Back in 1989, businessman Wally David made an interesting observation: Computer graphics technology was improving so dramatically that a whole new realm of simulator training was about to become possible. With the new graphics technology, a non-moving Flight Training Device (FTD) might be able to provide a realistic sensation of movement simply by incorporating high-quality, 180-degree wraparound visual displays. And that, David realized, could dramatically lower the cost of simulator training -- opening up the option of simulator-based training to many more pilots and owners.
Thus was born SimCom Training Centers. Originally, SimCom focused on training for owner-operators of cabin-class, twin-engine piston aircraft -- pilots who wouldn't normally have access to simulator training. But that wasn't the only feature that set SimCom apart. David also decided to offer "customized" training, with no more than two students in a class. "In large classes," he explains, "the instructor has to teach to the lowest common denominator in the class. With only two students, the instructor can hone in on the needs of individual customers … which vary a lot."
David tells a story to illustrate. "Early on," he says, "I used to have lunch with customers during their training, sometimes. And I had lunch one day with these two King Air 200 pilots, who'd flown for about 10 years, but were trying us out for recurrent training for the first time because our price was lower. So I asked them how we were doing. And they said, well, the other places they'd done training had full motion simulators, so they were better in that way. 'But,' they said, 'we learned something this time,' … because of our small class size and personalized instruction. Which is exactly what we're trying to achieve."
SimCom has expanded and evolved over the years. In January 1999 it was acquired by the investment firm J.W. Childs Associates LP, although David is still president and CEO. The following year, SimCom added full motion simulators to its lineup in order to provide jet/type rating training. Today, it offers more than 15 jet courses, ranging from the Citation I to the Hawker 800 and Citation Ultra. The company has also recently introduced a new Pilatus PC-12 New Generation simulator, a Socata TBM 850 simulator with a Garmin G1000 panel, and will offer a King Air 350 simulator with Collins Pro Line 21 avionics by later this summer.
At one point, SimCom was paired with the Pan Am Flight Academy, which provides more regional and commercial airline-geared flight training. But the companies separated in 2006, so the only airline-oriented flight training SimCom now provides is in the Jetstream 41 and the Dornier 328. SimCom is focusing, once again, on general aviation training. But as its courses have expanded into bigger jets, the customer base at SimCom has shifted. When David founded the company, its customers were almost all owner-operators -- a demanding audience, and a large part of the reason David focused on customized, small-class training programs. Now, almost 45 percent of the 8,000 people who train at SimCom each year are professional corporate pilots, sent there by their employers. Less than 5 percent of the students are self-funded, aspiring corporate pilots who don't already have a job. But despite the shift, SimCom's dedication to customization and small class size hasn't changed.
The size and number of SimCom facilities, however, has expanded. SimCom began with one facility in Orlando, Florida. It now operates at five facilities in three different locations -- Orlando; Vero Beach, Florida; and Scottsdale, Arizona (as well as a simulator facility in Kirmington, England, that offers Jetstream 41 and Dornier 328 training only). Orlando is the company's main headquarters and training location. The Vero Beach facility provides training in Piper planes, ranging from Senecas to Meridian and Matrix aircraft, and the Scottsdale facility duplicates several of the training programs provided at Orlando.
Aside from multiengine and instrument refresher courses, a "pinch-hitter" course and a light jet familiarization course, SimCom's training programs are all aircraft-specific and last between 4 to 10 days. Rates for SimCom training span a fairly broad price range, since a Piper Seneca FTD costs significantly less than a Hawker 800 full-motion simulator, but daily course rates run between $620 and $2,200.
Recently, however, the company has introduced several cost-saving training options. It's currently offering a 20 percent discount on both its CJ and Citation Ultra training courses (both relatively new offerings at SimCom). In addition, the company is beginning to offer shorter, one-on-one training courses, like its new customized Citation Jet Captain's course. The customized course costs the same as the standard Captain's course, but runs only eight days instead of the standard 14, saving participants time and travel expense money. SimCom also has obtained FAA approval for a Citation single-pilot course/type rating that's conducted entirely in one of the company's simulators.
"We've always tried to do things in creative ways to allow us to provide customers with more value," David explains. "Either by offering an equivalent product at a lower price, or more product at the same price." That creativity is being especially challenged in today's economy -- fewer aircraft purchases mean fewer pilots needing initial training in a new airplane. But David remains optimistic. "The value proposition for SimCom since the beginning," he says, "was to give customers value, customized training, and a friendly atmosphere. Those things haven't changed, and I don't expect them to change in the future."
What has changed, according to David, is the technology … both the complexity of the avionics in the planes, and the technology SimCom uses to deliver its product. "A non-motion FTD now has the same quality visuals as a Level D, full-motion simulator," David says. "That's amazing."