Are you a private pilot who has wondered whether you could fly a commercial airliner with the same skill as a Cessna or a Piper? Perhaps you’re a Sim-Jockey who has flown a PC into and out of the world’s airports but wants to know if you can handle the real thing? Thanks to the helpful team at a simulator center, a friend and I managed to use one day and a reasonable amount of money to do just that.
Back in October of 2001, I had just started my GFPT at Moorabbin with the intention of, eventually, obtaining my ATPL. While reading one of the industry magazines, I found myself being drawn to an advertisement for the center. The advert highlighted their advanced pilot training courses and equipment. Never one to aim low, I immediately emailed their nominated contact person to ask what was available for me once I obtained my license.
Fortunately, they took my request seriously and responded with more information about the services to offer. The entry that most caught my eye was a reference to their full motion 737 simulator. A flurry of emails followed and, at about this point, my friend Carlo Santoro enters the picture. While I have mucked about a little with PC based simulators, Carlo is totally addicted to them and has spent almost ten years reading, researching and flying his PC all around the planet. In addition to having a number of Microsoft Flight Simulator versions, he also has all the add-ons, such as 747-400 Professional, 767 Pilot in Command, Airport 2000 and so on. Despite all this and some pre-September 11 visits to the flight deck, Carlo has never had the opportunity to fly a commercial airliner “in the flesh.” His wish was to be able to get into one, start it up and fly around in it. It was clear to me that I had to take Carlo with me if a simulator session could be arranged, otherwise I would be shot if he ever found out about it.
Despite never having put a pair of “civilians” through the simulator, the venue stepped up to the plate and agreed to let us have a session. A date and time was arranged in January, an instructor assigned and I was advised that I would be able to log any time in the simulator under ground instrument training. Crank up the excitement factor a few more notches – this was becoming more than just a lark.
Carlo went into full-scale planning mode and immediately started flying 737’s everywhere on his PC. He supplied me with a mountain of technical manuals from a variety of sources and began working out what airports, flight plans and sessions we could do. Faced with a week or two of intense reading, planning and training, I skilfully found sufficient excuses & reasons for me to not do any of it and, instead, go in “cold.”
While Carlo continued his preparations, I set to work arranging a pair of inexpensive return tickets to our destination. Thanks to WebJet, this was all too easy. Next step was to ensure that a driver would be there to pick us up at the airport, take us to center and then return us after our session. Neither of us wanted to get lost or stressed on the way.
The big day quickly arrived and I was up at 4am, half an hour before the alarm went off. I’m still not sure if I was excited or nervous, but I only slept a few hours that night. Carlo confirmed that he hadn’t slept much either when I picked him up at 5:15am on the way to the airport. We both agreed that next time, I’ll try to arrange an afternoon simulator session rather than a morning session.
By sheer coincidence, we were flying a 737-400 but were unable to observe the real thing in action from up front due to the new locked-door policy. An understandable reaction to recent events and not unexpected either.
We arrived at the center’s administration office early thanks to light morning traffic. Staff there were ready for us, making us welcome until the others arrived. The necessary credit card processing and paperwork was handled quickly and professionally, clearing the way for us to head for the pre-flight briefing.
Our assigned instructor gave us a quick overview of the center’s courses and a tour of the facilities. Given that they perform training for many airlines, their offerings are extensive and very professional.
During the briefing, we confirmed our backgrounds and what we knew of 737 operations. From there it was agreed that I would have first go at taxiing to the runway and then performing a few take-offs. After the last take-off, Carlo & I would take turns at cruising around to get the feel of the aircraft before I’d have my three or four landing attempts. We would then swap seats and Carlo would have his take-off and landing attempts. Given his knowledge of the systems on his PC’s 737, Carlo was to be given the chance to start the aircraft from a cold/dark cockpit and also fly a rough circuit from his last take-off to his first landing. Prior to entering the simulator, we reviewed the configuration the aircraft would have, the take-off, cruise & landing procedures and our various reference speeds.
