It was a beautifully clear evening; the sun was sinking below the horizon and the runway at Heathrow stretched ahead in neat rows of orange lights. The cars on the access road were getting closer and closer, their headlights sweeping across the road in the early evening light.
“One hundred”, the automated voice said. I felt my body tense in anticipation, concentrating on keeping the plane straight. “Fifty.” I pulled the control stick towards me, gently but decisively like I’d been shown, so that we descend a little and then nudged the nose up slightly. There was a bump as the wheels hit the ground and we were down, back on the tarmac.
It felt exactly like most other landings I’d experienced on a plane, except this time I was the one in control – I was the pilot.
With only an hour’s flying experience behind me, you don’t have to worry about finding me in charge of an actual flight any time soon – I was trying out British Airways’ state-of-the-art flight simulators at their training centre near Heathrow.
The unprepossessing buildings here are home to seventeen full-motion sims (as they’re known), which cover both Boeing and Airbus aircrafts. They’re in use all day every day, not only by British Airways’ 3600 pilots, but also by crew from other UK and international airlines, who are drawn here by what is some of the best technology in the business.
Nick Morrish/British Airways
The sims look like something out of a sci-fi movie; from the outside, it’s hard to imagine how it’s going to feel like you’re in a plane. But as soon as I stepped inside, the various Heathrow terminals visible through the cockpit “window”, the sense of being on an aircraft was all-consuming. I was fortunate enough to be alongside Senior First Officer Helen MacNamara, who had just flown in from Entebbe that morning, and she immediately put me at ease as she talked me through the basics.
I’d expected flying to be a bit like driving a car – but it’s been over a decade since I learnt that skill and somehow I’d forgotten that even driving hasn’t always come naturally.
Instead, I found it surprisingly – and reassuringly – difficult: the controls seemed oversensitive at times and slow to move at others (though in reality this was probably more down to my own use of them) and I spent most of the time moving the control stick to keep the plane on track. It works like this: you have a pink cross on the screen in front of you and your task is to keep a small square on the centre of the cross at all times (that is, on the flight path).
I hoped that I’d be able to take in the surroundings from the air while I was flying – we’d be flying right over my house, after all – but I was so focused on keeping that box in the cross that the only thing I really took in was Heathrow as it zoomed closer towards us on the descent.
Courtesy of British Airways
I’ve never been a particularly anxious flyer, but there was something incredibly reassuring about getting behind the controls of a plane and seeing how it all worked.
“We have to use the sims every six months to ensure we’re up to the job,” Helen explained, “and we can fly into and out of any airport in the world on them, so I can go straight from using one of these to flying into, say, Innsbruck for the first time, but I’ll actually have already flown into the airport on the sim.”
And it really is amazing – within moments we could be transported from flying out of Heathrow to flying into Heathrow, from sitting among the terminals in London to among the mountains in Switzerland.
While I was flying the plane, I was concentrating so hard that I couldn’t have told you whether it was fun. But as soon as it was over, the rush of adrenaline hit me. I hadn’t just flown a plane, I’d landed it into Heathrow four times.
I felt amazing, and for the first time in my life I could understand why someone would choose to be a pilot. In fact, if I was ten years younger you’d see me swapping my pen for a pilot’s hat and applying for a place on British Airways’ Future Pilot Programme. In reality though, next time I take a flight, I’ll be thinking about that pink cross and the little box, and probably feeling quite relieved that it’s not me in charge.
Emma Gibbs was a guest of British Airways. A session in a flight simulator starts from £399 per person. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.