It’s 8.30am and I am sitting in the cockpit of a Boeing 737-800, peering out of the window along Stansted Airport’s 3km-long runway.
The 80-tonne aircraft’s huge turbofan engines quietly turn over as we await clearance for take off from air traffic controllers who are watching us from a tower high above the north-east corner of the airfield.
When the time arrives, my co-pilot Jonathan Lockton directs me to push the throttle forward as far as it will go until we are travelling at about 150 knots, before gently pulling back on the control column.
As we climb rapidly into the sky above Essex, Jonathan raises the landing gear and adjusts the flaps as I steer the plane south towards central London.
We follow the course of the River Thames at a height of around 10,000ft and I catch sight of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park beneath us as we head towards the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.
Fortunately for the millions of people who live and work in central London, there’s no chance of me losing control and causing a major incident because I am actually flying a simulator, rather than a real 737.
The impressive facility, set up at Sibson Airfield by 29-year-old aviation enthusiast Jonathan, opened to the public in January follow a six-figure investment and years of planning.
The cockpit is an exact replica of those found in a real 737 - with all of the same switches, controls, computer screens and software, meaning it can be used by experienced airline pilots for training, as well as members of the public keen to get a taste of flying ‘big metal’.
Jonathan, who lives in Bretton, Peterborough, began training as an airline pilot 10 years ago but his career hopes were dashed soon afterwards when he failed a medical.
After retraining and working in IT, he initially planned to build a flight simulator in his garage for personal use, before being persuaded to think bigger and turn his hobby into a business.
Parts were sourced from all over the world, many - such as the seats - from real 737s and the complicated process of assembling a full-size jet liner cockpit inside a hanger at Sibson began. After six-months of work, the Jet Sim School simulator was ready to welcome its first paying customers.
Jonathan said: “Sadly my plan to become an airline pilot didn’t work out, but I still loved planes and about five years ago I started planning a simulator at home.
“My uncle, Steve Lockton, owns the flying school here at Sibson and after discussing it with him and other pilots I had a rethink and decided to make a much higher spec simulator and set up my own business.”
The simulator has most of the features you would find in one of the £20 million simulators used by international airlines – the only difference being it is fixed to the ground and not huge hydraulic rams which give a sense of movement to the most- expensive variants.
It has received rave reviews from amateurs and professionals alike, with Jet2.com training captain Nils Jamieson describing it as “as near to the real thing as I’ve flown yet”.
One big market Jonathan is keen to tap into is trainee pilots, who have to fund their own training at a cost of around £80,000, before applying for a job with airline.
He added: “There is a huge amount of competition for every vacancy, and many of those who have interviews lined up choose to book time in a simulator beforehand to keep their skills up to date.
“We can help with this, and can arrange for serving airline captains to carry out additional training and interview preparation work.”
With Ryanair alone expected to recruit a further 3,000 pilots in the next few years, to fly a huge new fleet of aircraft, this could be a lucrative line of work.
The simulator uses Microsoft’s Flight Simulator software, projected onto a huge curved screen, and can be programmed to fly in and out of 15,000 airports around the world.
Pilots can choose to fly in all kinds of weather, at any time of day, in any part of the world. A huge range of emergency scenarios can be rehearsed – including engine failures, hijacking and passenger illness.
My 30-minute flight was a truly immersive experience and, despite knowing it was a simulator, I felt under real pressure to follow Jonathan’s commands accurately and to avoid a crash.
Although the simulator doesn’t move, the 180 degree view out of the cockpit and detailed computer graphics made it feel ultra-realistic and I couldn’t help but lean into each turn.
After performing what Jonathan described as a ‘textbook’ landing back at Stansted I felt a real sense of achievement and am already itching to have a go at ‘flying’ to a foreign airport such as Kai Tak, in Hong King, or Innsbruck, Austria – both renowned for their difficult approaches.
If you have ever fancied flying a passenger jet, now is the time to give it a go.
n Jet Sim School is open seven days a week throughout the year.
The minimum age for ‘pilots’ is 16 – and under 18s must be accompanied by an adult.
Spectators are welcome to accompany paying guests, but only two can be in the cockpit at a time.
A 30-minute flight experience costs £99, whilst a 60-minute flight costs £124.
Simulator hire for pilots starts at £149 per hour, or £249 with an instructor.
For more information, visit www.jetsimschool.co.uk