History

In the beginning...

Imagine yourself back in the summer of 1996. Flight Simulator 5.1 was the hot ticket from Microsoft at the time. It was, of course, not the only respectable simulator at that time, but it was to be the first that underwent a significant enhancement, which took flight simulation to a whole new level. Up until this point, the best that anyone could expect with regard to air traffic control (ATC) were the abilities found in the adventures. ATP by subLOGIC (Bruce Artwick?s old company), with enhancements by Simon Hradecky (3DAGS), also had some ATC capabilities. Sometimes they worked reasonably, sometimes they did not?but it was the best that was around.

There had traditionally been products that focused on flight simulation or ATC. However, no product fully integrated the two. Up until this point, at least for the PC market, there was only one product that made an attempt at the concept of integrating simulators with ATC. Tracon, a product by Wesson International, was able to be inter-connected with Flight Simulator 5. However, this was a one-to-one connection and thus very limited.

Jason Grooms, a California resident, student pilot with about 30 hours, and professional programmer/analyst, was surfing the internet and found a FS5 add on named Fly by Wire which allowed users to connect and fly with each other much like Flight Simulator 98?s (FS98) multi-player does now. After a while, the regular users of Fly by Wire got together and started having regular fly-ins which, in turn, led to online ATC with someone logged into the server and slewing to a tower position. From there, the "tower" coordinated the planes the best they could. Naturally, everyone at the time was saying: "We wish we had radar."

From these sessions, Eagles ATC, an online flying group, was organized in late 1996. Jason joined as the "Mission Commander", organizing fly-ins and later becoming the president. It was during this period that he started with a hack/hobby called Pro-Controller and Squawkbox.

Jason created the initial designs of Pro-Controller and Squawkbox. Pro-Controller was effectively a simple radar screen and Squawkbox was the program that ran alongside FSW95. To get these two devices talking with each other, Jason created a simple server. The server was the key to enabling the concept to finally evolve from a one-to-one (1 ATC and 1 plane) environment to a many-to-many environment.

Since there was no method for accessing flight simulator variables up until this point, Jason came up with a unique method for capturing the aircraft position information in Squawkbox. He ingeniously programmed the ability to read video memory to determine aircraft position (Jason refers to this as a "screen scraper".) Back then, as with FS98, one could toggle the latitude/longitude/altitude information by using Control Z. Squawkbox decoded the screen information and sent the position updates to the server, which relayed them to Pro-Controller. Jason considers the attempts to get aircraft data as the greatest challenge that he has had to overcome.

The virtual ATC system was born. Jason and fellow IRC individuals such as Frank Simmons, Karl Huber, Todd Cox, and Mike Vidal continued testing the new concept. At that time, the response from the group was but a humble "Gee, this is neat." In early 1997, Jason sent a posting to the IUP Flight-Sim list describing what he had done. At the time, it was deemed a quick hack/hobby. The response was great and he continued development by enhancing the product as much as he could.

The Team Expands

After Jason had been working on this project for several months (around the second quarter of 1997), Joe Jurecka, who also missed the ATC aspect of flight simulation started a separate and independent quest for the same type of system. Joe, a Texan, a private pilot who received his certificate on the first day of flyable weather after his eighteenth birthday, was not aware of Jason?s efforts at the time. Joe?s background was not directly related to programming as he was and still is a GSM cellular network planning and engineer. Joe also attempted to get something started with integrating ATC and Flight Simulator for Windows 95 (FSW95). He had created a rough protocol specification and started recruiting other individuals to help out and distribute the workload. A couple weeks after he started, Jason contacted Joe stating that he had been working on the same thing. It was at this time that Joe began working with Jason testing on his existing Pro-Controller and Squawkbox clients. Joe advised the people that had started to recruit that he was going to work with Jason and help out with the testing.

Right around the time that the two met, an important breakthrough with FSW95 was occurring separately. Adam Szofran had created a dynamic link library (.dll) which loaded itself into FSW95 and allowed access to most every variable in FSW95. This dll was, and is still known as, FS6IPC. After learning of this product, Joe informed Jason about it thus opening the way for expanded possibilities for FSW95. Keep in mind that there were no SDKs at this time and certainly no assistance from Microsoft.

