I’m weaving my Bell Jet Ranger helicopter through the labyrinthine Hong Kong skyline. I’m low enough that I can see the Bank of China tower and the famous Samsung LED sign adorning the edge of the harbor, lit with a thousand jewels in the twilight. My instructor tells me I need to land this thing on a rooftop helipad that, to me, looks the size of one of the black dots on a pair of dice. I can’t be distracted as I thread the needle of this approach. Hovering down near the top of my assigned building, I have a hard time slowing down. Suddenly my nose is too high and I overcorrect; way too much torque. I’m also flying backward! With my skids smashing into the building, I try to stop this heavy beast, but slam the tail rotor into the corner of the structure. It’s a half-million-dollar mistake.
Bobby Smith, my copilot for this flight, starts laughing. My palms are sweaty, and my back is sticking to the black leather seat. The ringing telephone in the background shakes me back to reality: This was just a simulator ride, and I don’t have to call my insurance company. “Let’s do that again,” chides Smith, “but let’s go to Seattle.”
You may not have heard of FLYIT Simulators (www.flyit.com), but you will. Ensconced in the corner of a nondescript commercial building near McClellan-Palomar Airport in California, a small team of highly skilled individuals create some of the most realistic and accurate professional simulators around. In the helicopter world, FLYIT really has no competitors—no one comes close—and they’ve recently launched into the GA aircraft world. So much is different about these simulators, that it’s not really fair to compare them to other GA sim manufacturers.
Headquartered near Palomar Airport in Southern California, FLYIT Simulators offers training in very realistic and accurate professional simulators.
The company was started in 1993 by Terry Simpkins who is an industrial designer by trade. Having created designs in various industries including the custom boating world, Simpkins is passionate about aviation. He has been flying GA since high school, and combined his love of flying and design into this innovative company. Today, FLYIT has helicopter simulators all over the world, with customers in law enforcement, emergency medical transportation, search and rescue and more. FLYIT also has created several custom fixed-wing simulators for customers with great success. They’re now venturing into the general aviation arena, where they’ve made quite a debut.
The concept is classically simple: custom-built simulations built on top of world-class flight simulator software by Microsoft (and now owned by Lockheed). Simulations are run on a single PC (a high-end AMD Phenom quad-core processor with streaming video and graphics cards) and fed to ultra-high-resolution LCD instrument displays in full-sized cockpit mockups. A beautiful, wraparound “side-window” view of the sky and world around you is provided by two large, high-res LCD displays and a huge rear-projection front screen.
The entire assembly is purpose-built into a fuselage that’s also custom-manufactured and made from strong-yet-light PVC board. A separate instructor’s command center with a duplicate view of the cockpit as well as additional controls and screens, allows complete manipulation of all parameters of the flight. These components are then built into a custom 18-foot trailer, complete with heavy-duty insulation, commercial-grade carpeting and lighting, and RV-type air-conditioning and heating. The result is a turnkey, rolling simulation classroom that flight schools are discovering can be both a marketing tool and considerable revenue generator.
A Pilot’s Perspective
I haven’t met a pilot yet who can resist a simulator. Judging from the long lines at AOPA’s recent Expo in Long Beach, Calif., FLYIT knows this, and is showing pilots why their simulators are so impressive. Easily the coolest feature of the FLYIT simulators is the wraparound, 280-degree view. FLYIT has spared no expense in this area, and even contracts with third-party vendors to provide even more hyperrealistic scenery. Five-speaker subwoofer and mechanical devices provide engine and airframe vibration, with a touchdown feel so accurate that you’d swear it was real. The sims are not full-motion, but you hardly notice.
The technical team at FLYIT has done considerable custom programming to allow the simulators to accomplish extraordinary things—from custom visuals to controlling cockpit displays and performance envelopes. Even radio stacks are made by FLYIT to mimic the real devices as closely as possible. A 24,000-airport database means the instructor can place the student just about anywhere in the world. Want to shoot an approach into Taipei? No problem. Practice a helipad landing in Tokyo? You bet. It all comes standard.
