“Whatever happens, the important thing to remember is this is just a box,” says Dave Thomas, British Airways’ chief training pilot, who is sitting beside me in the cockpit of a £15m flight simulator. “I’ve had people get so terrified they have burst into tears as they were coming in to land.”
As stupid as this sounds, I know exactly how they feel. The machine is uncannily realistic, not so much in the computer-generated visuals but more in the motion and audio effects. It sounds and feels exactly like being on a real plane and subconsciously you can’t help but be tricked. Thomas brings the engines up to speed, directs me to release the brakes and then we’re off, speeding along the “27 Left” runway at Heathrow. The acceleration presses me back into my seat and we begin to lurch alarming left and right as I incompetently stab at the foot pedals that control the steering. So what happens if you do crash?
“Don’t worry, I’ll press pause before that happens,” says Thomas. Further probing reveals the worst scenario is hitting the ground hard enough to “throw out” the motion system, so engineers have to be called to reset it. Do this in some simulators and the view through the cockpit windows suddenly turns red (“I’m not sure if it’s meant to be fire or blood,” says Thomas with a chuckle). I pull back on the stick, we soar upwards and everything begins to calm down.
BA has 15 of these machines at Heathrow and uses them around the clock to train both its own and other airlines’ pilots. But members of the public can now also take the controls – BA is pitching the experience as the perfect Christmas gift.
After 20 minutes buzzing around over London, my confidence is sky high. Yes, there are 1,001 buttons with functions I can only guess at but actually steering the plane is easy. I start to fantasise about a career change.
Incredibly, this could be possible. BA recently launched its biggest pilot recruitment drive for more than a decade. It will hire at least 800 pilots by 2016, with half coming from other airlines or the military and the remainder from a “future pilot programme” aimed at novices.
Previously such schemes have had a maximum age of 24 but this time there is no age limit, no requirement for a degree in aeronautical engineering and career changers are positively welcomed. (“People who have come from other walks of life bring diversity and new ideas,” Robin Glover, BA’s head of pilot recruitment, tells me later.)
Back in the cockpit, Thomas patiently answers my stream of layman’s questions (is there an ignition key? “No, but this is a Boeing 777 and it would be quite hard to steal”). Getting to quiz a working pilot is as important a part of the experience as having a go on the world’s best computer game.
Soon it’s time to spice things up a bit and Thomas programmes in a few more testing variables. Suddenly there is dense fog, then a plane coming straight for us, then a devilish crosswind. I grow used to the plane speaking to me with a female American voice that becomes increasingly agitated. Flight trainers talk about the “capacity bucket” filling up – the brain reaching the maximum amount of information it can deal with at one time. Mine is perilously close to overflowing.
For a grand finale, we reposition to JFK and attempt a landing. It all seems to be going fine ... but then we hit the deck too hard, bounce into the air again and find ourselves skidding sideways at speed, across the tarmac and towards the terminal.
Thomas presses pause. I resolve to stick to the day job.