While small piston helicopters continue to dominate the initial training scene with their relatively simple designs and low cost of operation, pilots seeking recurrent or advanced training in larger and more expensive turbine helicopters are more likely than ever to be flying a simulator instead of the real thing, according to industry experts.
Last year, FlightSafety International (FSI) received the FAA’s highest level of certification–level-D–for its Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 Black Hawk simulator and for its Sikorsky S-92 simulator, located at the company’s Fort Rucker, Ala., and West Palm Beach, Fla. training centers. A level-D simulator for the Sikorsky S-76 is already in place at West Palm Beach, as are several business jet models.
“Will we have more level-D sims? One assumes so, because the community is looking more and more to simulation for safety,” said an FSI spokesman.
A level-D full-flight simulator provides the most realistic, full-motion experience for the user. The spokesman said this year FSI will begin to upgrade all of its six-degree motion simulators to use electric instead of hydraulic motors, citing that the electrically actuated motion systems are more efficient and cost-effective to operate.
David Buchanan, senior program manager for FSI’s simulation division in Tulsa, Okla., said the systems currently in testing use about half the power of their hydraulically actuated counterparts, resulting in lower operational costs.
“For us, that’s our current technology,” said John Frasca, president of Urbana-Ill.-based Frasca International, a competitor to FSI in the helicopter training market. The company claims it delivered the first electrically actuated simulator about five years ago. Frasca noted that one disadvantage of the electric systems is that they are not capable of handling as much payload as hydraulic systems, but he added that just like in an actual aircraft, this can be mitigated by making other components lighter.
Buchanan explained that the primary challenge in developing helicopter simulators is incorporating the detailed visual cues pilots expect while flying slowly or hovering near the ground. For instance, when a pilot breaks out at minimums on a simulated instrument approach to an oil rig, the nearby tender ships all must be pointed into the prevailing wind.
FSI contracted with an aerial survey company to document minute topographical details of the low-altitude training routes used by the U.S. Army pilots at FSI’s Fort Rucker facility, supplementing data obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Defense. Things such as small streams and creek beds, chicken coops and barns, and potential hazards such as cell towers and electrical transmission lines, were depicted to make the simulation seem more realistic.
There are a host of training programs available for the specialists who keep these highly sophisticated aircraft up and running. CAE SimuFlite will begin its technical training program for S-76 maintenance personnel during the first quarter of this year at its main facility at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW). The company announced last March that it expected the program to be available by the fall, but classes were delayed pending the completion of instructor training.
“We have seen continuous growth over the last few years,” said Nick Leontidis, executive vice president of customers for CAE SimuFlite’s Civil Simulation and Training Division. “The market is recovering and we have seen an increase in the number of initial training programs, indicating an increase in pre-owned aircraft sales. On the regulations side, we see a trend toward increasing the use of simulators. The JAA is finalizing its JAR OPS/FCL regulations to increase the credits given for simulator-based training. It is recognized that for safety reasons, some training can be conducted only on a simulator.”
Nonmotion computerized flight training devices (FTDs) are also available in some form for most of the helicopters in use today. Last year, Frasca International delivered 10 of its new TruFlite H FTDs, which are configurable for the Schweizer 300 and Robinson R22 and R44, to Silver State Helicopters of Henderson, Nev. Frasca said the company expects to sell 10 to 20 of the devices annually, priced between $100,000 and $200,000.
“We’ve hit sort of a sweet spot in terms of value,” he said. In December, the company announced it is developing a Garmin G1000 avionics option for the TruFlite H.
Bell Christens New Training Academy
In a very nonsimulated event, Bell Helicopter Textron has moved its customer center and customer training academy from Textron’s main manufacturing plant in Hurst, Texas, to Fort Worth Alliance Airport (AFW), about 20 miles northwest of Hurst. The first classes were held at the new facility on January 10.
The newly redesigned 180,000-sq-ft facility features 18 classrooms including four with multimedia capability, three overhaul labs and 41,000 square feet of hangar space for hands-on maintenance training. The hangar is located in the center of the airport, just east of Runway 34R and south of the control tower. The academy employs 17 maintenance instructors and 11 pilot-instructors, and is planning to hire three more this year, according to Launa Barboza, director of customer training and logistics for Bell.
One 2,000-foot and two 800-foot lighted helicopter-specific landing strips and helipads dedicated to autorotation and emergency procedure flight training abut the Texas Motor Speedway parking lot, about five miles north of AFW. The landing strips are surrounded by 100 acres that will be used as the practice area.
Barboza said the new center offers upgraded flight training devices with new communications features, concave screens and visual reference cues. The course on how to use night-vision goggles–taught by former U.S. Army pilots–has increased in popularity, especially among law enforcement and emergency medical service customers, she said.
Bell operates three nonmotion visual display simulators for its 206 and 407 series
helicopters (produced in conjunction with Frasca International) and contracts with FSI for simulator training for its 412 and 430 series helicopters. Seven actual helicopters are used for flight training in other models.
A course in AB139 field maintenance is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year with pilot training pending FAA certification of the aircraft. Also, a new two-week course in nondestructive inspection is planned for this month.
HAI Rewards the Safety Conscious
“Bell has always been careful to operate our pilot training in a way to preclude flight patterns over residential areas at low altitudes or during unusual hours of the day or night,” Barboza said. “Landfill and swampy areas of the Trinity River mostly surround our training area in Hurst. While housing is encroaching on the area, it is still close only on one side of our practice area. While more wide-open flying areas with less population in the practice area are available at Alliance, it was not a major factor in our move.”
Richard Wright Jr., director of safety and flight operations for HAI, said that based on the accident reports he has reviewed recently many helicopter pilots could use remedial training in aerodynamics and aeronautical decision making. “A lot of the accidents I see suggest pilots have forgotten these basics,” he said. “We’re trying to get our operators to fly to a higher standard.”
To that end, HAI offers its Platinum Program of Safety award to operators who self-attest to compliance with industry best practices, as defined by HAI. Applicants must have a formal training program in place that addresses initial and recurrent training, mission-specific training, management training, continuing education and “fly neighborly” practices.
Patrick Corr, president of Helicopter Adventures of Titusville, Fla., and a member of the HAI Safety Committee, said his instructors place extra emphasis on teaching students how to fly responsibly and professionally.
“In the past, flight training has been about teaching people how to physically control the aircraft,” he said. Today, his instructors “overdo it on the aeronautical knowledge. The standard we are providing today is much higher than it was 15 years ago.”
Economics also influenced the training market in 2004. “We’ve benefited significantly from the decline in the U.S. dollar,” said Corr, noting that many of the roughly 200 students his company trains each year are based in Europe and come to the U.S. to earn their JAA certification.