Is it real or is it a FlightSafety sim?

 - May 6, 2008, 11:43 AM

When Nick Leontidis, CAE’s executive vice president of civil training and equipment, tossed down the gauntlet, saying, “We’re going after FlightSafety…we believe we have a better product to offer…” (AIN, July, page 64), his competitor wasn’t about to let that claim go unchallenged. FlightSafety’s Dennis Gulasy, vice president and general manager of the Tulsa Simulator Systems Division, rebutted, “We don’t tend to brag about our company very much. We accomplish something, integrate it into our training, get the acceptance of our customers and leave it at that.”

John Slish–FlightSafety’s manager of product information in Tulsa, where the company’s simulators are built–took a more assertive posture. “CAE builds simulators and sells training,” he contended. “FlightSafety sells training and just happens to build simulators to support our core business. We’re quietly working here, day after day, doing some pretty amazing things. But if someone is going to tweak our nose, we’ll tell you our simulators have the highest level of technology around.”

New York La Guardia-based FlightSafety International is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which also owns NetJets. FSI is no lightweight–it trains 75,000 pilots annually in 350 simulators located at 40 different learning centers around the world.

Dan Myers, FlightSafety’s director of marketing for visual simulation systems–the division that develops the visual technology in St. Louis–set the stage: “We make more types of simulator than anyone else, everything from a Beech Baron to the Boeing 777, from level-D helicopters to the Marine and Air Force V-22, from the C-17 to the C-130J, as well as weapons trainers. We bought United Airlines Services, now FlightSafety Services, in Littleton, Colorado, where we also perform turnkey training in KC-135s and C-5s.”

In fact, some 42 percent of all FAA-certified simulators belong to FlightSafety. Gulasy added, “While we appreciate that technology is part of training, we don’t believe in technology for technology’s sake, only to train pilots better. It must serve our purpose in training pilots, such as adding more fidelity for a more real experience. We are the leader in training and intend to remain the leader.”

And FlightSafety does have an impressive record of developing new technologies that enhance the training experience. It was the first training company to simulate real-world patchy fog, as well as the first to make blowing snow a pseudo-reality. Head-up displays were first certified in aircraft after more than 100 landings in a FlightSafety simulator because it was thought too dangerous to attempt initial verification in a real aircraft.

Gulasy said, “When your focus is on providing excellent training you use the technology to support that goal as opposed to the other way around.” But he admitted one of the consequences of failing to toot their own horn often enough, however, is that some FlightSafety employees “started believing what they read in the magazines–that we were falling behind our competition. We’re doing more now to keep employees in the loop. But FlightSafety is in the training business and FlightSafety’s Learning Centers are our primary customers, so we’re always looking at how we can support them. I don’t see CAE as an equipment maker competitor to us.”

Sooner or Later

FlightSafety has grown internally and through acquisition over the past 50 years, much the same way CAE is growing now. FlightSafety just did it all sooner. Al Ueltschi, FlightSafety’s founder and CEO, during World War II was a check pilot in the Army Air Corps, where teaching was often part and parcel of his checkrides. He never left the flight-training business. Ueltschi used an early Citation simulator to win the first training contract with Cessna to handle all initial Citation pilot training.

An entrepreneur, Ueltschi wanted deliveries of simulators to learning centers on his schedule, not someone else’s. To that end, FlightSafety in 1978 purchased Tulsa-based simulator builder Atkins & Merrill, a group that evolved into today’s simulation systems division. FlightSafety simulators have for years used a video display system called virtual image takeoff and landing (Vital), developed in the 1970s by McDonnell Douglas. To guarantee it could continue to offer this product on its own equipment, FlightSafety purchased the company in 1993. FlightSafety even manufactures its own three-tube video projection systems to complete the product line. “We’ll ship 38 simulators in 2002,” Slish noted. “We also have an established relationship with 23 aircraft manufacturers. Our competition does not have our range of products or services or our history.”

Mark Easter, FlightSafety’s Tulsa manager of computer systems, said, “We are not a simulator company, we are a training company. We train pilots. There is no tail wagging the dog here, but it is my job to anticipate technology needs and be ready when the need develops. We’re improving the classroom experience right now by integrating new technologies such as high-fidelity video and audio at each desktop. I can leverage this with the student’s own PC or an Internet delivery system and the product will look exactly the same.”

