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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Dunedin flight simulator business wants to spread wings


Published:

DUNEDIN — The roar of the jet engine quiets as Eugene Allen decreases the throttle on the Boeing 737 and begins his descent to Tampa International Airport.

Allen had flown smaller, twin-engine planes years ago, but he’s not accustomed to handling a massive jetliner like this.

“I know you want to pull, but don’t,” says co-pilot Peter Repak, as the runway comes into view.

Allen keeps the controls steady, and the cockpit bumps for a brief second as he touches down.

“Welcome to Tampa International Airport,” says Repak.

The cockpit is appointed with every light, lever and dial a pilot would find in a commercial airliner. In fact, Repak’s flight simulator is so realistic that it passes Federal Aviation Administration training standards.

“This is more than I ever dreamed of,” said Allen, who lives near Lake Wales.

Repak’s business, Sim Center Tampa Bay, gets similar rave reviews on TripAdvisor for his collection of simulators, which also include an F-16, F-35 and a Formula One race car.

The problem is, hardly anyone can find him tucked away on the bottom floor of an office building on the outskirts of Dunedin.

That’s why Repak wants to move his flight simulator business to a high traffic thoroughfare such as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater or possibly downtown St. Petersburg, where he hopes to tie his attraction to the city’s legacy as the birthplace of commercial aviation.

Business leaders say it would be an ideal high-end attraction to complement downtown’s many restaurants, museums and theaters.

“What a great attraction that would be for our downtown,” said St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher, who has tried the simulators.

“It’s a high-end attraction, and it definitely celebrates something we’re very proud of here in St. Pete, which is the birth of commercial aviation.”

Repak has spent 20 years working on his simulators.

When he emigrated with his wife from Hungary to the Clearwater area in the 1990s, he dreamed of owning his own plane. He even considered trying to join the Air Force.

Repak earned his private pilot license flying out of St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport but ultimately turned his passion for aviation toward entertainment.

Since opening two years ago, the business has drawn everyone from nine-year-old boys to 90-year-old World War II veterans.

They’ve found the Sim Center on the web through sites such as TripAdvisor, where customers have helped the business rise in the rankings ahead of long-standing area attractions such as Caladesi Island.

Still, many customers drive right by the business’ nondescript location at 1299 Main St.

A busy corner on Gulf-to-Bay in Clearwater would be a much better spot for getting the attention of tourists, Repak said.

St. Petersburg could be even better, as both the home of the annual Honda Grand Prix street race and the site of the first commercial airline flight in 1914, piloted by Tony Jannus.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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