Sim training in demand for UK helicopter ops

 - October 4, 2007, 5:44 AM

Instrument-rated helicopter pilots are an expensive resource, particularly in the UK. Making the jump to a helicopter instrument rating (IR) has always demanded a significant investment in instructor and aircraft time, primarily because a lack of suitable simulators meant the vast proportion of the training–in the UK at least– could only be carried out aloft.

On January 1, the IR became an even more expensive add-on in Europe. Joint Aviation Regulations now demand a comparatively massive 55 hours of actual instrument training, with only small concessions offered to pilots with fixed-wing or earlier military ratings. One training captain estimates the cost of complying with the new rules at £30,000 ($46,600) per hit. The old requirement was for only 18 hours– and experienced pilots would manage to make the grade well inside that limit. After a lull caused by a rush by pilots to qualify before the deadline, demand for training is once again starting to build.

Under the old rules, an operator looking for instrument training had either to pay for time on a third-party flight simulator or–and this was by far the most popular option–put students into a real helicopter under a hood. Only that gave the proper training at reasonable cost. The training helicopter might have little in common with the aircraft to be flown operationally–Bristow Helicopters, for example, with a North Sea fleet composed largely of S-61Ns and Super Pumas, provided all its basic IR training on a suitably instrumented JetRanger. Under the new rules, that is no longer allowed.

One valuable concession under the new regime, however, permits IR students to carry out up to 40 of the required hours in an “appropriate” flight navigation and procedures trainer (FNPT), leaving the “actual” instrument-flying target at around the same as it was under the old rules. The FNPT described under the regulation, known as JAR STD 3H, fills the gap between the full-motion simulator catered for within the 1A or 1H category and the type-specific, but static, flight-training devices (FTD) that are designed to provide the broadest range of training capability under Cat 2A/H.

UK-based public service operator and EMS specialist Bond Air Services has taken a deep breath and became the first operator to order a simulator that meets both standards. Bond is midway through a growth program, with no fewer than 15 new Eurocopter EC 135s on order. By the time the device comes into service next February, it will satisfy the new FNPT rules and take the type-specific FTD standard one step further. This is because the Bond FTD will have six-degrees motion, provided by electrically driven jacks. Rather than gathering dust in the corner of a classroom, this one will be enclosed in a dome and housed in a purpose-built building.
The sale is significant since it is the first for OEM cueSim, a Bedfordshire-based spinoff company from UK defense research agency Qinetiq. Technical director Paul Read noted, “Within 18 months of a standing start, spent working closely with our Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and latterly with Bond, we have achieved the first order for our highest level of helicopter FTD.

“To qualify as a level-3 device, every EC 135 system, including full representations of the coupled autopilot and navigation systems, had to be faithfully represented. It has fully functioning system panels, including radios and navaids, switches and circuit breakers. Everything works–from the fire-detection system to the GPS. This high level of flight model fidelity is a requirement for both JAA standards.

“The visual database is of particular importance with this level of synthetic device and will provide Bond with significant training benefits. With extensive use made of digital photo imagery from aerial photography, the database will be tailored to its requirements and incorporate Bond’s specific training and operating areas. As the device will also be used to practice VFR flying techniques, particular areas will be rendered to a very high level of detail, to help improve low-level flying and visual navigation skills. It will have an onboard Windows-based instructor’s station, with remote repeaters and a remote debrief capability.”

Significant Investment
Even at a fraction of the cost of a full flight simulator, Read says that this level-3 device costs “less than 15 percent of a comparable FMS.” Bond’s investment is significant and one that it will make available to others, as much and as soon as possible.

With a growing demand for instrument ratings in the public-service market sector, BAS managing director Trevor Larman has identified several onshore operators that will be interested in buying time. “Our sister company [Bond Offshore Helicopters, about to return to the North Sea fray] will also want to train its offshore copilots on instruments and introduce them to the glass-cockpit environment. We will offer multi-crew cooperation training as well.

“Even with our fleet of relatively small helicopters, we always intended to be an IFR operator. Now that there is an affordable device on the market, we agreed that now was the time to invest. In this case it is useful to be a private company–you can make decisions based on gut feel for the potential business, as well as on what the spreadsheets tell you.”

There are other reasons for taking the leap of faith. Said Larman, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to request ad hoc training approaches in a small helicopter–the growth in low-cost airline traffic in Europe has led to a severe shortage of slots at the previously quiet regional or GA fields. Although we do have a spare EC 135, it is there to fill any gaps as a result of unscheduled maintenance, and training would clearly be a far more regular requirement. Another point is that, these days, with the amount of system redundancy in modern helicopters and their benign response to many faults, it is becoming increasingly difficult to simulate failures in the air. In the sim, we will be able to put them under pressure.

“Our 40-odd pilots are spread around the country and one side benefit is that we will be able to catch up with them, face to face, more regularly. Until now, there has been little reason for them to make the trip.

“As for the simulator, we were impressed with the fidelity of the cueSim product–the team there has developed some stunning new graphics over a 150-degree horizontal by 60-degree vertical field of view. And they had a general ‘can-do’ attitude that made us want to work with them. The simulator motion feels as good as anything I’ve ever flown. We are still talking to the CAA about what it will allow us to do–might we be able to squeeze another five hours from the course? We have also submitted a long shopping list for further training, including line checks, operational proficiency tests, IR currency and night recency.”

The CAA has been involved with the certification process for the device, ensuring that cueSim correctly interpreted the JAR standards. Flight operations inspector Tony Buckley commented, “It is good to see an operator and training organization working with a simulator manufacturer to embrace the new standards. This order represents the first step toward the much needed expansion in the use of synthetic training devices in helicopter training and will truly help to improve the quality of training available to pilots, with the additional benefits of increased safety and reduced environmental impact. We have advised cueSim on the interpretation of the JAR standards from their inception and very much look forward to seeing their embodiment in operation.”

The cueSim FTD is an all-electric (and thus self-contained) system built around a 14.4-foot-high dome. Both remote and onboard instructor stations are available–for 3H approval an FNPT is required to have the latter.

Add-ons for future cueSim customers include an extended (210- by 60-degree) field of view, customized flight instruments and avionics displays and the ability to integrate with “synthetic environments,” including remote simulators and–for military applications–even computer-generated forces. “On the military side there is a huge need for multi-player training,” said Read. “We have supported trials with up to 12 of our simulators connected together and involving virtual forces.”

The software harness for the FNPT is cueSim’s proprietary real-time all vehicle simulation, which offers flexibility when it comes to designing new devices. It also allows customer-specific solutions to be implemented quickly and cost-effectively; the next task is to create a new software model based on an OEM’s actual flight-test data.

Through talking to operators and looking at the motivation behind the CAA’s enthusiasm for the FNPT concept, it appears that the stage is set for all UK public-service pilots to be required to have an instrument rating–in step with their public-transport cousins–if they want to fly at night. Bond might find its leap of faith swiftly justified.