By Simon Kelsey
Gunnar Lindahl is the new man at the top of online flying network VATSIM. Elected in August to serve a two-year term as President of the network’s Board of Governors, he’ll be responsible for the day-to-day running and long-term development of the organisation, which has more than 76,000 members. He sat down with AVSIM’s Simon Kelsey to talk about his vision for the network.
SK: Welcome to AVSIM! To start at the beginning -- what brought you to VATSIM?
GL: It’s an interesting question. When I was at school, I was in to the simulation genre of games but I’d never really come across flight simulation. One of my school friends introduced me not to Flight Simulator but to VATSIM, so I actually discovered Flight Simulator through VATSIM, which I realise is a bit of a weird way of doing it, and yeah, hooked from there. So he was a pilot and a controller in the UK division, I joined as a pilot, bought myself a copy of FS9, got my head around the world of aviation, or at least the bits that I needed to know, and then basically became an active pilot, shortly followed by going down the controller route. So that’s how I got introduced to it -- very little, or zero aviation knowledge before being introduced to VATSIM, which is probably the other way round to how most people do it.
SK: A lot of people say that VATSIM can be quite bureaucratic -- what do you say to them?
GL: It is! I’ll be the first person to say yes, it is extremely bureaucratic. The way VATSIM was formed, and where it came from -- for example SATCO -- means that VATSIM has always been inherently hierarchical. It’s built on a structure which is based very much on relying on this pyramid of people, for better or for worse, and yes, absolutely accept the observation this it’s bureaucratic.
It can be very difficult consequently to get things done and it can mean that some people can feel, maybe, excluded from the club sometimes and that’s one of the things I’m really keen to do -- to try and break down those barriers and make it more inclusive, and that’s really important to encourage VATSIM to go forward as well.
SK: What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by the network?
VATSIM President Gunnar Lindahl
GL: Plenty of challenges! I think what we face generally is operating within the flight sim community, obviously development of flight simulation platforms generally has slowed down pretty dramatically which I suppose means that the market of flight simulation is not expanding as much as it might have done in the past. Saying that though, developers are still in full gear doing lots of stuff so I think there’s a risk there for VATSIM.
On the other hand, we know that we have a huge untapped section of the flight sim community that don’t fly online at all, so regardless of that risk we still have a big opportunity to try and bring those people on board and get them using the network.
Internally within VATSIM I think one of the biggest risks we have is not being able to get enough controllers through our ranks -- we have a reputation for providing extremely high quality training for our controllers and our controllers are generally known to be very good, but the flip side of that is that we sometimes can’t get people trained quickly enough. What needs to be acknowledged is that VATSIM is a hobby and, you know, some people don’t have the time or commitment to spend in some cases literally years training to become a certain level of controller and I think that needs to be worked on, and that’s certainly a long term thing that we need to work out.
So generally I think the big risk is the flight sim community as a whole and how we maximise our exposure to that and internally the slowness of controller progression is a big problem. Ultimately people don’t want to fly in empty skies and one of the huge pull factors for VATSIM is the fact that you get air traffic control so I think that’s something we need to work on.
SK: When I started on VATSIM and when VATSIM itself became a concept - at the time there was no AI traffic, there was only very basic ATC software and so on but ultimately whatever you could get out of an online flying network was going to be more than what you could get from software -- even if there was only one other aeroplane on the ground, that was more than nothing! Now that everybody has loads of AI and there’s programs like VoxATC, Radar Contact and so on that can give you ATC any time of the day anywhere in the world -- how does VATSIM deal with that?
GL: You’re absolutely right -- obviously these are things which have materialised over time and certainly they might be an issue. For me personally, I will never be able to replace the human engagement factor that I get from controlling and flying on VATSIM with some sort of AI either guide me around, or me guiding AI planes around a virtual sky. For me it’s all about the human element -- interacting with people, being part of the community, knowing that I’m flying in to Heathrow as part of some wider event with other pilots - you know, we’re holding, it’s busy and that sort of immersive factor of virtual air traffic is what really got me in to VATSIM.
Like I say, when I got in to VATSIM I didn’t have an aviation background so that wasn’t the spark for me -- the spark for me was that online immersive environment. So yeah, I suppose for some maybe it’s sufficient to replace that environment with something you can get off the shelf but for people like me - and I won’t speculate how many mes there are -- that’s certainly no substitute.
SK: Anecdotally, people seem to be joining VATSIM on a fairly regular basis, you see plenty of new ID numbers on the forums and so on. At the same time though, looking at the “Who’s Online” data, the average number of people connected at any one time seems to have stayed fairly consistent over the years. Is retention an issue?
