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FlightSafety's Matrix Graphic Flight Simulator Brings Gaming to the Workplace Print E-mail
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Written by Fareed "TurboGoat" Guyot   
Tuesday, 25 March 2008


The fun of computer-based flight simulators and flying games is putting the user in the action.  PC and console games have been providing that fun for years. (Click to read some of my recently reviewed flight simulatorshardware, and games)  In the professional world, simulators have trained pilots, ship captains, train engineers, and others who need to learn how to operate large expensive machinery without risking death, injury, and damage during the training process.  Recently, I was able to experience one of the next advancements in the simulator training equipment that I predict someday will be available to the casual gamer.

 For the last two weeks (March 2008) I have been in Florida at FlightSafety’s Orlando facility learning how to fly the Cessna CJ3.  It has been a few years since I have been at FlightSafety for a training event.  While this is not to serve as an endorsement of a particular company; during this course I had the opportunity to experience the Matrix Graphic Flight Simulator (GFS) which I think is the future of ground cockpit training.

I just changed employers, which means in this case I am learning a new airplane.  In the pro-pilot world flying a new airplane is not as simple as just going for a few familiarization flights.  Depending on the weight and sophistication of the aircraft the FAA requires the pilot to earn a “type” certification.  This includes a prescribed course of ground and flight instruction followed by a flight test. 

The course requires the pilot to be trained in the general system knowledge of the aircraft, how it flies normally and when there are emergencies such as an engine failure on takeoff.  Completing this type of course in the actual airplane has been largely abandoned in favor of full-motion simulators in name of safety and cost savings.  It is much safer and far cheaper to simulate repeated engine failures in a simulator where deficient pilot technique can be corrected with repeated practice without fear of death or bending of airplane parts.

These full-motion simulators had simple beginnings like the Link trainer used to train Army and Navy pilots in WWII. Today's "Level D" simulators feature fully functioning cockpits with day and night visuals (the CJ3 sim I'm flying uses GoogleEarth imagery and XM Weather) and the entire realm of variables available to instructors including weather, equipment failures, and air traffic conflicts.  These simulators are mounted on hydraulic stilts (The CJ3 sim I am flying is using new electric motorized stilts) to provide the motion.  The cockpits are usually pulled right off the production line and incorporated into the simulator.  Powerful simulation software is used to crunch all the inputs from the cockpit controls with the scenario at hand to provide the proper training experience.  Each one of these simulators costs between $10-15 million a piece.  (which is sometimes more than the cost of the actual airplane new)

Training companies like SimCom, SimuFlite and FlightSafety maintain training facilities with large simulator bays which hold 10-15 simulators at a time.  Simuflite which has all of its operations at the Dallas-Fort Worth International airport has a facility that holds 30 simulators.  Like any professional training course offered in any field these training companies provide all-inclusive training packages which due to the equipment involved can cost $10,000-40,000 for an initial type rating and half that for a “recurrent” training.

Competition among these companies for corporate and airline customers is fierce.  Having the best instructors and equipment is key.  At FlightSafety they have developed the Matrix Graphic Flight Simulator which graphically presents the cockpit of an airplane without losing many of the tactile benefits of a real cockpit mock-up.

As mentioned before the actual full-motion simulators are very expensive and previously crews new to an airplane would spend large portions of several valuable simulator sessions just familiarizing themselves with where all the switches and controls are located.  To increase the amount of time spent on actual flight training instead of familiarization, static cockpit mock-ups are used to learn checklists and flows. (the sequence of how systems are turned on and off as the aircraft is being prepared for take-off)  Imagine if you were to take a course on how to operate your car.  A trainer like this would teach you how to find your head light, mirror, and seat controls in the dark without even looking.

Up until this point the ground cockpit trainer was known as  “The Paper Tiger” or several full color paper posters of the cockpit glued to wood frames and arranged in the shape of the cockpit.  The training crew would sit in their positions and run through the checklists reaching for buttons and switches as they practiced different scenarios.  In past initial training courses I have done this very thing, even making fake airplane noises.  This exercise is very effective except the one thing that is missing is the response of the airplane when each switch is flipped.  You don’t see the annunciators turn on and off, or hear the warning indicators, or see the flight displays change as inputs are made.  Your technique and system knowledge was not fully evaluated until you flew the simulator where switch inputs reacted either positively or negatively.

The Matrix Graphic Flight Simulator marries these two concepts into a very effective training device.  Like the paper tiger it is a ground based cockpit trainer except it features ten 21” and 25” LCD flat, touch-screen monitors all tied into a computer and software that offers nearly the tactile experience of the full-motion simulator without needing the space, equipment, and expense.  With the GFS, the entire cockpit layout is displayed and simply touching a switch causes it to move; and if it’s tied to an annunciator it illuminates. 

The software allows for the aircraft to be flown (the software manipulates the controls including takeoff and landing but the students can fly the aircraft using autopilot inputs) which means the instructor can simulate a myriad of scenarios for students to deal with and all the displays react as though they were in the simulator or the real airplane.  The GFS also marries ground school training materials into the displays to assist in systems understanding as each button or switch is selected.  For example, in ground school an intricately animated PowerPoint slide on the functions of the fuel system had to be abstractly explained once in the cockpit trainer or flight simulator.  In the GFS, it takes that fuel system schematic and displays it on a screen above showing the exact flow of fuel based on how the user has configured the switches in the cockpit.

Each GFS costs approximately $250,000 with most of it for the software that runs the system.  Based on the very small amount of information available I have determined that the GFS is a FlightSafety sponsored invention; but the technology is likely to propagate to the other training companies as well.  As with all software, it will eventually drop in price and the actual equipment is rather simple and not too specialized. (touch-screens, and cabinetry)  It’s hard to believe that in five years a stripped down home version for aviation enthusiasts and gamers won’t be available.


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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 25 March 2008 )

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