with gallery and video : New flight simulator at Ann Arbor Airport helps train pilots, cut costs
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On Monday morning, I was flying over a cruise ship through an idyllic blue cloudless sky off the coast of St. Martin. Although I have never flown a plane before, I was able to guide the single-engine propeller plane (almost) onto the runway and I (narrowly) avoided killing the flight instructor and myself.
Ok, so I wasn’t really in St. Martin, it was not a real plane, and thankfully no bodily harm came to anyone involved. I was test-“flying” Solo Aviation Inc.’s newest addition to its fleet, an $80,000 flight simulator that can train pilots on a number of different aircraft. Solo Aviation, based at the Ann Arbor Airport, is the state’s largest flight school not attached to a college or university.
The simulator, a Redbird FMX, is housed in the airport’s basement because it was the only place where they could find room for it. The “cockpit” turns, bounces, jolts, and tilts to give pilots-in-training experiences that are as close to flying a real plane as possible.
“It’s awesome,” said Jera Hogan, a recent Pioneer High School graduate who will be attending Western Michigan University in the fall.
“It’s easier to learn some things in the simulator because there’s a lot less pressure compared to flying a real plane.”
Including the simulator, Solo Aviation now has 11 planes, but only one of them comes with a pause button.
“That’s probably the most helpful element,” Theresa Whiting, a flight instructor, said.
“If something is going wrong in a plane, the instructor will have to shout or even take over the controls. Now we can just press pause, talk about what is going on, and then continue the flight.”
Whiting, also a Pioneer grad, said the simulator will be used to cut costs for students who will not have to pay for fuel for as many flights. It currently costs between $6,000 and $10,000 over a period of anywhere from two months to two years to get a private pilot’s license at Solo Aviation.
Whiting said that the price at Solo is much cheaper than the cost of learning to fly at a university or college. While most airlines expect four-year college degrees, many students choose to major in something other than aviation science and get their flying licenses on the side, she said.
The new machine will also allow students to take flights even if the weather outside is not ideal.
The lowest level pilot’s license, a private license, does not allow for flying through clouds, so conditions have to be near-perfect for training flights. A laptop plugged into the Redbird allows the instructor to change wind, weather, cloud patters, and even which parts of the plane are working properly.
“I can really control everything from right here,” Whiting said. “So I can make the trip as easy or as hard as I want to.”
Pilots still have to do most of their flying hours on actual planes, and will not be able to be certified for licenses using only flights on the simulator. For a private pilot's license only two and a half out of the minimum 40 hours can be simulated, while 20 of a minimum 40 hours for an instrument license can be flown in the simulator.
“But almost everyone goes well over the minimum number of hours,” Whiting said. “So even if they can’t log the hours, they’re still good practice.”
Solo Aviation has 14 instructors training approximately 80 students at any given time. Whiting said about half of those students are simply hobbyists, and the other half are hoping to make a career out of flying. Whiting said industry analysts have predicted an upcoming of pilot shortage, and the new simulator allow Solo Aviation to help fill that need.
Hogan learned about the flight school after attending a class at WCC. Her father was in the Air Force and had flown for Northwest before the merger with Delta. She’ll be studying aviation science at WMU.
“I’ve almost got my private license, I’ll hopefully have it by the end of August,” she said.
“That way I’ll be able to skip a lot of the introductory flying courses there. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do with it, but there are so many places you can fly.”
To commemorate the addition of the simulator, Solo commissioned local artist Zeke Mallory to paint a mural at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement.
“I tried to paint the major Ann Arbor landmarks as they would look from the sky,” said Mallory, who is known for his ocean mural on the wall of the old Tios restaurant in Ann Arbor.
The mural shows planes and hot air balloons in the sky over Ann Arbor and highlights Michigan Stadium, a major attraction on sightseeing flights Solo Aviation does offer over Ann Arbor. The flights can be, and have been, booked for a wide variety of occasions.
“We’re three for three on engagement flights,” Whiting said. “They’ve all said yes."
Watch me "successfully" land the simulator below. Whiting told me she was "pleasantly surprised" we were still alive.