Adventure #23: What’s Your Vector, Victor?

It is a cold morning and once again I am on a bus headed in the direction of the airport. Once again, though, I’m not flying anywhere. Not exactly, that is.

Sage is busy so she can’t come with me but I’m on my way to a surprise adventure she has set up for me. I only find out when she tells me where I have to go to, an unassuming building in an industrial park within sight of the airport. As I get off the bus just to the north I can see planes landing, about one per minute, at Pearson International Airport.

Inside it looks like any other suburban office. Were it not for the model planes everywhere I might think I’m at a lab I sometimes work at.

After three buses and a subway and about two hours of riding, I am at uFly Simulator. This location has a $250,000 Boeing 777-200ER cockpit simulator that they use for everything from pilot assessment and training to corporate events to workshops to help you get over your fear of flying.

After a short wait I’m brought into the back. Instead of labs, or a warehouse full of sneakers, see a small door. I walk inside and though I know what’s coming I’m still surprised at what I see. If I had been blindfolded and brought in I would likely have thought I was in a real plane. It even smelled like I was getting on a plane.

My “copilot” asks me to sit down and there I am, at the controls. Instead of windows there are monitors all synched up to the simulation.

Because I’m new and it’s a simulation we have perfect weather. No wind, no storms, no turbulence. I’m told to engage the throttle and you can hear and even feel the engines ramp up.

The copilot tells me when to pull back and we ascend, and as we go up he tells me what to do with the flaps. Eventually we level off.

The autopilot seems to have a few different levels – from full control for cruising to simply maintaining speed and suggesting whether you’re too high or low – or need to turn left or right.

I’m really thrown off by a few things. The first is that unlike a car, where if you let go of the steering wheel, it returns to going straight, if you let go of the yoke, you stop increasing how much you turn but you’re still going to be turning left.

The second is that this is a big vehicle. You don’t just steer with the yoke, you steer with pedals as well. As I understand it, the yoke tilts the plane left or right while the pedals essentially turn the tail left or right without tilting. So most turns use both.

Worst of all, though, my brain insists on interpreting the directional guidance backwards. If it is telling me to turn left, I will go right. If it tells me to go up, I go down. I am the pilot of your worst nightmares.

But fortunately I have an experienced pilot who, like my driver’s education instructor did when I was a kid, has the ability to override what I do to save me from killing our virtual passengers and who knows how many people on the ground.

Unlike my driver’s ed teacher, though, my instructor does not see that I am feeling comfortable, tell me to get on the highway to cruise and take a nap (give him a break, he was 68 when he taught me – he needed his sleep!), my copilot is serious. He repeats back headings, announces when we’re at altitude or how much our flaps are engaged. There is clearly no room for funny business. No trying to fly under bridges or doing a barrel roll like I would try with my home flight simulator programs when I was younger. We have a job. We are airline pilots. There shall be no shenanigans.

He is serious enough to make it clear there will be no horseplay but kind enough to help me learn and understand what I’m doing. This is good because every time I turn the wrong direction in response to the guidance I feel a little bit disappointed in myself. Why can’t I get this?

After we do one flight in St. Maartin, we land and he asks where I’d like to go. I’ve been to Mumbai airport several times now and am curious to see how accurate it is. And so we go there. When he “sends” us there it displays the conditions at the current time – night.

I realize when I’m here that I’m always completely exhausted and rarely see it from this view so I’m pretty sure I don’t recognize it. But then he overrides the clock and we’re in the daytime again.

Yeah – this isn’t quite right. Where is the greenery and the gorgeous new international terminal? I admit I’m a little disappointed.

We take off again and make a loop of the city. My copilot doesn’t know the city and asks where the downtown is so I direct him toward the south near Colaba. And off we go.

It’s really cold outside but my brain is being tricked. There is the Arabian Sea, I can see some of the tropical greenery below now and part of me is certain that when I open the door it will be 28 degrees and sunny out.

We line up to land – something that I could never do in my home simulators and still have trouble with here. When we touch the ground, he tells me to hit the brakes and I do, pushing the two pedals above the rudder pedals hard. We come to a stop and he says we have time and asks if I want to do it again, and so up we go one more time and make another loop over the ocean. This time I’m starting to understand it and don’t make nearly as many potentially life-threatening mistakes going down when I should go up.

When we land he invites me to drive to the terminal, using a little wheel on the console to turn the front wheel left and right. We pull up to the gate, hit the brakes and stop the engines. And my career as a commercial pilot is over just an hour after it started. But not before we get a picture at the gate.

I clearly left my uniform at home. I hope I didn’t shake any of my passengers’ confidence by arriving in casual wear.

Back outside I go, and I’m disappointed to find the temperatures are not in the 30’s there is nowhere to get misal pav or kokum juice, and I will have to wait 20 minutes on this deserted suburban street to see another person when the bus comes to take me home.

In the end, I get a good perspective of what it takes to fly. On the one hand, there is a great deal of very good automation, and even the simulator copilot takes his job extremely seriously. On the other, it is easy to see how much work is involved in becoming a competent pilot – competent enough even to fly in the perfect conditions I had in my simulator. I have even more respect for the people who fly these planes for hours and hours every week.

But perhaps the best way to see what it was like is to see a video. I wasn’t able to take one but fortunately someone else was.

13 thoughts on “Adventure #23: What’s Your Vector, Victor?

  1. That was a superb adventure. My husband had said for many years that he wanted to fly a little plane. I gifted him with a lesson. After that experience he decided he was no longer interested in piloting a plane. He is content to look out the window. You may feel the same after learning how daunting it is.

    1. It is a great gift and if I could go there every weekend I would totally do it (it’s pretty pricey – Two hours would be about the same as a cheap *real* flight to NYC). That said, I may get a simulator on my computer again one of these days. But really, even driving a car now feels like an immense responsibility for so many lives requiring incredible levels of attention. I don’t think I could ever feel comfortable even flying a small single engine plane.

  2. Hooray! When we first met, Todd, I was working on testing the programming for the display in the middle of the cockpit panel, though for smaller business jets. I also would design how the characters looked, like a box of rubber stamps for the programs, like sprites and costumes in Scratch. I also got to take ground school to learn more about what pilots need to know.
    I’m glad that you had such a great opportunity. It’s fascinating how the brain can be fooled to through sense manipulation to really feel like you are there.

    1. Thanks – it was a blast! As I was traveling last month I often thought about it, wondering what was happening in the cockpit as I relaxed in my seat.

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