How virtual reality is paving the way for future pilots

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Virtual Reality has been a relatively familiar concept to most people since the mid 1990s but it is best known today as a gaming experience. The history of Virtual Reality dates back to the 1970s and flight simulation was seen as one of its most promising applications from the very start. The fact that it has taken nearly fifty years to become a plausible possibility reflects on the very large digital processing requirements necessary to make a realistic VR platform viable. 

Flight Simulation is even older: less than ten years after the Wright Brothers coaxed their primitive craft into the air, the Antoinette aircraft company built the first known purpose-built simulator for its own flying school. Known, unimaginatively, as the “Antoinette Barrel” (‘tonneau Antoinette’), because it was quite literally made out of a barrel, the simulator was intended to teach the novice pilot how to operate the controls of Antoinette’s own monoplane.

The Antoinette aircraft did not feature a joystick and was controlled by two wheels on either side of the cockpit. But this system was not intuitive – crashes were commonplace, and the simulator was the result. A replica of the Antoinette simulator was until recently displayed in the foyer of the Airbus training facility in Toulouse.

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Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Skip forward 110 years and although no longer consisting of a modified barrel (sadly), the basic principle and purpose of the modern simulator is identical to the Antoinette back in 1909: a machine, devoid of risk, that mechanically replicates the motion of an aircraft in response to the ‘pilot’ operating the controls. What has changed is the realism that it can replicate. Modern simulators are incredibly realistic and fantastically useful training tools that can reproduce emergency situations, different weather conditions, and even the vibrations of the aircraft’s engines can be felt through the seat. The modern Full Flight Simulator (FFS) offers levels of realism rated in levels, with a Level 7 simulator being the most advanced. These are used for initial type training and recurrent training that all commercial pilots must undertake every six months to retain their certification to fly passengers.

Meanwhile Virtual Reality has sprinted forward over the last ten years or so to become a relatively commonplace gaming technology and is gaining greater credibility due to its ever increasing realism with every passing year. Literally hundreds of companies have VR equipment in development – from big names like Apple and Google to tech startups – so expect the technology to improve exponentially. In terms of the software, at the moment, three of the best VR flight sims are X plane 11, Aerofly, and DCS World. All offer remarkable levels of realism in slightly different ways.

X plane 11, for example, is probably the most detailed in terms of the aircraft themselves whereas Aerofly maps the whole of the South Western USA for the player’s enjoyment, allowing one to take a hop over the Hoover dam in a Sopwith Camel for example (and who wouldn’t want to do that?).

DCS World, whilst still highly impressive with regard to detail, concentrates more on gameplay than the other two by allowing the virtual pilot to fly in lovingly-recreated historical situations such as over the D-day beaches in a Messerschmitt 109. 

Nonetheless, VR, whilst offering ever greater realism, is not quite there yet but the potential is very clear. Although this does beg the question, if there are already highly sophisticated, realistic simulators in existence, what advantage does a potential VR solution hold over the current technology? And the simple answer is of course, as it always seems to be – money. A Level 7 simulator will sell for somewhere in the region of $12 million, which is more expensive than many aircraft. As a result, not many tend to be built and obtaining time on them can be eye-wateringly expensive.

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Simulators are currently built to simulate one aircraft type only, and as they generally use the whole nose of the aircraft in question, they are very large and weigh several tons. A VR alternative makes obvious sense to the operator, offering potentially greater adaptability where the same equipment could conceivably simulate different aircraft and be updated when new models appear.

Likewise, it won’t weigh several tons, contain a powerful hydraulic system, nor require a hanger-sized building to fit it in. The massive initial cost, not to mention the operating costs (simulators require a great deal of power), could potentially be slashed, savings that could be passed on to the students as well as the organizations that train them. It is telling that the flight-sim X plane 11 already markets its product on the basis of a training aid for budding pilots, with one happy customer stating that his years of using the sim had saved him a great deal of money on tuition fees when he went for his (real) Private Pilot’s Licence.

Having said that, don’t expect to be presented with gloves and a headset if you turn up to flying school tomorrow. The technology isn’t there yet but it looks like it may only be a matter of time before this becomes the reality of flight training, if only for reasons of economy. Whether this will allow more people than ever to enjoy the freedom of the air remains to be seen but it has already simulated the experience for countless home users around the world.

