• Alex Hupe

Dr. Chris Johnson talks his aviation background

Dr. Chris Johnson talks his aviation background

By Alex Hupe

I recently interviewed Mappix founder, Dr. Chris Johnson, to discuss his background in the aviation industry.

You have several areas of expertise related to aviation. When did you get the bug?

My interest in flying stems back to when I was about nine years old. My uncle, Dr. Tim Bly, took me for my first ride in his plane. That unforgettable feeling of pulling Gs and going weightless gave me an adrenaline rush that would rival the most gripping drug addiction. And most pilots will tell you that one ride is all it takes to hook you.

You earned your professional flight ratings at the University of Illinois, but you decided to forgo a professional aviation career. Why?

I was in grad school at Illinois in Champaign while earning my licenses, and I graduated with my masters along with a professional pilot certification in 2008. Unfortunately, 2008 was the absolute worst time to be starting a professional aviation career because the economy was entering a deep recession, so I decided to continue my research and pursue a PhD at Wisconsin, following my adviser there from Illinois. My work focused on issues with pilots crashing in bad weather. Since this research relies upon, highly accurate, human-in-the-loop simulation, I basically had to re-invent the 4th dimension of simulation: time.

Time has existed in simulation for decades (so has the concept of simulated weather), but nobody ever thought to merge the two in a sophisticated manner. I think the reason for this was that everybody was focused on 3 dimensions: latitude, longitude and altitude, without any real regard for time, the often forgotten (in simulation) but all important 4th dimension of existence.

In my lab at UW, because we have connected our simulation’s built-in Gregorian timeclock with historical weather data, we have the ability to replay weather scenarios. This allows us to generate more realistic weather scenarios by replaying historical weather events that correlate the visual and non-visual weather phenomena experienced in-simulation with the weather-information products that pilots, commanders and other strategic planners use to predict and plan for inclement weather events.

I spent many years in the lab watching pilots at various certification levels fly themselves into overwhelming weather conditions, pitting them against cognitive challenges that they should have been able to manage as licensed pilots only to watch them humble themselves through their virtual deaths. Through this research, I was able to provide the aviation community with statistical evidence that pilots are not adequately trained to manage risky weather situations. This is because all student pilots are trained in controlled environments where the conditions are much easier to manage than in real-world flying. However, when they get licensed, newbie pilots can legally fly in challenging weather conditions that they’ve never experienced, and sometimes they get overwhelmed and lose control.

Dr. Johnson has since become much more involved in the development of unmanned robotic vehicles and data management--which has led him to creating Mappix. To learn more about Mappix, check out the next article in this two-part series, here.