Awesome. Amazing. Once in a lifetime opportunity.
I won the lottery! It wasn’t money but an experience that I stumbled into. I was being given the chance to fly a commercial jetliner! Sit in the left seat and say “MY PLANE!” I was nearly incoherent with joy when I was told the chance was there for me, I only needed to take it.
So the day after Christmas 2009, I gave myself a gift, scrounged up the money for a babysitter that my daughter would be comfortable with and strapped on the wings of my very own Z Force One. Well, at least it was one-third mine for 4 hours.
Guided by the expertise, jokes and slightly devious side of a former fighter pilot, myself and two other members of the Mile High Flyers podcast, found ourselves listening to the preflight briefing as we stood outside a 100% scale, fully functional, fully enclosed, commercial training simulator, floating on massive hydraulics. My heart was beating fast with anticipation, excitement and a little intimidation. After all, it’s been 3 years since I stretched my wings and was in command of an aircraft. Albeit a much smaller aircraft than the one I was about to strap on. I was nearly ready to burst when finally, our guide, invited us to board what would be our plane for the next four hours.
As I entered the simulator it was as if I was truly boarding a plane bound for faraway lands, but instead of turning right and squeezing between seats & grumps to find my cramped window seat, I turned left and leaned over the left seat to look out the FRONT windows. The sight of a dimmed taxiway at night greeted my eyes. The world melted away and I was again, in a plane getting ready to take to the sky. My eyes misted and my heart skipped a beat. Then our guide said, “Well, take your seats.”
I nearly floated into the “Captain’s Chair” of MY plane as the rest of the podcasters & our guide settled into theirs. With a little guidance, I finally got the chair and belts the way I needed them to be. Our guide went through some more “good to know-isms” while he pushed buttons, above and below and all along the panels. As I listened, I searched through the instruments to find ones I recognized from my Cessna 172 and found them, giving me the calm I needed to focus.
Our guide set up the sim to place us in San Francisco and as I looked out the windows, I was stunned by the reality. There were baggage carts with flashing lights and other planes at the terminals! We were really there! I was in awe. My fellow podcasters echoed my “Wow!” as we looked up down and around. I even turned to look behind me to make sure I was just in a sim, but what I saw was the closed door to the flight deck. I was in a plane! Our guide did more set up and changes, and suddenly we were back in Denver looking at the terminal preparing for push back. The realism was amazing. Our guide called out commands and the plane jerked and began to move. It truly felt like we were moving backwards! As we were pushed back and to the right, we joked that the plane next to us would have lost a wing tip if we had truly been pushed back that way. Then we noticed the plane appeared to have a stub wing. Hmmm.
And then it was “MY PLANE!” I was given the go ahead to taxi. I looked at the multiple throttle controls and took a breath before slowly pushing them forward. She began to move forward! Immediately I started steering with my feet and searching for a line to follow. She was responding but sluggishly. She was a heavy beast. Then I was introduced to the “Tiller” which I have never used before in an aircraft. Suddenly I was in more control of the aircraft but still unsure. I joked that the weather was too nice, and lo and behold it was snowing! Then the wind started to blow the snow. The sides of the taxiways turned white. But I focused and mastered the art of taxiing a Heavy. I transferred control to my “co-pilot” and let him taxi as well. Then it was time to take to the air.
Our guide pushed buttons and made setting changes to the sim and we were back on the runway in San Francisco preparing for takeoff. I looked around and was amazed to suddenly see traffic landing on the crossing runway. As we waited for clearance to take off, I again looked at the instruments to find some familiarity and then it was time. I took my feet off the brakes and pressed the button for the auto throttle and watched all the handles move forward in unison, I felt the engines rev up and suddenly she began to move forward. I looked forward and set my feet for rudder control. I watched the speed and began my rotation at “around” the correct V-speed. It was slowly coming back. I tried to hold the correct departure angle but I was out of practice manhandling a plane. She kept rising too high as I fought to figure out the trim control, and the auto throttle continued to make changes with every attitude change I made. I was climbing but it wasn’t smooth. I was flying but I was sure my passengers were thinking this was the “Vomit Comet.” Finally I reached an altitude and was at maneuvering speed. My guide said the plane was mine to fly and do whatever I wanted to do. I actually had no idea what to do, so I began doing clearing turns as I looked for traffic. I was still fighting to maintain my altitude since I hadn’t gotten her trimmed correctly and she kept climbing. When suddenly the guide suggested we try a barrel roll!
