Some years ago I was lucky enough to have a great “boys’ toys” experience: I flew a Tornado F3 simulator at RAF Leuchars. This wasn’t just for my entertainment, of course. It was part of the research for a film I was making for the RAF. They wanted me to get something of an idea of how it feels when you’re flying a fighter aircraft and something goes wrong with it.
I’d been looking forward to it, obviously, but I hadn’t anticipated the degree of detail and accuracy that would be involved. When I arrived at the simulator building I was greeted by the technicians from the simulator Control Room, then passed on to the Pilot Instructor. He handed me a flying suit, which I put on, and he then set about showing me the controls. Fortunately I’d had quite a bit of experience on other, smaller simulators, so things were pretty familiar.
He now gave me a helmet and once it was on, helped me into the cockpit and connected me to the air supply and the intercom. He showed me how to close the canopy when I was ready, then left me to it. I was now on my own, communicating only with the Control Room via the intercom.
Once I was airborne in my simulated world, they gave me some time to get familiar with the aircraft and how it behaved. They encouraged me to push it to its limits and explore the sky. Then they started introducing problems. At first they were trivial – not that it felt that way the first time, with a warning horn going off in the cockpit and an error panel flashing numbered and colour-coded information. Having relayed this information to Control, they told me what the problem was and how to get round it.
When I was fully confident and flying (I thought) like a veteran, it happened. I was in cloud and banking the aircraft to the right, watching the instruments carefully. Suddenly, the joystick locked solid – I had no control over the aircraft whatsoever. I desperately heaved on the stick, trying to pull myself into straight and level flight, but it showed no response at all. I could feel the sweat starting around my neck as I contacted Control, trying to keep my voice normal (RAF pilots invariably do. I failed). I was squeaking, “The-stick’s-locked-up-I-can’t-move-it-I-can’t-do-anything!”. Control responded, “Error codes?” In my panic, I’d completely forgotten the routine I was supposed to go through; in fact, I fell apart.
Now, the point about this is that I was sitting in a simulator, bolted to the concrete floor of the simulator building, and it hadn’t moved a centimetre in any direction. I’m a rational, logical person, so I knew this perfectly well. Except I didn’t. What I knew I was that I was in the cockpit of a Tornado at 30,000 feet, flying at 500 mph and with no means of control.
How could I possibly believe that? It comes down to the fact that the human mind is a great deal less rational than we tend to think. It responds to sense data even when that data contradicts prior knowledge. In that simulator, my mind was receiving no signals that suggested I was sitting stationary on the ground; but it was receiving a continuous stream of signals telling me that I was flying a fast jet over the North Sea.
This phenomenon is an important part of THE REAL STORY’s approach when we devise an immersive interpretation. Such an interpretation isn’t always right for a particular venue or for a the aims of a particular project. When it is right, though, it’s a very powerful technique. Visitors tend to come away thrilled – and slightly baffled that they could have felt what they did. They say things such as, “I feel like I’ve really met those people. I don’t just know about them, I know them.” Under these conditions, they not only learn very easily, they understand. They are learning more than facts. They also often have a strong desire to repeat the experience.
Obviously, it’s completely impractical to provide the total detail of the RAF simulator experience. But it’s not necessary either. The same remarkable effect can be achieved – not for every visitor but for a majority – much more simply (and certainly at much less cost). The critical thing is to know how much information (and of what kind) needs to be provided to the visitor, and how much needs to be withheld, and exactly how to achieve that. Get it wrong, and the effect fails, the whole thing becomes an ordinary interpretation. Get it right and it provides a magical experience for visitors as well as conveying information in a way that makes it unforgettable. How do you tell where those lines need to be drawn? Well, there’s no formula, really – it’s down to experience.
Going back to that RAF Tornado, flying in circles at 30,000 feet – once I’d relayed the error codes to Control, they informed me that the primary hydraulic system had failed – the system that enables all the control mechanisms of the aircraft. That didn’t diminish the sweatiness of my neck one jot. However, they then explained that there was a secondary system that I could change over to by throwing one switch. I did so and immediately had all my controls back. I heaved a huge sigh of relief, levelled out, got my bearings and landed the aircraft. I opened the canopy, took off the helmet, and looked around the simulator building that I’d never left.
Though actually of course, I had.