A dizzying array of buttons, levers, and dials surround the seat I've buckled myself to and SFO's long runway stretches just outside the window, reaching out into the dark hills rising in the distance. Next to me, pilot Seb Stouffs punches some keys on a panel, engages the flaps, and instructs me to begin rolling. At the touch of a button, the engines respond and we start moving. I push on the rudder pedals with my feet to steer down the middle of the runway. Then, at Stouff's command, I pull back on the stick and we lift off and climb, a loose pen sliding to the back of the tilting cockpit. A few seconds later, I move levers to retract the landing gear and flaps. I watch the altitude, clearing those hills and banking to the right at 3,000 feet. The Golden Gate Bridge comes into view.
No pilot and no airline is foolish enough to let me mess around in a 747. I'm safely ensconced in a flight simulator in the heart of British Airways' London training facility. This is where actual BA pilots and aviators from 40 other airlines come to complete 11 four-hour sessions when they need to get rated in larger aircraft, which is why the set dressing is immaculate. Everything is so realistic – right down to the bolts – it is easy to forget that I'm actually in a hanger on the Heathrow grounds.
Letting me back here isn't just a marketing stunt, another nostalgic attempt to capitalize on the appeal of flight. Anyone can book one, two, or three hours on a 737, 747, 757, 767, or 777. The key is to watch the schedule and make your reservation a month in advance.
Flying is multi-tasking on steroids – you have to pay close attention to airspeed, altitude, and heading, to name a few, and in just a few seconds of inattention, any of those can change dramatically. Unlike a car on the road, a plane operates in three dimensions; roll, which is whether the plane is level or one wing is higher than the other; pitch, or nose-up and -down movement; and yaw, or whether the nose points straight ahead or to the right or left, similar to a car turning. In the simulator, the pilot trainers can introduce any number of challenges, from engine failure to storms and near-zero visibility, in any combination that amuses them (engine failure during a storm while the wings ice over being a favorite). That's for the actual pilots, of course; paying customers generally find regular take-off and landing plenty of a challenge, although Stouffs did throw in heavy fog to show me what landing on autopilot is like.
You don't have to put on a helmet, but the experience is effectively in virtual reality thanks to the incredibly sophisticated boxes that hold the cockpits and respond to pilots’ actions in real time. Pull back on the stick and the cockpit tilts upward at the actual angle of climb, turn and the simulator tilts in that direction.
My session included take-offs and landing at San Francisco, JFK, and Heathrow – the simulators offer dozens of worldwide options – setting up and switching to autopilot once in the air, then taking control again to land. JFK proved particularly challenging, requiring that I skirt Manhattan’s sacrosanct airspace and come in low with a sharp 90-degree turn to line up with the runway. Thanks to the expert guidance and occasional correction from my experienced co-pilot, things went smoothly. Despite the complexity of the cockpit, the vast majority of its buttons and dials aren’t necessary for normal take-off and landing. It was also a big help that my simulated sky was empty. Simulated crashes are frowned upon for the obvious reasons and because they initiate actual evacuations and cause a lot of very un-British fuss.
More information: Simulator flights start at 399 pounds. Find open dates and book at ebaft.com/fly/fse.htm While you’re at the facility, stop at BA's Heritage Center, which tells the entire 90-year history of this venerable airline with models, photos and displays of uniforms, china, log books, engraved records of royal flights, and even a pitot tube from the Concorde.