Having worked extensively on the A320 family for many years in the past, it holds a very special place in my heart. Up until I worked on them, I was always a Boeing boy. However, my heart changed after getting to know the ins and outs of this European-designed aircraft. We are fortunate that after so long, we finally have a range of options to enjoy the A320 in our home simulators. Of course, all these years of learning meant I was soon ready to try a more immersive experience.
This trip has been in the making since December 2017. Paul emailed me asking if I’d be keen to come along and visit his fixed-base A320 simulator in Belfast. “Yes, when, where, how much?” I think was my immediate response (although probably a bit less excitable). I got a reply and everything was planned for February 2018. Counting down the days, I invited my friend along and everything was shaping up to be an exciting day.
Paul showing Mungo the ropes
Sadly, the weather had different ideas. It was causing major problems across the country and sadly it meant that our trip was postponed until a later date. A few months passed and finally my calendar cleared up. A few emails to Paul and before we knew it, Mungo and I are on an orange A320 heading to sunny Belfast.
Whilst I was expecting a driver with a sign holding my name to be standing outside, I was sadly mistaken. However, Paul was there ready to take us on a tour of Ireland during the 45-minute journey to AlphaTech; home of the fixed-base A320 simulator.
“I’ll pick you both up and take you to the hangar. From there we’ll grab some lunch and I’ll set you up in the cockpit and we can go through everything”, Paul said before we departed that morning.
He wasn’t kidding about it being a hangar. Once Mungo bored Paul to death about how he’ll be an Airbus pilot in the near future, we arrived at an actual hangar. As we entered, there was a range of aircraft all having bits of work completed on them. It was a very cool entrance and the next thing I know, we’re munching on a couple of meal-deal sandwiches from the local supermarket and talking about the simulator and the experiences that AlphaTech offers.
So, a little history on AlphaTech;
Paul began AlphaTech in 2016. Paul and his team saw a gap in the market for pilots to try and practice their skills in a simulator. Whether it is for pilot recruitment, recurrent training or for those who want to put their knowledge and experience to the test, the primary goal for AlphaTech is to provide high quality, accessible, and affordable training. AlphaTech is dedicated to its clients. It goes above and beyond to ensure that training on the Airbus A320 is one-to-one and covers not just the bare minimums, but that it really seems to pride itself on passing on some Airbus wisdom.
As we sat finishing up the last few bites, it suddenly dawned on me that my knowledge of Airbus systems was lacking. I’ve had a lot of fun flying casually whether it be online or offline, but I’ve never had the pressure of an Airbus Instructor (Paul; not Mungo) watching me, let alone in a simulator. Gulp. Those fears were quickly put to rest as the whole point of this was to learn.
It was made very clear to us that the simulator has a lot of value and training tools. It’s built for those wanting to take their knowledge to the next step; whether that be someone like me who knows the basics of operations, or those looking to become a pilot. It’s also a simulator designed for those looking to test their mantle before their next simulator visit or in preparation of interviews with an airline.
As we stepped into the darkened room, the feeling of working on the Airbus aircraft came rushing back to me. The sights, the sounds – it was a feeling that knew no bounds.
“Who wants to go first”, Paul asked. I pointed at Mungo and said “he’s the aspiring pilot, he can go first”. Headset on, simulator loaded up and seat tucked in, it was time for Mungo to put years of flying on Twitch to the test.
I sat in the back watching Paul talk Mungo through the basic operations of the simulator. Of course, we’re not completely unfamiliar with the flows or the cockpit layout, but the difference between being in a true-to-life simulator and looking at a PC screen in my home are vast. You now have to move, touch and feel the buttons to make them do the function you desire. It’s no longer holding down a middle button to move the view, but instead you have to make physical adjustments to your eye line. That split second to move your head or alter your vision can make all the difference.
Let’s spend a few minutes talking about the simulator itself.
Running on the hugely popular ProSim-AR hardware and software, you’re going to get a really authentic A320 simulator experience. Everything from the MCDU to the Airbus tray table had been fully modelled to provide a really immersive feeling of sitting in an A320 seat. The panels, lighting and displays all look amazing. In particular, the displays run at a really high frame rate so every speed, altitude or pitch change is smooth and looks really nice. It makes me jealous how we don’t have that level of fluidity in our simulators for add-ons like these.
The detail of the simulator is incredible.
Obviously, a simulator like this is more than just the look of it, but also how everything feels to touch and use. Like I keep saying, I’ve had some experience in the flight deck of an A320. With that in mind, I was pleased at how each knob, button, or lever felt within the sim. The material used would fool you into thinking it was from a real aircraft and the layout and structure was finished to a high level of detail. Every switch, button and toggle in the simulator was actually programmed to carry out the function you would expect it to. Even the map lights worked as you would expect. The casing of the throttles felt nice and smooth with a very satisfying click once you reached the detents.Putting the aircraft into TOGA never felt so satisfying.
