Life & Culture

Getting my wings! How a first-class flight simulator offered me a taste of the high life

Budding pilot Joy Sable touches down at Ben Gurion Airport — without setting foot out of London Luton


Prepare for takeoff: Joy and her flight simulator instructor Paul Lang

I am sitting in the captain’s seat in the cockpit of a Boeing 737-800. It is hurtling down the runway at Ben Gurion airport in Israel and as soon as it reaches the necessary speed for take-off, I pull back gently on the control stick in front of me and the plane rises majestically into the air. To my left is the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, to my right the beautiful Israeli landscape. Who knew flying could be enjoyable?

Only, I’m not flying. I’m in a very realistic flight simulator at London Luton Airport. Next to me, in the co-pilot’s seat, is Paul Lang, who, together with Howard Atkins, runs Voyager Flight Simulation, a high-spec jetliner and helicopter flight simulator centre. He guides me through what to do, which buttons to press and which switches to flick. In the distance, I can see the Dead Sea and as I bank the plane to the right, Jerusalem looms ahead. At an impossibly low altitude that would never be permitted in reality, I approach the Dome of the Rock and the Kotel.

Lang is a familiar face on the simcha circuit. Having been a photographer for nearly four decades, he can often be seen at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, snapping away to capture special memories. So why then is he sitting next to me, his white shirt decorated with captain’s epaulettes?

Running Voyager Flight Simulation is the culmination of a childhood dream. Lang’s father had completed his National Service in the RAF and though he always worked in aviation, he never became a pilot. Instead, he took his son to the Farnborough Air Show and the RAF Museum, instilling a love of planes.

“I either wanted to be a pilot or a photographer,” says Lang. “I was passionate about both, but at school my maths and my science weren’t great and you really need those to be a pilot. In those days there was no Ryanair, or easyJet. Flying was still quite an expensive thing, so there wasn’t the demand for pilots and there was the oil crisis. It was quite hard to get on to a training scheme and so I became a photographer, which has been the most wonderful career.”

Lang is still a busy photographer but his passion for flying remained. Moving house meant that the expensive hobby of learning to fly had to be put on hold, so Lang started visiting flight simulators instead, where he met Atkins. In Northamptonshire, they were offered the chance to take a flight instructor course: “I thought that is the nearest I’m ever going to get to being an airline pilot.” When the simulator company there closed, Lang and Atkins took the decision to open their own. They found the ideal venue at Luton Airport – being surrounded by real planes just adds to the atmosphere – and arranged for a Boeing simulator to be transported from Poland and assembled on site.

Up and running since November, Lang and Atkins have welcomed corporate groups for team-building sessions, couples celebrating anniversaries, bar mitzvah boys and others just wanting to test their skills in a plane or conquer a fear of flying. They offer a choice of 24,000 airports from which to land or take-off, various weather conditions and can even – like Chesley Sullenberger’s famous landing on the Hudson – provide you with a bird strike and engine failure.

With all this expertise, would Lang be the perfect person to land a plane if the pilots suddenly became incapacitated? “Technically, yes,” he says. “It would all be about if I kept my cool on the day. What you would do is call up air traffic control and say ‘Emergency, where do you want me to go?’ and they would probably give you vector headings [navigational guidance] to get you to an airport. Most big airports have a system that guides you in, and right at the end you take off the autopilot. If it’s a Boeing we can fly it, not an Airbus – they are fundamentally different design philosophies.”

Eventually, it is time for me to land the plane. Under Lang’s cool instructions, I bring the aircraft to a safe stop, even managing to keep it on the runway. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time, but I think I’d be a better member of the cabin crew than a pilot. Chicken or beef, anyone?

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