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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 21 July, 2018
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Landing a 737-800 is really hard - here's what happened when we tried

We just avoided the grass.

Image: .John W via Flickr/CC

THE CONDITIONS ARE clear, there is barely a cloud in the sky and a Boeing 737-800 is cruising east above Dublin Bay.

Oh, and I’m flying it.

Luckily for people on the ground and off it, I’m not in an actual plane and nobody is counting on me to land the 130 tonne aircraft.

Instead I’m in a warehouse a short drive from Dublin Airport at Simtech’s facility, safely ensconced in the right-hand seat of their 737 simulator, which is used to train pilots from all over the world. Simtech is a specialist provider of flight simulation and pilot training services and was founded by Sé Pardy and Fergal Keogh, in 2004. They recently sold a stake in their business to private equity firm Renatus Capital Partners and Martello Group, a specialist aviation, leisure and real estate group.

Source: gazref/YouTube

Beside me is Bob Sheehan, the company’s engineering manager, who has worked on these simulators for nearly 40 years. He says that while not a pilot himself, he would class himself as the next most qualified person most flights he’s been on.

After showing me the circuit, Bob turns the simulator over to me. With him watching, I take the plane up to 3,000 feet and around 25 miles from the runway before turning around. The simulator itself doesn’t move, but the experience makes you feel like it is. The simulators are programmed using the data and parameters from test flights. It’s as real as you would expect a €9 million piece of equipment to be.

By now, there are a number of things going through my head. Firstly, this is difficult. Which is probably obvious and I was under no illusions that it would be easy, but the sheer level of instruments and information that a pilot looks at and receives is massive and ever-changing.

IMAG1280 This journalist, awkwardly sitting in the First Officer's seat.

The other thing that’s painfully obvious is that controlling the plane is physically tiring. The steering column is heavy but responsive. Bob likens the movements to a car’s steering wheel. When you start driving, you think that you have to pull the wheel back and forth, but you soon realise that subtle movements will do that.

A jet’s steering column is similar except: a) there are four directions you can go and you have to pay attention to them all and b) the plane weighs about 174,200 pounds and is contending with wind, weather and atmospheric pressure so doesn’t always go exactly where you’d like it to.

Training

The simulators form a vital part of pilot training, be they cadets (Aer Lingus, Stobart Air and Cityjet have simulators on-site) or those taking the step up from smaller planes to jets.

Many will spend four-hour blocks being run through everything from taking off in great weather to landing on one engine. The training is intensive, but it has to be, given the nature of the job.

20170223_Air_Travel2 (1) Source: Statista

That job being one that is in huge demand. The global boom in air travel means that Europe alone needs a lot of new pilots. According to Boeing, the world’s largest aeroplane manufacturer, 104,000 new commercial airline pilots will be needed in Europe over the next 20 years. UK regional airline Flybe recently confirmed that the airline’s expansion plans are being held back by a shortage of trained pilots. Last February, US airline group Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy, blaming a pilot shortage for forcing it to ground planes.

While airlines used to fund training in the past now it is, primarily, trainee pilots themselves who finance their own training. This has resulted in a growing trend of people who have had financially successful careers in technology or finance industries, for example, using their earnings to fund their training.

IMAG1278 The Simtech simulator.

With that in mind a pilot training exhibition, Pilot Careers Live will take place in Croke Park Conference Centre on Saturday 4 March. It will feature talks on training and the working life of a pilot.

Pilot Brian O’Keeffe graduated as a commercial pilot last year after training with Atlantic Flight Training Academy. He now works with Norwegian Airlines flying primarily from Oslo.

“I worked in Australia so that I could finance my training. I would urge anyone interested in a career as a pilot to take the plunge and follow your dreams; it’s a fantastic career. Pilot Careers Live is a great first step where you will learn about how to make your dreams a reality.”

Coming in to land

For Bob, the aviation industry is one of those things you “either love or you don’t”. He’s imparting this knowledge at the same time as guiding me in to Dublin Airport.

Essentially, there is a green rectangle on one instrument known as the localiser, which gives you the centre spot of the runway. As the pilot, you’re trying to line yourself up with that, while occasionally checking the horizon.

Then you’re keeping an eye on the attitude indicator:

shutterstock_42007357 Source: Shutterstock/FER737NG

Those pink bars supposed to line up with that small black box, but the lines move around, requiring constant slight but firm corrections.

You’re also watching your glideslope, a pink diamond that comes into view closer to the runway, your airspeed, your altitude and various other inputs as well as your heading and the horizon.

As I glide in, I notice that the centre spot of Runway 28 is not exactly in the centre of the plane. So, either they’ve moved the runway, the instruments are wrong or I’ve made a mess of this.

With just around 1,000 feet left, Bob is reminding me to shade to the right – but not too far to the right. With a descent rate of 700 feet a minute, there’s not a lot of time for adjustments or to look at the Poolbeg towers or the Old Airport Road lovingly recreated on my left.

I desperately try to guide the plane to the concrete and then there’s a small bump and, with the barest of margins, the back wheels, or “main bogeys” hit solid ground, avoiding the grass.

Letting Bob handle the parking, I relax for the first time in our short 20-minute flight.  My arms are tired from the column and my mind is exhausted from information overload and total concentration.

But I can also see why pilots love flying.

Simtech offer gift vouchers for simulation experiences.

Read: The Irishman who took a punt on Skyscanner is set to win from its €1.7bn sale

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