Can You Fly a Real Helicopter After an Hour in a VR Simulator?

 The challenge for the latest episode of Hello World was this: Could I go to Zurich, sit in a newfangled flight simulator for an hour or so and then fly a helicopter the next day through the Swiss Alps? Mind you, I’ve never flown one before. Also, doesn’t this seem like a bad idea?

On This Episode

Since I’m here writing this, the spoiler alert is obvious. You’ll see that, yes, a total novice can cruise by the Matterhorn in a helicopter and survive if given the right tools … and some help.

I was trained by the people at Loft Dynamics AG. They’ve advanced the flight training field in a major way. Instead of surrounding a pilot with curved screens, Loft provides a virtual reality headset paired with the company’s own mechanical simulator that mimics the motions of an aircraft. I’ve tried out the screen approach both at NASA and with the Israel Defense Forces, and the VR system felt like a major leap forward. It’s far more immersive and gives you all the peripheral vision that the old simulators lack.

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After a not terribly successful run on the simulator, I traveled to the Alps and tried out my skills. A real, very awesome pilot did the hardest part of taking off and flying to some open space, but then she turned the controls over, and there I was flying for 10 or so minutes with my camera crew white-knuckling the whole time. The pilot helped avert some near disasters, and I had the time of my life.

Loft, of course, is not built for tourist TV hosts but rather real pilots. The idea being that its systems are cheaper, easier to install and better than previous technology and will be used to train new pilots and help existing ones keep up their hours. It’s already been approved by regulators in Europe and is going through the approval process now with the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Things You Will Learn

In terms of hard-tech startups, Switzerland has a lot going on. The government has deep pockets and has funneled much of that money into specific, high-end areas of tech where the country thinks it can carve out a unique path.

Drones have been of particular interest, and Zurich even has a Drone Valley. (Everyone has a valley of some sort these days, don’t they?) And the highest flier of the bunch is Verity AG, which makes drones for tracking inventory in warehouses and, oddly, artsy drones used by performers like Justin Bieber and Drake at massive concerts and other events. Much of this technology is the brainchild of Verity co-founder Raffaello D’Andrea, who is a one-of-a-kind mathematician, artist and entrepreneur. 

Switzerland also has cutting-edge medical technology and a prime example of this is Cutiss AG, which is manufacturing skin. Grown in a lab, the skin is meant to help burn victims and other people suffering from illnesses.

Things to Do After Watching the Episode

You’re going to want to go to Zermatt. It’s an idyllic village located in the Swiss Alps where people go to ski and hike and soak up amazing views. 

The folks at Air Zermatt will take you on a helicopter sightseeing flight. Like just about everything in Switzerland, it’s expensive, and like many things in Switzerland it’s awesome.

And you should consider staying at Hotel Zermama because it’s a lovely place with some wonderfully eccentric touches thought up by its wonderfully eccentric founder Mario Julen, who made fondue for me once. 

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