Flight simulator demand set to soar

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Media captionDavid Owens of Airbus explains why simulators are effective at training pilots

The adrenalin surge is huge as the full power of the world's largest passenger plane is released.

Pushing the thrust-lever forward has the engines roaring. The A380 surges along the runway, gaining speed.

Pulling the nose up sees the 500-tonne bird take on a steady ascent towards heaven.

It is a daunting experience, not least because it actually seems easy to throw the A380 super-jumbo around the sky, controlling it with just the fingertips.

But fortunately, there is much more to this than meets the eye.

'Total reality'

A commercial pilot is not merely flying the aeroplanes. Indeed, modern aircraft have been designed to fly on autopilot most of the time.

Instead, the pilot's job is more about making sure flights are safe. So what he or she needs to know is how to respond when things go wrong.

The best way to learn this is in a full-flight simulator.

"The simulator is an extraordinary piece of technology," says David Owens, senior director of flight crew training policy at Airbus.

"It has the ability to recreate, as far as the pilot's concerned, total reality. Every aspect of flying an aeroplane is recreated here."

Pilots around the world are routinely trained to handle everything from extreme weather - such as hail storms, thunder and lightning - to mechanical or human failure, or even hijack scenarios, Mr Owens explains.

Initial training involves 40 hours in a simulator, with two further four-hour sessions every six months aimed at renewing their skills and bolstering their confidence, he says.

'Unprecedented growth'

Currently, there are about 900 full-flight simulators in the world, owned by aeroplane manufacturers, airlines or specialist training companies.

That number is set to more than double over the next couple of decades to meet the need to train more than half a million new pilots, as well as to support pilots in active service.

Image caption Flight simulators play a vital role in training

"Globally, the aviation industry is forecasting unprecedented growth," says Mr Owens.

Chris Wills, aviation analyst with aerospace consultants Ascend, predicts that there will be a need for a worldwide fleet of some 40,000 jets, double that of the current fleet, by 2032.

"The demand for training seems destined to increase significantly over the next 20 years as air travel grows, and the full-flight simulator is a vital part in the support of this growth," he says.

Massive market

Demand for simulators is set to remain strong for years, Mr Owens predicts, pointing out that "currently, we squeeze maximum use out of our simulators. We use them 24/7, more or less, 365 days a year."

Ascend predicts that over the next 20 years, some 517,000 new pilots will need to be trained.

"The new pilots will consist of 276,000 needed to meet the growth of the aeroplane fleet and 241,000 required to replace forecast pilot retirements," says Mr Wills.

Image caption Aircraft demand is rising sharply across the world

Manufacturers that provide training for operators, airlines that have their own training centres, and third-party training facilities all around the world are all scrambling to buy as many simulators as they possibly can at the moment.

Given that each simulator costs about $25m to buy and a further $1m a year to operate, it is clear that a market worth a whopping $25bn, perhaps more, is about to emerge.

Hard landing

Trying to land the A380 is terrifying, even in a simulator.

Although there is no turbulence on this flight and visibility is clear, it is far from easy to steer the enormous aeroplane in a straight line towards the runway.

Predictably, perhaps, given that yours truly is at the stick, it ends with a hard landing.

And what better way to illustrate the need to maintain proper pilot training during the decades ahead.

This year's Farnborough International Airshow will be open for the industry from 9 to 13 July, then for the general public on 14 and 15 July.

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