Meet the real Captain Coward: Our man takes control of a £10m flight simulator - and finds out what happens when things go wrong


Last updated at 08:35 21 January 2008

The runway looms ahead. 'Pull up!' screams the cockpit computer - but it's too late. Our writer takes the controls of a £10million flight simulator and discovers what it's really like when something goes horribly wrong.

The view from the cockpit is magnificent. Cap d'Antibes passes beneath us as we cruise high above the Mediterranean, following the Riviera coastline. There is a distant speck of flashing light on the horizon - another airliner is speeding through the heavens, but it is miles away. I peer down again.

Oh, look. There's Cap Ferrat down below. Isn't that Monaco ahead? But that speck of flashing light is getting closer... and closer.

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A blob on a cockpit screen turns to yellow and an electronic voice shouts: "Traffic!" The screen shows that we are on what is unquestionably a collision course. The other aircraft is clearly visible now. But there is another problem, and it is just as serious. The pilot hasn't got a clue what he is doing. The pilot is me.

The five-mile gap between us shrinks in seconds. It's curtains any moment now. Suddenly, our Boeing 737 automatically jerks downwards and the other plane zooms past just above and to the left. The electronic crash avoidance system on both planes has kicked in, automatically steering us away from each other, and a mid-air disaster has narrowly been avoided.

Now, if we really were in the Cote d'Azur skies, I would be a nervous wreck. But I am actually in an aircraft simulator. And I am extremely reassured by all this. I have deliberately sought out another aircraft on a collision course and discovered that it is nigh on impossible to hit one, even if you are mad enough to want to.

But it is thanks to technology like this - and the pilots who train on it again and again throughout their professional careers - that crashes such as last week's Heathrow bellyflop do not turn into major disasters.

It was only down to the skill and nerve of British Airways co-pilot John Coward that flight BA038 was able to limp in to Heathrow and make a crash-landing that spared the life of its 136 passengers, 16 crew and perhaps many, many more on the ground.

I know, because I was there to see it. I was in a seat aboard a Geneva-bound plane that had been moments from take-off when BA038 ploughed into the ground just a few hundred yards from my window, bringing the whole airport to a standstill.

And I also know because, in another coincidence, a few days earlier I had been making my own attempt to land a passenger jet, as I took the controls of the most sophisticated aircraft simulator in Britain.

This gizmo is no mere computer game. It is a £10million piece of hardware the size of a small spaceship in a hangar on the edge of Luton Airport. And if you want to know exactly how hard it must have been for First Officer Coward to bring his stricken plane in to land, then this is the place to come.

Right now, though, I have no inkling of just how uncannily prescient this test flight will prove, as I am strapped into a proper pilot's seat on a proper flight deck and survey the multiple controls before me. I have come to find out why, more than ever, people are paying the cost of a real flight to take the controls of a simulated one.

And this spectacular machine is the very same professional kit used to train and refresh all the airline pilots who fly the rest of us around the world. Pilots like John Coward.

I have never been greatly interested in the mechanics of flying. While I settle down with my in-flight movie, I just want to know that the bloke at the controls knows his stuff. But there are millions who dream of being that pilot.

The nearest any of them can get to the real thing, though, is in a proper simulator. And before entrepreneur James Stevenson came up with a bright idea ten years ago, that was out-of-bounds to all except professional pilots and official trainees.

john coward

Stevenson, a bored 24-year-old car phone salesman with a private pilot's licence, wanted to have a go at flying a big plane. But there was no way the industry would let a mere mortal loose on one of its hugely expensive simulators. It was only after begging friends in the business that James finally had his chance.

He enjoyed it so much that he wanted to sell the experience to others, persuading Virgin to let him buy up some empty slots on a Boeing 747 simulator at Gatwick.

He also managed to find enough pilots with spare time to supervise the sessions (Civil Aviation Authority rules mean that a simulator can only be supervised by a pilot who is qualified to fly that specific type of aircraft). Virtual Aviation was born.

Some customers were aviation nuts. Others were just buying an original birthday present for a loved one.

The business was building nicely until September 11, 2001. It soon emerged that the Al Qaeda terrorists had trained for their atrocities on civilian flight simulators. Suddenly, the door slammed on James and his clients.

"There was no official guidance on people like us so 48 hours after 9/11, we were shut down by the Department of Transport," says James, who amassed debts of £100,000 while the bureaucrats spent two years drawing up new guidelines which allowed Virtual Aviation back in the simulators.

When business resumed, demand was greater than ever. The company now has access to nearly 40 different simulators at several airports.

Every month, around 300 people "fly" with Virtual Aviation, many of them paying a basic £250 to share an hour with two other people.

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The dramatic scene at Heathrow yesterday after a BA Boeing 777 suffered engine failure and crash landed

You can fly on your own for £600 an hour. There are courses for genuine trainee pilots, too, and the company also uses the simulators for intensive one-on-one courses for those with a fear of flying. I dare say there will be a few more of those after last week.

The security is rigorous. My passport is photocopied, my name is run through a computer and I am asked not to identify the Luton building where I will have my two-hour session. The simulator operators recently reported one man to the police for exhibiting an unhealthy interest in flight manuals.

