From an economic development standpoint, the San Marcos Municipal Airport is flying high these days.
A year into new management, the facility has seen a dramatic increase in both revenue and air traffic, it boasts a new control tower and is now home to a one-of-a-kind aviation experience center and research lab.
Redbird Skyport, an offshoot of the Austin-based Redbird Flight Simulations, is the most recent business to land at the airport.
Skyport was envisioned as a research and development lab for its parent company, which now ranks as the largest flight simulator company in the world.
Airport Manager Stephen Alexander said Skyport includes a flight school, a full-service restaurant, a meeting facility and a fixed-base operator, which is essentially an airport concierge service.
Alexander and Skyport General Manager Randy Clark said the center was conceived in large part to address the decline in the number of new pilots.
“Last year, the aviation industry as a whole saw fewer new pilot starts than in the 1960s. Fewer people since the ’60s decided they wanted to become pilots, [and] 78 percent quit before they even finished their first rating,” Clark said.
Redbird researched the problem and found several reasons for the decline, the top three being cost, fear and frustration.
Redbird, which Alexander described as “potentially a worldwide industry game changer,” then set out to address the issues.
Redbird Flight Simulations was founded in 2006 by former Dell Inc. and Frito-Lay executives with the specific goal of making flight training available to more of the general public.
Clark said the founders asked themselves, “Why don’t we take the knowledge about IT and the knowledge we know about Dell, which is commoditizing an industry to drive costs way down, and let’s go make a full-motion flight simulator, but let’s go make it affordable for the small mom-and-pop flight school.”
The founders then had to determine how much a flight simulator could cost before it priced out those smaller flight schools. The most popular system at the time cost about $180,000, Clark said, and filled nearly an entire room.
After researching the question, they determined that $60,000 was their upper limit.
“The next requirement, and this was a tricky one, the whole sim has to break apart for two people to carry it up a flight of stairs and through a standard door,” he said.
After clearing those two hurdles, the team needed to figure out a way for pilots and potential pilots to train on multiple planes without having to purchase a new simulator for each one.
To earn certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, the simulator’s controls must perform exactly as they would on a real airplane.
“What we’ve done, essentially, is we’ve embedded all the actual switches and dials into this piece of acrylic,” he said. “The real beauty is, this whole panel comes off and I can slap a new panel on in about two minutes and have virtually any training aircraft available on the market.”
Redbird can now emulate the control panels for 30 to 40 common aircraft.
The simulators have a final customer-friendly innovation—they plug directly into any standard household outlet.
The Skyport facility offers several simulators, including desktop models and a crosswind trainer.
Its creators envision Skyport as everything from a flight school and research facility to a corporate meeting space to a location for weddings.
“We’ve done a lot of unique things for the industry,” Clark said. “We’ve changed an industry paradigm.”