Last month I flew in the pilot’s seat to Barbados, St Martin, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and London in a 777, a big plane to handle for a novice.
Of course, we never really left Mississauga, but the whole experience sure felt real, thanks to the clever simulator at an outfit called U-Fly. We have no expectations as we pull up for our lesson at a single-storey industrial building in the flight path of YYZ (Lester B. Pearson International Airport, branded as Toronto Pearson International Airport). But as soon as we meet our instructor Captain Claudio, we realize we are in for a fun and instructive time.
Two years ago, my beloved booked me a birthday present trip with U-Fly, but you-know-what intervened, so this is the first opportunity we’ve had to catch up.
Since my UK-based daughter was staying with us for a few days, and a significant birthday loomed, it seemed like a fun idea to book her a consecutive session. As it turned out, we alternated in the pilot’s left-hand seat, which made a welcome break from the stress of landing a jumbo jet at strange airports.
After a quick rundown of the key elements of the controls, my first take-off was from BGI (Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados). We’d hoped to spend Christmas in Barbados in 2019, then 2020 and perhaps even 2021, but so far this is a close as I look like getting. The simulation outside the cockpit is ultra high resolution and is as close to the real thing as one can imagine: ground crew stand around and on the road beside the airport, cars pass by. Captain Claudio runs through the taxi and take-off procedure again. He’s an excellent instructor, but there is really a lot to learn and in 10 minutes I’m not going to pass the pilot’s exam. He’s had thousands and thousands of hours of cockpit time, and you can tell the difference.
Keeping the aircraft heading straight down the runway is not as easy as one would think. The wingspan is a terrifying 212 feet (64.8 m) wide and if the plane wobbles too much the wingtips might touch the ground. It’s also 209 feet (63.7 m) long, so even turning corners requires a deft touch on the tiller. (That’s a separate control which steers the nose wheel for manoeuvring on the taxiway.) Once we reach the runway, I’m instructed to spool up the engines half-way with the throttles and just steer with my foot controls. Although nothing moves in this simulator, realistic sound effects enhance our journey. The jets begin to roar. I release the brakes and we begin to move faster and faster down the runway. Throttles to full power and the jet leaps into the air.
Now the trick is to keep the nose up until we reach cruising altitude and then level off without porpoising through the sky or waggling the wings like a drunken seagull. Again, none of this is easy and clearly takes a lot of practice. Did I mention there are other aircraft flying around us? If I’d ever thought of taking real flying lessons, I’ve abandoned that ambition about now.
We cruise up the west coast, where all the posh resorts nestle along the warm sands of the Caribbean, past our favourites The House and Cobblers Cove, where my beloved and I were married. We fly over Sandy Lane, where reality TV judge Simon Cowell apparently rents a whole house, far too rich for the likes of us.
I bank the plane, another terrifyingly realistic manoeuvre balancing pressure on both the joystick and the foot controls while increasing lift with the throttle, so we can return to the airport. “Good,” says our instructor, “But relax the arms.” I realize I am gripping the joystick as if my life depended on it. After managing to fly the plane in a circle and back to the airport landing track, I think I am beginning to get the hang of how sensitive the controls are.
“Remember,” Captain Claudio says, “Taking off is optional but landing is mandatory.” I line the aircraft up with the runway and land perfectly. Whew! The audience of two behind the pilots’ seats applaud.
Next, my daughter takes the controls and flies the plane to SXM (Princess Juliana International Airport, Sint Maarten). A decade ago, we had sat together at the bar on Maho Beach at the end of the runway and watched the jets fly in at the rate of about one every five minutes. Some idiots like to stand at the end of the runway and get blown into the sea by the jet blast. I just like to watch from a safe distance and criticize. After a few minutes flying, she is lining the plane up with the runway, flying over the beach, and landing. If we blew the umbrellas off anyone’s cocktails, we can’t tell as our view is entirely focussed ahead. More applause.
For my next experience, Captain Claudio decides that, since I’m a Londoner, I should take off from LHR (London Heathrow Airport) and then land at LCY (London City Airport). By now—and with a lot of help from our instructor—I seem to have mastered take-off and flying in a straight line. The tricky part is turning corners without loosing height, landing in the right spot and in the middle of the runway, and taxiing to the gate. He amuses us by initiating the passenger instructions, which of course just serve to distract me more. We fly low over London, probably much lower than we could in a real jet, buzzing the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. The Tower Bridge looms and beyond it the docklands. The last time I was here on a journalistic assignment in the 60s, there were still actual ships loading and unloading in the Royal Docklands. Now there’s Canary Warf and thousands of businesspeople. We fly lower than the top of One Canada Square, with its distinctive rooftop pyramid, and then there is this tiny strip of runway ahead.
“Short runway, short runway,” bleats the warning system. I flare the nose up at just the right moment—with judicious coaching—and touch down close enough to the beginning of the runway, and by standing on the brakes, stop the more than 130-ton monster before we drop into the River Thames. I do not plan to emulate Tom Hanks in the movie Sully.
My daughter next elects to fly in and out of LAS (McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas), why I’m not sure, but at least we get a scenic fly-over the Hoover Dam. As always, she excels. Another round of applause.
For our final trick, we both get to fly into Kai Tak, the old Hong Kong International Airport, notorious as the sixth most dangerous landing spot in the world and now superseded by a new airport built on landfill 30 kilometres away. Aircraft had to fly above Victoria Harbour and Kowloon City, passing a large hill, then sighting a huge red and white checkerboard painted on another hillside. As we come in, we are well below some of the taller apartment buildings. At the checkerboard, we make a low and very sharp right turn with a noticeably short final approach and touchdown. Both of us, and our imaginary passengers, survive both landings.
I am certain I hear them applauding back in the cabin.