Visual simulation dates back to the military in the early 1960s, when it took rooms of computers to run displays that didn’t offer a tenth of the realism of current systems that run on a couple of PC-based servers. “No one was even looking at this for commercial training then,” said Myers. “Now, through the use of new technologies and training techniques, our goal is 100-percent transfer of training in every aircraft every time.”

Let’s face it, flight-training simulators really are a smoke and mirror show. The training company’s ongoing job is to create the illusion that a gigantic steel and fiberglass box perched atop three sets of hydraulic lifters really feels like an airplane and that a big-screen projection system out the windows accurately reflects the world we know. They have to look and feel right, an especially tough job since all simulators are essentially fly-by-wire machines. But this task is one FlightSafety has been successfully fine-tuning for a long time.

Computing Power

FlightSafety, like other training organizations that build simulators today, is on the short end of an ever-tightening rope as Moore’s technology law simply refuses to take prisoners. Technology really does continue to double in speed and capacity every 18 months. Easter added, “We’re constantly in a development cycle that never seems to stop and always seems to be speeding up. It will stop, though, when you’ve exceeded the customer’s ability to use the technology. And our business is all about our customers.”

Gulasy recalled, “Years ago, simulators were all custom built. The simulator manufacturers even built the computers. You just couldn’t buy this stuff anywhere. The hydraulic valves we used were originally developed for the space program.” Today, simulators can be run from three or four relatively inexpensive, commercially available PC-based servers and a few video cards. But Moore’s Law has another downside–a simulator can take as much as 18 months to complete. On occasions, some of the original parts used to build the simulator, such as a disk drive, might no longer even be available in the form they were when the project was begun.

The future of civil training and simulation often evolves from the complex requirements set down by the military, since its simulators often call for many moving images to be displayed simultaneously. Burt Sawyer, FlightSafety’s project manager for the C-17, offered an example: “Lots of people are organizing high-level architecture for computer simulation systems today. But making a Boeing system work with a Bell system can be a real challenge. Recently, I saw our new V-22 simulator networked with an older CH-53. Both sets of crews could see each other and were able to interact.”

In an even more demanding project, FlightSafety technicians figured out how to network two C-17 simulators together for some formation flying, except that one simulator was in Charleston, S.C., and the other in Seattle, connected via satellite link. Sawyer said, “Keeping them synced up with the time delays and cycle times was a real challenge. But we did it.” Boeing recently asked FlightSafety to partner with it on the training packages expected should the U.S. Air Force complete the deal for 100 Boeing 767 tankers.

Gulasy said, “The military has become a major buyer of FlightSafety equipment, and we’ve both learned from that relationship. We’ve learned that the military had very formal programs and military specifications that were very often dismissed by commercial suppliers because they focused too much on hardware, solder joints and screw sizes. But I think we’ve worked with them to arrive at the best of both worlds and streamlined those specs to fit our programs. Their program reviews have enabled us to keep better track of our customers. We also learned how to build simulators in a production mode, such as for Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS), which is different from building them one at a time.”

Slish added, “When we started the C-17 project, that was a pretty risky thing for the Air Force to do, but McDonnell Douglas training systems partnered with us because they knew we had the expertise to deliver the training. Those C-17 simulators we built are so easy to upgrade and so reliable that our reputation got out there. The Marines asked Bell who they would pick for their training and they named FlightSafety since it had been working with us forever. But Bell still believed it needed a competition to be fair. FlightSafety won that contest.”

The military also used to like working with its own instructors and its own courseware, in addition to its own simulators. “But it is evolving,” Gulasy said. “Now the military likes purchasing a fully trained student, from whom we provide the curriculum and the instructors.”

Low-level flight simulation, such as in the helicopter world where precise realism of many small objects close to the ground requires lots of computing power, is one area FlightSafety has worked out to a science, as well as an art form. Technology simply had not been up to the job of closely mirroring reality, that is until recently, when FlightSafety researchers developed Vital 9.0, the next step in the long lineage of training simulator software products. Steve Nigus, director of engineering at the visual simulation systems division and developer of the Vital 8 and 9 products, said, “The big problem early on was that the pilot got a distorted view out the copilot’s window. We now use a system called cross collimation, which is the basis for most visual systems today.” The research that brought cross collimation to light stemmed from research by FlightSafety for the U.S. Air Force.

