MANCHESTER – More room on the ground, not more planes in the air, was the main reason that Nashua Flight Simulator has moved to Manchester airport after seven years at Boire Field in Nashua – but it wasn’t the only reason.
“We just got too large for the space at Nashua, that’s a lot of it,” said Stephen Cunningham, owner/operator of the firm, which moved and expanded a couple times at Nashua airport since starting up in 2006. The company opened on Saturday, Dec. 6, in its new facility in the Ammon Center – which was the airport’s terminal, before it expanded in the 1990s. Their new home has room for four full-sized simulators, rather than the two they had in Nashua.
Another factor in the decision, Cunningham said, was Manchester-Boston Regional Airport’s push to lure back “general aviation,” the term for private and business aircraft, as compared to big-jet passenger flights and freight deliveries.
Manchester airport’s expansion in the decade before the Sept. 11 attacks, including several years when it was the nation’s fastest growing airport following the arrival of Southwest Airlines in 1998, pushed out some general aviation.
In recent years, however, regional airports like Manchester have experienced harder times as airlines’ retrenchment into large “hub” airports, like Boston’s Logan, has cut into commercial business: The number of passengers using Manchester has fallen almost by more than 40 percent since a peak in 2005. As Income from private pilots buying aviation fuel or renting hangar and “tie-down” space is increasingly important.
Nashua Flight Simulator’s main market is to provides training for experienced pilots of upscale private planes, usually with two, often turbocharged, engines, or with pressurized cabins. Such pilots, who usually fly themselves for business reasons, have to get “recurrent training” every year to keep their insurance.
Cunningham said his clients come from all over the place, since Nashua Flight Simulator is the only such facility in the Northeast. But the climb in the cost of aviation fuel – which has more than doubled from its $3.15-per-gallon price in 2009 – means a surprising number of these clients fly in for lessons on commercial jets because it’s cheaper. The cost of flying popular craft like a Beechcraft King Air or Pipe Cheyenne, he said, can hit $1,000 an hour.
As a result, being located at the state’s only major commercial airport is a bonus.
The firm’s simulators, which with various software and hardware changes can simulate more than 15 models of plane, don’t move, but the computer-controlled cockpit gauges and hardware, plus the 180-degree view from projectors visible through the windows, makes them convincing.
“You can lose sense of the fact that you’re on the ground. I’ve had people come out with vertigo,” he said.
But this isn’t a Disney ride.
“We’re designed for procedural testing and proficiency. We can do things here that you never would do in an airplane,” he said.
“You can experience the loss of an engine on takeoff, at 200 feet – we practice that all the time here,” he said. “If you do the flow of procedures correctly you can survive, right the airplane, and come back in for a single-engine approach.”
The firm contracts with about 15 certified instructors, licensed to train various types of planes. Cunningham is its only full-time employee.
Nashua Flight Simulator is also expanding into computer-aided re-certification testing for non-aviation fields, from real estate to operating cranes, to medical services. “I couldn’t do that in Nashua – there’s already a service there,” said Cunningham.
Despite the move, Cunningham said he’ll keep the company name, although he might tack something like “at Manchester” onto the end. And the city resident won’t be moving from Nashua, where he has lived for a decade.
“I’d like to have stayed in Nashua,” said Cunningham. “My own plane is still there.”