x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dream remains a dream, luckily

Like most boys, David Black dreamed of becoming an airline pilot when he was young. The flying public can today breathe a sigh of relief it was one ambition he never realised.

 

Our lucky desk pilot gets chance to fulfil an ambition - sort of

Like most boys, I dreamed of becoming an airline pilot when I was young. The flying public can today breathe a sigh of relief it was one ambition I never realised.

Flying Lufthansa's Airbus A380 simulator at the airline's Flight Training Centre in Frankfurt was dead easy - with the autopilot on. It was the "hands on the control stick" bit that was tricky and landing … that was another matter entirely.

Sitting in the co-pilot's seat, the idea was I would lift this 500 tonne airliner, with a notional 560 passengers on board, off the runway at San Francisco International Airport, do a little swing over the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay and return without spilling the passengers' drinks.

My colleague on the flight deck, Lufthansa's chief A380 training Captain Geert Pruss, would do all the difficult bits - like adjusting the throttle settings and the flaps, watching the speed and calling "V1" when we are thundering along the runway fast enough to actually "have slipped the surly bonds of Earth", as the poets say.

Before we roll, I'm given a tour of the instruments; glass electronic displays whose functions Capt Pruss explains and which I promptly forget.

They glow passively, waiting to clang, flash and buzz at the slightest push of the wrong button.

"We have an initial clearance to 3,000 feet," says Capt Pruss.

"When we hit 130 knots I'll call 'V1' and all you do is pull back on the stick. That's the altimeter," he says, indicating a little number wheel. "When you get to 3000, level out."

The A380 does not have the usual two-handed central control stick but a computer-game joystick you just have to touch to input manoeuvres.

So, off we roll, gathering speed, the airport buildings rolling by and a traffic jam on the nearby motorway. On the command I pull back and up we go.

"Well that was easy," I think, while Capt Pruss does all the serious work, such as retracting the landing gear, adjusting the flaps and watching the engine performance. We get to 3,000ft and fly straight through it.

"You're a bit high," he says as we power on up towards 4,000ft. "The air traffic controller won't be pleased."

This state of the art, US$20 million-plus (Dh73.45m) device, sits on a set of hydraulic legs that raises, turns and lowers the cabin so that, inside, the training captain and his student, surrounded by high-definition graphics that can recreate any weather conditions at any airport in the world and can work through any procedure or emergency the controller cares to throw at them.

Lufthansa's 4,800 pilots come through the airline's simulators - it has 20 at Frankfurt alone - for evaluation at least four times a year. That is twice the industry requirement.

The airline also "sells" training time to other airlines, with more than 10,000 pilots passing through the training centre.

All of them will have performed better than me.

I get us to between 2,800 and 3,400ft in a gentle porpoise-like manner as I try to turn and maintain the height and then we are lined up on the runway.

Because you sit off-centre, it's not a good idea to go "visual" on approach.

Instruments showing whether you're veering too far to the left or right, or are too high or too low, begin their dance and the trick is to keep your 500 tonnes and 560 human beings on what they tell you is "the glide path".

Crosswinds? Thunderstorms? Snow? It's all part of the fun.

We roll and sway towards the concrete. "The aircraft will call out heights after 100ft and then when it tells you 'retard', pull back on the stick," says Capt Pruss.

I'm lined up too far to the right but if I breathe in I might just get the wheels on the runway. The machine starts speaking to me; "70 feet, 50 feet, retard." I pull back gently, looking to impress with a silk-smooth touchdown but receive instead a sharp bump. We've landed.

"Mmm. Survivable," says Captain Pruss. Except the aircraft apparently would have required a full structural audit and any passengers with fillings in their teeth would have lost them.

I didn't "retard" fast enough - so it's back to the desk job.

 

dblack@thenational.ae