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Simulator Swap: 787 pilot and train driver compare notes

By: Dave Gunner

May 9, 2019

What happens when a railway enthusiast pilot and an aviation geek train driver get together? To find out we put Boeing 787 Captain Adrian Thurley and train driver Graham Russell on each other’s simulators. It turns out they have a surprising amount in common.

When Adrian was a young lad he used to go to school by train, which engendered in him a lifelong fascination with the railways. Not that he ever wanted to work on them, mind – his career plan was to follow in his father’s and grandfathers’ footsteps and become an aircraft engineer in the Royal Air Force. That all changed when he popped into the local recruiting office and chanced upon a leaflet about becoming a pilot. Disappointed that he didn’t have the necessary qualifications, Adrian took a job as a car mechanic which allowed him to pay for tuition and pass his exams.

Top row: First solo flight in Jet Provost 1976, Red 1 publicity shot. Last year as Leader 1993, Just landed after taking Richard Stilgoe on a display practice.

Bottom row: Base training A340 2006, 787 take off from Delhi, Collecting G-VSPY from Boeing factory in Charleston 2015

His persistence paid off, and he was eventually accepted for pilot training and a flying career in the RAF. It turns out he was rather good at it, too. The highlight of his 19-year career was a six-year spell flying for the Red Arrows aerobatic team including three as the coveted ‘Red 1’ team leader. How on earth do you follow that? Easy, you simply swap one red jet for another, and in 1994 Adrian joined Virgin Atlantic as a first officer on the Boeing 747 Classic. Yet despite flying around the world as one of our captains for many years, Adrian has never lost his enthusiasm for that other, less complicated way of travelling: the railways.

Graham and a life on the trains

Adrian and Graham at Kings Cross, back in the Virgin Trains days

Just like his great grandfather before him, Londoner Graham left school at 16 and went straight to work on the railways. His first job was a driver’s assistant or secondman, a role harking back to the age of steam and one that was being phased out as Graham joined. This allowed him to qualify as a train driver and he now safely delivers passengers up and down the UK. He also instructs other drivers and is working on the new Class 800 trains that are coming into service over the next few years.

Before we find out if Adrian’s flying skills translated into train-driving expertise, and how Graham coped flying Boeing’s latest and greatest, let’s look at the two different simulators.

The simulators

The train simulator at Kings Cross station

The Boeing 787 simulator at Hatton Cross near Heathrow

As you’d expect, the simulators are very different beasts. The train simulator lives in a room at Kings Cross station in London, and has a flat-screen TV to display the graphics. Not being fully enclosed makes it feel like a low-tech affair compared to the aircraft sim, but then again, it almost certainly costs a lot less.

After a quick briefing, Adrian set off up the East coast and seemed immediately at home, with a good understanding of how the train worked (we won’t mention the incident with the stop light). He was clearly a natural, and everyone suggested a late career swap might be in order. Yet Adrian is the first to admit driving a train isn’t the easy job many think it is. With regular alarms, speed limits, constantly changing signals and all the many safety features, it takes a lot of concentration – and bringing the train to a halt at precisely the right spot on the platform only comes with lots of practise. After an impressive simulator session Adrian joined Graham in the cab for a trip up to York, and a chance to watch the professional in action.

Our Boeing 787 Dreamliner simulator is housed in a custom made building near Heathrow Airport. The multi-million-pound machine has full six-axis motion and the latest wraparound graphics that show the whole world in incredible detail, right down to moving ground vehicles. You board the simulator via a drawbridge which swings away and allows the six hydraulic legs to control the movement of the sim. This is where it really plays tricks on your mind. For example, on the takeoff roll, the visual clues from the displays tell you that you’re moving flat down the runway. In reality, the whole sim is being tipped backwards. The result is a very real sensation of acceleration. You can even feel the wheels bumping over the runway lights, getting faster until the point of ‘rotation’ when the aircraft leaves the ground. Add to that the very believable graphics and there’s an incredible degree of realism. It’s an amazing piece of kit, and it’s easy to forget you’re sitting in a building in Hatton Cross.

One thing the train and plane sims have in common is the presence of the simulation manager. They control the simulators and run the sessions, and sit at the console behind the pilot or driver. Standards and simulator manager Paul Lartey, who was on hand to teach Adrian about the train driving, also happened to grease the smoothest landing when he took a turn on the 787 sim. In charge of it that day was training captain Chris Hall. Training captains fulfil a hugely important role, making sure our pilots have all the skills necessary to operate safely and in accordance with our operating procedures.

