I‘m in the flight deck (the preferred term for cockpit) of a Boeing 737. The view is more exciting when you’re hunched behind the pilots’ seats. As the plane takes off from Juneau International Airport, I grip the wall and crouch down to keep my balance. It’s less comfortable than the passenger seats, but to see the the dozens of buttons, switches, and monitors of the flight deck firsthand is as intriguing as it is intimidating.
We’ve only been airborne a minute when the left engine catches fire. The aircraft trembles, and I see red warning lights flash on the engine monitor.
“I knew it,” the captain says.
This isn’t the kind of blip you hear when you get a Windows error; the alarm is screeching. The air traffic control tower pipes in through the radio.
“Flight 62, come in.”
“Yeah, what?” the captain answers.
“It looks like you’ve got fire on the left side–”
“No shit. We’re coming back to land.”
The co-pilot rifles through a flight manual, holding the booklet up to the small reading light above his seat. He spits out a handful of procedures in aeronautic jargon, and the captain flips the appropriate switches. The automatic controls for the trim spin and click.
We come in for a landing, but just before we touch down, a strong crosswind blasts us sideways. The engine fire has melted through the hydraulics, and the brakes on the landing gear lock up. The plane skids across the tarmac and spins 180 degrees.
You don’t say no when someone invites you into a $30 million flight simulator. At nearly the price of a real Boeing 737, Don calls it “the world’s most expensive video game.”
The machine itself is a giant metal box, mounted on hydraulic actuators to simulate aircraft movement.
From inside, the experience is impressive in its conviction. The interior contains the entirety of the flight deck, with every single meter and button accurately replicated. No detail is spared. There’s even a hand-held fire extinguisher behind the co-pilot’s seat.
Scott flies captain, with Kenny as his co-pilot. They are fleet captains trying out a set of new training scenarios before pilots come in for recurrent training. This testing procedure is called a first-look maneuver. Every year, pilots spend time in both the classroom and simulator. They face computer-simulated Murphy’s Law, and they don’t continue flying until they pass. Doctors don’t see this much recurrent training. With hundreds of pilots on staff, Scott and Kenny are testing the program for difficulty and time efficiency.
John is in back, seated beside a touch-screen computer monitor that allows him to adjust the situation on the fly. He can manipulate the plane’s position and a handful of weather conditions like wind, precipitation, and fog. John can also program various mechanical problems. His job is to act as the instructor, making sure the scenario inputs work, and to double as air traffic control.
Outside the windshield is a digital display of the environment. The visuals themselves aren’t particularly lifelike when still, especially compared to the capabilities of a new Xbox, but in motion, the high-speed frame rate smooths over all of the rough 3D models and presents a convincing environment for the pilot. When John turned up the turbulence levels, even the water hundreds of feet below showed ripples.
In the first exercise, we depart from Juneau. The simulator tips backward and rattles, and the feigned inertia is believable. The plane isn’t in the air for two minutes before we hit trouble.
I don’t understand any of the computer monitors or gauges in the flight deck, but I’m smart enough to guess what ENG FAIL means. Lights flare, things beep, but it turns out a 36-ton commercial jet can fly with just one functioning engine.
It’s not easy though. Kenny controls the balance of the plane with foot pedals. Overcompensating either way could flip the plane over. Scott is careful on the throttle. We turn around and head back to Juneau for an emergency landing.
John has a manual of pre-programmed conditions to set up. The pilots take a break and make a few jokes. Suddenly, we’re in the air again.
In this scenario, the 737 begins the approach phase coming into Juneau. According to Don, it’s the only international airport with a dogleg approach, meaning that planes must come at the runway at an angle and straighten out moments before touchdown. The mountains that surround all sides of the airport make any other landing impossible. Apparently this is still safe.
Kenny is flying now, and John punches in the conditions.
“WIND SHEAR, WIND SHEAR, WIND SHEAR!”
A burst of wind pushes the nose of the plane up. I stumble backward, and suddenly forward again as the nose dips back down. The computerized voice repeats each warning in triplets.
“TER-RAIN, TER-RAIN, TER-RAIN!”
“PULL UP, PULL UP, PULL UP!”
The plane sinks towards the mountain. The chicken teriyaki I had for lunch bubbles in my stomach. My guts are in free fall. Another blast of wind.
“WIND SHEAR, WIND SHEAR, WIND SHEAR!”
Five days later, I’m on a real flight to Juneau International Airport, this time seated in the coach section. Approaching from the north, the left side of the plane is treated to a stunning view of Mendenhall Glacier, a sight not rendered by the digital display of the simulator. Before the start of our dogleg approach, we hit a rough patch of turbulence. The cabin shakes violently, and a few passengers let out concerned gasps and moans. Carry-on luggage shuffles around overhead.
The movement isn’t nearly as severe as the faux turbulence from the first-look maneuvers, but I can’t help but abide by the illuminated seat belt sign.