An AvGeek Dream Come True: “Flying” A Full Motion Airline Simulator

I spent about half of my childhood playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. To this day it’s my favorite “video game” ever. While I haven’t played it in a while, my love for airplanes is as strong as ever, and yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I’ve only ever dreamed of.

Air Canada invited me (and a few others) to check out their pilot training center in Toronto, where they have about a dozen flight simulators. They have simulators for everything from Embraer jets to 777s. This is where pilots undergo their training when they’re transitioning between planes, go for recurrent training, etc. These facilities are a huge investment for airlines, given that each simulator costs several million dollars.

I had the chance to fly the 737 MAX full motion simulator, as this is a brand new plane for Air Canada. There’s a “bridge” you walk on to get into the simulator, and then when the session starts the bridge retracts, given how much the simulator moves.

The simulator cockpit is 100% realistic. That’s to say that a pilot can be fully rated on a plane just having flown the simulator.

But in addition to the actual cockpit, there’s a larger area than usual behind it. There are two seats for observers, and then on the right (with the double monitors) is the seat for the instructor.

What was it like to actually pilot a 737? SO SO SO SO SO SO SO COOL! I couldn’t believe how real it felt — all settings could be adjusted, including weather, time of day, turbulence, failures, etc.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that flying a commercial plane isn’t actually that difficult. No, maybe I didn’t provide the smoothest ride in Air Canada’s history, but actually keeping the plane in the air and landing it isn’t impossible… at least under perfect conditions, and with an instructor behind you who is coaching you the whole way.

But pilots don’t undergo rigorous training in order to fly a plane under good conditions, but rather to deal with failures, bad weather, emergencies, etc. All of these scenarios can be simulated, so here’s a video of an engine fire when I was in the observer’s seat:

What was in many ways reassuring is that failures aren’t as catastrophic as you’d expect them to be. As a passenger it’s easy to be scared due to the lack of control you have over a situation when things go wrong, but even losing an engine while climbing out wasn’t a big deal, and I was surprised by the limited impact it had on the performance of the aircraft.

Flying in a full motion simulator is one of the coolest experiences you can possibly have as an aviation geek. I wanted to cry when the session was over.

For most airlines these are pretty off limits to the public, given how expensive they are, given the fact that you need an instructor pilot to observe you (who is presumably very well paid), and given that they need to use these to actually train their pilots, and they have a limited number of them.

However, there are at least a couple of airlines that will let you redeem miles for a sim ride, as I wrote about back in 2014. The best value is redeeming 12,500 Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus miles (they’re transfer partners with Citi ThankYou) for a ride in their simulator in Bangkok. The session apparently lasts about an hour. Come and think of it, I’ll have to try this the next time I’m in Bangkok.

The other airline that allows it is EVA Air, though they limit it to their Gold & Platinum members, and they charge 100,000 miles for the experience. that’s probably more in line with the cost of providing the service, and also shows just how good of a deal Thai has.

Comments

  1. Seems like a really cool experience!

    And, thanks for sharing the info about the Thai Airways redemption, that seems like a great deal!

    Just for comparison of what the “market rate” is, JTA Japan Transocean Air will be offering similar experiences in Okinawa in January and February on their 737-400 simulator for 70,000 yen (about 650 dollars) per hour.

  2. British Airways allow you to buy sessions. I got my father 3hrs in a 747 for his birthday a few years ago.

  3. You used to fly FSX? AWESOME!!!!!!
    I legit bought the Aerosoft a320 pack for FSX:Steam Edition and just rotated CMB-AUH again and again and again till I fell asleep.

  4. I got completely frazzled right at the beginning:
    “…Air Canada invited me…”

    Seeing how lame they are locally, and how fully aware of their own iron grip on the Canadian market, I’m surprised they put any effort into following aviation blogs and reaching out to you. Sort of cool and extremely depressing at the same time.

  5. Marija…

    ‘How lame they are locally’? Really, weren’t they just voted best Airline in North America by Skytrax? I don’t think they have an iron grip on the Canadian market. WestJet provides very strong competition, and they offer a globally-competitive product.

  6. Just to clarify – you can’t actually get “rated” on an aircraft type from JUST flying a Level D simulator – you also need to pass a ground school course on the aircraft systems (and in many regulatory systems, also need a “base training” flight). And then the actual operator will almost certainly require a line check or similar before you are released to fly the aircraft in actual operations. So a simulator is not a zero-to-hundred training solution, but it does help you get most of the way there.

    You can also buy simulator time commercially from third party providers around the world. Depending on the aircraft type and seasonal demand (simulators are rarely booked up by airlines during peak travel seasons as they want their crew already trained and flying), this can be as low as a couple hundred dollars split between two or more people. I know at least two commercial simulator providers who sell their “spare” capacity to enthusiasts on a range of aircraft types.

  7. @flyboy
    Being best in North America is nice, but bear in mind that “competition” is the likes of AA and UA. Not that AC is utterly bad, but it is not exactly known for good service locally. Just too many unjustifiable delays, too many questionable customer decisions, very poor communication overall. WestJet and Porter are much more customer friendly (even if they are somewhat “low cost” whatever would that mean in this market).

    As for Canadian market – yes, there is “competition” from WestJet and Air Transat for local and Carribean traffic, but looking at the international routes, AC dominates all the good spots, and gets heavy protection from the government in cherry-picking partners, destinations and airport time. One example: YYZ-ZRH is operated by AC aircraft, Swiss is relegated to YUL-ZRH (and a “red-eye” that leaves at 5pm to boot). Too many examples like that leads me to an impression that AC does not have true competition on most of the routes. So they get away with charging the premium for convenience while substituting rouge too many times. AC prices are the highest of all options, and Canadian absence from OpenSkies is preventing the likes of LaCompanie (not that it would be successful in this market, but they can’t even try) from entering the market and providing options beyond what AC board negotiated to their advantage.

  8. My dad’s general aviation flying club had a pretty nice simulator setup in their FBO. I was allowed to take it for a spin once, I believe flying a Piper Warrior, IIRC. Anyway, on approach I wasn’t watching my airspeed and the stall horn sounded and pretty soon after, I crashed. Suddenly four of my dad’s pilot buddies who had overheard were at the doorway in disbelief. They quickly realized it was his dumbass son flying and not him. Fun time, though.

  9. If it were really true that you “love airplanes” so much, you would stop pretending and playing with simulators and actually get off your ass and go learn to fly one – you know, an actual, real airplane – plenty of people do. Go get a license. Why don’t you?

  10. @Marija

    What are you talking about? Canada and the EU have a full open skies treaty, meaning any airline in Canada can fly to any destination in the EU, and v.v. As far as I am aware, Switzerland is for all intents and purposes a party to this treaty. Therefore LX isn’t “relegated” to serving only YUL – it’s their choice, as is the departure time (to fit their Euro flight bank in ZRH).

    WS has primarily focused on the domestic/US/Sun markets because international routes mean a) complications, and b) widebody aircraft (usually – DUB/LGW are unique examples of NB TATL flights operated from the east coast). As a LCC they have traditionally eschewed anything complicated but even they are dipping their toes in the water flying to Europe, and Asia won’t be far off with their recent 787 order.

  11. Lucky,
    I read your blog daily and enjoy it thoroughly. With all due respect, can you please stop using the words “given”, “furthermore” and “however” as much as you do? At least limit “given” to once a week.

  12. Lucky,

    Get your pilots license like a real aviation nut! You will become much more knowledgeable about flying. It could only enhance your blog.

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