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Simulation developers have long argued the cost benefits of synthetic training – provided it is realistic and relevant to the mission – but real flying has always been preferred by pilots. However, now and over the foreseeable next few years military pilots may not have a choice – at least not in the US and Europe, where budgets are being slashed and expensive flying time and live training exercises are being cut, along with troop strength and new weapons programmes.

US Army Chief of Staff Gen Ray Odierno, for example, warned in spring that the training funds for 80% of the service's units would be cut because of the US Congress' sequestration automatic budget cuts measure. And earlier this month, he said "[the Army] had to stop training basically" in the last six months.

"The mindset we have got to get into,” says Lt Gen James Barclay III, Army deputy chief of staff, is greater reliance on virtual training. In the past five years at the US Army Aviation primary training centre in Fort Rucker, Alabama, the use of simulators in flight training has more than doubled to 39%, cutting training costs by one-third.

Meanwhile, comparatively robust economies in Asia and the Middle East, coupled with territorial tensions, are fuelling expected military training spending growth of around 4% a year.

As conflicts shift away from large-scale battlefields conducive to high-flyers into urban and other confined environments, helicopters are seen by strategists as the aerial platform of choice for many scenarios. In some cases, the dual-use military/civilian nature of some rotary-wing platforms helps make the case for investing in new training resources.

All of these factors are contributing to a plethora of deployments and orders worldwide for more sophisticated helicopter flight simulators.

Case in point – the new multi-purpose training centre in Rimba, Brunei Darussalam, which broke ground in June and is scheduled to open in April 2014. The MPTC is a joint venture of Canadian simulator manufacturer CAE, led by its military training subsidiary in Tampa, Florida, and Brunei’s ministry of finance.

Training will initially be offered on the Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk and S-92 helicopters, plus the Pilatus PC-7 turboprop. In addition to military search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions, the rotary simulators can support training for civil helicopter pilots transporting passengers to Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore platforms. Oil and gas production accounts for about 90% of Brunei’s economy.

Offshore oil is also the major driving factor for new, lower-cost helicopter simulator designs, which are in turn reducing costs for some military trainers. CAE, FlightSafety International and Thales are all rapidly deploying simulators in Asia, Europe and South America in proximity to the launch points for rig-bound rotorcraft. All three, for example, have targeted Stavanger, Norway.

Sikorsky and FSI announced eight new Level D simulators earlier this year, including an S-70i Black Hawk, S-76 and S-92, to be fielded in the USA, Brazil and Southeast Asia, as well as Norway.

The first Sikorsky-FSI S-76D full-flight simulator commenced operations in September in Florida. CAE is building a combination S-92/EC-225 “mothership” simulator with interchangeable cockpits for São Paulo, following the provision of an S-76C++ with Brazilian partner Lider. The Canadians have also positioned an S-76C++ device at their Zhuhai joint venture with China Southern Airlines.

The first of two CAE MRH90 mission simulators for the Australian Army entered service in Oakey, Queensland at the end of August. The second is expected to be certificated in Townsville early in the new year.

CAE also has a joint venture in Bengaluru, India with Hindustan Aeronautics, which offers a mix of military and civil helicopter trainers, including the HAL Dhruv. CAE is also training Royal Netherlands Air Force crews at the medium support helicopter aircrew training facility at RAF Benson, UK. This follows an upgrade of Chinook simulators to both the Block 5 CH-47D and new Block 6 CH-47F Chinook standards.

FSI’s new Vital 1100 image generator will be fielded first on an S-92 simulator at Stavanger. “Our North Sea database encompasses the whole operating area – hundreds of miles – and includes airports, heliports, forests, highways and of course real-world oil rigs,” says Jon Hester, visual systems general manager. “A helicopter pilot is much more intensely involved with the visual system. One of the issues helicopter customers have encouraged us to develop is realistic confined landing areas. It’s crucial for pilots to have as many cues as they can below tree level, as well as terrain that tilts, boulders and rotorwash animation close to the surface.”

“Military pilots use the treeline to cloak themselves,” Hester adds. “They need range cues to determine how close they are to the trees, such as seeing leaves start to rustle a bit.”

CAE’s 3000 Series helicopter simulator, which uses direct projection instead of a traditional collimation display, features a 4m (12ft)-diameter dome with a vertical field of view extending to 95˚. This is more than 50% beyond the previous 60˚ standard for rotorcraft devices. It also features a 220˚ horizontal field of view, similar to airline cockpits.

The Brunei S-70i device will be the first application of these changes. Philippe Perey, senior director, strategy and business development-helicopters, says one advantage of the deeper vertical visual is during rapid forward flight. “With a smaller field of view, it’s tough to go full tilt. With 95˚ you can both look through the rotorblades and keep yourself aligned with the horizon,” he says. The 4m dome uses 10 image generator channels, compared with a 2.5m dome for smaller helicopter cockpits, which uses 8 image generator channels.

Rockwell Collins continues to deliver UH-60M Black Hawk trainers in a box – the transportable Black Hawk operations simulator (T-BOS). LeAnn Ridgeway, vice-president and general manager of Rockwell Collins Simulation and Training Solutions, says the 14th device for the US Army is in production in Sterling, Virginia, and the company is hoping for a contract for numbers 15-17 “imminently”. The United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Bahrain also have T-BOSs.

Ridgeway says the non-motion T-BOS “can cover 80-85% of training tasks”, and since the unit can fit in a room without special height requirements, “it can be positioned anywhere the pilots are located”. Setup can be complete within 8h, and configuration swaps between L and M variants takes less than 4h.

Lockheed Martin and FSI have gone big in the other direction, using a double-dome design to provide both flightcrew and aerial gunner training in a single Sikorsky HH-60G simulator at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. FSI’s Hester noted the design “enables the Pave Hawk pilots and flight engineer to turn around and talk with the two gunners, as well as use hand signals”.

Because the visual system is synchronised – front windscreen for the flightcrew, half a dome for each gunner – the entire crew sees the same content. The two domes are on a single motion system. Survivability equipment is also simulated, as are the Pave Hawk’s electronic warfare systems.

CAE has been selected by Turkey's Havelsan to produce a two-cockpit mission simulator for the T-129 – one cockpit for the pilot and one for the gunner, with a 13-channel direct projection dome display.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Elbit Systems has commissioned a Sea King tactical full flight mission simulator for an undisclosed customer, which features a roll-on-roll-off system for interchanging other helicopter cockpits.

Major centralised helicopter training centres have reached some impressive milestones in recent months. The CSC-managed US Army Flight School XXI has logged over 150,000h since 2002 using Apache, Black Hawk, Chinook and Kiowa operational flight trainers and reconfigurable collective training devices from L-3 Link Simulation & Training.

The Eurocopter-Thales Helisim centre in Marseille, France, has hosted more than 22,500 pilots since 2000, passing the 100,000h milestone. Helisim operates Level D simulators for the AS332L1 and AS332L2 (military Cougar, civil Super Puma), AS365N2 (Panther/ Dauphin), EC225 and EC155.

The German Army Aviation School at Bückeburg also surpassed 100,000 simulator hours across 10 years. It features 12 CAE-built full-flight simulators – CH-53, EC135, NH90 and UH-1D.