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Located next to London's Heathrow Airport, the British Airways Global Learning Academy houses 15 simulators where the airliner's 3,800 pilots train regularly to refresh their skills.

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The sims, each designed for one of the seven aircraft types BA flies, stretch the length of the immense and spotless room.

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The round portion on the front of the sim can project a simulation for almost anywhere in the world.

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Each sim is designed to exactly match the cockpit of a real airliner. In this 747 sim that I flew, you can see the same throttles, control columns and flight information displays that a BA pilot would use to fly paying passengers.

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Above our heads was a mass of switches to control the 747's internal systems like hydraulics, electronics and passenger comfort systems. Fortunately, I didn't have to learn each one for my first flight.

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My host, Mark Vanhoenacker, a senior first officer for British Airways, walks me through the major systems as we prepare for our flight.

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Don't press this button unless you really, really need to.

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As the session begins, we're lined up for takeoff on Heathrow's Runway 27L at dusk. The virtual display is incredibly realistic; you can even recognized the airlines parked at the terminals.

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After I release the brakes, Mark pulls back on the throttle levers.

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My job is to keep us on the centerline as we accelerate down the runway. As you use foot pedals to steer, that wasn't easy. But seconds later I pull back on the control column and we're off.

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After ascending to about 4,000 feet, I turn us around for a scenic flight over central London.

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As I turn the plane with the control column and rudder pedals, the horizon dips and London is ahead.

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Next it's time for a tour through the basic controls while we fly toward the lights of London.

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Don't worry, we're on autopilot.

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When it's time to turn back to Heathrow I tell the automatic pilot what to do and let it do the work for me. All it takes is to turn the dial on the center console to the new heading.

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As we line up for landing on the runway we left shortly before, Vanhoenacker handles the engines and flaps while I try (mostly successfuly) to keep us on course.

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You enter the simulators through thin bridges that run to a walkway that runs the length of the room. When a training session starts, the bridge raises like drawbridge so the sim can move in all directions. Here's a sim for an Airbus A380.

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The sims are also impressive machines when viewed from below.

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As the training sessions transpire, the sims tilt to mimic the movement of an aircraft and the feeling of acceleration. The bridge to the sim on the left is in the raised position.

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As a sim tilts back, it mimics not just the feeling of ascent, but also acceleration by pressing you back into your seat.

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Of course, airplanes also descend.

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Vanhoenacker stands in front of one of the company's 747s parked on the edge of Heathrow at the airline's maintenance base.

Caption by / Photo by Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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