I've never been a great flyer. It's not that I'm scared of flying per sé. I just get a bit up-chuckish with turbulence and whatnot. At least, that was until a few months ago when I got stranded in China for 33 hours following a freak storm over Hong Kong airport. Now my fear of throwing up has evolved into a fully-formed anxiety response when boarding flights. Last week I found a cure for that anxiety, however, and it's one that everyone can get in on.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to try out a flight simulator to "celebrate" the Universal Sony Home Entertainment launch of the Liam Neeson film Non-Stop on DVD and Blu-Ray. I was invited to try out a flight simulator to see if someone without any training can land a passenger aircraft.
The flight anxiety within was triggered by the idea of getting near anything that even looked like a plane, but to prove something to myself, I gave it a go.
You see when I fly now, I always get nervous that something is about to go wrong with the aircraft. Whether it's pilot error, maintenance error or mechanical error, I've read and heard too many stories to just sit back and relax on flights these days. Plus, after being caught in a huge storm over Hong Kong that exceeded the wind limit for the plane we were flying in, I'm not exactly comfortable with the idea of being 38,000 feet up anymore.
I went out to Alexandria in Sydney to see the guys from Jet Flight Simulator, and within minutes I was at the helm of a virtual 787 passenger jet.
The cockpit layout is an exact replica of the 787, and the simulation has been set-up to give you the idea of what it's like to fly a real plane.
My instructor was a charter pilot with ambitions of flying long-haul commercial flights, so I knew I was in good hands and couldn't crash my virtual plane.
He sat me down (in the pilot's seat, mind you) and told me the roles of all three (!) pilots on a long-haul flight. There's your captain, a co-pilot and a navigator. At any one time, there's always one of them at the controls, and they all take steps to ensure that one of them will always be able to fly the plane in the event of an emergency.
For example, no two pilots will have the same meal to minimise the risk of food poisoning. The flight deck will always have at least two pilots on duty to make sure nothing goes wrong, and they're all on different sleep schedules so nobody gets drowsy at the helm.
There's also an advanced auto-pilot system that gives loud, clear, jolting feedback when something's about to go wrong.
But to really get me over my fear, I'd have to do something crazy to show that planes were capable of more than I gave them credit for. It was time for a short flight into Old Hong Kong Airport.
Officially named Kai Tak, the old Hong Kong Airport was operational from 1925 to 1988 and acted as the main hub in and out of the island hub. Kai Tak was known as a technically difficult airport to fly into, given the number of high-rise residential buildings on the approach path, as well as a short runway not intended for large aircraft.
It closed after the new Hong Kong International Airport was opened, and eventually became space for residential properties. Thanks to the magic of flight simulators, however, we were able to fly the short hop from Hong Kong International over to Kai Tak. At night. In the clouds.
Flying into Kai Tak triggered every single one of my fears: potential for pilot error, potential for aircraft technical error, all of which could lead to a massive (albeit, virtual) crash. But I wasn't going to be put off: I gripped the stick and pushed the throttle up for take-off.
After a picturesque look down at Hong Kong harbour, it was time for the approach. My co-pilot left me in control of the plane, acting only to reduce air speed when I asked him to.
The final approach into Kai Tak had me perspiring. It requires the pilot — me in this case — to thread the needle between two buildings after a steep bank against a mountainside. Gulp.
Two tense minutes later and a great deal of communication between my co-pilot and I, we were able to bring the plane to a safe and complete halt on the tarmac.
I walked out of that simulator taller, knowing that even an idiot like me can technically complete a difficult descent with the help of a professional. Now I can't wait to fly again.