Personal Flight Simulators: FlyThisSim TouchTrainers

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FlyThisSim's line of TouchTrainer desktop BATD flight simulators that duplicate the cockpits of 147 aircraft offers an affordable way for an instrument pilot to say proficient.

Last month we began our occasional series on personal flight simulators with an introduction to the world of flight simulators and, more specifically, the ones that a pilot might reasonably have at home that are capable of doing a good job of simulating the airplane the sim owner usually flies—which means matching the cockpit, including switches, avionics, autopilot, systems and performance. Further, with an instructor present, we think the sim should be the sort that can be used for credit for time toward a rating or keeping an instrument rating current. These are Aviation Training Devices (ATD), a group of sims broken into two further categories of Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD) and Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD). From a cost standpoint, we think that a desktop (not floor mount or motion based) BATD is more likely to be used as a personal flight simulator than an AATD, while both can be used for credit toward flying time requirements (with an instructor present) and both do an excellent job of reproducing the flight characteristics, panel and controls of a wide variety of selected airplanes.

Cost to Fly

We think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb that minimum operating costs for an IFR-capable airplane start at $150 an hour and escalate from there. We also think that a reasonable target number of hours an instrument pilot should fly annually to maintain a healthy level of proficiency—VFR and IFR—is on the order of 150 (yes, we know people will disagree, but we reached that opinion after extensive conversations with aviation professionals and accident research). That works out to an annual flying budget of $22,500. We also think that—whether simulator hours can be logged or not—an hour in an ATD-level simulator giving oneself an IFR workout is more valuable from a safety of flight standpoint than an hour in the airplane under the hood with a safety pilot. If a pilot can knock 20 in-airplane hours off of her annual flying budget—at least $3,000—a home, personal flight simulator makes a lot of sense in terms of keeping one’s skills honed. After all, a simulator is an environment that is more conducive to learning than an airplane cockpit in flight.

TouchTrainer SD

We admit there is a downside to owning a BATD home simulator—currently the FAA requires that a flight instructor be present for a pilot to get credit for time in a BATD toward IFR recency of experience. That’s an inconvenience for a pilot who has an airplane and a BATD unless he or she is lucky enough to be married to a CFII or have one who is a neighbor. Frankly, we think that the rule is stupid, arbitrary and contrary to any goal of enhancing safety of flight. After all, an instrument pilot with a safety pilot who is a private pilot who is clueless about instrument flight operations can log time under the hood in flight that counts toward recent instrument flight time required by the regulations. The FAA lets that pilot choreograph his own recurrent training program when in an airplane—it makes no sense that the same pilot cannot do so in a BATD that allows her to reposition to shoot multiple approaches in a short time and simulate emergencies that it would be foolish to do in the airplane. We’re hoping the reg is changed.

Nevertheless, even if the regs remain as they are, we think a desktop personal flight simulator of BATD capabilities makes sense economically and practically for a pilot who wants to maintain a high level of instrument competency.

FlyThisSim

As we said when we started this series, we’ll be looking at individual makers of ATDs. In this installment, we’re reporting on FlyThisSim line of TouchTrainer simulators. (www.flythissim.com).

FlyThisSim was formed in 2006 with the intention of providing reasonably priced software simulations of Avidyne, Garmin and other avionics for inclusion into flight simulators targeted at general aviation pilots. We spoke with co-founder Carl Suttle, who came from the military flight simulator world, and first focused on designing simulators for general aviation after buying a Cirrus and being concerned about the line’s early accident rate. He designed and developed SimAVIO software, an instrumentation modeling system and interface to flight simulators.

Suttle told us that he then reverse-engineered Garmin and Avidyne avionics and MFD and PFD displays as well as autopilot functions to create the company’s first TouchTrainer (the name is derived from its use of touchscreens) simulator for Cirrus aircraft. Once the underlying software was developed it allowed expanding the simulator line to replicate other aircraft models—currently it does so for some 147 different cockpits.