Testing continued into the summer months of 1997 and slow progress was being made. Up until this point, Jason was writing all the software. During the summer, Jason realized that if the program was going to improve at a reasonable rate, other members would have to be involved. Since Joe had put some effort into a similar direction, he asked Joe if he would be interested in taking ownership of the Squawkbox product. Joe had previously only had a little programming experience back in college. However, what Joe lacked in experience, he had several times over in enthusiasm. Jason had written everything in Delphi up until this point, including a re-write of FS6IPC. Joe felt most comfortable with C++. Joe proceeded to re-write Squawkbox in its entirety and released his first version in September of 1997. It was known as Squawkbox 1.5.

Jason?s version of Squawkbox (as well as Joe?s first version) was a separate window from flight simulator. That is, one had to switch windows, losing all control over FSW95, to type messages to the controller. One of Joe?s first enhancements was to place Squawkbox into FSW95 itself to overcome this problem. Weeks of trial and error, along with Joe?s modest programming background, finally brought the windows together as one. The next significant hurdle Joe had to overcome was to have the ability of playing a sound when a message came through. As pilots were often busy flying the plane, there had to be some method of alerting the pilot that a message had come in. DirectX had to be conquered, specifically the aspects of DirectSound. This would allow a .wav file to be played while being mixed seamlessly with the sounds of FSW95.

Around the end of the summer of 1997, another individual caught wind of the work that Jason had done. Marty Bochane, who runs a small IT business in The Netherlands, and does some programming for his customers, offered his services for programming the server. Marty, who has had some soaring from 1994 to 1996, and had the privilege of flying an airline 747-400 simulator (without any problems, he adds), has always liked complex networking challenges. About ten minutes after he saw Pro-Controller and Squawkbox for the first time, he thought about combining the servers to setup a global network. His challenge was and still is to have the network run smooth and have people from all around the world fly around in one large network.

The initial three main developers were united. Marty began working on the FSD server (no correspondence with another group known as FSD [Flight Sim Developers]). Marty wrote the server for Unix, an operating system which lends itself very well to networking. He integrated the server with his own database management software known as MDBMS.

The Next Level and Challenges

Throughout the fall, Jason, Joe, and Marty collaborated with each other to make the system stable and then take the system to the next level. In September, they were already well into the planning stages of their second-generation product although still working out the issues with their current release. Another individual was starting to show up into the picture as well: Phillip Dale.

Phillip?s background is that of an IT manager for the University of Karlskrona/Ronneby in Sweden and his specialty is Unix and networking. Phillip is also a real-world flyer and is taking lesssons. He flies both gliders and motorgliders. Phillip started diving into the aspects of the server code when SATCO Sweden got started.

There were several key items which the developers wanted to integrate into Pro-Controller, Squawkbox, and the FSD server. Inter-server networking, weather updates based on real-world weather data as you fly, a better user interface on the radar screen, and Joe?s passion, the first ever Flight Management System (FMS) for a PC based flight simulator with ACARS (Aircraft data link for items such as METAR requests by the pilot). Coding and testing continued for many months. Some functionality came easy and others did not.

The design team would often gather on weekends and work on the software, trying to integrate all three components. There were times when each component failed. One notable issue was when the servers were first hooked up. The network was brought up with several servers, but soon after people started flying around, serious issues arose. After about ten minutes of operation, the users were receiving repeat messages. They started seeing text that they had typed in several minutes before. Somehow, packets were being looped around the system, going server to server, until finally, they came out. These types of challenges were commonplace. However, the design team continued their effort without hesitation.

Finally, the release of PC/SB/FSD 2.0 was made generally available on Superbowl Sunday, 1998. It was a hit!