GL: Retention is certainly an issue and that is a multi-faceted problem which VATSIM needs to tackle. Last summer I gave a talk at VATUK Live and I put together some statistics which show that in terms of gross hours spent of the network as ATC and pilots, that is pretty much stable - it’s not going up and it’s not going down, which sort of indicates that the number of members we’re losing are being replaced by members who are participating. What it doesn’t take in to account is regional variations or what levels controllers are providing ATC - so it wouldn’t take in to account for example an area controller leaving to be replaced by a ground controller. So talking very generally we are stable in terms of gross activity on the network as a whole.
The problem that VATSIM has seen -- has always seen -- is that generally speaking you lose a number of members at the higher ATC ratings after a time. One reason is that there’s then not really anywhere else you can go in terms of ratings, some people simply drift on to other hobbies, some people have other reasons for leaving and I think that’s one area VATSIM really needs to work on - how to retain those people and how to make them feel as if there’s something else they can get from the network and deliver that expectation for them.
SK: There’s always been a requirement for ATC training -- there’s a lot of talk on various forums about whether there is the right balance between what’s required of controllers and what is or isn’t required of pilots on the network, and how that might impact on the experience of a controlling or flying session. Is that something you feel needs looking at?
GL: VATSIM’s a really interesting environment because lots of people have lots of views -- it’s a huge community and a balance needs to be struck somewhere. My personal view is that we expect too much of our controllers and a little bit too little of our pilots -- that’s my personal view. I can see an improvement if we were to bring the bar down just a tiny bit for our controllers -- make it a little bit easier for them to get through the ratings. That can be done through increased automation of training methods, maybe acknowledging that not every day is an event day on VATSIM so when they’re taking their controller exams and their over the shoulder checks they aren’t being forced to wait for a day when they get loads of traffic to demonstrate that.
On the pilot side -- this is a really tricky one, and one that we actually discussed at the convention in July. How do we tackle the issue of some pilots -- and it is a small minority, but a significant enough minority that it is a bugbear for many controllers and pilots -- how do we tackle pilots who just log on to the network without having a clue?
Some have mentioned compulsory pilot training -- the question is what level of training would be given and how would that training be delivered. We’ve seen from the controller world that that one-to-one training simply wouldn’t work for pilots for obvious reasons.
There is the option of something like a short theory test, and for me - the ideal, what I would like to see going forward is a very short, very basic series of questions which every new member of VATSIM would simply go through when they join the network, which would basically allow them to demonstrate that they have read the most basic documentation about what VATSIM is, how they’re expected to interact with the network and interact with others, and that they know where to go to get help. I think that’s a really crucial thing - so whatever system would be introduced would be all about giving them the tools to learn what they need to do.
For people who say, well why not make the testing more vigorous like we do for controllers, I think what we need to remember is accessibility to the network. You could have a 40 year old guy who’s got a PPL and flies a Piper in real life, and stumbles across VATSIM and he already knows a lot about aviation, and he wants an environment where he can jump in Flight Sim and fly around and maybe become a controller, but he’s faced with all these obstacles and what’s he going to do? Well of course he’s just going to forget about it, and I think that’s a really important thing -- we risk losing valued members who do want to learn if we do put up excessive obstacles, and that’s where the balance needs to be struck.
So going back to what I originally said - we expect a little bit too much of our controllers and a little bit too little of our pilots, and I’m hoping that over time that balance will be rectified, but again that is a long-term process -- it’s always a challenge doing things at a global level on VATSIM, because VATSIM is made up of so many communities spread across the world that do things in very different ways, and we need to build as much consensus as possible across all those different regions. So it’s definitely a challenge, but one certainly that I’m keen to pursue.
SK: You’re obviously just at the start of your term -- at the end of your two years, when you look back on your tenure, what would success look like for you?
GL: For me success is a busier network and a network which is more enjoyable for our members, and I know that’s very generic but actually both of those things can be measured and very generally that is what I’d like to achieve.
I’d like to make the network bigger and busier and I would like to have delivered some stuff which makes it better. One of the huge things that we’re looking at as a board at the moment is the planning of the new voice codec, which has been on the wishlist of the entire community for many years as I’m sure you know.
Reducing delay, increasing voice quality I think is something that VATSIM absolutely 100% needs urgently, and I think that will add a huge element of enjoyment to a lot of people who have been tolerating the voice quality that we’ve had for many years, including myself. So I think that will be a huge boost, and I think it will help in lots of ways -- it will help with our existing members feeling like there’s a new dimension to their VATSIM experience and it will help our new members as well because it will make understanding controllers easier, understanding fellow pilots easier, and I think in general it just be a huge improvement to the network infrastructure as a whole.
We also have to look at how we market ourselves. There’s a huge amount of people in the flight sim community who have Flight Simulator, have lots of kit at home and fly around the world, but in their own isolated world and haven’t yet discovered online flying, and I want us to go out to exhibitions, events and conferences related to flight simulation all around the world and get VATSIM shouting about what VATSIM is and what VATSIM can give to people. So that’s another really big part -- getting more people to join, and improving the ratio of people who join who then go on to connect to the network, because there’s a huge number of people who join the network and never connect, and that’s all part of the induction process -- getting people feeling that they can access the network quickly and without obstacles, I think is really important.
