It’s a clear day in Zermatt, a remote Swiss town anchored in a sharp valley under the gaze of the Matterhorn. We’ve taken off from Air Zermatt, home to some of the best high-altitude rescue pilots in the world. I’d flown in helicopters before but never piloted one. And this location was hardly a beginner course.

“Are you ready to take the reins?” the controller asks.

“Um, I think . . .?” I said nervously.

“In three, two, one . . .” And with that, the full power of the craft shifts to my command. The controls are exquisitely sensitive, far more than I imagined. Every movement I make on the joystick, no matter how minute, leans the helicopter too far. First to the left. I try to compensate but pull too hard to the right and the vehicle begins furiously rocking back and forth. My heart is racing.

Suddenly, I notice the ground coming up at me. “Oh, f—k!” I yell. Then everything goes black.

After a beat, I ask, “Did I crash?”

“You were about to.”

In reality, I’ve never left the ground—or Los Angeles. Instead, I’m strapped into a mock cockpit, a virtual reality headset across my eyes, on a platform that replicates the six axes of motion mimicking the forces and sensation of a real helicopter. The headset enables immersive 360-degree 3D views of customizable terrain and weather, and I can see my hands and feel the virtual flight controls. The program is so lifelike that when I attempt a gentler virtual flight around the surrounding area, I can feel a slight updraft while maneuvering the helicopter over a small mesa. Like a scene out of The Matrix, I keep telling myself this isn’t real, though my heart is racing. Afterward, I’m offered one of the moistened towelettes on hand for more anxious responses.

My “flight” is courtesy of Loft Dynamics, the Zurich-based designer of the sole VR flight simulator authorized by a major regulator for pilot training. In 2022, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)—Europe’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—approved this technology for helicopter pilot certification for the Robinson R22 and Airbus H125 models. The FAA may soon follow. Last year, it installed two Loft simulators in its New Jersey testing facility to evaluate the technology for U.S. pilot certification and determine whether it’s accurate enough to count toward flight hours and proficiency checks.

Loft has been riding this momentum to some four dozen current and planned simulators in North and South America, Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Australia, with interest from another 200 clients. This month, it opened its North American headquarters in an airy office overlooking the Santa Monica Airport runway and is appearing at the Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo in nearby Anaheim. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department is in the process of acquiring one for its Air Support Division.

“I have never seen anything like this in all my years of flying,” says LAPD chief pilot Kevin Gallagher, who championed his division’s push for the simulator. “It has the potential to revolutionize pilot training, particularly in the area of emergency procedures and surviving an inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions.”

Such responses are still somewhat surreal for Loft founder and CEO Fabi Riesen, given its roots just 11 years earlier as a mere passion project sprawled across his living room. “It’s like being a kid and having a birthday, Easter, and Christmas all together at once,” he laughs.

Scaled down to scale up

Riesen considers the tech—a fraction in size and cost of traditional FAA-approved full-motion simulators used by airlines—an affordable way to scale the next generation of pilots and bolster flight skills. It arrives amidst a global pilot shortage, industry calls to modernize U.S. aviation training to improve airline safety, and a possible increase in the number of simulation hours allowed to count toward flight certifications.

Top-end simulators are $10 million to $20 million two-story machines with mock cockpits that move on hydraulic actuators and require a separate data center and staff to operate and maintain. Their expense and demand limit corporate and municipal usage and make them largely unavailable to the average pilot and flight school. By comparison, the Loft simulator is a tenth the size and costs $800,000 to $2 million, depending on service and software packages. That combination makes it attractive to more budget-conscious flight schools, private fleets, police, and fire and rescue units wanting more consistent simulator training and performance data tracking.

“Traditional simulators are the gold standard of pilot training because you can run all the emergency procedures as close to reality as possible,” says Sky Dayton, a Loft board member and lead investor. “But they’re so expensive and so huge that they’re just not scalable. Loft represents the ability to lower the cost so that more pilots have access to these technologies to do training.”

It’s this scenario that attracted the LAPD’s Gallagher. LAPD pilots undergo an initial 44 weeks of specialized flight school and quarterly proficiency training but can only afford a few days of annual training in traditional simulators due to $10,000-per-pilot costs and time out of rotation. That’s not enough to master certain emergency procedures, including the 15-20 percent so dangerous that pilots can only practice in simulation. Those include engine fires or inadvertent flights into fog, a leading cause of helicopter fatalities, and the crash that killed Kobe Bryant in 2020.

“There are always risks in flying, but add a police mission and the risks amplify,” says Gallagher. Sophisticated maneuvers from surveillance hovering to car chases take place as low as 500 feet and slow as 60 mph over urban environments. “Higher and faster is easier to handle; slow and low is a combination that makes it much more challenging for a pilot to handle an inflight emergency, because reaction time is limited.”

If you build it, they will come

Back in 2013, Riesen had already encountered this issue firsthand. An electrical engineer with a private pilot license, Riesen had grown frustrated by the dearth of affordable quality simulators to improve his flying. “You either had the $20 million ones, which you could only fly if you were hired by the airlines, or you had these small ones that really weren’t doing the job,” he says. His first VR headset sparked the idea to adapt it to flight simulation and advance it from 2D monitor displays. And he decided to tackle a helicopter simulator first simply because it was harder. So, he hijacked the living room for a build site and enlisted his kids. “I have the most tolerant wife on the whole Earth,” he says.