New Organisations

Still, there weren't but a couple of dozen users who even knew about Pro-Controller and Squawkbox. A great number of individuals supported the effort with their time with continued testing and support. People like Randy Whistler, Harvey Stein, Jim Davis, Francois Ronchi, Ray Jones, Lyndon Nerenberg, Stephen Odgaard, John Eisenhour, David Kings, Kim Squires, Don Cranford, Takuji Teramoto, Mike Hayden, Mike Cooper, Kevin Welch, and Jeff Sinsay were often found working with the authors, trying to eliminate bugs and running the servers. Most of these individuals are still very active today! They represent countless hours of dedication in pursuit of a common goal. Realistic air traffic control for the home PC pilot.

Although quite a few users were pilots or controllers, a great many of them were not. There was a significant gap that needed to be filled. It is out of this necessity that SATCO, the Simulated Air Traffic Controller Organization, was formed. SATCO, started by Randy Whistler, provided the vehicle to train people how to be controllers. Ray Jones founded ISPA (International Simulator Pilots Association) and did the same to promote education among pilots. The history of SATCO is easily a story in itself.

There was a need to organize the server operation. John Eisenhour accepted this role and started SATNET. SATNET is effectively a group of servers who operate under the SATCO umbrella. John runs the SATCO prime server, in Galveston Texas, and works closely with Marty and Phillip to try to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.

Development Moves Forward

Popularity continued to increase and subsequent releases of each of the three network elements enhanced the experience. Expanded sector file capabilities in Pro-Controller allowed for highly detailed customization of the radar display. The server?s network capabilities and database integration with web pages were increased. David Kings, who runs the Ozpack server created robot aircraft, unmanned vehicles that flew around sometimes barren Australia, as well as closely worked with the server development team trying to improve that part of the network. Later that year Flight Simulator 98 (FS98) was released and was quickly integrated into the Squawkbox environment.

Marty started working more with a group that regularly held Pro-Controller and Squawkbox sessions in the upper room of a manufacturing facility. The group, which meets regularly for club-flying, especially on weekends, is not the only one of its kind. In fact, there are a number of these club around Europe where flight simulation is taken very seriously. In these many clubs in Europe, Pro-Controller and Squawkbox is very popular. Additionally, there is even a real-world soaring club using the software for radio communication training.

One of Marty?s passions and projects was/is the software design of a home-built 747 cockpit which is being built by his club. As a result Phillip Dale, who had been involved with the server for some time stepped in to fill Marty?s role and has been working on the FSD server ever since. However, Marty is very much a part of the team.

Recent Trends

Toward the end of 1998, competition started showing up with the arrival of a new ATC organization named IVAO. While they have not been as successful in member recruitment as SATCO, they provide an alternate access to the virtual ATC environment using the same Pro-Controller/Squawkbox/FSD Server software. It is the authors intent to remain as neutral as possible with regard to the organization outside the core development team.

Up until November of 1998, controller registration was required, as was the case since the release of 2.0. This, however, was not the case for pilots. Unfortunately, there were individuals who, if no method for accountability is enforced, will act in a non-professional manner. Mostly these were kids, not yet mature enough to handle the vision of ATC, but a few "grumpy old men" took their shots as well. With the release of Squawkbox 2.1, pilot registration was enacted and several issues, which derive themselves from the users being from all walks of life and attitudes were eliminated. Finally, if a user acted in a manner that was detrimental to the enjoyment by the users, they could be removed permanently. This, naturally, being a last resort after negotiations fail, but nonetheless, available to the server operators and supervisors.

At this same time, multi-player visuals were incorporated. Squawkbox was integrated with Microsoft?s DirectPlay abilities of FS98 to bring the other aircraft, which are flying around, into view. Finally, while operating under a virtual radar environment, one could see other people flying around who were enjoying the system as well. A pilot could see who it was that was in next in sequence, waiting for departure.

In December 1998, yet another addition came to Squawkbox. In 2.1.1, an EHSI (Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator) was released just in time for Christmas. This combined the FMS with a moving map display. It was the first cut at yet more additions for the simulator pilot to enjoy.

