"Welcome aboard, Captain," my co-pilot Julian said to me this morning as I stepped into the cockpit of a Boeing 737-800, the world's most popular commercial aircraft. Despite a complete lack of training and experience, I strapped myself in, adjusted my harness and confidently got ready to take control. At least I knew I couldn't crash...
I was checking out Flight Experience, a realistic flight simulator created in New Zealand and now available in four Australian cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Based in a faithful replica of a Boeing 737-800's cockpit, the experience gives anyone the chance to pilot the commercial aircraft without any prior training.
Before we began Julian took a few minutes to walk me through the key instruments that would be under my control for the flight. The yoke. The rudder pedals. The thrust levers. The brakes. The flaps. The digital instruments. The thousands of switches, buttons and dials seated above me, in front of me and beside me. Overwhelming? Yes.
As we moved through the different instruments, I went over the flight plan in my head. The Flight Experience lets you choose from 24,000 different airports around the world. Depending on the length of the experience you choose, you can incorporate different elements of flying into your time in the cockpit. For my 30-minute flight, I would be taking off from Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok Airport, flying around for a few minutes before returning for a touch and go landing, then flying over to the now closed Kai Tak Airport, which involves a rather interesting flight over the Hong Kong city before a tight bank and a landing. Sure thing - no problems whatsoever.
With Julian guiding me step by step, I gently pushed forward the thrust levers and turned the plane onto the runway. A final check, then the thrust levers pushed forward. Using my rudder pedals to keep the plane travelling straight along the runway as the engine roared around me. At a word from the co-pilot, I pulled back the yoke, pulling the nose up to a 15-degree angle and lifted off.
The entire setup is pretty ingenious. Three DLP projectors throw the computer generated image up onto a 180-degree curved screen in front of the cockpit. Then, using an enhanced version of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 powered by eight linked PCs (with each powering a different element of the simulation) and connected to the cockpit's controls, you become a real-life pilot of a 737.
Surrounding the virtual cockpit - both inside and out - are a series of speakers playing audio from a real 737 jumbo in time with your actions, while a couple of subwoofers sit underneath your seat to give you the rumbling feeling of a jet engine being powered up. In fact, the only thing the simulator lacks is the sensation of accelerating down the runway - you do miss it, but at the same time the fact that the graphics move as though you are accelerating quickly helps the immersive nature of the simulator anyway.
After banking left and right for a bit, learning to keep the nose of the plane heading above the horizon (even to stay level) and a quick touch and go landing, I piloted the 737 around towards our final destination, Kai Tak Airport. The landing involves flying over Hong Kong city, before banking to the right as you come into land. As I watched the runway appear in the distance almost perpendicular to my heading, I was glad that I wasn't actually flying a huge jet aircraft. But my worries were unfounded - with a bit of support from my co-pilot, I banked the plane like I'd done it a thousand times before, landing easily, kicking in the reverse thrusters and then taxiing off the runway.
But I needn't have worried – because it's a proper simulator, the guys at Flight Experience have switched off the ability to crash in the software, and they won't let you do anything crazy like barrel rolls or fly under the Harbour Bridge, either.
Prices for the simulation flights start at $175 for 30 minutes and range up to $375 for 90 minutes. If you've ever had aspirations for becoming a pilot, it's definitely fun, and significantly cheaper than actually getting your pilot's license. Plus, there's no theory component, which makes things a lot more enjoyable. Well, except for the silly photo they make you take at the start...