Sweaty palms attest to the reality of the simulator. I couldn’t keep my F-16 fighter jet on the DIA runway centerline during the takeoff roll. But the plane took off anyway—one of several concessions to the “-tainment” part of the “edutainment” equation. Another such concession is that a plane that craters during landing immediately “pops up” again at the same speed parallel to the ground.
The simulation got very real during a loop maneuver. I became disoriented and couldn’t find the ground for several seconds, hanging upside down all the while. The loops and rolls are not simulated. The simulator provides full movement along two axes (pitch and roll but no yaw). With a throttle and joystick, pilots can choose among 10 “intensity levels,” flying as gently or as aggressively as desired engaging in dogfights or just enjoying the scenery. In my five minutes, I couldn’t return to DIA quickly enough to try a touch-and-go but I did get to sweep past downtown Denver skyscrapers in total violation of real-world airspace rules. Mission accomplished: edu-tainment attained.
The new MaxFlight simulator at Wings Over the Rockies gives visitors their own wings. For that matter, it’s wings over downtown Denver skyscrapers, Coors field, Stapleton, the foothills, DIA—anywhere your joystick can take you in five minutes at $7.50 per flight. The two-seater moves, pitches and rolls while the “pilot” navigates in reference to visuals projected through the cockpit window.
The simulator pilot can choose among 10 rides, the most intense of which is similar to a roller coaster. Aerial combat is also one of the options. Those wanting a more sedate experience can choose to fly a 737 airline. Simulator pilots can also choose among different venues including Denver, Honolulu, San Francisco and the Grand Canyon. The $150,000 MaxFlight machine was acquired through a donation by the son of a stunt pilot named Ben Lowell who wanted to honor his father. Visitors who want to extend their simulator experience can rent the Aviation Xtreme facility and engage in dogfights or fly in formation with other participants in a group exercise.
The “wildly popular” aerobatic simulator is the most recent new exhibit at Wings Over the Rockies, says new COO Mark Hyatt. It is emblematic of new energy at the museum. It is bringing in more visitors, it is increasing overall revenues and it is helping change the image of the museum as a place with static displays of famous aircraft to one that is a hub of activity. Hyatt is especially excited about the growth in educational offerings, ranging from flights for STEM teachers in a Stearman bi-plane to a charter middle school, Wings Aerospace Academy (WAA), serving 47 students.
WAA offers a “blended learning” format, flipping the usual regime: students do their academics online at home and their “homework” at school, i.e., the museum. There, they do hands-on learning with their mentor teachers. Hyatt: “I’ve had two plane kits donated and the kids will build them.” WAA is tuition-free. In the fall, the program will expand to grades five through nine. The goal is to add one grade each year until the program reaches through 12th grade with the class of 2020 being the first graduating class.
Hyatt, who started at Wings in February 2015, has brought in one new exhibit a month during his tenure. The retired Air Force colonel, who graduated from the Air Force Academy and served as a fighter pilot, says his job is “to make this good museum a great museum.” In retirement, Hyatt has focused on education including service as the executive director of the Colorado Charter Schools Institute.
Its 160,000-square-foot Hangar One space is crammed full of military aircraft, traveling exhibits, uniform and equipment displays, the Harrison Ford Theater, the Apollo 13 space capsule, and unique items such as the Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter used in several Star Wars movie releases. Funds earned from the sale of Hangar 2 were used to purchase 15 acres of land at Centennial Airport. The “Wings for Tomorrow” master plan calls for the Lowry site to be the museum’s “heritage center” with Centennial to be its vocational technology center for hands-on learning. It will be called Exploration of Flight.
And then there are the events, the museum’s major source of revenue. This year, 193 events will be held including the November 5 Spreading Wings Gala to honor America’s living fighter aces. Hyatt points out that changes in technology such as drones make it very unlikely that the U.S. will have any aces in the future.
All the growth metrics for the museum are up: visitors (165,000 in 2015 compared with 135,000 in 2014), memberships (up 25% over the same time period), volunteer hours (27,428) and number of events (193). By comparison, the museum’s 2006 annual report listed regular admissions at less than 35,000. For the 21-year-old museum, 2015 represented big steps forward in delivering on its mission: to educate and inspire people of all ages about aviation and space endeavors of the past, present and future. Wings Over the Rockies is Colorado’s official air and space museum.
Hyatt speaks like an urban planner when he calls his vision for the museum a “third place” for Lowry and its neighborhoods. He explains that third places supplement home and work and are places “to do things, to hang out. I’d like to put in a coffee shop not to make money but to give people a place to go.” With a staff of 20 and a budget exceeding $4 million, the museum is poised for continuing growth and program expansion.