ProFlight Brings Fresh Ideas and Technology To Simulator Training

 - October 3, 2013, 2:10 AM
ProFlight founder Caleb Taylor demonstrates the iPad app that the instructor can use to set up the simulator. The student can use the app in the level-6 non-motion sim.

ProFlight founder Caleb Taylor believes that there are better ways to train pilots and he isn’t afraid to try new techniques to help new and existing CitationJet pilots learn how to fly safely. “Everyone trains to pass the checkride,” he said. “We don’t do it that way. We go into every aspect of flying this airplane.”

ProFlight is based in Carlsbad, Calif., near the city’s airport, and was founded in 1988 to provide flight training in Cessna Conquest turboprops. The problem with training in the airplane, of course, is that it is difficult to simulate failures. Taylor created mock-up annunciator panels that he could use to teach students how to handle various problems. Eventually, ProFlight purchased a full-motion Conquest I/II simulator, which was far more effective.

About five years ago, an inquiry from Cessna and requests from Conquest pilots upgrading to jets prompted ProFlight to add type rating and currency programs for the CitationJet (models 1 through 3). “We wanted to put an effective program together for Cessna,” Taylor said. “Cessna has a single-pilot jet that it’s trying to sell. The way the industry is right now, it’s difficult for a single-pilot guy who’s not used to flying jets to get a single-pilot type rating.”

As Taylor sees it, the primary problem, is the intimidation posed by the technology. “People were being dumped into these training sessions with basically zero training on the technology. They were learning by trial by fire.” One pilot, who already had nine type ratings, called Taylor while half way through training at another organization and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. These Pro Line avionics are just killing me.”

The big simulator training companies recognize this problem, Taylor said, and provide avionics training, but pilots unfamiliar with the CJ’s Pro Line 21 need to spend time to learn the avionics before they embark on type training. At ProFlight, the avionics training is built into the course in a way that makes it much easier for new Pro Line 21 pilots to learn, according to Taylor. “The airplane is super-easy to fly, but the technology is eating people alive.”

The better way to train, Taylor learned, is to remove the pressure to perform from the student, who is struggling to figure out how to work new avionics while flying an unfamiliar airplane. With an instructor trying to squeeze the most instruction into an expensive session in a full-motion simulator, the student rarely has time to do more than skim the surface of the technology. ProFlight created a system that lets the student spend as much time as needed, during the course, to learn the avionics thoroughly at his or her own pace. “We found that things speed up dramatically,” he said.

The key to this self-paced learning is ProFlight’s equipment. For the CJ program, ProFlight has two devices–a full-motion level-D-certified simulator and a fixed-base level-6 training device with the same avionics as the simulator. The devices are made by simulator manufacturer Opinicus. The level-D simulator is certified to the FAA’s new Part 60 standards and offers something unusual in simulator training: the ability to fly full stalls that have been modeled during flight-testing in a real airplane.

Cleared To Talk

While students are training, they can use the level-6 device as much as necessary to learn how to work and understand the avionics. But there is more to this part of the training. One of the drawbacks in existing simulator-based pilot training is the lack of realistic air traffic controller (ATC) interaction. The instructor plays the role of ATC, but he or she is also running the simulator and the training exercise. What if the student could work with a real controller as if flying in actual airspace?

It turns out there is such a system. It’s called PilotEdge, and it employs controllers who provide real ATC instructions to pilots flying simulators. PilotEdge was founded by Keith Smith, a long-time pilot and veteran practitioner of the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (Vatsim), which was a pioneer in putting together flight-simulation enthusiasts and people who wanted to provide a more realistic live ATC environment. Vatsim is not a commercial enterprise, however, and Smith wanted to offer a virtual ATC system staffed by experienced controllers that serves both home simulator users and commercial training establishments such as ProFlight.

The key to making PilotEdge seem real is integrating it with the simulator. For home users, PilotEdge works with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, Flight Simulator X or Laminar Research’s X-Plane personal computer-based simulation programs. PilotEdge can also be integrated with more sophisticated simulators, and ProFlight has incorporated PilotEdge into its level-6 flight training device. The simulator integration means that any PilotEdge user flying (virtually, of course) in the areas covered by PilotEdge will be able to interact with ATC. The areas include 39 airports in the Los Angeles ARTCC and San Francisco Airport.

PilotEdge controllers are mostly retired controllers, and the system is available 15 hours a day, with guaranteed service during those hours. When flying with PilotEdge, the pilot simply clicks a virtual microphone and speaks into the headset, asks for clearance and contacts ground control, the tower and approach as any pilot would normally do. The PilotEdge controller can “see” the simulating pilot on his or her virtual radar scope and thus knows exactly where the simulated aircraft is operating.

