Pipistrel Academy, led by Sašo Knez is well aware of this fact. He and his team have found a solution in the virtual world. For the last two years they have been developing a flight simulator for Pipistrel ultra-light aircraft ALPHA trainer. The simulator is called X-ALPHA and it is a novelty in the aviation community. What makes this simulator completely different from others is that it uses VR glasses instead of monitors.
When I was on my way to Trbovlje, I had no idea what I was about to see, because I didn't know about X-ALPHA. There is no airport in Trbovlje, so I didn't expect we were going to fly. After a quick chat with Sašo, Ines and Jani who are always busy putting their ideas in practice, we walked over to X-ALPHA simulator.
X-ALPHA was developed by a team of seven people. The realistic experience that you get when you use the simulator is based on two key aspects. The first is mechanic. Seating tub with flight controls is connected to sensors and mechanical springs. The seating position, controls and control forces are identical to a real plane. The second is the electronic and software aspect. The simulator logs into the computer as a simple USB game controller (joystick) which translates as the system incredible elegance and simple use. X-ALPHA works in X-PLANE 10 environment which enables a good representation of aerodynamic forces and moments. This is very similar to all other simulators. So, what is so different with X-ALPHA?
Entering virtual world
When you sit in X-ALPHA, you get the most unusual feeling when you see that there aren't any instruments in the cockpit. The simulators that I had tested before had the identical cockpits to real aircraft that's why the experience is completely authentic. The full simulators also enable cabin movement. X-ALPHA cabin doesn't move. However, it has OCULUS VR goggles which enable 3D view of the cockpit and the moving surroundings. So, when you sit in the simulator and put on the VR gear, you become immersed into the virtual world. You see the virtual 3D cabin and virtual surroundings. This consists of a model or polygon mesh which is wrapped by raster image. VR glasses follow the head movements. When you move the head to the left, the point of view also moves to the left.
All instruments are in the virtual cockpit. They look so real that you forget that they are not really (physically) there. When you look around, the surroundings are much more realistic than in Full flight simulator because the proximity of the image in the glasses gives a sense of real depth.
Before I flew with X-ALPHA I wondered why it was developed. Sašo Knez said that the simulator was built because the proof of concept (more on this later) worked so well that they started to have faith in this technology and added: »We simply wanted to do our job better and learn something new. VR is one of the tools and environments that we use to reach our goals and we also fly X-ALPHA at our academy with our students. Currently, the technical capabilities of the simulator are more advanced than the know-how in operational use.
Knez and I flew the ALPHA trainer some time ago in Zagorje. I remember that flying experience in every detail, and I can guarantee that X-ALPHA is an excellent alternative to flying. My right hand on the throttle. I was using my left hand to control the aircraft and I soon forgot that I was actually not flying. The surroundings were passing by, and naturally I had to do the exact thing that makes flying so exciting. I flew just above the houses, in the canyon and then under the bridge. A steep climb and a sharp turn to the right. A look back to see if the bridge is still standing. I can't stop smiling. I wish I could see myself but there's no time for a selfie, I'm having too much fun. The flight is a pleasant one and when I return to the airport, I have some troubles landing on the grass. The cabin is open but I still feel very warm. In the middle of adrenaline rush I climb out of the X-ALPHA and congratulate the team for this amazing accomplishment. »The simulator has recently been tested by over 400 hundred pilots and aviation enthusiasts at the Aeroexpo in Friedrichshafen. They had nothing but good things to say about the huge advancement of the technology,« said Knez, but he also added that he is well-aware of the fact that the simulator is only one part of the flight academy program training system.
Currently X-ALPHA is used at the Pipistrel Academy in Zagorje. »Our student pilots help us explore a completely new territory on our path to the discovery of what we can use our simulator for. X-ALPHA is probably the first simulator to teach VFR flying. During the elementary flying training the flight instructor and the student pilot need to have enough time for the basics, such as scan cycle to really sink in. Due to battery capacity the electric aircraft don't allow this yet and that won't change in the near future. That's why the flight academies will need to carry out this part of the program using a simulator. Simulator is just one of three cornerstones of an excellent flight academy of the future. The theoretical part, aircraft and the simulator – all intertwined by a skilled team. Pipistrel's decision to offer a free online course for Alpha Electro made sense. Borivoj Bivic, our internal quality controller plays a key role here. He is in charge of pilot development and flying technique. We have just identified some segments where X-ALPHA is extremely efficient. But we still have a lot to learn,« said Knez.
X-ALPHA simulates the piston aircraft as well as electric aircraft Alpha Trainer because Pipistrel designed both aircraft to be very similar.
Back to the workshop in Trbovlje. I'm still under the impression of flying the X-ALPHA, when the team smiles at me mischievously. »Do you think that was all we have to show you?« asks Knez. »We promised to show you something extraordinary for your exclusive story, didn't we?«
They uncover another simulator right in front of my eyes. The simulator nobody knows about and which is not for sale. It's a simulator of a Russian supersonic interceptor MIG21bis with VR glasses. It's made from original parts. I was excited like a boy in a chocolate factory. WOW!