As much as I tried to capture pictures and videos of the simulator, I don’t think any of them really do it justice at how magnificent it was to be in the simulator and experience it.
Briefed and ready to go, Mungo was ready to push back and start his circuit training at Aldergrove Airport (Belfast International). Taxiing out, it was really cool to be sat in the back watching this happen. Having spent a good portion of time on the bum-numbing jumpseat of the real plane, it was exciting to see a familiar view even without the motion. As Mungo guided the plane down the centerline for take-off, there was a real sense of flight. Despite being a fixed-base sim, the experience felt anything but.
Going through the charts with the on-board EFBs (more commonly known as an iPad)
The simulator runs on Prepar3D V4, which means it carries a sense of familiarity to those used to that simulator. The PCs running the simulator, the airbus simulator and the displays themselves worked wonderfully together with no sense of lag, poor framerates or other artifacts that would ruin the immersion.
Now comfortable in the air, it was time for Mungo to let his floppy hair down and start playing with other functions such as the autopilot and MCDU. Setting things like heading and speed was super easy and as he grew comfortable with the aircraft, Paul began teaching a few other neat tips and tricks, in particular, preparation for Mungo’s first landing.
Mungo inputting the data into the MCDU
Turning onto finals, slowing down to 160kts and ensuring everything was fully configured, Mungo started to sweat. He blamed the heat in the room, but I think we all know what was really giving him the nerves. As we got closer to the touchdown zone, Paul was guiding him through each step. Never taking over and never interfering, but purely advising of best practice to achieve the best result. “Command, Achieve, Leave” were Paul’s favourite words as he attempted to instruct us in the best way to handle the Airbus.
Yes, that was what happened on Mungo’s first attempt. Not at all bad, just a bit one sided. Credit where credit is due – Mungo had a very stable approach and it’s just this change of perception and suddenly having to physically move in a space. His second and third attempts were much more precise and down the middle. One day, he’ll make a fine pilot.
During Mungo’s 3rd< circuit, the power of the ProSim-AR A320 really came into its own. Paul was just chatting away with him, talking about different systems of the aircraft when I then noticed Paul was tapping away on the iPad (EFB) next to him. I couldn’t really see what was going on, but then when ‘dings’ and lights were illuminating on the ECAM I knew exactly what had happened – Mungo was about to experience his first failure. The sweat dripping off of his brow was now most certainly not because of the heat.
Instead of ensuing mass panic, a controlled and calm approach took place with a short brief and then actions in order to try to fix the issue. Not only that, but Paul took the time to take us through the failure, the impact it would have and what the thought processes a pilot would be going through to make the right decision. Fun, exhilarating and above all, educational.
The end of Mungo’s turn in the left-seat was approaching and suddenly the realisation of me now having to impress was becoming a reality. I went through the same scenarios as Mungo. Taxi, take-off, circuits, and a few touch and gos. With each attempt I learned something new, took on the feedback and improved my knowledge and flying. Since I’m now flying, I’ll hand you over to Mungo with his thoughts on his visit to AlphaTech.
The Musings of Mungo:
In early October, we were given the chance to visit AlphaTech – a fixed based A320 simulator just outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland. At first, I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect but I left the day looking back on what was one of the best simulator experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking part in.
AlphaTech is run under the excellent leadership of Paul, who is a qualified A320 pilot. From the start you are presented with excellent service whether you are a qualified pilot attending for some refresher training, a soon-to-be airline pilot doing an MCC/JOC course or just a simulator fan who is coming for a more in-depth simulation experience. AlphaTech is aptly equipped to meet all the needs required for a range of people.
FSElite attended AlphaTech with a focus on their Airbus SimPilot program which provides a realistic airline experience to flight simulator enthusiasts. This program is aimed at serious simulator pilots who wish to immerse themselves in the world of airline flying. Having not seen anything quite like this before in the simulator world, I was very impressed by what the SimPilot program can offer. The SimPilot course from what I was told seems like a tough, yet very rewarding program which aims to make the normal simulator pilot into a far more versatile and experienced pilot. Having spoken to a couple of the people on the SimPilot program, I got to understand just how beneficial this program can be to those who wish to experience what life could be or could have been like as an airline pilot.
Calum taking to the skies for the first time in the simulator
What AlphaTech offer in the SimPilot program is something you’ll struggle deeply to find anywhere else. The ability to have use of a highly realistic fixed-base A320 simulator and have instruction from pilots qualified on that aircraft type provides an immersion into simulation that I doubt has ever quite been experienced before by many flight simmers. Although what we got to experience was just a small taster experience, it gave me a solid idea of what the SimPilot program could contain. The simulator itself has the ability to throw a lot at you. A range of failures and different scenarios can happen when in the sim, which can make your experience progressively more challenging. The SimPilot program makes use of all of these scenarios, allowing regular, faultless line flights whilst also being able to mix things up by throwing some very complicated failures at its occupants. This SimPilot experience goes right down to the fine details by including 6-month sim checks which real world pilots experience. These checks make sure that pilots are still proficient in handling emergency situations of which they are trained for within this program.
