An interview with
Coolsky, the company that brought to life a collection of MD-80 series and a Fokker 50 for FSX and FS9, recently presented their latest project, a true "classic"..the DC-9.
Although I have owned their MD-80 Pro model for many years, and have thoroughly enjoyed it, didn't really know much about the company itself, or the people behind the label.
A favourite feature from Coolsky is their "Flight Centre", which contains an interactive Tutorial, Configuration, Training, Checklists, etc....a brilliant idea.
So I decided to introduce Coolsky to Avsim, find out who is behind the code, behind the ideas and the passion. We chat with
Q - Thanks for your time Espen...let's talk about you for a moment...where are you from? What do you do? How did your love for aviation start?
I am a 36-year-old Norwegian. I am happily married to my lovely wife Tatjana and together we have four wonderful children; two boys and a pair of twin girls. My family and I moved to Spain two years ago, so that’s where we live now, just south of Alicante (LEAL) on the Costa Blanca. We wanted a change from the cold and wet climate of Norway, so we left for the sunny and warm climate of the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean ocean.
My love for aviation started in my childhood. I can’t say exactly how, when or why I developed this interest for aviation, but it certainly took off when I saw this movie you may have heard of called Top Gun. Who didn’t want to be a fighter pilot after seeing that movie?! I was 11 years-old at the time and it certainly made an impression on me. Then there were the aviation theme games on the Commodore 128 like Blue Max. Those were the good old days. That Commodore is also what got me into computers and programming. My first MS Flight Simulator was FS4 and I’ve been hooked since.
Today I am a professional addon developer. This is how I make a living and support my family.
Q - Coolsky...how did it start? What was the original plan? What was your original involvement and what is it today?
I got started making addons way back in 1998. It was a hobby back then. I wanted to fly the Fokker 50 which was one of my favorites, but I wasn’t happy with the freeware offerings at the time and I wanted something more realistic. There was only one solution; I had to make one myself. At the time I was in college getting a degree in Computer Sciences, so I was no stranger to computers and programming. Initially I just wanted to draw the panel and use existing gauges. But I soon found this to be an unsatisfactory solution and before I knew it I had custom programmed every single instrument and system in the aircraft. I released the Fokker 50 as freeware in 1999 for FS98 and it became quite popular.
After college I worked a few years in the IT industry before deciding I had had enough of that. I wanted to follow my childhood dream of becoming a pilot, so I packed my bags and flew to South Carolina and North American Institute of Aviation. At NAIA I had a wonderful time getting all my commercial licenses and ratings. Learning to fly was an incredible experience and I still remember my first solo like it was yesterday. What a feeling! After I was done at NAIA I flew back to Norway, converted all my licenses and added an instructor license, ATPL theory and took an MCC course. Unfortunately though, the reality of becoming a professional pilot didn’t quite live up to the childhood dream for me. I loved airplanes and aviation, and I still do, but the profession just wasn’t right for me.
So there I was; an IT professional and a pilot and I didn’t really want to be any of those. What to do? I know – it’s an odd situation. The sweet spot for me turned out to be the crossing point between my two educations and interests. Flying + computers = flight simulation. That’s when I started Coolsky and got into the commercial addon business.
Coolsky as a company is just me. I’m Coolsky and Coolsky is me. But that doesn’t in anyway imply that I do all the work on my projects. On all my projects I have always had the pleasure and privilege of working with a number of talented people and groups. Building an advanced addon aircraft is no one-man job. It takes a lot of specialized skill and knowledge to pull off one of these projects properly.
My particular specialized skill is with the programming. I do all the programming on my projects and I also do graphics work for the 2D panel. Everything else; modeling, textures, sound and flight dynamics, is the work of my partners and friends.
Q - What is a typical day for you?
I usually work long nights, which means I get up pretty late in the day about noonish. Working late nights has several benefits. It enables me to communicate faster and better with overseas partners. I can provide faster customer support to overseas customers. But the number one reason I work long nights; it’s quiet work time for daddy. I do all my work from home. We’ve got four kids running around the house half the day. Late evenings and nights, when the kids are in bed recharging, give me the most productive work hours. This also gives me time to be with the kids when they are home during the day. My wife and I have this arrangement where she does mornings with the kids and I do evenings with the kids. It works well for us.
I probably average around 10-12 hours of work every day, but does it really count as work when it’s this much fun? I think not. Weekends are just as good work days as the weekdays, but I do take time off now and then. A day off usually means I’m only working in the evening and during the night thought when we get back from a bike ride or maybe a trip to the beach (or if I’m really out of luck; a shopping trip with my wife).
