It’s a clear Wednesday morning and I have a very good view through the windows of my Cessna 172. We took off from Chofu Airport in the western suburbs of Tokyo a few minutes ago. I am already 4,000 feet up in the sky over Tokyo, flying stably north at about 185 kph. I am keeping my hands rigidly on the joystick and my eyes on the cockpit instruments and the view outside.
When I look down from the cockpit windows I can see the Shinjuku skyscrapers to my left. That’s very nice, but really my entire concentration is focused on the instruments in front of me — especially the attitude indicator that’s telling me whether I am flying level, upside-down or at some other bizarre angle.
Feeling a few troubling trembles rising through my seat, I remember my instructor’s words: “Do not move the joystick much, as the airplane is designed to fly straight.”
Right. Keep your nerve, I say to myself.
We live in an era of space trips, but still we long to fly in the sky like birds, as humans have dreamt of doing for so long — well, this human certainly has.
The chances of doing this are few, but finally I am piloting a small airplane — though I am a complete beginner. In fact, this is not a real flight but one undertaken in a simulator. I am in Propeller Cafe, in a flying club at Chofu Airport, where customers can enjoy a rare “flying” experience by using a real-size simulator.
“Well, let’s try the trim,” I hear the voice of Kenichi Shoji, my instructor, from over my left shoulder.
” ‘Trim’ — what’s that?”
“Trim tab,” he says as he helps by using the “tab” control so the airplane can keep flying in balance without much control from the person wielding the joystick.
“Next, we should change direction and head for Haneda Airport, OK?,” Shoji says. After playing with the trim tab for a while, he helps me to fly toward the airport where we are supposed to be landing.
On the way there, though, as the altitude gradually drops, keeping the plane in balance becomes more difficult than when I was flying high at high speed. I can see the white line down the middle of the airport’s runway, but as our airspeed slows I hardly have enough lift to keep control of the plane. Even with my hands hauling on the controls, the plane swerves away from the white centerline, but with the help of Shoji controlling the joystick, “we” manage a successful landing. Even so, though I am using the pedals to control the airplane on the ground, I suddenly find we are running across the grass beside the runway.
Then the airplane stops. I am safe and feel good.
It had been like flying for real — a true white-knuckle ride — though I had rather missed being able to soak up all those poetic views of fluffy white clouds, thanks to the concentration this exploit involved.
Unsurprisingly, the flight simulator is designed to assist pilot training, Shoji says.
“This is good enough for professional pilots like us to use for practice, though the bouncing shock at landing is a little different from the real one,” he says.
“I practice using this simulator when I have some spare time. This makes me feel as if I am really flying.”
Since the cafe opened five years ago, customers have been allowed to use the system with the instruction of pilots from Nippon Aerotech, which operates the cafe in its flying club.
Even if you are a beginner, you can fly up into the Tokyo sky, soar over Tokyo Tower and try landing at Haneda Airport in a 10-minute jaunt costing a mere ¥1,500. If you want to try more, you can fly for 30 minutes for ¥3,000. In theory, you can fly into any airport around the world, as long as its location is programmed in the system.
After my messy landing, greatly helped by Shoji, he smiles and asks if I want to try some acrobatics.
Of course I do.
So my small airplane zooms up again to 3,000 feet and performs several rolls — including barrel rolls at 200 kph — and I feel a little dizzy as the views from the three screens before me roll dramatically.
“You cannot try acrobatic flying like this so easily in real flights,” he says.
In fact, the system is also useful for training pilots in particular conditions, such as night flights and flights in bad weather, Shoji says.
“When you are being trained in a real airplane, you tend to become tense. As a result, you often cannot understand things as swiftly as you do on the ground. You take time even to do simple calculations. We refer to this condition by saying that ‘you have a one-third head when you are flying,’ ” Shoji says.
“But if you use this simulator, you can learn and understand things with a cooler head. Also, you can stop the airplane when you want to in order to get instructions — which is of course impossible if you are really flying.”
Malibu Club, the flying club at Chofu, introduced the simulator system in the cafe simply because the staff wanted more people to enjoy “flying,” Shoji says.
Now, the cafe’s customers include not only staff from the airport but also local people and families who bring along their airplane-loving children. As an added bonus, they can see airplanes in the airport through the large windows of the cafe.
Shoji, 41, who got his professional pilot’s license when he was 29, works as a light-aircraft pilot in the company, and also offers brush-up lessons for other pilots in the club.
“Flying is so deep. Getting the license is just the beginning. My job is to help these pilots to learn more,” he says, adding that he himself always finds that there are new things to explore every time he goes aloft.
“You don’t have the same weather. You don’t have the same machine. You don’t have the same landing. There is so much to explore. That is why flying is so fascinating,” he enthuses.
Now I realize that my first thrilling experience of “flying” in the cafe was only the beginning of the beginning in the unlimited world up there in the great blue yonder — with unlimited coffee to keep me flying high as well.