We at Holladay Aviation offer a unique service designed to help pilots throughout the Washington, D.C., area save time and money on initial and recurrent flight training. Our Mobile Flight Simulator (aka “The Sim-Mobile”) is an FAA-approved Elite PI-135 Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD) that we’ve installed in our Honda Odyssey minivan. Our unique system allows us to bring the benefits of flight simulation directly to the customer, anywhere, anytime.
With the economy continuing its slow-flight holding pattern at the start of 2011, my flight training hours were at all-time low since I began teaching in 2005. My husband, Dana Holladay, and I began to look for ways that we could diversify our services and better serve our customer base here in the Washington, D.C. area.
The inspiration for what would become the Sim-Mobile came from Dana’s travels around town for his full-time job in the restaurant business. Dana, who is also a CFI, noticed an increasing number and variety of mobile service providers: dog groomers, veterinarians, auto detailers, massage therapists, even dentists. He came home one day and asked me what I thought about creating a mobile flight simulator business, and it didn’t take us long to decide to go for it.
When we purchased our Elite PI-135 Basic ATD last February, our goal was to break even on the investment within one year. I’m pleased to report that we’ve achieved that goal. We chose the PI-135 because it was the most affordable and fully featured, FAA-approved IFR trainer on the market. For a total investment of about $8,000 (the unit, its peripherals, PC and two monitors) we got a device that is FAA-approved for up to 10 hours of training toward an Instrument rating, and can also be used for up to 2.5 hours of instrument training toward a private pilot certificate.
The staff of Elite Simulation Solutions, based in Oviedo, FL, were very responsive and friendly, and worked with us step-by-step through the purchase, setup and installation process. We had not yet acquired a vehicle when the PI-135 arrived, and this was by design. We wanted to work with it in our home office for a while and take detailed measurements.
At first, we considered purchasing a utility van like a Ford E150 and building a custom workstation for the sim that would fit inside the van. But the problem with a utility van is that it isn’t suitable as my everyday vehicle, and isn’t very fuel efficient. So we started looking at minivans and discovered that the rear seat area of the Honda Odyssey is nearly identical in size to the front seat of a Cessna 172. We found a nice used Odyssey with leather seats and a navigation system (great for finding customers’ houses), and Dana got to work building a custom rolling workstation for the sim that attaches to same bars in the floor that are normally used to secure the middle row of seats.
Within a few weeks, our Sim-Mobile was on the road delivering personalized instrument training to customers throughout the Washington area. We made our first public appearance with the sim at International Learn To Fly Day in Frederick, MD on June 4, 2011, and again at Become A Pilot Day at Dulles Airport on June 18. We put about 200 hours on the sim in its first year of use, and logged about 150 of those hours with students. By comparison, I logged a little over 300 hours of dual instruction in airplanes last year.
What It Is, And What It Isn’t
The feedback we’ve received from our sim customers has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Students like the convenience, efficiency, affordability and comfort of the Sim-Mobile. An IFR lesson that would normally take up to three hours at the airport (from the time you show up to the time you leave, including preflight, filing flight plans, etc.) can be completed in the sim in half the time and for half the cost. However, the most common complaint we get is that, “it doesn’t fly like a real airplane.” Our response to that is, it isn’t supposed to.
The Elite PI-135 BATD or any PC-based device of its type is not designed to teach a student how to fly an airplane, so it doesn’t behave exactly like one. That’s the realm of high-fidelity, full-motion, and very expensive simulators like the Redbird FMX. But do you really need fancy graphics and flight control feedback to practice your instrument scan, or fly an approach? We think not.
The Elite PI-135 BATD features a Garmin GNS430W simulator that is perfect for students who are trying to learn all of the features of this highly capable IFR-certified GPS, but don’t want to spend $200 an hour or more doing so in a real airplane. With the PI-135 I can set up a variety of weather and emergency scenarios including in-flight icing, vacuum system failures and avionics malfunctions. The sim can be configured for a variety of popular GA airplanes including the Cessna 172/182/182RG, Bonanza and Baron.
One drawback of the Elite PI-135 BATD is that it cannot be used to complete an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC). This must be done in an airplane, as stipulated in FAR 61.57(d). However, if it’s been a very long time since you’ve flown IFR and you need an IPC, the sim is still an excellent, efficient and economical way to brush up on your IFR skills and scan before you go out and fly with an instructor.