All of our take-off’s and landings were to be performed at an airport that somewhat resembled Gatwick in the UK. The runway heading could be aligned to that of various locations around the world but, otherwise, there was no change to the layouts of terminals, bays, taxiways, etc.
Once in the simulator, we reviewed the instruments and controls, performed a push back from the gate and then it was up to me to get us to the runway and take off. Taxiing was pleasantly easy and less of a hassle than taxiing a Cessna 152. Once lined up and ready, I advanced the throttles and, with Carlo calling the speeds and working the flaps & landing gear, we were away. After a rotation to 18 degrees, climbing to 1,000 feet and shallowing off to a five degree climb, we reset the simulator and did it again. By this point, we agreed I’d figured out take-offs and so it was my turn to cruise around, getting the hang of the electric trim and general feel of the aircraft. It was surprisingly light and quite pleasant to fly.
During his turn at the controls, Carlo discovered that the whole concept of trim was quite alien to him as his PC usually handled that for him. He settled into it quite quickly, however, and began to really enjoy the feel of the aircraft and the motions provided by the simulator.
Control was handed back to me after our instructor set us up at 4,500’ and on a heading to acquire the ILS so I could get the first of my landings in. After much sweating and chasing of bugs, needles and other indicators, we popped out of the cloud at 500’ to discover the airport sort of in front of us but the runway at a rather oblique angle. Ooops – not a good look – fortunately in a simulator you can just stop it, reset and try again. My second run had us sighting the runway at rather more respectable angles and, after a quick couple of “corrections” (otherwise known as turns of medium bank and stress), we were on track and thumping down onto the tarmac. Admittedly somewhat further along than would normally be recommended but then, that’s what reverse thrust, speed brakes and auto-breaking are for, right?.
All was not lost, however, as my third landing attempt proved to be the best run for either of us as I flew a tight descent and came out of the clouds with the runway perfectly in front of us. Some minor corrections on both visual and instruments had us greasing onto the runway for a near perfect landing. I should have declared victory then & there and resigned undefeated but like a true idiot decided to have another go at it. We came in low and wound up over the threshold with what I felt to be too much thrust, so I chopped the throttles to idle and we sank into the runway with a major thud that probably would have shaken the oxygen masks out if we’d had them. With my tail between my legs, I taxied off the runway, stopped and shut down the engines.
Handing over to Carlo, we shut the rest of the systems down and swapped seats. He then worked the start-up procedures with our instructor to get the aircraft ready to depart. After a few uneventful take-offs, Carlo flew a circuit to set up for his first landing. All those hours on the PC must have paid off as his altitude holding was excellent and he never had to experience a disastrous landing like my first one. There were a few tense moments and some quick turns needed to put us back on track, but his landings were very well done.
With a few minutes to spare before we had to exit the simulator, Carlo had a brief go at the controls performing high-speed turns at altitude with a bit of turbulence, just to see how it felt. We then both had one last landing each (this time with turbulence) before calling it a day.
Upon discovering it was lunch time when we returned to the real world, our instructor invited us to lunch at the cafeteria where we debriefed and discussed careers, options and so on. The final step was filling in my logbook and getting it stamped. I now have about 20 hours in a Cessna 152 and 3 hours in a B737 simulator, something that’s bound to raise a few eyebrows as I progress through my career.
So now we’re back home and flying on a 737 will never be the same again. As we took off (in a real 737) for the run home, both of us were remembering what we’d just been through as the aircraft took off, visualising the actions on the flight deck. We would like to take the opportunity here to thank everyone at the center for making the whole experience possible. Special thanks to our instructor for working so hard in the simulator to make it look like we knew what we were doing…
Written for publication in AOPA magazine in March 2002. Article was suspended at the request of the simulator center due to issues associated with the September 11 terrorist tragedy in 2001.