Imagine a take-it-out-of-the box-and-plug-it-in device that, within minutes, can transport you into aviation experiences and adventures anywhere in the world. Redbird Flight Simulations founder Jerry Gregoire thought that idea might be a winner, too. He and his team of developers grappled for months on how to make a simple-to-use, ready-to-go flight simulator for people who like to fly, not just those who like to tinker with computers.
Meanwhile, AOPA research about those learning to fly showed that quality flight simulation is an important element in the success of student pilots. Recognizing the maturation of desktop flight simulation hardware and software, others in aviation were coming to the same conclusion, including those at King Schools, Flying magazine, PilotWorkshops, EAA, and others.
In a true “mother of invention” kind of way, Gregoire’s new Jay “flight experience platform” seems ready to fulfill on the important mission of engaging pilots of all types by immersing them into scenarios that allow them to determine the outcome of flights, fly over high-resolution virtual terrain to exotic locations, and experience aircraft as simple as a Cub and as nostalgic as a Lockheed Constellation.
The project works something like this: Gregoire and company build the Jay desktop systems in Austin, Texas. Pilots order them from the AOPA website. Publishers and training organizations from throughout GA send information about flight experiences and adventures to a team of Redbird developers, and they are transormed into downloadable scenarios. Pilots then “fly” the scenarios, some of which include decision points that allow users to determine the outcome of the flight.
The heart of the system is the Jay, a purpose-built, high-end computer with an advanced graphics card running Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D simulation software. Prepar3D came about in 2009 when Lockheed Martin purchased the commercialized version of Flight Simulator from Microsoft. For more than 25 years, pilots used ever-advancing versions of Flight Simulator to experience aviation. Microsoft shut the product line down following the release of Flight Simulator X.
Recognizing the potential for further development, Lockheed Martin purchased Flight Simulator X and continued the progression, releasing a new version for developers. The Prepar3D software powers all of Redbird’s simulators from the Jay and TD desktop models through advanced full-motion devices replicating everything from piston singles to twin turboprops.
“The goal for Jay was simple,” Gregoire explains. “If my mom can’t take it out of the box, plug it in, turn it on, and have it up and running, then it is too complicated.
“We at first used a plastic yoke and throttle quadrant to keep the costs as low as possible, but they felt cheap and we knew from our experience with the TD desktop simulators that they wouldn’t hold up,” Gregoire continues. After much testing, the Jay computer comes in a steel case with the metal yoke and throttle quadrant permanently attached. Two thumb screws hold the 27-inch high-definition monitor to the top of the case. A custom keyboard with highlighted shortcuts is included. Upon start-up, the system loads the flight simulation software and brings up a launch page from which the pilot can choose one of nine aircraft profiles, a location for the flight, time of day, and wind and weather conditions. Another tab allows access to preloaded flight scenarios. Additional scenarios can be added through an optional Internet connection or via a thumb drive and a USB port. More options include rudder pedals, a mouse, headsets, and even a Redbird Cygnus system that allows a pilot to fool his iPad electronic flight bag into flying along with the desktop system.
The system even allows two pilots to fly in formation through the Internet, or to share a virtual cockpit from two different systems anywhere in the world.
“Working with Redbird, AOPA now brings to the marketplace a real and meaningful flight experience,” says AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller. “The exact experience can be determined solely by the aviator, who has dozens and dozens of variables from which to select—or an individual can collect and fly scenarios designed by Redbird Media, a division of the simulator manufacturer.”
Among the entities already signed on to work with Redbird Media in creating scenarios are AOPA Pilot and Flight Training magazines, the Air Safety Institute, Flying magazine, the Experimental Aircraft Association, PilotWorkshops, and King Schools. Other companies, publishers, and associations are expected to join the network in the coming months.
Gregoire credits Jeff Van West, director of Redbird Media, with moving the Jay from being just a simple desktop system to one with a great deal more potential. Van West, former editor of IFR magazine and co-author of the book Flight Simulator X for Real-World Pilots, notes that gamers want to fly the most exotic airplane they can find, and many of them design advanced scenery and aircraft profiles that they share with friends. Pilots, on the other hand, want to be continually challenged by flight experiences, which the network of organizations involved with the Jay project will provide.
Articles with associated Jay scenarios will be flagged in print and online, alerting Jay users to download the scenarios (in this issue, see “P&E: Technique,” page 78 and “P&E: Never Again,” page 94). Users with an Internet connection can read the articles on the Jay display and then immediately fly the scenarios.
Challenges will be inserted into the scenarios, giving the pilot audible and visual cues of various options. For example, one scenario follows an AOPA Never Again story where a pilot is trying to get home despite some deterioating weather across his path. You join this flight in the air, hearing the voice of your passenger and ATC, and getting options to continue or divert several times along the way. All along, you can refer back to charts and other resources on the ever-available virtual kneeboard.
