Building on a teenage passion for aviation, James Stevenson founded a business leasing time on simulators. That training operation has since helped more then 1,000 pilots gain jobs with airlines over the past 10 years
Have you always been interested in aviation?
I started flying lessons at the age of 14, when I still needed a booster cushion to see out of the window! I was too young to go solo, so progress towards my private pilot’s licence felt painfully slow. At 15, I did work experience with a local air charter company, Tech Air, and that turned into a weekend and holiday job for the next two years.
It was great fun, invaluable experience, and it funded the flying lessons. The office we occupy now is built right on top of where Tech Air’s temporary office used to be.
Why did you start Virtual Aviation?
I realised a long time ago that I’m one of those people who just need to work for themselves. I was intrigued by flight simulation and persuaded British Airways to lease time on its flight simulators – and Virtual Aviation was born. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to turn my aviation passion into a profession.
How has the company evolved over the years?
We started out offering simulator experiences but soon moved into providing one-to-one simulator training for commercial pilots who needed to prepare for an upcoming airline assessment. We still do this, using full flight simulators throughout the UK, and have helped more than 1,000 pilots secure airline jobs in the past 10 years.
Nowadays, a large part of our business has become multi-crew co-operation (MCC) and jet orientation training. Instead of focusing only on the mandated syllabus, we aim to meet airlines’ requirements for new first officers.
Has your business faced many challenges?
Absolutely. For example, in January 2013, we seized an opportunity to acquire our own Boeing 737-800 flight simulator. It was brand new and had been installed at Cambridge airport a year earlier but had never been used. It had been repossessed and was due to be shipped back to the manufacturer when we made an offer to keep it there.
“Acquiring our own Boeing 737-800 flight simulator was a huge risk at the time”
It was a huge risk at the time; not just financially, but also because the simulator’s initial UK Civil Aviation Authority certification had expired a few weeks before we signed the lease. Over the next 18 months we succeeded in becoming a European Aviation Safety Agency-approved training organisation and achieved re-certification of the simulator.
In that time we also developed our own MCC and MCC-Instructor courses, which were awarded CAA approval in June 2014. It was a huge learning curve for us, but I don’t regret it for a moment. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith.
Tell us about your role?
Lately I’ve been working on the development of our Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 type rating courses, and on plans for a training centre at Stansted airport. I try to spend most of my time on strategy and product development.
What are the best aspects of your job?
The time I spend in the office doesn’t really feel like work. There’s a very relaxed atmosphere and it’s always fun, with instructors and students coming and going all day long. We have an amazing team, all of whom are passionate about aviation, and a 60-strong team of instructors whose dedication to helping other pilots is admirable.
How do you see the simulator training industry evolving?
The market should remain buoyant. There’s been a lot of consolidation, with simulator manufacturers buying training providers. But biggest isn’t always best. Smaller providers such as Virtual Aviation can offer greater flexibility and affordable, high-quality training – whether for individual pilots or airline customers.
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