I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat of an Airbus A380 surrounded by 10 flat-panel displays and more switches than I can describe. It’s the world’s largest airliner, and its size is staggering. The tail is nearly 240 feet behind me and the wings span 268 feet. Loaded with more than 400 passengers and 81,000 gallons of Jet A, our weight is well over one million pounds. Engine indications show that all four of the 70,000-pound thrust engines are running smoothly. A plane of this size will surely handle a little differently than the six-seat TBM 700 I usually fly. At least the weather is good for our takeoff out of Toulouse, France, with calm winds under blue skies.
Cleared for taxi to runway 32L, I reach for the steering tiller and push the power levers up a bit. We begin to creep forward, and as the taxiway veers to the right, I gently move the tiller to follow. But…nothing happens, so I keep turning the tiller until I run out of range, and then, all of sudden, we’re turning like crazy with the cockpit swinging sideways in the turn. I slam on the brakes, recenter the tiller and try again. In spite of my best efforts, we lurch along a crooked path to the end of the runway. The passengers must be wondering who’s driving this thing."
At that point, Captain Marc Munier, my Airbus instructor, pops his head out from the back of the simulator and breaks the spell. The Level-D A380 simulator is so realistic that it’s easy to forget we’re not in the real thing. I’m politely reminded to expect the fly-by-wire system to be a “little different” and that I should put the airplane where I want it and just let go; otherwise, “you will oscillate.”
Lined up on the runway and cleared for takeoff, I grip the side stick and, with Captain Marc’s help, push the four big throttles up to the takeoff detent. Acceleration is brisk, but with the cockpit so high off the ground, the sensation of speed is missing. At rotation speed, I pull the nose up to the takeoff attitude, and this huge machine becomes an airplane. I’m mesmerized and quickly realize that I can’t decipher everything on the PFD. The cross-and-rectangle flight director (FD) isn’t the familiar mustache/triangle display I’m used to. Getting the gear retracted, the slats stowed and the flaps up is challenging. Things are happening fast, so Marc calmly pitches in to help when I get lost (which seems quite often).
For the next few minutes, I struggle with the fly-by-wire system. At first, I handle the controls like the stick in my Extra 300 and chase the attitude all over the place. Then I remember to just let go, and, as if by wizardry, the airplane holds any attitude I desire. Once I get the hang of it, it’s easy! Marc shows me how to set the airspeed with the auto throttles, and soon, I’m keeping the FD cursor centered through course changes as I intercept the ILS for my first VFR landing. I manage to get everything lined up as I approach the runway. Unconsciously, I fixate on the FD—not paying much attention to airspeed, altitude or anything else, and before I know it, Marc suddenly yells, “Flare, flare, get your nose up…up, up!” Yikes! I react by pulling the stick all the way back: The million pounds under my seat slowly pitches up as we make a fairly gentle touchdown. The far end of the runway appears to be closing fast, so I push hard on the brakes and stop with plenty of runway remaining. Marc smiles kindly as he explains that I’ve overheated the brakes terribly. But, overall, he says that the landing wasn’t too bad. I’m flattered but not fooled.
After the second takeoff, we leave the wheels down to cool the brakes. Marc monitors the temperatures and raises the gear when everything is safely cooled. He then gives me an ILS approach to minimums in IMC; it works out better than the first landing. Finally, Marc clears the weather and sets me up for a visual approach. With nothing visible out the window to use for attitude reference, the visual approach is challenging. I come in a little high and float about half of the runway but manage a nice touchdown, stopping just before the end for a slow exit at the last taxiway. The feel and sound of the landing in the Level-D simulator is absolutely real. I’m just starting to get the feel of it, but my hour at the controls is over. By now, I’m happy to relax a bit and I leave the simulator with a handshake from Marc and a grin on my face.
Would I be able to take over in an emergency and bring a fully loaded A380 safely back for a landing on my own? The honest answer is “probably not,” though perhaps I could do it with a few more hours of practice…