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Reality Update

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn  discusses the processes by which scientific theory evolves and the guiding paradigms of science change; e.g., the emerging understanding that our planets rotate around the sun, rather than the Earth. On a smaller scale, but with a remarkable fit to the processes Kuhn describes, is the story of how a Montreal-based company, Mechtronix Systems, stood an established technological paradigm on its head and introduced its own.

May 20, 2009
By Carroll McCormick


In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn  discusses the processes by which scientific theory evolves and the guiding paradigms of science change; e.g., the emerging understanding that our planets rotate around the sun, rather than the Earth. On a smaller scale, but with a remarkable fit to the processes Kuhn describes, is the story of

 Simulators in the Mechtronix manufacturing facility.
(Photo courtesy of Mechtronix)


how a Montreal-based company, Mechtronix Systems, stood an established technological paradigm on its head and introduced its own. The established paradigm was the accepted wisdom that avionics equipment from actual aircraft was an absolute requirement in the construction of flight training simulators. To use a very simple example, a simulator would simulate a temperature signal and send it to a real temperature control box. Thus stimulated, the box would produce an output signal, which would head off to somewhere else in the simulator. This worked just fine, but because avionics boxes are ferociously expensive – think in terms of hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece for many of them – only the biggest, Tier 1, airlines could afford to buy, house and run these simulators. Less affluent airlines had to send their pilots to training centres, often located in other countries, to queue up for precious simulator time.

The new paradigm, according to Fernando Petruzziello, chief executive officer and cofounder of what is now called Mechtronix World Corp., was that avionics boxes were unnecessary: inexpensive computers could simulate avionics boxes and their output just fine, at a minuscule fraction of the cost. The challenge, as Kuhn described and Petruzziello discovered, was getting this new truth past the old guard, with its vested interests in the classic simulator paradigm. “We approached it by breaking into the ab initio sector with Flight Training Devices (FTDs) and the recurrent training market with our own Full Flight Simulator architecture; the FFS X,” Petruzziello says. Targeting Level B training requirements avoided getting bogged down in unhealthy regulatory squabbles too early in the game.

However, Petruzziello notes, “We knew our simulator had Level D capabilities, but the industry would not have accepted a D-Level qualification, due to its innovative nature.”

 Cockpit view of a Mechtronix A320 Full Flight Simulator. (Photo courtesy of Mechtronix)


The genesis of this paradigm shift dates from 1985-87, when Petruzziello and four other Concordia University students built the first prototype of an FTD with microprocessors, sponsored by the National Research Council of Canada. After they graduated, the group formed Mechtronix Systems Inc. Because the technology was not available to make simulators their way, they worked as consultants to industry on factory machine construction until 1994-95. (The distinction between an FFS and an FTD is a matter of relative sophistication: simulators have cab motion and collimated display, which tricks the brain into believing that what it sees on the display has depth and infinity.) Then they decided the time was right to enter the simulator marketplace. Mechtronix sold its first device in 1997: a Boeing 737-800 NG FTD to CTC (U.K.), and in 2003 an FFS X to the Civil Aviation Flight University of China.

Mechtronix had launched a paradigm shift. Not only did it challenge the notion that simulators required avionics boxes by substituting software and microprocessors, it also challenged the accepted practice that training had to be done at third-party training hubs where there was sufficient wealth to buy and operate classic simulators. “We positioned our product specifically for the recurrent training market. Our niche was Tier 2 and 3 airlines, which are usually regional airlines with 10 to 20 planes. We introduced novel technology and training at home, instead of having to go to hubs to train,” Petruzziello explains.

Technology was no longer the limiting factor to the paradigm shift, but, as with Kuhn, there were those in the old guard who stood their ground. “The main issues with Tier 1 accounts are the old managers who don’t want to think,” Petruzziello says. They knew their comfort zone and had little interest in taking risks. Even WestJet, with its cost-conscious, shareholding employees, proved too tough a nut to crack when it was shopping for a simulator, he recalls. “The guys who ran it were ex-Tier 1 people. This is the kind of obstacle we faced. The airlines who took us seriously were airlines in China and South America, then later Lufthansa. But now we are competing head to head with CAE and our technologies have become the standard.” Its clients now include Manitoba’s Perimeter Aviation, Air Canada, Turkey’s Gözen Group, Japan Airlines, Malév Hungarian Airlines, Northwest Airlines and TACA Airlines.

In 2002 Mechtronix decided to shoot for the moon and entered the FFS market. But when it went shopping for funding to build a Level D simulator, the best of the best, the going got tough. Petruzziello’s recollection echoes Kuhn’s description of the dynamic, sometimes for good, sometimes not, between the bold and the conservative players in a scientific field. “Our backers contacted the ‘industry experts’ to see if we could build a $10-million simulator. I said to them, ‘I am the expert.’ We ended up securing the financing at the end of the day, but it was a nightmare.” In 2004 Transport Canada qualified Mechtronix’s first Level D simulator, the FFS X.

Mechtronix went further than replacing avionics boxes and other airplane parts with microprocessors, an advancement in terms of replication technology. It collaborated with Airbus to use subsets of its data package to achieve this with its A320 FFS X. It rode the wave of PC-based image generation, which by then was killing off refrigerator-sized image generators, with their cold rooms and quarter-million-dollar-a-year service contracts. It replaced the hydraulically driven hexipods, with their attendant hydraulics technicians, with lower-maintenance and less costly electric pistons, which generated more controversy; hexipods are those assemblies of six big pistons that move the simulator cab around in six degrees of freedom: X, Y, Z, yaw, pitch and roll.