I do put in a lot of hours, but I love what I do and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do. Certainly, a part of the appeal of what I do is the freedom that having my own company and being my own boss gives me. However, the work itself and the feedback I get from happy customers is what motivates me to sit down in front of the computer every day and attempt to build the best possible addon aircraft I possibly can.
Q - What was Coolsky's first project? Can you tell us more about it? Who was involved? How was it produced? The challenges?
My first release was the Super 80, a simulation of the classic MD-80 with mostly steam gauges. One of the reasons I chose to build the MD-80 for my first product was because it was a personal favorite of mine. But more importantly, I chose the MD-80 and the DC-9 family of aircraft because I could get a series of addon aircraft that could share the same basic elements and where each new aircraft product could build upon the previous one.
This is one of the cornerstones of my development process. I always build code, models and graphics that can be reused and built upon to produce new aircraft and product. The purpose of having a development process like this is to reduce the development time, which reduces the development cost and allows me time to focus on building new features as well. With each new aircraft, starting from the Super 80 going through the Super 80 Pro and now the DC-9 Classic, there is a step up in systems complexity and included features.
Originally I had actually planned on doing everything myself on the Super 80. I was going to do the 2D panel, the programming, the virtual cockpit and the external aircraft model. Everything. However, reality hit me pretty hard in the face when I presented the product to Flight1 for the first time. They didn’t like the aircraft model or the VC. I already knew the aircraft model and virtual cockpit and knew were the weak points of my project. But Flight1 was 100% correct. The VC looked horrible and the aircraft model was no better. It was time to set aside my pride and all the hard work I had put into building these models – and dump them. This is when Flight1 brought Terry Gaff into the project. Terry, who has built a lot of great aircraft for Flight1, built a proper aircraft model and virtual cockpit to go with the 2D panel and instrumentation I had built.
It was at the time the Super 80 was released that I first started working with McPhat Studios. They created a whole bunch of very good looking freeware and payware liveries for the Super 80. Since then, McPhat Studios have created liveries for all my aircraft. Our relationship has steadily grown closer over the years and today McPhat Studios is delivering not only the liveries but the external model, virtual cockpit model and texturing too for the DC-9 Classic. McPhat Studios’ work really does speak for itself and I feel very fortunate to be working with a talented group of people like that.
The Super 80 Pro was my second product released. This aircraft product makes extensive use of the foundation laid down with the Super 80. Even though you have a first generation glass cockpit with a modern FMS in the Super 80 Pro and a steam gauge cockpit in the Super 80, the underlying systems are largely the same. Reusing the underlying systems from the Super 80 allowed me to focus on building the glass cockpit with the Flight Management System. If you’ve ever built or been involved with building an FMS, you know that is no small job. I probably spent as much time, if not more, building the FMS alone, as I spent building the rest of the cockpit instrumentation combined. But I got it done in the end.
The latest release is of course the DC-9 Classic. Again, this is a product that builds heavily on the previous products and then takes the underlying system simulation to a whole new level with the inclusion and simulation of circuit breakers and a complete failure simulation system. Of the three aircraft products I have built so far, this one is without question the pinnacle of my work.
All my aircraft include the two features that have now become the signature features of my products. The first signature feature is the Automatic Aircraft Configuration feature which automatically sets all the buttons, switches, levers, handles and system in the cockpit for you according to the selected phase of flight. You can use this as a training tool to set up the aircraft while you are still learning the ins and outs of the aircraft. You can quickly get set up on specific training scenarios. If you want to practice your ILS approach skills, move the aircraft into position just off the FAF, maybe add some low visibility weather to make it interesting, then hit the “Clear to land” auto config and you’re ready to go nail that approach. If you’re only looking for a quick fun flight, set up on the runway of your choice, select the “Ready for takeoff” auto config and that’s it. You are good to go!
The second signature feature is the Integrated Cockpit Training System (ICTS). The aircraft I make are all very complex, realistic and true to the original aircraft I’m simulating. This means the learning curve can be very steep, especially if you are relatively new to flight simulators. Many developers and users prefer the tutorial flight method of learning to fly a new aircraft. I have never been a big fan of this way of learning to fly a new aircraft. I don’t think this way of learning is as intuitive, easy, fun and integrated as it should be. This is why I came up with the ICTS which takes all the learning directly into the cockpit. The ICTS gives you get step-by-step on-screen instructions. The relevant sub-panels are automatically opened for you and visual aids indicate and highlight the switches and systems being discussed.
Both the auto config feature and the ICTS were developed from my own desire for features I would like to see in the aircraft I fly myself. This is how a lot of the features in my aircraft come about; what features would I like to see in the aircraft I fly?
