Crappy Sunglasses

sunglasses

Sunglasses are to a pilot as tanning beds are to the cast of Jersey Shore. Many — perhaps most — aviators buy expensive shades, and I understand why. It’s not just about the look (although that’s certainly important), it’s about comfort. Comfort with a headset, comfort on a 10-hour flight. It’s about preventing headaches and protecting one’s eyes when you’re above much of atmosphere and therefore exposed to more of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Me, I do it differently: I buy the cheapest pair I can find. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the optical clarity, build quality, and style of expensive shades. I do. But over the years I’ve developed a theorem called Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity. It simply declares that the length of time a pair of glasses will last is inversely proportional to how much you paid for them. I bought a $10 pair of sunglasses at a gas station and they lasted for 6 or 7 years. On the other hand, I’ve paid $200 for a set of non-polarized Maui Jim sunglasses (polarization doesn’t mix with computerized cockpit displays) and had them disappear or break within weeks.

Not only do I lose sunglasses, but I often manage to do it in the most creative way possible. It’s almost an art form. One time I put my sunglasses and a book on the ground for a moment while I checked something on an airplane. Naturally, they were forgotten about until the main landing gear ran ‘em over, shattering the polycarbonate lenses into a million pieces. Thankfully the tire was not harmed — that would have really been expensive!

Another time a famous celebrity stole my shades. I don’t want to mention any names, of course. They were one of the cheap pair from that same gas station. I had duplicates in storage for just such a scenario (at $10 a pop, even the most poorly compensated among us can afford backups), but these were record-holding in terms of how long I’d had them. It must have been eight or ten years by this point. I almost couldn’t get rid of them even if I tried. Like a bad penny, they’d somehow find their way home.

Anyway, the aircraft had a galley in the aft section and I had set my sunglasses down on the counter there while offloading some baggage from the cargo area. When I returned, they were gone. I think the flight attendant figured they belonged to one of the passengers and they had walked off with the celebrity. She tried to get them back on a subsequent leg, but in the melee of a multi-day trip it just never happened. I sometimes wonder if that celebrity isn’t wearing those sunglasses today, unaware that they were an ancient $10 Chevron special with Twilight Zone-ish longevity.

The last example — the one which prompted this post — was a wholly new and innovative way to dispose of a decent pair of specs. I’m fond of saying that every situation in life can be directly related to a Seinfeld episode, and this is no exception. If you’re a fan of the show you’ll know exactly which one I’m referring to.

We were returning from New York without any passengers, so everything was casual on board the jet. No uniforms, just a pair of jeans and a V-neck t-shirt. A couple of hours into the flight, I excused myself from the cockpit to visit the aft lavatory. As is my custom when I’m not wearing them, the sunglasses were clipped to my shirt when I entered the restroom. (You can probably guess where this is going, right?) So there I was, standing over the toilet “taking care of business” when I reached up to close a vent which was blasting cold air and somehow managed to knock the them off my shirt. The next couple of seconds passed in slow motion. The sunglasses twirled through the air, bounced off the granite counter, and completed the swan dive with a perfect hole-in-one into the bowels of the toilet.

The lav is pretty simple on a Gulfstream; it’s basically just a tank full of “blue juice”, so there wasn’t much risk of the glasses jamming up any drain lines or whatnot. The only thing down there is a valve which is manually actuated from a panel outside the aircraft. It allows the old gunk to be drained and fresh liquid pumped in by the ground service personnel.

Nevertheless, I was going to have to fess up to what I’d done. The look on my face must have said it all, because when I exited the restroom, the flight attendant asked what was wrong. I gave her the “short” version, and she proceeded to shock the hell out of me by asking in a very matter-of-fact way if I wanted her to retrieve them. I thought she was kidding, but it turns out there were long rubber gloves on hand for just such an occasion. I offered to do the dirty deed myself, but she said “no problem, it’s not the first time something’s fallen down there” and before I could even think of a clever retort she had fished them out!

I’ve given a fair number of gifts, tips, and thank-yous over the years, but I’m wondering: how much does one owe another person when they stick their hand into a dirty airplane lavatory in order to retrieve your pair of $10 sunglasses?

