Shared Cockpit Allows Simulating Pilots To ‘Fly’ Together

 - October 4, 2014, 2:45 AM
The plug-in for X-Plane lets pilots in two locations fly together. This screen shot reveals the visual fidelity of the program, as the ‘pilot’ follows the controller’s instructions.

An innovation in personal computer-based flight simulation–a shared cockpit between two people flying their simulators in separate locations–is now available on the X-Plane simulator running the PilotEdge live ATC system. PilotEdge allows simulator fliers to interact with live controllers when flying in the southern California region. The shared cockpit feature also lets two individuals flying their own simulators simulate flying in the same aircraft as pilot/copilot, instructor/student or just to share a simulated flight experience.

Shared Cockpit was made possible by development of a plug-in for the X-Plane simulator called SmartCopilot. As soon as PilotEdge founder Keith Smith learned about SmartCopilot, he recognized the possibilities that simulator pilots could enjoy when flying together from separate locations while sharing a cockpit in real time over the Internet. “If we tried this 15 years ago, there wouldn’t have been enough bandwidth between sites,” Smith said. “People have wanted to do this for a while, but the software, simulation platforms and infrastructure were not there to support that. Now all of those issues have been solved and we can have meaningful training with people in disparate locations.”

The possible uses of Shared Cockpit are many. Smith envisions flight instructors who are looking for more business offering their services in Shared Cockpit when they aren’t otherwise busy flying–for example, when the weather is poor or after normal hours. When transitioning into a complex new aircraft, a pilot moving into turboprops or jets could prepare for full-motion simulator time or real-airplane training by spending a few hours with an instructor in Shared Cockpit, learning not only the mechanics of flying the larger airplane but also two-crew operations, specific flight profiles and cockpit resources management. An experienced pilot or instructor could help a foreign student practice aviation English in Shared Cockpit while using PilotEdge.

Smith himself was able to learn the basics of helicopter flying via Shared Cockpit with an experienced helicopter pilot in Canada teaching Smith in New Jersey simultaneously in a simulated Bell 407. “This doesn’t replace face-to-face instruction,” he cautioned, “but it can help a student do better preparation and follow up [with an instructor] conveniently.”

‘Incredibly Convenient’

Smith sees Shared Cockpit as more than a training tool, however. “Being able to jump online is just incredibly convenient,” he said, “and that will be its biggest selling point.” Pilots who enjoy flying together might find it hard to coordinate their schedules, weather and airplane availability to go flying in a real airplane, but with Shared Cockpit they can fly anytime. “In a 60-minute block of time, you’ve done 55 minutes of Shared Cockpit flying,” he said. “You cannot do that in the real world.”

For training, Smith envisions creation of an “online brokerage to match up students and coaches” on Shared Cockpit. This would be a great benefit for instructors who might no longer have a medical certificate but who would like to continue passing on their flying experience to a new generation of pilots.

On a more subtle level, Smith and the controllers (usually retired) who work for PilotEdge have noticed many bad habits in the pilots flying within the PilotEdge environment. For example, newer pilots weaned on GPS don’t understand reverse sensing of VORs and localizers. Or pilots blunder around on their own direct routes without telling ATC that they need a vector, mostly because X-Plane adheres to official service volume limitations and in the real world VOR range is usually more than the service volume minimum. Smith also sees simulating pilots use the wrong frequencies and poor phraseology. In addition, he said, sometimes the PilotEdge controllers are too busy to correct the pilot, so the pilot carries that bad habit into the real aircraft. Using Shared Cockpit with a mentor or instructor would help minimize these issues.

Preparing for ‘Flight’

To use Shared Cockpit with PilotEdge and X-Plane, the user must first buy the SmartCopilot plug-in software and install that in X-Plane. SmartCopilot’s license fee is $22.95 for one user or $37.95 for two, although it will allow a 20-minute free trial flight without payment. Once the SmartCopilot plug-in is installed in X-Plane, each user has to install the configuration file for the airplane that they will share. Smith and others have been writing configuration files for popular aircraft, among them the Beech Baron, Cessna 172, King Air, Bell 407, Boeing 737-200 and others.

Once this file is installed, each pilot needs to run the SmartCopilot plug-in, but one operates as the master and the other as the slave. When set up like this, the master is running the full X-Plane flight model and the slave is, as Smith put it, “along for the ride,” so to both pilots it appears as if each is flying the aircraft and they will see the same views. “Just because you’re the slave doesn’t affect your ability to control [the aircraft],” he said. “Whoever has control is the one who is flying.”

There can be some latency between the two computers, especially if the Internet connection is slow. The master is the more responsive aircraft in this setup because it is running the full flight model, and any inputs from the slave computer are routed through the master. For this reason, Smith recommends setting the student as the master and the instructor as the slave. “That way the student has the best experience. The instructor should be good enough to fly with one-tenth-of-a-second latency,” he said.

There is one key difference between a real aircraft and the Shared Cockpit simulation: only one pilot can manipulate the flight controls at a time. So when switching control, there must be a positive exchange; also, the pilots need to set up a button on their keyboards or joysticks to switch control quickly during a flight. However, either pilot can move any other cockpit control or switch, such as throttles, flaps, lights, avionics and so on. So if the student is flying but getting overwhelmed, the instructor can easily help with radios, power settings, mixture, whatever. Of course, neither one will see the other’s arm or hand move, so one will need to speak up (over the headset, just like using an intercom) and say something like, “Hey, I got that landing light for you.”

Hands On

I tested Shared Cockpit during a flight around the traffic pattern at KSNA in southern California in X-Plane’s Beech Baron. The shared simulation was surprisingly realistic as I taxied to the runway while Smith did the radio work and set up the avionics. Because we had spent some time setting up the simulation and I was using the trial version of SmartCopilot, we timed out on the downwind leg, and the flight control reverted to each of us, but was disconnected. I didn’t realize that Smith wasn’t manipulating the controls and I let my X-Plane Baron crash, not realizing that I could grab the controls and keep flying; that underscored the training value of Shared Cockpit, in that each pilot needs to treat the simulation as realistically as possible.

Smith is exploring further ways to integrated Shared Cockpit with PilotEdge and also how a formal training program using this feature might handle liability aspects. “Right now, it’s for recreation,” he said. “[For training], the liability issue has to be resolved. Is this instruction with a capital I or mentoring?” He also wonders whether Shared Cockpit sessions might count as ground school lessons and whether the Transportation Security Administration might have issues with unregistered foreign students practicing flying with a Shared Cockpit instructor. “The simplest answer is to do no logging,” he said. “It’s either recreation only or we’d stress that it’s not formal flight instruction or a replacement for training. It’s in addition to training and improves the student’s self-study.”