I guess it's been every kids dream at some point to be a pilot. I think mine was about aged 8 when I was fascinated by the old World War 2 planes and wanted to know how to fly a Spitfire. Obviously as you grow up you go through phases in life and mine passed quite quickly. However as a gift for my birthday about 18 months ago I got a voucher to go and have a flight simulator experience with the lovely team at virtual flight experience. I had such a good time flying in their Boeing 737 that I bought myself and my Girlfriend a voucher to go back. We went back recently to have another go. This time however I asked that I could fly into the old Hong Kong Airport at Kai Tak.
If you are over a certain age and have done a load of travelling then you'll know about Kai Tak airport. If you haven't then it was the old airport right in the down town city. None of this out of the city lark - it was all about coming in among the buildings and the hills. There is a whole host of videos on You Tube about the landing's but I think this one give's a really good idea. A) how close it is to the city. B) the steep banked turn you have to make C) how close you are to the water!
My first go in the simulator 18 months ago was a flight into Innsbruk Airport, whilst this has it's own challenges - Kai Tak was far more of a challenge!
The simulator that the team at Virtual Flight Experience have is just amazing. Whilst it's a 'stationary' simulator in that you don't move the whole experience is highly realistic. From the moment you walk into the cabin you really do believe that you are in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 aircraft. You take a seat in the co-pilot's side and from there you can see all the screen's, dial's and knobs that you see in real aircraft. Although you don't have a clue what they do. They must be important if they are there!
As I had "flown" with them before we didn't go through everything in detail like the first time. However you can set everything up in the cockpit that you would expect. Direction, way points, speed, height you name it, it's all there.
They even have a space in the back for your friends and family to watch from and admire the view from the windows!
Once settled into the cockpit your instructor starts to explain where we're heading to and how the flight is going to take place. So things like the direction we're heading in, what height we're going to fly out at, and then the anticipated approach into Kai Tak. As Kai Tak now doesn't exist as an airport and has been replaced by Hong Kong International some of the flight plans aren't available that would usually be. However my instructor (the ever patient and helpful Nick) explained the journey through and what we were going to experience on the way.
I knew that the landing into Kai Tak was tight and difficult - that's one of the reasons that we came back! However until we actually came into land I had no idea how difficult...
The take off
I had an hour and a half flight. This at first might feel a long time, but it's really not! Nick knew that I wouldn't do Kai Tak first time, and wanted me to have a couple of goes at it. So we got comfortable and started out our journey from Macau airport. Macau is only a short hop away from Hong Kong and makes a nice easy flight. We got comfortable in the cockpit, the passengers were all seated and we started to leave the gate.
Nick got us to the end of the runway ready for take off and then he handed over the controls to me for this. He pushed the throttles open and you could hear the roar from the engines as we start to move forward faster and faster. About two thirds of the way down the runway the call of "rotate" came and I pulled back on the control wheel and we started to leave the ground. My challenge now was to follow the flight director and make sure that we followed the correct path.
The flight director is exactly what it says on the tin. This takes you basically door to door by following a predetermined route between the two airports. Your job as the pilot is to follow the pink crosshairs which tell you the direction and the height you need to be. Keep the "plane" in the centre of them and all lined up and you'll be in Hong Kong in no time!
We started to climb out of Macau and left the bustling city behind us. It was a short 30 min flight before we start to set ourselves up for the flightpath into Hong Kong. During this time Nick explained what we would be seeing and doing in more detail for one of the most dangerous landings there could be.
Heading to Hong Kong
Whilst perhaps if you are playing at home in flight simulator you would just practice your landing from a few minutes out the guys at Virtual Flight Experience make it as realistic as possible for you! So we're doing the whole approach into the airport. That's the flight path that you would have taken back in the day. All the turns, all the twists and all the stress! The journey from Macau was straight forward. I flew between the points, making turns when the flight director told me to. At all times Nick talked me through what was happening next, what changes he was making to the settings on the plane, and what I was to expect.
As we got closer to Hong Kong we actually flew over the New airport as we started to make our approach. I could see the city in front of me - but without Nick's guidance of where the airport actually was I wouldn't have had a clue. As we got closer Nick explained that we would have to make a really sharp turn to get lined up straight for the runway. Whilst I could follow the flight director for this, it was actually better to do it by eye. This is where it started to go wrong!
On the flight over you can't really make out anything so you are 100% reliant on the dials and the computer screens. When to turn, how high etc.. All of a sudden on landing you need to look out the window and actually see the lights that show you your path, and make visual turns.... This is harder than it looks.
Landing (in a fashion)
We started to get closer to the turn and then boom it was upon us. A sharp right bank (sorry to the passengers) and we're sort of heading in the direction now of the runway. Although we're also heading far to quickly to the ground as well. In trying to compensate the turn I've also pointed the nose at the ground and we're heading for impact. I pull the nose back but it's slow to respond (again in real life and not like a normal cheap sim) and we're now heading to the sea. Kai Tak famously had one of those and I didn't want to be that pilot. A sharp turn again of the controls and we just about got level with the grass. It was now or never on that and we got down. Hopefully the grass was dry and although I probably caused a few spilt drinks in first, and possibly some minor plane damage we all survived!
Nick got us back on the runway, we kept speed running, took off and decided to go around for a second attempt.
So we headed out again to pick up the flight path back into the city. Again this is where the whole experience is so realistic. You don't just hit CTRL+ALT+DEL and start again, you have to follow the path in and all the challenges that it brings. The second time around I took on board everything that we had had from the first time and tried to put it into practice. We made the same turns but this time I didn't head for the water I was lined up straight! However I was far to high and just completely not going to make the runway. I tried to get the plan down, but when it was apparent I was going to run out of runway we decided to do an abort and go for a go around.
We got ourselves back in line and started the decent for the last time (my hour and half was almost up!)
I was determined to get this one right. Not only was it the last of the session. We also had got so close on the other 2 landings I was sure that "third time lucky" and all that we would be successful. We started our approach and I felt so much more confident and happy. The turn got closer. We banked sharp to right (again sorry to first class passengers) and we were sort of in the right place with no prospect of an ocean swim...
It got closer and closer - then the system started to tell me to pull up. I made corrections, as we were in the right place, and then the ground got closer and closer to us. I feared the worse and then all of a sudden we lifted again! This is where this system is even more realistic as it uses real time weather - so we obviously caught a wind sheer. A quick dip of the nose and we were down again...
Landed and You can watch the whole landing from the video below...
Although I'm sure that we would have had complaints from seat 1A, there might have been minor plane damage, the system said we didn't crash and all my passengers had been safely deposited in Hong Kong.
Overall Flight Simulator Experience Impression
The Virtual Flight Experience is first class. Not only is it highly realistic with weather, conditions etc... They also make it fun and a learning experience. My respect for Pilots has massively gone up since doing these two days. You can fly into any airport you would like (although you need to tell them in advance if you want to do this). They really do try and give you a full on flying experience without the risk of death!
They have also recently just added a smaller plane to the experience centre as well which gives you a very different experience of flying. If you are really keen you can start to do your professional training in the simulator.
Whilst the sessions aren't cheap they are certainly inline with other experience days. We've indeed booked to go again because we've enjoyed the session so much.
You can book online here:
My massive thanks to Nick our great instructor for making the experience so much fun!