Flying High: SBDC Helps Aviation Business Stay Strong

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November 10, 2020

As a pilot for more than 30 years, Steve Cunningham knows all too well what it feels like to be a mile high and cruising blissfully among the clouds. As an instructor and the owner of National Flight Simulator (NFS) in Manchester, he also knows the importance of being prepared for unexpected turbulence.

With the help of the NH SBDC, Steve was able to navigate the rough weather COVID-19 has brought and keep his business operating during a turbulent time for many small businesses, especially in the airline industry.

“It was life-saving,” Steve says of the guidance provided by Andrea O’Brien, an advisor and director of the SBDC’s Business Sustainability Program. “We would have been out of business.”

With O’Brien’s guidance, NFS successfully applied for and received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and funding through the Paycheck Protection Program.

"We had shut down. Everything came to a screeching halt," Steve says. "Those funds allowed us to maintain our staff."

NFS, the only aviation training center in New England approved by the insurance companies that require annual training for corporate pilots to maintain their licenses, grew during the pandemic. NFS is an FAA-approved training center that uses sophisticated simulators to replicate the cockpit and simulate flying conditions.

Texas and Florida are home to most of the businesses in the industry, “but those are still hot spots that people are not going down to,” Steve says. Instead, more pilots started finding NFS to get their training.

The increase of business domestically helped offset the loss of business internationally, which includes training pilots for the Ecuadorian and Colombian militaries.

While 2020 tested Steve’s resolve, it also brought him recognition. National Flight Simulator was named New Hampshire’s Veteran-Owned Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. He employs three veterans full time and eight of the NFS instructors are veterans.

The award, which Steve says he was humbled to receive, is a fitting tribute to someone whose life is rooted in service to his country and a love for aviation.

Steve, 78, served in the U.S. Air Force as a mechanic. He is one of three brothers who served in the USAF. His fascination with planes started as a young boy growing up in rural New York.

“I remember seeing a plane flying over a field and I was enamored by it,” Steve says. “The fascination never left.”

After serving in the military, earning a degree at UNH, and managing Boys & Girls Clubs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for 22 years, Steve realized his boyhood dream of flying by obtaining his pilot's license at nearly 50 years old.

"It was a burning desire of mine," Steve says. "The kids were in college and my wife had completed graduate school. She said, ‘Now, it’s your turn.”

He bought into a plane with a friend and used it to fly to see clients for a consulting service he had started for non-profit businesses. He immersed himself in the world of aviation, becoming president and CEO of the U.S. Aerobatic Foundation, the fundraising arm of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, before founding National Flight Simulator (then known as Nashua Flight Simulator) in 2006. He started with one simulator and was based out of a hangar at the Nashua airport.

The company survived the 2008 recession, experienced double-digit growth in 2009 and eventually moved to its current location at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

Now, after meeting another challenge with the guidance of SBDC, Steve is ready to grow National Flight Simulator again.

“We want to get this thing solid again post-COVID,” Steve says. “We want to upgrade our simulator, upgrade our technology. There’s room for expansion.”

For more information on putting together a sustainable plan to grow your business, go to nhsbdc.org and get paired with an advisor.

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