I was shocked but excited to try. The guide gave me an altitude and bearing towards the ocean, then gave me directions as I climbed. Once I reached altitude I did my first ever barrel roll. I put in full rudder and full ailerons and we rolled to the left, then I “punched” it when we were fully inverted and completed the barrel roll with not much in the way of altitude loss. I was laughing and hooting with the excitement of it all as the horizon alternated from blue on top to blue on bottom. Then I passed the plane to my copilot to perform his own barrel roll. It was so realistic I had to hold on to the handles to keep from flying out of my seat!
Next the guide suggested we do landings. I was all for it but was positive I would slam into the ground because the cockpit was so high off the ground from my normal perspective. Suddenly, I was very aware that it was a sim. I could crash and no one would die. Okay, then. I could do this. The windows went white as if I had passed into a cloud. When I finally burst through the cloud, we were lined up on runway 8L at Honolulu! I was stunned and for a moment didn’t even have words to say “Hey! I know this place!” Then it all spilled out. As we hovered in suspended animation above Waipahu I gave everyone the tour. I pointed out my runways 4L and 4R as well as the famous 8R just waiting for a shuttle to grace her. I showed them Pearl Harbor and the Arizona & Missouri as well as Tripler on the hill. Even the islands of Moloka`i, Mau`i and Lana`i were on the horizon. It was unbelievable. I was home back in my own airspace. I passed the plane to my co-pilot for the first landing on 8L and just watched the scenery as we came in. It was amazing! The plane called out the altitude as we came in. At the correct altitudes and speeds, I extended the flaps & lowered the landing gear as my co-pilot came up on the runway. And then we were down. We felt the mains land and even roll on the runway. It was not a smooth landing but we were down, and the plane was technically in one piece. Passengers might be angry, but we did land and roll. It would prove to be the best landing of all that day.
Then it was my turn. The screen went cloud white again as our guide reset the parameters. When the cloud cleared we were lined up for final on 4-Right! I was both excited and nervous. This was my runway. I should be able to do this. Right? Our guide called out the weather. The dreaded “Winds Calm” approach. Piece of cake! Except I don’t believe I’ve ever landed in a “Winds Calm” scenario, which was evidenced immediately when I took the plane and began my approach. I immediately put in rudder to compensate for the crosswind I knew would be there, but it wasn’t. Suddenly I was off center and a little embarrassed. This was my runway after all. I began to overfly the plane. I tried to shove her back to center line and wobbled past, then tried to push back to center line, swaying past it again. My approach began to resemble a hula as I swayed back and forth, crossing over runway 8-Right where there was luckily no traffic, as well as no traffic on base or final for 4-Left. Yes, I checked, even. Old habits are hard to break. I came over the numbers and was still high in my mind when the plane called out my flare height! I began to pull back on the yoke and felt the plane floating down, there went taxiway Foxtrot, then the mains touched down left of center. I was down! Then I was ballooning up again. I shoved her down and finally the mains hit earth again. Slowly the nose settled to the runway as we passed taxiway Delta and I wobbled down the runway pressing on the brakes to bring us to a stop. I was back in Honolulu! The smile on my face was so big it hurt.
