One of Qantas' most popular Frequent Flyer goodies is a session in one of its multi-million dollar full-motion flight simulators -- the same machines that are used to train real pilots. To see if it's worth the dosh, we hopped inside a Boeing 747-400 cockpit and took to the virtual skies in a variety of international locations. Predictably, crashing ensued.
Over the past year, Qantas has been allowing frequent flyers to trade in their points for a tour of its Jetbase flight training facility in Sydney, culminating in one hour behind the controls of a $30 million flight simulator for you and a friend.
Customers can choose between the Boeing 747-400 or the flagship Airbus A380-800 for a higher premium. Both simulators boast full motion capability, real aeroplane cockpit equipment and an enhanced version of Google Maps. You can see a video of the simulator in action below:
If you've always wanted to be a pilot, the Qantas flight simulator is probably the closest you'll ever get to being inside a real cockpit. On the downside, the experience doesn't come cheap -- a stint in the A380 totals a whopping 275,000 Frequent Flyer points, which is the equivalent of a return business class flight to London.
The Boeing 747-400, meanwhile, comes in at a slightly more reasonable 115,000 points. You can also opt to pay $1,274.15 outright to fly the 747 or supplement a portion of points for cash. (You can find out more about pricing on Qantas' website.)
What's more, availability is strictly limited due to their active role in training pilots. Currently, you can only book a session in a 747 flight simulator on Thursdays and Fridays at either 8:30am, 10:25am, 12:40pm and 2:35pm. The A380 is only available for red-eye 'flights' on Fridays at 10pm. And to top it off, photography and video recording is prohibited (unless your media and have been granted approval, natch.)
In other words, you need to be a serious aviation geek to even consider it. If sales of Microsoft Flight Simulator and its ilk are anything to go by, there are plenty of people out there who fit this description. With that in mind, we figured it was worth giving our readers a hands-on verdict of the cockpit experience.
The A380 model was professionally occupied during our visit so we hopped into one of the Boeing 747-400s instead. As mentioned, these flight simulators are still in active service with around . (Judging by the way the A380 machine was being tossed about, we think the pilot inside was doing a turbulence refresher course.)
First entering the market in 1989, the 747-400 isn't as big or state-of-the-art as the A380 -- we noticed a makeshift tablet holder had been bolted to the side of the cockpit where printed maps were once situated. Nevertheless, it remains an astonishingly sophisticated piece of equipment that still competes toe-to-toe with modern aircraft (occasional oxygen tank explosions notwithstanding).
We started off our session on the ground at a virtual Sydney airport. The visuals are obviously digital projections but the sense of realism is massively enhanced by the engine sounds, plane movements and authentic controls. Our first task was to take off which involves careful use of the thrust while directing the craft with the foot pedals.
The machine's hydraulics system cunningly mimics acceleration and breaking by tilting the aircraft up and down -- when combined with the visual information, this tricks your brain into thinking that speed is the cause. The same concept is used in the air, where the plane's steering yoke is used to control altitude (this can be hard to get used to on landings, when steering reverts to the foot pedals.)
The instructor's control panel can create nail-biting disaster situations with the tap of a finger.
After a few semi-successful landings at Sydney airport (I ended up halfway off the landing strip but the plane remained upright), our instructor transported us to the skies over a variety of international airports including London, Queenstown and Sierra Leone.
He added various environmental effects with a few quick taps of the control panel including a blizzard at Heathrow Airport. Visibility was close to zero and the experience was somewhat terrifying even as a simulation -- thankfully, we were able to employ the auto pilot to assist with the landing.
We also experienced a handful of potential emergency situations, including an overheating engine and a near-collision with another plane. The equipment within the simulator is all 100 percent accurate which means you receive the exact same alerts as a real-life pilot.
All in all, we were mightily impressed by Qantas' 747 flight simulator. We're not sure we'd be willing to pay over $1200 for the experience, but if you're a serious flight enthusiast you should definitely put this on your bucket list.