Taking Flight 

Eagle facility takes fun and education into the air

As we're sitting in the cockpit of Bill Atwell's Beech Baron Twin Engine, winding through the narrow canyons of Lucky Peak Reservoir under the command of my rookie piloting, Atwell says that if I want, we can land, file a flight plan with the main control tower, start 'er back up, hit the hyperjump button and warpspeed Star Trek-style to Chicago or London or even Hawaii. Paris for lunch? Hmm, I do love a crepe Seine-side. But, instead of buzzing the tower--the Eiffel Tower, that is--I settle for buzzing eastbound traffic on I-84 as I attempt to line up for a landing at Boise's illustrious airport. Turns out that landing an airplane is a lot harder than it looks (or feels from the seat of a commercial airliner) and Atwell has to save our flight from certain disaster moments before I turn the plane into flaming heap. Lucky for me it's a simulation.

Set at the end of an unmarked driveway, back among an army of trees on a quiet older street in Eagle, the Eagle SimPort hides behind the house-turned-mad-scientist-laboratory of Atwell's industrial software offices. The hangar's four hydraulic-mounted flight simulators are the culmination of seven years of big picture brainstorming, tedious tinkering and lots of trial and error, but they represent only the beginning for Atwell's flying club.

"Ultimately," he explains, "I'd like to franchise this idea so that pilots all over the world can fly together in the virtual world." The idea is that pilots out of Eagle SimPort can interact in the virtual world with pilots in any other part of the world where a SimPort flying club is located. For example, a member in Eagle can simulate a downed aircraft in the Arizona desert and meet a member flier in San Diego at the crash site for training purposes. Think Internet gaming on a much larger scale in a graphically realistic world and from the controls of a cockpit replica so spot-on it can be used for real-world pilot training. The interactive concept is up and running right now at the Eagle SimPort, where from the helm of the Beech Baron, Atwell and I chased a Cessna Citation being piloted three simulators down the line through the virtual wild blue yonder.

The idea started in the early '90s with California's Fly Town, says Atwell. "It was like an arcade. You could shoot each other down and have lots of fun, but it was only for fun," he says. "I wanted to be able to teach people how to do the real thing." At Eagle SimPort, the real thing encompasses all aspects of aviation, from filing a flight plan and plotting a chart to learning how to fly in various weather conditions. In fact, the SimPort actually has a very serious side to it, despite an initial tendency to view the simulators as pure entertainment. A variety of classes are available for club members over the age of 12, including a Kids Can Fly Class, an Aviation Academy and Ground School. Wannabe pilots working on a pilot's license can log real flight time, have the chance to fly different aircraft and can even work on Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) training.

However the real fun, and the experience that Atwell describes as "as real as it gets without leaving the ground," is getting up in the air. Each of the simulators has fully functioning radio capabilities and instrumentation (including autopilot), but there's no joy stick or mouse to run the computers that start each flight. Pilots must have a working knowledge of how to start each plane (that is, they have to know how to decipher all the mystery knobs, levers and dials, and know in which order to push, pull and turn each one) just like the real version or they'll never get the engine started, much less get in the air. It takes three computers to run a simulator (except for one of the simulators, in which a fourth computer is installed to mimic the flight management computer of a real plane), an overhead projector provides the digital image for the windshield view, and two TVs mounted to the sides of each simulator provide side views.

As for the simulators' capabilities, Atwell puts it simply: "Each simulator has the unique flight characteristics of that plane. They have rudders and flaps and call signs. Even the sounds they make when they start are the sounds the real plane makes, so each one sounds different." And of course, the hydraulics create an even more realistic experience, providing the bumpiness of turbulence when flying through rough weather and, as I discovered in my near crash, providing the shake when the plane misses the runway and lands in sagebrush.

But forget the hydraulics and the additional four stationary simulators that are about to be added to the fleet. Forget the helicopter, F-18 and combat simulators and the MegaScenery software that allows you to literally sightsee any location in the world like you're spitting out of an open canopy onto the real thing. And forget the classes, the real-enough-to-be-real-world control tower and even the future of franchise operations, when you and your buddy in Long Island can cruise over Daytona Beach in mid-winter. The really impressive part of the whole operation is that it's not just a collection of simulators Atwell ordered from e-Bay--he and his team of lab apprentices built them all from scratch.

"It's really been an evolutionary process," says Atwell. "The whole thing took so long because we had to design the circuit boards for the controls. Microsoft had the software, but we had to figure out how to interface our stuff with it, so we had to write new software." Even the literal nuts and bolts of the cockpits were designed specifically for Atwell's simulators. "Some of the stuff we needed was too hokey or too expensive, so we cast our own yolks at a foundry in Melba and etched and cut all of the controls for the cockpits. Everything."

Though the SimPort was originally slated to open this summer, Atwell ran into a minor and unexpected hiccup, forcing him to delay the official opening until cooler weather set in this fall--21 computers running four machines made the hangar oppressively hot. And with another half-dozen simulators yet to be assembled, Atwell decided the most cost- and energy-effective solution was to wait until fall for the grand opening and then sort out the air coolant situation before next summer's heat sets in. Expect an opening near the end of October, but if you just can't wait that long, give the SimPort a call and get yourself signed up for an introductory class, a tour and maybe, just maybe, a quick flight over the foothills.

For more information on Eagle SimPort visit www.fly1now.com.

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