One unique aspect of FLYIT is its scenario development. Instead of just tooling around the sky doing the usual approaches and things, FLYIT has created custom simulations to let the student learn from real-world scenarios. It’s akin to scenario-based training used in airline pilot training. My mission required me to fly to the scene of an accident, pick up a victim, and then navigate the city and bring them to a tiny landing pad on top of a hospital. It’s a valuable—and, frankly, fun—feature.
The power of the instructor’s “command center” is equally impressive. Besides seeing everything the pilot sees, instructors can change the weather—from wind to cloud cover to visibility—or time of day. They can make needles twitch or set gauges at different values to catch pilots who blow off checklists. A “fault box” can fail virtually any cockpit or engine component, and the instructor can reposition the aircraft for repeated exercises. Imagine shooting an approach 20 times in one hour, as opposed to the three or four times in real life.
Flight School’s Perspective
Ultimately, these aren’t video games, and there has to be a compelling reason to own one. “Our goals are what we call the three Rs,” explains Terry Simpkins, a man who obviously is passionate about his business, “Realism, Reality and Reliability. And we like to add ‘Revenue’ because we want the flight school to make a good profit.” Research shows that a FLYIT sim costs a school about $1 per hour to operate, based on 20 usage hours per week. If schools charge the national average of $90 per hour for the sim, that’s a net profit stream of $41,080 annually. It’s not hard to project revenues based on even higher usage.
The considerable design and engineering that has gone into these units has resulted in a system so low on maintenance, that FLYIT is the only company offering a five-year warranty. Many of the more-than-100 FLYIT simulators around the world have gone 6,000 hours without a problem. Thoughtful extras have been built into the systems, including dual removable hard drives (one is a backup) that can be swapped in minutes. The fuselage and cockpit PVC board is colored all the way through, meaning scratches and scuffs remain invisible and there’s no paint to chip. An extra projector lamp and free software upgrades are included. Four-place intercoms and even dual headsets come in the package.
These simulators shine in their avionics because those are designed and manufactured by FLYIT. In addition to the six-pack, the standard package adds an HSI, dual nav/coms, transponder, auto-pilot, RMI and a Garmin 430. Dual Garmin 430s, Garmin 530 and G1000 glass cockpit are options. Though FLYIT can create just about any aircraft (they’ve done everything from a Twin Otter to a King Air), their “standard” single-engine production models include Cessna 172 and 182, Mooney Ovation and several Pipers. Simpkins tells me the Diamond DA40 is soon to be offered as a production model. Twins include the Beech Baron, Piper Seneca and Seminole.
The complete trailer-classroom sells for $139,000 with production-aircraft models (each simulator includes four single-engine models and two twins). Custom aircraft add $10,000 and up to that price. Unlike companies that “feature-add” you to death, Simpkins shows me that one price includes everything. “This is a total plug-and-fly solution,” he says, “and the units have a life expectancy of 20 years.” Multiple FLYIT simulators can be networked together through a LAN or via the Internet for formation flying.
As proven at AOPA Expo, the simulators are unbeatable marketing tools. Simpkins tells me he has customers who take the rolling classroom to high schools and colleges. “This can even be taken to a mall,” he adds. “Imagine the power of that as a promotional tool and consider how easy that is; it just plugs into normal power.” Schools that prefer not to use the trailer can place the simulator system in a room (23×19 feet required).
The Fun Factor
Fun seems to figure prominently in aviation. FLYIT simulators offer fun and then some. We’re lucky to live in a time when realistic simulation is a part of our reality. With their emphasis on realism, FLYIT sims allow you to do and try things you never could in real life. Repeating an approach in rain or ice or at night is a matter of pushing a button. Relocating yourself to some exotic location is just as easy. How else besides one of these simulators could I ever practice landings in China or steep turns at night over India? The possibilities go on and on.
Back in the Jet Ranger, Bobby and I (Bobby Smith is actually one of FLYIT’s software engineers) decide to head elsewhere to practice hovering. As we leave Hong Kong, I buzz the helicopter just over the tails of the airliners sitting on the ramp. “In real life, they say it takes a pilot some 10 hours or more just to learn how to hover,” says Bobby as we just miss the tail of a KLM 747. “Imagine the cost. Here you can do it over and over without any risk.” Back in Seattle, I manage a decent landing. I never even left the building or spent a cent on avgas. Outside, the cold fog rolls in. Inside, its summer and we’re headed for Florida. I could get used to this.