I'm on the London Underground headed to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight. But instead of flying as a passenger, I'll be at the controls. And it's not even a plane; it's a Boeing 747 simulator at the British Airways Learning Academy.
BA's training campus is on the eastern edge of Heathrow next to the airline's enormous maintenance hangars. The training center's exterior is a monument to brutalism -- it reminds me a bit of the FBI's graceless J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, DC. Inside, it feels a bit like the inside of the spaceship from "2001: A Space Odyssey." The 15 simulators (or sims) arranged in a row covering seven aircraft types all tower over a white polished floor that reflects the light shining from the arched white ceiling. It's spotless.
It's also packed with pilots and technicians preparing for sim flights, yet this massive room is quieter than I expected. BA's 3,800 pilots must take a two-day turn in the sims every six months to keep their flying skills sharp. Pilots from 50 other airlines train here too, keeping it busy pretty much every day of the year.
A committed aviation geek and 747 fan, I'm beyond eager to pilot one of these sims. My host is Mark Vanhoenacker, senior first officer for British Airways and author of "Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot," which Amazon describes as "A poetic and nuanced exploration of the human experience of flight" (see my interview with Vanhoenacker for more on his book).
Sims for BA's newest aircraft, like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A320, look like streamlined helmets. Those for older airliners, including the Boeing 767 and 747, are more angular, but sill pretty sleek.
Regardless of design, the sims move and shift on their hydraulic jacks. As we walk to our flight, I spot a 767 sim tilted back at an alarming angle, which Vanhoenacker tells me mimics the aircraft's ascent and acceleration by pressing you back against the seat (like you feel at takeoff when an airplane's engines rev to full power). The point, he says, is to keep things real.
The interior of our sim exactly matches the cockpit of a real 747-400 (the fourth main version of the airliner). It has the same control column, throttles, rudder/brake pedals and mass of switches lining the ceiling and center console. Produced from 1988 until 2005, the 747-400 was one of first commercial aircraft with a "glass cockpit" where electronic displays (first CRTs and later LCDs) replaced mechanical gauges to show flight information like altitude and speed.
After I strap into the captain's seat, Mark runs through the basic controls and tells the technician we're ready for takeoff. The sim door closes, the bridge to the walkway raises and the cockpit lights dim. After running through the preflight checklist, we're lined up at Heathrow's Runway 27 at dusk.
The computer-generated image showing through the windscreen really does look like a pilot's-eye view of Heathrow. Aircraft are parked alongside glowing terminals and the thin control tower rises in the distance. The sim's three projectors can be programmed to display 180-degree views of airports and landscapes around the world -- complete with full depth perception.
It's time to take off. Mark pulls back on the throttles and adjusts the flaps; my job is to keep the aircraft on the centerline of the runway and lift us into the air when he says, "Rotate." Sounds easy, right? Well, no.
At low speeds I steer the giant airliner using a tiller near my left knee. Then, as we accelerate down the runway, I switch to steering with the foot pedals (pressing the right pedal makes the nose wheel turn right and vice versa).
Getting the hang of how much pressure to apply to each pedal was a struggle that only got more difficult as we went faster. Driving instinct told me to steer with the control column, but that only earned a polite reminder to focus on my feet instead (the control column does nothing on the ground). Fortunately, the sim helps keep you stay aligned by bumping slightly each time you roll over one of the lights embedded down the runway's center. Just hold us there, Mark says, and we'll be fine.
On his order, I pull back on the control column for takeoff. And yes, it really does feel like we're moving -- there's even a slight lurch as the landing gear leaves the ground. Heathrow's Terminal 5 flashes by on my right and the engines whine as we begin our climb toward Berkshire. I see traffic moving smoothly on the M25 Motorway and the dark pool of the Wraysbury Reservoir.
We're up and away.
Though you might think maneuvering a plane as big as a 747 (about 200 tons when empty) would take significant effort, it requires only a light tug on the control wheel and a press on the left rudder pedal to start a left turn. The horizon dips and I can see Heathrow come back into view.
As we fly toward the mass of lights that marks London, I get a tour of the critical instruments including altimeter, airspeed indicator, flight heading and primary flight display (your position relative to the horizon). My instructions are simple: Keep us steady at 4,000 feet while we approach the black expanses of Hyde Park. Mark mentions that I'm holding us nice and smooth. Maybe, he guesses, it's my background in tech.
We activate the automatic pilot (no, not that automatic pilot) so we can sight-see. Below I can see the Thames River snaking its way through the city and landmarks like the London Eye, The Shard, and the lights of London City Airport. The virtual display isn't 3D so raised landmarks flatten out as we fly over them, but otherwise it could have really been London on a clear night.
When it's time to return for landing, Mark instructs me to use the autopilot instead of the control column. I just need to twist a small knob and press a button to input the new compass heading, and the aircraft makes a broad turn over Olympic Park to its new heading.
Next, I have to disengage the automatic pilot by pressing a small button on the control column: once to give the command and a second time to confirm that's what I really want to do (critical actions like this require two steps). A short alarm tells me I have the control again and I lower the landing gear, something I'm oddly excited to do.
This is where things get tricky.
To keep us on course for landing, I have to watch the primary flight display and line up with three small pink diamonds that show the correct altitude and heading for Runway 27L. I match for the most part, with Mark helping just near touchdown. Then, at 50 feet above the ground, I pull up slightly on the control column -- and we're down with a bump. I find that the brake pedals are surprisingly stiff -- we're still going a bit too fast after a few seconds -- but nearly standing on them brings us to a stop close to where we started 30 minutes earlier.
A few minutes later, we're out in the bright lights of the real world. It's difficult to describe just how authentic it all felt, but that's exactly the point: Sims are "zero flight time"-approved, meaning that once pilots complete their initial simulator training, they can go straight to flying passengers on an actual aircraft. And while my flight was routine, the sims can depict a wide variety of weather conditions, flying scenarios and even the various engine types a 747 might have (the Rolls-Royce jets that BA 747s use, for example, sound and perform differently from the General Electric engines another airline might opt for). Some airports with difficult approach and takeoff procedures require sim time, as well.
My hour in the simulator was thrilling and nerve-wracking, in equal measure. As I travel the Underground back to London, I think about what I could have done better. And that makes me consider something else. Despite my love of flying, I've always been put off by the awesome responsibility of being a pilot. But now, just maybe, I'm changing my mind.