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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
The whole subject just thrills me...it
really is a passion, he explained. I check
the various flight simulation
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