This is what aviators call a ’steep takeoff angle,’ an apt metaphor for Labs’ company, Paradigm Shift Solutions, which designs and manufactures cockpit simulators for pilot training schools. Founded in 2004, Paradigm has made a remarkably rapid ascent in a competitive industry. And it’s still gaining altitude.
“We stand out because of our price point,” says Labs. “Our simulators have the same high quality and high fidelity as our competitors’ products, but ours cost about half as much.” This has made her machines extremely appealing to private flight schools and university-based aviation programs, which have scrambled in recent years to meet surging demand for pilot training, driven by post-9/11 changes in the airline industry. Along with tighter security regulations and beefed-up certification requirements for pilots and instructors, airlines have increased the number of flights serving smaller regional airports by flying smaller planes. For this, they need more pilots. On top of that, novice pilots have to master ever-more-advanced cockpit technology.
All these factors have driven the cost of flight training sky high, creating a growing niche for Paradigm’s affordable products.
“Simulators are faster and cheaper to learn in,” Labs explains, “and they’re a lower-stress environment.”
Although her father spent about 30 years as a machinist and engineer at Buckley Air Force base in Aurora, Colo., the most influential advice he gave her had nothing to do with aviation. “He once said, ‘My only regret in life is not working for myself.’ He doesn’t remember saying it, but it’s something that always stuck,” says Labs. His penchant for applied, hands-on engineering also stuck.
“He was always working on cars,” says Labs. “His specialty was ’57 Chevys. When I was growing up, there were always 10 or 20 junked-out Chevys in our backyard. He had a lathe and a mill and a welding gun, so I got familiar with those things growing up.”
She now uses these tools routinely to perfect her simulator designs, which contain exact cockpit replicas of specific airplane models (such as the Cessna 172 or Cirrus SR20). Every component of the interior is faithfully reproduced, from the programmable instruments on the dashboard right down to the seatbelts. Labs designs each element from a 3D scan of the actual part, and then crafts prototypes to ensure that her assemblies offer authentic function and feel.
For example, an airplane’s flight controls, or yoke, exert varying degrees of resistance, depending on speed, altitude and other factors. Labs reproduces these forces in the simulator’s flight controls via a control-loading feature driven by rotary servomotors.
From the simulator cockpit, pilots look through a virtual ‘windshield’ that displays a streaming, true-to-life visual field generated by three projectors. Based on satellite imagery and GPS data, these extraordinarily detailed scenescapes are custom-designed to match the environs of each client’s airport.
“They’ll see the exact runway markers and taxiway signs that they’ll see when they’re out on the airfield in a real plane,” Labs says. “If there’s a golf course off to the right on final approach, you’ll see it in the simulator as it would look from the air.”
Although not a pilot herself, Labs has one close at hand for advice, her husband (and Paradigm partner) Jesse Schoonover, a longtime pilot instructor who used to operate a flight school at Front Range Airport.
It was Jesse who first recognized the market opportunity for affordable simulators.
“After 9/11, the airlines had to ‘right-size’ a lot of their routes,” says Labs. “Instead of carrying half-full 737s, they started using 50- and 75-seat jets, with shorter hops and more flexible schedules.”
Regional jets share of commercial traffic tripled during the last decade, and they now carry roughly 50 percent of the overall passenger load. The result has been a flood of new openings for regional jet pilots and a corresponding flood of aviators seeking the flight training necessary to compete for those jobs.
Their first simulator was a Canada Regional Jet CRJ-200. Paradigm later added simulators for single-engine Cessna, Cirrus and Diamond aircraft. In 2014, they will ship their first air traffic control simulator, which will enable trainees to track and direct simulated planes in real time. And the company is already looking ahead to the next growth opportunity in flight training: commercial drones.
Labs didn’t focus specifically on aeronautics or aircraft engineering at Mines, but she says she applies her education on a daily basis. “It was invaluable,” she says. “Mines prepared me for the fundamental hard work that’s necessary to build a company. I learned how to problem-solve, how to focus on a project and get it done.”
With Paradigm now safely aloft, Labs can ease off on the throttle just a tad. But don’t expect her to go on autopilot anytime soon.