Flight Training

Plug and Fly: Greener, Cleaner Skies Ahead

They say history has a habit of repeating itself. We can only hope that when it does, we learn something new from it that propels us forward and not backward. 2015 has been a year of remarkable feats for solar powered and electric powered aircraft.  Some of these feats seem quaint and evoke a simpler time in aviation’s infancy, others seem remarkable breakthroughs. In either case, they point to a future in aviation that could usher in a greener, quieter and cleaner way to travel aloft.

Trying to harness electricity for flight is nothing new.  You can trace it back to two nineteenth century French army officers named Renard and Krebs. They had the audacity to power a hydrogen-filled dirigible with several large and heavy 8-horsepower batteries.  The result was something stunning for its time – a take off, a short flight and then a return to the point of departure!

Everything Old Is New Again.

Newscasts in the summer of 2015 were filled with a tale of a global circumnavigation by a long-winged, very slow aircraft called Solar Impulse. Using a wing impregnated with photovoltaic solar cells, Solar Impulse set forth on a journey around the globe, something earlier aviators already accomplished. The difference this time, of course, is the energy source. Solar Impulse propels itself without a carbon trace, without adding a single pollutant to the atmosphere.

Similarly, two aerial crossings of the English Channel made news in July, Hugues Duval’s Cr-Cri twin-engine craft and Airbus’ E-Fan prototype. Since this sort of thing hasn’t been news since Louis Bleriot did it in 1909 in a piston-powered monoplane, the only thing that makes it newsworthy today is the power source that propelled these aircrafts across the storied water boundary between England and France –lithium battery powered electric engines.

In terms of records, a technicality knocked the Cri-Cri flight out of the record books for being first, and another proposed English Channel crossing by the Pipistrel Light Sport Aircraft Company was foiled by its own engine manufacturer, Siemens, who refused to permit it. That put the Airbus E-Fan into the record books as the first electric powered aircraft to officially cross the Channel and allowed Airbus to collect the $1500 prize from The Daily Mail – a paltry sum compared to the millions Airbus sunk into creating the  E-Fan.

Also in 2015, a single-seat solar powered aircraft flew from Germany to Austria and back. The flight took about three hours. On July 4th, the University of Stuttgart launched an electric flight across the Alps in an electric powered aircraft. The craft landed, the pilots recharged the batteries, and flew back.

So What And Who Cares?

The practical among us are likely to dismiss these feats as mere novelties. The futurists among us, however, are hopeful these small victories point to a new golden age in aviation.

In case you were wondering what benefits electric flight holds, here are a few:

  • Little to no carbon footprint
  • Lower operating costs
  • Less noise pollution
  • Quiet in-cabin, in-flight noise
  • Smoother engine operation with less vibration
  • Engine rotation speeds at 2500 RPM requiring no reduction gears

In a 2009 article written by Peter Garrison for Air & Space, the author points out that experimentation in electric flight has been going on in earnest since the 1970’s. In those days the pioneers came from the ranks of radio controlled model aircraft enthusiasts such as Robert Boucher and Paul MacCready. Working together, they created an aircraft called Solar Challenger, a battery-less solar aircraft that captured enough sunlight to take off and fly.

Today’s electric powered flight enthusiasts tend to have more household names such as Elon Musk. Mr. Musk sees an electric air age well beyond the unmanned solar powered aircraft of the seventies or even today’s LSA-style electrics that carry only two people.  Mr. Musk’s vision stretches out to a horizon that puts hybrid electric power to work on the next generation of supersonic transports.

Is Elon Musk’s vision even possible?

Boeing and Airbus certainly think so.

Boeing is working in conjunction with the University of Cambridge to develop a hybrid propulsion system that works much like an electric car. The fossil-fuel side of the engine gets you into the air; the electric side keeps you cruising along until you have to come down to earth again.

Similarly, Airbus didn’t just cross the English Channel this year to prove it could be done; they crossed it because they’re working towards an electric driven airliner by 2050.

