Flight simulators: the thrills and chills of flying—without the spills

A flight simulator offers all the thrills and chills of flying—but without the spills.

Interested in taking to the skies but not quite sure you've got what it takes? If you're a frequent flyer willing to cash in 79,000 miles with Aeroplan's YourStyle rewards program, you (and up to two guests) can sit behind the controls of a $17-million twin-engine A320 flight simulator used to train Air Canada's finest before they hit the runway. The incentive, available in both Vancouver and Toronto, has been a real hit with wannabe pilots and aviation nuts, says Aaron Carr, manager of Aeroplan's Rewards programs.

Perched in the captain's chair with the first officer to your right, the flight deck presents a dizzying array of blinking lights, buttons, switches and computer panels that monitor everything from hydraulics to fuel levels, altitude to air speed and cabin pressure. As Helder Santos, an Air Canada pilot and flight instructor explains, the environment in the simulator is identical to that of an actual plane, providing pilots-in-training with the real deal when it comes to navigating the world's airways. There's even oxygen masks and life vests in the event of a (simulated) emergency. During an hour-long session with a certified flight instructor, aspiring pilots get to experience everything from taxiing down the runway at 140 knots (259 km/h) to taking off, landing and handling an engine stall in midair.

The simulation, however, is not for the faint of heart. At a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, you'll learn what it's like to experience mild or heavy turbulence or a sudden drop in altitude. Want to know how it feels like to fly at night during a snowstorm? No problem. With the touch of a button, virtual flakes will magically appear in your windshield as you struggle to keep on course. Ditto for rain, sleet, fog or even smoke.

You'll also get a bird's-eye view of the terrain below, which means if you're flying out of Vancouver International Airport, you'll be sure to spot the majestic Coast Mountains hovering beneath you.

So get seated, grab the thrust lever and get ready for the ride of your life. But don't forget to buckle up, because a crash landing will actually feel like a crash landing, complete with a heart-stopping thump and the sound of screeching tires as they skid off the runway in a jerky stop.

The only thing that's missing is the passengers–and if you're a novice flyer, that's probably a good thing.