Virtual Aviation. On course with Apple.

Learning to fly an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737-800 might seem like a serious business but, as it turns out, it can also be a lot of fun. That’s why Virtual Aviation, a five-person outfit headquartered in Cambridge, decided to make their thrilling simulator rides available to members of the public as well as would-be airline pilots.

“It’s difficult to explain the sheer excitement of it”, says Virtual Aviation’s managing director, James Stevenson. In business for over ten years, the company makes use of seven different simulators in their UK training facilities at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports.

The business model is simple: Virtual Aviation purchases four-hour blocks from the companies that own the simulators and sell them on at hourly rates to trainee pilots or members of the public. In addition to Flight Simulator Training and Flight Simulator Experiences, the company has a Future Pilot Programme offering aspirant pilots the chance to try out their wings, and Fear of Flying Courses to help people overcome flight-related phobias.

The simulators themselves are fantastically high-tech affairs. At £10m a piece, they’re so realistic, they’re used for ‘Zero Flight Time’ training, which means commercial pilots can complete 100% of their training in the simulator without the need to ever fly a real plane. Such is the demand for the service, people come from all over the world to use it.

Because the company runs sessions 24/7, the operation needs to be fast and flexible enough to constantly respond to potential business. Until recently, a PC network served as Virtual Aviation’s operational hub, but Stevenson encountered so many difficulties that in December 2008, he switched to the Mac.

“We were constantly having issues with viruses and hardware incompatibility – all sorts of problems were creeping in”, he says. Add to this, sluggish and noisy processing and the constant need to update security software, and staff at Virtual Aviation got to the point where they were loath to switch on their computers.

“I thought Macs were just for designers”, admits Stevenson, “I didn’t realise they were a serious option for businesses, but I was tired of spending my time fixing PC problems rather than running my business”. He dipped his toe in the water with a MacBook and was immediately impressed by the straightforward set-up, ease of use and powerful functionality.

The company purchased a 20-inch iMac, shortly followed by a MacBook Air and a 24-inch iMac. A 2.4GHz MacBook Pro completed the network, all of it managed via a 1TB Time Capsule. “Time Capsule is used both as a server and a backup solution”, says Stevenson. “All documents are stored on the wireless Time Capsule, which we use as a central ‘file server’ rather than storing documents locally on each Mac. We also use it for Time Machine backups, and it has a shared printer connected to it. I set up various accounts from the different machines with MobileMe, so now we can all access the same files from any computer or mobile device.

“We tried to achieve this solution with our previous PC set-up, but it was too fiddly and we just couldn’t make it work – in the end, it was a bodge job; we stored files on one PC and tried to set up access from the other three computers, but there was always one that wouldn’t link and the main computer had to be on if you wanted to print anything. Time Capsule, by comparison, did exactly what we wanted it to do in terms of networking, straight out of the box”.

Because the company is never really closed, iPhones play a key role in the operation. Stevenson says, “Outside office hours, we have a ‘duty mobile’ iPhone that each of us takes home in turn. If a customer calls with an urgent enquiry relating to a booking, we can simply access our back-office booking system from the iPhone’s browser, which effectively gives us an advantage over our competitors”.

He adds: “On evenings and weekends, the staff member on duty won’t always have access to a computer, but our business can be run almost entirely from the iPhone”. The sophisticated back-office booking system was built to order and is used to manage customer accounts and bookings, simulator schedules, pilot scheduling and payments.

“Our pilots can log in to book themselves in to instruct, and training centre staff can log in to view schedules and customer details”, says Stevenson. Given this degree of access – which increases operational efficiency – the ability to synchronise information across all devices is of paramount importance.