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Nov
02
2020

Executive Watch, President Tyson Phillips of AT Systems, LLC

Posted 23 days ago ago by Admin

President Tyson Phillips of startup AT Systems LLC is at the very beginning of his business career. He’s never been an executive officer of a leading aviation company and his name is not known throughout the industry. He has yet to even turn a profit. This begs the question:  Why profile this newcomer in “Executive Watch,” a feature that historically profiles executives with a history? Well, the answer is simple: Pilot Tyson Phillips is likely on the verge of making history. If the company he co-founded fulfills its promise, AT Systems will transform aviation training. 

It is often said that need is the mother of invention. Oklahoma National Guard Pilot Phillips co-founded his company with fellow military pilot Andre Lavallee out of the mother of a need—the need to prevent the leading cause of often fatal helicopter accidents: spatial disorientation caused by degraded visual environments such as inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) brown/white out. 

Vision-limiting hazards such as dust, snow, haze, rain, mist, fog, smoke, and low clouds can confuse a pilot’s sense of direction and lead to the tragic death of the disoriented pilot, crew, and passengers. The news of one such tragedy, a 2015 multi-fatal crash in a Louisiana National Guard Blackhawk training mission, motivated Phillips and Lavallee to prevent such future accidents. Phillips personally knew the killed pilots and vented his frustration with Lavallee that the IIMC/spatial disorientation accident rate was persisting to claim victims like an elusive serial killer.  

ATS TRAINING DEVICE 

One reason the serial killer has not been curtailed is because training technology limitations have made IIMC conditions very difficult to safely replicate. Until now, there has been no available training method that simulates both visual and vestibular inner ear sense-of-direction illusions. When pilots first encounter actual degraded visibility conditions in flight, their brains are forced to sort through their conflicting senses, specifically their visual and vestibular systems. To worsen this confusion in the cockpit, two pilots may simultaneously perceive different illusions about the direction of their aircraft: one pilot may feel they are falling while the other believes they are turning. The end result of this disorientation is too often tragic.  

Phillips and Lavallee through dogged determination developed the AT Systems (ATS) Training Device that allows safe, effective, controlled, real-world training for IIMC conditions. The device attaches to the training pilot’s own (unmodified) helmet and is controlling visibility and ceilings wirelessly by a tablet app. Regularly updated real-world accident scenarios in the app replicate confusing accident conditions for the pilot, affecting his vision and sense of direction. The patented device’s redundant safety features clear the visor and remove it from the pilots field of view, ceasing the training scenario when user-preset parameters (such as pitch, roll, altitude, descent rate, and the proximity of other aircraft to the training aircraft) are exceeded. The ATS Device can even simultaneously train pilots in multi-ship formation flights, allowing each flying pilot to experience the same scenario conditions at the same time.

“Executive Watch” wants to time travel (in a DeLorean) and profile Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in their Cupertino, California, garage. Despite our desire to catch inventors in their garage days, Phillips humbly says that he and Lavallee are not techie inventors; their contribution was to come up with a groundbreaking idea and marshal resources and people to make their needed new idea a training reality. “We built the ATS Device from an instructor pilot’s perspective and from an operator’s perspective. At the end of the day, we are not inventors. We’re two standardization pilots and instrument examiners. We very much looked at our product development through the lens of what we would want in a training device. We started the process in 2015, and in 2016 we submitted for our patent and received it in 2018. Everything’s just grown from there.”

DISORIENTING ILLUSIONS

One germane factor in that growth has been a heaping, helping dose of passion. “I don’t know many helicopter pilots who are more than two degrees removed from someone who has been killed in a degraded visual environment,” he says with a tinge of sadness and overriding resolve. “This is my very passionate stance and I always try to share it: most disorientation accidents are not happening because of overwhelming vertigo; they are happening from a combination of visual illusions and vestibular illusions. To give you an idea from an offshore, overwater accident: a pilot perceives a false horizon due to poor visibility. He sees lights in the distance and takes them to be on the horizon. Our eyes are so dominant in the body’s orientation system that they will convince our inner ears to agree with the perceived vision. The vestibular (sense-of-direction) system gets tricked by the eyes and then the motion of the aircraft. When the eyes eventually focus on the cockpit instruments, the brain then becomes confused because the readings are contradicting the body’s senses. That’s the basic accident sequence in a nutshell. It’s spatial disorientation with both visual and vestibular illusions; it’s not usually vertigo, which is an overwhelming sense of disorientation.”

