Meet Randy Witt, Customer Support Manager

Jennifer Roberts

Question: What’s your title with X-Plane?

Answer: Manager, Customer Support. Actually the Manager title is a little bit silly because we’re a small company and I’m a one-man show. Still, I suppose it does make me sound slightly more important so I’ll take it. 🙂

Q: What does a typical day look like?

A: Of course, I spend most of my day working with customers who have questions about or have run into problems with X-Plane. I love working with people and being able to solve their problems and helping them to grow to love X-Plane is an amazingly rewarding experience. I have received many, many “Thank You” letters and e-mails over the years where people have taken the time to express their appreciation for the time and energy that I’ve put into helping them. Once a customer sent me an expensive bottle of wine all the way from Paris, France and another time someone sent me an amazing, large autographed photograph of Amelia Earhart in front of her Lockheed Electra back in 1938. It was framed in a really nice frame, which gives you an idea of how expensive it must have been. That picture now hangs in my living room and is a great conversation piece that many visitors have commented on over the years.

Q: Can you provide a little background on yourself?

A: I met Austin in college and we quickly became friends, both being pilots and both of us crazy about aviation. I actually met him within a few weeks of the time I met the girl who would eventually became my wife. Its funny how you have no idea at the time that a few chance introductions would later define themselves as pivotal moments in your life which take you in a completely new and unexpected direction. I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Austin of course had studied Aeronautical Engineering. After we graduated in 1992 we each went our separate ways and very rarely saw each other over the next twelve years or so. In 2004 I began to realize that I was tired of my engineering job and approached Austin about working with him at Laminar Research. At that point he had perhaps two or three other employees so I was brought in fairly early in the growth cycle of the company and now we number perhaps 10 or 12 full-time employees.

I’ve always been absolutely in love with aviation and have been a pilot for thirty+ years, having obtained my Private Pilot’s License at the age of seventeen while attending High School. After graduating and starting a family my wife asked me one day about getting back into aviation as it had been three or four years since I had flown. Surprised and excited at my spouse’s support, I started the search for our first airplane the following day and eventually purchased a 1973 Cessna 150L for $13,000. I had always dreamt of owning an airplane someday but never imagined that this milestone would happen while I was still in my mid 20’s. I mention the price not to be boastful but rather to demonstrate that for the cost of a decent used car it is possible to dive head-first into aviation and even aircraft ownership. I logged about 350 hours in that airplane over the next three years and later calculated the final operating expense to be slightly under $7.00 per hour, including a small profit I made in the sale. Wow – who ever would have thought that something like that was possible?!?

After selling the Cessna we upgraded to an antique Beech Bonanza, one of the very first of the 35 series that company built in 1948. This was possibly my favorite aircraft as it was reasonably fast (140 KTAS) and efficient (10.5 GPH of Auto fuel) and really, really reliable. After getting inadvertently caught in a low level thunderstorm over Des Monies, IA we deiced to upgrade to something more robust and better equipped. After looking for a few months I settled on a 1970 Baron 58. I started a 135 Charter company with that aircraft and my flying grew exponentially and for a few years I was flying 325+ hours annually in personal Part 91 flights and my two Charter Pilots were flying an additional 300+ hours of Part-135 charger flights. That was a fun time. It was amazing how at-one I felt with that aircraft and how my competency in the Baron was at such an incredibly high level. One time I departed out of KC on a trip to Chicago to pick up my parents with zero-zero weather being reported for the destination. It was a 2 hour flight and I was crying nearly 7 hours of fuel on board so I figured I would just depart and check the weather periodically to see if things didn’t improve. About half way there the weather came up to 100’ indefinite overcast and 1/4 mile visibility – still too low even for an ILS but there was a definite trend towards better conditions. As I came into the Chicago above the solid undercast is was shocking how beautiful and clear the weather was above the ocean of cloud below me. The weather was now 200 and 1/2 mile, right at minimums for an ILS into the Palwaukee airport. The approach was flown perfectly and just as promised, I broke out of the murk and was rewarded with the beautiful sight of a runway straight off the nose and waiting to welcome my Baron. I picked my parents up and we climbed back into the murk for the return flight home. Within about five minutes after wheels-up we were back on top again and I clearly remember the awesome feeling of being able to comfortably complete the mission.

