Flags from around the world line a long hallway at the FlightSafety International Hawker Beechcraft Pilot Learning Center in east Wichita.
They represent the countries of the pilots who come to the center for training.
Wichita is FlightSafety's largest location, and the number of international customers who come to its five pilot and maintenance training facilities here — which provide training for Hawker Beechcraft, Cessna and Learjet aircraft — is growing.
Last year, 9,400 people came to Wichita for training — many of them more than once — staying anywhere from four days to three weeks.
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They booked 66,000 nights in Wichita hotels, rented cars, frequented restaurants and shopped in local stores, company officials said.
"It's truly amazing," said Rich High, manager of the Wichita Cessna Learning Center. "It's just a good business for Wichita."
A third of FlightSafety's Wichita customers last year came from outside the U.S. That's up from the year before, spokesman Steve Phillips said. At the Wichita Cessna Learning Center, half are from outside the U.S., up from about 40 percent in 2008.
Customers come from just about every country around the world, High said.
Last week, for example, the Cessna Learning Center hosted clients from Nepal, India, Mexico, Brazil, England, Australia, Israel, Egypt, Italy and Turkey.
"And it changes every week," High said.
The number of international customers at FlightSafety is rising as planemakers sell more aircraft to customers outside the U.S.
More than half of the business jets delivered last year went to international customers, according to figures from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
"As that (international) market continues to mature, it will be a higher and higher percentage (of business)," said Eric Hinson, FlightSafety executive vice president.
Still, the U.S. business remains important. Nearly 70 percent of all aircraft in the world are operated in North America, Hinson notes.
Effects of recession
Just like the planemakers, business at FlightSafety has been affected by the recession.
The number of people coming to Wichita for training last year was down about 10 percent from the year before.
Some flight departments reduced their flying or sold their planes. Some companies laid off pilots.
Sales at Wichita's three aircraft manufacturers have plummeted, thus, the number of pilots needing training on their equipment has fallen.
The downturn also has provided some opportunities.
Some flight departments took advantage of the economy to use their airplanes to win business and get ahead of their competition, High said. Some decided to buy aircraft because prices are lower.
"Every time an airplane changes hands, training is required," High said.
And although flight hours may be down, pilots still need to keep up on training.
"If you have pilots flying 400 hours a year or 200 hours a year, you still have to have training," Hinson said.
At the Cessna Learning Center, business seems to have stabilized, he said.
"I'm absolutely hoping that we're going to see an increase (in business) this year," High said.
FlightSafety International, based at the LaGuardia Airport in Flushing, N.Y., started in 1951 and is now a division of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.
Today, it operates 491 training devices, including 297 simulators at 40 centers in the U.S., Canada, France, Japan and the United Kingdom.
The company opened its first Wichita facility, the Learjet Learning Center, in 1971. That was followed by Cessna Citation Learning Center in 1976 and a Beechcraft Learning Center in 1987.
FlightSafety provides more than a million hours of training every year.
It trains pilots, aircraft maintenance technicians, flight attendants and flight dispatchers. It develops the classroom instructional systems and materials.
It also designs and builds the classroom-based desktop and full-motion simulators for a variety of business and commercial aircraft used in the training.
The full-motion simulators reproduce many of the sights, movements and control responses of the aircraft through take-off, flight and landing. Instructors can replicate emergency or various weather situations.
FlightSafety operates about 40 simulators and flight training devices in Wichita.
When the economy was strong, FlightSafety had been planning to build a new Cessna pilot center or expand the existing one.
For now, that's been put on hold.
"We still have that plan and that idea there," Phillips said. "We will do it when the time is right."
The Cessna center has installed a Citation CJ4 simulator to train pilots on Cessna's latest business jet. Cessna expects to achieve certification and deliver the first jet soon.
Last year, the Learjet facility was expanded to accommodate a new Learjet 45 simulator.
The biggest expansion was at Hawker Beechcraft, however.
The company held a ribbon cutting at its new 44,000-square-foot Hawker Beechcraft Maintenance Learning Center last month. FlightSafety also increased the size of its Hawker Beechcraft pilot center, adding room for six additional full-motion simulators that train pilots in various types of aircraft.
The maintenance center at 1009 N. Greenwich Road houses 10 classrooms, graphical flight-deck simulators, composites and cabin system laboratories and runway access to the 10,000-square-foot hangar.
On a recent day, the hangar housed a Hawker 4000, Beech 1900 and Hawker 750 donated for use by Hawker Beechcraft.
The planes will allow technicians to get hands-on experience beyond the classroom training.
Using graphical flight simulators, they can watch and learn the intricacies of the systems, such as fuel flow.
Instructors can then fail a part of the system, such as a fuel pump, to help with the training.
"So they get cockpit-based trouble shooting," said Bill Magyar, manager of the Wichita Hawker Beechcraft Maintenance Learning Center.
The center has held two training classes since it opened in November. Another begins in mid-March.
The curriculum was jointly developed to combine Hawker Beechcraft's experience in aircraft design, manufacturing and support with FlightSafety's experience in aviation training, the companies said.
"This is really a visionary step that FlightSafety has taken," Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture said of the new facility at its ribbon cutting. "It's a real opportunity to be here."