Interview With Austin Meyer
Author Of X-Plane
FlightSim.Com has just conducted an interview with Austin Meyer, creator of the popular flight simulator X-Plane. Austin covers a variety of topics in the interview. You can listen to the interview via the link below or read the transcript which follows, complete with timestamps from the original audio.
Interviewer: We have with us today Austin Meyer, President of Laminar Research. Austin designed and developed the very popular X-Plane flight simulator and engineering tool. Austin, we would like to thank you for sitting down with us here at FlightSim.Com, and answering a few questions about yourself, and about the X-Plane product. First of all, what started your interest in real aviation, and the desire to get a degree in aerospace engineering?
Austin Meyer: Well I guess I would say that I started off with modeled airplanes and whatnot when I was a little kid and my uncle had a primitive old flight simulator that was used for instrument training by real pilots, and he let me fly it one day. And I saw that flying a real airplane actually wasn't that hard, and it was actually easier than flying radio controlled airplanes, and so I when I saw that real aviation was actually pretty accessible, I started my flight lessons pretty quickly, and I ended up getting my pilots license right around the minimum age.
So it was an introduction to the old school IFR training flight simulators that got me into real aviation. Now, as far as an aerospace engineering degree goes, I chose aerospace engineering initially so I can help design aircraft, and it was actually my plan to work for Boeing or some other company in aircraft design. However when I was in college at Iowa State University, the Cold War was just starting to thaw, the Berlin Wall had just come down, and Ronald Reagan's huge defense spending was clearly entering its twilight at least, and all of a sudden, the military companies were not hiring aerospace engineers to design the next-generation of weapon systems.
And simply having an aerospace engineering degree was really no indication at all that you were likely to get a job, and the big military companies like Lockheed Martin, and Martin Marietta and whatnot were actually kind of scaling back a lot on hiring of engineers for new weapon systems. So at that point I realized that I needed to go ahead, and do something for myself. I was in the middle of taking an instrument currency test in southern California, and I was a bit behind the airplane trying to come up with the airplane and the air traffic controllers and I realized that if I had a simulator at home to practice with I'd really be able to do a lot better the next time I tried to take an instrument currency test.
And those old mechanical instrument trainers they used back in the 80s were so incredibly limited. It clearly wasn't a way to really do good instrument training, and to get nearly the degree of flight simulation that is possible personal computers, so myself with instrument training, I decided to write a simulator called Piper Archer--II IFR which was simulators that let you do IFR flight practice in the Piper Archer. I was getting my aerospace engineering degree at the time, and it didn't take me too long to realize that the laws of physics that I was applying to the Piper Archer-II could be applied to any airplane at all. At that point I renamed the simulator X-Plane.
Interviewer: Now, just backing up about your background a little bit Austin are there other people in your family involved in aviation?
Austin Meyer: My uncle is Leighton Collins who was the founder of Air Facts magazine, and one of my cousins is Richard Collins who has done a lot of writing for Flying. So I have some people that are somewhat, somewhat close relations that are involved in aviation journalism.
Interviewer: You grew up flying the Cessna and Piper singles. What type of aircraft have you owned, what do you fly today, and what kind of aircraft do you hope to own in the future?
Austin Meyer: Okay so I grew up flying Cessna 172s and Piper Archers and the like. My first airplane that I owned was the Cirus SR-22 which is a great, great, great airplane. But after a while of flying SR-22 the 165 knots that it delivered started to seem a bit slow since the number of my flights were and continued to be all the way across the country. I then stepped up to a Columbia 400 which with turbochargers and intercoolers and a little sleeker design, tighter fuselage, tighter wing, wants to be a bit faster, and so that moves me a 195 knots which is better for the cross-country trip, and I found the Columbia 400 to be a little bit more my kind of style and taste and look and feel, so I really enjoyed flying that airplane, and that's what I fly now a Columbia 400, which is absolutely just a wonderful, wonderful airplane. It's a shame they're not exactly made anymore. Cessna took over production of the Columbia 400, and we named it the Cessna 400, but they also outsourced the production of the airplane to Mexico when they did that, and once they did that there's at least one case for wing skin just quite literally came unglued right from the spar in flight because the factory in Mexico was doing completely, completely incompetent job of prepping the surfaces for bonding and attaching this part of the wing skin, and so the workmanship was such that the airplanes could literally start to come unglued in flight and I'm not exaggerating.