The grand master plan from the start was always to build this trilogy of the Super 80, Super 80 Pro and the DC-9 Classic. Even though these are three different aircraft and sold as three different products, they are the results of one long project.
Q - Your fondest memory? Or favourite project so far? A project that was very special to you and why?
As is often the case, the latest aircraft is the one closest to you. The DC-9 Classic is definitely my favorite aircraft out of all the ones I have been involved with. I am very happy with and proud of how this project turned out. The DC-9 Classic actually looks better and has more features than the aircraft I envisioned at the start of the project. Usually it’s the other way around. The hard realities of time and money in commercial projects often cut the original vision a bit short. One example of that is the failure simulation in the DC-9. I wanted to have that in the original Super 80. I wanted to have it in the Super 80 Pro. Finally, in the DC-9 Classic project I was able to make it happen along with several other features I have wanted to include for a long time, such as the live system schematics and a full set of circuit breakers.
Q - What kind of resources have you got access to for your work? Does it define the work you can produce? Is it hard to obtain?
You can find just about any manual for any aircraft on the internet today. There are companies that will reprint a manual for you or send you a CD with a PDF version. You can go on eBay and buy used original manuals. It has never been easier to find the basic aircraft information you need to build an addon aircraft product.
Good information on the aircraft you are building is very important. The Aircraft Operating Manual (AOM) is the number one item you must have. I usually have two or more versions of the AOM at hand from different airliners. Usually I select one manual as the primary manual to base the aircraft on.
Different operators, even the individual aircraft within one operator’s fleet, usually have small variations in the instrumentation as a result of different options from the manufacturer and later upgrades throughout the aircraft’s life span. With the aircraft I have been working on, from the old 1960s DC-9 all the way forward to the 1990s MD-80 and all the upgrades in between, this is especially true. Picking one and sticking to it is essential.
For the DC-9 Classic I chose to primarily base the aircraft on a USAir manual (used manual from eBay). I supplemented with a Continental manual (also used manual from eBay), a Northwest manual (PDF) and a US Navy manual (PDF). I like being able to flip through the pages of a paper manual. But a paper manual just can’t compete with the search feature of a PDF when you are looking for something specific.
It can also be very useful to have the Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM) at hand. The AOM tells you how an instrument or a system works on the front side or the pilot’s side. The AMM can tell you have an instrument works on the back side or the mechanics side. Sometimes that’s just the kind of information you need when trying to figure out the logic and exact behavior of an instrument or system. Maintenance manuals can be a bit harder to come by though.
Manuals are great for the basics. But if you are serious about making an accurate simulation and representation of the real aircraft, you need the input from someone who has flown the real thing. Real pilots can provide you with information, details and corrections no manual can ever give you. I have been fortunate enough to work with real pilots on all my aircraft projects. On the DC-9 Classic beta test team alone we had four current and former DC-9 pilots. They all did a fantastic job helping me correct system operation and behavior to match the real aircraft.
Q - Will you develop any more add-ons for FS2004/FS9? or concentrate on FSX?
I already made the decision to stop developing for FS9 back when I did the Super 80 Pro. In the Super 80 Pro and the DC-9 Classic I make extensive use of features that are exclusive to FSX and not available in the earlier versions of MSFS, such as for example the SimConnect interface.
I know there are a lot of fans of the old simulator out there, but for me I don’t think it would be worth the time and energy it would take to make my products backwards compatible. The only way is forward.
Q - Your relationship with Flight 1 goes back many years..how did it start? what is in the future?
I approached Flight1 about distributing the Super 80 early in 2005. I had made up my mind about finding a good publisher rather than try to sell the product myself, which is a decision I’m still very happy with today.
By handing off the marketing and sales tasks I am also left with more time to do what I do best: make addons. It’s much better to leave the sales and marketing to the pros. There is no doubt in my mind that having a good distributor ultimately increases your total sales and revenue compared to marketing and selling the product on your own. Obviously, the distributor takes a cut, but it is well worth it in the end.
I chose to approach Flight1 because they had, and still have, a very good reputation in the market. This is very important to me. Flight1’s 30-day return and refund policy is pretty unique in this business and it really shows how much Flight1 values its customers.
If you are going to be successful, you need to have happy customers. Either the customer is happy about having spent their money on my product, or they are happy they got a refund and didn’t waste their hard earned money on a product they didn’t like. I think it’s important to have a happy customer in the end whether we made the sale or not. Yes, we do lose a few sales on refunds, but I think down the road we gain those back and more by having a high level of customer satisfaction and buying confidence.