Most trainees in devices such as a ‘vomit chair,’ experience extremely dizzy situations and unfortunately don’t understand that spatial disorientation accident sequences sneak up subtly. This is where the ATS Device bridges the gap from traditional training. “You don’t get ‘the leans’ in your usual flight training simulator; vestibular illusions take 20 seconds of sustained motion according to the FAA,” says Phillips. “Traditional simulators do a great job convincing the eyes, but don’t input into the inner ear, so pilots who have only trained in a traditional simulator don’t get to train with vestibular illusions. Our system creates an environment conducive to visual illusions. The natural movement of the aircraft creates the vestibular (inner ear) illusions, which provides a complete training experience. Our scenarios are not only intended to train or acclimate the brain to vision and vestibular illusions, but are also designed to improve a pilot’s decision-making process from the beginning of an actual accident scenario. Our training system is realistic, relevant, and current.”

To make sure this potentially paradigm-shifting training actually remains relevant and current,  Phillips is also determined for his company’s training to get used effectively. “We don’t just try to sell our ATS Device that may get put on the shelf and not be used to its full potential, instead we offer a training service turnkey solution. We can create training scenarios tailored to a client’s mission profile. We take our system directly to pilots. Training with the device just once or twice a year in routine training is not enough. At least quarterly training is best with our device in a pilot’s aircraft utilizing our training models. Our system has all the ‘brains’ built into it; the tailored training scenarios are built and based on real accidents, so you don’t need our people constantly sitting with you in your helicopter. We provide the training materials and equipment.” Of course, AT Systems personnel are available if needed.

You may well wonder how Phillips’ grew to make it his mission to transform aviation training. On the surface, his life story is not really unusual, but that makes it increasingly inspirational. It gives hope that out of the ordinary, we can attempt to make an extraordinary difference.

TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH

Phillips grew up in Oklahoma and began working at the age of 16 for the trucking company his father founded. While he was changing oil and washing trucks, the teen longed for a higher view. “I wanted to fly my whole life,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to fly airplanes, and especially jets after going with my dad to see the movie Top Gun. I’ll be embarrassed if you print that.” (Sorry, you’ll have to be embarrassed with most males who grew up in the ‘80s. There’s enough cheese for all.) The aspiring aviator matured and was in high school when tragedy suddenly struck. His sister and her husband, who both worked for the family trucking company, were murdered by a disgruntled former employee. “After that, I gave up on my dream of flying went back to work for my dad and helped him manage the business until he sold it in 1999.” 

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Phillips saw a National Guard helicopter commercial. It seemed to offer him a way to lift his current life situation. He called the recruiter and soon he was in the Oklahoma National Guard serving as a crew chief while the Guard decided if he was worth investing in for flight school. “I always tell guys that being an Army crew chief is the greatest enlisted job you can ever have; I really enjoyed it,” he says. And yes, Phillips proved his worth: “The Guard decided I was worth investing in and they sent me to Warrant Officer Candidate School in 2006, followed by flight school.” After that coveted training, Phillips returned to Oklahoma and was deployed as a MEDEVAC pilot. After deployment, he bolstered his credentials by completing the instructor pilot course, the instrument examiner course, and the tactical operations officer course. One Army course he particularly liked was a fixed-wing transition course. “I flew the C-12 and it was a great experience. I enjoyed it. If you are truly a pilot at heart, I believe you want to fly everything at least once, but there’s no question that my heart is really with helicopters. I love flying in general, but helicopters are more exciting and so much more versatile. They are in first place, both in my mind and emotions,” he concludes.   

With all his course credentials, Phillips gained full-time employment in the National Guard. That income helps support him and his family during  AT Systems’ startup. “Anytime you try to start a small business it consumes your time—nights, weekends, everything. It’s a labor of love for sure, but getting to build something from square one is such a unique opportunity. It’s frustrating, it’s exciting, it’s fun, and all the words of emotion you can come up with as we’ve tried to improve our product design and market it. It’s been an exciting journey,” he says. 

In fact, the current pandemic has made the journey a little too exciting by throwing curveballs at the young company. “Our core civil markets have taken significant hits from COVID and the changes to municipal budgets. But we seem to be coming out of that and getting back to what’s called the new normal. So, we’re getting close to finalizing contracts with a few people,” says Phillips.

One contract that increases AT Systems credibility is the company’s research and development agreement with the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. Such collaboration is an enormous emotional lift for an entrepreneur trying to lift his newborn company to new heights, but Phillips guards against optimism—and pessimism. “I’ve found that if I don’t get too high on positive developments, the lows don’t get too low when there is a setback,” he explains. “My lowest points in starting our business have been frustration at delays in getting our system out there because I believe it will save lives. My passion is to save lives. Either by luck or by the grace of God, I believe we have a system that will save lives. We’re pilots in our business and we still find ourselves going through bad visibility conditions. It’s still very real to us and not just something we remember going through. Our device and past experience provides a great opportunity for us to benefit someone else’s life.”

Yes, it is.