Our guide said, “Why don’t you taxi to your hangar?” I was overjoyed, and worked the throttles as I took taxiway Echo and turned south toward the T-Hangars. Out of habit, I even looked to open the window and let some air into the cockpit! I passed empty hangars and ramps. It was creepy to see nothing at the airport and yet it still felt so real. My “crew” joked about the movie Langoliers. But it did feel like life had left the world. Then I started telling them stories of waiting for clearance to enter taxiway Charlie while China Air and C-130’s taxied by. Finally we reached the T Hangars and they were empty. Spooky. That’s when my guide started to have fun with us. He told me to point the nose into the hangars. As soon as I did, the engines revved up and we were shooting through the T-Hangars. I was bracing for impact because it was so real, but we just slipped through them and out past the fence and were suddenly in the spot where the fire station should have been looking at the FAA building and the end of Lagoon drive. But the realism was just a bit much for me still. I found myself steering to keep us out of the water and heading towards the end of the reef runway. A place I’ve never been.
Next it was time to take off from Honolulu. My co-pilot had this take off, and I worked the landing gear. As we floated east into the Hawaiian sunshine, I called out points of interests. Punchbowl, Downtown, Honolulu Harbor & the Aloha Tower. Magic Island. Waikiki. Kokohead and Hanauma Bay. Then we were flying above the Moloka`i channel on a path I knew well. We turned our nose toward Ilio point and headed out towards a strange site; it was a lone freight tanker mid-channel, headed toward the north of Moloka`i. That would never happen. But it was also amazing in the fact that it had a wake! Stunning. I was looking for whales and fishing boats, and hoping to catch a glimpse of a regatta. And then we were in a cloud again.
When the cloud cleared we were on the runway in Hong Kong! Now it was time to mess with us. Our guide had us take off and he started pulling engines on us. My first attempt at a lost engine was less than stunning. As is habit, I tried to steer the aircraft to stay on the runway instead of first just stopping. Big mistake. These birds are too heavy to stop in a straight line with full engines. My second attempt was better. I stayed on the runway at least, just at an odd angle. I was so excited I asked to do it again. This was pretty fun. I was starting to get the feel for the bird. I was amazed at how she flew. Once we were up in the air, she truly felt like a Cessna. She may have needed a little more muscle, but she had power behind her moves to keep them fluid. After several attempts by my now second co-pilot and I to abort takeoffs when engines suicide, my “co-pilot” took off from Hong Kong and flew us toward the west as our guide set up new and exciting games for us to play. As we flew, I noticed traffic on the horizon coming towards us. Sure enough, it was another heavy headed directly towards us on a collision course. As it approached, I could feel my heart racing like this were a true mid air coming on. My co-pilot was having fun though. He started to steer towards the jet in hopes of setting off the proximity detection alert. As the plane neared us, suddenly our bird said with urgency, “DESCEND! DESCEND!” Good thing to know it works. The other plane passed over us at probably 500 feet. It was an eerie sight as we again, flew into a surprise cloud.
When the cloud broke, we were hovering above an airfield with a large airport in the distance. None of us could quite guess the airport, so our guide decided to mess with our spatial orientation. Suddenly the plane began a flat spin in place. We did a 360 degree spin and as we spun, the Space Needle came into view. When we completed the spin, we found ourselves lined up for final at SeaTac in Washington, hovering over Boeing field with Mount Rainer, Mt Saint Helens & Mt Adams in the distance. Beautiful view, but I was just a wee bit nauseated.
My co-pilot performed landings at SeaTac that had us all laughing and sympathetic at the same time. Luckily the runways were long enough for us to balloon many a time. We joked about making him go out and greet the passengers after those landings. Of course, mine were not much better. But our guide let us know that although we wouldn’t kill anyone, he had disabled the “safety’s” meaning we could crash the plane. Our landings were true representations of what could happen as long as there were no foreign bodies in our way.It was good to know we could land this beast if necessary and people would walk away. Just nobody would be happy about it.
After the landings, I grudgingly felt it was time for me to take the “jump” seat and let the guys play. From the jump seat, I watched as the co-pilot performed a barrel roll. It was still so creepy to see the land and sky switch spots. I watched as our guide set up engine out scenarios for the new “Pilot in Command” and watched with amazement as our commercial jetliner landed itself in zero visibility. Amazing. The most unusual maneuver was when she was handled like a Harrier jet. Sitting on the runway, our guide showed the guys how to lift off straight up and maneuver back down to the ground. It was unnerving to hear and feel the engines roar as the plane lifted off without moving forward and then land again. But I was loving it. I’ve always wanted to ride in a Harrier.
