Happy landings | Learning to fly the A380


Make sure all tray tables are stowed and seatbacks are in the upright position – Nick Harman takes to the skies, in the A380 flight simulator

A380 flight simulator

The flight deck of the Emirates A380 flight simulator, London

It’s a nightmare. Klaxons are going off, lights are flashing and I don’t know what to do except quietly panic. One second Alpha Papa Harman was solidly inbound to the runway at Heathrow, speed dropping nicely and the landing gear down and locked, now the Boeing B777 is yawing off the centre line and the speed has dropped so much we are about to go into a stall and tumble backwards to the ground. I push forward hard on the control stick, frantically stab at the rudder pedals and we level out for a split second before going into a steep dive and smashing into the terminal building.

“Well, that wasn’t so good,” says the man behind me, tapping on his wireless keyboard and turning the 180 degree view out of the window totally blue except for the reboot progress indicator. Behind me in another simulator I can hear screams of mixed terror and laughter as two young women turn their own Boeing B777 upside down. Far from staying with their stricken craft they simply get up and walk away as if it they were Italian cruise liner captains.

I’m still stuck to my own seat, a seat which rather hilariously has a raggedy old sheepskin cover just like a London mini cab. I can’t help feeling it might want a bit of a wash now as the reality of that crash was really rather too impressive. These simulators at the Emirates Aviation Experience are very good indeed.

“Well, that wasn’t so good,” says the man behind me, tapping on his wireless keyboard.

I do like a flight simulator. In the teenage days of the internet I would fly my Hornet FA-18 fighter against pilots all over the world, all similarly equipped like me with an early Macintosh and a 56k modem. Bong bong bong, kssssh, screeeeeee.  I got so good I actually won the European fly off, dropping two finalists into the Mojave Desert and winning an FA-18 baseball hat, despite going back and strafing them on the ground in an excess of zeal. Top gun or what?

But a fast jet isn’t like a “heavy”; the Emirates Airbus A380 I try next is one very big airplane. A double decker all the way down its length, the classic Jumbo 747 had its second deck only in that iconic hump at the front; it’s so tall that in the cockpit you feel you’re looking out the window of a top floor flat in a tower block.

A full A380 flight simulator, one that incorporates physical movement too, is an expensive “toy” at over £10 million. Used to train real pilots, they aren’t easy to get onto as a civilian and even then they can cost over £400 for an hour. The four A380 flight simulators at Emirates have been simplified slightly and cost £47 for 30 minutes with an instructor behind. You can even take a friend and together work as a team and pretend one of you has collapsed from food poisoning or something. “You have to land the plane on your own Nick, you picked a bad day to give up drinking”.

The sim starts at the business end of the runway – none of that boring taxiing bit before you get to the action. Lined up on the centre line, and using the pedals to steer the nose wheel, you slam the throttle levers theatrically all the way forward and grasp the fly by wire joystick in your left hand.

The plane seems to do nothing at first then there is a sense of movement as the 400 ton behemoth reluctantly starts to roll and the plane’s four Rolls Royce engines, the “Whispering Giant” Trent 900s, begin to develop the enormous thrust required to get the plane off the ground.

The glass displays show the groundspeed quickly rising to the magic number of knots, 140, the V point where the wings develop sufficient lift to fly, and with a slight backward pull on the control I make the nose rise and we are off the ground.

I’m feeling pretty good about this and consider making an announcement over the PA – “Ahhhhhhh hello ladies and gentlemen. Ahhhhhhhh we are now leaving Heathrow and aaaaaaaah on our way to somewhere warmer” – when I notice the wheels are still down and lights are flashing as the drag affects our climb speed. It’s not yet time to turn off the seat belt signs, and let people turn their iPads back on; they are going to have to read that dog-eared in-flight mag a bit longer.

A screen shows the track the plane should be taking in green, while a white line shows where the plane is actually going and predicting where it will end up. The plane is very slow to respond to direction changes, being so enormous, so it takes a while to learn not to overcorrect and simply wait for the monster to come around. I notice too that I am still climbing steeply and about to go into orbit, so I level off, put the throttles to midway and start thinking about my tea.

The A380 flight simulator people realise that at this point one might get a teensy bit bored flying, so you can select “landing”, to shortcut the dreary bits. Hence my approach to Heathrow over central London at speed, my eyes glued to the lights on the runway (developed originally for aircraft carriers), which prismatically tell you if your angle is correct by changing colour when you rise or sink too much. At the same time I am eyeing my rate of descent indicator, my airspeed indicator and checking the sheepskin seat cover is firmly attached.

On my second attempt I make sure my wheels are down, drop gently toward the tarmac and bump to a landing – no doubt annoying everyone in Business class terribly. In front of the throttle levers are the reverse thrust selectors. I pull these, and at the same time push hard on the tops of the rudder pedals to activate the brakes. The speed drops immediately. Suddenly we are at a comfortable roll and on our way to the terminal, in one piece and with no screaming passengers and dangling emergency air masks out back.

As we roll to a stop – admittedly quite some distance from the terminal building – I finally get to say the words I’ve been bursting to say for the last half hour. The timeless, powerful, evocative phrase that every budding pilot dreams of uttering: “Cabin crew. Doors to manual.” C


Emirates Experience bookings in London are available via aviation-experience.com