01/06/2014 03:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

At the Helm of an Emirates A380


On my first stab at flying an A380 I flubbed the landing hard, coming in fast, nose down, into Dubai International Airport. There were no flames, screams or debris though, even after I careened into the terminal building. A fiery crash isn't exactly the best marketing tool.

Emirates, the world's fastest growing international airline, has been on a branding tear in recent years, particularly in London -- it's European hub -- where you'll find Emirates Stadium, (home to the Arsenal Football Club), the Emirates Air Line cable car and the new Emirates Aviation Experience, where I took that Airbus jumbo out for a spin.

It wasn't a real plane, obviously, just a simulator knockoff, customized for the average joe -- with no crash functions at all to protect fragile constitutions. Emirates trains its real pilots on a much more complex piece of equipment, where all the knobs and levers actually work and the cockpit shakes on its hydraulic lift. For most of us who've dreamt of earning more than our plastic wings though, this pared-down version is as close as we're likely to get to taking charge of an actual jumbo jet.

Along with cockpit simulators, the Aviation Experience features a working replica of a Rolls Royce engine constructed entirely from Legos (165,000 pieces), computer games that teach you about aerodynamics, and a panoramic video room (with shaking floor) where you can follow a suitcase behind the scenes in Dubai from plane to carousel. As branding experiences go, its all pretty impressive.

"Would you like to fly to London or Dubai?" my baby faced flight instructor asked, as I grabbed a seat in the cockpit. "Maybe Dubai? Get a bit of sun."

I slid my chair forward on its metal rails. "This in the middle is your thruster control," he said, directing me to an oversized handle, "works a lot like acceleration in a car."

The screen in front showed lots of lines and numbers. "That little brown square is your artificial horizon," said the young Brit. "You've probably seen that before in movies, spinning out of control most likely if it was Tarantino."

A little flight humor before takeoff, and then I was off, peeling out into the blue skies above Dubai. There were lots of alarming beeps in the background before I seemed to get the hang of the joystick that kept the plane flying straight. Piece of cake.

"You can see over there," he said, "the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world." It wasn't quite as impressive as the real thing in its pixellated simulator form. I turned towards the coast, skirting the edge of the Persian Gulf, past the luxurious Burj Dubai hotel and out over the artificial islands of the Palm. And then came the crash as I returned to the runway, which, on Lockheed Martin's Prepar3D software, didn't leave a dent in my half billion dollar bird.

I tried London next, in the driving rain. "At this point we're over Windsor Castle," said my guide, "but the visibility is rubbish." Outside there was just a wall of gray. The official Emirates setup offers just Dubai and London, but the software contains every single airport in the world. "Hong Kong is one of my favorites," said the young chap, offering to take me off book. I gave it a shot, flying out from the city onto the Chinese mainland.

"Where do you want to go next?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "St. Barth's has the scariest airport I've ever been to, tiny runway, over a mountain. There's no way we can take an A380 there."

"Let's try it," he said, "first time for everything."

And so we did.

The runway, taking off, ran out much too fast.

"Wow, you weren't kidding," he said. "Pull up! Pull up!"

The mountain was coming right at us. In real life we would have been a fireball, but by some miracle we cleared it. It was a historic moment, the very first jumbo jet out of St. Barth.