Volume 31
July 28, 2014

A Weekly Aviation Career
Newsletter from Avjobs, Inc.

A Weekly Aviation Career Newsletter from Avjobs, Inc.
 
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Working On The Goodyear Blimp
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Virgin America Takes Flight
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The History Of Flight Attendants
The Gratitude Campaign
Scheduler Dispatcher Conference
Recruiting Minorities to Aviation
Pilot Promotes Aviation Careers
Pilot Completes Trip
Pay Hikes and Bonuses
Northwest Airlines Hiring
No Ordinary Flight Instructor
NBAA Scholarship Update
NBAA Scholarship Opportunities
NBAA Scholarship Deadlines
NBAA Celebrates 60 Years
Jumpseat Ride Flying Charters
Joe Jones Aviations True Spirit
Is an FAA Career for You
IATA Reports On Airline Traffic
Hubble Multimedia Package
Honda Aircraft Company
History Of Flight Attendants
Having Fun for a Living
Gordon Page Warbird Recovery
Funding Prevents Furloughs
Flying The Canyon
Flight Simulation
Flight Attendants Contract
FAA To Hire 15000
FAA Bumps Retirement Age
Delta Promises Stability
Corporate Flight Attendant Jobs
Congress Recognizes Irving
Colorado Astronauts
Climb Aviations Career Ladder
Cirrus Design
Changing Careers
Career Profile Airline Pilot
Career Profile Airline CEO
Boeing Enjoys Sales Spike
Barrington Irving on CNN
Aviations Renaissance Man
Aviation Photography
Aviation Pay Philosophies
Aviation Employee Competencies
Aviation Career Salary Ranges
Aviation Career Overviews
Armed Pilots Refresher Training
Ardent Receives Approval
An Aerobatic Superstar
American Warns Unions
Airline Ramp Agents
Airline Overhead Bins
Airline Merger Update
Airline Flight Attendant Careers
Aircraft Sales
Aircraft Maintenance Technicians
Air Traffic Controller Careers
Aerospace Engineering
A Life in Aviation
A Career in Virtual Aviation
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A Weekly Aviation Career Newsletter from Avjobs, Inc.
Aviation Career Profile

Mike Pohl: Making Virtual Flying Realistically Profitable

So, who said you it was impossible to make money in aviation? Mike Pohl of St. Paul, Minnesota is one successful entrepreneur that found a skyrocketing career in developing aviation flight simulation platforms. Pohl builds recreational fighter-jet simulators which he calls AeroDomes for about $57,000 to $75,000, using off-the-shelf PCs and other readily available parts. However, his success story does not come without a history of hard work and perseverance.

Pohl remembers vividly the feeling of driving through the security gates and into the sprawling campus at defense industry giant Lockheed Martin with his wife, Kristi, and 5-year-old son Charlie. The former insurance salesman was at the wheel of a rented truck, personally hauling two flight simulators that he had built in less than three months in his St. Paul garage, using just wood, fiberglass and off-the-shelf flight simulation programs. It was the culmination of Pohl's lengthy and aggressive journey to get a piece, albeit a very small one, of the mammoth defense industry's pie.

"I felt like Jed Clampett arriving in Beverly Hills," he vividly remembers.

Lockheed Martin bought two of his machines in May. The price was in the low six figures, Pohl said. When you realize that most simulators run in the millions, that's a potentially huge bargain for military flight trainers if the AeroDomes prove effective.

Growing From Small Virtual Beginnings
The Lockheed Martin defense contract is a small coup for Pohl and his tiny firm not that he necessarily needs the government business to stay afloat. Pohl has been doing profitable, if not spectacular, business renting rides in four of his own AeroDomes to wannabe fighter aces at a St. Paul, Minn. strip-mall storefront he opened in 1996 and dubbed the ACES Flight Simulation Center. Even at its low point following Sept. 11, 2001 when many associated such businesses with terrorism-in-training ACES managed to clear $1,500, Pohl said.

The AeroDomes, which get their names from dome-shaped enclosures that serve as panoramic projection screens, are virtually (pun intended) scratch-built machines running software similar to the fighter-jet games used the run-of-the-mill PC. However, the experience is so realistic that, Pohl claims, it provides a significant degree of actual flight instruction. He said he found this out for himself when he snagged a ride on a Russian L-39 jet trainer and was able to execute such maneuvers as a roll and a split-S with relatively little guidance.

From The Ground Up
It was Pohl's interest in flight simulation that got him hooked on aviation as a business enterprise. It started as a hobby in 1987 when he purchased the original version of Falcon, a PC-based flight simulation which he still enjoys today.  Then in 1992 he met some like-minded folks who would meet once a month in the basement of fellow aviation enthusiast, Dave Brandt. (Brandt later helped Pohl build the simulators in use today at ACES).  A key moment came in 1993 when Pohl took a flight in an F-16 Flight Simulator at a nearby US Air Force base. He was astounded to see that the radar in this $3 million dollar simulator looked exactly like the one he was using at home in Falcon 3.0. 

This experience really fired me up, he said. I was elated that I could land the jet. My instructor seemed genuinely impressed that a guy off the street could fly and understand the systems.

Driving home that night Pohl realized that a successful business venture could be realized if this episode could be bottled up to allow other people to experience these same feelings of fun and exhilaration. Even though running his own business was something that he always wanted to try, Pohl knew doing so would require a large amount of work, not to mention risk. Nevertheless, he went for it.