Motion

In pursuing its goal of creating inexpensive simulators for general aviation, FlyThisSim concentrated on creating powerful, accurate visuals even though it anticipated that most of its users would be concentrating on instrument flight operations. Suttle said that creating a decent motion base for a simulator costs $1 million while current technology allows creating compelling visual displays for a few thousand dollars, and that 80 percent of the cues that humans rely upon for motion sensing come from the eyes. Accordingly, the TouchTrainer line is designed to create the effect and sensation of motion from its visual displays. As users of various flight simulators over the years we have found that when it came to value for the money, we have ranked motion fairly low in our scale of priorities. We place accurate instrument displays, accurate control response and good visuals above motion. We don’t think motion is necessary for a personal flight simulator—both from a quality of training/recurrent training perspective as well as that of cost.

TouchTrainer VX

TouchTrainer VX

All FlyThisSim models are currently approved as BATDs, although they are sophisticated enough that we would not be the least bit surprised to see at least the top-end ones achieve AATD certification.

In speaking with Suttle we found that the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) is using FlyThisSim simulators for its proficiency training programs. We think that COPA’s recurrent training efforts, and those of the manufacturer, Cirrus, were responsible for the dramatic improvement in the accident record of the Cirrus line after its initial problems—and it appears that Suttle and TouchTrainer simulators played a role in the success story.

In looking at the FlyThisSim product line we observed that each TouchTrainer is designed in a fashion that it can be upgraded to the any of the more capable products in the line. They are also set up to allow rapid switching of power controls and yokes/sticks to match other cockpits. Suttle pointed out that a person who buys a TouchTrainer unit that duplicates the airplane he or she has, owns a simulator for life. When he or she buys a different airplane, it’s a simple matter to reconfigure the sim to match the new cockpit and avionics—helping speed the transition into the new airplane.

All TouchTrainer models connect with Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) on iPads. They will feed real-time data, including weather, from ForeFlight to make simulation time more realistic. TouchTrainers run on SimAVIO simulator framework software and utilize X-Planes’s simulation engine for the visual system, flight and engine model. X-Plane allows upgradeable features and add-ons—which FlyThisSim will assist its customers in finding and installing on their TouchTrainers.

TouchTrainer SD

At $5400, the TouchTrainer SD is an entry-level BATD that is reconfigurable and upgradeable. It has two touchscreens and aircraft specific instrumentation for 45 different aircraft packages and a 45-degree-wide out of the window view that can be used for taxi, takeoff and landing. It has two 24-inch by 10-inch touchscreens. The autopilot allows the same button selection as on the replicated aircraft. This is the model used in the Cirrus Pilot Performance Program. As with other simulators in the TouchTrainer line, the SD is a turnkey system with avionics, autopilot and systems replication to allow the owner to use the same button selections and sequences in his or her airplane.

TouchTrainer VX

The next step up in the TouchTrainer line, the VX, is also a desktop BATD but includes a 100-degree-wide visual system. It consists of five screens—three 24-inch, high-definition monitors for visual and two for instrumentation. According to personnel at FlyThisSim, a continuous horizon is created in the visual display by accounting for the thickness of the monitor bezels, so that they come across as window posts in the aircraft rather than blocking a substantial portion of the out of the window view. Priced at $8100, the VX can simulate more than 125 individual aircraft, avionics, autopilot and systems combinations.

TouchTrainer VM

TouchTrainer VM

TouchTrainer VM

FlyThisSim’s top of the line desktop BATD is the TouchTrainer VM. Priced at $12,500, the VM can host all of the more than 400 aircraft FlyThisSim simulates. It has two touchscreens devoted to aircraft-specific instrumentation and a 100-degree-wide by 70-degree-deep visual system on three 55-inch HD monitors, giving 32 square feet of visual display.

Conclusion

With the quality of the simulation and visuals and the ability to duplicate a large number of specific airplane cockpits, we think the FlyThisSim line of TouchTrainers can help that pilot who wants to stay instrument proficient and/or train for an additional rating do so at a price that is attractive.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.

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