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Technology lands at Northern Air

December 15, 2012
The pilot's view of the glass-panel cockpit display and looking out the "windshield" of Northern Air's new Redbird FMX Flight Simulator. The view outside is what you'd see if you were taking off from New York's La Guardia Airport.
Since early November, there have been several serious incidents at the Boundary County Airport, but no one’s read about them until now. Pilots flying in severe weather beyond their experience or ability and crashing, numerous incidences of equipment malfunction or failure. All right at our small airport at Three Mile.

The Federal Aviation Administration knows all about it; instead of being alarmed, they’re glad to see it. Despite all these adverse incidents, no pilots or passengers have been hurt, no cargo lost, no aircraft damaged. In fact, the only damage done so far is a bit of wounded pride and some sheepish grins.

Each and every one of these incidents, and many more besides, occurred in a room not much bigger than the den in an average home, still being finished off the main terminal, part of what a bit over a month ago was part of the pilot’s lounge. It houses an unprepossessing white box on a red frame, an amazing piece of technology that is going to revolutionize what the flight instructors at Northern Air can offer their students, whether beginning or advanced.

The Redbird FMX Flight Simulator is a full-motion flight simulator that offers a flight experience differing very little from the thrill of real flight. Inside that 16-foot by 16-foot box, local students from beginner to advanced can take off in any one of four aircraft common in Boundary County, Idaho, get the feel of flight almost exactly as if in the air, with the exact flight characteristics of the aircraft chosen, be it Northern Air’s standard trainer, the Cessna 172, the Cessna 182 G-100, the Cirrus SR-22 or the Piper Seneca Twin.

The FMX is built to simulate a real aircraft, with all the controls and breakers you’d find in a real cockpit. Changing “planes” is as easy as changing the digital “glass panel” display that’s replacing the analog “six pack” array of gauges most long-time pilots grew up with. You can change the yoke to a side-stick. And what you see out the “windshield” is pretty close to what you’ll see over the cowling of a real airplane.

You can simulate taking off and landing from any airport in America, you can experience in-flight emergencies, anything from adverse weather, loss of visibility, circuit failure, engine loss … all without ever leaving the ground.

And instead of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation in the event of a “crash,” you have a well-shaken pilot who understands what went wrong, and why.

“This is an amazing tool,” said Northern Air office manager Ashley Glaza, who is using the FMX to earn her commercial flight certificate. “You can do and experience things you’d never want to do in a real aircraft. The motion makes it realistic.”

The FMX cost about as much as the aircraft Northern Air uses as a trainer, but it’s going to save student pilots considerably, both in time and in money.

“You don’t have fuel costs, you don’t have to replace tires,” said chief flight instructor Nathaniel Cheshire. "It’s not tied to the weather, you don’t have to cancel a flight because it’s snowing or windy outside. When days are short in the winter, you can extend daylight ‘flying’ time. It’s going to save students a ton.”

He tells of a veteran pilot, a stunt pilot, in fact, who recently had to fly on a set schedule to Phoenix, but who needed to certify on the glass panel display. The weather forecasts looked less than ideal, so he wanted to hone his instrument rating skills, where you fly on your instruments alone, with no outside visual references.

“We set up a two day crash course for him,” Cheshire said. “At the end of the second day, he ‘flew’ the entire trip in the simulator, in the same weather conditions the forecasts were predicting. The next day, he actually made the flight.”

Cheshire and fellow flight instructors Dave Parker and Carla Dedera are all certified on the FMX by the FAA, and already the flight simulator is being used in all phases of flight training. With the next Northern Air ground school starting up January 7, Cheshire is excited about what students will experience.

“We’ll be giving free sim rides to students, and during the course there are things you have to see to understand,” he said. “This gives us that capability.”

A successful sim flight requires everything necessary in a real flight; you have to use maps and charts, right down to taxi maps of the airports or strips. Unlike a real flight, however, the Redbird FMX has two feature no airplane does, “pause” and “rewind.”

“As an instructor, I can program scenarios while the student pilot is at the controls,” he said. “Just like in real flight, the student has to evaluate options, weigh risks and make decisions. If they make the wrong decision, they will ‘crash,’ but be able to walk away. I have the ability to either allow the crash or to pause and back up, to let them work through the problem, understand their limitations and those of the aircraft they’re flying.”

Not only will this unprepossessing white box, sitting in a small and safe room just off the terminal at Boundary County Airport, wielded by experienced instructors, save students time and money, particularly those who’ve never flown before, it will make them a better and safer pilot once they roll down the runway and soar off into the sky.

To find out more about the Redbird FMX Flight Simulator, flight training at Northern Air or all the many ways Northern Air brings the benefit of aviation to Boundary County, visit, stop by the airport, 64602 Highway 2, or call (208) 267-4359.
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