Zurich firm takes off with flight simulators

A pilot "flying" an Elite simulator past the Eiger peak in the Bernese Alps

A Swiss firm has become one of the world’s leading makers of professional aircraft simulators, using little more than beefed-up PC technology.

This content was published on September 3, 2003 - 13:00

Zurich-based Elite supplies more than 20,000 flight schools, pilots and airlines with simulators for light aircraft, jets and even a helicopter.

Unlike popular computer programmes used by amateur aviation buffs, Elite builds realistic virtual cockpits for trainee pilots.

“It’s very realistic. If a pilot goes down, you’d think you’re flying in an aircraft,” Gerhard Thamm, the company CEO, told swissinfo.

Aviation regulators count time spent in Elite's virtual cockpits the same as “air time” in an aircraft.

“In Europe you need about 55 hours for a pilot’s instrument rating,” said Thamm.

“And with our products you start with a credit of ten hours and that goes up to 40 hours with our biggest simulators.”

“So it's much more effective to train in a simulator,” he added.

“Say you’re weak at the final approach, you just do final approaches. You don’t need to circle around [with a real aircraft], go into the landing pattern and use fuel.”

On a wing and a PC

Elite’s simulators replicate dozens of aircraft, including Cessnas, Pipers, Mooneys as well as jets such as the MD-81.

Realism is boosted by linking computers to rudder pedals, throttles, yokes and avionics panels.

On more sophisticated models, Elite attaches dials, switches and consoles to create an artificial cockpit.

Its most advanced machine, the Elite Evolution trainer, boasts a full cockpit from which pilots see a “real world” outside their windows – generated by three digital beamers perched above the cockpit.

Pilots are also able to fly almost anywhere in the world, thanks to a massive and highly detailed database of airports, cities and landscapes.

“It’s not for enthusiasts, it’s for real aviation people... pilots who want to stay proficient, keep up their skills, train at home or at schools,” said Elite's marketing chief, Heinrich Schaible.

Thamm said Elite’s PC-based simulators are much cheaper than top-of-the-range machines that use motion platforms.

“A full flight simulator is absolutely 100 per cent identical to the original aircraft... and that makes it very costly,” he said. “Between 20 and 30 million dollars.”

By contrast, Elite’s simulators start from SFr35,000 ($26,000) and range up to several hundred thousand francs.

Savings for trainees

Thamm said a student training in Europe using a small two-seater aircraft would pay between €120 and €130 (SFr185 to SFr 230) per hour.

“Depending on the calculation of the flight training school, our simulator would cost in the order of €50-€80.”

Pilots training on simulators are also unrestricted by fickle weather conditions such as fog, storms and poor visibility, which often make real flight impossible.

“In winter, you can get conditions like that for a month. So schools can still generate revenues with a synthetic training device,” said Schaible.

University spin-off

Elite’s history dates back to 1987, when Rudolf Marty, an IT professor at the University of Zurich, began training for a pilot’s licence.

Frustrated by the lack of training devices, Marty and a group of students wrote a basic software programme for a PC-based flight simulator.

A year later, Marty began selling early versions of the simulator.

After developing increasingly sophisticated and realistic models, Elite was the first company to receive certification for PC-trainers from the US Aviation Authority (FAA) in 1997.

The simulators are particularly effective for training because an instructor can “fly” with the student, using a networked computer to add elements such as low-visibility, crosswinds and even trigger emergencies.

Elite currently employs around 35 staff – most of them pilots - including 15 at its headquarters near Zurich’s Dübendorf airport, as well as another ten at the company’s office in Orlando in the United States.

Aviation slump

Thamm said the current slump in aviation was having an impact on business, although he remains confident that demand for new pilots will increase dramatically in the coming years.

“We assume traffic figures will double in the next 20 years. And before the economic downturn and September 11, Europe had a shortfall of more than 2,000 pilots and air traffic controllers,” Thamm said.

Schaible added that the crisis in commercial aviation also had its upside.

“There is cost pressure in the industry which is helping us because people are looking for cost-effective training devices,” Schaible said.

Although the company is still small, Thamm said there was considerable scope for growth, pointing to the emerging market for so-called “flight and procedure trainers”.

These are machines that replicate the experience of flying in congested airspace, where pilots must filter hundreds of air traffic commands, weather up-dates and landing instructions.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich

Key facts

Elite is a Zurich-based firm that builds professional flight simulators.
The firm supplies more then 20,000 customers around the world, including flight schools and the military.
It has simulators for light aircraft, jets and a helicopter.
Simulators range from SFr35,000 ($26,000) to several hundred francs.
The company started in 1987, after a University of Zurich IT professor began training for his pilot's licence.

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