Could you land a Boeing 737? As the world's top simulator opens to the public, Simon Usborne and four other challengers try to earn their wings

A dizzying array of switches and levers stretches across the flight deck of a Boeing 737-700. With both hands on the wheel, Captain Martyn Apperly guides 55 tons of steel through the air above the Sussex countryside. A nudge of the wheel sends the 20m airliner into its final turn, and the bright lights of runway 26L at London Gatwick come into view.

"Five hundred!" calls the recorded American voice over the cockpit's speakers. Suddenly, the illusion of slow motion that comes with high-altitude flight evaporates as the runway approaches with terrifying speed. "50... 40... 30..." spits the American as the altimeter plummets towards zero.

A pull on the yoke lifts the nose and the jet settles as gently as a feather. Well, there is a minor bump, but it's a perfect landing that our 149 passengers will barely have noticed.

"Right," says Apperly, who looks less ruffled than if he had just parked a Mini at Tesco, "who wants a go?"

Can he be serious? He is, because there are no passengers and this isn't a real 737-700. It's a 10m simulator, a 4m-long white box hoisted 5m off the ground by hydraulic legs the most advanced of its kind. Pilots call it the "sweatbox". So realistic is it that they can qualify to fly passengers without ever having flown a real plane. Now you can fly it at the new Virtual Aviation centre near Heathrow.

Apperly recently ran a scenario where both pilots had had the fish, and were unconcious with the jet at 20,000 feet on a descent into Palma de Mallorca. A man with no experience took the seat, while air traffic control talked him through the process of putting the plane into autopilot. "Believe it or not, he got the plane down," says Apperly.

I'm pitting my wits against four other beginners, selected for their special skills: a train driver; an off-road motorcyclist; an ambulance driver; and a 12-year-old girl who likes computer games. We won't be using autopilot, and we'll be judged by Apperly, 61, a retired 747 and 737 pilot. First, it's my turn. Doors to automatic...; 0870 350 0747

Nigel Watson

Age: 35

Occupation: Motocross motorcycle racer

Experience: Used to rough landings, and going quickly around a set course. He drives a car, too

Nigel steps into the cockpit with a bit of a swagger, but his slightly shaking hands betray nerves. Quietly strapping himself in and taking the controls, he powers the 737 down the runway, following a slightly snaky path as he applies a bit too much pressure to the rudder pedals that steer the plane on the ground. Once in the air, he's pretty steady, learning to centre himself on the flight director.

But, as the vertical line moves sideways to demand a sweeping left turn, Nigel chases it too zealously and the "gay cowboy from Seattle", as some pilots have nicknamed the cockpit announcer, barks: "Bank angle! Bank angle!"

The green horizon beyond Sussex takes on a less alarming angle as Nigel gets back on track. Higher up, at about 3,000ft, we enter a bank of thick cloud. "Can you take the clouds up?" Apperly asks the simulator technician. Immediately the sky clears and the fields come back into view, ruining the illusion of flight for a second, before the rumble of the engines and intermittent turbulence transport us back into the air.

At the 500ft mark, Nigel is, says Apperly, "lovely on the glide path," but a lapse in concentration results in a very heavy landing. The plane twists left and right, like a Ferrari on a skid pan, as we career down the runway. As we come to a stop, Nigel takes a deep breath and says: "I didn't crash, so I'm happy. Everyone got on their holiday."

Captain Apperly's verdict: Nervous in the seat. Overdid things, and struggled to correct himself, but picked it up well and showed improvement.

Rating: 7/10

Simon Usborne

Age: 25

Occupation: Scruffy journalist

Experience: Several hundred hours at the controls of mum's 1.4-litre VW Polo. Repeat viewings of Airplane

First, my excuse: roadworks on the M1 mean I miss the pilots' briefing and the cockpit might as well belong a Saturn V rocket. A patient Captain Apperly gives me a minute's, er, crash course in aviation. Then, with the flick of a switch, an image of the runway at Gatwick wraps around the cockpit windows. The plane shudders as Martin pushes forward on the thrust lever and we begin to inch forwards. Within seconds we're tearing down the tarmac and I lose all sense of place as, with a pull back on the yoke, we are transported skywards. A circuit around Sussex gives me the chance to get a feel for the flight director, a digital gyroscope that uses crosshairs to direct the plane, which is represented by a tiny box at the centre of the screen.