So a Columbia 400 for me it's just a great, great airplane to fly and have. And I have one of the last ones built in the United States so I actually feel like I can trust my life to it. I'm working on building right now an airplane called a Lancair Evolution, and the Lancair Evolution is a home built which is a step up from the Columbia 400 even. It actually has an 850 horsepower Pratt & Whitney turbine engine and it hooks up the propeller, and this airplane does about 325 knots, and this airplane has a central nervous system if you will call the VP-400 and the VP-400 instead of avionics they control air conditioning, pressurization, climate control, and as well -- it actually is this artificial intelligence to guide the airplane down to the runway in the event of engine failure or pilot incapacitation.
We're going to need one red button and the airplane actually uses a little miniature flight simulator running inside of it to predict what would be the best thing it could do in the event that the engine quits. It's called the VP-400. You can Google that and learn about it, and I actually wrote the VP-400 or a large part of the VP-400 with a small team, and that is in the Evolution. And then the interesting thing about that is I then took the VP-400 code, and I port it over to the iPad and we call that Xavion, and you can get that at the App Store right now.
And what Xavion does is it's just like the VP400, but it's on an iPad and so what it does is it's constantly running flight simulations of what the airplane should do, what if the engine quits, the pilot becomes incapacitated and draws a series of three dimensional hoops that take you down to the runway in the event that the engine quits or the pilot's really no longer able to navigate the airplane on his own. You can follow hoops right down to the best runway to land on, and that Xavion works in the real airplane, and as well it works in X-Plane.
So in other words, you can buy Xavion at the App Store, put it on your iPad. Now as X-Plane drives avionics just like you were in the real airplane, and so what you're seeing here is a convergence between flight simulation and real aviation that is becoming just a razor thin line between the two. When we have the actual avionics live in the actual airplane now being driven by X-Plane on an iPad. This is the future we're moving towards for avionics so it's likely to run on an iPad. It's an integrated Garmin unit for example and software that runs in the simulator and the real airplane becomes indistinguishable.
So it's incredible convergence that we're seeing as we move into the future where anyone can write code and deploy it on an iPad to anyone on earth instantly.
Interviewer: That's very impressive. We're talking with Austin Meyer, President of Laminar Research. Austin, do other people that work with you fly also and if so what types of aircraft?
Austin Meyer: Well, my co-business development op person Randy Witt, who also manages tech support, he's got quite a few thousand hours in his Beechcraft Baron although he sold that recently and decided to switch from Barons to Ferraris. The price is about the same, but he decided he was ready for some ground transportation instead. And then my coders are incredibly, incredibly talented coders, but they don't have the aviation experience. So I'm pretty much the -- right now the aviation heart and soul of Laminar research.
Interviewer: Tell us some more about your thoughts, ideas and designs that you've been working on for the real aviation industry?
Austin Meyer: Okay. So this is really a question about Xavion and I kind of rattled through what it does a moment ago, but now let's give you a little bit more information. Let me take the time to really explain this to you. Imagine you're flying along in a real airplane, and imagine there's a computer in that airplane that is constantly looking at your altitude, location, heading, airspeed to see where you are, which you're pointing, and how fast you're going. Then imagine simply put it connect with your GPS, then imagine that it has a terrain database of all the mountains and buildings and ground all around you and an airport database the list where all airports are.
And then imagine it has a tiny little flight simulator inside of its little brain that is constantly imagining. If the engine quit right now what path would I take to bring me to the best airport to land at? And the best airport is not always the closest airport, and you're up to 12,000 feet and you can glide just a mile or two farther to reach a much longer, wider, flatter runway. You're going to have a more successful outcome or more likely successful outcome even if you go to the airport just a little bit farther away if it's still within gliding range and that's a much better runway.
