Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do Something Magical: Learn To Fly

Innovation continues to change flight training, but it’s still about the fun

Sammy Mason has flying in his DNA. His grandfather flew biplanes in the 1930s, and his mother, father, uncle, cousin and more are all pilots. "My mom took me up in an airplane when I was two," says Mason. "It was in a Piper Cub." His dad taught him to fly early on, and by the time he was 12, Mason says he was proficient in the Cub. Today, at the ripe old age of 17, Mason is getting ready to fly an air show in his family's Stearman biplane. He also tows gliders on weekends in a Piper Pawnee. Already an aviation veteran, Mason has this advice for those yearning to fly: "Just go to the airport and hang around. It won't be long till someone offers you a ride!"

There's Lou, who I met at a café at a forgotten airport that looked like it stepped out of a time warp. Lou owns a pristine Piper Tri-Pacer in that minty, turquoise blue that many of the type wore in the 1950s. It looks like a museum piece, though Lou flies it every day. He's in his 80s. "Best thing I ever did was learn to fly," Lou said as I ogled his Tri-Pacer. "It renews me and that's why I'm still alive!" Lou let out a hearty laugh. "I can't imagine not flying."

Redbird Changes The Simulator Game Forever
When general aviation pilots think of full-motion flight simulators, you can bet they're imagining the $10 million beasts at places like FlightSafety or airline training centers. The thought of using one of those complicated simulators—that require rooms full of equipment to function—for primary training would seem ridiculous. But Redbird Flight Simulations out of Austin, Texas, has changed the way we look at primary flight training and the simulator's role in it.
Business executive and pilot Jerry Gregoire came up with the idea of making a better, less expensive simulator for general aviation one day while training in one of those gazillion-dollar sims. Gregoire set out to create a simulator with all the features and capabilities of the big boys at a price flight schools—and even individuals—could afford, while delivering an unmatched flight experience to the student.

Gregoire assembled a team of top technologists and colleagues from his career as a business executive with Pepsico and Dell. The team relied on heavy amounts of innovation, creativity and true entrepreneurial spirit to create something spectacular. Redbird introduced their FMX full-motion simulator to the GA world at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., in 2007.

In the ensuing four years, the company has pushed forward, constantly introducing new ideas to the simulation world. Today, they're on the leading edge of flight training, opening a revolutionary facility in San Marcos, Texas, called the Redbird "Skyport." Built from the ground up in just 20 weeks, innovation is in every corner. The facility is an experiment of sorts, developing new ways to train, new ways to apply simulator technology to general aviation, and reengineering the whole idea of primary flight training from first flight to certification and beyond. The facility opened in November 2011, with more on the horizon.

What's so different about Redbird is that they've rewritten what simulators can be, how much they cost and how they work by starting with a blank sheet of paper. In the process, they've developed simulators that are more than just toys or the unrealistic "flight training devices" we have today. Redbird's sims range from desktop models to full-motion models that include their genius "XWIND" crosswind training simulator.

While a desktop simulator might not sound impressive, Redbird rethought every detail. They didn't like the way traditional desktop flight training devices sat on top of a desk, causing the pilot to reach up to the controls in a nonrealistic way. Redbird reengineered it, creating components that mount below the tabletop, positioning the pilot realistically.

All major components are interchangeable from one simulator to another; yokes, throttles, overhead panels and other parts can be swapped out to create different aircraft models. Creative thinking allowed Redbird to dump the old hydraulic and pneumatic mechanics that drive current full-motion simulators and use electronics instead. Redbirds run on small motors that actuate movement using a gimbal assembly.
Redbird also introduced Parrot, which is a program that models real ATC communications. It responds correctly based on location and task. For example, the ATIS frequency speaks the correct ATIS for the location selected in the sim. The pilot interacts directly with Parrot and can say, "Help me," in the mic, causing Parrot to tell the pilot what he or she is doing wrong, making suggestions for correction. There's even real background chatter, and the program will respond only to correct AIM-based phraseology.

Redbird's basic desktop simulator lists for $6,995, while their full-motion "FMX" simulator comes in at under $60,000. Those prices include Redbird's stunning, wraparound visuals on their full-motion simulators, and everything an FBO would need to get started. The realism of Redbird's sims is especially stunning, with all kinds of weather modeling and failure scenarios available. Dual-control models are also available to train crew resource management (CRM) and advanced systems.

John King of King Schools fame, and an instructor who has seen every innovation in flight instruction for several decades, likens Redbird's simulators to when computers were introduced. "We have moments in our lives that we remember as before or after an event," he said. "There was the time before and after computers, or before and after Steve Jobs gave us all the wonderful things he did. In aviation, we have that now because Redbird is revolutionizing flight training, and we will remember aviation before and after this very exciting moment."

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