us won’t be around to use it as a pioneer in a new oceanic chapter.
Let’s just hope they won’t have slots to spare next time when some of the disappointed people from now have lost interest in being a ‘happy few’ for a day, and that ex-few will have to believe they will get priority again next time. And about that, if more than 1,400 pilots wanted a slot this time, and there are 700 slots, how would you give more than 700 pilots priority on only 700 slots?
For now, I can’t make heads or tails of it. I guess this weekend I’ll have plenty of time whilst I avoid one of the largest bodies of water in the world.
But enough about me, how about you? You all know my thoughts on this matter now, but how do you feel about this? What do you think VATSIM could do to include as many of their pilots as possible? Do you like the odds when playing this lottery, or do you prefer another way?
For those that did get a slot, or if you are just curious about the Cross The Pond event, visit the FSElite Guide to VATSIM Cross The Pond Eastbound 2020 and enjoy the event. Just don’t forget, aviate, navigate and communicate!
All bets are placed, everyone is either in, or out, rien ne va plus!
For now, set squawk 2000 and monitor Unicom, 122.8.