Step onboard our new training rig

By: Dave Gunner

January 9, 2019

A new aircraft has just joined our fleet. It’s not a gorgeous new Airbus A350; they’re coming soon enough. This aircraft will never fly, and if we’re honest, you wouldn’t want to fly in it anyway. It’s rather accident prone, after all. We’re talking about our brand-new state-of-the-art cabin evacuation training rig. It’s based in Crawley, West Sussex, and it’s where all our cabin crew practise their safety and emergency procedures.

Chris Reed (in the window seat) & Adrian Sawyers take their turn acting as customers. Here they replicate a real incident on another airline where customers didn’t put their oxygen masks on properly. You should always read those safety cards!

Safety training isn’t something we do once and then forget. Every year our cabin crew have to come back to the rig for a few days’ ‘Safety and Emergency Procedures’ training (or SEP). Then before every flight, they’re questioned on procedures. Safety is something we think about every minute of every day, so when you see our crew walking through the terminal building or delivering super smooth service with a smile onboard, you’re looking at a team of highly trained safety professionals. Much of that is down to our training team and the equipment they use to teach our crew, and it all begins in the rig.

Our rigs hall, with the 747 main deck slide and the new evacuation rig

The Rig Hall is packed with all kinds of kit to help our cabin crew learn the skills needed to react to every type of onboard emergency.  There’s a giant 747 main deck slide (every crew member is required to jump down it when they first become cabin crew), and another slide set up as a raft. There are emergency location transmitters, loudhailers, lifejackets and dozens of other pieces of safety equipment that are carried on each flight. The trainees must practise how to use these until it’s second nature. It’s a fascinating place, and on a training day, it rings with the sound of crew shouting evacuation commands (they even have to practise their shouting).

Dom standing next to Europe’s first immersive experience Airbus A350 door trainer

Bringing it all together

Over the last few months, the Rig Hall has undergone a massive revamp. “After nearly 20 years of service in training, it was time to retire the old rig and replace it with something more aligned to our fleet,” said Dom Hodge, our training design manager who is in charge of the whole project. “It was a mammoth task that took two years and involved working with seven different contractors. All while making sure the constant training schedule was maintained.”

This was a very long day for Dom and the team from TFC

The new rig is the centrepiece of the hall and inside it looks and even smells just like a real aircraft. Not surprising when you consider that parts of it do come from a real aircraft. The sidewalls, overhead lockers and passenger service units (the panels with air vents, oxygen masks and lights in) all came from a Boeing 787 that had been stripped to be converted to a private jet. The rig was built by TFC cabin simulators in Germany, then shipped to the UK in three parts and assembled on site.

Thomas Burn and Heidi Trickey ready for take off.

“It’s great to have more realism, given that so much of what we do is procedure based. And this is a lot more realistic than the old trainer.” Thomas Burn, cabin crew

The onboard experience of being in the rig really does play tricks on the mind. You know the windows are just computer screens, and the engine sounds come from speakers. And you know you’re sitting in a room in West Sussex. But the overall effect is incredibly impressive. As the aircraft pushes back and the engines start it feels unbelievably real.

The crew will be tested on how they deal with any number of scenarios. There are realistic LED fires with smoke generators (the same as the ones at your local nightclub, according to Dom). There are fire extinguishers that use compressed air but behave in the same way as real ones, and even need to be pointed in the right direction to extinguish the fake but real looking fire. All the communications, the phones and the PAs work as they would on a real aircraft. There’s even a simulated bag fire that can be placed anywhere in the rig. You could find yourself landing on the ocean, in a forest or skidding off the runway. It’s how crew read the situation and act on it that’s important – this type of situation is when the evacuation command would be given and the shouted instructions begin. If it all sounds like a lot of fun, it is taken incredibly seriously by our trainees who won’t be able to fly if they don’t pass their exams.

Cabin Crew fight a simulated oven fire using realistic compressed air extinguishers.

“Because its more realistic, people think and act more like they would on a real flight,” Amanda Pitman, Trainer Flyer.

Catering for a mixed fleet.

As the evacuation training is non-aircraft specific, learning to open the doors requires our crew to be proficient in all aircraft types. They must also learn how to do it in a hurry and make quick decisions based on what they see out of the window. Dotted around the rigs hall are doors for each of our aircraft types including a new arrival for our next aircraft, the Airbus A350. This door comes with projectors that create a virtual evacuation experience and give the crew an even more realistic idea of what opening an aircraft door in an emergency would feel like.

The trainers who took the first course on the new rig: Stella Ponsford, Amanda Pitman and Dan Parker.

“This is a fantastic investment to support a realistic learning environment for our crew,” said Stella Ponsford, a training design consultant. “As the recurrent course designer, I write scenarios for the crew to experience, based on real events that have either occurred with us or another airline. This is known in the industry as evidence-based training,”

“The trainers run the scenarios, and the crew have the opportunity to work as a team to manage the outcome. This could be a situation on the ground, or in-flight. The scenarios cover a variety of events such as a decompression, an emergency landing, a fire or an iPad overheating.”

“The feedback session with the trainers following each scenario allows the crew to come to their own conclusions as to what went well and where they could improve.

“The new rig is so representative of the aircraft environment; it truly challenges the crew to think about the resources they have and their ability to communicate with each other.”

It’s incredibly unlikely that any cabin crew will ever face a full emergency at any point during a long career, but they have to be ready for any situation as it arises. This training is designed to make people think and work together as a team. The new rig plays a huge part in doing that and will continue to give our trainee cabin crew the skills they need for many years to come.


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.