It’s not real! It can’t be real because I’m sitting in a Boeing 737 cabin that I entered through a 757 door, via a retractable drawbridge. And yet the view from the windows is so convincing I’ve already checked three times to see what might be taxiing by.
This is the latest Cabin Emergency Evacuation Trainer (CEET) prepared by simulation specialist EDM to support crew training for Ethiopian Airlines’ 737 and 757 fleets. The carrier is rapidly expanding its network. To wit, its Ethiopian Aviation Academy recently graduated 19 pilots, 49 aviation maintenance technicians, 42 cabin crew and 45 marketing trainees to help support its growth.
The CEET is equipped with what’s known as SEPTRE, a Safety and Emergency Procedure Training Reality Engine, and sales executive Lee Whittaker is waiting in the instructor’s position aft, ready to begin a demonstration of SEPTRE’s capability.
I’m sitting mid-cabin with Whittaker’s colleague Rachel Barnett, who has just told me how an airline executive leapt from his seat during a similar demonstration yesterday. I’ve checked, just in case, and although she declined to hold my hand, she says a white-knuckle grip on the armrests is more than acceptable.
Whittaker’s commentary over the PA system, which allows an instructor to deliver guidance to trainees, is barely necessary as he announces take-off – the view outside shows exactly that. Every window presents a unique moving image, convincing the senses that we’re leaving the ground, even though the brain knows we absolutely aren’t. Then it rains, rains harder, snows, blizzards and thunders, in quick succession – this is when the executive became independently airborne.
The demonstration moves on to emergency scenarios. There’s an almighty bang. Smoke and flames erupt from the starboard engine, pulsing and blowing back from the burning wing. But neither the noise from outside nor the view are the most shocking; it’s the sound of panic from my fellow, virtual passengers. The world as I’ve come to understand it has changed and it’s immediately obvious how difficult following even the most familiar safety instructions would be in a real incident.
The attention of a former BBC sound engineer have left SEPTRE’s audio system as distressing as it is impressive. It’s so powerful that speaker vibration subtly propagates through the ‘airframe’, creating the almost imperceptible movement that travels through every aircraft in flight. The sounds themselves are utterly convincing.
I’ve barely recovered from the engine fire when Whittaker puts us into a ditching situation. The ditching alarm – which you’ll never hear as a passenger unless the worst is about to happen – is petrifying. It stops just before we hit, the better for us to hear the impact as seawater gushes over the wing and past the windows. Once again my fellow passengers take it badly, a baby’s piercing wail adding to our mutual distress. “It’s the baby that really gets to you,” says Barnett.
After this, the port main undercarriage failure is almost a non-event, albeit one of crashing, flying sparks and screaming.Whittaker finishes the experience with an explosive decompression, a percussive whump that you feel and hear, immediately followed by opening panels and oxygen masks clattering down.
Overall the effect is stunning – all the more so since in the confines of EDM’s factory floor it is impossible to mount and run the CEET on its motion platform and we weren’t able to experience the cabin fire and smoke-generation systems either; given the state of my assaulted senses, I’m not entirely sorry.
The unique combination of CEET and SEPTRE offers cabin crew training that’s as real as it could possibly be.
Many times a passenger before, in the future I’ll take a great deal more care to read the safety card and check for the nearest exit. Just 15 minutes in EDM’s simulator was enough for me to reconsider my expectations of an emergency, even without fire, smoke and motion.