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Look who's learned to fly

Rent this simulator, get your pilot's wings and get out of town fast

Publication Date : 05-07-2012


You'll still have to deal with the overcrowding at Suvarnabhumi Airport if you actually do want to fly somewhere, but if you're happy enough just pretending to fly, there's a Boeing 737-800 parked in a building on Silom Road that you can pilot yourself.

It can be your own personal airliner, ready to jet to 24,000 destinations around the world (which is a lot better than you can say for Thai Airways).

Of course the travel is all in your imagination, but the flight simulator makes it seem real enough.

Australian adventure firm Flight Experience puts you in the cockpit of a full-scale replica of a short- to medium-range Boeing 737, of the type Nok Air uses to get between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. You taxi the plane out, take off, fly and land, all by yourself.

"You experience exactly what it's really like to handle a modern jet airliner," says Agaphas Teparagul, managing director of the firm's Bangkok outlet. "This model is easy to take off and land - that's why it's very popular. It's estimated that a Boeing 737-800 is on and off the runway somewhere in the world every five seconds."

Agaphas notes that airlines use the same simulator to train pilots, its instrumentation identical to what's up front in a real aircraft, including navigation, engineering and communication. It's on a fixed base, but high-fidelity 180-degree panoramic visuals ensure a good sense of motion.

"Pilots actually train for four years before they take command of this kind of commercial jet."

Agaphas and his partners paid more than 30 million baht (US$953,000) for the simulator. Flight Experience Simulators require approval by Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority for pilot training. Its machines are also in public use in France, Hong Kong, Kuwait and Singapore.

Sanction for the five-month-old Bangkok operation is pending from Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation.

"People usually only dream of becoming a pilot and flying a commercial jet - we can make that dream come true, even if only briefly," says Agaphas, a civilian pilot aboard Royal Thai Air Force 604 aircraft.

"And if you have a fear of flying, this experience will show you all aspects of flying, aviation safety and airline procedures - and you'll feel a lot better about it.

"Our youngest customer so far was five years old, and the oldest was 70. Any kids who've played computer simulators like Microsoft Flight Simulator X will want more of a thrill. The older people are just looking for challenges."

Time to submit your flight plan - and to pay the airfare. It's 4,000 baht ($127) for a 30-minute "scenic" flight and 9,000 baht ($285) for the 90-minute ultimate experience, with several choices in between.

The simulator is programmed with the routes to 24,000 airports. "You follow real-world procedures in real time," says Komsan Yangsriphithak, another actual pilot and one of seven Flight Experience instructors.

"Do you have Saint Maarten?" asks Walan Supakorn from The Nation's sister newspaper Krungthep Turakij.

It's available, says Komsan, "but this airport is reputed for its difficulty in approach due to the short runway. You can give it a try!"

Walan realises he's got half an hour to fire up the big Boeing, |taxi into position, take off, fly 14,000 kilometres and land on the tricky Caribbean airstrip - this is the approach that famously skims the top of tourists' beach umbrellas. First, though, there's a 10-minute pre-flight briefing on the cockpit gear so he won't panic when he sees the huge bank of instruments.

On board you have an instructor in the co-pilot's seat next to you to make sure you don't slam into a virtual Baiyoke Tower, which would almost certainly ruin the mood. The idea is to enjoy the experience from start to finish. The cockpit also has a pair of "observation seats" where your friends can sit and giggle.

Walan learns how to complete the checklist, work the yoke and rudder pedals, adjust the throttle and keep an eye on his airspeed and the artificial horizon. We trundle off, pick up speed and he pulls back on the controls. We're off the ground. The sky visuals onscreen are amazing.

After 30 minutes we descend, ridiculously low, over Maho Beach and see the airport. "Prepare for landing and set the landing flaps at 40 because this runway is so short," Komsan advises.

"It was an exciting experience," Walan says after completing his mission safely on the first try, trying not to look too relieved. "It was as if I was controlling a real aeroplane in the real sky.

"It's not like driving a car, where you can pull to the side when something goes wrong. A pilot really does have a huge responsibility. I was confused but also excited over the countless display panels and controls," he admitted.

"I love movie thrillers set on planes so I was somewhat familiar with the jargon, but this is an experience you otherwise just can't get in the real world."

You can tailor your flight - a 90-minute hop between Bangkok and Phuket might be plenty, or you can focus on mastering the cockpit computer and auto-flight system. Anyone thinking of becoming a pilot can practise the skills in authentic conditions, or at least discover what it's like being at the controls.

And, as for smashing into virtual skyscrapers - we were only kidding.

"We won't allow the airliner to crash or fall," says Agaphas. "We don't want our clients having bad experiences. They should go home with nothing but exciting memories of their excursion into the sky."


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