With more than a $100,000 line of credit, flight school co-owners Kevin Walsh and Vince Talbert could have added a couple of nice Cessna 172s or Piper Cherokees to their rental fleet, maybe even a high performance Beech Bonanza. Instead, they bought a flight simulator.
“We decided a full-motion simulator would be a better deal,” said Walsh, president of Middle River Aviation LLC, based at Martin State Airport in Baltimore, Md. “The very first week we had four serious prospects ready to start their instrument ratings. It’s good for students, and I think it’s driving more serious customers through our door.”
Middle River Aviation flight school has turned out hundreds of new pilots in the last 30 years. Today, it offers aircraft ranging from a Cessna 152 to a Piper Seneca. An American Champion Citabria 7ECA is used to teach aerobatics and a Robinson R22 helicopter is available for fling-wing enthusiasts. So why did this flight school spend more than $100,000 on a simulator?
“Business is about staying in business, and you’ve got to find ways to make training as efficient as possible while preserving or bettering the quality of instruction,” said Walsh. “Since the biggest cost for flight schools is fuel and maintenance for the airplanes and a realistic GA simulator has so many advantages for students, that’s the way we went.” He added that Facebook and other social media have been the most successful advertising venues so far for the new simulator.
The Redbird MCX full-motion simulator is the current top-of-the-line from Redbird Flight Simulations, the Austin, Texas-based manufacturer of new generation GA flight simulators. The MCX has an enclosed cockpit, electric motors that create motion in response to control inputs, realistic computer-generated visuals in the LCD-monitor “windows” that wrap around, and dual controls, including rudders. Although Middle River Aviation has the simulator set up to resemble a single-engine Cessna, interchangeable quick-mount panels called acrylics can transform the box into 27 different aircraft types, including twins.
“In fact, there’s a group of Beechcraft Baron owners here at Martin State who are working with us to help buy the acrylic that configures the simulator as a Baron,” said Walsh. “It takes all of about three minutes to change the sim and will be a lower-cost way for them to maintain proficiency. Beyond that, they believe their spouses will be more willing to learn basic flying if the ‘aircraft’ doesn’t leave the ground.”
Unlike flight schools in, say, Florida, Middle River Aviation gets only about 2,500 hours of sunshine per year. “During the winter, students might find one day a month they can fly, and that’s not good for their training,” said Walsh. “It’s also hard for a flight school, losing revenue.”
After a month operating the simulator, Walsh admits to one regret. “I didn’t realize that the MCX can’t be configured as a Cirrus,” he said. “If I’d known that, we might—just might—have bought an FMX model, which has only one set of controls but can be configured as a Cirrus SR20 or SR22.”
So how does Walsh feel about his flight school’s investment in an aircraft that doesn’t leave the ground? “It’s great for students, no question about it,” he said. “We can set it up for steam gauges or a glass panel and show students exactly where they went wrong. There’s lots of talk about primary training in a simulator, but most of our clients are after their instrument rating. That’s where a simulator excels.”
So simulators are great for students. But is the MCX making money for Middle River Aviation? “It’s hard to tell, since this is only its first month,” he said. “So far it’s flown about 40 hours, same as our airplanes. But the simulator doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg for avgas, maintenance, and insurance every time it takes off. I think it will be hard not to make money with this machine.” Middle River Aviation charges $80 per hour for the simulator.
The real benefit, he says, is that prospects for simulator training are more focused. He cited the school’s experience with inexpensive introductory flights in airplanes offered via Groupon or Living Social-type companies. “We got almost no sign-ups,” he said. “Those who took the offers just wanted to see their house from the air and they never came back. But when we advertise the simulator, the prospects are much more serious, and that’s good.”
Kevin Walsh is happy with his new airplane that doesn’t leave the ground. When I asked if he would recommend it for other flight schools, he joked. “No, absolutely not!” he said. “Not at all. This is my little secret.”
Middle River Aviation’s co-owner Vince Talbert has other, slightly different hopes for the school’s new simulator. As an education advocate, he’s planning to use the device to excite local high school students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In an early April feature article in the Baltimore Sun newspaper, Talbert was quoted as saying, “if more kids could experience flying, it would turn on that light again.”
“And maybe (find) a pilot or two among them,” wrote Candy Thompson, the Sun reporter.