Shaken not stirred, Adrian, Chris Drewery, Graham, Paul Larty, Chris Hall

After a briefing (there are several ways to escape from the contraption) the manager will set up the flight. Regular pilots have to undergo sim training every six months to test new procedures and practice reacting to anything from equipment malfunctions to bird strikes. Although it can be quite intense, it’s not designed to catch anyone out; more to develop skills and make sure they’re prepared for any eventuality, even though they probably won’t face one in their whole career. And despite what you may have heard, it’s not true that sim managers have a sadistic streak. Not much anyway, though there’s a certain degree of playing god. Where else can you control the weather, decide if it’s day or night, drop people anywhere in the world and, as Graham was about to find out, throw any number of surprises at them?

Graham flies the 787

Just turning onto final approach into Las Vegas.

Only on a sim can you take off from Hong Kong and land half an hour later in Las Vegas. The departure was impressively smooth, and as Graham climbed out over Hong Kong harbour, he was clearly enjoying the life of a pilot. Sitting behind him, Chris Hall had other ideas. Next thing Graham knew, klaxons were blaring to warn of approaching traffic. A near miss! Then followed thick fog, and a terrain warning that required a steep full power climb. There was hail, lightning and turbulence. Then just as Graham was about to touch down in Vegas, another aircraft turned onto the runway forcing a go-around. With expert tuition from Adrian and Chris, Graham handled it like a pro and eventually brought the 787 down to a very smooth landing in Sin City. Unfortunately, as they stepped out of the cockpit, they weren’t greeted by tropical heat and a wild night on the famous Vegas Strip. Just a stroll back to Hatton Cross tube station and a well-deserved beer on the way home.

Sharing and learning

Graham takes Adrian for a spin up the east coast in the HST

Simulators play a vital role in keeping our railways and airlines safe, and it’s thanks to both pilots and drivers and also the training teams that these two industries are incredibly safe. We often share aviation safety practices with other organisations to see if they can learn from the way we do things, and the team certainly seemed to find the session useful.

“While there are some similarities to our experiences on trains, it was the complexities with dealing with so much information and the ability to prioritise that really stood out for me,” said train driver manager Chris Drewery, who joined the 787 session. “The introduction and step through in the airline methods gave a great insight into how you train and assess pilots,” added Paul. “The time and explanation in the simulator was very insightful and delivered in a way that for me, as a complete novice, allowed me to understand so many details of the Dreamliner. I will not forget the need to use the trimmer to reduce speed and so stop the plane fighting my arms!”

Both pilot and train driver roles carry a huge responsibility. Both involve delivering hundreds of customers, safely and on time. Both are tested regularly on simulators. Of course, aircraft are more complicated than trains. Pilots have to process a lot more information and need a higher level of training to be able to think and react in a whole extra dimension. But everyone agreed it was a fun and interesting role-swap and we all came away with a greater appreciation of the skills needed for each other’s jobs.

Over and out

Adrian gets a huge send off on his last Virgin Atlantic flight from Hong Kong to London last night.

This was the last visit Adrian would be making to a Virgin Atlantic simulator. At 65 it’s time for him to retire from commercial airline flying. His final flight with us landed from Hong Kong this morning; the end of an incredible career. Almost. You can’t keep a good pilot on the ground for long and he’s off to fly a Boeing 727 for a specialist oil spill recovery company. He’s also developed a train spotting app for Apple phones, which keeps him busy. We spoke to him as he was about to board his last ever Virgin Atlantic flight:

“Like many in Virgin, I can’t believe I’ve been here 25 years and a Captain for 22+ years. After 19 years in the RAF, I did not think civilian aviation would be as enjoyable or challenging, but I was wrong. Command came very quickly on the 747 Classic followed by the 747-400, A340 and finally the 787! I will, of course, miss everything about Virgin – even the sim and Safety and Emergency Procedures (SEP) in a perverse way!” he said. “Many have asked how I am still enthusiastic and full-time as I approach 65; the answer for me is making good use of all the time down route with other interests as well as aviation and most importantly keeping fit. One of my passions is squash – I developed a network of partners at almost every destination – and I will miss them! So it’s now time to move on and release another Command slot! But this is not the end of aviation for me. I am going to fly the 727 for 2Excel in the oil spill response role. No age limit! So thank you and farewell to all at Virgin – keep smiling and fly safe!”

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Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.

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