- I tried out a private jet simulator at a BAE Systems location in England.
- I tested its latest head-up display (HUD) technology, which is designed to make flying easier.
- It felt like a video game, but I quickly learned how hard it can be to control an aircraft.
I visited a BAE Systems base to try out its latest private jet simulator and experience what it’s like to fly celebrities or the superrich around the world.
My visit also gave me the opportunity to use one of BAE’s most powerful tools — its head-up display (HUD).
The display projects flight diagnostics onto a screen so that pilots don’t have to spend as much time looking down at flight instruments or communicating with the copilot.
The experience was surprisingly similar to playing a video game, but way more stressful.
Arriving at the British defense company’s base in Rochester, Kent, I was shown into a full-scale replica of a private jet cockpit, and the simulated screens in front of me projected London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 (the home of British Airways).
After buckling myself in, I was surrounded by a fleet of British Airways jets, and I even spotted the legendary Concorde taking off in the distance .
As we prepared for takeoff, the HUD was turned on. This shows a pilot the plane’s speed, altitude, and attitude — which measures how level the aircraft is. I was told pilots try not to go beyond 30 degrees of attitude on either side to keep passengers comfortable.
Pilots normally share duties, with one focused on looking out of the window and another giving instructions based on the instrument readings. The HUD helps reduce the amount of communication required between the pilots, BAE says.
The HUD itself was tiny, with the software stored in a box roughly the size of a laptop. It replaces an older, clunkier model that pilots were prone to hitting their heads on in smaller cockpits such as in a Gulfstream jet.
For takeoff, I was told to keep the nose of the jet level with the yellow line running down the center of the runway. I pushed back and got up to a speed of around 150 mph.
The technology allowed me to experience what it’s like flying during the day, dusk, nighttime, and even through thick fog. On each occasion, the HUD was projected onto the screen to show me my trajectory and surroundings.
While I was flying, I had to wrestle with a small arcade-like joystick to keep the plane level, which actually left me with a bit of a sore arm by the end of the simulation. I was told pilots get training to make the joystick manoeuvres less rigorous and draining.
Still, it felt surreal to “fly” over London with real controls.
The display adds a couple more indicators as you come in to land. This told me whether I needed to pull left or right and up or down to get on a level path to the runway.
We eventually managed to land at Gatwick airport without too much hassle.
The future of HUDs
BAE’s head of business development, Allan Charles, said there were three main phases when HUDs were useful: taxiing, takeoff, and landing, adding that they’re also particularly helpful in bad weather.
When landing, the HUD allows a pilot to make a decision on landing when they’re closer to the ground. It’s also useful when taxiing as it helps to avoid accidents.
Pilots aren’t trained in the simulator on-site, but it is used to demonstrate the HUD’s capabilities before being sold to airlines.
According to Charles, BAE is working on proposals for airlines, private jet operators, and prospective military clients to use the equipment.
BAE is also continuing to develop state-of-the-art HUD systems, and it hopes to develop wearable technology for its pilots.