Etihad Airways' training base in Abu Dhabi has an Airbus flight simulator that recreates the thrill of flying.
An aviator for a day
Every time I think of an autopilot, the mental image that is instantly conjured up is that of the smiling, inflatable pilot in Airplane!, the 1980 disaster-movie parody. But when you are confronted with the cockpit of an Airbus A320, it soon becomes clear that if something does goes wrong, an inflatable man is not going to save the day. Instead, years of training and understanding the function of a myriad of buttons and screens will help navigate any incidents that may arise and ward off what flight attendants always describe in announcements as "the unlikely event of an emergency". I'm at Etihad Airways' training base in Abu Dhabi where I'm introduced to the airline's manager of fleet training, Sven Wojciulewitsch - luckily, he is happy to be called Captain Sven. The white, boxy bodies of the simulators are perched on long, electronically controlled legs. When I walk in, one of the simulators is in action and appears to be simulating some serious turbulence as it thrashes about, the legs bending and jerking as if it is about to cut loose, march out and storm the streets of Abu Dhabi. The national airline's fleet of simulators is being used to train a squadron of young, Emirati cadet pilots as well as qualified and experienced pilots keen to swot up on unfamiliar routes and the different Airbus aircraft.
From the start, safety is the priority - you can only walk along the yellow-painted lines on the floor around the US$15 million (Dh55m) simulators. Then Captain Sven leads me up a spiral staircase, across a high drawbridge and into the cockpit. "This is one of the best simulators," Captain Sven says and lets me, the aeronautical novice, sit down in the captain's seat. I look around in wonder at the array of buttons and screens. "There's the crash axe if you get angry!" he laughs, pointing out an axe strapped low on the wall near the door.
The axe, along with the accurate replica of an A320 cockpit, is all part of the realism and it does not take long to convince yourself that you're sitting in an Airbus about to take off. The view out of the front window materialises before me at the push of a button and I'm staring down one of Abu Dhabi's runways. At this stage on a real flight, the passengers would be putting on their seat belts and the pilots would be strapping themselves in. I'm soon trussed up in a five-point safety harness - now, I know why I was instructed to wear jeans or trousers, and I'm very glad I heeded that advice. This is no time for a mini skirt. I was also told to wear comfortable shoes - which are pretty much the only kind of shoes I own - and I'm all too pleased that I left my one pair of high heels at home.
Then, my seat is moved forward to allow my short legs to reach the two gigantic pedals that look as if they have been stolen from a church organ. The instructions sound simple enough: "Use your left foot on the left pedal to move left, use your right foot on the right pedal to move right," Captain Sven says. To my left is a joystick, which is also used for steering, and the sight takes me back to the computer games of the 1980s and the hours I spent playing Mouse House on a friend's Spectra Video PC. Captain Sven shows me the different weather conditions that can be simulated and I get to enjoy the rare sight of an Abu Dhabi runway covered in snow. We're going to take a jaunt around the city's skies and a simple course is programmed into the machine. It is not long before I've had a cursory explanation of a handful of buttons and I'm ready for my first take-off.
I've always been one of those nerds who genuinely gets a kick out of being in a plane - you can spot me as the dorky passenger with her nose pressed to the window, watching as the runway disappears, marvelling that mankind can engineer such a strange beast to become safely airborne. But, when you are partly responsible for achieving the take-off, along with the qualified pilot's guiding hand, the thrill is even greater.
I become completely inarticulate as we gather speed, tipping the nose of the plane upwards, leaving the tarmac behind. "Oh wow! That's amazing! Man, that is so cool! This is the best fun ever!" is an approximation of my high school-sounding tirade as we're soon in the air and I can see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Musaffah Bridge beneath me. In the midst of my excitement, I am able to point out where I live and Captain Sven smiles politely. Then, it is time to bank the plane, turning to the right. The feeling of being in control of such an incredibly complex and mighty piece of machinery is tremendous - it's easy to understand why pilots love the buzz of flying.
We fly over the Corniche, spotting Emirates Palace, Lulu Island and Marina Mall along the way. After a brief jaunt around the capital, it is time for my first landing and Captain Sven charts a course back to the airport. I'm terrified that I might plant the plane onto the runway with the kind of force that causes overhead lockers to pop open but it is a reasonably good landing and very satisfying to feel the wheels touch down, and the plane came to a stop without careening into the terminal, Airplane!-style.
For my next attempt, it's time to move on to the serious business of flying a plane during a mid-air emergency. While it's all well and good for the blasé frequent flier to casually assume that planes "just fly themselves these days", the importance of having a human being in the hot seat as well as all this technology should not be underestimated. A mid-air flip, generally caused by unexpected turbulence, is simulated with scary authenticity. We are seriously jolted; the photographer who is capturing the moment has to hang on tightly as we experience the stomach-churning sensation of the plane momentarily no longer flying parallel to the ground below. At that moment, instinct kicks in but my contribution only really boils down to trying not to panic as I move the pedals and joystick to correct the situation - while Captain Sven and the plane's brain do the real work.
"There would have been casualties if this was a real flight," he tells me once we are flying smoothly once more. The comment gives me goosebumps as I imagine a plane-load of bruised passengers all wanting instant attention from the overworked cabin crew. Not to mention all those spilt drinks. We also "experience" an engine fire, something that's more bizarre than terrifying. From the cockpit window, I can't really see the fire, save for a few clouds of smoke wisping their way into my peripheral vision.
Helpfully, the instructions for dealing with a fire come up in simple point form on a screen and Captain Sven explains the procedure, telling me what buttons to push to contain the fire and how to alert the passengers and crew to the potential emergency. The fire is extinguished as quickly as it started and, reassuringly, I'm reminded that the A320 can fly on, and land safely with, one engine. Just in case I'm starting to get a bit cocky and consider a career switch from journalism to aeronautics, I'm soon brought back down to earth. With a thud.
My first solo attempt at a take-off is something of a debacle, but it gives me a sense of the huge responsibility that comes with being a pilot. As we start to take off, the plane veers to the right and, in a moment of temporary left-right dyslexia, I slam my foot on the right pedal rather than the left. Captain Sven's simple advice - "use your left foot on the left pedal to move left, use your right foot on the right pedal to move right" - has somehow parachuted from my brain and the plane quickly leaves the smooth safe territory of the runway, into the rough, hitting a few obstacles on the way.
Embarrassed, I manage to bring the Airbus to a grinding halt but not before I lose a wheel, watching impotently as it rolls out in front of me. Perhaps that's why Etihad's cadet pilots have to complete more 1,100 hours tuition - they spend six to nine months training in a flight simulator in all - before buckling up for their maiden passenger flight as a first officer. It then takes a minimum of six years' experience to get his or her Captain's stripes.
As well as being able to simulate take-off and landing at different airports around the world, all manner of weather conditions, times of day and potential emergency situations, additional information is constantly added to the Etihad Airways' simulators. "It is interesting for us to find out about any incident that happens, no matter what airline it is, so that we know what could happen in mid-air, so we are prepared for it," Captain Sven says.
When I emerge from the simulator, I cannot stop grinning. Flying a plane, even if it is an electronically generated flight around Abu Dhabi, delivers an incredible buzz. The accuracy of the simulator, complete with the thrashing movement of the flip, the flashing lights of the fire emergency and the thud of landing, is impressive. Next time I board a plane, I will be a much more appreciative passenger. Anyone who thinks that a plane can fly anywhere in the world on autopilot clearly doesn't know what they are talking about. It's because of endless hours in the classroom and in a simulator that the event of an emergency is unlikely indeed.