Situated on the northern coast of Borneo, the nation of Brunei offers many charms. These include white sand beaches and unblemished rainforests. It also has impressive offshore oil reserves, which have made the sultan of Brunei one of the world's richest men. Unfortunately, the country's physical attributes also make it a particularly troublesome place to operate helicopters. Corrosion can be an issue given the proximity to the sea, and the tropical climate is unforgiving to machinery in general.
These issues were well known when the Royal Brunei Air Force (RBAF) ordered 12 Sikorsky S-70i helicopters to replace its fleet of Bell 212s, which dated from the late 1970s and early 1980s. S-70i deliveries commenced in December 2013, and since then Brunei has received its full complement. As with any new aircraft type challenges included maintenance and training. As such, Sikorsky has dedicated significant resources to training Brunei crews on how to care for their new rotorcraft. In training, however, the advent of the S-70i presented an opportunity for the RBAF to make a quantum leap in its crew training capabilities – and reduce valuable hours aloft.
Lt. Col. Johar is an RBAF veteran with over 3,000 hours in helicopters, mostly in the Bell 212. He serves as the RBAF's head of standards and evaluation.
"The Bell 212 is a great helicopter, but the S-70i was a major change for us," he says. "The Bell 212s we used to operate had less digital technology than is in my watch, while the S-70i is highly digital."
The RBAF's upgrade to the S-70i coincided with a push by the Brunei government to move away from the country's economic dependency on oil. To attract foreign direct investment (FDI) it offers generous tax breaks and ample land for development. This helped support the development of the CAE Brunei Multi-Purpose Training Centre (MPTC) near the country's airport.
With CAE holding 60% of the operation and the Brunei government 40%, the MPTC is aimed at providing world-class simulator training to RBAF S-70i pilots via a CAE 3000 series mission simulator. The centre also houses a CAE 3000 mission simulator for the civilian S-92, a flight training device for the Pilatus PC-7, a type the RBAF uses as a basic trainer, as well as class rooms for practical training. The facility, simulators, and the centre's emergency training programme for governments represent planned foreign direct investment in excess of US$100 million, says CAE.
Johar says having a simulator located in Brunei has made a major difference. In the past, the preponderance of RBAF helicopter training took place in real helicopters. Apart from racking up hours on valuable helicopters, training in this manner was fuel consuming, dependent on the weather, and reduced airframes available for real missions. Another issue is consistency: a cadet tested in the calm morning is more likely to pass than a cadet tested in the windy afternoon. Old-school training could also be uncomfortable: Johar recounts that some procedural training took place in real helicopter cockpits sitting under the tropical sun.
Brunei's early days with the S-70i also presented challenges. Prior to the opening of the MPTC, Johari and the initial cohorts of Brunei S-70i pilots had to travel halfway around the world to a Sikorsky facility in Florida for simulator training.
The activation of the S-70i simulator in December 2016 was therefore a key development. Johar estimates that new S-70i pilots spend about 60% of their training for the type in real helicopters, and 40% in the simulator. The overall S-70i curriculum provided at the school covers four main areas: initial ground school, initial simulator training, recurrent training, and mission training. Mission training covers search and rescue, fire fighting, winching, mountain flying, shipboard landings, oil rig landings, night vision goggle usage, and special missions.
One benefit of having a dedicated simulator located in Brunei is that the graphics exactly replicate the country's topography. In a simulated flight, Johar and a co-pilot lifted off from the airport of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, and flew over a precisely-rendered version of the city, complete with the downtown, the country's famous water village, and the national mosque. In night mode, car headlights travelled along the roads. The stars and moon were rendered exactly as they appear on the given night of the flight. During the mission, Johar and his colleague landed on an offshore oil rig, and also on the deck of a Brunei navy frigate.
"The graphics are just awesome," says Johar. "You react as if you're in the real aircraft. If I sit at the back of the simulator and take a picture out the cockpit window, it will be very difficult to differentiate whether that is the real flight or if it’s a simulator. Apart from G-forces, all the movement is correct, and all the visual reference during take-off, descents, and emergencies is the same."
While providing crews with an accurate training experience, the simulators are cheaper to operate than real helicopters. Most important, they save S-70i hours for actual missions.
With the RBAF as the core client, the MPTC hopes to attract more operators of the S-70i/UH-60 Black Hawk family to train at the centre. Apart from standardised training, the centre can also support training that caters to the needs of specific militaries. In addition, Sikorsky can offer training at the centre as an option in any regional sales campaigns for the S-70i. Apart from Brunei, various iterations of the type are operated in Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. The type is also widely used in the Middle East, a region with cultural ties to Brunei.
The MPTC's S-92 simulator is also a major part of the business case, as it is the only simulator for this type in Southeast Asia. With capacity for 19 passengers, the S-92 is an important helicopter in the oil & gas sector. The centre's S-92 simulator received EASA certification in May 2014. It also has certification from Brunei, China, and Australia. Clients for S-92 training include offshore operators such as Bristow Helicopter Australia, Canadian Helicopter Company (Australia), HNZ Australia, and Thai Aviation Services.
In addition to the two full motion simulators and the PC-7 FTD, the MPTC has room for growth, with bays for three additional simulators. How these will be used has yet to be decided, but the bays can house simulators for any aircraft type, either commercial or military, fixed or rotary winged.