Pohl's business began with an investment of $150,000 and some power tools. After quitting his job in the insurance industry, he began building the first simulated cockpits out of wood and materials. The first simulator shell was purchased from a defunct computer company, but now Pohl buys them directly from a fabricator in the area. Once complete, the first machine was stationary and the software plucked right off the shelf, which he claims resulted in a mediocre device. But Pohl guessed that the technology would improve dramatically, and he was right. Adamant on reaching his goal of engaging technology, Pohl opted to do some extensive research on the construction of these elaborate machines. By virtue of luck, he managed to get a tour of the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton Ohio in 1994.There Pohl was able to look at some of the most secretive flight training devices at the time.

I felt like I had entered the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, he said.

After much research and some good old fashioned hard work, Pohl finally opened A.C.E.S. in St. Louis Park in 1996 but emphasize that he wouldn't have been able to do so without the help of a very good friend. Pohl explains his Dave Brandt, the man who housed the flight simulation enthusiast meetings years ago, is a talented Electrical Engineer and more importantly, a self-proclaimed flight simulation freak.  Since the very beginning, Dave helped Pohl with all of the electrical issues that simply flew (pun intended) over his head. Brandt also helped him build the simulators; wire the motion bases, brainstorm design solutions and many other intricate details. 

ACES would not have gotten off the ground without Dave Brandt, Pohl emphasized.

As time went on and his comfort level climbed, Pohl continually upgraded the simulators and made them motion-based, tilting or rising with the push of the stick. He developed the AeroDome in 2001, an enclosed cockpit in which terrain is projected onto a concave screen. He got the idea from a North Carolina company that makes virtual tours for architectural simulations. The result: a pretty realistic sense of flying, complete with sweaty palms and jittery stomach.

Since opening in 1996, over 50,000 people have flown at A.C.E.S. and during the winter months, the facility is typically fully booked 2-3 weeks in advance for the coveted weekend slots. Customers wanting to experience what it's like to fly an FA-18 Hornet and engage in dogfights pay $40 for training and a one-hour ride. While you would expect groups of men playing hooky from work (or home) to be a main staple of revenue, Pohl said that a growing slice of his business comes from women buying gift certificates for their spouses.

Flying Creates Teambuilding
A.C.E.S. as associated itself with former Blue Angels pilot Rick Adams for its Top Gun Team Building program. Rick is a consultant to the center on matters "fighter pilot" and is the host of the corporate team-building program. Adams flew 125 combat missions over North Vietnam. In his new role at A.C.E.S., Adam exposes corporate personnel to a whole new virtual world, where they re forced to work together at times, and against each other on occasion.

It's a great way for them to release some stress, Pohl said. Having the boss get shot down by a sidewinder can do wonders for morale, he joked.

Selling to the Big Boys
You would think Pohl would be happy to just remain content with his successful A.C.E.S location, but this man is ambitious and wanted to test the waters with the defense industry. Aside for being a resource of design ideas, Pohl's 1994 trip to Wright-Patterson AFB gave him the motivation to establish a working relationship with large defense contractors.

High-tech flight simulators used to train this country's military pilots often-incorporate specialized components and software costing millions of dollars. Pohl figured the U.S. military would be interested in his AeroDome, so he hit up the No. 1 defense contractor Lockheed Martin  in early 2002. Pohl spent 82 days in his Highland Park garage assembling the equivalent of F-16 and F-18 fighters using wooden and fiberglass cockpits, computer-style projectors, high-end sound systems and $300 all-metal gaming joysticks essentially identical to those found in real military jets. Pohl rented a truck and, with help from neighbors, loaded up the simulators and bolted them to the vehicle's wooden flooring. He and wife, Kristi, then set off, with 5-year-old son Charlie wedged between them, on the long drive to Florida.

"I was intimidated when the top engineer came in to look at it; I thought he'd rip it apart," Pohl said. Instead, the engineer smiled. "Sweet," he said. The firm showed immediate interest but didn't place its order until early 2003. Nevertheless, the wait was well worth it, as the company seemed interested in buying additional units.

Lockheed Martin has done some of his AeroDome marketing for him, showing off the simulators at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando in late 2003. Pohl's simulator didn't necessarily look its best at the top military trade show. After all, competing simulators have up to eight projectors to the AeroDome's one, along with better computer graphics. However, the AeroDome's key selling point  price  is its strong suit. That combined with a good foundation and realistic flight controls make it competitive with the million dollar machines used in the military today.

Planning for the Future
As Pohl enjoys the fruits of his success, he still sets his sights on larger defense contracts. Not believing in the mantra of "expand or die", Pohl has no plans for retail expansion. We want to expand the wholesale side of ACES, which means building flight simulators for the defense industry, the military, schools and entertainment businesses, he said Pohl claims he has received a lot of interest in franchising but he is clear to potential investors that this is a huge commitment, both fiscally and emotionally. He claims this frank attitude eventually scares off most of the people who talk about opening a franchise. Nevertheless, Pohl says will be happy to work with someone who is very serious about starting their own flight simulation business. In the end, it is the nature of the work that keeps Pohl so motivated to developing his business.

The whole subject just thrills me...it really is a passion, he explained. I check the various flight simulation websites every day and read the flight simulation magazines. Combining his of my main interests - business and flight simulation - makes it nothing like a job.  It's still work, and a lot of it, but it's different than a job.

Pohl said he marvels at how someone can sit in front of a PC and type in what looks like gibberish (computer code), which later comes out as the gorgeous graphics and flight models we have all grown to love. About once a year Pohl claims to have a nightmare where he's woken up and discovered his flight simulation business never really happened and was all just a dream. But after really waking up, Pohl always sits up in bed, smiles and says to himself, "No, wait, it really has happened and it's not just a dream". And I am one lucky fellow!  See for yourself in this week's video feature.

 

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