DOWN BELOW, IT’S COLD, raining and utterly miserable – not at all the sort of weather Hongkongers expect in November. Up here, at 12,000 metres, I’m experiencing clear skies, fine views of the vertiginous peaks of the New Territories, and a curious mixture of elation and terror as I pilot a Boeing 737 towards Kai Tak airport, where, despite rumours of its closure, I plan to land.
The more astute among you will have realised that I’m in a simulator – even in our great opportunist city, novice pilots aren’t allowed to fly commercial jets over densely populated areas, or anywhere else for that matter. The B737-800 simulator in question belongs to Flight Experience Hong Kong, at MegaBox in Kowloon; it’s approved by various civil aviation authorities around the world for the training of real pilots. Some 24,000 airports are programmed in, but Kai Tak remains a firm favourite. And my boarding pass has my name as Captain Prestige: this tickles me – a sort of Captain America, but with a Fendi tote instead of a shield.
My start is less than auspicious – after an unscheduled tour of the taxiways and apron of Chek Lap Kok, during which I steer the aircraft with all the dexterity of a drunk pushing a three-wheeled supermarket trolley – I touch down just a few seconds later. And by “touch down” I mean “crash”.
My first officer, Ting Ting Lo, remains, as ever, calm and collected: “OK, let’s try that again,” she says. “You’ll soon get used to the sensitivity of the yoke. Keep it nice and smooth. And don’t try to steer the plane with it when on the ground – it won’t work.”
Lo, a qualified pilot of proper, grownup Boeing 737s, proves to be a gifted teacher in the art of flying these giant crates. When stepping into the cockpit, my first reaction was that I’d concoct a lame excuse concerning an unpredictable stomach complaint and head for the exit: the number of switches, knobs, wheels, levers, dials and ominously flashing lights is enough to strike fear into the heart of any man, no matter how adept he might be at connecting the DVD player to the TV. And though the pre-flight instructional video – delivered by an avuncular man who looks like the sort of chap you’d want to have around in a crisis – is all very reassuring, to take the pilot’s seat is to know that you really are in charge.
But when it comes down to it, there are only a handful of controls that any Biggles-for-the-day need concern himself with. The aforementioned yoke is essentially the plane’s steering wheel, but one that operates in three dimensions rather than two. The pedals are for steering the aircraft on the ground, not the clutch and throttle as I would have them. The actual throttles are the twin thrust levers to my right, accompanied by reverse-thrust levers for use on landing and another lever for the flaps – sections of wing that emerge on command to provide extra lift at low speeds. And among the many displays on the console, the one showing altitude, airspeed, horizon and the angle of the aircraft, and the other showing the heading, are the important two. Lo is always on hand to issue calm instructions as to which particular bit of kit needs a twiddle or a poke.
My first memory of Kai Tak is arriving in the early ’90s, when I glanced out of the aircraft window and straight into the room of a family sitting at the table for lunch. So close were we I could see the movement of their chopsticks. “Why aren’t they screaming?” I thought. “Why aren’t I?” But a few weeks in the city that became my home made me realise that this was all very normal, and, like many residents, I was a little saddened by the closing of the old airport, despite the vastly superior facilities of its replacement.
“Head for the red-and-white checkerboard,” prompts Lo. But I can’t see the damn thing (perhaps I should have worn my glasses), and in the spirit of the early aviators, I bring the plane around, point it at the runway lights, aim straight and think of England. I’m a little low, and suspect that if this were a real plane – and thank God it’s not – I would have clipped a TV aerial or two in Kowloon City and left Mrs Wong in flat 12B wondering why her Tang Dynasty costume drama had been cut short. But I’m OK, and bring the plane down smoothly and safely, leaving me with a broad grin as I stare out the windscreen and across the harbour towards Hong Kong Island. “Can I have another go?” I ask, and a few minutes later after taking off towards Lion Rock and circling around Lantau I’ve got the famous checkerboard in my sights and execute another smooth landing, one much approved by Lo. “Perfect,” she says. As indeed, the experience is.