Life away from the BigD machine can be pretty good sometimes. Julie gave me a birthday present in August which was booked out three months ahead – a Boeing 737 Airliner flight simulator. My trip was for an hour, flying into and from our local airports and then into and from an airport of my choice.
I have flown a plane (non-simulated) before. I learned to fly a Cessna 150 in Albury, about 35 short years ago. (It is only since I reached my 50s that I have been able to say 30 years of this, 35 years of that. It gives me a funny (not Ha Ha) feeling, because I always thought that people who said that kind of thing were old. I don’t feel old; in my head I feel around 25, but with some occasionally useful, occasionally embarrassing experiences.)
Still, I digress. I learned to fly when I worked for a small defence electronics company in Albury. It was a private company, owned and run by the founder, Lindsay Knight. His products were smart target systems for anything that went bang, from pistols and rifles to vehicle mounted guns and tanks. He had offices in London and South Carolina and travelled everywhere selling. He had his own plane, a Beechcraft Baron and which he and his pilot flew around the country. I was writing his technical manuals and I became friendly with Warren, his pilot. Warren had invented a nifty little device for helping people land small planes safely and he wanted to patent it. So I helped him write the patent for flying lessons. The device was a clever design and worked really well, but like many smart inventions, it didn’t get the exposure it needed.
I well remember my first solo flight. I met Warren at 0630 on a cool autumn morning for my usual half hour lesson. We did some touch and go circuits and unexpectedly, Warren said: “You’re ready, do a solo circuit.” He jumped out, and deliberately without thinking, I pushed in the throttle lever and took off. It was surreal, flying in cool, still crystal clear air all alone, the only one responsible for my safe landing. It was a perfect circuit and a perfect landing. And I was still on a high when I went home from work that afternoon.
A little after that we had our third child and Julie suggested that no matter how safe it was, I would be more likely to be there for the kids if I stayed on the ground. And mostly I have done so, apart from a few lessons in an ultralight (something like a lawn mower attached to a sail) a couple of years ago, and a joy flight in a Tiger Moth last year.
Still, I’m very glad I learned to fly when I did. I can’t fly now, because after the last transplant I lost much of the sight in one eye, and you need two working eyes to be a pilot.
However, I wanted each of our kids to understand the thrill of flying a small plane, so on their 17th birthdays I took each of them to a local flying school and arranged a half-hour flight, where the instructor gave them an introductory lesson. None of them have taken up flying – yet – but they have at least had a go.
So last Sunday I climbed into the 737 simulator cockpit (with, for the first time, Julie and my daughter Kathy as passengers in the seats behind me). I had a briefing from the instructor and when I looked up, we were sitting on the tarmac at Melbourne Tullamarine.
I pulled back the throttle, gently touched the rudder pedals and within a minute, we were airborne. It only took a moment to believe that we were flying, and as we turned for Avalon airport, much of the feel and responses I haven’t felt for so many years came back to me. It is so much like the real thing my heart was racing and I was sweating to get aligned for the landing. The first half hour, touching and going at Avalon, Moorabbin and Essendon airports and landing aback a Tullamarine was a great way to get back into the groove.
For the last half hour, I chose Innsbruck airport in Austria. It is a difficult airport, located in a river valley with very high snow-capped mountains all on both sides. Take off involves getting high very quickly while flying left in a gentle arc that follows the valley.
Mountains get very close. But the 737 is very powerful and the plane lifts easily over the peaks. Landing is similarly cramped and the runway is short. But again, the plane design, air brakes, landing gear and flaps make it relatively smooth. Luckily there was no wind shear or turbulence. However, we did simulate losing one engine. That was fun.
In fact, the whole thing was a real buzz. It’s over a week now since the flight and I am still enjoying it. Hopefully, I can afford a longer flight next year! Alternatively, I wonder if they can set up a BigD machine in the co-pilot’s chair, so I can benefit on two fronts?
The one hour flight cost A$275. The simulator is part of the Flight Experience group. www.flightexperience.com, with simulators in Australia in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuwait and Europe.