As a teenager, Sharon Giblett dreamed of joining the airforce and becoming a jet fighter pilot. Sadly, the occupation was considered unsuitable for women at the time, and Sharon, not interested in any other military role, pushed aside her dream to focus on a different career.
In October, that dream sprung to life once again when Sharon joined 11 other focus friends and colleagues for a VIP event hosted at Tauranga’s only dedicated virtual reality (VR) flying encounter – The Aviator Experience.
In between refreshments, we got the chance to find out just what piloting a plane feels like – while strapped into the cockpit of a flight simulator – and understand why customers, including many women, are returning again and again to take the controls and soar to the skies. As newcomers, we started off mid-flight inside an L39 Albatros.
“It was so amazing! Just like being in a real cockpit, with all the controls, the engine noise and even the vibration,” said Sharon. “I never thought I would ever get the chance to experience this and here I was doing horizontal and vertical rolls and flying down low over the trees – it was such an incredible feeling.”
Sharon had a second go later in the evening, this time in control of a fighter jet, which she also landed. As well as throttles and joystick, there’s a lot more controls to operate, but being able to land smoothly without crashing was a real thrill, she said. Having waited so many years to experience her dream, the night and the flight took Sharon on quite an emotional rollercoaster.
“I cried all the way home that night and had the biggest grin on my face the next day. It’s hard to explain that feeling when you get to try something you have only ever dreamed about for so long. It was just so peaceful and beautiful flying around on my own.
“I may have missed my opportunity to become a real fighter pilot but this experience has just confirmed for me that I still really want to learn to fly. Now I just need to work out how to make that happen.”
Flying the warbirds
The Aviator’s Craig Saunders says Sharon’s response is not unusual and believes many people who’ve always had a passion for flying, will want to realise their dream once they’ve experienced his VR flight simulator.
“We’ve had people in their 80s who get in here and don’t want to get off. They love it because it’s so realistic. Some people hold the bottom of the seat when they do a loop, scared they’re going to fall out. Others get a fright if we eject them before a crash landing, and then suddenly they’re in the parachute floating down – it’s all part of the experience.”
Forget about jumbo jets! Craig has set up The Aviator in military style so customers can experience flying some of the most iconic aircraft in the world – from the Spitfire and Mirage fighter jet to the P51 Mustang and Iroquois helicopters. Currently he has two simulator ‘cockpits’ and 13 different simulations to choose from, with more expected prior to Christmas.
“The experience is 95% real in terms of flight dynamics and characteristics, so initially you have to learn how to fly and use the controls. At first people start in the air already flying, so they can just fly around and experience what it’s like. When they want to come back, there’s a whole lot of new stuff they can try, and we’ve got lots more planned to keep it evolving.
“Flying on your own is fun but flying with another person is really cool, so people often come back with a friend because they want to shoot them down. It’s great. We can link the simulators together so two people can have a dogfight, or you can shoot at targets on the ground while flying a fighter jet.”
And if this all sounds like toys for the boys, think again. All 12 women at the VIP event were eager to have a go, and, apart from one women – who found it “amazing” but a little dizzying – reluctantly parachuted to the end of their turn, with happy grins and expressions of glee, fascination and a measure of overwhelm while they negotiated walking on solid ground again.
“That would make an awesome hens’ night party,” said Caro Richards, who jumped back in line to try out a fighter jet later. “It was an amazing experience, so much better than I imagined. You forget you have goggles on; you just look out and see everything around you.”
Closest you get to the real thing
Craig’s idea for The Aviator Experience grew from a desire to have a flight simulator set up at home. He had been an avionics technician in the Royal New Zealand Airforce and later gained his private pilot’s licence. When friends realised how “crazy cool” the simulator was, they encouraged him to turn it into a commercial venture so that others could also experience the wonders of flight at a fraction of the cost of the real thing and without the risk.
The simulators use commercially available parts along with their own custom design rigs. Craig is proud to say the simulators are constructed here in Tauranga and chooses to use local companies as much as possible. They are located at Tauranga Airport in a real hangar surrounded by operational aircraft. He has been operating since May this year. With advances in VR technology, they’ve been able to put together an experience that has even left real pilots “blown away” by the sense of presence and the realistic perception of height and depth.
“The technology is cool now, but it’s only getting better with higher definition and hand recognition coming in the future,” Craig says. “Most people expect it just to be screens in front of them, but with headsets and full VR visuals, you’re flying a plane as if you were a pilot. You go from being in this hanger to being inside the plane with full control with all the systems, bombs and guns. It’s the closest you can get to the real thing.”
Sharon Giblett: “I never thought I would ever get the chance to experience this – it was such an incredible feeling.”
Caro Richards: “That would make an awesome hens’ night party. It was an amazing experience, so much better than I imagined.”
Liz French: “I might start breathing again soon! It felt ridiculously real – I had to keep reminding myself I was in VR.”
Carol Garden: “It was surprisingly easy, but the most unnerving thing was going upside down. My husband would love it!”
Keryn Jarvis: “Wow! That felt so real, incredible – it was so much more life-like than I was expecting.”
Janet Keys: “I was nervous to start with but gained confidence being up there; I learnt how to tip and bank. The 360° views were amazing.”
Angela Fleet: “The detail was incredible, unbelievable. I don’t really like flying and felt a bit of motion sickness but would probably try it again.”
Char Niles: “Absolutely brilliant. It’s so great for women to have a go doing something they wouldn’t usually try. I would absolutely recommend it.”
Megan Peacock Coyle: “I used to fly in a glider with my father so this brought back some lovely memories. It was so much fun doing rolls and I want to learn how to take off and land next. My husband would be in heaven!”
Monique Edlinger: “Exhilarating and very realistic. I’ll definitely recommend this to friends!”
Millie Freeman: “I thought I would be the one holding the bottom of my seat doing a loop but it’s so incredibly calming and peaceful up there. You really feel like you’re up there soaring. Can’t wait to try a fighter jet next time.”
Dee Collins: “I can absolutely see how people would block out everything and get hooked into the VR experience. Loved the jet, shooting tanks and the whole experience.”
The Aviator Experience is open Monday to Saturday, or for groups by appointment.
Phone to book on 021 648 699, or visit www.theaviator.co.nz for information on prices*, vouchers (30 and 60 minute options) and concession passes.
For a range of corporate function ideas at the hangar, please call Craig, 021 648 699.
*If you mention mention focus you will get a 20% VIP discount on a flight experience or purchase of a gift voucher.