Right now in real aviation when the engine quits if you go to an air traffic controller, he's always going to say the same thing. Your closest airport is a 2 o'clock and five miles maybe you can make it maybe you can't. All he can tell you that it's closest, but if you actually have ten airports within gliding range which could certainly be the case if you're flying higher in southern California for example if you have ten airports within the same, within the gliding range of your airplane you're most likely to be able to glide down to land successfully if you take the longest, widest, flattest runway within gliding range of the airplane, and nobody has time to figure out what airport that is if they're flying the airplane and the engine quits in reality.
Nobody has time to figure it out, and then what pilots do is they always fly towards the closest airports to land that, but they have no idea how they're going to manage their energy when they arrive over the airport. Now, as a result sometimes pilots come up short of the runway and crash and someone says land long and run off the end of the runway, also an accident. What's necessary is the computer program that's constantly imagining at every moment of the flight if the engine quits right now what if I aim for this airport and this runway, and then try a different airport and a different runway, and another airport and another runway and this computer program will run through every possible scenario, every possible outcome, and then report to the pilot which is the best one.
Well, that's what the VP-400 does. It's constantly running a little flight simulator in this little brain of what the airplane should do if the engine quits at that moment, and that information is displayed to the pilot in the simplest way you could imagine, a series of little three-dimensional croquet hoops that you can fly through to get to the runway, so when you fly a real airplane with Xavion, you're flying along with an artificial horizon with synthetic vision and map, and the synthetic vision system simply has little croquet hoops that are sprouting out of the nose of the airplane and then spiraling down to the best airport to glide to if the engine quits.
And so you know at every moment if you can make it to an airport if the engine quits, and which airport you can go to, and the hoops come down to the descent rate that is consistent with how the airplane descends if the engine quits, so it's a steady descent rate down to the airport. You're going to think of it as a custom generated instrument approach. It's regenerated for you in a 10th of a second so you would be the steady descent rate down to the best airport to glide to if the engine quits.
And it gets better than that. Let's say the pilot becomes incapacitated, and you got a passenger flying that has minimal aviation knowledge but only he or she has to do is aim the airplane through the hoops. They're going to get down to a runway. You just aim the airplane through the hoops to get down to the runway and the VP-400 does one better. The auto pilot will snatch control of the airplane to hit the red panic button and the autopilot will follow the suit, and so what you've actually got is a primitive artificial intelligence following hoops down to the best runway to land at if the engine quits or the pilot becomes incapacitated. That's what the VP-400 does.
It's got an old simulator that was initially based on the flight model of X-Plane, and it's going to do some pretty incredible things and is doing some incredible things now where you can actually see how to get your airplane down to the ground at the push of the red button. You are going to take itself down to the runway for you. Then I took this VP-400 code, loaded it onto the iPad and that's currently available at the Apps Store, and it's called a Xavion.
And an iPad will not actually take control of the autopilot of your airplane, but it will show you the little hoops that you can fly through. So that with an iPad in any airplane, a certified airplane doesn't even have to be a home built in the event that you hit the red panic button on the iPad if you can simply aim the airplane to the little three-dimensional croquet hoops in the sky or the high end of the sky you can follow those two right down to the best runway to land at if the engine fails so you're constantly aware of what's going on during flight.
Interviewer: Austin, let's turn to talking about your company a little bit. When did you first start selling X-Plane as a product?
Austin Meyer: X-Plane first started selling I want to say right around 1995 or so was version 1.
Interviewer: When was Laminar Research started and who's involved with the company?
