Interview with Ben Weston, founder of Airline
By Kevin Firth
Airline2Sim Q400 Cadet Training Program - Mutley's Hangar Preview
Tell me about Airline2Sim, how and why did you get started?
BS: I've always had an interest in flying and got myself a PPL many years ago, although it's lapsed since. When money and time wouldn't permit real flight, I immersed myself into Flight Simulator. First FS2000, then FS2002, FS9 and finally a bit behind everyone else (only about 9 months ago, although I bought the disc in 2006!) I got myself into FSX.
My background is radio and I've been a professional broadcaster for 18 years at various radio stations around the world. The industry is going through a lot of restructuring at the moment and earlier this year I found myself out in the cold after my radio station merged with another.
Rather battered and bruised by a decade of death by a thousands cuts from the media industry I decided to take some time out of my career to try my hand at something new. By chance the Majestic Software Dash 8 Q400 came out shortly afterwards and almost everyone in the flight simulation community had a torrid time trying to fly it. I kept pestering a pal of mine who flew the Q400 for help and advice and in the end he offered to come round to give me some tuition on it. I had a eureka moment where I figured that if there was a way to record the 'lessons' then I could release them as very unique tutorials, as how many people have access to a rated pilot to help you out on FSX? Many months of toil later, we've actually got a product ready to roll.
KF: How many people are behind Airline2Sim? How did you get together?
BS: Essentially the hands on team are me and a lot of creative input from two others - Gemma Davidson and Eric Bocaneanu. Both have extensive experience in animation, graphics and TV production - Gemma for the BBC and MTV and Eric for Antenna 1 in Europe.
We've also had input from industry folk like Jerdoo (famed for his Jerdoo FX Youtube channel) who provided us with some stunning external visuals and others. Beyond that we then have a team of pilots to call on from the 'real world', in total four Q400 guys from European airlines, an Airbus A319/20 guy from a colourful low-cost airline, a 737 NG charter guy who previously flew the 757/67 and also a 777 guy who flies for a big Middle East airline.
When Airline2Sim was born I spent a lot of time hammering my contacts list from when I was a PPL student - thankfully a lot of the guys I knew then had progressed a little further from Piper Tomahawks and Warriors! Thankfully all of them have played with FS a lot in the past (not so much these days, however..) so know the limitation of what we are dealing with.;
KF: What's your vision for the future? What's your guiding principles?
BS: We'd like to become the go-to training material for simmers, for all kinds of aircraft. As add-on aircraft get more and more complicated, we really are getting to the point that you can only get the most out of them with some kind of training regime.
Few people have the patience and willpower to read through manuals and tutorials or wade through the mass of rubbish that you find on the net to get to the really useful nuggets. In an ideal world, you'll buy an aircraft, download a handful of our video tutorials to go with it and after spending the weekend soaking it up, taught by a real pilot, you're good to go. I've had aircraft for 5 years that I still don't fly because I don't know how to fly them. We want to change that.
KF: Are you a simmer yourself? For how long? What first got you interested in it?
BS: Think I answered that above....
KF: What challenges have you had to face in developing your training materials?
BS: Many! FSX for starters, or daft bugs that wreck filming. We've been lucky so far (touch wood) in that I have a really stable rig that packs a lot of horsepower so we've had no big problems with crashing or OOMs etc, but everything else has been thrown at us.
Filming can be rather testing, as everything is live and unlike a normal film or TV show we can't just rewind and go with something again. If for example, something goes wrong with a landing we can't just slew back into the air and do it again as nothing will match up - every approach is slightly different and the fuel used, engine temperature, even the time airborne all gets screwed up. In situations like that you simply have to back and start again from the departure airport gate, which can mean junking several hours' work, which makes you cry as our time with the real pilots is limited.
FSX also does funny things - it doesn't get timezones right, or forgets daylight saving time so if you fly to a real schedule nothing matches up with the flight plan. You also have errant AI aircraft doing their best to ruin your day and weather doing odd things. Then of course you fly a whole flight and realise you've forgotten to record it...
KF: How do you recruit your line pilots? Are they simmers too?
BS: Answered above...
KF: How does your training differ from other providers, apart from being guided by real life line pilots?
BS: I think the main thing is that you get a real window into the life of a pilot. When we recorded the first lot of line flights, there were three of them back-to-back with a 25 minute turnaround. We did everything as it's done in real life, with full briefings, performance, ground operations, working to a schedule where if we arrived late we had to make up some time along the way - the whole thing. There were a few testing moments as we went and by the time we landed at London Gatwick five hours later, I was absolutely shattered both physically and mentally and you have to remember that this was just a sim.