I'm rubbish at it and can't get the hang of chasing dots and lines on a screen. It's a relief when, at about two miles out, Martyn tells me to switch my gaze from the flight director to the rapidly approaching runway. "500!" comes the announcement. I'm no where near lined up and suspect Martyn is having to use his dual controls to correct me. As the altitude countdown reaches "50... 40... 30", I'm steeling myself for a big hit.

The thud jars my back, but the aircraft is on the ground. The plane comes to a stop at an untidy angle, like an abandoned getaway car.

Captain Apperly's verdict: Could do better. Too harsh with the aircraft and struggled to correct errors with flight director. But not bad considering lack of training.

Rating: 6/10

Paul Ogram

Age: 48

Occupation: Train driver

Experience: Used to complicated controls and controlling a heavy vehicle that takes some stopping. Took some gliding qualifications, but gave up in 1982

You would think flying experience was an advantage but, according to Captain Apperly, passenger jets are singular beasts. "Light aircraft pilots are usually worse than somebody who has never flown," he says. "It's a completely different set of skills."

Paul assumes no expertise it's been more than 20 years since he flew gliders. The take-off goes smoothly and, as we soar into the darkening sky, Paul seems relaxed. When Gatwick swings into view after Paul makes a competent final turn, the glittering lights of the runway beckon us down. Paul's little square on the flight director screen has barely left the centre of the crosshairs during the 10-minute trip. "You can't teach that sort of thing," says Apperly. "Very nice flying."

But the plane twitches left and right as we descend and the four white indicator lights mean, at this rate, he'll overshoot the runway. Paul makes some corrections and we land with a heavy, but not catastrophic, bump. Leaving the cockpit, Paul's face suddenly lights up with a grin. "That's the most fun I've had in years," he says.

Captain Apperly's verdict: Ellis is a natural, but Paul's the man I'd want in an emergency. He's used to more controls than you get in a car and, like a train, knows you can't stop a plane on a sixpence.

Rating: 9/10

Frances Jackson

Age: 22

Occupation: Ambulance driver

Experience: Expert at staying calm and keeping control at high speeds in high-pressure situations

Frances remains unruffled even when the thrusters kick in and we are pinned to our seats (an effect the simulator achieves by pitching its nose up at a steep angle so that gravity mimics the effect of acceleration on the body). She's used to speed, but the steering and pedals in a 737 are less sensitive than in an ambulance, and, once in the air, Frances' movements are too tentative. Her course wavers.

She quickly gets a better feel for the control wheel and by the time she makes the final turn before our descent, she is well centred on the flight director. "Very nicely flown," comments Apperly. "You could fly a 737 air ambulance, though parking it on the M11 might be tricky." A blip soon after the "500ft" call sees the horizon swing to and fro, but Frances quickly corrects herself and, by about 100ft, the four precision approach path indicators beside the runway show two red and two white, which means her angle of approach is spot on.

Then, at just 20ft, Frances doesn't pull the nose up in time and we slam into the runway, testing the simulator's hydraulic jacks, which pump furiously to give the impression (successfully) of a very rough, but ultimately successful, landing.

Captain Apperly's verdict: Frances picked it up quite quickly and showed a good control of altitude, but the transition from flight director to visual was tricky.

Rating: 7/10

Ellis Dobson

Age: 12

Occupation: Girl

Experience: Countless hours at the controls of her PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS and PSP games consoles. Proficient cyclist

If Ellis is feeling nervous as she takes the pilot's seat (and promptly disappears from view behind the headrest), she's doing a good job of hiding it. Even after Apperly has raised the seat, Ellis's eyes barely peer over the controls, but as we take off, this appears not to matter. Sitting just behind her, I can see her perfectly smooth flight path laid over mine, which resembles a toddler's scrawl. "Have you done this before?" Apperly asks.

There isn't a squeak out of Ellis, whose steely eyes are fixed on the flight director screen, on which the box that represents the plane sticks to the crosshairs like glue. Her slight arms appear to have little difficulty handling the wheel, which, I can attest, takes some power to shift when the wings aren't perfectly in trim.

However, when she comes in to land and has to look at the runway rather than the screen, her obscured vision causes problems and we bounce before resettling. But Ellis's performance is impressive.

"How was it?" I ask as she nonchalantly vacates the pilot's seat. "It was all right." Was it harder than she thought? "It got easy," she says, "but the landing was hard."

Captain Apperly's verdict: Excellent. Ellis gets top score because she learnt to anticipate the flight director. Young minds are often the most receptive.

Rating: 9/10