Austin Meyer: All right so Laminar Research was started 1995 maybe 1994 right around the time I was first developing and selling X-Plane. Since then we picked up Randy Witt who is the company co-owner, business development and tech support and Randy and I are the two owners of Laminar Research right now. We also have a number of subcontractors about three, four, maybe five people that do various coding and artwork and aircraft construction for X-Plane and scenery construction for X-Plane so there's about six or seven of us total which is mostly subcontractors that submit the bits and pieces that all come together to define X-Plane the flight simulator, and everybody works out of their home. There's no commute. Everything we do is each person working from home submitting pieces over kind of a secure link to come together to build the entire simulator.
Interviewer: Against all the odds of other companies getting out of the development of flight simulators, what made you press on and develop what so many feel is the world's most comprehensive and powerful flight simulator on the market?
Austin Meyer: The sales, the sales justified it. When I first started out with X-Plane 1 it was about $650 a copy. I lived in a tiny dinky little apartment by an airport and the rundown area of town. My rent was, I don't know, 350 bucks a month as I recall. So a couple of sales a day or several sales a week were enough to keep me going. And every month and every year since I pushed the price lower, the volume higher, the quality the product higher and we're now making seven figures well into the seven figures a year, so every year is better than the last. The sales are excellent, and of course we're going to keep on doing it because I think we're building the best simulator and annual revenue is quite simply showing it.
Interviewer: You designed and developed the unique ability to model aircraft behavior based on the blueprints. How long was it before you released the first version of X-Plane for others to try out using this idea?
Austin Meyer: I developed this idea back in the early 90s, but remember I'm not the inventor of this concept. Actually this is based on a theory called blade element theory which was first devised back in the times of Leonardo Da Vinci to imagine what a big propeller would look like if it could screw through the air to lift the person up off the ground so it began as like a Leonardo Da Vinci age kind of flight advanced of how might an air foil interact with the air and even though they didn't have any practical way to actually apply this to an airplane that's actually when the idea was originally thought.
And I used this theory, blade element theory, in X-Plane and with the computers that are available today to apply blade element theory mathematically to see how an air foil interacts with air, well, X-Plane is able to put this theory into really good practice. We can actually realize the benefits of it in the personal computer by entering the blueprint of an aircraft and then seeing how the airplane flies. The development was in the early 90s based on an idea just literally a thousand years old or so, and there was a 1995 X-Plane first shipped with this blade element theory in it.
Interviewer: What were some of the other major milestones in the development of X-Plane that brought it to what it is today?
Austin Meyer: Well, basically my e-mail is [email protected]. Everybody knows it. And people are constantly emailing me with requests for X-Plane and we're rapidly and have been for the last, well, since 1995, for the last 20 years or so, rapidly increasing X-Planes goals based on the request I've gotten from customers so customers are constantly emailing what they like. I'm adding them. Some of the major milestones have been flight on Mars, multi-engineer aircraft, jet aircraft, Plane-Maker which lets people enter their own aircraft and the most recent -- the most recent big hit released just yesterday by the way was X-Plane 10.20 which runs in 64-bit unlike previous versions of X-Plane and unlike Microsoft flight simulator and all other simulators that I know of are X-Plane 10.20 is 64-bit which mean it can use I think a billion gig of RAM before it runs out of address base and crashes so while 32-bit apps it can only to 2 or 3 gigabytes of RAM before they crash simply due to not being able to store that much memory any longer, X-Plane 10.20 and later can now go up to I think a billion gig before it runs out of address base and crashes. So the potential for future scenery is simply unlimited, because we have an unlimited RAM access. You can add buildings and objects and airplanes and textures and terrain and cars and clouds really without limits. You're limited only by how much memory can you fit in your computer because the X-Plane source code can handle anything you can throw at it, and that's X-Plane 1020 64-bit. Is the first 64-bit flight simulator that I know of, and it was just released yesterday.
Interviewer: Well as you will mention you've added tools like Plane-Maker and also Airfoil Maker so people can create their own aircraft. What future plans do you have for those?
