Come fly with me . . . if you dare
The first Airbus A380 landed at Shannon this week. Good job a professional was in the cockpit
Real deal: two BA pilots in the company’s A380 simulator. Photograph: British Airways
Big brother: the Airbus A380 at Shannon Airport this week, nose to nose with its smallest sibling, the A318
The fate of more than 450 people is resting in my trembling hands as I fly into Manchester in the lashing rain. The bad weather doesn’t faze me, and I confidently move the joystick of my Airbus A380 left and right and up and down. It’s no more complicated than playing a video game, I think to myself, only the stakes are much higher.
The red and white guide lights on the edge of the runway give me a metaphorical thumbs-up to touchdown, and the ground below races to meet me. A hundred or so metres from what I am certain will be a textbook landing I wobble a fraction too much to the right. I panic and, in an attempt to correct my approach, move the joystick way too far to the left. A wing strikes the runway. It strikes it hard. The plane shudders, and less than a second later everything goes black.
It’s game over. We’re all done for.
“Never mind,” says my copilot. “You nearly made it. Would you like to try JFK?”
Out of the blue
When you get a call out of the blue giving you the chance to fly the A380, the most advanced commercial superjumbo ever built, you’d have to be a fool to say no. And I am no fool – at least not this time. I jump at the offer, which has come from British Airways, and days later am on my way to its new pilot-training facility, at a sprawling complex near Heathrow terminal 4, to have a go on its shiny new fake flying machine, which has just been installed at a cost of €13 million.
I am brought to a huge warehouse that is empty save for the A380 simulator. As we walk along a metal gangway 25m above the ground my copilot tells me that all of BA’s simulators are being moved here from locations around the complex to allow the airline’s 3,600 pilots to practise in a single location.
But for now the airline’s focus is on the Airbus A380. And it is very excited by its new toy. It is not hard to see why. This plane has room for more than 460 passengers over two decks. All manner of technology has enhanced passenger comfort and killed much of the background hum that fills the cabins of other commercial airliners. It is more fuel efficient and more resistant to turbulence, and over the next decade or so it will become the workhorse of BA’s long-haul fleet.
The A380 is an impressive beast in reality, but its virtual incarnation leaves me distinctly unimpressed initially. Standing there on hydraulic legs, it looks more like a Doctor Who robot than a plane.
It is a different story when the door shuts silently behind me and I sit in the captain’s chair. This doesn’t feel like make-believe any more. All the dials, gauges, levers pedals, screens and seats are exactly as they appear in the real cockpit, right down to the sheepskin rugs on the backs of the seats, and all the simulated airport scenes that wrap around the three windows in front of me are exactly as they appear in the real world.
The simulator is so accurate it has been “zero flight time” approved, so a pilot can go straight from here to flying real planes full of real passengers.
Crash and burn
In a heartbeat we can switch our approach or our departure from Heathrow to Hong Kong or from Dubai to Dublin. After I crash and burn in Manchester I am off to the States.
I manage to take off and land at LAX, but I have barely finished telling myself how brilliant I am when I am back in the sky and flying over New York.
This is very unsettling. All the landmarks are instantly recognisable, but what is most striking are the two towers that are no longer there.
As I gently manoeuvre the plane left and right, I think about how similar my simulator experience must be to the experiences of the 9/ll bombers in the lead-up to the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. Suddenly my copilot breaks the silence.
“You can head for the buildings over there,” he says, gesturing towards downtown Manhattan. I look startled and there is an awkward silence. “No, I mean the runway over at JFK is in that direction,” he says, reading my thoughts. “Use the buildings as a landmark.”
I land the plane, but only just. As I hit the runway too hard I doubt any of my passengers will be impressed, but, unlike the poor souls in Manchester, I have kept them alive, and for that they should be eternally grateful.