Behind the curtains there was a wall of screens, and the hum of an idling jet engine played through the speakers.

The atmosphere was strangely relaxing, despite the nervousness I felt — I was about to fly a 747. Kind of.

Photo by Pilots of Swiss on Flickr

“Have a seat, I’ll just get things going here.” John, my instructor and a certified pilot, made me feel comfortable. “You’ll be behind the yolk today.”

John had just finished a real flight that morning, he told me, and now he was in the simulator. I thought that was fantastic — just hours ago he’d been thousands of feet in the air, hundreds of kilometres away. There and back again. The marvel of human flight.

As a pilot on either side of the cockpit, you have an exhaustive checklist to examine prior to take-off, from tiny minutiae to whether the engines are running. You have communication with ground control, with your crew, with your co-pilot. You have weather reports, runway conditions, whether everybody is on the plane, whether you’ll be on time.

And you have very little margin for error. This isn’t a desk job.

The screens come on around me, displaying hundreds of little buttons and knobs and levers. Little screens yell numbers at me. It’s completely intimidating. John tells me not to worry about all that stuff. That’s why there’s two pilots.

“As command pilot, you don’t need to worry about most of this. That’s for your co-pilot. All you need to focus on, really, is this,” John points to a small screen in front of me that resembles waypoint indicator from a video game. “That triangle is you. The magenta indicators are where you want to go.”

My job really was that simple. I’ve played enough video games to know how to fly a fake plane. Turns out the real thing isn’t much more complicated, at least not behind the yolk.

The whole experience begins to demystify the pilot experience to me. Being in the simulator pulls back the curtain on what pilots do and how they work enough to make them and their job feel a bit more human, a tiny bit more accessible. While I still have no clue what the majority of those buttons or controls do, or what language they seem to speak with ground control, nor would I feel comfortable taking over controls of a commercial airliner in event of an emergency, I feel just a bit more understanding about how pilots function, and how they work.

After a (surprisingly) smooth takeoff, we reach cruising altitude. Out the front window (a 42″ LCD television, in this case) I can see we’re over the North Shore mountains in Vancouver. John turns on the autopilot so we can talk about the takeoff and what we’re going to be doing next.

I marvel a bit at the complexity, and ask him about the pilot dynamic, about what they do during flight when autopilot is on.

“Well, when you’re in flight, you have to find a balance of workload in order to stay focused. If you’re working at 100% workload, that’s too much, you’re stretched too thin and bound to make an error. But on the other side of the coin, if you’re too relaxed, autopilot is doing everything and you’re at a 30% or less workload, you become complacent and, again, are prone to error. So it’s really about finding that balance.

Bingo. Immediately, this resonates with me. Not because I feel I have any of the stress that airline pilots have in my day-to-day life. My decisions carry far less weight. This mantra resonates with me because, holistically, many people can relate to this. It’s that whole philosophy of saying no more.

I feel I’m a yes-man. I say yes to everything, whether it’s for fear of missing out, or because I feel obliged, or something else. I take on commitments like a sinking ship takes on water. It’s easy, and almost automatic, because the consequences come later. Then, you realize how bogged down you are, and none of your work is at the top of its game. You can never truly focus.

The lesson here, I believe, is to find that level at which you perform most effectively. What’s your optimal workload percentage? If you gauge your 100%, your tipping point, how much below that should you go to allow balance in your life, and be able to actually focus on what you’re doing, and do it well? It’s going to be different for everyone. But finding and maintaining that is going to reduce your number of errors, and improve the quality of your work.

I snap back into focus. We bank for a 180 degree turn and start to line up with the runway at YVR. Just to make things a bit more challenging, John pulls up a menu and clicks some buttons, and suddenly the screens flash to night. We’re about to land, and this is the part I was nervous about.

The yolk isn’t as responsive as I expected; I suppose turning such a giant beast in the air, naturally, requires timing. John kept reminding me to anticipate the turns and the adjustments. I didn’t know how — that’s part of what comes with training, I presume. For some reason I expected fighter-jet responsiveness. Not that I would have been much better with that.

We line ourselves up with the string of lights on the ground, and start to come in for a landing.

We’re overshooting it a bit — I push down but overcompensate. Now we’re too nose down, and facing right. I course-correct so we don’t veer off the runway, but I do so a bit too late. We’re 30 feet off the ground now. I pull up but it’s slow and delayed. I think we’re going to crash, but suddenly we’re on the ground, driving down the runway.

Of course if this were a real landing, the airline would be sued and several passengers would probably have severe whiplash. This simulator didn’t have hydraulics which made the landing seem smoother than it really was. But, besides that, I’d done it — I’d taken off and landed without breaking the plane.

We debrief a little. They’ve been kind to me — the flight was scheduled to last 45 minutes, and we’ve gone twice over that already. John happily answers all of my questions — and I have a lot of them. But soon it’s time to disembark, as the next simulation is about to start. We shake hands and turn around, and I half expect to be greeted by a flight attendant and led through a fluorescent tunnel to the gate to collect my bags.

Instead we part a curtain and I’m in an air travel souvenir shop, greeted by glass cases filled with model jets and books on flying.

As I walk outside I’m at the edge of the airport, and can see jets coming in to land after a long flight. I picture the pilots in the cockpit, pressing their buttons, lining up the yolk with the stretch of asphalt on the ground, a harsh and abrasive welcome back to the Earth. I see them land gracefully, like a duck onto a pond, and have ever the more admiration for their control over such a fantastic beast.

Little more understanding, but ever more appreciation.

You can read more posts like this at my website:

Writer & Video Producer.

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