Paul, who runs AlphaTech said the one thing that he’d like to get out of time at the sim was for us to leave thinking that we’d learned something new. I can say that without a doubt, I left the sim with a host of new knowledge regarding the 320 just from the short 5 hours that we were there for. Having gained so much more knowledge in that short time I can imagine just how knowledgeable a simulator pilot must become when getting to do this a few times a month. If you’re a passionate simmer willing to learn more and become a more serious pilot, the SimPilot program is certainly worth a try.
With both of us now competent pilots (we wish), Paul left us to our own devices and set us up to complete a full flight from Vienna down to the beautiful Croatian city of Dubrovnik
Being the gentleman I am, I let Calum complete the sector. With that, I’ll pass you back to him.
The Complete Experience
Thank you Mungo.
As we set up the airplane from cold & dark status, we were joined by two frequent visitors to the simulator, one of which was a guy named Cameron. Cameron is currently going through the SimPilot program, which Mungo mentioned above. What I think is most exciting is that it gives people a sense of achievement. During our flight to Vienna, we sat down (obviously) and spoke to Cameron.
“I have been at AlphaTech since the simpilot course opened over a year ago” Cameron began to tell us. “I am one of the co-founders of a Facebook group dedicated to Northern Irish Sim enthusiasts, at which point Paul reached out to us.” When we asked what got him into the fixed-base simulator, he said “We held our first Group Flight Northern Ireland charity event in this very sim. Since that event, I have been hooked and joined the SimPilot course.”
“My favourite part of AlphaTech is the structure that we have with a rank that reflects our proficiency as would be in a real-world airline. For example, we have First Officers, Senior First Officers, and Captains based off both tests and check rides with Paul. The structure adds something more to the experience, as we have to learn more of the aircraft to progress (which can also be a bonus as if you go to apply for an airline job the knowledge on the Airbus that you gain is of great advantage). We also develop communication and teamwork skills, and one of my personal favourite aspects, meeting a fantastic group of like-minded people who love a bit of banter (we are Northern Irish after all.
You could really get a sense of appreciation for the development he and others have had since joining the course. Despite always being told this is a niche hobby, every corner of the planet has people intrigued and excited. We asked Cameron, why should others try out Alpha Tech and make the journey to Belfast?
I feel others should try AlphaTech as there’s nothing quite like working your way from knowing nothing about the A320 family (even I was a Boeing man at first) to performing ECAM actions following an engine fire working with the guy sitting next to you.
Of course, that’s not the only option available. As we have mentioned throughout the article, AlphaTech are looking for people who have a passion, desire and knowledge to expand. In particular, a lot of their courses are geared towards real world pilots looking for an affordable and engaging way to enhance their skills.
For those looking to start their career and need to begin with an Airline Simulator Assessment Preparation, then AlphaTech can support you there. Offering their fully operational A320 sim means the instructors can really teach you as much or as little required to ensure you get that dream job. Like I’ve mentioned before, the training is there to guide and support you. It’s great how a few small tidbits of help here and there can really make the difference in your flying ability.
AlphaTech also offers a Jet Orientation Course designed for those with the right prerequisites to jump into the simulator over 3 days to learn the inner workings of the aircraft type and more. It’s a great way for those seeking the opportunity to get a head start on the learning process to be engaged and learn from experienced pilots very quickly.
Another course offered is the Airbus Command Course Preparation. The course is designed to help pilots prepare for that all-important next step to fly from the left-hand seat. The team will guide you through a robust training package and deliver the scenarios you’re likely to encounter during the course as well as briefing and planning assistance.
There are opportunities for those looking for an experience to just try a simulator, but Paul is really keen to get those with experience and knowledge to be involved in the sim. As Cameron put it, it really is the next stage in learning for many simulator enthusiasts or a chance for pilots to put their skills to the test.
Paul and the team are aware that a small hanger in the middle of Belfast isn’t everyone’s first choice for location for practicing the simulator. However, Paul does everything he can to make the experience an unforgettable one. Whether that’s offering free transfers to and from either Belfast airport or providing local knowledge and nearby hotels and lodging – everything has a personal touch to it. Best of all, it really only takes about an hour from any London airport, and doesn’t involve any long drives. Plus Belfast is pretty well connected across the UK, Europe and many parts of the world.
That really is the impression I had upon leaving. As we sat on the A320 heading back to London, we took time to reflect on our experience and what we had learned. Not just from an operations perspective, but also the human factors that go into learning about an aircraft. Fun, educational and memorable. Regardless of why you would want to head to AlphaTech, that’s the experience you’re going to walk away with.
You can check out the AlphaTech website right now and find out everything you need to know to plan your trip there right now! Thanks to Paul and the team for arranging the trip.
*Disclosure: AlphaTech paid for flights and lunch to Belfast for this trip report.
The FSElite team are always looking for other real-world simulators to write about. If you own one and want us to share your venture with the community, do let us know.