In case you’re wondering, the glasses were double-bagged and sealed until I got home. The next day, I thoroughly cleaned them with multiple rounds of hot water, soap, sanitizer, and anything else I could get my hands on. I half expected the metal frame to be partially dissolved or corroded by whatever was in that toilet tank, but they came out as good as new. Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity at work again!

There was a definite moment of pause before putting them back on my face for the first time, but today those Chevron Special’s are back at work. I wish I knew who manufactured them, because they build a hell of a product. While they might not repel bullets the way some sunglasses do, there’s no doubting they’ve been through the proverbial wringer.

A Starship in the Wild

starship

The Starship. It’s been one of my favorite aircraft ever since I first saw it on the pages of Flying as a kid. The very name conjures up a sense of possibility and exploration, as though the very atmosphere would be unable to contain it.

I happened upon one the other day as we taxied out to depart from Vail, Colorado in the Gulfstream. As is typical on a weekend day, the Eagle County Airport was abuzz with traffic, so we sat at the end of the runway cooling our heels while inbound aircraft made their approach. Nothing to do but admire the rare animal idling in front of us, those five-bladed McCauley props turning as the heat plumes flowed from the PT-6A-67 exhaust stacks.

Delays are normally unwelcome.  But when you're sitting behind a Starship, it's not so bad.

Delays are normally unwelcome. But when you’re sitting behind a Starship, it’s not so bad.

It’s always a bit of a shock actually seeing one in the wild because Raytheon ceased supporting the airplane more than a decade ago, even going so far as to buy back and retire as many of the remaining airframes as they possibly could in exchange deals for new Premier jets.

I wrote about the Starship a decade ago and compared it with the Concorde as the latter was being retired. I suppose it’s apropos to ponder the futuristic-yet-retired Beech creation now that Beechcraft itself is being absorbed by Textron.

The Starship was every bit as futuristic as the Concorde. Developed in the early 1980′s, it was designed to replace the most successful business turboprop in history, the King Air.

Starship was revolutionary because it the airframe was made of composites like carbon fiber. Composites are lighter and stronger than aluminum, but they are more complex to manufacture and they haven’t been around that long. Consequently, the FAA was very conservative and required a lot of extra testing and data for certification. It was also difficult and very labor intensive to manufacture, and many of Raytheon’s subcontractors missed critical deadlines. Raytheon itself experienced many delays as it learned to work with resins, adhesives, sealants, and other composite materials.

Eventually the bugs were worked out, but the damage had been done. Only 53 Starships were built. And of those, only a small handful were ever sold. Most have remained in Raytheon’s inventory for more than a decade and have been used to supply replacement parts for the existing fleet.

Starship was also one of the very first airplanes to be designed and built using a computer system. Called CATIA, this same system was used to create the Boeing 777.

The storied Beech name reaches back more than eighty years. The company developed and built some of the longest-lived products in the history of aviation. Although they’re only built sparingly these days, Bonanzas have been manufactured since 1947, and the relatively young King Air line began in 1964 — a paltry half-century ago.

Despite the firm’s financial difficulties, Beech at least makes something tangible. Beyond the cache and history of the Beechcraft name, it has facilities, production lines, patents, type certificates, intellectual property, and a comparatively skilled work force. To me, it simple generates far more excitement than, say, the high-flying Twitter, which has a market cap of $35 billion but has never turned a profit or built anything that makes the pulse race the way an aircraft can.

Happier times for Beech: the rollout of the first Starship.  If only they'd know how short the "future" would be...

Happier times for Beech: the rollout of the first Starship. If only they’d know how short the “future” would be…

When I was growing up, Beech/Raytheon represented some of the most exciting and cutting-edge stuff in the world of flying. I suppose that’s what I was truly reminded of when we found ourselves holding behind this beauty.

It also occurred to me that the jet I was flying — a Gulfstream IV — celebrated its maiden flight only a few months before the Starship. How different their fates have been! The G-IV was wildly successful and is still in production while the promising composite turboprop never really got off the ground. It’s worth noting that a similar business aircraft, the Piaggio Avanti, also made its first flight in the mid-1980s and is still being built. And why not? It achieves nearly 400 knots at a 40% fuel savings over comparable jets.