Concluding Thoughts

Today we are, once again, at the point of taking the virtual ATC environment to the next level. Issues, such as seeing the incorrect aircraft in multi-player, are being tackled. Improvements to allow smoother multi-player action are being developed while server modifications are being made to reduce lag (period of server hangs). Enhancements to weather, especially with regard to upper level winds (which are calculated based on global wind models today) are being worked on. An unreleased version, which works with MS Combat Flight Simulator, is still under development. Real voice integration is being pursued. Additional partners, such as Enrico Schiratti are being brought onto the development team. There is even a group working on integrating other simulators, such as PS1 (747) into the virtual ATC environment. You?ll see more and more new names working with us who are quietly helping the experience continue to improve.

It is truly an exciting time in flight simulation. The technology is getting to where it can really start to support what we need it to do to support flight and ATC simulation in a virtual world. People, who might not have had a chance of participating, in real world aviation, are able to do so. Great enjoyment of a truly challenging hobby is being realized. However, none of this could have reached the state at which it has without the help of those mentioned herein and many many others who have contributed to the effort. At the time of the writing of this article (early April), there are close to 10,000 registered users on the system. It is truly amazing to see the enthusiasm and support of so many individuals with a common hobby. Back when we started, we were doing well to see 5 or 10 people online at once. Today, we see over 250 regularly. It took teamwork to achieve everything up to this point.

Teamwork will continue to allow this dream to come to virtual-reality.

Compiled By: Joe Jurecka, Author of Squawkbox with contribution from :
Jason Grooms, Pro-Controller
Marty Bochane, FSD Server
Phillip Dale, FSD Server

Thanks to two of the original VATPAC Founders Terry Scanlan and David Kings, we have the following detailing the history and evolution of VATPACspecifically.

From Terry Scanlan:

June 1998

There was no Division existing in the Pacific region and a few of us were doing our own thing in Australia and New Zealand under the SATCO banner. Mark Richards and the late Brett Collings were running a regular Sunday night event in New Zealand and would spend many of these nights logged on as controllers to attract the odd pilot that would turn up to fly in NZ. 

At the same time David Kings and myself were doing a similar thing in Australia with David setting up the OZPack Server and as traffic was so light David created the famous ‘robots’ that lit up our Pro Controller screens and that in itself started to attract the traffic.

In June of 1998, Randy Whistler (the head of SATCO) and Don Crawford approached Mark and Brett to form a Pacific division of SATCO. There had been other half-hearted attempts to get this up but they never followed through. Mark and Brett knew of what was happening in Australia with myself and David Kings and they approached us to join with them to form SATPAC, the Pacific Division of SATCO.

Randy Whistler appointed Mark Richards as Director of SATPAC and from there the original structure of SATPAC evolved with the following appointments:-

SATPAC1 Director – Mark Richards

SATPAC2 Director- David kings- Technical Director

SATPAC3 Director– Terry Scanlan – Operations

SATPAC4 Director – Brett Collins – Training

SATPAC5 Director – Will Tidmarsh – Personnel

In October 1998 Roland Collins was invited to join the SATPAC board as

SATPAC6 Director – Roland Collins – Air Space operations and management. 

SATPAC grew over the following years and when SATCO folded in 2000 and VATSIM emerged, SATPAC changed its name to VATPAC. This was no easy task as there was a lot of resistance to the name change. It came down to a vote at the board meeting with the then Division Director (me) casting the final vote that changed our name to VATPAC.

From David Kings:

I remember running up the first version of pro controller (v1) and the windows based server.

I ran an AU server on NT4 (hosted at home), and in those days, the servers weren’t networked - it was standalone. I recall seeing NZ pilots login and use the server during late afternoon AU hours, and then later in the evening the AU pilots came on.  I think I only had enough bandwidth for a max of about 9 or 10 pilots.

Next stage was to move the code to Linux with all the servers connected together. I remember staying up until 430am doing the first large volume user test on the fledgling network and the weird bug that made the text sent hours before (no voice back then) reappear in the network hours later, even when the sender had since gone offline.

The robots are a great memory, and with the later editions, were progressing very nicely. In many ways we were so ahead of the pack, only now with PilotEdge offering online ATC and adding robots when real pilot traffic gets a bit light on.