“Brace, brace!” the frenzied cabin crew scream over cries of terror from the panicking passengers. As the plane rumbles violently and the cabin fills with smoke, I lock my fingers together, cover my head and push it down into my knees and squeeze my elbows together tightly, preparing for impact. Then a loud bang and an eerie moment of silence – are we alive? Did the pilot manage to steer us to safety? – before the peace is broken by a message on the public address system. “This is your captain speaking. Evacuate, evacuate!”
Suddenly all hell breaks loose again. I scrabble around for my seat belt. It seems to take an eternity before I manage to get hold of it and undo the clasp to release myself from its grip. I help the passenger next to me undo her belt and we head for the illuminated exit sign shining through the thick smoke.
“This way,” a voice booms from behind me. “Come to this exit!” So I spin around and make a break for the shining beacon of freedom. I reach the door, only to be faced with a queue of people clamouring to get out, but it’s no use – the door is jammed.
I turn around and charge back down the aisle, all the way to the exit at the front of the plane and, with a firm push in the back and the command to “jump!” from the cabin crew, I am finally free.
That’s a true story. OK, I might have exaggerated slightly for effect, but it happened. The only point I failed to mention was that I wasn’t actually on a plane. I was, in fact, aboard British Airways’ state-of-the-art cabin simulator as part of the British Airways Flight Safety Awareness Course. And when I return to the cabin for my debrief with the lovely but stern Scottish former cabin crew member Diane, I find that my escape wasn’t the roaring success I thought.
When I took the brace position, I should have put one hand on top of the other and covered my head rather than locking my fingers together. Why? Because any heavy falling object would have smashed my knuckles to pieces, leaving me incapable of unbuckling my seat belt – which I should have practised doing when I first sat down in order to engrave it into my muscle memory, but who does that when they could be checking out what films are available?
I was surprised to learn what my next mistake was. Instead of aiding my fellow passenger with her seat belt, apparently I should have left her there to struggle alone (and shoulder-charged a few grannies and drop-kicked a few toddlers on my way out perhaps?). According to Diane, in a plane crash it’s every man for themselves – the ‘women and children first’ rule goes out the window!
My final mistake was a little more obvious. When I charged through the cabin after my first exit was blocked, I completely ignored the emergency wing exit door. I always wanted to see what it was like to open one of those – and I missed my chance!
Luckily for me, my regret at missing out on opening the emergency door is short-lived, as that’s part of the course, too. I approach the door with my muscles clenched, ready to summon all my strength, rip it from its hinges and hurl it from the aircraft. However, it’s a slight let-down when I see the petite woman before me open the door with one finger and elegantly slide it out of the plane using her knees. Turns out the door-release mechanism requires very little force.
No matter, the next part of my training alone is bound to be worth the trip from Dubai to BA’s training base near London Heathrow – the escape slide. You’re never too old to enjoy a slide, but this isn’t like at Wild Wadi where you cross your legs, lie back and hope for the best. After a thorough briefing – complete with an Eighties video demo – on how to properly use the slide, I perform my descent with all the grace of a heavyweight ballerina. Not pretty, but extremely effective.
Emergency exits and slides are fun, but the real jewel in BA’s crown is its 15 full-flight simulators, and I have a go in the biggest one they’ve got: a full-motion Boeing 747-400. Now, this isn’t one of those naff simulators you find in an arcade. Worth around Dh55 million, it’s zero flight-time approved, which means pilots are qualified to fly the real thing – passengers and all – after sessions in the simulator.
With a trained pilot doing the co-pilot’s job for me, I get a brief guide to the controls then it’s all systems go for take-off. Using the two pedals to control the right and left air brakes, I aim to guide the plane straight down the runway, while my co-pilot controls the thrust.
It feels incredibly hard to control and I veer off to the left, almost driving off the runway, before I’m able to pull the steering back and lift off the ground. As we ascend, my co-pilot looks over at me awkwardly, seemingly surprised at how sketchy my first take-off is. But then he reveals to me that the last guy in the simulator had set a strong crosswind and he’d forgotten to take it off – no wonder I struggled! With the crosswind removed, I soar over London, resisting the temptation to look at the view out the window for too long, as every time I do I lose my heading slightly. The key is to keep it level and “not do too much” according to the pilot – something I seem to be great at.
After a swift circle of the capital, I begin my descent back into Heathrow. The trick here, I am told, is to “flair the plane upwards with a firm but smooth action at around 30 feet”. Until this point my landing is textbook, but I reach the place where I’m supposed to flair and underestimate how hard I should pull. The resulting landing is, to put it mildly, quite rough – although the pilot says it’s “safe”.
I spend an hour performing different exercises including more take-offs and landings in different conditions like fog and the dreaded crosswinds and I begin to really feel like I have control of the aircraft. I even gain enough confidence to have a look at the beautiful New York skyline as I’m coming in to land at JFK. Piece of cake this flying lark.
I’m seriously impressed with the simulator. Every bump and jolt feels real and I almost forget I’m on terra firma the whole time. The pilot tells me that it feels around 95 per cent like the real thing. That last 5 per cent – the knowledge that you’re in the air with a precious cargo of passengers – can’t be recreated.
And that’s the important thing I suppose. You’re never going to be able to fully recreate the feeling of flying or the terror of an emergency landing, but this course is about as close as you’ll get. And if I were ever in an accident, I’m confident that I now have all the knowledge to give me the best chance of getting out alive.