It must be painful for those who worked on the Starship project to know that airplanes like the Waco YMF-5 and Great Lakes biplanes — 1920’s tube-and-fabric technology — are still being built and sold while the sleek, modern ship they labored over is more or less relegated to photographs and museums. Aviation: it’s a strange business.

Motoart Under the Tree

motoart

You know the old saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”? This sentiment rings true throughout the world of aviation. The certification requirements and miniscule production runs of airplane components ensures everything from crumpled, rusted out airframe scraps in a bone yard to a run-out cylinder or decapitated taxiway light retains value.

Oh, sometimes the lucky detritus is refurbished and lives on as part of an airworthy airplane, but just as often the bits end up elsewhere. And I’m not referring to the traditional recycling process, although I’ve no doubt that many stout airframes have suffered the indignity of rebirth as a beer can. Instead, the aforementioned red-tagged cylinder becomes a kitschy planter. That busted taxiway light is transformed into an accent light for the office. Cockpit instruments become classroom visual aids. It’s not just for parts, either — complete aircraft have found new life as lawn ornaments, restaurants, water slides, museum pieces, and even family homes.

In 2004, the Discovery Channel aired “Wing Nuts”, a short-lived series about a firm that turns airplane junk into artistic treasure. I don’t remember much about the show — it only lasted one season — but the company, MotoArt, is still in business. They transform aircraft parts into imaginative yet functional furniture. Beds, desks, tables, chairs, bars, and so on.

Even the briefest of glances at their web site will demonstrate the love and passion Motoart puts into their deliciously elegant products, but before you fall in love, be warned: they don’t come cheap! The first clue is the total lack of pricing information on their site. “Call for price” has never really been synonymous with “inexpensive”, has it?

The item which always catches my eye there is a Gulfstream II desk. It consists of the outerboard-most eight to fifteen feet of a Gulfstream II wing in bare metal, polished to a high shine and covered with a matching top layer of glass. Why the G-II? I assume it’s because the winglet on later models would render the conversion a bit more challenging. The wingtip is the beautiful part of the airfoil, not to mention the only place where the wing is narrow enough to be useable as a desk. The inboard portions are too wide and thick to be serviceable as a piece of furniture; that’s a hurdle I doubt even Motoart can overcome.

This might be the world's most well-traveled desk.  And for $18,900, it should be!

This might be the world’s most well-traveled desk. And for $18,900, it should be!

Since I fly Gulfstreams, it feels mildly gruesome coveting such an item, especially after my recent paean to the first G-II jet and the majestic post-flying treatment it’s received. But the truth is that most retired airplanes — even Gulfstreams — will be parted out or end up in a bone yard somewhere. One could argue that the desk represents a more dignified fate than simply leaving the carcass of a once proud airplane outside to fade and rot under the harsh UV as it’s covered with excrement by nesting birds. It’s a moot point anyway; I inquired about the cost of the desk and was quoted $18,900… for the small one. Can you imagine how much the fourteen foot long DC-4 conference table would command?

Still, a guy can wish, can’t he? Since Christmas is just around the corner, I dropped a hint to my wife about the radial piston lamp, a relative bargain at $165.00. But I’m not too hung up on it. Motoart’s products are delightful, but no desk could ever beat the experience of actually flying these birds. That’s the greatest gift of all.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Brazil

Cloud formations

Brazil has long been on my mental “bucket list” of places to visit. Not only is it one of the world’s largest countries both geographically and by population — fifth on both counts — but it’s also the center of attention right now because they are hosting 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Add in a Carnival or two and you’ve got quite a party!

Brazil also fascinates me because it contains the Amazon rainforest and is home to the planet’s greatest biological diversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon, by far the largest collection anywhere. Speaking of diversity, from a sociological perspective Brazil is equally manifold; it’s home to a unique blend of so many European and African cultures that it almost reminds me of the United States.