I have a new found respect for those pilots who fly us and our loved ones around in all kinds of weathers, up against the timetable and are often on the wrong side of their own body clocks. We aim to bring you a slice of that kind of realism along with a product that looks amazing, which we hope is the result of us spending an enormous amount of time creating a look that takes you away from FSX and into a crew training environment. We don't want you to feel that you're watching FSX.
KF: What level of accuracy do you aim to achieve?
BS: Answered I guess?
KF: Can you give us a couple of examples of the detail you go into that your average simmer wouldn't know about?
BS: Here's a couple - one's a technicality - the nose wheel steering in the Q400 goes off for pushback and then goes on with the after start checklist. It takes 7 seconds to pressurise, which you would find to your cost if you just quickly chucked it on and then tried to taxi off round a corner! Secondly is stuff like fuel planning and diversions. We don't spend much time in FSX worrying about this. In my earlier simming years I'd just chuck a load of fuel on and go. In the real world this would bankrupt your airline fast. Fuel planning is a delicate balance of weather conditions, alternate distance and suitability and commercial considerations. In one of the line flights we take a trip to Amsterdam, where fog has closed the airport in and we're not sure if we can make a legal landing. You'll see all the discussion between the crew about this before departure and en route, including what we might do if we can't land and our options from then on. We're not just about flying - we're about learning to operate the aircraft commercially.
KF: Do you assume a certain level of flying knowledge from your customers?
BS: Yes. You'll need to understand the basics. We do cover things like VOR and NDB approaches etc, but you'll need at least a working knowledge of what these things are. I think that most people who've bought a complicated add-on will probably know this stuff.
KF: What other addons do you use when creating your flights?
BS: We use a fully loaded setup; add-on scenery from vendors like Aerosoft, UK2000 and Earth Simulations, charts from Navigraph, EFB by Aurasim and weather by REX and Active Sky. We're also running FTX regions.
KF: Do you think there's a market for basic flying training provided by real life flying instructors, as well as Airliners?
BS: I'm sure there is. It's a bit less sexy than flying the big iron, but plenty of folk jump into an NGX on day one of simming and struggle all the way from there as they have little grasp of the basics. We could all do with going back and learning this stuff from the ground up again.
KF: Will people have access to a forum where they can put questions to your line pilots?
BS: Yes we plan to have a forum fairly soon. Where it will be I can't say for sure at the moment.
Airline2Sim - EGNS Departure
KF: What version of the Q400 will people require for the more advanced first officer and captains training?
BS: The Cadet and F/O training can be done with the 'Pilot' edition. You'll need the 'Pro' for the Captain's training as this involves failures and emergencies not modelled in the 'Pilot' version.
KF: Do you think you will you ever take advantage of the shared cockpit feature to do live training?
BS: We'll definitely use it, as it takes two people to handle dire emergencies like an engine going pop on takeoff. Whether we can do stuff live - we'll see!
KF: Are all the sceneries you use available commercially? What scenery will the cadet training use?
BS: Yes, we were lucky enough to have use of a preview version of the Isle of Man scenery from Earth Simulations, although it's available now to buy. We also use Earth Simulations' Guernsey to practice a short field landing, UK2000 East Midlands, Birmingham Extreme and London Gatwick. We branch away from the UK and its islands for the F/O training and use ES Isle of Man, UK2000 Liverpool, Orbx Southampton, Aerosoft Amsterdam Schipol, Stuttgart, Skiathos, Mykonos and FlyTampa's Athens.
KF: Would you consider negotiating a discount for your customers with those scenery developers, if they want to recreate your training flights?
BS: No plans to do that at this moment. We're fairly sure most of our customers will have a lot of them already and there's no problem with using default scenery if you have to.
Airline2Sim - EGNS Cleared for Departure
KF: Have you decided yet where the Captains training will feature?
BS: (answered the F/O question above - the Captain's training is a long way off so we've no thoughts on locations for it yet.
KF: What specification PC do you develop your training materials on?
BS: We went pretty crazy with the PC for the training - it's got a 3970x Core i7, overclocked to 4.8ghz, 32 GB of Ram and runs a 6GB Titan video card. The frames with the Q400, even in the nastiest weather and add-on airports is locked to 30 and doesn't flinch.
KF: Thanks Ben for taking the time out from your busy schedule to answer our questions and for supplying us the exclusive video footage.
A2S Overview document
For more information about Airline2Sim please visit them here