I believe I can fly: Patrick Freyne takes to the skies over Ireland
Our man takes the controls of a 14 tonne flight simulator
In a big building called Kestrel House, three 14 tonne machines on massive pneumatic legs are rising and falling and tilting and turning. I am walking along a metal ramp into a fourth machine, a cylindrical space on stilts. I’m at the Simtech facility where pilots come for retraining and to test their wits against simulated emergency scenarios, and today, before the Professional Flight Training Exhibition in the Convention Centre on March 22nd, they are testing my wits against emergency scenarios.
“You can have a pilot who has no issues until his 60th birthday and on his last flight he has an engine fire,” explains Simtech’s Engineering Manager Bob Sheehan. “So every six months they come in for refresher training.”
Down on the floor there’s a wooden pedal plane belonging to the director’s son. It’s briefly suggested I get my training on that.
“That’s probably my level,” I admit.
Instead, I sit in a replica of a cockpit with a bank of monitors and switches all around me. Sheehan is sitting to my right. I’m looking out at a digital representation of Dublin airport, where small lorries are driving around. At one point, senior simulator engineer Chris Harford, sitting at a bank of computer consoles behind us adds dark clouds and lightning flashes to the scenario by punching a few keys.
Sheehan is trying to impart to me how serious it all is, how many things there are to check and how many voices to listen to. “Have you ever been in the jump-seat flying from Dublin to London? It’s unbelievable . . . you have to be at a height at a speed and a time, and if you aren’t there on time you have to go out and come back in.”
I tell him that I fantasise about someone rushing out of a cockpit crying “can anybody fly this plane?” at which point I can volunteer to save the day.
“That happened some months ago,” says Harford. “Was it in Germany, Bob? Luckily there was an airline pilot on board.”
“Did you have the beef or the chicken?” asks Sheehan and Harford laughs. On long flights, Harford explains, the pilot and co-pilot eat different meals in case of food-poisoning.
As we taxi out towards the runway I’m guiding the plane with the rudder. “Don’t take out those signs,” says Sheehan, as we veer close to an embankment. “That’d be embarrassing.”
He tells me a few useful acronyms: RFM – Read the fecking manual. PFM – pure fecking magic. Sheehan loves aviation, is passionate about his job and repeatedly tries to explain technical details about flight paths and instrumentation, but I’m not the best student.
“Can I see my house?” I ask, when the simulated flight leaves the simulated airport.
“Probably,” says Harford. The panoramic vistas, he tells me, are generated by Google Maps.
We climb and Sheehan gives me control. When we dip too low I’m to pull back on the flight controls. He tells me to keep an eye on the altitude, but I keep getting distracted.
“Many accidents have happened because of misreading altitude,” says Sheehan. He and Harford recount a few examples. Indeed, they explain several aviation issues with reference to historic plane accidents. One story ends with the words: “They didn’t even die of the crash, the crocodiles got them.”
Later a Fear of Flying group is being brought into the same simulator. “That group isn’t taken by you is it?” I ask. It’s not.
“So where do you want to go?” says Sheehan.
We decide to go to Shannon. On the way another plane suddenly appears in the sky.
“TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!” says a loud pre-recorded voice.
“CLIMB! CLIMB!” says the voice. It has the urgent panicky timbre of the robot from Lost in Space.
“ADJUST VERTICAL SPEED! ADJUST!” it adds.
I pull the plane upwards, theoretically saving Harford, Sheehan and 180 fictional passengers’ lives in the process.
“CLEAR OF CONFLICT,” says the voice, sounding no less urgent or panicked.
“Is that the voice you’d hear in a real emergency?” I ask.
“It’s very annoying,” I say.
Sheehan is busy flicking switches and looking at instruments. After a while I say. “There’s not really much to do is there?”
Sheehan looks appalled. “Could you rephrase that?! I’m trying to keep us safe!”
Apparently he’s been monitoring the instruments the whole time.
“On long flights do pilots take a nap?” I ask.
“I’ll take the fifth on that,” says Sheehan.
Earlier, I’d asked what a crash looked like and Sheehan said that he’d never deliberately crashed during a simulation. As we come in to land I ask for more bad weather. “Look, I’m trying to demonstrate how to safely land a plane,” he says.
“TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” shouts the robot from Lost in Space a little later.
“We descended again because we were talking and you weren’t paying attention,” says Sheehan.
“You know the film Flight with Denzel Washington, where he lands the plane upside down?” I ask. “Could we do that?”
“No,” says Sheehan wearily. “Not possible to do.”
Poor Sheehan and Harford have been good humouredly tolerating my distractible aeronautical philistinism for half an hour, so I decide to knuckle down and help land a plane.
“There’s a lot to watch isn’t there Patrick?” asks Sheehan as I struggle to watch the “glide slope” and the “extended runway centreline.”
We land safely in digital Shannon. Harford does some magic with the computer and suddenly we’re in London City airport.
We’re going to take off again. Sheehan insists on doing all the relevant checks because he’s a safety conscious professional. “You know the film World War Z?” I ask. “Where they have to take-off really quickly because the zombies are coming. Couldn’t we go with that scenario?”
“You’ve watched a lot of films,” says Sheehan a little later.
We take off and try to land again.
“GO UP! GO UP!” says ‘the voice’ as I dip us too close to the digital Thames.
“We landed safely despite all your best efforts,” says Sheehan eventually.
Next we materialise in Salzburg airport, which is surrounded by mountains.
There’s a meaningful pause. “You want me to fly into the mountains don’t you?” sighs Sheehan.
I nod. “This goes totally against my grain,” he says.
After a lot of pleading, we ascend and head towards a mountain. I feel like I’m making him break all of his ethical codes for the sake of journalistic thrills.
“TERRAIN!” says the recorded voice as we approach the mountain. “TERRAIN! TERRAIN!”
“GO UP! GO UP! GO UP! GO UP! GO UP!” it wails desperately.
There’s a crashing sound. Sheehan looks sad. “That went totally against my ethos,” he says. We climb out of the cockpit. It’s still in a large cylinder on stilts. It doesn’t look crashed at all.
For those interested in a career in aviation, the Professional Flight Training Exhibition takes place at the Convention Centre on March 22nd