When I was asked if I would like to have a go on a 737 Simulator I nearly wept with joy, the question should have been:
“How long have you been harbouring a burning desire to get your hands on a SIM?”
The answer would be about 32 years……………
So, 32 years late I found myself lurking in the dark around the back of an airport that I am honour bound not to name waiting for a man we shall call only “The Man” and realising that even if the whole deal fell through at the last minute I had still been closer to a 747-400 rotating than I have ever been before AND seen a 777 up close and personal.
I tried to look like a pilot when the security van hove into view down the neon lit access road, quite how you look like a pilot I have no idea but judging by the pilots I have met socially I decided that DDO would do it…Divorced, Deranged and Overdrawn.
It worked, I pulled it off and the 4x4 slid out of sight, a door opened behind me and a man looking a bit DDO emerged and scurried off to the car-park, my pulse quickened, I hoped I wouldn’t make an arse of myself by dribbling or kissing “The Man” out of gratitude.
I was just about to give up hope when “The Man” emerged from the building and escorted me inside and upstairs into the Nirvana that is the 737 SIM. I tried to seem unfazed by it all but it was all a bit much and as I blinked my way down the brightly lit corridor I got the distinct impression that my eyes were like saucers, wide and staring like a schoolboy about to be introduced to his first real bicycle at Christmas (or bi-sexual, depends on where and when you grew up I suppose).
I sat down in the F/O’s seat and as “The Man” got things set up on the computer behind the Captain’s seat I looked about me and took it all in.
It was very American, by that I mean it was built like a brick shit-house, everything looked far stronger than it needed to be “Barn-Door Engineering” they call it.
No poncey plastics and blinky LEDs here, these were bloke’s switches, big and strong like the switches on a 1960’s cooker, and chrome toggle switches too! my Grandfather would have approved, as long as there was thick red wire and insulating tape attached to them (He could fix anything with thick red wire, toggle switches and insulating tape, the Frank Ives version of DNA for machinery).
There were twisty switches, rotary switches, switches that lit up when you pressed them, all mounted in the grey painted metal dashboard that you would have found in a WW2 bomber, to navigate your way around this array of controls were those black plastic plates with white writing engraved in, marvellous! So industrial and purposeful.
My attention was drawn to the glass screens that lit up and displayed their funky stuff as “The Man” completed his set-up drill.
Out of the windows a very familiar runway appeared, I looked around and was startled to find my self recognising buildings and signage, my eyes bulged as it assimilated this cyber landscape, obviously Playstationesque but oh so familiar!
“The Man” showed me how the seat swung sideways and forward so I could actually reach the rudder pedals and I stopped wondering how many 7 ft tall Pilots there were in the world.
Things were pointed out to me and explained, very succinctly too as I was only going to have to bother with the basic controls this time around but I thought the trim switches were a hoot, you press these two little toggles on the stick and the black and white trim wheels spin round down beside your left leg, hmmm, awesome!
We (well, him really) got the beast spooled up and it was pointed out that the SIM will only do what a 737 can actually do, no more and no less. This was to be significant later on.
After 5 mins briefing I understood when V1 would occur and what it meant (Take off regardless of circumstances) and that when the speed readout to the left of the top glass screen read 132 knts I was to ease back on the stick and hold at a 15-20 degree climb rate, I was surprised to learn that when banking you move the wheel to the required angle of bank and then re-centre it, the a/c will stay at the angle you selected.
As we sat at the end of the (virtual) runway I began to assimilate the landscape outside and felt butterflies in my stomach….as if we were about to do this for real!!!! OMG!!
Every noise and movement is faithfully replicated, I recognised the jolts and bumps of the tarmac, the noises were spot-on…”V1”..(oh fuck, don’t screw up!) the runway was hurtling towards me..”Rotate”..I pulled back on the stick and the nose came up. The engines roared the feeling of power was immense…”Oh my God! We’re flying!!!!!!!!!”
I watched the altimeter, I had been instructed to level off at 4,500 ft, the sky flashed by, I could see out the side windows and the familiar sights of my home city were all there, a bit digitised but all there, man oh man I was having fun!!
