Chelton’s FlightLogic a natural for helicopters

 - September 21, 2006, 5:52 AM

Talk about making inroads. The FlightLogic synthetic-vision EFIS from Chelton Flight Systems has received STC approvals in several helicopter models recently, and no fewer than eight of the helicopters on display at February’s Heli-Expo in Dallas were fitted with the system.

Underscoring the popularity of FlightLogic among helicopter buyers and pilots, Bell announced at Heli-Expo that its new 417 light single will be sold with the avionics as the model’s standard cockpit. Across the Heli-Expo show floor, MD Helicopters touted its entrant in the Army’s light utility helicopter competition, a design based on the MD 902 and fitted with a two-display version of FlightLogic.

Chelton senior executives decided to target the rotorcraft market about two years ago, reasoning that since light airplane manufacturers were by and large opting for the glass cockpits being offered by Garmin and Avidyne they needed to search elsewhere for willing buyers.

“The market for avionics systems in airplanes was getting crowded,” said David Thomas, director of helicopter programs for the Boise, Idaho company, “but we realized that the helicopter market had been virtually untouched.”

As one of the earliest participants in the FAA’s Alaska Capstone program, which provided advanced avionics to operators of commercial single-engine airplanes free of charge, Chelton was able to obtain a blanket STC covering installations of FlightLogic in hundreds of aircraft types. The approval, however, did not include helicopters. When Thomas was brought on board, he oversaw STC programs starting with the Bell JetRanger and continuing through the Eurocopter AS 350/355 series and a variety of Bells including the 204, 205, 206, 407 and 210.

More than 40 helicopters have received the FlightLogic equipment so far, with the line of customers who are said to be awaiting upgrades growing longer almost by the day. An STC program for the Eurocopter EC 120B recently got under way, and Chelton is gauging interest in retrofit programs for several other helicopters. Thomas said the Bell 417 and MD 902 programs are a strong focus now, for obvious reasons, but he added that additional STCs for existing models are under consideration. He named the Bell 430, Robinson R44, Eurocopter BK 117 and Sikorsky S-76 as strong possibilities.

A Lot To Like

The list of enticements for buyers who are considering FlightLogic is fairly long. The system is one of only two certified with synthetic-vision views of terrain and obstacles (the other is Vision 1 from Universal Avionics) and is the only one to include highway in the sky (HITS) guidance cues on the ADI. The standard two-display version of FlightLogic also includes a pair of internal attitude and heading reference systems (AHRS), dual air-data computers, a WAAS-certified GPS receiver and Chelton’s own H-TAWS, the helicopter version of its class-B terrain awareness and warning system.

This last item could prove to be of particular interest to helicopter operators soon in light of a recent NTSB recommendation asking the FAA to require TAWS in all U.S.-registered turbine helicopters that are certified to carry at least six passengers. The recommendation was prompted in part by the recent crash of an Era Aviation S-76 in the Gulf of Mexico that killed the pilots and eight oil workers, as well as a desire to reduce the EMS helicopter fatal accident rate.

Thomas, a 30,000-hour helicopter bush pilot, agreed that TAWS could play an important role in reducing controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) helicopter accidents, but he said pilots were also a key piece to this complex puzzle.

“TAWS is only one part of the CFIT dilemma,” he said. “It’s not the whole answer. TAWS doesn’t eliminate the danger of going into an accident scene along the side of a highway at night. But with a conscientious pilot, flying with a terrain-awareness system, it’s about 75 percent of the answer.”

As is the case with any TAWS device, nuisance alerts at low altitude are a concern for pilots. Helicopter-specific TAWS units include inhibit switches that let pilots switch off audio warnings, but that creates potential problems if crews simply push the inhibit switch whenever they are flying at low level.

Beyond TAWS, the additional synthetic-vision and specifically the HITS features of FlightLogic should prove an enhancement to helicopter flight safety as well, Thomas said. With HITS technology, pilots can create and fly precision GPS approaches with definable descent angles to any point, including rooftops, oil platforms or to latitude/longitude coordinates received en route.

The pilot sees the HITS cues in flight as a virtual tunnel of green boxes. By flying the helicopter through the boxes, he knows he’s on course and at the right altitude, simplifying many common helicopter procedures. For example, to comply with noise-abatement procedures into a landing spot, the pilot can define a custom GPS approach once and recall it as needed.

Another FlightLogic feature–called the hover vector–makes zero-zero landings possible and all but eliminates the danger of whiteout and brownout accidents, according to the avionics maker. Hover vector, which presents the pilot with a real-time, continuously updated drift vector on the PFD, could be a boon for precision long-line work, where exact stationkeeping is required.

List price for the FlightLogic hardware is $92,000, but a representative from one of Chelton’s dealers, Hillsborough Aviation, said at Heli-Expo that the cost of installation brings the complete package price to about $125,000. FlightLogic includes Chelton’s 6.25-inch displays, which are usually stacked vertically in helicopter cockpits, with the primary flight display positioned atop a nav display.

The biggest coup for Chelton by far was Bell’s selection of the FlightLogic system for the 417. Introduced at Heli-Expo during a lavish unveiling that included smoke, loud music and Cirque acrobats descending from the ceiling, the 417 is the civil version of the Army’s new armed reconnaissance helicopter, not to mention Bell’s latest entry in its bid to win back the No. 1 manufacturing spot from rival Eurocopter.

Installed in the 417 cockpit will be a pair of six- by eight-inch screens placed vertically, with the PFD on the right and an MFD on the left. These larger LCDs appeared to be a good fit for the 417, which was configured in the model on the Heli-Expo show floor for law-enforcement duty. Shown on the MFD in the screen’s lower half was a simulation of an image from a belly mounted camera. The PFD included a large ADI positioned above engine instrumentation. Certification of the 417 is anticipated in early 2008.