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On electronic wings

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has flown FTDs and simulators for many models of aircraft over the past 20 years.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has flown FTDs and simulators for many models of aircraft over the past 20 years.

If you've flown on the airlines in the past year you've surely noted that the carriers have figured out how to maximize passenger loads.

There's rarely an empty seat on many flights. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airlines in 2006 produced their largest fourth-quarter profit margin since 1999.

Along with the recovery comes pilot hiring. Most carriers have recalled many of their furloughed flight crews. That's good news for young pilots and students hoping for a career in the cockpit of an airliner. To better support such prospects, AOPA Flight Training, our sister publication focused on the student and flight instructor market, this month launched a new monthly section called "Career Pilot." The magazine pages include the latest hiring information, news about the airline industry, profiles of recently hired airline pilots, and tips and advice for getting hired yourself. The online component includes access to previous articles written on airline careers and a host of information about the airlines.

Up and away

The upward hiring trend is good news to university aviation programs and large flight schools that specialize in training pilots for the airlines. The airline contraction that started in 2001 has caused many parents to encourage their children to seek other more promising careers. Now, though, schools are beginning to see a recovery in sync with the airline expansions. The improvement is allowing schools to invest in their fleets and to seek ways to train students more economically.

One way to decrease training costs is to invest in simulators and sophisticated flight training devices (FTDs). In case you missed the distinction, the term simulator is generally used to describe a training device that includes motion. Flight training devices don't include motion, but when an enclosed cockpit is paired with a sophisticated visual system, the results can be nearly as convincing as if the cab were moving. The wraparound visuals can easily trick your inner ear into thinking you are actually moving.

Not surprisingly, it's less expensive to build and maintain an FTD than it is a full-motion system. And, also not surprisingly, the free market system is busy at work filling the growing need of flight schools to equip with FTDs and simulators.

Among the new entrants is Alsim, a French company formed in 1994 to build FTDs. The company quickly captured market share in Australia and 21 other countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In 2005 it made its first sale in Canada, and this spring it delivered its first system to a U.S. customer — Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

To check out this new generation of FTD, AOPA Flight Training Editor Mike Collins and I flew to Berrien Springs, landing at the university-owned airport. The two new Alsim FTDs are located in a new building specially designed to host the trainers. As Verlyn Benson, dean of the College of Technology, proudly reported, much of the cost of the building and the FTDs was donated by the community. The infusion is a real shot in the arm for the small university that was struggling to keep its aviation program afloat. Home to just 3,000 students — half of them from other countries — the school is affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Many of its aviation graduates spend time as missionary pilots around the world. Because of rising insurance costs and the soft pilot market, the school sold five of its 11 airplanes in recent years, according to Allan Payne, chairman of aeronautics and airport manager.

The sale allowed for better utilization of the existing fleet, drove down insurance costs, and freed up cash to help support the FTD project.

Flying the electrons

Inside the expansive simulation building just across the parking lot from the runway, Alsim President Jean-Paul Monnin explained to Collins and me how his company has grown quickly to become an innovative leader in the FTD business, delivering more than 130 trainers throughout the world — the least expensive of which is about $75,000.

Alsim's product line covers the gamut from small, simple devices meant to replicate ultralights used for training in Europe to the AL200, a highly sophisticated FTD that can replicate as many as 18 aircraft models. Andrews has an AL200 and an AL172 G1000, a less sophisticated FTD meant to act as a cockpit trainer for a Cessna 172 with a Garmin G1000 panel.

Although the AL172 features an actual G1000 cockpit and a visual system, the flying characteristics are handled by a mechanical linkage that doesn't react like any particular airplane.

The AL200, however, utilizes brushless motors to provide realistic flight control feedback specific to one of the 18 models of airplane. The instructor, who sits in a cab behind the two-person cockpit, can reconfigure the FTD with a few keystrokes. With that, the flat-panel liquid-crystal displays in front of the pilot instantly reconfigure to replicate a new model, as does the display just to the right, which depicts engine instrumentation. The throttle quadrant can be changed from a single-engine piston to a twin to a jet by removing four screws and disconnecting one quadrant and plugging in a replacement.

During my flight, the FTD was set up to replicate a Beechcraft King Air 200. The FTD faithfully replicated the airplane's handling characteristics as I took off and in a few minutes flew an instrument approach to Chicago O'Hare International Airport. We even taxied right past some airliners and up to an empty gate — all without paying any landing fees.

The wraparound visual system is quite convincing, even showing other airplanes flying by. The video refresh rate is 30 frames per second, which is higher than what you see at the movies or on a television. All manner of weather conditions can be simulated, as can smoke in the cockpit for emergency training. The instructor can program all sorts of system failures to help the pilot prepare for most any situation.

These certified FTDs, as with motion simulators, reduce the cost of learning to fly because they are much less expensive to operate on an hourly basis than the real airplane. For example, for a private pilot, as many as five of the 35 required flight hours at an FAR Part 142 training school can be completed in the FTD. For a commercial certificate the FTD time can count for as many as 50 of the 250 hours and for an airline transport pilot certificate, as many as 25 of the 75 hours. In addition, and probably more important, the FTDs allow you to practice maneuvers and situations that are simply not practical or safe in the real airplane.

With this new generation of FTDs and simulators, tomorrow's pilots will be able to move ever more quickly from the training environment to the airline cockpit while still ensuring a safe ride for the customers in the back of the airplane.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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