ROANOKE, Va. -
Learning to fly a plane can be an expensive thing to do, which is one of the reasons why few people get to do it. But a Roanoke based flight school is hoping to lower the barrier to entering aviation with a brand new, full motion flight simulator that can offer practice and flight experience at a lower cost.
The Star Flight Training hangar sits in the shadows of the terminal at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. Monday afternoon there were still some boxes sitting around the recently renovated office and some loose ends that needed to be tied up.
From inside a dark compartment lit by green light, a flight instructor calls out an issue with starting up the plane. Star Flight Training Chief Flight Instructor Jon Beard instructed the teacher to remove the key so he can initiate a re-start process. But the key is a USB stick, and Beard is simply restarting a computer.
Monday was a particularly windy day, and by some pilots' measuring sticks a bad day to fly. With the fleet of planes on the ground their newest tool, a Red Bird Full Motion Simulator, was soaring through the air after a quick restart.
In the stage-left seat with a control between her legs was student pilot Lindsey Williams. She makes a career around airplanes working the morning shift at the airport within the airport for private planes next door to the hangar. But sitting in that seat, the seat reserved for pilots, is a brand new experience.
"It's something that my husband got into and he was learning to fly I flew with him a couple of times," Williams said. "Then I started working here at the airport, and I said I think I kind of want to start learning myself."
From inside the simulator the world is at her fingertips, and the controls just inches away are exactly the same as the ones you'd see in a real plane. The hardware controls can even be switched out for new controls from a different plane using a simple USB interface. It's so real it could fool even the sharpest brain for a few moments.
"It allows us to simulate different type of aircraft, but in a way that's different than the older simulators you may be used to" Beard said.
The simulator flies just like a real airplane. Push down, and you will go down, and it's not just the screen, the seat physically pitches forward. Bank left for a turn and the cab goes with it. Instructors can put pilots in situations that would be dangerous in real life, but possible within the confines of the simulator.
This unit costs more than $80,000 to purchase, and most other small flight schools like Star Flight Training will never have one.
"The investment that you put into a simulator like that, again, can be spent on other airplanes," Beard said.
Flying used to be a rich man's hobby. While there is no replacing real flight time, the simulator is making it cheaper to learn to fly because time in the simulator costs less than half the time in a real airplane. Which means Beard and his team is trying to lower the barriers to aviation, even if just a small amount.
"There's no doubt, flying is expensive," Beard said. "When you really get into an hour in a plane, how much of that is really training time that I need to be working on, versus getting the plane started and taxiing it out?"
In the simulator student pilots can perfect their techniques and make the mistakes in a lower cost, more controlled environment, as compared to out in the real thing.
"If you want to go get in one of these airplanes we have to spend time starting it up getting out to the end of the runway do all the checks get it in flight fly out to a practice area and then we start the training on what we're working on that day," Beard said. "In the sim I can have you booted up in less than a minute and out in the practice area."
This makes it easier for student pilots like Williams to squeeze every minute possible out of the training be better prepared to take off after she clocks out.
"It's just going to be a shocker because I never thought I'd be able to fly an airplane," Williams said.
The flight school is also going to use the simulator to help with its pinch hitter program. This program is for spouses or friends and family members of pilots who don't want a full license, but do want basic knowledge to just help out while flying or, worst case scenario, be prepared for a mid-air emergency.
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