Q: What was your first experience that got you into aviation or X-Plane?

A: I was always desperately interested in airplanes and can recall climbing onto the roof of my suburban Chicago house and sitting up there for hours at night watching the airliners lining up for their long snaking approaches into O’Hare. When I met Austin at Iowa State in the early 1990’s he asked me one day if I was interested in seeing the simulator he had been working on and had started writing back in High School. Of course that program was what eventually morphed into X-Plane and I recall a feeling of total and utter astonishment that my good but somewhat-geeky friend had written this all from the ground up. Back then of course the program was not nearly as refined or amazing as it is today but the foundation for something amazing had clearly been laid. That was my first glimpse into the genius that is Austin Meyer and my first inkling of what was to come.

Q: What type of computer set up do you use? Any hardware or accessories you couldn’t live without?

A: Of course, coming from a traditional engineering company I came from a Windows background and had never even tried a Macintosh before Austin made me get one as a condition of working with him back in ’04. And I’ve never gone gone back. Literally, in the last 13 years I can probably count the number of hard crashes where I’ve had to shut down the machine and restart it on one had. On Windows of course, you might expect to have to do this once a week or more.

In reference to flight hardware this may surprise you but I just don’t get to fly the sim for enjoyment all that often. Most of my waking hours are spent either with my wife and two teenage children, or conversing with customers either on the phone or e-mail, answering questions and helping them to become acquainted with X-Plane.

Q: What’s the most exciting part of working on X-Plane for you?

A: Definitely the customer interaction is the most rewarding part of my job. Very, very rarely a customer will call in all grumpy and swearing at me up one side and down the other (yes, that’s happened before), going on and on about how horrible X-Plane is (I know, surprising). I look at these rare occurrences as an opportunity and personal challenge to turn that customer around and make them fall in love with X-Plane. This is not and it certainly doesn’t happen 100% of the time but about 75% of the time they end up apologizing for their abrasive stance and generally regretting their earlier tone of voice.

Q: Do you have a favorite aircraft to fly, or a favorite location?

A: That would be the Beech Baron 58 which ships with X-Plane 11. That aircraft was modeled after my personal aircraft, which I since sold and miss dearly.

Q: Do you have a favorite plug in or add on?

A: To be honest, I don’t use any. It’s important to keep my copy of X-Plane 100% stock and not change the program in any way so that I can work with customers with an unmodified, virgin copy the program.

Q: What do you see for the future of flight simulation & X-Plane development?

A: It is fascinating to to ponder where X-Plane will be in 10 or 20 years. The pace of development and the incredible steps X-Plane is taking as we release new updates and versions is increasing exponentially. For years and years the effort was born on the shoulders of one man: Austin Meyer. Then about 15 years ago he hired his first employee, then a 2nd and 3rd were brought on and Laminar Research stayed at that point, with about 4 people working full time, for the next 7 years or so. It has only been in the last 4 or 5 years that we’ve grown from a team of 4 to 6 to 8 to now perhaps 12 people working with us. I expect that the most memorable and public news for the remainder of the year will be the announcement of the free update which will bring us squarely into the realm of Virtual Reality. Chris Serio has been working tirelessly on this and we released an introductory view at the Hartford show last June, when we were still in the early “Alpha” phase. Here is the movie that was shown:

But for every massive step forward like this in technology there are multiple thousands of much smaller and less notable changes and improvements that are taking place behind the scenes and I have personally seen the ever-quickening pace of this development. As the capability of computer hardware, and especially video cards, continues to accelerate at ever faster rates, the team at Laminar Research is well positioned to take advantage of these new capabilities. Our customer base has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade with the release of X-Plane 9, then 10 and now 11, but what really impresses me is that the disparity between these successive versions has become ever more astonishing with each release. It is fun to think about where we’ll be with the release of X-Plane 13 or 15 and how old and dated these new versions will make X-Plane 11 look.

These are exciting times indeed…

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