To fly the world's largest airliner you need courage, patience and the skill to master a small control stick.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Just when I thought that piloting a commercial aircraft was difficult enough, I've now taken my turn at the controls of a giant Airbus A380. OK, it was only a simulator again. But as I wrote in April when I flew a Boeing 747-400 over London, a simulator is as real as it gets without leaving the ground.
My patient instructor this time was Captain Dave Thomas, the head of flight technical and training for British Airways, and an A380 pilot. Three weeks ago, just after I watched one of the airline's A380s getting an engine change at London's Heathrow airport, Dave guided me on a short flight over Hong Kong. As the person who oversees the airline's rigorous flight crew training program, he was just the person to do it.
A different kind of sim
When we arrive at BA's Flight Learning Academy, we pass a just-delivered Boeing 787 sim that's still being assembled. It's so new that some parts are still wrapped in plastic sheets like the ones you peel off a new gadget. Inside, a technician crouched on the floor is installing wiring while down below other workers attend to the electronic motion system that gives the sim its wings.
It's so fascinating that I want to pull up a seat and watch (and peel off all of that plastic), but we're here to fly the largest commercial aircraft in the skies. Measuring 238 feet 7 inches (73 meters) long with a wingspan of 261 feet 8 inches (80 meters), the A380 is a big beast. BA has a dozen A380s, each of which costs roughly $432 million (about £333 million or AU$576 million).
Compared with the 747 sim, the clean and minimalist design of the A380 cockpit feels like the bridge of a starship. Electronic displays showing flight information are dominant and pilots have foldable keyboards and trackballs for using the aircraft's computer. Given that the A380 was built almost two decades after the first 747-400, it's not surprising that are far fewer manual switches, but it's still a jarring sight on such a large and complicated airliner.
The biggest change, though, is beside me as I strap into the captain's seat. Like other aircraft that have fly-by-wire systems (where a computer uses electronic signals to move the aircraft's control surfaces), the A380 uses a control stick instead of a traditional control column. Short and stubby, it looks like it belongs in a fighter jet or even with a video game. As I grasp it with my left hand, it feels completely bizarre that I'm about to use it to fly a 575-ton aircraft.
A scenic, but not exactly easy tour
I'd love more time to get acquainted with my temporary office, but sim training sessions are at a premium (BA's 3,800 pilots must take a two-day turn in the sims every six months). A few minutes later a scene of Hong Kong International Airport appears before me. At Dave's command, I release the parking brake and push the throttles forward to start our takeoff roll. Keeping us on the runway centerline using the foot pedals is marginally easier this time -- perhaps because I don't have a wheel-like thing in front of me to instinctively grasp -- and a few seconds later I pull it back gently to take us into the air.
As we climb away, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island appear below a sky dotted with puffy clouds. The virtual view of the urban mass squeezing between Hong Kong's green hills and harbor looks extraordinarily real and I'm pleased when Dave suggests we take a scenic loop over the city. "Sure," I say, not quite realizing I have to do the work.
I'm to keep us on course by eyeballing guidance markers on the primary flight display and lining us up accordingly. It's a bit stressful, partially because I keep overestimating how much pressure I need to apply to the sensitive control stick for the aircraft to respond. Unlike the 747's control column, the stick gives less tactile feedback (a hallmark of fly-by-wire systems), but the computer also helps out a bit more by not letting me do anything dangerous. It's also a struggle to watch the moving markers on the flight display and then determine which way to turn the sim to match. Through it all, Dave is an amazingly patient and helpful teacher. And while it is fun, I'm actually a bit relieved when it's time to return to the airport.
The sim pauses briefly as a technician inputs the landing program and Dave gives me instructions. No wind should make it easy, he says, and all I need to do is keep us steady while we follow the glide slope to the runway. I give us mostly a smooth ride, but the intricacies of the unfamiliar control stick trip me up again. We're a bit too low as we approach the runway threshold and Dave jumps in to pull the nose up at touchdown. As we meet earth he handles the throttles while I hit the brakes hard. We wobble a bit off the runway centerline as I do, but I'm only pleased that I brought this whale of an airliner to a stop.
So, yes, this time was more challenging. Maybe it was the aircraft and the new controls or maybe I just wasn't having my best day. Either way, it reminds me that I still don't want the awesome responsibility of flying a real airplane. But a simulator? I'll take my chance anytime.