Watch What It’s Like to ‘Fly’ an A330 Full-Motion Flight Simulator

Dec 8, 2017

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For AvGeeks, full-motion flight simulators are as close to flying a commercial aircraft as it can get. Taking a seat in the cockpit of one of the simulators gives you the full experience of that you’d find on actual aircraft. Turbulence rumbles the same way, a sudden drop makes your stomach uneasy, a hard landing sends your head jolting forward and smooth flying is, as you’d expect, fairly uneventful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to Toronto Pearson airport (YYZ) to check out the new Air Canada Signature Suite. But Air Canada had more in mind than to just show us the lounge. Prior to checking out the Signature Suite, we traveled to the company’s Flight Operations center to test out a flight simulator. Yes, I got a chance to test out what it’s actually like to fly a commercial aircraft.

Full disclosure: Unlike TPG contributor Jason Steele, who “flew” a United A320 simulator, I’m not a commercially rated pilot. So, I don’t have the expertise to compare the flight simulator experience to that in an actual A330. That being said, being able to sit in a nearly-exact mock-up of an 330 cockpit, and fly it, was a fascinating experience.

 

Walking through Air Canada’s Flight Ops building, hallways appear like that of a typical office building with very few windows. Indicators around the hallways remind you that you’re in a major international airline’s Flight Ops center: briefing rooms for aircraft types, directions to simulators and life-size mock-ups of cockpit switches and avionics.

Once you get to the simulators, they’re hard to miss. The structures are really a sight to see — even from the outside. The cube-shaped machines look like robots lined down the hallway of a warehouse with tall ceilings like an aircraft hangar. When in use, you can see the machine in action, bouncing around with its tripod of retractable legs jolting it back and forth. Rough landings don’t go unnoticed — even from the outside.

As I mentioned, I took a ride in an A330 simulator, which, as detailed on the exterior of the contraption, is also the same one that’s used for A340 aircraft, although Air Canada phased out its 340s. When the simulator isn’t in use, it’s connected to the elevated walkway by a bridge. Once the door is closed and the simulator is in use, the bridge is drawn so the jolting machine doesn’t knock into it.

Walking into the simulator is a neat experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I immediately noticed how close to the actual cockpit the interior looks. If you did not know, you would think this was a real A330 flight deck — it’s got everything, from the circuit breakers on the roof panel to the autopilot on top of the dashboard, to the radios and flight management computers, and everything is where it would be on the real jet. It’s wild to see the nose of the aircraft just outside the cockpit window.

I have to admit, I was absolutely stunned with how realistic everything looked. In our “travels,” we departed from and circled around Vancouver (YVR), so we really got to the see the technology behind the display system out of the cockpit windows. Sitting on the runway, you can see the airport on the right, the Rocky Mountains to your left and straight ahead you can even see individual snow-capped peaks. The displays are even so detailed as to identify cell phone towers with flashing lights in the exact locations pilots can expect to see them in the real world. During nighttime displays, car headlights below you can be seen driving and making turns.

Even with list prices of $14 million a pop for simulators made by CAE Inc., like Air Canada’s are, using them makes financial sense for the airline, which doesn’t have to use empty aircraft for training, burning fuel with no revenue. And if pilots crash in a simulator, no one gets hurt, except possibly their careers.

The experience for the pilot in training is the same exact one that they’d get in the cockpit of a physical A330 aircraft. My instructor said that if one of the carrier’s A330s needed a replacement part for its cockpit controls and, for some reason, none were available, one taken from the simulator could do the job perfectly.

In addition to the two pilot seats, there are two other seats — one for the instructor and one for the observer.

The instructor’s two computer screens have complete control over the flying environment. In order to be a rated pilot, one has to be trained and prepared to operate in all conditions. With a couple touches, the instructor can switch from a clear day with the sun shining to a foggy evening with zero visibility. It’s incredible to see how realistic your perspective and experience looks switching between scenarios.

Along with the stunning quality of the display experience, I was shocked with how easy (apparently, at least) it is to operate the basics of an A330 — an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 530,000 pounds, that can carry 300 people more than 7,000 miles nonstop.

Granted, all of the pre-flight decisions were checked by an expert, and I had a voice over my shoulder instructing me what to do the whole time. My group and I switched between settings on our two trips around YVR — a manual takeoff and landing, and one set on autopilot. It’s amazing just to see how accurate the autopilot operation is.

Typically, the flight crew can select whether they want to operate the flight manually or by using the autopilot system. However, if the weather is bad enough, they’re forced to let the aircraft’s systems do all the work on autopilot.

