Business Traveller went along to British Airways’ flight training centre at Cranebank to try out one of its state-of-the-art flight simulators, which are open for public bookings.
First Impressions Inside the 1960’s Cranebank campus near Heathrow BA houses 15 full motion flight simulators, worth £10 million each, ranging from B737s to jumbo jets. These simulators are used to train professional pilots and are ‘zero flight time’ meaning a pilot can go straight from simulator to piloting a full commercial aircraft.
The simulators can be adjusted for different weather conditions, cross winds, visibility and to take off or land at various airports around the world. Pilots are legally obliged to get in the simulators every six months to test themselves against all eventualities, including engine failure.
No pressure then. However my nerves were soon calmed by Andy Clubb from the flight training department at BA, who informed me that no matter how poor my performance in the simulator I would not be able to hurt the machinery, or myself, just my pride.
Where is it? I arrived for my session at Hatton Cross station, on the Piccadilly line before boarding the complimentary British Airways staff shuttle BA1 outside to take me in to Cranebank, passing through a barrier and past some derelict sheds and food vans set amongst the dense surrounding foliage. For those who would rather drive there is parking available.
On arrival I showed my ID at security before entering the gates and taking a seat in the small waiting room and waited for Andy, who took me to the staff cafeteria to grab a quick coffee before we set off.
What’s it like? I was undertaking my session with one other journalist, and once he arrived we were marched through the labyrinthine corridors to meet our pilot for the morning, senior first officer Stewart Highet. A few brief safety notes and we were moving through the corridors again before reaching our B747 simulator, a large white pod set on stilts that resembles something you would expect to see at NASA.
We crossed the retractable bridge and entered the cockpit, an almost exact replica of what you would find on any one of BA’s 57 jumbo jets. I went first and arranged my seat before admiring the 180-degree visuals up ahead. Ahead of me was a moving representation of runway 27 Left at London Heathrow, complete with terminal buildings, stationary aircrafts, moving traffic on the Bath road to my left and twinkling stars overhead. The sounds and movements of the simulator are hugely convincing and every little movement of the controls can be felt as if you are travelling through the air. Once in motion it really is easy to become engrossed by the experience and the adrenaline started pumping.
Stewart dealt with the more fiddly jobs and instructed me for takeoff. My job was to keep the aircraft straight using the two rudder pedals below before lifting the controls for takeoff, and then trying to keep it fairly level before banking around to the right. We then engaged the auto pilot so I could receive further instructions and Stewart could adjust our speed and altitude.
We did some cruising and as Stewart set our course I did the steering, keeping the plane in between two intersecting lines on the display screen below. The steering is surprisingly responsive considering it is 250 tonnes of aircraft but I soon got the hang of it, all those hours on my Playstation finally coming to some use.
Now came the scary part, landing. Luckily Stewart had been kind to me and not set any adverse weather conditions. We had banked round and were coming back in to Heathrow, fortunately there was no virtual queue of aircrafts to contend with.
I had little time to admire the virtual sights of London down below, provided by Google, as I had to keep the aircraft on line and level as we approached the runway. I was then told that I would have to look out to the front and listen out to the audio distance prompts in order to land.
Once we were near to the ground I had to flare the aircraft by pulling up on the controls at the vital moment to ensure a smooth landing, and before I knew it we were down safe without a bump. I then had to use the rudder pedals again to keep the aircraft straight and apply the foot brake until we came to a complete stop, right outside a brightly lit Terminal 5.
Just to make sure it wasn’t beginner’s luck Stewart reset the simulator for final approach so I could land again, this time I landed with a bit of a thud but there were no virtual fire engines rushing to the scene so I think I had got it down safely.
Just when I felt like I was getting the hang of it and could take on a 12-hour sector to Hong Kong my time was up and my partner had a go at the same procedures.
Verdict All in all this was an enjoyable and illuminating experience. The simulator is hugely convincing and produces a genuine adrenaline rush. This is a must for anyone out there who has ever dreamt of piloting a commercial aircraft or is just curious about what happens up there in the cockpit.
Price The experience isn't cheap, starting at £399 for one hour in a short-haul aircraft to £449 for long-haul such as a Boeing 747 jumbo-jet. Two and three hour flights are also available, with three hours in a jumbo costing £1,347. Bookings must be made 30 days in advance and you are permitted to take one guest.
Contact ebaft.com. Bookings made by November 30, 2012 can take advantage of a 15 per cent discount by entering the discount code SANTA in the promotional code box.