This approach also puts the pressure on me as the developer to produce a product that people not only will want to buy, but also will want to keep. I’m asking you for your money and I have to prove myself and my product worthy of your money. I think that’s a fair deal.
So far, Flight1 has distributed all my aircraft. I am very happy with the job they are doing for me. Hopefully, there will be many more Coolsky products distributed by Flight1 to come in the future.
Q - Your love of the McDonnell Douglas product is quite evident...how did it start? Will it spawn more products in the future?
I have to step back to my childhood for this one too. Scandinavian Airliners, the flag carrier of Norway/Sweden/Denmark, dominated the Scandinavian market back then. For a while they had the largest fleet of DC-9/MD-80 aircraft outside of the USA. Whenever you heard an aircraft pass over you on the sky and you looked up, the odds were pretty good for it being a DC-9 or MD-80.
My parents brought my brother and me along for a family vacation down to Gran Canaria when I was about 12 years-old and they manage to arrange for me to visit the cockpit on the way down there – in an MD-80. I got to sit on the jump seat while the pilots explained the various instruments to me and it was just the best experience ever!
I have since visited many aircraft cockpits. The most exciting one, since that first one, is probably the last MD-80 cockpit visit I did. This was a jump seat ride that happened right after I had completed all my commercial pilot’s licenses which mean I was able to take in and appreciate all the finer details of what was going on in the cockpit during the flight. This was a complete gate-to-gate jump seat ride flying from Oslo, Gardermoen (ENGM) to Bergen (ENBR) in an MD-80. Now that was a good flight home!
The one memory that stands out from this particular flight is the takeoff roll. We were lined up on the runway and had just received the takeoff clearance. The Captain pushed the throttles forward for takeoff thrust, and …nothing. Oh no, engine failure? But then we started rolling down the runway. Fast. I check the instruments and they looked normal to me. Both pilots looked pretty calm too. So I checked again. Yup, that low muted growl, that’s probably the engines at full takeoff power. We’re good. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was up there in the cockpit!
It’s the things I see and the experience I have that influences me. It’s that simple. And I don’t know what it is with childhood memories, but they do stay with you forever.
Although I love these aircraft, I think I’ve had enough of them for now. I’m not going to say there won’t be any more McDonnell Douglas products, but I think I’m going to need a break from these aircraft after having worked on them for over 6 years now. I definitely need a change.
Q - Your thoughts on the future of the hobby? FSX? P3D?
This is a difficult question. I feel that the future for the flightsim community is a bit uncertain at the moment. Will we still be simming? Absolutely, yes we will. But on which platform will we all be flying? FSX is not going to last forever. I had my hopes up for MS Flight thinking it might over time develop into something interesting for us addon developers, but that was a surprisingly short-lived adventure.
The big problem now, as I see it, is that there are no major players backing any flightsims on the market. A company like Microsoft has the marketing power and reach to bring new people into the wonderful world of flight simming. It’s not enough to just sell your sim within the community. You’ve got to sell outside the community and bring new people in as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have a driving force like that today which can help our hobby and community grow.
Lockheed Martin is a big company with a sim. However, I’m in the consumer entertainment business and Lockheed Martin is not. For that reason alone Prepar3D is of little interest to me at the moment and I don’t see them having a major role in our hobby now or in the future.
An obvious contender to the flightsim throne is X-Plane. But the problem with X-Plane is that today, 6 years after the release of FSX, FSX is still the king. X-Plane is under active development, it is technically very advanced, it looks good, it is open to addon developers, but overall it still has not been able to convince the masses to make the jump.
For now, the market favors FSX and that’s my platform of choice. When the market moves, I’ll move too. The trick of course is for us addon developers to figure out what that move is going to be and then stay slightly ahead of it.
Q - What can we expect from Coolsky next?
I do have one project planned already and that is the Fokker 50. This should be a fun project and I am particularly looking forward to starting this project as it will take me back to the aircraft that got me started building flightsim addons in the first place. This project will be done in partnership with McPhat Studios, which means you can expect smokin’ graphics partnered to my programming and signature features – just like the DC-9 Classic. Actually, we’re planning for the F50 to be a slightly different type of product, but it should definitely be cool and fun. If you’ve been a fan of my old freeware Fokker 50, then you can expect that, plus much better graphics and more features. I know I’m excited about it!
I would like to thank Avsim and William Reynolds for the opportunity to talk about myself, my company, my partners and my products to the Avsim readers. I didn’t plan on writing this much, but these are topics I’m quite passionate about and I guess I got inspired by William’s questions to speak my mind.
Thank you very much for your time.
Coming up...Espen introduces his "baby"...the DC-9!