Brains Behind the Simulator

Gulasy said, “Computer systems used to cost $300,000. Now we’re using servers that cost $10,000.” The use of off-the-shelf equipment is a big driver now since it keeps development costs down. The Gateway servers used for FSI’s simulators include a file server, a host with two mirror-image hard drives, an instructor operating station server and a development system spare. Together, this hardware is about three feet high by three feet wide.

The steadily declining cost of technology that allows for more and faster computing in smaller packages also presents a marketing dilemma for FlightSafety. “It would take 100 Vital 4 systems to produce the images we get right now with one Vital 9, but you don’t get 100 times better training because of that,” said Nigus. The ongoing question is how much technology to add to any simulator in that Holy Grail quest for simulator perfection. Myers admitted that it’s a tough call: “There is always the challenge to use leading-edge technologies to be more like the real world.”

The details of the airport environment in Vital 9 are compiled with software designed specifically for that task. But the surrounding environment, including buildings within 20 or 30 mi of the airport, is generated from photos downloaded from various sources including geo-satellites. Nigus said, “The Vital product uses a patented process called universal texture to create large, realistic-looking scenery datasets directly from these photographs. While satellite or aerial photos can be used to accurately build metropolitan areas at a reasonable cost, outer-area coverage is spotty. But we can alsosynthesize the outer areas using universal texture. We can, in fact, create a large cell overnight.”

Universal texture tile types include, water, city, town, dense forest, farmland, farmland with trees and sparse farms that can populate a computer-generated scene automatically. “I know which areas around a city or town are forest and which are farmland,” Nigus noted. “The computer randomly selects water when we need a lake, or farmland with trees where we need it, and makes certain they appear to blend naturally.”

To the novice, it is impossible to tell where metropolitan scenery built from photos ends and random computer-generated scenery begins. “When the work is complete, the roads accurately correlate to local maps, something that makes this simulation big in mission rehearsal work,” Nigus added. “We can also build en route areas very cheaply since high-altitude flying does not require the high resolution of low-altitude work. It all enhances the training experience.”

Another Vital tool called anisotropic texturing reduces the map fuzziness that makes images downfield difficult to recognize, which makes the visual of the airport the pilot sees when breaking out on an approach in poor visibility quite challenging. It uses a bevy of sophisticated computers to generate enough contrast between runway lights and daylight fog to make a simulated Category II breakout at 100 ft look like a real Cat II approach.

Coordination between the aircraft manufacturers and FlightSafety has changed dramatically in recent years, too. “We don’t decide how many simulators to build,” said Gulasy. “They tell us how many simulators they think they need to support their sales. It is a much stronger relationship than in the past. But we’ve taken a strong stand on integrating the training, too. An error was when some companies decided not to rely on instructors, but to try and replace them with technology. Technology is a tool, not a replacement for live instructors.”

Still a Risky Business

On the business side of training and building the equipment to support that goal, there is always the risk of building something no one wants, although since FlightSafety’s Learning Centers are the primary customer for simulators, that doesn’t happen often. The Tulsa plant had just finished translating all of the manufacturer data in preparation to begin engineering in earnest on the Fairchild Dornier 728 when that company filed bankruptcy in the spring. Gulasy says, “That kind of thing is simply a cost of doing business.”

A Citation X simulator in need of a home also sits at Tulsa. “Certainly there is a risk assessment on any new product,” Gulasy said. “While it might seem that the issue would become clearer the longer you wait to begin development, in actuality the longer you wait the later the simulator will be available for the customer.”

FlightSafety’s Learning Centers place incredible demands on simulators. But FlightSafety simulators keep working, thanks to crews of dedicated people who watch them hour by hour in all the centers, as well as the strength of the original designs. Many new FlightSafety simulators can be remotely accessed via the Internet from Tulsa, to assist engineers in solving operational problems. According to Gulasy, “Some of our CRJ simulators were running seven days a week 24 hours a day, for months on end, averaging 20 hours a day seven days a week for the first two years of operation. The Boeing 717 was running 24 hours a day. They were not meant to do that, but they held up nicely.” Since FlightSafety must maintain all of the simulators it sells–all devices come with a lifetime guarantee–upgrading simulator hardware, software and visuals is also a never-ending job.

