How air travel works: from simulator to initial Airbus liftoff

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2007

Being an airline passenger today is like jetting back to childhood: You're told only what someone thinks you should know.

But I am an anxious flier, not a toddler. I begin to wonder if, despite stringent security, it might be possible to see how air travel works, to see what it's like up front.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines agrees to let me train with one of their pilots on a cockpit-and-flight simulator. If I pass, I get to tag along with employees who are picking up a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Airbus A318 at the plant in Germany.

It is an early spring day near Denver International Airport. Tim Cavender, head of flight training for the airline, leads me to a hangar full of space capsules propped up on fat hydraulic legs. These are black box simulators, I am told: All of the details inside - every knob, every switch - are actual parts used in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 jet.

I can pick the airport to be programmed in for simulated takeoff, along with the weather and the time of day. New York's LaGuardia at dusk is what I want - and there is the terminal in high-definition color right in front of me. What is that? It's a simulated ground crew waving cones. Time to pull back from the gate.

In seconds I am taxiing, trying to get used to the "stick" pilots steer with. It is super sensitive and I have to work it using only my left hand. We are wobbling, lurching: I run one wheel of the plane into a directional sign.

Just as the simulated control tower clears me for takeoff, there are flakes of snow. We see a fork of TV lightning and stereo thunder blasts vibrate my seat.

The flakes mushroom into a blizzard and I look to Tim for guidance. He points to the engine levers, so reluctantly, I push them back. We reach "decision" speed (where there is not enough runway left to stop) the second that Cavender tells me our number two engine is out.

"What should I do?" I shout. "Take off," says Cavender blandly. Despite the wobbling, the sense of dragging, the Airbus is lifting off the tarmac. Somehow we are up there, sailing into simulated New York sky.

Now I am ready for the real thing. I pack my bags for Hamburg, home of one of the two big plants where Airbuses are built. The morning of our flight back is drizzly and cold. Along with the Frontier crew, I get up in the dark and ride a bus to Finkenwerder Airfield to meet our plane.

Frontier jets are distinguishable by the pictures of forest animals on their tails. I am looking and looking, and suddenly out of the mist pops a giant spotted owl. It is our 114-passenger A318. The airline will use it on its Denver-to-Dallas route. First we've got to fly it over the Atlantic, and after a stop for fuel in Maine, deliver it to headquarters in Colorado. The plane has a new car smell. There's a clear plastic runner over the carpeting and a package containing a yellow rubber raft takes up most of Row 12. We sit wherever we want.

Our cockpit crew is led by Captain Andy Vita, but a less-senior officer, Larry Lutz, will do much of the flying. First Officer Pat Nolta inspects the cabin. "Anyone want to ride in the cockpit?" he asks. My hand shoots high.

In seconds, I am on a jump seat, strapped in right behind Lutz, who will pilot the plane on takeoff. This is an A318, not the longer-range A320, but I feel at home. The simulator I trained in was a perfect copy.

Time for the safety briefing. I am shown a rope. What for? "In case of window escape," says Nolta. Over there is the handy cockpit ax: I can use it to smash my way out in an emergency. And way down there is an escape hatch I can kick out at the bottom of the fortified cockpit door.

Just how fortified is it? I press on it and punch it and though it feels resilient I can't be sure. Nolta reads my mind. "It's Kevlar," he says, "the stuff that bulletproof vests are made of."

In a matter of minutes we are on the runway and Lutz and Vita are at work. "Engines." "Check." "Flight instruments." "Check." "Flaps." "Check." I do not say anything, but here we are, seconds from takeoff, and both of the pilots have left their tray tables down.

The cockpit window shows us only fog and the tarmac's center line scrolling faster and faster. Jet thrust up here feels different than it does for passengers: The ride is bouncier and there is a sense of swaying, a slip to the side as we gain speed.

The whine of the A318 becomes a scream and just like that, our nose is up. There's no delay like in the back, no sense of tardiness to fly. We are the cone of the missile, the tip of the rocket.

Something ahead looks dark and I am about to ask what it is when we are hit with the blast. It is a detonation of blue. I've never seen the sky before, I think. I've only imagined.

"Welcome," says Vita. "We are here."

Peter Mandel, a writer in Providence, can be reached at

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