Virtual Aviation

Flying with Apple.

Apple technology allows the flexibility and ease of use to run this UK flight training facility from anywhere, anytime.

“There’s no doubt that we run a more efficient operation; we haven’t encountered a single problem since we set up the Mac network.”

James Stevenson, Managing Director, Virtual Aviation

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 since 1998, the company makes use of seven different simulators in their UK training facilities at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports. Customers are split 60:40 in favour of professional pilots, the remainder are members of the public or corporate bookings.

For the past 16 years, the traditional business model has been simple: Virtual Aviation purchases hourly blocks from the companies that own the simulators and sell them on at hourly rates to trainee pilots or members of the public. This is about to change, the outcome of which could double the company’s annual turnover. Virtual Aviation has acquired a fixed base flight simulator which promises to cut prices by one third, opening up the Virtual Aviation experience to a new market.

“It doesn’t have the hydraulic legs of our other simulators, but it has state-of-the-art 3D visuals and is still certified by Boeing. It is airside at our new offices at Cambridge Airport, meaning guests can fly in, taxi up and use the simulator. We expect it to prove useful for pilots looking to maintain their training in between testing, particularly those based at nearby Stansted Airport.”

The plan is to buy an Airbus simulator within 12 months. “If we’re 80 per cent full, we’ll double turnover. The second simulator will treble business,” says Stevenson.

Flying around the clock

Because the company runs sessions 24/7, the operation needs to be fast and flexible enough to respond to potential business. Until December 2008, Virtual Aviation had relied on a PC network to provide its operational hub, but Stevenson encountered so many difficulties that 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 got to the point where they would loath switching on their computers.

Stevenson dipped his toe in the water with a MacBook and was immediately impressed by the straightforward setup, 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 iCloud, 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 setup, 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.”

“I thought Macs were just for designers. 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.”

James Stevenson, Managing Director, Virtual Aviation

Around-the-clock operation

Because the company is never really closed, iPads and 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.

This advanced level of integration between Apple products is, in fact, one of the things that has impressed Stevenson and his staff the most.

“The integration between Apple products has been seamless and allows us to get on with work and be as productive as possible. We never had this before with our PC network.”

James Stevenson, Managing Director, Virtual Aviation

Mobility where you want it most

iPads also come in handy during simulations; instructors use one of the company’s 20 iPads to deliver briefings, with charts and cockpit demonstrations stored on Dropbox. “We don’t need an Internet connection, and it beats taking a heavy bag full of paper charts,” says Stevenson.

Instructors also make use of the AeroWeather app (to load real-life weather conditions into the simulator) and the AeroSIM cockpit dashboard. “It allows us to zoom in to different cockpit features on the iPad, whether we’re in the simulator or the classroom,” Stevenson explains.

Additionally, with customers not allowed to take pictures inside the simulators, the iPads are used to capture images. These can be emailed direct to the customer and can be useful when an impromptu networking opportunity arises. “It’s great that I have lots of good-quality images on hand to show to people who express interest in the simulators or the business,” says Stevenson. “I edit them in Aperture, put them into Keynote and run them like a mini presentation; it never fails to impress.”

Thanks to iCloud, all the calendar and email functions on the iPhones and iPads are synchronised with the desktop and laptop computers. “For example,” says Stevenson, “I have my own account on each of our Macs so I can work from any of them if necessary — emails, contacts, Safari bookmarks, Calendar events are all available on any of the Macs I work at — and on my iPhone too.”

There are other features of the Mac that have helped win over Virtual Aviation — as well as saving the company money. “None of us could claim to be an IT expert, but there’s no doubt that we run a more efficient operation now,” says Stevenson. “All that time we wasted trying to sort out IT; we haven’t encountered a single problem since we set up the Mac network in 2008.”

The company has also made concrete savings by making use of iLife software for tasks they would previously have paid others to do. For example, Stevenson used iMovie to make a promotional video for the company’s website, which would otherwise have been completed at great cost in an edit suite in Soho. “In the past,” he says, “we’ve paid a filmmaker around £800 a day to make our videos for us. But because we weren’t in a position to see all the original footage and weren’t in on the edit, we sometimes ended up with videos that weren’t quite what we were after. With iMovie, we have complete control.” He adds, “I’m just amazed you can do it on the office computer!”

The company makes good use of iWork too, depending on Pages for its speed, reliability and ease of use, and they now produce their own sales collateral and press releases. Stevenson says, “The Apple software has saved us money — there are all sorts of internal documents we can now create ourselves rather than send to designers and printers — but it’s also changed our attitude towards what’s possible.” These documents include route maps to the training centres, which were previously laid out externally but are now dispatched direct to the printer in PDF format, plus internal forms, customer comment forms, order forms and even a magazine advert. “It’s as easy as dragging an image from the Aperture library and placing it into Pages in iWork.”

Virtual Aviation makes use of Boot Camp on the Mac to boot up Windows for the company accountant who comes in several hours a week and only works on PCs. “That’s literally the only time we need to come out of a strictly Apple environment,” says Stevenson.

He is also impressed with the reliability of the Apple operating system. “OS X is stable and very easy to work with,” he says. “It makes me wonder how we ever put up with the PC!”

As far as Stevenson is concerned, there’s a strong business case to be made for switching to Apple technology.

“The PC was a hindrance to our daily work. Now, not only do we make concrete savings thanks to Apple technology, we’re also more productive — in short, we achieve more in less time and with fewer headaches.”

James Stevenson, Managing Director, Virtual Aviation

Company Snapshot

Toolkit

Hardware:

  • Mac
  • Time Capsule
  • iPad
  • iPhone

Software:

  • Pages
  • Keynote
  • iMovie
  • Aperture
  • iCloud
  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Safari