It Even Makes You Sweat Bullets

I Spent an Hour in an Incredibly Realistic Boeing 787 Simulator, and It Was Wild


November 30, 2017 Cars : Aircraft By Photo by Boeing

It reminds me of a spider, with long spindly legs — a very, very technically complex spider.

This is the most realistic flight simulator available: a $10 million replica of the look and feel of a complex airplane flight deck, but with the added twist of a wrap-around screen and full-motion, meaning when you pull back on the stick, the entire 25,000-pound pod tilts up. I spent an hour in the Boeing 737 simulator and the Boeing 787 simulator, and — spoiler alert — these are definitely realistic.

These sims are used by the major airlines to train pilots on new aircraft. A pilot will perform two weeks of ground school to learn the plane, coupled with intensive study. This is followed by around nine hours in the simulator, the cost of which is around $500 per hour. Once the airlines invest in the machine, they run them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (I once visited FedEx’s Memphis flight simulator bay at 2 a.m., and it was buzzing with pilots on refreshers.)

CAE, the Montreal-based maker of these sims, dominates the market. It is the brainchild of Ken Patrick, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, who founded the company in 1947 and developed a flight simulator for the CF-100 Voodoo fighter jet. Today, the company he started has revenues of CAD$2.7 billion.

The pod moves on four spidery legs, driven by two powerful electric motors on each leg, allowing for six degrees of freedom: lateral, vertical, and longitudinal movement, as well as pitch, roll, and yaw.

I walked across a bridge and stepped into a pod the size of a New York City bedroom, containing a flight deck. CAE has meticulously replicated the colorways and typefaces of the console to perfection. For example, a Boeing 787 flight management system has an exact shade of grey with contrasting off-white letters, and this simulator had it exactly so. The seats are also the exact same as used by the captain and first officer. And so on.

I took a seat in the captain’s chair. Toronto’s Pearson Airport Runway Six appeared before me, showing the tell-tale tracks made from previous heavy metal landings. The imagery comes from a variety of sources including Google Earth. While you can tell it’s a screen, when the complex motion is added the experience transforms. With the flick of a switch, the technician can add turbulence or torrential rain, a howling cross-wind or an engine failure. And often all of the above.

After some initial instruction, I pushed the throttles forward. We rolled down the runway and “took off,” and it was not unlike what I’m used to. The platform banked and tilted like the real thing, albeit with a little heavier feeling than my Cessna 172. Pull back on the control column, and you feel the platform tilt upwards, and the scenery quickly changes as you climb. Ease the stick over to the right, and the Boeing banks as you would expect it to, and beautifully so. I began to experiment, paying attention to the physical sensations, and kicked the rudder. It responded immediately. Turbulence is just like what any passenger feels; a hard landing is jarring. I was a little heavy on the brakes on one landing, and David, the CAE PR rep, lurched forward. (Sorry, David).

With the flick of a switch, the technician can add turbulence or torrential rain, or a howling cross-wind, an engine failure. And often all of the above.

The airplane interface is incredibly genuine, and immerses you completely and realistically. Pull way back and reduce the throttle and you’ll stall, like any airplane. In the case of the 787, the plane’s computer forcibly took over and jammed the controls forward to break the stall — that’s the way it works in an actual jet, too.

After some fun pushing the envelope and getting (un-simulated) motion sickness, we lined up to land. My first landing was not bad: a nice flare, and right down the middle of the runway. Subsequent landings were not as pretty. The technician loaded a 45 knot, 90-degree crosswind, with torrential rain requiring full use of wipers. It was challenging, and I was definitely sweating. We made it down, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in row 28D.

Fortunately for all of us, only professionals are allowed to fly the real thing. And fortunately for them, this amazing simulator seems like a really fun — and really accurate — way to learn.

Editor’s Note: Mike Arnot is the founder of the travel brand Boarding Pass NYC, a writer and a private pilot. You can check out how Mike learned to fly, in three installments, here.

Read Mike’s Three-Part Story About Learning to Become a Pilot

It took decades of dreaming and days of training, but Mike Arnot is officially a pilot. Read the Story