These changes have lowered the price of simulators by 30 to 40 per cent, reduced operating costs to one-fifth of that of classic simulators and reduced support staff requirements from eight bodies to just two, Petruzziello asserts. “What we have really done is brought simulators home. There is no longer a need to build a facility for a simulator. With the old philosophy the break-even was to build a four-bay facility. Now you can break even with one simulator. We can bring training centres to regions or home bases.” An FFS can simply be shipped to a customer, uncrated in any room large enough for the cab to dance about without hitting anything, get qualified and put to work. Mechtronix simulators have enabled the proliferation of airline home-base training and have contributed to the good fortunes of training academies.

Today Mechtronix is the third-largest manufacturer of flight training simulators after the Thales Group in France and CAE in Montreal. It has a partnership with Minnesota-based Aerosim Technologies, which builds a variety of PC-based training devices and designs courseware. It was logical then, considering the support Mechtronix had been providing to its clients, that in 2008, with $39 million in private equity funding from Richardson Capital Limited, it created a holding company called Mechtronix World Corp., with three subsidiaries: Mechtronix Capital, which helps clients set up their financing; Aviation Services, which helps customers with the expertise required to qualify and operate their simulators; and Mechtronix Systems, which is the engineering, manufacturing and R&D arm that builds and designs the devices.

Its first leasing contract was with the Chinese airline Shenzhen, for a B737-NG FFS X. Petruzziello explains the strategy behind entering this business sector: “Airlines have restricted access to cash. Leasing is the future. This is a safe area, because the leasing will be to established Tier 2, 3 airlines. They have been there forever.”

The Mechtronix headquarters in Montreal is growing too. The current 65,000-square-foot manufacturing facility houses office staff, a lab where technicians build all of the simulator microprocessors and hardware, rooms where FTDs are built and tested and a high-ceiling area where FFSs on hexipods are finished and tested prior to shipment. Nearby a 20,000-square-foot office building is under construction and will be ready for occupation this year.

Asked what he envisions for the future of flight training simulation – whether he has a sense of another paradigm shift – Petruzziello speaks more to an attitude toward pilot training pedagogy than technology. “The next revolution will be when you don’t need to replicate the airplane 100 per cent; for example, shake the pilot. Do you really need to replicate the cockpit to train? The next revolution will be toward meeting training needs rather than the regulatory requirements.”

Mechtronix simulators represent a wide variety of aircraft, from narrow bodies like the A320 and B737 to turboprops like the Fairchild Metro, single- and multi-engine piston planes and speciality aircraft like the Bombardier 415 water bomber.

They come in a range of sophistication, depending on the training qualification level desired; e.g., direct transition with Zero Flight Time to real aircraft, a percentage of required flight time, multi-crew co-operation, recurrent, instrument, Flight Management System with lesson plans or ab initio training. Systems can include navigation, weather and air traffic control. There are separate control consoles from where trainers keep the pilots busy.

Simulators are qualified to various levels by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA), as well as local authorities such as Transport Canada. They must be qualified when they are installed, requalified every time they are moved, and also receive annual recurrent qualification.

Here is a broadbrush summary of the classes of simulators Mechtronix makes, with some of their features:
The FFS X series, the white puffball shaped machines on hexipods, are the most sophisticated. They may be rated from Level A to D, that is, from recurrent training or Non Zero Flight Time training to Zero Flight Time training. The visual field is a minimum 40 degrees  by 180 degrees. The cockpits are reproduced in exquisite and utterly convincing detail; everything is built in-house except the seats, which come from the aircraft maker.

It was one of these, a beautiful A320 destined for an airline in South America, that Mechtronix graciously let me take out for a 40-minute flight, with copious assistance from consultant test pilot Karl Drolet in the right-hand seat. We rotated off Pearson’s Runway 5, flew south and then east along the Toronto waterfront at 2000 AGL (more or less), turned back to the west, lined up and landed on Runway 6R, complete with runway landing lights, exited onto Taxiway C3 and taxied over to Terminal 3’s gate 37.

The FFT X series is like the FFS, except that the hexipod is not a standard option. It would be roughly correct to say that its main distinction from the FFS, from a qualification point of view, is that it cannot be used for Zero Flight Time training; the full details are an alphabet soup of FAA, ICAO and JAA regulations beyond the scope of this article. Otherwise, the FFT X can be used for just about any kind of training.

The FFT series (without the X) resembles an office cubicle with an aircraft nose attached, and with a 35-degree by 80-degree visual display system stationed in front of it. Mechtronix purchases real aircraft cockpit/nose assemblies from boneyards, cleans them up and starts building. They don’t fly around on hexipods, but the flight decks are true to type, with lots of features like ground handling, A/C systems, flight controls and forces, sound, navigation, weather and air traffic control.

One rung further down are FTDs loaded onto PCs. They range from software packages that run on one laptop to spidery assemblies of as many as seven or more touch screens on which all of the instrument panel auxiliary control centre and the comm/nav console appear. These, like some of the other simulators, can be changed to other aircraft types by loading different software.