I had the thrill of a lifetime yesterday—literally. I had the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. It was maybe the most exciting one hour of my life. I hardly even remember the 4-hour drive home. I was on Cloud 9 reliving the experience.
I was in Atlanta doing a presentation for Delta Air Lines. The presentation was in the auditorium of Delta’s pilot training center, where Delta has several flight simulators, including three state-of-the-art machines with full motion, full visuals, the works—what’s called a level-6 simulator. After the presentation, Delta invited me to come check out the simulators. After seeing some of the less advanced (but still very cool) simulators, we went into the room where the most advanced simulators were, and one of them wasn’t being used. (To mitigate costs, Delta rents out unused time in their simulators to airlines all over the world.) My host asked if I’d like to try flying a jet. I fell all over myself saying yes!
I spent an hour flying a $16M Boeing 737-800 simulator. The visuals and the sensations were incredible; it was so real it was scary, and I kept having to remind myself that a crash wouldn’t be fatal. I was afraid that if I nosed the plane in, I’d have a heart attack before I hit the ground. The simulation was so real that as you taxied out, you could feel the cracks in the runway. (I’m not kidding; it’s part of the simulation.) With the touch of a button, the instructor who accompanied me could change the environment. We started out on a foggy morning in Boston, switched to a sunny day in Atlanta, and then finished up with a night flight. You could see every star in the sky, and of course every constellation was right there where it should be.
The 737-800 has a glass cockpit, and it was a blast getting to know the instruments. Flying the jet wasn’t that difficult, as I expected. Turning the yoke produces a smooth, banked turn; you don’t have to touch the rudder pedals because the computer controls the rudder for you. Just to see what it was like, I kicked the rudder hard a few times. (Recall that it was aggressive rudder movements that brought down an Airbus over New York a couple of years ago.) The tail swung hard enough to produce an unpleasant swimming sensation. I also found that if you bank steeply, you lose altitude due to decreased lift. It didn’t take long to learn to do in the simulator what you do on R/C planes: feed a bit of up-elevator into turns to hold the altitude.
Taking off wasn’t difficult, either. Once you get a bit of speed up to get air flowing over the rudder, you can keep the plane on the centerline of the runway with the rudder pedals. They weren’t as sensitive as I thought they would be. On an R/C airplane, it’s very easy to oversteer during the take-off roll. I found keeping the 737 on the runway much easier than expected.
One thing I was warned to be careful of was a tail strike on take-off. The instructor said once you get the nose up, the nose wants to continue to go up, and if you don’t control it, you can strike the tail of the plane on the ground. He counseled me to rotate and then put pressure on the yoke to nose it down just a little. I did that and the take-off was smooth and uneventful. Once you clear the ground, you can pull back on the yoke and climb like crazy.
All my life, I’ve wondered if someone like me—someone who has never piloted a real plane but knows how planes work—would have any hope of landing a big jet on his or her first try. So the most exciting part of the simulation came when it was time to land. The 737-800 can land itself, but at my request, the instructor turned that feature off and I flew by the airport, did a 180, and set up for a VFR landing. We dropped the flaps to 15 degrees and used the air brakes to burn off some airspeed. What surprised me most about final approach was how much drag the landing gear generated. We dropped the gear and it felt as if a giant vortex was sucking the plane down. A bit of up-elevator stabilized us and allowed us to resume final.
Then came the moment of truth. I did a passable job of lining up with the runway and staying on glide slope, but I waved the wings a lot more than I would have liked. The plane was noticeably less responsive at low speed, and even though I was trying hard not to oversteer, I’d correct one way and then would have to go back and correct the other way. I got over the runway and pulled back hard on the yoke to flare out. By the time we touched down, I had the yoke pressed against my stomach trying to increase the flare. I hit too hard and blew out one of the tires, but I landed the plane!!! So it IS possible, under ideal conditions, to do it with no previous experience.
Words can’t describe what the experience was like. For a person like me who grew up in the sixties as a fan of the space program and became an engineer in hopes of building aircraft and spacecraft, it was truly the thrill of a lifetime.
I’ve been asked several times why I’ve never gotten a pilot’s license. The truth is that I know flying little Cessnas around would get boring fast. I want to fly jets. I’ll probably never get to do that, but this week I came as close as you possibly can without doing the real thing. And had it been a real jet, there’s no way I could have tried taking off and landing. So all things considered, I’m one lucky individual—proof positive that sometimes dreams DO come true.