Martin County Library system, north-west of Palm Beach, has six branches. A while ago, back in 2015, the system’s Director was looking for interesting ideas for her community-based libraries.
It happened that, with a love for flying, on a beautiful day in January, she decided to go see her county from the air and signed up for a discovery flight, one of those deals when you get to go up and fly around for a while. She sat in the back seat, giving her front seat to colleague and aviation lover George Seaman (AFSBI Member 001016), the library’s graphic designer. The director was so inspired by this experience that a few days later she called George up and told him she wanted a flight simulator setup at their Robert Morgade Library, by Indian River State College. When? Now, she said, in time for the grand opening of the IDEA Labs in March. The IDEA Labs, one in each of the system branches, specialize in different areas of STEM, one does robotics, one digital photography, a third home automation. Morgade was going flying!
Library staff is allowed to take 2% of their work hours to do something other than their usual job as long as it is still related to the library, George says. “So I got a good budget and did some research and I started buying what I needed to put together a public-use sim.”
“March 6 came, we had the grand opening of the Idea Labs and people flocked in in much higher numbers than we expected. I am actually based in a different branch” George explains, “but two days later they called me and asked me to come and provide a flight training program, and go back to my job once they had less people. That never happened. Fast forward to 2019, I still have 39 people on my waiting list. Today I have recruited 10 of my students as instructors and as the ‘responsible’ person around the sim. A total of 211 people signed up for lessons so far. The sim operates 8-9 hours a day and it’s in an open space in the library. Every walk-in can sit and use it.”
George has been with the library for 20 years and worked 25 years for the County. He has been using simulators since Artwick’s time “on an Atari” he says. Wanting to fly airplanes, he went for a medical but was denied due to color blindness, lack of depth perception. According to the AME, his eyes weren’t good enough. So he poured all his love of flying into his sim and has flown many others since the original one. Now he’s happily merging his passion with his work. It doesn’t get better.
Since the grand opening, George has developed a simulator training course which is based on his understanding of what people want to achieve at the library. “We want to make them comfortable first, so we start easy.”
He explains how his training course works. “We start instructing the very basics. What are airplane parts called? What do the controls do? We talk about control surfaces, forces in flight, and slightly more complex things like angle of attack. We describe each instrument.” So far so good. He goes on: “The first flying lesson is just about keeping the wings level. Then we go into altitude changes, turns, power changes, stalls, etc. Once they show me they can handle the airplane, we start doing approaches. Keeping heading correctly, lining up with the runway. Once they have the landing then we do cold starts, takeoffs, and more maneuvers.” Why landings before takeoffs? He explains: “We revert the process because we want students to feel comfortable maneuvering the plane and this is better done in the air first because it builds up their confidence faster. I had a woman who attempted her first landing and she nailed it in the first lesson, and she was so overjoyed that she burst into tears.” George looks for aptitude for flying as an indication whether to keep instructing students: “I had some students doing a solo flight in five hours, some others more, but if they can’t fly reasonably well after eight hours I’ll see if one of our volunteers can take them, and I start another student.” All students keep a logbook of their flights.
What’s the sim like? “I was originally given a budget of $3,000 to put the sim together. We used FSX on a license which we could use in the library environment. We bought Mad Catz (aka Saitek/Logitech) yoke, pedals, two radio stacks, the multi-switch, autopilot and annunciators, and the TPM quadrant. We only had one monitor, but we installed track IR. We used the stock C172 embellished by a beautiful custom livery with the county logo!”( George is particularly proud of the special livery).
As can be expected with daily public use, the sim is subject to quite a bit of wear and tear. Within about eight months of launching, the rudder pedals broke, and he could not replace them because they were already out of warranty. George continues: “One of our students donated a set of beautiful MFG Crosswind rudder pedals, which was the first enhancement to the original. Then a gentleman came and asked me to teach his wife to land a twin. The guy has a Beechcraft Duke, but he wanted his wife to learn the basics just in case something happened to him while flying. He was very impressed with the program and donated six flight instrument panels as well as X-Plane Professional. When the track IR died we bought three monitors, which is the setup we are currently operating in XP11.”
These two episodes started a long tradition of community-based help: “I had no budget beyond the initial investment, so everything is community driven. One student gave us $100 to buy parts. $200 came from the aunt of one of the kids I was training. This was a bittersweet story. Her sister, the mother of the child, was injured in a car accident and permanently impaired. It was very hard for him and his aunt needed something to get him distracted and involved in something other than his home situation. The sim did it! She said it was the first time in months that he smiled.”
What about transitioning from the sim to real flying? “Six of my student are pilots. I have one who is 15 y/o and he’s waiting to be of age to get his PPL. I had one age 92, an invasion of Normandy veteran. He always wanted to fly. He is now 93 and a half and comes every week to fly. Some local pilots who need to go through their biennial flight review come and fly around to practice. One of the volunteers had not flown for 20 years and passed her BFR after practicing.”
The library is a community activity center and they have a Flight Club. Their website explains: “The Flight Club consists of a group of simulator pilots who want to take this experience to a higher level. We will do this by holding meetings, finding guest speakers, creating challenges, and sharing experiences. Flight Club members are eager to share their passion for aviation and will help you learn to fly. Flight Club is open to all, not just flight simulator students.” The sim students meet the 2nd Saturday of the month and do things together. In one of the recent field trips they visited the sheriff ‘s department hangar. They have events for all type of community members. George once had their library room set with food arranged by headings. He says: “So we were doing a lesson on the compass and I would say: You have to walk heading 250 degrees to get to the pizza, then turn to 180 degrees to get to the drinks.” That was a yummy incentive to learn the compass.
Does this give you a lot of personal satisfaction? George “I am so stoked by this, it’s pure passion for me and many others. I have a guy who flies a Gulfstream worldwide, he comes and flies as much as he can, and teaches two hours every Tuesday morning.”
After these four years what would you change? “I would love to get a VR setup. I also would like to avoid the inevitable damage to the sim. At the moment you can just come in, sit and fly if the sim is free. We would like to get users to log in with a library card. We had an instructor who was scheduled to give a lesson, but somebody was using the sim and did not want to get off. The person became upset, so that made us think that we should use something to limit the use to 2 hours or so or alert the user if the sim is booked ahead of time for lessons.”
STEM seems to be a big part of what George tries to do with the simulator for the local youth. He has it figured out and even improved. “We added an A to STEM. STEA(art)M. Science is the physics of flying, Technology is the actual operation, radios, etc. Engineering, we are going to start next year with airfoil and aircraft maker, Art to make new liveries and paint jobs, and Math in flying, speeds, distances and fuel and also to keep up with flight management, financials, etc. It’s all there.”
“Last month in Orlando, the response at FSExpo2019 about our program was overwhelming, I have about 25 business cards from people who want to get involved. Navigraph, HiFi Active Sky, all want to establish some form of collaboration. FSExpo was a great event to meet people.”
Do you still think about flying real airplanes? George reveals: “I never became a pilot because I am color blind and lack depth perception and I thought that was it for me. But then this gentleman shows up and told me he knew an AME in Toledo. He said that I actually can get a license, and fly as a Sport Pilot, VFR only. You see, I git into sims because I thought I couldn’t fly, but now I know I can fly a real airplane too, if I want.”
Martin County Library system has found a unique combination of ingredients to please and interest people of all ages, and George has made it happen. We hope that this will inspire others to do something along these lines. After all, very few activities are so instructive, entertaining, engaging, rewarding and safe as sim flying.