The airliner flight sims that look like real life

How do airline pilots train for worst-case scenarios? In giant, hydraulically-powered simulators. Jack Stewart straps himself in.

Shortly after takeoff, a red light above my head starts flashing in time to an insistent chiming. My heart starts pounding as I look around the cockpit of the Airbus A320, trying to make sense of the instruments and figure out exactly what has gone wrong.

“That’s an engine fire!”

Just a few minutes ago it had all started so well.  At Austria’s Innsbruck Airport a gentle snow is falling. I sit in the cockpit, on the right hand side, looking at the mountains ahead. They feel very close. I am about to perform my first take-off in an A320. The conditions feel challenging, but not overwhelming.

We are not in an actual aircraft, thankfully. We are in an A320 simulator, one of the most advanced available  

“It’s very difficult yes, so it’s a good place to start,” laughs Dave Thomas, the head of British Airways’ flight training. Reassuringly, he is in the cockpit with me ready to take control.

We are not in an actual aircraft, thankfully. We are in an A320 simulator, one of the most advanced available. This is used by British Airways to train pilots for the extreme situations they will, fingers crossed, never have to experience first-hand.

But first things first – the seat needs adjusting, just like in a car, as do the pedals so that my hand falls as easily as possible on the joystick. Then Captain Thomas allows me to move the thrust levers up, and the plane starts to move. Already it is hard to remember that this is a simulator. The view is three-dimensional, and the gentle push back into my seat feels like real thrust. The take-off was flawless (even if I do say so myself), but then the alarms started.

To see what happened next, and how you might have deal with an engine fire if you were sat in an Airbus pilot’s seat, watch this video of the take-off:

The simulators British Airways uses are housed in an industrial building on the edge of Heathrow Airport in London. It isn’t very futuristic on outside, but the interior has been completely renovated and painted bright white. Three simulators sit in a row – one for a Boeing 787, one for a giant Airbus A380, and another for the A320. They are white domes on stilts. To me they look like a Stormtrooper helmet with a strip of black where the eyes would be. They are two storeys tall, and accessed through retractable gangplanks.

The engine fire we just experienced is a perfect example of what the airlines have to train for inside these state-of-the-art simulators. They use data gleaned from actual aircraft as well as real cockpit components, to make the experience as lifelike as possible. The motion system which moves the simulator gives “motion cues”. Tipping it slightly tricks the balance systems of the people on board to convince them they are really moving.

“When you are accelerating it moves the simulator back, so you get pressed back into your seat and when you are decelerating it tips the nose of the simulator down,” says Martin Bracewell, the principal engineer for L3 Link, Simulation and Training, the company which builds the simulators.

“All that is moving gravity around your body to trick your body into thinking something is accelerating or decelerating.”

For an explanation on how that actually works, watch the video below.

“They are fun, don’t get me wrong,” jokes Thomas, but as I experienced, their real use is extremely serious.

“We can train our pilots in ways that we can never do on a real airplane, and that’s very important for us. It’s all about the unexpected, the what-ifs, that’s what we use these boxes for.”

Next time you’re flying, bear that in mind. Whatever the real world might throw at them, chances are the pilot in front of you has already trained for it.

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