I also think there’s a big opportunity in making VATSIM a little bit less hierarchical and making VATSIM more inclusive to get more a lot more people in to the circle who are generating useful things for VATSIM.
The problem is when you have so many staff members with an extremely specific remit and responsibility is that anyone who isn’t a staff member doesn’t feel as if they are invited to, for example, make a sector file, a useful document or a guide, maybe make a website, things like that. I really want to change the culture so that anyone feels that they are welcome to put up their hand and say, “hey, do you know what, I think we’re missing this, I’ve got the skills to make it, do you want me to make it.” Ultimately VATSIM’s a community-driven organisation and I think it’d be really fantastic if we could get to a place where everyone feels that they could make that contribution. Again, that is a long process to change that culture but that is certainly something I’d really like to achieve.
SK: IVAO has been around for a long time, but more recently we now have other networks such as PilotEdge -- do you think there’s more competition out there and is that a threat to VATSIM?
GL: I think there’s always been an element of competition in the sense that someone comes in to the flight sim community, wants to dabble in a bit of online flying and has a choice to make, whether that’s between VATSIM and IVAO or VATSIM and PilotEdge or whatever. I’m not too concerned about that competition, that competition’s always been there and I think competition is always healthy because it encourages both parties to do the best they can.
My vision and my goal for VATSIM is to make the network the best it can be so that when people do come to that crossroads, they look at what’s on offer and the majority think -- VATSIM’s a good thing, I think I’ll go with that. So not a threat, possibly even an opportunity for us to do things better.
SK: On that note -- is VATSIM doing enough to stay ahead of the crowd in terms of software and development?
GL: That’s a really good question. I think the clients we have both on the pilot and controller side are really quite cutting edge. There’s always room for improvement and there’s always more features that can be added and I’m hopeful some of those features will be prevalent in Swift and future releases of pilot clients.
I think where VATSIM has a lot of room for improvement is the peripheral tools if you want to call it that -- so for example things like Vatspy, now Accu-map and Servinfo historically -- all these tools that we use to see who’s online, that we use to track people’s statistics and so on. I think VATSIM can be a lot better at driving the development of those tools, and driving developers to go in a particular direction that VATSIM as a whole wants them to go to make the experience better.
For a long time we’ve relied on some fantastic developers coming up with ideas for what would be a good tool -- I think VATSIM needs to be more involved in those discussions, to provide ideas and provide ideas and innovation of what those tools should be, because I think in that particular area IVAO probably has the upper hand with their WebEye tool.
SK: Is VATSIM open enough to developers? At the moment to develop anything for VATSIM there’s been a lot of hoops to jump through, things like non-disclosure agreements and so on. Are all these things necessary for a hobby organisation like VATSIM? Could it be more open to developers?
GL: As a non-developer, I will always say that VATSIM is far too closed for developers and always has been. But it’s very easy for me to say, because I’m not a developer, I’m not a technical expert, that is not my forte, so I absolutely rely on and accept the past conventions which have made VATSIM what it is today. Which means that it can be at times difficult to develop programs and clients for VATSIM.
I think there’s an acceptance generally that we can be less restrictive and I know that there are efforts being made to make us less restrictive, make us more open and particularly to allow people access to various parts of our infrastructure that aren’t critical to in terms of security and keeping our intellectual property secure et cetera.
So there is stuff being done but, again, as a non-technical person I’ll always say there’s more that could be done and in an ideal world everything would be open source and everyone would be happy, but obviously that’s very much a different universe to the situation that we’re in at the moment.
SK: Finally, if someone’s reading this and they’re thinking “I’m quite interested in doing some online flying” -- what would you say to them? Why should they join VATSIM?
GL: So if you’re reading this article you’re probably a flight simulation enthusiast more than likely -- or you might not be, in which case well done for finding it! And I guess my question to you is -- you’ve invested all this time and money in to flight simulation, why not take it to the next level to experience the real immersive atmosphere of virtual air traffic, and VATSIM can give you that.
You can be flying your plane in a world with lots of computerised planes flying round as AI, or you can be flying your exact same plane in a world populated by hundreds of others flying their own planes, and not only that, with controllers who are highly trained and will guide you to your destination.
It’s just a huge immersive opportunity and it’s a massive opportunity for people to take their simulation experience to that next level, and for me personally that is a massive boost. I’ve never seen any attraction myself in not flying online -- it’s just such a huge enhancement to the experience as a whole.
So come and join us, join the network, find your local community, introduce yourself to that community, get some pilot training and have a go and see how you like it. And good luck, and welcome if you do join!