Austin Meyer: Plane-Maker and Airfoil Maker have almost no plans at all because they're fine the way they are. Airfoil Maker lets you enter the airfoil characteristics with drag and moment. It's been almost unchanged for in the last ten years because it kind of has no need to change. It's right where it needs to be. It lets you enter the airfoil. Plane-maker had only the most subtle changes over the last 10 years. We've added little features that people have asked for, things like water injection into the engine or speed brakes that automatically deploy at certain time, subtle little changes that are particular to each aircraft. Those types of little changes they're always being added, but the changes that are planned for the long run are very, very minor because Airfoil Maker and Plane-Maker do what they need to do just fine right now. The big future for X-Plane is more scenery realism and variety, and I can take that into a separate question if you would like me to go into that, but as far as Plane-Maker and Airfoil Maker go, they're good the way they are. We don't expect to see anything that's going to change and they're moving forward.
Interviewer: Okay yeah I'm going to get to that question, but first I want to ask this. We've heard that X-Plane is not just a simulator, but also an engineering tool. Can you tell us how people and companies are using X-Plane to help design aircraft in real world aviation?
Austin Meyer: Maybe to some degree, but only to some degree, and here is why. When we sell X-Plane to someone it say 69 bucks. We don't know what they're going to use it for. Now, I've been involved with the company called CarterCopter which makes record breaking high speed autogyros and they've actually done flight test on X-Plane and I've been involved in the flight test programs, and I've seen how beneficial it's been to practice a flight test in an unusual aircraft on the simulator before you go do it in the real airplane, and we're actually able to design flight test procedures by practicing on X-Plane before you flew the real high speed autogyro. This by the way is a 200 mile an hour autogyro powered by a Corvette engine that was really breaking the records with speed.
And then we send copies all the time to all the major aerospace manufacturers. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, we sent to all of them, but we don't always know exactly what they're using X-Plane for because they don't always want to tell us, and that's fine of course. You don't need to go in there and try to micromanage how they're using X-Plane. But NASA for example they use, they have used, or are using X-Plane to experiment with how a glider could de-orbit, low Mars orbit, enter the Martian atmosphere and glide through the thin Martian atmosphere at supersonic speed capturing data about the atmosphere and the terrain below the glider.
So X-Plane has a huge wide range of uses from autogyros to -- it being used by CarterCopter to high speed gliders on Mars as being simulated by NASA and countless other uses in between, they are too numerous really to even count.
Interviewer: Can you tell us more about where you see X-Plane going in the future and what will we be able to do in the product and what do you see as some of the most important features to add?
Austin Meyer: What we're going to do moving forward is make the scenery ever more realistic. If you get X-Plane right now, and find the Seattle area you'll find that the scenery throughout Seattle is absolutely amazing. Buildings, roads, cars, clouds, weather, reflection in the water, the building area or the scenery area of Seattle is absolutely stunning and better than I've ever seen in any other simulator ever, and that includes the $20 million Full Motion Sim which I've flown.
Our X-Plane scenery puts those simulators completely to shame. Our scenery in Seattle is absolutely excellent, and if we go to Paris, France, it looks just like Seattle. And if we go to Australia it looks just like Seattle. In other words we have these incredible buildings and architectural renderings, but it's not different per region yet. We use real elevation maps, real roadmaps, so those are accurate for every area of the country, but architectural style of the buildings, the accents of traffic controllers, the variations that you actually see in aviation from one part of the world to the other aren't there yet.
And so in the future what we're going to be moving towards is architectural style. Air traffic controller procedures and accents, and aircraft that really reflect each part of the world to really dive into the subsets of culture and aviation so that is not just homogenous so we have an excellent setup right now. The next thing to do is that more variety, it's the different parts of the world look like those parts of the world.
Interviewer: Austin Meyer, President of Laminar Research, and we would like to remind the folks listening they can purchase copies of X-Plane in the FlightSim.Com Pilot Shop and that's at www.fspilotshop.com. Thank you Austin for taking the time to speak with us today. It's exciting to see how successful X-Plane has become and we're happy for the opportunity to share your story with everyone at FlightSim.Com.
Austin Meyer: All right, thanks.