Flight recreated in 777 simulator
Geoffrey Thomas in the 777 simulator at FlightCity,
Jandakot. Picture: Ian Munro/The West Australia
Nestled in the captain's seat of a Boeing 777, you get a chill up your spine. It is dark outside - inky black, in fact I'm at FlightCity in Jandakot, Australia's only Boeing 777 simulator. It's as real as it gets without flying the real thing. I am about to fly the same route as MH370.
The cockpit is the exact replica and I have a former 777 captain as my co-pilot.
Take-off is effortless and the lights of Kuala Lumpur International Airport quickly disappear below. I call for undercarriage retraction, then flaps up as our speed increases.
A slow turn to the north-east and, once on track, I engage the autopilot to take us to 10,600m for the almost boring flight to Beijing. But this plane and its 239 passengers and crew are not going to Beijing.
The climb is routine and the scene surreal. We burst through the layer of cloud, which is lit up by a half-moon, and the view outside is peaceful. But in the cockpit things are not so tranquil.
At 1.07am, 27 minutes after take-off, I switch off the 777's aircraft communications and reporting system. ACARS sends hourly data reports on the health - or not - of the 777.
It is too easy, merely requiring the press of a button on the flight management computer to my right.
Just 15 minutes later, after a sign-off to Malaysian air traffic control, I turn a knob and kill the plane's transponder that sends our signature to air traffic control. I have now vanished from air traffic control.
If I had wanted to get rid of my co-pilot, as some have suggested may have happened on the ill-fated MH370, it is incredibly easy.
When he leaves the cockpit for a break, I select deny on the cockpit door access switch and he is never coming back. I don't even have to move from my seat.
Back to the flight, a simple twist of the heading select button on the autopilot and depressing the same button puts me on a new course west across Malaysia. I try to climb to 13,700m, the reported highest altitude reached by MH370. It takes a bit of coaxing but I get to 13,100m, the limit of this simulator, which incidentally is the maximum height certified by Boeing for the 777.
Now for the rapid descent, another easy task. Dial in the altitude and vertical speed required and pull back the throttles. The 777 is certified to descend at a maximum 1524m a minute. At 3600m, I head across Malaysia.
My speed has dropped to 600km/h from 950km/h because the air is denser.
Once over the Malacca Strait, I turn north-west. Again, it is easy to dial in a new course of 330 and push select. The 777 obeys my every wish.
My mind wanders to the early hours of March 8 and what was actually happening on the real MH370. I can get up and drive back to my office - the passengers on MH370 could not.
Time for the next turn if I am to reach the accepted final resting place of MH370.
I dial in 180 due south for the heading and 10,600m for the altitude. I press select and the 777 turns slowly but assuredly to meet its fate.
Many suggest that by daybreak on March 8, the passengers and crew on MH370 were already dead - quite probably from induced hypoxia designed to mercifully overwhelm them and put them to sleep. While passengers would have run out of oxygen in 45 minutes, the pilot had four hours.
In my simulator, the sun is rising in the east and I am still wide awake contemplating the mystery of MH370.
What would it be like at the end? I am about to find out. The serenity of the moment is shattered as I cut the fuel to one engine.
The 777's systems cut in with some urgency and compensate for the lack of power from one engine as the flight continues. But all hell is about to break loose as I cut the fuel to the second engine.
The result, I am told, is unpredictable. And it is. It is also utterly terrifying. We try it three times. The first gives a nose-up situation into an aerodynamic stall and then a dive followed by another nose-up. We are on the roller-coaster from hell.
Bells and alarms ring out. It is chaos and suddenly we hit the sea.
On another attempt, I find myself in a flat spin with alarms shattering the eerie silence of engines without power. The control column is shaking violently, the altitude read-out a blur and the forward speed non-existent. I forget I am in a simulator - this is real and I am sweating.
The third is a spiral dive at near supersonic speed. This time the speed tape is to the red. It takes seconds to bring the flight to a ghastly halt.
The drive back to the Osborne Park offices of The Weekend West takes on a different perspective. I can go back to work, back to my darling wife and back to my wonderful life. The 239 passengers of MH370 could not.
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