How simulated flight landing gave me memorable flying experience

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When it comes to my feelings about flying, I’ve panicked over DVT, I’ve tried CBT, and as a last resort, self-medicated on G&T.

I’ve breathed into paper bags, and recited facts, figures and statistics citing evidence of the safety of this mode of transport, in a desperate bid to convince myself that you really are more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport.

(Twice as likely, in fact, if my husband is driving).

I’ve blocked out the strange sounds of flaps coming down and engines whining with my headphones, in the belief that the pumping sound of Erasure in my ear will transport me to my happy place.

I’ve immersed myself in the pages of bloodthirsty thrillers and gripping autobiographies, and read every single word of the dullest of broadsheets as descent begins, in an effort to ignore the sensation of my stomach literally rising through the roof of my mouth as the pilot starts to bring us down.

I’ve even participated in a Fearless Flying course, and this was a wonderful experience, which almost cured me, after I spent two days absorbing reassuring anecdotes about the calmness of the cockpit, the perfectly normal feeling of dropping from the sky after take-off, and the impossibility of turbulence ever bringing the aircraft down.

I stress the word ‘almost’. Almost, but not quite.

“But it’s the safest form of transport. What are you so afraid of?” friends and family have demanded of me for years.

And finally, after more than three decades of mini panic attacks every time I set foot in the Departures area of Belfast International, I think I’ve nailed the reason why.

It’s not a fear of heights - even though occupying a window seat is a feat that reaches far beyond my capabilities.

It’s not even the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped inside a flying metal tube for four-plus hours.

It is the complete and utter, and absolutely terrifying, lack of control.

As I sink into my seat on that aircraft and fasten my seatbelt, that gentle click represents to me the stark reality that my life is now in someone else’s hands.

Someone I can’t even see, and can only pray will speak to his passengers at regular intervals to reassure us that yes, all is well, the flight is progressing according to plan, and there is no danger of any imminent lightning strikes or mid air collisions.

For many, silence is golden, and no communication from the cockpit means there is nothing to worry about, apart from which perfume to buy from the Duty Free.

To paranoid freaks like me, a silent captain is indicative of the fact that something, some impending horror, is about to unfold, the detail of which is being kept hidden from me.

Ask anyone who knows me; these are the kinds of obsessive, suspicion-laden thoughts which go through my mind when I’m on board a plane.

So perhaps there really was only one way of curing my phobia once and for all - letting me sit in that pilot’s seat, and see for myself how this thing stays up in the air.

Last Tuesday, I was finally able to seize my chance, when the British Airways 787 Dreamliner mobile simulator arrived in Northern Ireland, for only the second time ever.

It was being showcased at the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick, as part of a travel industry event, giving aviation fanatics the chance to sit in a flight deck that had been mocked up to precisely replicate the real thing.

The opportunity was also very timely, given the fact that BA is celebrating its fifth anniversary of flying from Belfast City Airport to London Heathrow next month - it currently operates seven flights a day to Terminal 5.

And the 787 is a very sophisticated aircraft; indeed, the most technologically advanced in the BA fleet, with 42 more of them destined to join the airline.

There are two kinds of 787; the first is the 787-8, which first started to join the fleet in the summer of 2013.

They have three cabins: Club World (business class), World Traveller Plus (premium economy) and World Traveller (economy).

Then there are the 787-9s, which arrived at the end of September 2015.

They are 20 ft longer than their predecessor, and can accommodate a first class cabin in addition to the other three.

Impressively, the 787 can fly for almost 10,000 miles without refuelling, yet uses 20 per cent less fuel than similarly sized aircraft.

Its advanced monitoring systems allow it to report system maintenance requirements to ground based computer systems during flight, instantly alerting engineers to any adjustments necessary to improve efficiency.

An impressive set of statistics, but for now, as I walked into the ‘cockpit’ of the simulator, with BA senior first officer Oliver Donnelly by my side, all I could feel was the lurching sensation of flying nerves - even though I was staying on the ground.

The first thing to strike me was the view out the impressive sized cockpit windows. The simulator was programmed so that we were to take off from Heathrow, and as Oliver explained, every single landmark you saw from the flight deck was a mirror image of the real thing seen by pilots.

The windows also took away from the usual claustrophobic feeling of being in a plane, and as I settled into the captain’s seat, I began to relax.

Beneath and above the windows, the view was even more dazzling.

Knobs, buttons, controls, levers twinkled at me, as Oliver gave me a brief but thorough explanation of the basics of operating them.

Control displays showing speed, altitude and a map of our course, amongst many more, were in my direct line of vision, whilst above my head were, as Oliver informed me, all the controls used to operate the plane when it was flying on autopilot.

To my right were the thrust controls, brake levers, the lever used to open the flaps of the wing, and more.

The ‘yoke’ is the term used to describe the control wheel in front of you, which can steer the aircraft, and dip or raise the nose; it’s not so-called simply because aviation experts couldn’t think of anything else, smiles Oliver.

There were also rudder pedals at my feet, but for now, I was ignoring those, as I listened to Oliver instruct me to prepare for take off.

Because his controls were linked to mind, similar to the set up in a driving instructor’s car, he was able to help me with my first attempt at take off and landing.

I felt heavily reliant on him, and what - perhaps naively - surprised me the most was, well, the actual visual and flying skill involved.

Despite what we’re told about modern planes being so advanced they could practically fly themselves, they can’t, and it takes quick thinking and a mathematically wired brain to get the hang of it.

Oliver seemed to be pointing out a million things at once to me, as I tried to keep an overview of the speed, the horizon, the angle of the nose.

The simulator is designed so that you can the shudder and drag of the plane associated with every move that you make, so it’s as life-like an experience as possible.

It was fun.

After a successful landing at Heathrow, Oliver told me it was time to go it alone.

I tried to keep in mind his advice that a good landing wasn’t dependant on those last final seconds before touch down, but more to do with how well you set everything up well in advance. However, my inexperience was palpable; as we approached the runway, I totally misread what was in front of me,and my poor passengers were subjected to a terrifying bounce off the tarmac.

We were suddenly climbing again, and by the grace of God, I somehow got the plane back down, albeit it on the grass beside the runway.

Oliver smiled and I covered my face in shame, as one thing became clear - no matter how nervous I was as I sat on flights in the cabin with the rest of the passengers, it was that seat, and not this one, where I belonged.

Because, as Oliver rounded off my lesson by showing me an approach once more, his fingers deftly working the controls from left to right, steering and landing the plane with confidence and ease, I realised - finally - that these guys really do know what they’re doing.

They’ve earned their wings.

And if an emergency were to occur, we could be in no safer hands.