Hoping to conquer a lifelong fear of flying, PETER BARRON meets a musical entrepreneur who's drumming up business by flying passengers all over the world - from a runway in a Darlington street...

RAIN is lashing against the windscreen of the Boeing 737-800, there are lightning flashes ahead, and we’re being buffeted by crosswinds as we take off from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I’m in the co-pilot’s seat, surrounded by a mesmerising array of switches, dials, and illuminated gauges, as we rise into the night sky over New York.

The stormy conditions would be enough to put even experienced passengers on edge, let alone those, like me, who break out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of boarding an aircraft.

I grip the seat as we bank to the left, and feel my heart-rate increase, before remembering that I’m actually on the ground floor of a fairly unremarkable building that doubles as a dance school in a Darlington back-street.

Welcome aboard Simfly Virtual Global Flying – a new business, launched by Stuie Ellerton, who is sitting next to me, a picture of authority in his smart captain’s uniform, as he calmly steers the plane through the storm.

“There’s nothing else like it – it’s a unique experience in the North-East,” smiles Stuie. “You can fly to anywhere in the world, night or day, in all kinds of weather conditions, and it’s as close to reality as you can get.”

Before New York, I’d been treated to a pleasant flight in the sunshine from Teesside International Airport and back, taking in the sights of my home patch.

The business has a serious side – to train pilots and help nervous fliers to overcome their fears. But there’s a fun side too, with scope to create memorable experiences for those celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or organising hen and stag parties.

Father-of-two Stuie is Darlington born and bred, best known locally for being a professional drummer who ran the Northern School of Contemporary Music in the town for years. But he’s also a qualified pilot, with a fascination for flying since childhood.

A drummer who doubles as a pilot – there could be no other headline than the title of the Phil Collins song known for its iconic drum fill, could there?

Stuie became fascinated with flying as an 11-year-old when he went on a family holiday to Sorrento and was allowed to go into the cockpit to meet the captain on the flight from Newcastle.

“I just thought ‘this is it’ – I’d caught the bug,” he recalls.

From then on, school projects were focused on aviation whenever possible. He even once wrote to NASA, asking questions about the Space Shuttle, and passed with flying colours when a reply came back, along with explanatory pamphlets that he was able to incorporate into his homework.

As a young man, he spent every penny he had on flying lessons with Teesside Aero Club, obtained his private pilot’s licence at 21, before attending commercial flight school in Bournemouth and completing his exams at Glasgow College of Aeronautical Science.

Sadly, his attempts to launch a career as an airline pilot coincided with the September 11 terrorist attacks, sparking a difficult period for the aviation industry, and jobs were hard to come by.

Instead, Stuie threw himself into his other passion – music. His mum and dad, Pete and Margaret, had a band called Boy Meets Girl, and Stu did his first drumming gig with them when he was eight. When the career in aviation didn’t materialise, music was the natural fallback position and he ran the Northern School of Contemporary Music for 15 years, and it still provides outreach services.

Simfly has provided a route back to flying and owes its existence to Stuie’s 14-year-old son, Joe, wanting to learn to fly. For his birthday, he had a trip to a flight simulator in Barnsley, and the operator happened to have a second simulator for sale.

With the support of a friend in business, Stuie bought it with a view to launching an immersive business back in Darlington. Other locations were considered but Stuie realised he had the ideal opportunity to set up the business at The Tiffany School of Dance building in Branskome Terrace, which had been the base for The Northern School of Contemporary Music.

An agreement was reached with the dance school owners, Tim and Rachael Pattison, and a 7 feet square hole was knocked through a wall to enable the flight simulator to be moved in, ready for the business to start to fly.

The experience starts with a departure lounge – complete with check-in desk and the traditional sounds of an airport – before advancing to another room with passenger seats and the cockpit. As well as Captain Ellerton, cabin crew Keeley Octon and Lilly Singleton, welcome passengers aboard.

Customers have different reasons for booking in – professional training, careers, and fun included – but, for me, it’s all about trying to calm my fears of flying. The services offered by the business include a Fear of Flying Day, from 10am to 3pm, for people like me.

As I young man, I caused a mid-air panic during a flight to Majorca when I looked out of the window and saw what I thought was a fire. Having loudly sounded the alert, a flight attendant had to sit me down and explain that it was merely the sun glinting off the wing.

“We don’t pretend to be doctors or psychiatrists, but the aim is to create a better understanding of what happens at various stages of flight, from the engine starting, to taxiing, take-off, cruising and landing,” says Stuie.

“There was one person who said they’d flown to Turkey and encountered turbulence on the way. They were so frightened, they refused to fly back and returned by ship instead. It’s a real problem and a lot of it comes down to misunderstanding, so we tell them about the unknowns.

“These are early days, and the pandemic hasn’t helped, of course, but we have regular customers coming back, and I’m sure it will grow steadily,” says Stuie.

Having spent a thoroughly enjoyable morning cruising over Teesside, then taking off in a storm from JFK, I’m feeling a whole lot better about flying.

And I, for one, hope Simfly takes off.