Seeker Test Flight

Okay, you should have already seen this link explaining what the VP-400 is. Now to talk about the flight test.

As of this writing, my Evolution is currently in paint, getting the lightest-weight paint-job we can find. (The guy that is doing the paint job is taking a few months to sand and finish the plane, so that only the thinnest hint of paint need be applied when done, to save the last bit of weight on the carbon-fiber airframe.)

Since the Evolution is in paint, and has an operating cost of maybe a thousand dollars an hour, we are doing the initial flight-test of the VP-400 Runway Seeker in a lower-operating-cost airplane.

So here is what the Runway Seeker artificial-intelligence wants:

  • It wants an airplane that glides really really well. The better the plane glides, the more airports it can glide to, and the more airports, runways, and possible approaches the A-I can choose from for landing!
  • It wants an airplane that flies really really high. The higher the plane flies, the more airports it can glide to, and the more airports, runways, and possible approaches the A-I can choose from for landing!
  • It wants to fly over low-altitude terrain. The lower the altitude of the terrain you fly over, the more gliding-time you have to make it to an airport, so the more airports, runways, and possible approaches the A-I has to choose from.
  • It wants low winds that do not change. The lower and more consistent the winds, the easier a time the A-I will have giving you a landing solution.

So, if we flight tested the VP-400 in a Lancair Evolution at 25,000 ft over Florida in the Winter, we would have the easiest scenarios for testing. Plenty of altitude. Plenty of glide range. Plenty of low-altitude airports. Little wind. Little turbulence.

Did I mention that we are actually testing in a non-turbo, non-oxygen, Van’s RV-7 over the mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the spring? Just Google “the winds of Albuquerque” to see what this entails. This is Albuquerque in the spring.

So, we are flight-testing in the worst conditions that I can imagine.

So what is it like?

We have installed the VP-400 in an RV-7 and went taxiing out in this incredibly light tail-dragger for our first flight. Just climbing into this airplane, I could instantly tell that if was lighter, and with a lower wing-loading, than anything I have flown in as long as I can remember. For the runway-seeker, this is really bad news: The wind would effect the airplane so strongly and quickly that it would be really hard for the artificially-intelligent autopilot to fly the airplane down! Any autopilot wants a heavy airplane in smooth air, and it was starting to look like we were not going to get it.

Soon enough, we were airborne, and the turbulence was unlike anything I have ever felt. While my Columbia-400 would punch through the turbulence quickly with short, precise jolts that were instantly damped as the airplane held it’s footing, the light, slow little RV-7 rocked, rolled, climbed, descended, and (most annoyingly) pitched over to low or zero G as the wind lifted up and down on the tail. And, since the lightweight, less-stable little bird was moving so much slower, each upset from the turbulence lasted a much longer time. What in the Columbia would be a short jolt, with no change in heading, speed, attitude, or altitude, was in the RV-7 a 3-second long, dizzying pitch-over, with low-G, pitch change, and altitude change. After it was over, some new upset would spin the little RV-7 into some new flight path direction. On and on this went. You could really tell that the air was moving in large vortices, or swirls, that the Columbia would punch through in an instant, but would swirl the RV-7 around like a pair of underwear in a washing machine on the wash cycle.

Buckled in with a four-point restraint, my head would still hit the canopy from time to time. At this point, I must confess that I was not sure if my A-I could handle such “dynamic” conditions. We were clearly testing to the worst-case… in fact a worse case than I have flown in the last 15 years. Regardless, we were there to test the VP-400, so we lurched up to 10,000 ft (a really low altitude considering that this was over terrain that was at 5,500 feet at it’s lowest!) and yanked the throttle to idle and hit the red button. The owner of the RV-7 took his hands off the controls, and since I had no controls on my side at all, there was nothing to do but try not to get sick from the turbulence as the VP-400 worked us down to the best airport to land at. The A-I correctly chose Double-Eagle airport as the closest one with no intervention from us, and picked a runway pointed into the wind for us. And, I swear to you: Though we were constantly being bucked up and down, left and right, the A-I worked us down the predicted path, working the flaps constantly like the flight-controls of an F-22 (to dissipate the extra energy) and we arrived at 20 feet over the runway, pointed right along it at 80 knots.

Here are two photos taken during the flight, the first of the VP-400 in the cockpit and the second of the view out the window of the RV-7.

Taking the controls to flare and touch down was a non-issue, and if we had been unconscious, the plane would have bumped down onto the runway in a manner that would not have injured anyone on board. (Though, on this tail-dragger on a windy day, it would have bounced and ground-looped, I bet.)

But, the arrival at the runway threshold was flawless, making a perfect guarantee of a safe engine-out landing had the engine really quit, and a near-guarantee of minimal injury to us had we passed out or been batted in the face by a bird.

And that is what the system is supposed to do. After achieving about a great success-rate in the simulator, it was really fun to see it working in the real airplane in the worst-case conditions that I can imagine ever taking off into.

Here is video I shot on board with my iPhone:

The movie is all low-altitude close-in stuff since we were in a small plane at low altitude over high terrain… but the higher you fly, the more airports you can go to, and the more interesting the paths the A-I chooses for you to get there!

Never miss an update.

More X-Plane news comes every month. Sign up below to never miss an announcement.