Until fairly recently, the problem with solar or electric driven engines has been insufficient power, weight and limited range. The solar and electric powered flights of 2015 have proven these barriers have been broken. How significantly have the barriers been breached? It is certainly now possible to develop a two-seat training aircraft like the Airbus E-Fan that can stay aloft long enough to get a student through an hour or so of basic maneuvers and landings. The reason there are not fleets of electric trainers at flying schools already has more to do with FAA regulations than it does with the science of electric flight (more on that in a moment).

One of the big problems has been weight. In 2014, Dr. Paul Robertson of the Cambridge Department of engineering said, “what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology… they have been too heavy and didn’t have enough energy capacity… but with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries {they} are now starting to become viable.”

The problem beyond battery weight has also been building an electric engine with enough gusto to get past the LSA weight-class of aircraft that crossed the English Channel this year?  If you thought developing a more powerful electric aircraft engine was still several years away, think again. In the late spring of 2015, Siemens announced a significant breakthrough in electric aircraft technology. They’ve developed a new electric engine which weighs just over 100 pounds but delivers the power output of a 350 horsepower gasoline-fueled piston aircraft engine.

The implications? The next flight across the English Channel could take place in a much heavier aircraft, one as heavy as 4,000 pounds. Suddenly 100LL begins to look a silly way to power ourselves across the sky in small planes and even on some commuter airlines.

To that point, Cape Cod regional airline, Cape Air, is working with NASA to develop an electric Cessna 402 to transport 9 passengers to nearby Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, if you won’t be satisfied until you cross the country or the Atlantic in a hybrid electric plane, be patient. NASA, Boeing and Airbus are quickly working on the next generation of electric engines and electric power sources.  Why? Because airlines, governments and the traveling public need a cheaper, greener way to get from point A to point B in an atmosphere of increased environmental concerns.

Why Aren’t More Electric Planes Flying Now?

The Airbus E-Fan has proven what many aviation experts think is possible – a light weight, cheaper and greener trainer that could lower the cost of learning as well as the operational costs of running a flight school. So what’s stopping more LSA manufacturers from putting those electric engines into their latest models and shipping them out to flight schools across the U.S.?  The answer is the FAA.

When the rule was being written for Light Sport aircraft in 2004, there were no such electric motor possibilities available. Therefore, the FAA limited light sport aircraft to a “single, reciprocating engine, if powered.” These five little words stand in the way of a plethora of lightweight electric trainers which could reduce the cost of learning to fly by thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, the FAA is already at work changing the rules for electric power plants in bigger certified GA aircraft. The LSA industry is naturally hoping that those changes will lead to changes for them as well.

One industry heavyweight, Greg Bowles of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association is one of those betting on electric flight’s future. He says, “While pure battery-electric flight may be a ways off for bigger airplanes, there’s a lot of interest in developing hybrid systems once the new rules are in place.“

The Final Word: Necessity

They say there are no problems, only opportunities. Aviation is one arena were barriers are always being broken. Twentieth Century aviation proved it time and time again. From the time the Wright Flyer first flew, to the first DC-3 was a span of less than three decades, and from the DC-3 to a man on the moon less than four. Just as the piston engine gave way to jet propulsion, the polluting fossil-fuel hungry engines of today will be replaced by the greener, cleaner and more efficient electric engines of tomorrow. Why? Because we absolutely need to make it happen.

Flight Simulators – As Good As The Real Thing?

Flight Simulators. Are they as good as flying in actual aircraft? It depends on which type of simulator used.

In many respects advanced flight simulators are better than the real thing!

Simulators are not created equal. They range from full motion airline simulators to PC desktop train devices.

Simulators are not created equal. They range from full motion airline simulators to PC desktop train devices.

Anyone who has ever folded a piece of paper into simple wings and a fuselage and then tossed it into the air has simulated flight. In fact, what you’ve actually created is a system that flies. Since the early days of aviation, models and simulators have been used to demonstrate the principles of flight, and teach potential airmen flight mechanics and procedures.

The Link Trainer was widely used to train pilots during WWII

The Link Trainer introduced instrument flying to thousands of World War II airmen.