By 2016, he’d wrangled some engineering friends for help. They began sharing prototypes with fellow pilots and involved students through university work-study programs. Despite incorporating, initially as VRM Switzerland, “there was no business plan behind it; it was just passion.” So much so that when EASA called two years later, Reisen laughed it off as a prank. “I mean, come on, how is a European authority from Germany calling a Swiss farm boy?” But when a very official request popped up in his inbox a half-hour later, “I was like, `Whoa!’ How lucky I was that I asked for an email and didn’t just hang up!’”

For the next four years, Riesen’s team raised $10 million in seed money and worked on making the simulator EASA-compliant. They weathered the pandemic by partially quarantining in a workspace with a climbing wall and office rock band. “It was like a hippy community—we were living there, cooking for each other,” Riesen says. “Thanks to that, we were super focused, because we couldn’t do anything else.”

They devised a cloud-based AI-driven system that enables pilots to experience real-time hand and body movements in VR without sensor gloves or body suits, and a virtual cockpit that delivers haptic feedback while operating controls. A suite of sensors and cameras line the cockpit and funnel 70 pictures per second into proprietary software to both track and troubleshoot problem body movements. For example, the machine tossed Riesen around every time he attempted an elevated platform landing. But the replay data showed his head shifting forward slightly on approach, which pulled his shoulders off the seat back, forced control into his elbows, and threw off the helicopter balance.

An even harder task came with crafting methodologies that EASA needed to independently verify the simulator measurements in a VR environment. “Those test tools are much more complicated than building the simulator,” says Riesen.

Their work paid off in May 2022, when EASA finally granted Loft certification to be used toward required flight hours. But it would take Dayton, an entrepreneur best known for founding Earthlink and Boingo, to scale their business after he joined forces and helped raise another $20 million. Initially, however, he’d approached Loft as a potential client. An early investor in the eVTOL startup Joby Aviation, Dayton was looking at an economical but safe way to train its pilots.

“Practicing emergency procedures in an actual helicopter is incredibly dangerous,” he says. “One-third of every helicopter accident in Europe happens in training. That means you went to do a thing to learn to be safe, and you got killed.”

By sheer coincidence, Dayton came across Loft on YouTube just two days after its EASA certification and flew to Switzerland. A jet-rated pilot with some helicopter experience, he was hooked after his first simulated ride.

“My mind was completely blown,” he says. “The visual was better than the traditional simulator because when you turn, you eventually see the edge of the screen.” Also, the Loft headset’s stereoscopic vision offered better depth of field than standard 2D projections, which distort as you approach the ground. “This turns out to be really important when you’re training in helicopters because the most difficult maneuvers are the ones close to the ground where you’re hovering.”

Solving the pilot crisis

For now, Loft is marketing its product as a supplemental training tool. But if the FAA approves its technology and Congress increases the number of simulation hours that can qualify as flight hours, the company will be in a position to significantly streamline the path to pilot certification by reducing training costs while improving quality. To that end, it’s currently developing an airplane simulator and has plans for multi-passenger and eVTOL versions.

The aviation industry is already facing a dearth of pilots, with nearly half slated to retire in the next 15 years, and with a nine percent, or 14,000-pilot shortfall expected by 2030, excluding the rise of eVTOLs adding to that need. Meanwhile, a rise in near-miss collisions has many industry leaders pushing to advance training technology as Congress debates the particulars of a proposed five-year FAA funding bill.

Quality over quantity training

Jetliner certification requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours, which can take three to four years and exceed $100,000. Pilots often accrue them via flight instruction, gliders, crop dusters, sightseeing tours, and even hot-air balloons. But most of these flights occur in clear skies without an instructor.

“The real question is how do you use those hours to most effectively train pilots? If you’re flying banners on the beach, are you really learning anything?” says Michael Huerta, an aerospace consultant who also serves as a Delta Airlines and Joby Aviation board member.

Huerta is among several industry veterans urging more extensive use of FAA-approved simulators in pilot certification and regards Loft’s potential ubiquity as “a game changer” in better aviation safety. “You want to elevate training so that pilots understand how to address risk and recover from catastrophic situations that you can’t replicate in real-life training,” he says.

Airlines already heavily rely on such simulators to train jetliner pilots on their assigned models after they’re hired. But cost and demand might allow as little as 20 simulation hours before copiloting an actual jet.

“At the airline level, pilots get rated for each jetliner they fly in simulation. They never see the [real] airplane until they go out on the first flight, and it’s completely FAA-acceptable,” says Randy Babbitt, a former commercial airline pilot, FAA administrator, and Air Line Pilots Association president who now runs his own consultancy. “When I was a brand-new DC-9 captain, the first time I saw a stretch DC-9, it had 149 people in it. I’d never flown the airplane; only the simulator. But they’re identical. So, we are just not taking as much advantage of that as I think we could and should.

Like Huerta, Babbitt is another proponent for more simulation training counting toward flight hours. “Right now, it’s moving too slowly,” he says. “If we compare ourselves to Europe, we are somewhat behind in appreciating the technology that we have in simulation and not giving pilots more credit for it.”

Meanwhile, as Riesen patiently waits for the FAA testing and political discourse to run their respective courses, he’s busy planning the company’s next steps and, frankly, having too much fun. “We have a clear big picture–more and safer pilots and getting the world ready for the eVTOLS,” he says. “To build something cool with a fantastic team sharing the same passion to address a problem—you talk about the American Dream; this is the Engineering Dream.”


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