I start in a briefing room where my instructor, Martyn Apperly, has a map of the instrument panel of a "new generation" Boeing 737. It's the workhorse of most airlines, a twin-engined plane which might take anyone anywhere in Europe.

But trying to comprehend all these switches is like trying to talk Icelandic. Considering he spent 32 years with BA - 22 of them as a captain - Martyn is remarkably patient as he takes me through the basics.

When we are taking off, he will call out our speed as we accelerate up the runway until he shouts "V1", the signal that we have to get airborne. I must then gently pull the control stick back and try to keep the plane steady as we start our ascent. There's a lot of other stuff about thrust and "inertial navigation systems" but I'm afraid Martyn has lapsed back into Icelandic.

We walk through to the simulator, housed in what appears to be a heavy duty transport container. It's parked in an enormous storage bay and you can only get into it by walking up stairs and across a drawbridge.

Inside, it is exactly like a flight deck right down to the seat and the headset. A panoramic three-dimensional view of Luton Airport lies before me through the windows, although a flick of a button can turn it into any number of airports.

One switch makes it night-time but I opt for daylight. And it's not just a case of pressing a "start" button to get things going. We need an operator to sit at the back, programming all the variables, the route and the conditions. Today, it is James.

We start with a straightforward round trip out of Luton. Sitting in the co-pilot's seat, Martyn fires up the engines. It is all astonishingly lifelike. The noise, the rumbling and even the sense of forward motion are eerily real (I later discover that six hydraulic rams achieve a sense of propulsion by tilting us forwards while the screen still appears to be level with the ground).

We charge off down the runway and when Martyn says "V1", I gently pull the control stick and off we go. Easy peasy - even if Martyn has pressed all the buttons and talked a lot of Icelandic.

After a spin over Hertfordshire, Martyn agrees to let me help him land the thing. He starts to count down our descent and when he says "20" - 20ft off the ground - I must start to raise the nose and keep the thing in a straight line as we tear down the runway before slamming on the brakes. These are pedals. Even I can understand them. We stop - albeit with a jolt.

So far, so good. But I want to simulate some drama. Martyn is not so keen. "We spend our lives avoiding incidents, not creating them," he says. "People who come on a simulator generally want to fly as well as possible, not to crash."

It turns out that, even in a simulator, an accident is a serious headache since it requires a complete resetting of the computer. But the customer is king and I want to experience the scarier side of flying from the sharp end.

So, we have our "near miss" over the South of France. And then I tell him I want to try to land this thing on my own. Martyn reluctantly agrees to resist all his natural inclinations to interfere.

Like a driving instructor, he can override my mistakes and, as a senior pilot, is hardwired to avoid any trouble. But he will let me try the approach to Luton unaided. "You'd better belt up," he tells James firmly.

The poor computer is not very happy about this. "Bank!" it snaps as I start oversteering on the way down. The voice is male, American, rather camp and a bit tetchy. It sounds like a New York waiter receiving a five cent tip. Let us call him Julian. The runway looms ahead. "Terrain!" snaps Julian. "Terrain!"

As we get perilously close to the ground I expect alarms, sirens and flashing lights. But that doesn't happen. The onboard computers are designed for serious professionals who really know what they are doing. The last thing they will want is the distraction of lots of panicking machinery.

The only complaint comes from Julian. "Pull up!" he says huffily. I am genuinely tense as I try to keep us level - and I am not alone. I can sense Martyn stiffening. "Pull up!" repeats Julian as the ground rushes towards us. They are his last words.

Suddenly, everything freezes. The machine stops juddering. Lights come up. I have piled us into the ground, but no one says a word. There is certainly no levity. In the aviation industry, there is nothing remotely funny about crashing. If this had been flight BA038, no passengers would have walked away from the wreckage.

I have failed. Dismally. Unlike real life, I am also given a chance to redeem myself. After the computer has been carefully reset and nursed back to life, my final exercise is to abort a take-off on an icy runway in snow. James presses some more buttons and suddenly we are transported to Austria where I am looking at snowflakes on the runway at Innsbruck Airport.

The engines rev up, the thrust kicks in and we charge off down the runway until I slam on the brakes at 80mph. We slide off the runway, shaking like an old banger on cobbles. Julian is strangely silent but there is an extremely authentic "Bang!"

"You've just lost a tyre," says Martyn. "Bang! Bang! Bang!" My tyres are exploding left and right. But finally, the airliner grinds to a halt on a snowy waste somewhere near the long-term car park.

OK. It's not exactly a perfect end to an Austrian skiing holiday but at least we're all alive. "How did I do?" I ask Martyn. He searches for a diplomatic answer. "I've seen worse," he says.

Just four days later I would see the best - courageous, level-headed brilliance in the face of genuine horror. I still cannot quite believe that BA038 lived to tell the tale.

It remains carved in my mind as a moment of sheer absurdity: one minute, a graceful piece of engineering is heading towards me, the next it is a pile of high-speed wreckage. Picture a world-class ballerina keeling over into the orchestra pit and you start to have some sense of the incongruity of the moment.

So all those passengers - and the rest of us who happened to be in the vicinity last Thursday - should not just be profoundly thankful for the gallantry of the modest Mr Coward.

We should also pay tribute to the training and the brilliant simulators which made him the pilot he is.