And then it was my turn to take the co-pilot seat. Our guide returned us to Denver and dimmed the lights. It was dusk. Time to practice our night landings. I took the plane and set up for landing in a dreaded calm winds scenario. Again, I over flew the plane, swaying first one way and then the other before finally ballooning on the runway and making a double landing. Grrrr. I was frustrated again. I knew I was overflying. I just needed to get used to zero crosswind. Or so I thought. Suddenly it was night and the winds were picking up. I was given a 15 knot cross wind to work with. It was my absolute BEST approach. I crabbed into the wind and was surprised at how she handled. I even flared at the right time for landing, but it was my worst actual landing in the sense that I did not balloon but I managed to scrape the engines off the wings as I came in on one side and then scraped the other side as I tried to bring the wings level. OUCH! I actually felt the wings scraping the pavement as the sound of scraping metal permeated the cockpit and the bird shook with the impact. Ugh.
I had to try again. This time I decided to try to handle all the throttles manually on landing. As I lined up on the runway, I worked the pitch control and recited my mantra, “Throttle for altitude, pitch for speed.” I was coming in pretty smoothly. Focused on the numbers. I knew I had it in the bag. I came over the end of the runway and started my float to the runway. I touched the mains and rode on them. In my mind I saw the long roll out of the space shuttle. Ever so slowly the nose descended and touched down. Then I was suddenly swerving all over as I tried to pull the throttles and activate the reverse thrust. Unfortunately, I didn’t grab all the throttles on my first try and had to try again. Nor did I make a good push on the reverse thrust. Ugh. Complex. I’m sure if I had a few more hours to practice I could have gotten it. As it was, I had a few more tries. Each time was a little better than the last, but none were as good as I wanted them to be.
Then our guide decided to show us just what this bird could do. I gave up my seat as he slid in. He told me to hit the “ENGAGE” button when he was ready. Then he proceeded to demonstrate a landing at DIA with a 50 knot crosswind! We approached the runway sideways, slipping down to the tarmac. Just before the mains touched, he straightened out the plane and rolled down the runway, smoothly working the throttles and reverse thrust. Unbelievable how easy he made it all look.
Then it was my chance to try the Harrier configuration. I’m still not quite sure how it all worked. I held the plane in place with the yoke, brakes & rudder while the throttle revved through. We floated up several thousand feet before slowly descending. Our guide directed me to turn the “Harrier” towards the terminal building and see if I could land at the gate. I slowly brought the plane down watching for the correct speed to flare just as if I were landing on a roll. When I thought it was the correct time, I flared but it was too soon. I compensated and we started to rise again. I re-compensated and we started to drop and landed with a jarring jolt which of course made us all laugh with the surprise.
Finally, our guide said the words that I had been dreading. “That’s our four hours.” We all were so grateful for the time, but we of course wished for more. As a farewell, our guide took control of the plane and ran us through the Denver terminal several times. We laughed and braced for impact and were so happy to have had the experience.
This was definitely one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had since getting my wings. I can’t even express how lucky and grateful I feel for being given the opportunity to ride in the front of a jetliner and take her up. The experience was so real and it should be. Commercial pilots can get all their ratings in this bird while the instructor throws every unexpected scenario in and out of the books at them. Every year, people pay thousands of dollars for a tourist experience like the one we had, at various simulator locations throughout the country. It was simply amazing.
I’m not sure I did this experience justice because it was just so incredible for me, but I hope that this is just the first step in my return to the sky. I believe 2010 will find me back in the blue. Stay tuned as I take that leap. I’m sure there will be more exciting activities to share. Flying at altitude will be a whole new experience for me and I can’t wait to share.
Due to current security protocols, no pictures or recording devices were allowed within the training facility. For more coverage of the flight as seen through the eyes of my fellow podcasters, please visit and listen to our podcast at http://www.milehighflyers.com