I had wanted to be a commercial airline pilot but my career path took a very different turn. Since my teenage years, commercial aviation has been a major interest of mine and the availability of real simulators has allowed me to fulfil some of my adolescent fantasies (sic!). Some years previously, I had experienced a shared session on an MD11 based at London Gatwick -LGW when all I really did was take off and land the aircraft at Kai-Tak in Hong Kong (not the ‘checkerboard’ approach, though). I have now been in the left-hand seat on two ‘flights’ with Virtual Aviation. The first was a 2 hour session in late 2009 on a Boeing 737NG full-motion simulator at LGW (purchased as a 60th birthday present from me to myself).
In late 2012, Virtual Aviation installed their own Boeing 737-800 HDX simulator at Cambridge Airport and I was one of its earliest users. This simulator is a ‘fixed-base’ model, i.e. there is not quite the same feeling of motion as on the full-motion models. However, the advantage is that the cost is only about a third of the ‘commercial’ full-motion simulators that Virtual Aviation are able to reserve with external flight training companies. A second advantage is that training is held at Virtual Aviation’s Cambridge base and this offers a little less-formal environment than at LGW. For those arriving at Cambridge Airport, head for the Cambridge Aero Club clubhouse. The simulator is situated in a hangar next door and the helpful staff in the Aero Club will contact the Virtual Aviation staff (Mark Green and Steven Beech when I went).
I had arranged a 4 hour session on the B737-800 simulator. On arrival, I met Steven Beech and Mark Green. My instructor was a Senior First Officer who arrived at the airport in good time for my ‘flight’. I had made contact with my instructor prior to my session and made some suggestions as to what I might like to try. We started the session in the simulator itself with about 30 min of revision and familiarisation with the instruments (better than at LGW where instruction was carried out outside the simulator). However, I suspect that the availability of the simulator for this ‘pre-flight’ instruction might depend whether it is in prior use.
I started the session at London Heathrow (LHR) and took off from runway 09R heading out over the Thames estuary. We had intended to fly to LGW and make an instrument landing system (ILS) approach to runway 26L. However, we couldn’t pick up the ILS (a minor technical glitch, I believe) and so went back to LHR. There I did a number of take-offs and landings, with variations in the use of the instruments and external indicators. For example, I made approaches using the precision approach path indicators (PAPIs) at the side of the runway as I had done on my first session in 2009 but, in the end, we decided it was probably better to use my primary flight display (PFD). The PAPIs are aligned for B747-400s, so they tend to display that a B737 is below the glide-slope, which is somewhat misleading.
In the interim and whilst in-flight, I practiced recovering from a stall, and a few TCAS (traffic collision avoidance system) incidents which I thought were rather fun. We then relocated to Nice Airport and I tried landing the aircraft in a 30 knot cross-wind at night and experiencing windshear on take-off (unfortunately ending up in the sea on the first attempt). The session ended with my aiming the aircraft at the mountains to the north of Nice, actuating the ground proximity warning system (GPWS) and avoiding a CFT (controlled flight into terrain).
So, in summary, the whole session was most enjoyable. I learnt a lot and enjoyed a good dialogue with my instructor with each of us making suggestions as to what we might try. The simulator graphics were excellent. I did not have time to try everything that I wanted to, having concentrated quite heavily on practicing landings. For example, I had wanted to try an ‘engine-out’ approach, but time did not permit this. The whole four hours passed very quickly. I was a little concerned that I would find the session too tiring but the fact that the simulator was not being fully utilised allowed time for a short half-time break.
The matter foremost in my mind before the session was how the fixed-base simulator would compare in terms of ‘feel’ with the full-motion simulator. Obviously, it is not quite as realistic and I did miss experiencing the feeling of the gear touching down on the runway. There is obviously no ‘bump’, something that I found particularly useful in my previous session on a full motion B737. Set against that, there is a distinct cost advantage in the Cambridge simulator and the graphics are superior. I do not know whether it is feasible, but it might be nice to be given a CD that contained recordings of my manoeuvres. I still have the print-outs of my MD11 landings. I suppose the real test of the day is whether I think that I would pay for the Cambridge simulator again, and the answer is a resounding ‘YES’.
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