Buying a Business Jet

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So, your ship has come in and you’re basking in unheralded wealth. It’s a problem all of us have to deal with at some time (right? Hope so). You’ve bought a big crazy house and the sports car you always dreamt of, but now where do you go from there? The only way is up and that means a private jet. Join the ranks of the super rich, where you might want to fly your own classic airliner like John Travolta or just settle for painting your surname on it in massive golden letters like Donald Trump.

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However even if you’re inordinately rich it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fork out the cool $500 million that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud of Saudi Arabia paid for his own private Airbus A380. And that’s before you’ve even gone anywhere. An A380 guzzles approximately $17,500 of fuel per hour, which is enough to make even Bill Gates think about taking the bus. But then most potential biz jet owners are unlikely to be in the market for an aircraft containing five king-size bedrooms to choose from, each with its own ensuite bathroom and sitting room. Prince Alwaleed’s jet also features a throne for him to sit on while he travels through the sky. It’s possible that you’ve long been in the market for an airborne throne room but alas, very few biz jets actually feature them – though most do have very comfortable seats. If you can scale down your ambitions a little, the following tips may be of use when you enter the market place for a new or used private jet.

Let’s start with the boring stuff: cash. If you are even considering dipping your toe into the biz jet world it would seem to suggest that you are fairly well off, or at least know someone who is. But you might not have enough to shell out the full amount in used notes right this minute. Luckily, there are many lenders with dedicated aviation financing plans so you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. You can work this out yourself or you might consider employing a dedicated finance broker. Financing a jet is a pretty complicated business so it helps to have someone around who knows the pitfalls. They will also know which lender to approach to get the best funding deal for any particular aircraft. 

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A business jet is going to be an expensive purchase but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to get the best deal you can. Just like a car, there are benefits to looking at the used market. You’ll typically get more aircraft for your money but you need to look more closely at your potential purchase. It’s all very well for a fighter pilot to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’, but it’s important to pay a bit more attention when you’re the one who has to fork out for a wing spar replacement because someone overstressed the airframe.

Whilst there are relatively few aviation equivalents of the ‘one careful lady owner’ used car (having said that, Oprah Winfrey owns a Bombardier Global Express XRS), it’s worth looking for a corporate aircraft that has been the pride and joy of its owner and kept scrupulously maintained its entire life. Brand new aircraft are obviously more expensive but they generally come with a five year warranty, although Embraer sell their Legacy 650E with an impressive ten year warranty, which might save you money in the long run. If you do go down the used route then making use of a reputable aviation broker makes sense: they generally charge between three and five percent of the overall cost of the aircraft and can help with ongoing operational issues further down the track.

Once you’ve settled on the particular type you want, it’s worth doing some serious homework on the aircraft to avoid any pitfalls. Professional help is available, and frankly, no matter how much research you’ve done, you’ll need to employ the services of a professional inspector. It’s particularly important to know your chosen aircraft’s maintenance cycles. That five year old Embraer Phenom might look like a bargain for a couple of million dollars but it won’t look so rosy if you have to spend another $250,000 on scheduled maintenance.

No matter what aircraft you want to buy, if it’s used, insist on a pre-purchase inspection by a certified authority. In the US this would occur at a certified 145 repair station and there are, of course, worldwide equivalents.

Do you even need to buy a jet? Leasing a business aircraft is a popular and comparatively economic alternative to ownership. It’s a good way to see if biz jet ownership is the right thing for you without the undeniably large outlay required to take the plunge and actually buy an aircraft. Leasing takes two forms – known as dry-leasing and wet-leasing. If you dry-lease an aircraft, it would generally be for a long-term period. You don’t get any fuel or crew and are responsible for maintenance and insurance. Wet leasing includes all these things and is usually for short periods or one-off trips.

Ultimately, although it invokes all the glamor of the genuine jet-set, the business aircraft is like anything else – do your homework, shop around, seek professional advice and you’ll find the sky is no longer the limit.

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— Ed Ward

Find out more here. 

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