The runway at Martin State Airport fell away as the distant Baltimore skyline popped into view. A hint of turbulence jittered the pilot's seat during a banking maneuver that filled the cockpit windshield with the vast blueness of the Chesapeake Bay.
After a quick series of adjustments and a moment of indecision came the satisfying thump of wheels touching down.
It felt mighty good to be back on the ground. But then again, the student never left.
At Middle River Aviation, instructors can teach the fundamentals of flight in an airplane or in a new full-motion simulator that pitches and rolls in every direction — even straight into a death spiral. The Redbird simulator lets the user pick the airport, the weather conditions and the catastrophe to overcome.
"It's pretty doggone realistic," said Dan Faoro, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "You can almost make yourself airsick."
The $100,000 trainer — the only one of its kind in Maryland — helps trim the cost of getting a pilot's certificate. It also can assist lapsed pilots trying to regain skills or train those looking for a license upgrade.
"Flying isn't expensive. Learning to fly is expensive," said Kevin Walsh, president of the four-decade-old Middle River Aviation.
The company's co-owner, Vince Talbert, is an education advocate who has another mission for the simulator: bringing to life the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for school students and maybe finding a pilot or two among them.
"When we had the big moon missions, there was a lot of excitement and interest in flying. If more kids could experience flying, it would turn on that light again," said Talbert, who hopes to launch a one-week flight camp this summer.
Talbert got his pilot's certificate in 2009, one year after he sold his online payment company, Bill Me Later, to PayPal, an eBay subsidiary, for nearly $1 billion. Talbert partnered with Walsh to buy the flight school.
Depending on the aptitude of a student, it costs at least $9,000 to obtain a private pilot's certificate. An instrument rating can cost an additional $8,000.
For $80 an hour and without leaving the ground, a student can get the basics with an instructor in the right-hand seat on Middle River's simulator.
"It gives you the ability to hit the pause button, talk to the instructor or go to the whiteboard to work out a problem and then continue the flight," Walsh said. "It allows you to learn procedures and develop that muscle memory so that you react to a situation quickly."
Students can apply 21/2 hours of simulator flying to the 40 hours of flight time needed for a private pilot certificate. Fliers upgrading their skills with an instrument rating can do all of their training in the simulator, reducing the cost by about half.
"Electricity is cheaper than fuel," Walsh said. "You can practice to your heart's content before you try it in a plane."
It's never been tougher to be a private pilot. High fuel prices, corporate cutbacks that include the company plane, and the slowly recovering economy have become banes of general aviation.
A recent report by the Maryland Aviation Administration noted that between 2006 and 2012, nearly half of the state's 35 general aviation airports saw a decrease in the number of flights. Easton Airport, the state's busiest in 2006, lost nearly 70 percent of its traffic in six years. Frederick Municipal Airport dropped 24 percent. Even with the Maryland Air National Guard and the State Police aviation unit based there, Martin State activity dropped 29 percent and 74 aircraft left.
"It's not just Maryland. It's the same everywhere across the country," said Steve Hedges, spokesman for the Frederick-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents and promotes general aviation interests.
The average age of a pilot is 48, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The number of active pilots of all types has declined from a high of 827,071 in 1980 to 625,581 in 2000 to about 618,660 in 2011.
Just last week, Cessna Aircraft Co. announced it was offering early retirement to an unspecified number of its 8,200 workers.
"If we don't do something, we're going to die," Walsh said.
The aviation industry and flying enthusiasts are grabbing onto innovations like Redbird Flight Simulations, the brainchild of former Dell executive Jerry Gregoire. The Texas-based company has rolled out a line of simulators, from desktop models to large capsules like the one at Middle River that look like something suitable for NASA training. Prices start at $7,000.
Middle River Aviation took delivery of its Redbird in February.
"Flight schools are not a hugely lucrative field," Talbert said. "Flying is a passion and the money I made on Bill Me Later allowed me to pursue that passion."
Now the Towson University graduate wants to ignite that passion in schoolchildren and at the same time provide an avenue to learn the curriculum in an engaging way. His one-week flight camp will touch on all the subjects as they relate to flying. The camp will end with a real flight.
"Everyone has to take the test, but there are many ways to learn the material. I envision a world where the material is taught in multiple formats," said Talbert, a member of Towson's Board of Visitors and a board member at the Digital Harbor Foundation. "I don't want them just to be sitting behind a computer. I want them fired up."