While the Jay is not a certified simulator and can’t be used to log time toward a new certificate or rating, Fuller believes it can increase pilot engagement and involvement.
“Over time, I’ve come to understand that the simulated flight experience is a real and meaningful type of flight experience,” he explains. “It is something that can show you new places. It’s something that can help improve skills. It’s something that can even allow you to compare how different aircraft handle similar flight missions.”
Gregoire expects aircraft and avionics companies to develop new aircraft profiles and new avionics suites for Jay users. “Imagine,” he says, “the ability to virtually fly a new avionics package as it might look in your particular model of aircraft.”
Another possible use is by flying clubs and flight schools to introduce potential new members or students to aviation experiences. The Jay’s Internet link also will allow online competitions among flying clubs and other groups, as well as online communities who might share experiences, flights, and competitions.
Cost of the AOPA Jay by Redbird is $2,490. Most scenarios are free to any Jay owner. However, some scenarios—such as those by PilotWorkshops—will be by subscription or one-time fee. With software upgrades and new features seamlessly downloaded to the Jay, the ability to develop new and engaging scenarios is, well, virtually unlimited.
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King Schools has long been recognized as an innovator in aviation training, with founders John and Martha King having trained hundreds of thousands of pilots over some four decades. Already a sales agent for the Redbird TD series of sophisticated desktop simulators designed for flight-school use, John King says his company is “delighted to be a part of this breakthrough.” King Schools will be providing scenarios for Jay users.
“The Jay, and the ability to load scenarios to be flown, has the promise of being one of aviation’s most powerful tools for bringing people into aviation,” King says. “The way most people are exposed to aviation is in airline terminals and the back of an airliner—an experience that makes it difficult for them to grasp that aviation is humankind’s most inspiring achievement. We have chosen scenarios that we hope will give nonpilots the opportunity to appreciate the science, beauty, and adventure that Lindbergh enjoyed so much.
“In addition, the Jay allows pilots to fly the same scenarios that challenged the risk management skills of other pilots, and safely make their own decisions and see the results. There is no better way for pilots to improve their own risk management skills.”
Mark Robidoux is a cofounder of PilotWorkshops.com, a company that creates monthly premium online training scenarios for thousands of pilots, including some 2,000 who each month pay $20 to download interactive courses. According to Robidoux, PilotWorkshops will be providing premium, scenario-based IFR training for the Jay. Its IFR Mastery series is a natural fit for the Jay. “Our subscribers have been asking for a way to ‘fly’ the scenarios we publish in IFR Mastery and the Jay will provide them that ability. With our focus on proficiency training, we are thrilled with the potential of the Jay to help instrument pilots gain valuable experience and stay sharp between flights.”
Robert Goyer, editor in chief of Flying magazine, also sees potential in the Jay. “Two years ago at EAA AirVenture, Flying discussed with a number of friends in the industry the great opportunity we all had to use flight simulation technology to allow pilots to fly complex and risky flight scenarios without the risk to life and limb. Today that concept is a reality with the advent of the Jay. We at Flying look forward to working with Redbird to give our readers who own a Jay the opportunity to try their hand at flying the very same flights they read about in riveting detail in our magazine. A few clicks and you’re in a whole new world, thanks to this exciting new technology.”
Jack Pelton, acting president and CEO of EAA, says his association is committed to creating a vibrant and growing aviation community. “Growing participation requires as many avenues as possible for people to experience aviation and flying. The Jay project will give people the opportunity to experience many of the communities that EAA is involved in, such as homebuilt aircraft, warbirds, vintage aircraft, and aerobatic flying,” he says.
“We hope that through our EAA articles we can provide a Jay owner the opportunity to experience flying an aircraft from these various communities—a mission in EAA’s B–17 Aluminum Overcast or the Ford Tri-Motor, for example. It will also provide a wonderful opportunity for aviation enthusiasts to experience flying the numerous homebuilt aircraft we feature.
“Imagine a Young Eagle flight coming to life or being relived any time you want on a Jay. We believe this is another wonderful way to reach out to inspire and grow participation in aviation.”
The AOPA Jay by Redbird makes its public debut at the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo April 9 through 14 in Lakeland, Florida. Numerous Jays will be stationed around the grounds—including at the AOPA tent—for pilots to try out. Of course, one of the fun challenges of Sun ’n Fun is the arrival procedure. I’ve flown the Lake Parker Arrival nearly 25 times in the past couple of decades. Now, Jay users can fly it with me. Jays shipping now and at the show include a scenario that puts you on the arrival, mixing it up with other aircraft of all sizes and speeds. Come along as I act as your virtual coach while we seek out the power plant, the big orange ball, and the wedding-cake tower. Oh, and we may have a few surprises for you along the way, so be prepared for anything. —TBH