The first widely used flight-training device, the Link simulator, was created by Edward Link, an amateur pilot and pipe organ maker. He patented his device in the late 1920s, but didn’t get any real orders until the U.S. Army Air Force was charged with delivering mail in the mid-1930s and needed to train pilots to make deliveries in all kinds of weather.

Mr. Link impressed his new clients by flying to Newark airfield in less than perfect flying conditions and attributing his ability to fly in the soup to “training” in his patented simulator. The pitch worked and the Army Air Force used the Link simulator to train pilots through the Second World War.

While the Link simulator had the basic appearance of an arcade ride, it was far from it, and successfully introduced thousands of student airmen to the feel of flight controls, to usual and unusual flight attitudes and oriented them (or disorient them) to the rigors of instrument flying while under its hooded canopy.

Today’s simulators:  digital, sophisticated and, of course, regulated.

In this era of virtual reality, the modern simulator not only puts you inside the cockpit but also confronts you with as many real-world systems as possible. However, not all simulators are created equal and the FAA has strict rules about what it considers a simulator and what is just a training device. To further complicate matters, the FAA categorizes simulators and regulates what level of simulated flying can be used towards earning certain certificates and ratings and what cannot. The FAA does this by separating simulation systems into four categories:

  • Full Flight Simulator (FFS)
  • Flight Training Device (FTD)
  • Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD)
  • Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD)

Presently, the FAA only considers devices with full motion to be called simulators. Everything else that does not meet strict FAA motion qualifications is designated a Flight Training Device (FTD), a Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD) or an Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD)

What’s a simulator? What’s not? What are the differentiating criteria?

Various Flight Simulators

Simulators provide different levels of training and have different mission goals.

A Full Flight Level D Simulator offers the most realistic flight experience

Full Flight Simulator (FFS) according to FAA Regulation, Part 14 CFR 60, Appendix F, this device must be a “replica of a specific type, make, model or series of aircraft…” This includes computer programs that represent how the aircraft operates both on the ground and in the air. It must also include a visual system with a view from the flight deck and cues with at least three-degrees of freedom of movement, typically Pitch, Yaw and Roll. In other words, the system must duplicate the controls, avionics and the flying characteristics of the actual specific aircraft. Full Flight Simulators are given letter rankings by the FAA.

Full Flight Simulators A to D

Level A simulators are motion systems with at least three degrees of freedom (Pitch, Yaw and Roll). They are for airplanes only. They’re visual systems are not terribly robust and they have little data in them for flight conditions like ground effect. There are very few Level A simulators in use today.

Level B requires at least 3-axis motion and a higher degree of aerodynamic forces than Level A. Few are in use and they are considered entry-level helicopter simulators.

Level C simulators require a motion platform with six degrees of freedom, which besides Pitch, Yaw and Roll, also include Sway, Heave, Surge). They must react faster than Level A or B simulators and require outside visualization with a horizon line and 75-degree field of vision for both pilot and first officer.

Level D simulators meet the highest FAA and ICAO criteria and qualifications. Level D requires a motion platform with six degrees of freedom, outside visual display with horizon and a field of view of 150 degrees for each pilot which includes Collimated (distant focus ) display. Level D also requires realistic sounds in the cockpit with appropriate warning devices as well as special motion and visual effects.

The FAA considers Level C and Level D simulators good enough for a pilot to earn an aircraft type rating for most commercial jet and larger business aircraft. In fact, a pilot can get a type rating for a Boeing 777 in a simulator and never step into the cockpit of the real aircraft until the day he or she is assigned to fly a commercial route.

These examples show how close to a real cockpit training on the ground can be.

A Flight Training Device provides realistic flight characteristics, but does not have to replicate a particular aircraft model

Flight Training Device (FTD):  The major difference between a Flight Training Device and Full Flight Simulators is that the FTD does not have to mimic a specific make and model of aircraft. In addition, unlike an FFS, the FTD need not duplicate every toggle switch and circuit breaker you’d find on a particular aircraft. That being said, FTDs still present many of the panel instruments and controls you’d find on an aircraft.

