Learning to fly

The view from the cockpit of a Redbird flight simulator at CRAFT.

Clint Zimmer has flown helicopters for the Army for 25 years.

So when his daughter, Kylie, wanted to try her hand at flying as well, he took her to a new flight simulator in North Charleston.

After several weeks and lots of crashes and burns in the simulator, he took the 17-year-old up in a small airplane and told her he would help her land only if she got into trouble.

She didn’t and landed the plane flawlessly, he said.

“I filmed it and she posted it online,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer believes the flight simulator saved both him and his daughter countless hours of sitting in an unair-conditioned small plane trying to teach her how to fly.

As Mike McCurdy, one of the co-owners and flight instructor at CRAFT, or Charleston Regional Advanced Flight Training, pointed out, “You learn to fly on the simulator, and you practice in the plane.”

McCurdy, a small craft pilot since 1991 and three business partners who are not pilots — Eric Bowman, Russell McCray and Doug Ross — came together just over a year ago to set up the flight training resource. McCurdy is also a former law enforcement officer of 26 years, including assistant police chief on the Isle of Palms, where he worked for 12 years.

“The thing about law enforcement is the higher you get into administration, the less you like it,” he said with a chuckle.

So he left the career of chasing criminals.

He and his partners rented an 800-square-foot space from Atlantic Aviation at Charleston International Airport and installed an $85,000 simulator, one that pivots and turns with each movement of the yoke in a cockpit that resembles a single-engine Cessna 172.

“It’s the only one of its kind in South Carolina,” McCurdy said. “This is leading technology for aviation.”

Through computer imaging and the click of a button, the simulator can take would-be pilots anywhere in the world. The terrain and some major structures of places around the globe appear on the screen that is the cockpit windshield.

With the push of a button, rain, snow, ice, fog, thunderstorms or any kind of weather can be added to the visual image, helping students learn to navigate through any inclement condition.

When a student has a question about something, McCurdy, or the student’s own instructor, hits a pause button. The flight stops in midair and the question is answered before proceeding.

“The best tool we have is the pause button,” he said.

The simulator, which costs $75 to $125 an hour to use, depending on one of four different types of simulated aircraft, can save aspiring small-plane pilots and those seeking extra training some money over conventional methods of learning to fly in an aircraft alone, McCurdy said. Lower-cost, 10- and 20-hour block rates also are available.

“If you want a pilot’s license, you can do it the same way the Wright Brothers did and get into an airplane,” he said. “That’s a really expensive way to do it. Plus, an airplane is a terrible place to learn to fly.”

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McCurdy said flight students, who are concentrating on not crashing when learning to fly an actual plane, tend to hear about every 10 words from the instructor.

In the simulator, they can take their time, pause the action and ask their question without worrying about their safety.

“People still crash, but they do it in a simulator,” he said. “They learn from their mistakes and do it over and over until they feel comfortable flying the plane.”

The simulator takes students through all kinds of emergency situations, including losing power on takeoff, something that could never be replicated on purpose in an actual airplane because of the danger.

Aspiring pilots need at least 40 hours of instruction to be able to fly, according to FAA guidelines.

The national average of learning to fly encompasses 65 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flights for a total cost of nearly $13,000, according to McCurdy.

Training through CRAFT with 10 hours in the simulator as well as flying in an actual airplane with an instructor 27.5 hours along with 10 hours of solo flights costs about $6,900, he said.

“The whole idea is to get people in and out as quickly and as cheaply as possible,” McCurdy said. “If students integrate the flight simulator with lessons in the airplane, they could save nearly 50 percent in both time and money.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.