Even better, PilotEdge users will see other aircraft flying in the PilotEdge airspace as well as drone VFR aircraft inserted in ways that are normal for traffic flying in these areas. The other traffic and interaction with controllers’ scopes comes from software installed on each simmer’s computer (or in ProFlight’s case on the level-6 simulator computers). The result, as I found during a demo at ProFlight, is remarkably realistic, unlike any other simulator I have flown. And being able to see other traffic in the simulator’s visual display, not just ghostly images of non-interactive traffic typically shown on simulators, is incredible. After the simulation session, PilotEdge can send the user an audio file of the session, with blank spaces automatically eliminated, for review and to help the student hone ATC procedures.

Students can also use the system to practice without having to take off from an airport, just by notifying PilotEdge that the starting point will be, say, a final approach fix at a certain altitude. PilotEdge is also valuable for training pilots whose first language is not English on how to communicate effectively with ATC in a non-intimidating environment and with plenty of useful feedback.

ProFlight integrates PilotEdge with the training in the level-6 device. This allows students not only to learn the Pro Line 21 avionics thoroughly at their own pace but also to practice assigned lessons that incorporate flights using ATC. The instructor can also ask the PilotEdge controller to throw in some surprises, such as weather diversions, a closed runway and so on, to help anneal the student. If an instructor is working with the student while using PilotEdge, the instructor can send text messages to the controller to introduce surprises.

iPad Control

When flying the level-6 device, the student uses an iPad to run the simulator, which provides access to many (but not all) of the settings on the instructor panel. The student can practice a maneuver, say a V1 cut, and see instantly whether or not his handling of it was within the required parameters. On the iPad, the student can review the maneuver, moving the simulator backwards in the timeline until reaching the point that things went wrong, then try the maneuver again and again. Taylor plans to make it possible to overlay the student’s performance against the FAA Practical Test Standards paramaters.

ProFlight doesn’t plan to continue using the Level 6 device for student practice because it will eventually be turned into a second full-motion Level D simulator. For student practice, ProFlight has designed “NextGen” devices, which are fixed-base simulators using control loading and aerodynamic performance from the Level D simulators, plus visual systems using X-Plane graphics. These NextGen devices, Taylor said, “will incorporate all of these same features at a fraction of the cost, allowing students access to the devices for ‘batting practice’ at strategic locations across the country.”

Another part of the training that Taylor felt needed revamping is ground school. Typically, the student spends the first week of training learning systems in a classroom environment. Training companies usually send the books to the student ahead of time, so some preparation can be done ahead of class. ProFlight has improved this process with a learning management system (LMS) that delivers the ground-school subjects in an interactive format.

Each element is narrated and accompanied by animated graphics, which might not seem much different from current ground schools, except that this is available online, not just in the classroom. Also, the student can click a free play button, which allows interaction with the system being studied. If it’s a fuel system, for example, the student can open and close valves, fail pumps and so on and see what happens to the airplane. Electrical systems are fully replicated and the free play animations with working switches and components make understanding the way the electrons flow much easier. Instead of an instructor rushing through the description and asking the student if he understands–and the student saying yes so as not to hold up the class–the ProFlight LMS lets the student study and play and gain a much deeper understanding before ground school even begins. ProFlight doesn’t receive FAA credit for the distance-learning LMS yet, but that is pending, according to Taylor.

Building Knowledge

ProFlight adds a reinforcement mechanism, too, a periodic systems question emailed to the student. This is done not just during training but throughout the year, to help the student stay sharp on the systems between training. ProFlight’s programmers designed the system to pester students with questions on systems where their knowledge is weak, too. The student can elect to receive questions more often and also to receive another question after answering one successfully.

ProFlight’s courses include initial type rating and currency training, with options for ProFlight’s “Current 365” program offering ongoing currency training throughout the year instead of at a once-a-year event. Other courses include second-in-command, Part 135, pinch-hitter, RVSM, high-altitude endorsement and customized training. ProFlight does not charge for extra training needed to complete a type rating or currency event. If a student is having a bad experience and wants to quit, ProFlight will give a full refund.

“Pro pilots may feel some intimidation if they feel that their jobs are on the line if they don’t get through this course,” Taylor said. “When you take intimidation out of the equation, you find they do a much better job, they’re more relaxed and they don’t feel the pressure that if they need an extra hour or two they’re going to have to pay for it. We want people to feel that we’re your partner. Our job is to take the stress out of it, try to make it enjoyable and put a bit of fun back into it. But at the same time we can raise the bar, because people who don’t feel threatened perform better.”

For Cyrus Sigari, co-founder of light jet brokerage jetAviva of Santa Monica, Calif., ProFlight “has my 100-percent endorsement.” ProFlight, he says, has created a customer-centric, high-quality training experience, administered by people who understand the customer and want to make the training as hassle-free and productive as possible.