In the Tulsa plant, where visual simulation software meets up with simulation hardware, a local contractor builds the fiberglass operating shell of the simulators to match aircraft manufacturer specifications. Some 75 percent of the parts used in the simulators are built by local Tulsa vendors. Since cockpit instruments and aircraft-specific parts are often not available, or are too expensive to purchase, the simulation systems division engineers and technicians often build the necessary items from scratch. Avionics systems normally come straight from the manufacturer.

Shipping a completed simulator can be a challenge, which is why every simulator is shipped in two distinct pieces that are assembled on site after delivery via the cargo hold of a Boeing 747. But on a recent order for a pair of new 28,000-lb simulators destined for a learning center in China, time was critical. FlightSafety chartered an Antonov An-124 to meet the timetable.

Reality Bytes

Watching the future of FlightSafety simulator technology is a treat. AIN had the opportunity to watch a Vital 9-generated battlefield-training scenario presented on three 50-in. multi-channeled plasma displays. The highly detailed scene for low-level helicopter work was so realistic that the landing pilot could easily distinguish rocks and twigs on the ground. Even the trees and grass blew in the wind from the rotor wash of the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior. The action on screen was real enough that as the helicopter bobbed and weaved at treetop level to avoid the enemy, I had to grip the armrests of the desk chair to stay upright.

In the next battlefield scene, FlightSafety did what it is now famous for–a spectacular rendition of patchy ground fog. At liftoff, forward visibility was no more than 50 or 60 yards. But as the helicopter began to rise through about 25 ft agl, the blue sky above began to realistically filter through. At 60 ft agl, the helicopter was entirely in the clear, with a view below that looked as accurate as any I’ve ever seen with the treetops popping through the fog. That’s when the A-10s began their attack runs, and our helicopter wisely got out of their way. And this was only the visual.

Myers said, “In the helicopter, the feelings added by vibrations are critical to the realism of the simulator. That’s why we have a secondary motion system and a visual display that is isolated from that vibration.”

The sensations of actually flying a Vital 9-equipped simulator can be categorized in only one word–spectacular. During a recent ERJ-145 simulator ride departure from St. Louis Lambert’s Runway 12R, the view outside the windows was breathtaking. Certainly the realism of the airport environment was significant, but once airborne I climbed to 1,500 ft agl and proceeded east toward the downtown area for a closer look at scenery on the ground. As we passed Busch Stadium, the baseball-field diamond was easy to pick out, as were many of the details of the buildings and traffic in the downtown area. Around the downtown area, however, where the buildings were smaller and less well defined, any pilot would have thought he was viewing the real thing in photo-quality scenery. I even tried something the feds couldn’t nail me for–successfully flying through the St. Louis arch, virtually anyway.

We avoided any aerobatics, although we learned something interesting about that restriction. For years many pilots thought they’d break a simulator if they tried anything aerobatic. The truth is that the older computers were unable to keep up with the readily changing data point of a large aircraft flying upside down. Now, however, they can, which makes them much more useful for upset training.

Myers said, “Training realism is a never-ending goal as we try to ever more faithfully simulate the aircraft, nature and the real world.” But developing a pretend aircraft cockpit is not nearly as difficult as designing software that accurately simulates the quirks of nature accurately enough for a skeptical bunch of pilots who know it’s all pretend from the moment they arrive at any FlightSafety Learning Center.

Slish related a story of just how true to life the FlightSafety engineers built a Learjet simulator: “The equipment was being certified when some of the technicians noticed an annoying squeal in the aircraft when it was taxied. They all scratched their heads, read and reread the drawings but could not figure out how they could have built something with so obvious a flaw. Finally, one engineer thought he’d found the problem and the noise was eliminated. During final certification, a seasoned Lear pilot hopped in the left seat and questioned, ‘Where’s the squeal the landing gear makes when you taxi? It’s not a real Learjet if it doesn’t have that.’ The engineers put the noise back in.”

FlightSafety’s visual simulation and simulator systems divisions are the Santa’s Workshop of commercial flight-training simulation. Gulasy concluded, “We do a great job of keeping even with our competitors, and I think we even have our nose comfortably in front in places. As to that Canadian challenge, Slish said, “FlightSafety is headquartered in New York and CAE is based in Montreal. Let’s face it, the Montreal Expos are not the New York Yankees.”