It would be fair to say that vehicles and I have never really got along. There were the two failed attempts in my teens and 20s to learn to drive a car and – even further back – my THREE cycling proficiency test failures at the end of primary school which left me resolutely bike-free to this day.
So how on earth, then, did it come to pass that I was thousands of feet up in the air, joystick clamped between my sweaty palms, strapped into the pilot’s seat in a Boeing 737 cockpit, negotiating the airways between San Diego and LA, and trying for all it was worth to bring the huge hulk of metal (not forgetting the human cargo) safely into land?
Well, of course, it was merely a SIMULATED flight – don’t panic, no need to alert the authorities. But so detailed, accurate and (I imagine) true to life was this simulated flight experience that for most of my journey I genuinely did feel as if all the above was actually happening.
I was taking my trip courtesy of the Flight Studio in Stapleford. The brainchild (and passion) of Andrew Kyprianou, Flight Studio has been in operation since February, after two years of meticulous preparation, sourcing and research. Operating from a (you guessed it) studio at the end of Andrew and wife Martina’s garden, the whole experience has been designed to feel as authentic as possible.
In the pre-flight lounge (where friends and family of the day’s “designated pilot” can watch the flight courtesy of a large display screen), Andrew talks me through our journey, and begins to go through the almost overwhelming quantity of information that a real pilot and flight crew would need to digest before taking off.
With sheaves of extremely professional-looking documents – all accurate and as actually used by, y’know, real pilots – the pre-flight briefing takes in today’s weather conditions (in California, where our flight will be taking place), the designated route, with “beacons” on our path to navigate by, recommended altitude, wind charts (there’s going to be a light headwind today, which sounds manageable) and, if I’m honest, so much more information that much of it simply sails directly over my head.
Throughout, Andrew is a competent and reassuring coach. If I’m actually going to be flying this baby (and yes, yes I know it’s only a simulation but do you know what, it’s already all beginning to feel extremely real), then I definitely want someone like Andrew at my side, guiding me literally and psychologically through the journey.
So after a helpful on-screen run-through of the main points (accompanied by a quick cup of herbal tea), it was time to get into the cockpit and get up in the air.
And this is where the experience gets really, almost unsettlingly real. Flight Studio is currently chiefly an “experience” provider, with people booking up flights as a birthday treat, or to overcome a slight unease about flying (although for serious phobics, Andrew recommends trained psychological assistance as the first port of call), but a proportion of their business is also devoted to providing initial taster sessions for people considering an aviation career.
One pilot who visited recently confirmed that the Flight Studio experience was more authentic than the airline company’s simulator that he had himself trained on, and it’s quite a remarkable thing to experience in situ.
Looking out of the cockpit window at the 210-degree projected landscape – San Diego Airport, today’s departure point, selected from a list that encompasses literally any airport in the world where Boeing 737s can fly – I begin to get a feel for manoeuvring the plane, initially by means of the curved handle to my left-hand side, which steers us along the ground to our departure lane. So far so good, if a little jerkier a ride than I would be entirely happy with if I was a passenger.
As we prepare to take off, Andrew confidently reads monitors, flips switches, tells me what to press, read and check, and issues reassuring instructions. Information is fed through to us from air traffic control and the pre-flight announcements are broadcast to passengers.
I begin to suffer a bit of a brain-freeze, and take the decision that if I can perhaps pare things down to only concentrate on a) following every instruction Andrew gives me and b) steering the plane relatively smoothly, avoiding nosedives or too-rapid ascents if at all possible, I might just make it through the experience without ignominious disaster.
Take-off is a rush, a blur, going past in such a huge dose of adrenaline that I scarcely dare take my eyes of the magenta horizontal and vertical lines on my display panel (the indicators of how successfully I’m keeping the plane on the right trajectory) to glance outside as we leave San Diego behind and break up through the clouds.
But suddenly – hey! – wow! – I’ve done it! We’re actually up in the air, the seat-belt signs have been switched off, we’re flying. It’s quite an incredible feeling.
Still focusing as if my life depends on it on the magenta guidelines, I start to get the hang of the joystick’s left-right-up-down movements to balance the plane. By now I’m genuinely about 95 per cent convinced this is a real plane, I’m actually navigating it and we’re really about to come in to land in Los Angeles LAX airport. Oh lord, the landing. Come on now, FOCUS!
Our first time around doesn’t go well, and I miss the point where I need to start descending, if I’m going to be able to land smoothly (haha) on the designated runway.
So it’s deep breaths all round, an encouraging pep-talk from Andrew, and around in a great big aerial loop to try again. This time things are much better. As I watch the cloud give way to (gulp) tiny buildings, that then become larger buildings at a rate that is slightly more rapid than I would, ideally, like, and then see the actual runway appear before my eyes, I concentrate as I have actually never ever concentrated on anything else in my life.
And once I experience that distinctive (thankfully gentle) bump that tells me the wheels have touched down on terra firma I am almost incoherent with relief and triumph.
Once brakes have been applied and my trusty vehicle slowed down and brought under control, I feel like an old pro switching once again from the joystick to the steering handle to guide us into our parking slot. For perhaps only the second or third time since the journey began, I allow myself to look out of the window at my surroundings and yes, it really does completely feel as if we have just touched down in Los Angeles.
As we emerge, post-flight, blinking into the Stapleford sunshine, and Andrew (generously) categorises my piloting skills as “not worse than the very worst, but not better than the best either”, it’s been a truly immersive, completely astonishing, almost literally “out of body” experience.
And you don’t get that, I’m sure, from many other companies operating from a Cambridgeshire garden . .