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Monday, February 27, 2006

Canadian Simulator Maker Uses Discards From Arizona Desert

Old aircraft live again in the hands of Canada's Mechtronix Systems.

For the last 18 months, Montr顬-based Mechtronix has been fashioning full flight simulators out of real cockpits rescued from aircraft consigned to desert storage and scrap heaps.

While Mechtronix has been mining the Arizona desert for airplanes ranging from the Boeing [BA] 737 to ATRs, the company has found foreign markets more receptive to its sales pitches. Mechtronix's key pitch is cost savings. Its simulators cost about $6 million, or less than half the price of simulator produced by CAE [CAE] or Flight Safety International. The Mechtronix simulator requires a team of two instead of a small army, said Xavier Herve, the company's president.

Since it began marketing trainers eight years ago, Herve said the company has built about 150 trainers or simulators. It has gone to the mothballed aircraft in the desert for about half of its devices.

Its product lines range from computer desktop trainers to its fully accredited full flight simulators. Mechtronix makes zero flight time simulators and non-zero flight time simulators, both belonging to a family of technology the company calls FFS X.

Last week, Mechtronix announced it sold a full flight trainer to ATR to be used in its regional training center in India. ATR purchased the trainer, which can easily be configured for the ATR-42-300, ATR-42-500, ATR-72-200 and the ATR-72-500, to train Air Deccan's pilots. The Indian carrier has 30 ATR-72s on order.

The trainer that ATR has purchased will be used in non-motion initial and recurrent training prior to pilots training in the full motion environment of a simulator.

In the last year, Mechtronix sold a recurrent flight simulator to Copa Airlines of Panama. The Boeing 737 simulator allows the Copa pilots to complete 80 percent of their basic training and 100 percent of their recurrent training without leaving the country. The simulator is saving money because recurrent training accounts for the greatest percentage of an airline's training budget.

In its first foray into business aviation, Mechtronix sold two full flight simulators based on the Cessna CJ1 to the largest pilot training center in China - the Civil Aviation Flight University of China

In addition to the ATR simulators, Mechtronix offers a simulator for the Bombardier [BBD] CRJ 200. It is also looking into a combination CRJ 700/900 simulator.

While Mechtronix markets minor trainers for Embraer [ERJ] RJs, it does not offer a full simulator. Because of agreements Embraer already has with Flight Safety and others, Herve said it is very difficult to make "full blown trainers."

Mechtronix's method of building and operating a simulator differs dramatically from what had been the industry's norm.

"The classic way was that you stimulated an airplane [through the use of hydraulics] and made the airplane believe it was flying," Herve said. "Thus, the pilot in the plane then believed he was flying. We don't create an environment that stimulates the plane. We create an environment that truly simulates the plane. The end objective is to make the pilot feel he is flying - whether he is really in a plane or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that pilot feels he is in the plane.

"We don't use hydraulics. We still have to bounce the box around. We use off the shelf electrical stuff. It just plugs into the wall." The flight simulators for the recurrent training are cheaper because Mechtronix uses off-the-shelf equipment instead of expensive avionics. "It is software," he said. "It is all computers."

The construction process also holds down the costs.

"Others look at each simulator as a project. We look at it as a product that comes off an assembly line. It is all off-self," Herve said.

The Montreal plant employs about 150 workers. The plant's capacity was increased last year so that it can build 12 full flight simulators a year.

The flight simulators used by U.S. airlines for recurrent pilot training generally cost between $11 million and $13 million. These simulators, sometimes referred to as Level D technology, traditionally use high-pressure industrial hydraulics that must be housed in buildings with certain architectural requirements. The Mechtronix simulators fit into a standard sized building and the simulators only need two computer technicians. This allows airlines to move their recurrent pilot training in-house, he said.

For half a day of recurrent training, pilots frequently lose three days of flying time. A pilot often flies to a training center one day, undergoes the training the next day and flies home the next. If pilots are gone for only a half a day for the actual training, an airline can either fly more or use fewer pilots. The cost savings in less down time for the pilots and reduced travel expenses are part of Herve's pitch.

Because of the unsettled nature of the U.S. commercial aviation market, neither a mainline nor a regional carrier has purchased a Mechtronix simulator.

"The U.S. regionals have been in such a slump for the last two years," Herve said. "I think the U.S. market will take off in the next 12 months. Up to now, there has been so much restructuring. We get phone calls from people who want to talk, but in the end there are no orders.

"What will structure a new training program is a fleet change. Otherwise, they already have their training centers."

While business aviation is a fast growing and potentially a lucrative market, Herve said most owners of business jets don't want to be saddled with a training program, let alone the equipment needed to support it. The corporate pilots go to training hubs for their initial and recurrent training.

However, Mechtronix's equipment - with the lower initial costs and lower operating costs - are "ideally suited for third-party training centers," he said. "I can't wait for those in business aviation to come see the CJ1s once they are in operation in China."

>>Contact: Xavier Herve, Mechtronix Systems, (212) 651-4236.<<

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