OVIEDO, Fla. — Pilot James Gendreau flies over the landmark SunTrust tower, the downtown lights glimmering in the darkness as he approaches Orlando Executive Airport.
As he gets close to the runway, Gendreau pulls the nose of his Cessna up and arcs away from his target. Then he repeats the maneuver again and again until he finally touches down. Gendreau, 48, didn’t burn any fuel while he practiced. He was “flying” using a simulator at Elite SimCenters in Oviedo, which opened this month.
“It’s a great way to just brush up,” said Gendreau, a Seminole County commercial real estate developer with 25 years of flying experience.
Gendreau and the more than 73,000 other pilots in Florida know that keeping up their skills is more than a requirement for maintaining their certification. It can be a matter of life and death.
Pilot error is the primary cause of crashes, which are far more likely in small airplanes, National Transportation Safety Board statistics show. Of 1,297 U.S. crashes last year, 1,222 were in the general-aviation category, which encompasses all civilian flying except for scheduled passenger-airline service. Three hundred eighty-seven people were killed.
By contrast, 20 scheduled commercial-airline flights crashed in 2013, killing two people.
Experts say the more training a pilot has in a variety of conditions, the better chance he or she will know how to handle an emergency.
“The airlines require recurrent training,” said NTSB member Earl Weener, 69, a longtime Boeing engineer whose distinguished career includes nearly five decades as a flight instructor. “That’s part of why their safety record is as good as it is.”
Bad weather, flawed judgment and inexperience cost three men their lives in a crash in Indian River County last year, the National Transportation Safety Board found.
Kit Cody, 67, was at the controls when his twin-engine Cessna 310H crashed on Valentine’s Day while flying to Bartow after a trip to the Bahamas in the rain. Also killed was his brother, Barry Cody, 65, and their friend Rob Krieger, 65, a Winter Haven businessman and decorated Vietnam helicopter pilot.
The NTSB said Kit Cody wasn’t qualified to fly by the instruments required in limited visibility. Contributing factors were Cody’s ingestion of an antihistamine that tends to cause drowsiness, his eagerness to get home in spite of scattered thunderstorms and “improper evaluation of the weather conditions.”
John Desmarais, director of operations for the Civil Air Patrol, maintains that it’s actually safer to fly than to cross the street. Pilots are held to high standards, trained to check their planes before and after a flight and are practiced in preparing for emergencies, he said.
“A lot of planning goes into a flight,” said Desmarais, whose agency’s mission includes searching for lost planes. “Pilots know from the very get-go that you can’t just pull over.”
Entry-level private pilots are required to receive at least 40 hours of flight training, including 10 hours solo, and take a written test, said Mike Camelin, director of Sun State Aviation flight school at Kissimmee Gateway Airport. He, too, said driving is considerably more dangerous than flying.
“In your training, you’re going to learn to deal with every kind of situation,” Camelin said.
That’s where a simulator can help. Pilots can learn emergency maneuvers and how to handle rough weather without ever leaving the ground, said Terry Lloyd, director of aviation at Kissimmee Gateway Airport.
“It enhances training and efficiency,” said Lloyd, who previously managed airfields for the Air Force.
At Elite SimCenters, airplane and helicopter simulators, which cost $7,000 to $250,000 depending on their complexity, are designed as realistically as possible, said John Dixon, president and chief executive officer of Elite Simulation Solutions and a retired Army helicopter pilot. In some, there’s a feeling of motion even though the machine is stationary.
Pilots pay hourly rental rates of $40 to $150, based on which simulator they use. The simulators also are available to flight schools and instructors who want to bring their students to train. The 2,500-square-foot center is an expansion of Elite Simulation Solutions, which has been manufacturing and marketing simulator hardware, software and training devices for more than two decades.
“It’s like a mental gymnasium for pilots,” Dixon said. “It’s a lot cheaper than flying the real airplane, and that’s the whole idea.”
At least one other Central Florida business, SimCom Training Centers, near Orlando International Airport, offers simulator training for business-jet and general-aviation pilots.
Gendreau, the Seminole County pilot, said he believes in practicing on a simulator.
“It keeps you polished and safe,” he said.
©2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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