MUKILTEO — There’s a storm brewing! The forecast calls for heavy winds! Should you fly your small plane today or wait it out?
There’s a surefire way to make the call, said Peter Hickey, an experienced pilot.
“Have a beer,” Hickey said.
Drink alcohol and you can’t legally fly for eight hours under Federal Aviation Administration law. (It’s sometimes called the eight-hour “bottle-to-throttle” rule.)
Safety comes first, and pilots should always look for reasons not to fly, said Hickey, who co-owns Simulation Flight in Mukilteo.
The Mukilteo firm offers simulated flight training for pilots and entertainment packages for those who just want to take a test drive.
Hickey was so impressed with the training he received at Simulation Flight four years ago that he invested in the business. He now co-owns the company with Eugenia Collins.
This month, the company celebrated the latest addition to its “sim bay,” a Boeing 737 MAX simulator approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine helped cut the ribbon on the device.
“This is clearly one of the coolest businesses we have,” he said.
If you just want to test drive a 737, Simulation Flight offers introductory and entertainment flights. Prices start at about $250 for individuals and $1,500 for corporate gatherings of six to 10. The company also offers training on an FAA-approved general aviation simulator.
Like a real plane
While it’s not a full-motion simulator like a commercial airline might employ — those can cost $10 million or more — it’s a significant investment, Hickey said.
The walk-in “cockpit” is a full-size replica of a 737 flight deck down to the banks of toggles and switches. A trio of 72-inch screens provide the view. The seats shake and vibrate. The engines roar.
“All the switches, all the buttons, all the levers act exactly as the real thing,” Hickey said. “If you don’t start it in the correct sequence, it won’t go. It’s like a real plane.”
The new trainer is aimed at helping commercial pilots become airline transport pilots, an FAA certification that makes you eligible fly for a commercial airline, Hickey said.
Mike Haynes, a retired FAA regulator, a fighter pilot and airline pilot, was on hand to demonstrate the simulator last week.
Haynes spent a year helping the developer, Flightdeck Solutions, perfect the software so the device mimics the handling and performance of a 737, he said.
“It’s a lot of fun to take a guy that is a general aviation pilot — maybe he’s flown a corporate jet — and put him in the captain’s seat,” said Haynes, one of the company’s instructors.
To train on the 737 simulator, you must already be a pilot and vetted by TSA guidelines.
“We don’t train the general public on the 737,” Hickey said.
With Haynes in the captain’s seat, Jennifer Iiams, 27-year-old general aviation pilot, took the 737 for a spin.
“It’s super cool! All the buttons, the feel of the weight of the controls, everything is realistic,” Iiams said after successfully “landing” the jet at Paine Field.
(This reporter took a turn at the yoke, too, and boy, does it feel real.)
Shake, rattle and roll
The first airplane simulators were developed a century ago.
One of the most successful was invented by Ed Link in 1929. Link used his knowledge of pumps and bellows — his father owned a pipe organ factory — to create a flight simulator that could pitch, roll, dive and climb, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“An instructor sat at the desk and transmitted radio messages which the student heard through his earphones. Inside the ‘cockpit,’ the student relied on his instruments to fly,” a museum fact sheet said.
Sales of the Link Trainer were slow in the 1930s, but took off with the start of World War II.
“One of the great things about simulation is they’re not dependent on weather,” Hickey said.
Plus, it’s less expensive than taking a plane up.
Simulation Flight doesn’t teach people how to fly. If you’re interested in becoming a pilot, ground school is the place to start, Hickey said.
But once you obtain your pilot’s license, simulator training can help up your game, Hickey said.
The company’s general aviation simulator can be configured to represent more than 30 types of aircraft from a Cessna 172 to a King Air.
Hourly rates start at $80 an hour. You can hire one of their instructors for $75 an hour or bring your own. Sessions are by appointment only.
Learning to navigate and fly solely by the plane’s instruments is a skill every private pilot should acquire. Immediately after you get your pilot’s license, you should strive to get instrument rated, Hickey said. FAA certification requires 40 hours of training, half of which can be completed on a simulator, Hickey said.
You can practice flying in bad weather, operating the plane in the event of an engine failure or a bird strike. (What would Sully do?)
Instructor Haynes can offer tips. An owl once struck his plane at 25,000 feet, he said.
It’s not unusual for pilots to book time on the simulator to practice their next approach, Hickey said.
Someone planning to fly the family to Sun Valley might come in and “fly” to their destination before stepping foot in the plane, Hickey said.
“We help instrument-rated pilots stay competent and proficient,” he said.
Simulation Flight also offers pre-interview training for pilots who are applying to work at a commercial airline.
The briefing, which includes a two- to three-hour flight on the new 737 simulator, is intended to make an applicant comfortable during the real interview.
The pilot shortage
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an annual shortfall of about 17,000 pilots, which could reach as high as 30,000 pilots within a decade. Almost half of U.S. airline pilots are within 15 years of the FAA’s mandatory retirement age of 65. In fact, about 2,250 pilots are expected to retire this year alone, according to a study by the Regional Airline Association.
To become a commercial airline pilot with a regional or major airline such as FedEx, Atlas Air or Alaska Airlines, you must have at least 1,500 hours of flight time, under FAA law.
You can obtain a pilot license at age 17. For interested teens, “We recommend you start training at age 16,” Hickey said.
“Our goal is to make the aviation world safer,” Hickey said, “and pass along knowledge from great pilots to younger pilots with our equipment.”