Anyway, recently a two-week trip came up that allowed me to cross this one off my list in the best way possible: on the company dime. The trip originated in Los Angeles with a day of flying to Santa Barbara, Vermont, and then New York. The east coast has been having some spectacular fall weather which we were able to enjoy for a few days before departing at about 9:00 p.m. on an overnight flight to São Paulo.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

This was a maxed-out night of flying, as the Part 135 rules which govern on-demand charter only allow for ten hours of flight and fourteen hours of duty time per day. The straight-line distance is about 4,800 miles, just beyond the Gulfstream IV’s non-stop range, so we alighted in the Lesser Antilles island of Barbados after about four and a half hours for a splash (aka several thousand gallons) of kerosene before proceeding on a five hour leg to the Brazilian capital.

The second leg took us past Guyana and over the Amazon rainforest which, while it was teeming with life, was also one of the darkest places I’ve ever traveled. Even with a partial moon, from 45,000 feet the Amazon was like an earth-borne black hole, inky in every direction. I wasn’t just the absence of man-made lighting, because I witnessed far more luminosity from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the sky was a much lighter shade of sable than the earth.

My thoughts went back to N87V, a U-21G which disappeared with three aboard during a uranium survey mission over the dense jungle of western Guyana back when I worked for Dynamic Aviation. Despite spending years and millions of dollars on search efforts, as far as I know the aircraft was never located. The jungle is like that. The forest canopy is so dense that it can swallow an aircraft, leaving no visual trace for searchers or satellites to pick up on. The foliage has a matte-like surface, so it makes sense that at night this same vegetation would absorb light. I can’t even imagine how dark it must be underneath the canopy.

Note the "IRS 1" lattitude of exactly zero degrees.  It means we're directly over the equator.

Note the “IRS 1″ lattitude of exactly zero degrees. It means we’re directly over the equator.

Despite the Gulfstream’s many creature comforts, overnighters are tough. I tried my best to get on a sleep-all-day/up-all-night schedule in the days leading up to the Brazil trip, but it’s easier said than done. Altering one’s circadian rhythms so drastically over just three days when you’re already several time zones away from home… well, it’s not impossible, but circumstances do tend to conspire against you. Room service knocking on the door, hotel maintenance, an occasional incoming phone call, invitations from the rest of the crew to grab a bite, etc. I pride myself on being able to sleep just about anywhere, but there’s always something keeping you on the front side of the clock.

That’s the long way of saying we were a bit bleary-eyed when the sun came up just prior to starting our descent into São Paulo. What first captured my attention was the sight of the city itself. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that from 15,000 feet up, skyscrapers stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was no central “downtown” as you’d expect with most American cities — everywhere was downtown. The pilot I was flying with exclaimed, “I used to fly into Mexico City all the time and this place makes it look like a quaint little fishing village!” The official population of São Paulo is 12 million, but to my eyes that figure looked severely understated.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo.  We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil.  Sao Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo. We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil. São Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

One element of the trip which was not surprising? The red tape associated with flying internationally. They have it in spades down there. After landing at Guarulhos Airport, I spied our hotel not a quarter of a mile away. Ah, sleep! Could it be true, I thought?

No, it couldn’t. Our handler did her best to expedite us through the maze of airport roadways and paperwork, but it was still two hours before we collected our room keys. The driver who shuttled us to the hotel spoke of the incredible cuisine available “in town”. I thought we were already in town! We inquired about how long it would take to get there and was told “two hours — three if there’s traffic”. It was just as well, I suppose; we’d be sleeping much of the day anyway and were scheduled to pick up passengers at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport very early the following morning for a 900 mile leg to the Bahian capital of Salvador.

The flight guidance panel.  Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn't all that great.

The flight guidance panel. Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn’t all that great.

Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and second only to Rio de Janero as a tourist destination. As a former colonial capital, it’s the spot where the confluence of African and Portuguese cultures is most apparent. We spent four days there at the Pestana Bahia Resort. It wouldn’t win many platitudes from travelers used to the comforts of high-end European or American accomodations, but it did the job and is apparently one of the nicer hotels in town. My room overlooked the rocky coastline where the wind was strong and constant. There were few English speakers in Salvador, so we had a chance to practice our rudimentary Portuguese. I probably insulted more people than anything else with my lousy vocabulary, but it’s been my experience that locals at least appreciate the effort.