Advanced Aviation Training Devices and General Aviation Flight Schools

Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) While both AATDs and BATDs can be used for up to 10 hours of simulated instrument training, AATDs can further be used for commercial, ATP, or flight instructor certificates. Redbirds and Elite simulators fall into the AATD category. While Redbird, describes its FMX simulator as full motion, the FAA still does not allow it to be used for check rides because its landing characteristics are not as realistic as true Full Flight Simulators.

If you’ve ever stepped into a Redbird FMX, for example, you will note it is aircraft model specific (i.e. Cessna 172 SP.) It has a cockpit configuration based on that specific model and the aerodynamic flight characteristics are based on the aircraft being simulated. Inside the cockpit, you will enjoy a level of reality much like many popular PC-based simulators. Unlike them, you will feel motion in both the seat of your pants on takeoff and in your inner ear if you steep turn.

Despite all of this, the FAA still limits its use of AATDs to procedural and IFR training. At the end of last year, the FAA was prepared to increase simulator time for the instrument rating to 20 hours but has since walked back that decision due to objections from some CFIs.

AATDs like Redbird and Elite simulators are excellent for scenario-based training and serve GA flight schools well. Better to learn your engine failure procedures in a simulator than in the air in case your engine doesn’t restart.

A Basic Training Device can be as simple as your computer with a detached yoke, and foot pedals

A PC-driven aviation training device introduces airmen to basic flying skills and can be used for some  procedural training as well.

Basic Aviation Training Devices… X-Planes® and Microsoft FSX®

Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD) Back in the late nineties when PC-based simulators were beginning to emerge, the FAA referred to them as PCATDs (Personal Computer Aviation Training Device) and limited their use in flight training to a few hours and some basic tasks. Since then the FAA has reassessed PC-based simulation and approved more of their use in flight training. The FAA, however still limits these devices to teaching procedures for ground training and some instrument training. The FAA does not view these devices capable of teaching stick and rudder skills.

BATDs require the use physical controls, as well as virtual controls. In other words yokes, joysticks, foot pedals and software that understands their commands. The simulated experience must also have atmospheric controls: weather, wind speed, visibility, even turbulence. Lastly, the simulation needs to be modeled after at least one kind of aircraft or several. X-Plane and Microsoft FSX both supply a number of models from single engine pistons to passenger jets, helicopters to seaplanes. The interfaces are based on the avionics panel and flight systems particular to the aircraft type they represent.

The Airlines, the Military and Full Flight Simulators.

If you’re enrolled in a Part 142 training curriculum like Flight Training International, or you’re an advanced airman in the military you will probably accrue significant Full Flight Simulator time in Level C or Level D simulators. Again, that time is valuable because it allows for a great deal of scenario-based training without the danger or expense of teaching it in the air. Also, because these devices are robust, they provide hands-on training in a variety of aspects of flight from systems management and procedures to actual flight maneuvers including circle to land and landing.

Both the airlines and the military rely on Level C & D simulators as well as FTDs to help transition pilots to unfamiliar aircraft or particular avionics suite. Use of simulators contributes to pilot development and their total experience as airmen.

Airline pilots spend up to a month in simulators (for as long as 4 hours a day) before they fly the actual aircraft. Since these pilots already have a significant amount of flight time, the simulator experience is not meant to teach them to fly but to hone their skills for a particular aircraft or type of flying (i.e. passenger transport, cargo, military etc.).

After basic study of an aircraft’s systems, avionics and flight characteristics, pilots will advance to simulators that will provide a menu of real-world operational situations from perfect flying conditions to near catastrophic failures.. In many cases this is the last step prior to an actual check ride in a real airplane.

Is simulator time really worth it?

Since electronic and manual logs have a section for it, it counts for much more than you’d expect. In fact, it could save both pilot lives and the lives of those flying with them. Sim time is part of an airman’s training and can become an important part of any airman’s total experience.  This time is  not only noted by companies and organizations that employ pilots to do jobs for them, but is also recognized by the FAA as part of flight training. Because the simulation technology continues to advance, the regulations also  continue to evolve. One thing is certain, simulated learning is here to stay.