Sašo told me how it all started at a flight instructors' meeting. Among them, lieutenant colonel Vojko Gantar, a retired instructor for MiG-21. They borrowed a gaming computer, Oculus and installed DCS with MiG-21 plug-in. Vojko performed the pre-flight briefing like he did in Pula, then Yugoslavia, when teaching his cadets. »We started to »fly« in VR, and it worked!« says Knez. »The reason why we are here is the fact that we all wanted to be better flight instructors. Without Vojko, these simulators would't be designed.«
I'm happy to hear that as I sit down on the ejection seat of Russian MiG-21.The simulator doesn't have a fuselage skin but I don't miss it – the adrenaline starts pumping and I only notice the important original parts: thrust lever, control column with rudder pedals, trimmer button, break lever, flap buttons, landing chute... Vojko said that he helped the Aereform team to assemble the parts to be as close to the original and added: »The correct position of the ejection seat, and all the controls is very important in order for the student to have the same experience as in the MiG-21 cockpit. They also had a lot of work setting up the springs that require proper physical effort while executing different maneuvers. The controls need to be returned to the neutral position. This is all functional now.«
The original parts
The original parts were bought on E-bay for a few thousand euros from Czech Republic, Bolgaria, Poland and Ukraine. Thank you Mikojan Gurević. Before I put on the Oculus, I tried to memorize the positions of the levers and buttons. My heart was racing. Ines started the software. Taking off wasn't easy despite Sašo's instructions. MiG wouldn't take off. The more I pulled the control column, the more I was getting the feeling that I was going to enter a spin and end up where many pilots have ended up. Finally, I was able to pull through. I went up to 2000m and made myself comfortable in the virtual cockpit. Air speed indicator and altimeter; hypsometer are now the most important instruments for me. Mig-21 plugin is extremely well designed physically and visually. It uses a plugin developed by an experienced team Leatherneck whose key member is Novak Đorđević, a serving MiG pilot from Serbia, so there is a large level of realism. The force feedback system on MiG is just like on X-ALPHA – mechanic and static. Therefore, it's accurate for one point in the flight envelope. Alpha's control forces are light - in 4G steep turn the pitch force is only 30N. MiG's forces are a few times larger. Flying MiG-21 is a demanding also because you need to make precise and accurate control inputs with a strong force. Both simulators have a representative trimer--- which is essential. In both simulators the trimmer is driven by electrical linear actuator which offsets the neutral point of the spring system. In elementary flying the most important skill beside the scan cycle is the ability to trim the airplane according to the given flight mode. That's the reason why a representative trimmer is one of the most important elements of flight simulators. It was the incorrectly set trimmer that prevented my take-off.
At first I flew horizontally, I studied the cockpit which is unbelievably surreal. The surrounding and the architecture is an excellent imitation of the real world. When I got familiar with the aircraft I descended to the valley and flew with the speed of 900km just above the treetops. With the increase of air speed the required control forces increase significantly and the aircraft becomes heavier. Using the trimmer the required control forces decrease. Despite that the effort necessary to fly MiG is much greater than to fly an ultra-light aircraft. After the thrust level is moved into the afterburner position, the 3D image and ambient sound give you the illusion of acceleration. The landing is extremely demanding. Not being used to flying at such high speed, I crashed the MiG. The crash was so realistic my whole body hurt and it made me squeeze my teeth.
Flying the simulator and the virtual world at the same time occupied all of my sense. I was touching the physical world, I heard and saw the virtual world. The combination my body wasn't used to and it showed. The way my body reacted was similar to when I flew on a real Pilatus PC-9M. Due to barrels, loopings and acrobatic maneuvers, I got a little sick. My body was tired and confused, but my mind was ecstatic.
From virtual to real
Knez also spoke about the demands of flying a MiG: »I flew a lot last year, also in India. In Slovenia I testflew ONE, Hansa Brandenburg C1. The flight crews have trained for Hy4 on electric planes where we alternated between E-Taurus and E-Alpha. Then I flew Hy4 in Cerklje. I was in top form. After all the flights were over I sat in MiG just for fun and crashed during the take-off. I took off the VR glasses and said to myself: »You're the man, Sašo. You really know what you're doing.» Whenever I feel invincible, I sit in MiG and I'm back to reality in a few minutes. Multiple generations are brought together at Aeronavt, the Flight academy where Pipistrel Academy program is developed and ran. The MiG simulator is a proof of that. No wonder they don't want to sell it. Vojko Gantar flew a real MiG 26 years ago. He remembers that Yugoslav Air Force had a MiG-21 simulator, but it was for instrument flying only. He says he misses the instrument panel which was now replaced with a 3d animation in the new simulator, but also admits that Oculus gives the extraordinarily realistic experience. When making quick turns at high speeds you can easily get sick too.
Sašo Knez envisions these simulators to be used in flight academies and aircraft development. He says: »We have already designed the next version. With this upgrade we are expanding the instructional capabilities at least two fold. Our advantage is that we understand the techniques of teaching flying better than our competitors. We can keep that advantage by using flight simulators for training. Now that we have built the simulator we need to put it into regular practice as much as possible. Just like Pipistrel and their development projects which validate the operation use of new concept aircraft in the virtual world first. And last but not least, there are the aviation museums. Can you imagine attending the 1930s Schneider cup in Venice through the VR glasses? Or experiencing Rusjan's first flight in Gorica in 1909 first hand? That would be amazing!«
»X-ALPHA means better pilot training before the student pilots actually sit in a real aircraft,« believes director of Pipistrel Ivo Boscarol and adds: »If student pilots know what to expect, they feel more confident, and there's less chance for errors. Sašo and his team are unconventional thinkers. Their ideas are fresh, their products are interesting. X-ALPHA means a wider range of products and more options to offer a potential buyer. This is a brand new product. It is in demand, especially by aviation academies. This is also Pipistrel's advantage – if the student pilots learn to fly on our Pipistrel's aircraft (virtual or real one), it is more likely they will consider buying the same type of aircraft when they decide to buy one.«
The X-ALPHA project was nominated for best innovation award at Chamber of commerce and industry of Slovenia. It won the gold regional award and will now compete for the national one.
Meanwhile, the first orders have arrived. This means some more testing and but above all increasing the reliability and simplicity of the simulator.