The closest thing to flying a real combat aircraft is thrilling hundreds of budding fighter aces in a hangar at Tauranga Airport.

Three years of work by Craig Saunders has gone into the unique flight simulator that use the latest in strap-on virtual reality technology.

The twin-seat setup, held in a transportable container, was the brainchild of Mr Saunders who designed the professionally-built seats and controls to lend a totally convincing edge to flying everything from a World War II Spitfire to the latest jet fighter.

"With the motors going and the virtual reality, it fills the brain - you are immersed."

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Mr Saunders said it was all pitched to provide an authentic experience, even down to the pilots being strapped into seats that held eight movement motors.

Set in a corner of the Solo Wings Aviation Centre in Dakota Way, his brainchild was already proving a hit without any proactive advertising. "It's all been word-of-mouth."

What sounded like a boast by Mr Saunders turned out to be no exaggeration.
"It feels like a real aircraft," he said before tempting me into the pilot's seat.

I strapped on the virtual reality headset and went for a blast through the heavens, flying upside down and even feeling a big jolt when I got too ambitious and was blasted out of the cockpit by the ejector seat. Looking up was a parachute.

The ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force technician has spent three years getting his simulator to its current stage of development, with the imported virtual reality software improving so rapidly that the sky was the limit for simulated flying.

Mr Saunders said it was a minimal cockpit because the headset put people into the aircraft. And like real flying, he said the secret was in small movements on the joystick.
Everything was designed to be convincing - down to the howling notes of a Spitfire's Merlin engine.

His twin-seat setup allowed friends or fathers and sons to engage in aerial combat, with even ex-RNZAF Skyhawk pilots remarking how it felt like being back in the cockpit.

Mr Saunders said there were other simulators around New Zealand that used virtual reality headsets, but none had the direct simulation and military feel that included replica Martin Baker ejector seats.

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He made a big effort to keep costs down even although the investment went well into six figures, with a half-hour flight starting at $50, dropping to $45 for the next flight and $40 thereafter. An hour's flight was $80, dropping to $65 and then settling at $50.

"I want people to say they can afford to come here."

Word of mouth has ensured a steady stream of bookings, even although The Aviation Experience has not even been officially launched.

"I went for something classy but professional," he said.

Mr Saunders, who holds a private pilot's licence, said the other seat could be converted to a helicopter simulator. He will look at getting Civil Aviation certification for the simulator and eventually plans to sell the cockpits.


The Aviation Experience
Where: Hangar 13, Dakota Way
Flight options: 30 minutes and 60 minutes
Cost: $45 to $80