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf.  Not that I'm complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf. Not that I’m complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

We were warned by the hotel not to venture outside at night on our own, and from seeing the town during the day I can understand why. Salvador is two cities in one. The southernmost portion is a modern business and financial hub teeming with glass skyscrapers, while the old town area is filled with the sort of colorful and historic colonial architecture you see throughout the Caribbean. Likewise the social and economic fortunes of the residents, where significant portions of the city are overcrowded slums while other sections are beautifully manicured — and gated.

Even the geography diverges; the downtown area sits on a different elevation than the rest of the old city, so an elevator was built to connect the two segments. It doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy until you discover that the Lacerda Elevator was constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1610. As you might imagine, that first iteration was a bit short on creature comforts. It was operated via a manual rope-and-pulley arrangement. The conveyance was converted to a mechanical steam system around 1868 and then finally to electricity in 1928 (which explains the present art deco style). Imagine — this elevator has been in nearly continual operation for more than 400 years. Top that, Otis!

As an admitted foodie, my best memory of Salvador has to be the grub, especially a traditional Bahian meal we had at a local restaurant called Cafe de Tereza. Our main dish was moqueca, a seafood stew made with dende and coconut milk. They love coconuts down there — in fact it was far easier to find coconut water than the plain stuff. Our hotel put out rows of raw coconuts every day in the lobby, sliced open with a little straw and some fruit hanging off the top. The big adjustment from a culinary standpoint was getting used to the palm oil they use in most of their cooking. In the U.S., our staple is olive oil, but in South America the more plentiful palm oil is utilized. There’s nothing wrong with that, but food seemed to sit “heavier” in my stomach and made me feel fuller for a longer period.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut.  Though it wasn't always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut. Though it wasn’t always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Speaking of drinking, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail and one of my personal favorites. It’s akin to a South American mohito, except it’s made with cachaça, a rum-like spirit that’s made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. On our last night in town, the staff at the FBO took us out to dinner and I was introduced to the caipiroksa, a variant crafted with vodka. The suggestion was to try it muddled with fresh strawberries. Delicious!

The following evening we geared up for another overnight flight — the return trip to Gotham — while the lucky passengers slept soundly in the back. The Gulfstream’s cabin is more than 41 feet long, so with only two guests, each was able to have their own generously-sized space. Not a bad way to travel if you’ve got a few extra bucks for the privilege!

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights.  Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights. Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The only oddity on our trip was the early descent given by New York Center as we approached the U.S. coast. We were enjoying a gorgeous sunrise — or rather, I was enjoying it from the shade of the left seat as my compatriot suffered with a steadily intensifying reddish-yellow sun creeping into the sky on his side of the aircraft because this bird was not equipped with the retractable, dark film window shades found on most Gulfstreams.

Anyway, the radio crackled with a call for us to begin a descent. As I recall they had us down to 15,000 feet more than 200 miles from our destination. Premature descent clearances are nothing new for that part of the country, but this was comical even by those standards. Jets don’t like to fly low. Actually that’s not quite accurate. They have no problem being at that altitude, but it’s extremely inefficient from a fuel consumption standpoint. We spent the last hundred miles droning along at about 3,000 feet, thankful for having a generous fuel reserve.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long.  It's always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long. It’s always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

This was an enjoyable trip in every respect: a fun crew, new destinations to explore, a lightly loaded aircraft, and plenty of time in between legs to rest up. Much like California, Brazil’s a place you could spend the rest of your life exploring without seeing everything. With all that’s going on there these days, I have a feeling it won’t be long before I’m saying “OLÁ” once again.

The Missing Link in Flight Simulation

tower-cab

Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

A PilotEdge virtual controller working the tower cab at Long Beach Airport (LGB).  They don't just hear pilots on the radio -- they see 'em out the window, too!

A PilotEdge virtual controller working the tower cab at Long Beach Airport (LGB). They don’t just hear pilots on the radio — they see ‘em out the window, too!

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to LiveATC.net. The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

Exterior of a Gulfstream IV-SP simulator at the CAE Simuflite facility in Dallas, TX

Exterior of a Gulfstream IV-SP simulator at the CAE Simuflite facility in Dallas, TX

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/10/31/simulation/.