I strap into the Eurocopter EC135 light twin and head for California’s Cajon Pass. Cajon can deal helicopter pilots some of the worst conditions imaginable. The pass was created by the San Andreas fault and separates the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, not far from the HITOP VFR intersection and the San Bernardino and Rialto airports. The stretch of Interstate 15 and state road 138 that run through the pass are frequent scenes of automotive carnage. The area is notorious for blasting Santa Ana winds that can top 70 knots, violent up- and downdrafts, gut-churning turbulence, fog that comes out of nowhere, frequent wild fires, snow, ice and Iraq-style dust storms. This is probably one of the worst places in the Continental U.S. to fly a helicopter VFR.
It certainly was for the crew on an EMS Bell 412 in December 2006, who lost their lives on a repositioning flight there in the fog and dark, crashing into a mountainside.
For most pilots, Cajon is a place to be avoided. For FlightSafety International, it was an inspiration.
I am not in a real helicopter, but rather the EC135 simulator at FlightSafety’s Dallas learning center with center director Dan MacLellan and assistant director of training John Healey. Cajon is the first stop on a 30-minute flight that will take us from California to Boston, Africa, the Gulf of Mexico and Phoenix under some of the most visually realistic and dynamic conditions I have ever encountered in a full-motion level-D simulator, thanks to FlightSafety’s Vital X graphics and five-projector technology. It even accurately captures celestial navigation and lunar phases and intensity on any given day under clear night-sky conditions.
What is amazing is that FlightSafety built the simulator after Eurocopter declined to provide technical assistance. Instead, the company worked with EC135 operator Metro Aviation, and it was an arduous process that is paying dividends. The EC135 sim is one of the busiest at FlightSafety’s mammoth Dallas center, running an average of 20 hours per day. Offshore oil and gas service operator PHI is a frequent customer, but clients come to train in the sim from all over the world. When I visited, a flight crew from Mali was at the center. FlightSafety plans to have the sim certified for NVG training as soon as an industry working group and the FAA agree on standards. Even without the NVGs, there is still plenty to do.
Cajon is the primary site FlightSafety uses for helicopter EMS scenario training in the EC135 sim. On the first flight customers fly up the pass, pick up a patient and fly to the hospital, all as the weather progressively deteriorates. Repositioning on the return flight back through the pass is when things get interesting. As the weather goes down to IMC, instructors want to see how students handle it: Do they pick up an IFR clearance en route before they hit the soup or make a precautionary landing in a clearing or on the side of a road? “That is what we want them to do,” said Healey, “make that avoidance.”
Next are the flights into inadvertent IMC to gauge student reaction and measure how well they can get the aircraft to a safe altitude and avoid obstacles. Then come landing and takeoff brownouts in confined areas that can be dialed in to various levels of intensity that are uncomfortably real. We lift off the skids and climb straight up 150 feet on the gauges. Around 50 agl, the brown cloud starts to dissipate. It, like the more pedestrian clouds, and even snow, rain and thunderstorms can be made to shift direction to align with the winds selected. And of course it all shows up on the weather radar.
“We have a saying here,” said Healey. “Train like you fly and fly like you train. If you do it, feel it, or say it in the real aircraft, that is exactly what I want you to do in here. We want customers to know what the aircraft limits are and what their personal limits are. We want them to be able to go to that limit and see what that limit is in the aircraft.”
To achieve that, he added, “We are able to duplicate or induce every single possible malfunction, caution or emergency procedure that you can have in the Eurocopter.” For emphasis, MacLellan, seated behind us in the “Wizard of Oz” chair, throws a switch that pops a breaker. Sounds just like the real deal. He’s just getting warmed up.
“Now we are going to the world’s finest city,” Healey announces. Both he and MacLellan are from Boston and I quickly find myself on a Cat I approach and six-mile final for 15 Right at Logan International Airport. We set decision height to 200 feet, use the collective to adjust airspeed (the autopilot is only three-axis) and watch the clouds go wisping by as the autopilot tracks the localizer down the centerline to 65 feet agl before decoupling. We are at 40 knots tracking straight down the centerline. Bang! As we go missed, MacLellan fails an engine. We are still climbing at 500 fpm single engine.
“This is a great way to teach instruments,” said Healey. “Coupled approaches, one engine out, fires.” The engine temps displayed in the sim exactly match those you would find in a real EC135. Out comes the checklist and the dead engine is identified and switched off.
Next stop: the Malongo South oil rig off the coast of Angola complete with adjustable haze, smoke, stack flames and African-style thunderstorms, everything but the rebels shooting at you.
FlightSafety can build a specific offshore oil field for each customer. “They give us six to ten different latitude and longitude coordinates somewhere and we can build that field and simulate the different missions from platform to platform,” said Healey.
Onward to the Island Frontier, an oil research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. The wind is blowing at 30 knots and it’s sea state 5–and we are going to land on the back of the pitching boat chugging along below us at 30 knots. You can see the waves move and the boat bob up and down. The boat is one of eight different ship models FlightSafety currently has programmed into the sim.
Finally we arrive over downtown Phoenix, one of several cities, including New York, that are loaded into the sim. Healey points to the sliding-roof Diamondback Stadium, home of Arizona’s professional baseball team. “When we get near the end of the course and the customers are looking for a real challenging confined area, this is where we go,” laughs Healey. “This is where I make them land–the middle of Diamondback Stadium.”
We turn to join the final at Sky Harbor International. Bang-bang! MacLellan has failed both engines. The panel lights up, the aural warnings go off, you hear the rotor speed decay. We start our deceleration and flare and the skids hit level.