I levelled off and started gawping at the sights, I didn’t keep my eyes on the climb indicator, you have to keep about 5 degrees or so to keep the a/c in level flight and I wasn’t doing that, a robotic American voice urged me to take action:
“Don’t Dip..Don’t Dip….” I tweaked the stick and banked 5 degrees to go look at the harbour.
“Take it close to that tower” “The Man” requested, I did as instructed, we drew closer:
“Proximity Alert..Pull up…Pull up!!!”
“Oh ignore that, you’ll miss it”
My palms were sweating, it seemed an awfully long way up and the feedback from the controls was utterly convincing, “The Man” said to let him take control once out over the open ocean.
“You got it?” I asked (Hey, a.net…you learn stuff! That’s what real pilots say OMG OMG!!”
“I have it”
“Now”, my best friend on the planet paused “This SIM is very sophisticated and the guys who maintain it are the best I know, when I do this next manoeuvre you will feel disorientated, don’t worry…you won’t fall out!”
???????????????????? WTF he mean by that?
“OK, hang on”
Did you know a 737 can barrel roll? It can and I very nearly puked, bugger! I really felt like I was upside down, man, that was sooo weird!
“It can really do that?” I asked
We gained some height and I swung us round to go and practice a landing, even though we were doing 250 knts or so, the banking turn felt as slow and graceful as it does to the pax. We had a discussion about glideslopes and how you get one white light and three red in a row when the angle of approach is correct.
I used the electronic compass to get me set up on the as yet invisible runway, we were programmed for zero wind and chose to land the opposite way from which we had taken off.
The runway came in sight and I got sweaty palms again, you really do get sucked into the visuals, you will have seen better graphics on a playstation but the combined 3D effect, plus the buzz of flying the SIM gets you so totally into it that reality would really not feel any different.
Our slope was true, we were on target and it was decided that we would touch down and go around.
“Once you get below 100 feet take notice of the audible altimeter, at 20, pull back slightly on the stick, at 10, let go, it’ll land itself.”
“OK, Captain, do I have control?”
“You have the aircraft”
As flaps were lowered and then landing gear I did a bit of a double-take, I know the noise and movements a 737 makes when coming in to land like I know my own car….everything was totally realistic, so much so that I kept looking back to see the wings, but they aren’t on the SIM…
The robot voices took over, at some point they said “Minimums” then a little later “50”…”40”…”30”…”20”, I pulled the stick back just enough to take the slack out of the wires…”10”, I let go..”Crump!”…I looked at “The Man”.
“That, was what they call a “Boeing landing”, his face creased into a huge smile.”
“OK..get her up again” He tweaked the throttles, I watched the speed “V1”…”Rotate”.. I gave it plenty of climb angle and did a 30 degree bank just for the sheer thrill of it, I could have died right there and then and not complained one little bit, not better than sex but just as sweaty!!!
We did a few more go-arounds and landed from different directions, each landing was an anxious time for me, I had to get it right, so many lives……!
“We’ll go to the gate after this one” I felt a bit let-down at this, I thought I had been “flying” for 15 mins or so, I checked my watch…an hour and a half had gone by!!!!!!
My how time flies when you’re…flying?
To illustrate the fantastic abilities of the programmers I was asked to taxi across the grass, you can actually feel the transition from tarmac to grass! Very strange.
We taxied to the gate and the man with the paddles came out and directed us in, we stopped with that familiar “jerk, bounce”, “The Man” went through the shut-down procedure and the engines sighed into silence, I was grinning a shit-eating grin, photos were taken, I was totally happy with my Sunday night, yes sir, thank you Mr Boeing!!!
On the drive home I felt utterly disorientated; I kept pulling back in the steering wheel as I accelerated away from the lights, and everything seemed to be in slow motion, my body drove the car and my mind kept on the alert for anything untoward, I felt like a hero and went home to gibber at Mrs Jafa about it all.
The next day “The Man”’s wife phoned Mrs Jafa, she must have asked about me, all I heard was Mrs J saying:
“Oh I think so, he came in last night gibbering on like a little boy……..”