Three decades after FlightSafety International produced the first commercial helicopter simulator for the Bell 222, helicopter simulators are today becoming mainstream assets to boost safety while reducing costs.
The leaps in performance and use will probably continue, offering training challenges and scenarios real flying does not.
The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch suggested in a final report last October that seven might not have died in the December 2006 crash of a Eurocopter Dauphin 2 if the two CHC pilots had been the beneficiaries of simulated nighttime visual approaches in poor visibility. The UK Civil Aviation Authority quickly accepted the AAIB's recommendation to use simulators for recurrent training and checking.
Criticism of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) fatal accidents in the USA has led to similar proposals for an increased role for simulators, and the industry is already responding worldwide.
By December a new Eurocopter training facility in Aberdeen, Scotland, will offer the first UK-based EC225 flight training device (FTD). Unlike a full-flight simulator (FFS) - a six-axis full-motion simulator that can be certificated for zero flight time conversion training for pilots experienced on a similar type - an FTD typically has a full visual system, but fewer or no axes of motion and qualifies for fewer training hours. An FTD also costs much less to purchase and operate. A Level 7 device is the highest fidelity on the scale of 1-7.
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Nearby construction of a Bristow Group maintenance and training facility will also house an EC225 FTD. Pilots now have to travel to Marseilles in France for EC225 simulator training using HeliSim's FFS.
The heart of Gulf of Mexico flight operations in Lafayette, Louisiana, is home to FlightSafety International's new Helicopter Learning Center of Excellence. The 7,150m2 (77,000ft2) facility answers a demand strong enough for 24h operation, beginning with the first certificated Sikorsky S-76C++ FFS. The second FFS for the Sikorsky S-92 heavylift twin will be online once it is certificated in May, says George Ferito, director of rotorcraft business development for FlightSafety. The FFS will join a Eurocopter AS350B2 Level 7 FTD, one of three built by Frasca International, and soon a Bell 206B/206L reconfigurable device and Bell 407 device. FlightSafety manufactures its own FTDs, but is outsourcing to Frasca International to meet demand. It has also partnered Metro Aviation to build a Eurocopter EC135 air ambulance FTD.
Ferito sees "a willingness by the FAA to allow the use of these devices to a further extent than they previously have" as proven by new guidelines for Level 7 helicopter FTDs effective with last May's revisions to Part 60.
"It allows all the Part 135 operators, which includes the emergency medical system operators, to do their training and checking in the device as opposed to the aircraft," Ferito adds. There are no Level 7 certification standards for fixed-wing FTDs.
The Helicopter Group of the International Working Group, facilitated by the Royal Aeronautical Society, could push this frontier further as it considers common standards for helicopter simulators within Volume 2 of International Civil Aviation Organisation 9625 Edition 3, the manual of criteria for the qualification of flight simulators.
That proposal could come next year, says Mike Phillips, a member of the training subgroup and senior manager for helicopter business development for Frasca. "All of us are going to have a place to start from," he suggests, "a considered approach to what might be realistic training credits to offer based on these levels of simulation."
The credit of simulated flight hours today is approved as part of each training programme's certification, including those for FTDs. In the USA, the introduction of Level 7 devices meant that credits could be earned in such machines for the first time.
Phillips says those new roles, and the modest price compared with full-flight simulators, enable smaller operators and smaller aircraft to be included. "A Level D FFS is going to run you anywhere in the range of $8-$12 million. These FTDs cost $1-$3 million."
Affordable computers come with more and more processing power. In 2007 that enabled Frasca to include highly detailed satellite data in recreations of airports and routes around the world in its first Level 6 Helicopter FTD. Pictures from the ground are worked into that digital world for further realism.
Projectors and screens are constantly presenting better images with more data in larger fields of view. "Ten years ago 150° x 40° was a standard that was a pretty good visual system," says Phillips. "Today it's common to see 220° laterally by 60° vertical, and I've even heard of them going to 80°." That counts for a lot with helicopters. "We need more peripheral and visual cues to operate in visual flight rules."
Better technology brings scenario training in addition to procedural training, says Kent Dekerlegand, director of training at Bristow Group's New Iberia, Louisiana operations centre. "The role has definitely changed."
Flying through blinding weather is more realistic in Bell 206 and Bell 407 FTDs than with the "hood" traditionally worn to mimic clouds and fog. "In the aircraft if you want to cheat a little bit, it's easy, you just turn your head and look outside," he says. In the training device, "you can give somebody a minor emergency, up to and including a catastrophic emergency, which you can't do in a real aircraft."
Those FTDs may eventually be upgraded to Level 6 or 7, but manage to fill essential roles regardless. "Typically, new-hire pilots at Air Logistics [a Bristow company], are going to fly around 20h total. That's around 8h in an FTD and about 12h in the actual aircraft."
Efficiency counts, Dekerlegand adds. "An FTD is a lot cheaper to operate than an actual aircraft. You have a captive audience. You have a block of time that you can introduce any type of scenario or emergency that you want at your fingertips."
Having that control in an educational setting is why Anthony Stein, managing partner of Helicopter Simulation Industries, says simulators have benefits beyond flight training. Its Model E-1 Turbine Start Sequence Procedures Trainer offers limitless repeats of the complicated start-up process. Starting just once per actual flight, he says, is "really bad from a training viewpoint. You don't retain things as well. You don't practise the good behaviour as well." The result for mistakes, he points out, is insufficient air flow and a burned-out engine. "I can sell you one simulator for less than the cost of one hot start."