When in manual mode, pilots use one of two control sticks, which, by the way, are so small — about the size of a standard bottle of water.  As you turn the aircraft with the smallest amount of force, the Vancouver suburbs come into clear view, looking down over the city.

Of course, because this wasn’t a real situation, we wanted to try out what it would be like to operate the aircraft if something were to go wrong inflight. We left that to the professionals. After programming the computer to initiate an engine failure, our instructor took the lead on getting us safely back to YVR. The system’s loud, firm voice began issuing commands — “Too low; terrain,” “50, 40, 30, 20, Retard” — and loud sirens filled the cockpit interior. Of course, because we were operating under a professional, the seemingly major situation was handled with ease and we landed back at YVR. Real or not, it was still a nerve-wracking few minutes, especially since just a few months ago my Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER encountered an engine failure on takeoff.

All Airbus aircraft in production today — the A318 / 319 320 / 321 series, the A330, A350 and A380 — all feature the same control layout and side “joystick.” Once a pilot is rated on one Airbus aircraft, they can train to become rated on another Airbus aircraft via the flight simulator in as few as four days. So, if a pilot were rated on an Air Canada A330 and the carrier needed more pilots on its A321s, they could head to Toronto’s Flight Ops center and begin training. They could then be rated to fly the A321 in as soon as four days.

The two newest simulators to appear in the Toronto training center are for Boeing 737s, though, specifically for the 737MAX. In November, the carrier took delivery of its first 737 MAX 8 aircraft, and it has 17 remaining orders — one will be delivered in 2017 and 16 in 2018. The 737 MAXs will eventually phase out the aging A319, A320 and A321 fleet. To reaffirm its commitment to Boeing, the carrier also has orders for 787-9 and 737 MAX 9 aircraft in place. The A330s may eventually also be replaced by the 787.

While the future of Airbus in Air Canada’s fleet is somewhat foggy, it was an incredible opportunity to be able to sit at the helm of one — at least as close to sitting at the helm as I’ll likely get. The thrill of operating an aircraft was without parallel to near anything I’ve experienced, even if I never really left the ground. As a budding AvGeek, I won’t forget this experience for a long time.

How You Can Fly In a Flight Simulator

Full-motion flight simulators aren’t cheap. Each machine costs millions of dollars. Often, if an airline places an order for aircraft, say from Airbus or Boeing, they’ll typically include a deal that would also include a simulator so the airline could train its pilots on the new aircraft. Because simulators are expensive pieces of equipment, airlines tend to keep them off limits to the public. That being said, there are a few ways you could potentially get into the front seat of an “aircraft”.

Probably the best deal for getting to check out a flight simulator is with Thai Airways. As part of the Thai Royal Orchid Plus program, you can get a one-hour experience in a commercial-grade, full-motion simulator for 12,500 miles. As a reminder, Thai Royal Orchid Plus is a transfer partner of the Citi ThankYou program and Starwood Preferred Guest, both at a 1:1 ratio. As you might expect, Thai’s simulator is in Bangkok, so you must travel there in order to redeem for this. You must book at least three working days in advance. If you’re looking to redeem points or miles for a flight simulator experience, this is your best bet at just 12,500 miles.

Like Thai, Qantas also offers you the opportunity to buy some flight simulator time, in Sydney — either with cash or points. You can pay 1,499 Australian dollars (~$1,127) for a one-hour Boeing 747-400 simulator experience for two people. You’ll also get a tour of the Flight Ops center for a total time of about 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you could use points to purchase the same flight simulator package for 115,000 points. Qantas is a transfer partner of the Citi ThankYou program at a 1:1 ratio.

British Airways allows you to book time in a flight simulator for many of its different types of aircraft. You can’t use Avios to redeem for an experience; you can only pay cash. The least expensive option available now is for one hour in a Boeing 767-300, totaling £399 ($533). Malaysia Airlines also offers a flight simulator experience in Kuala Lumpur — both for redemptions and cash. You can pay 500 Malaysian Ringgit (~$122) for each 20-minute session or 30,000 Enrich miles for a 30-minute session. Citi ThankYou points transfer to Malaysia Enrich at a 1:1 ratio.

Several other airlines offer flight simulator experiences, however, there are generally some stipulations. For example, EVA Air offers a flight simulator package in Taiwan for 100,000 miles, but it’s only available to Gold and Diamond elite members. Check out this post for other flight simulator experiences that are available to purchase.

If you get the chance to “fly” a simulator, don’t hesitate to do it. It’s an incredible experience — and one that many people, like myself, will likely never get to do on an actual commercial aircraft.

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