Fidelity honing its first full-motion helicopter FTD

 - February 5, 2008, 4:50 AM

Fidelity Flight Simulation, a Pittsburgh maker of full-motion flight-training devices (FTDs) for fixed-wing aircraft, this month plans to deliver the company’s first-ever helicopter simulator. Based on the medium-twin Eurocopter EC 135, the device is scheduled for late-May delivery to its new owner, EMS operator Stat Medevac.

Mark Limbach, vice president of marketing for Fidelity, said the device will be shipped to Stat Medevac’s headquarters in Pittsburgh to allow the operator to begin submitting its training curriculum to the FAA. Stat is seeking approval of the device to FTD level-2 or -3. Pilots, said Limbach, will use the device as a replacement for expensive flight training in actual helicopters.

Fidelity is still fine-tuning the simulation software to more precisely replicate maneuvers that are difficult to demonstrate in the air, such as autorotations and flight during loss of tail-rotor effectiveness. Instrument training will also play a big role in Stat’s training program, Limbach said.

The EC 135 simulator consists of a six-axis motion base that is designed to replicate the pitching and yawing flight motion of a real helicopter down to the subtle–or sometimes not so subtle–vibration of the aircraft. Limbach said Stat Medevac approached Fidelity last June to ask the company to build a full-motion FTD that would provide such realistic flight modeling, but at a cost the company could afford.

“System replication turned out to be the easy part,” Limbach said. “Aerodynamic modeling of a helicopter was the real challenge.” Since the company’s founding in 2000 Fidelity has built several full-motion simulators based on fixed-wing aircraft. The company specializes in turboprops and has completed a Cessna Caravan FTD and is currently developing a device for the twin-engine Conquest. Each sells for around $250,000.

But never had Fidelity attempted to build a helicopter simulator, where the computing power and software logic needed to get accurate flight replication is so complex. During Phase I of the project, Fidelity decided to build a motion-based prototype with a rough cockpit and basic visual displays to determine if it would be possible to meet Stat’s requirements.

“By last October we were getting very close,” Limbach said, “addressing the issues that Stat had about the flying qualities of the simulator. By December we got the go-ahead.”

That accomplishment kicked off Phase II of the project, during which Fidelity would build the actual simulator from scratch using motion-base technology and simulation software the company licenses from third-party vendors. With the deposit check for the $790,000 training device in hand, Fidelity designers began to piece together the FTD, first by choosing the tiling arrangement for several 19-inch Samsung LCD video monitors across the pilot’s forward field of view and down to the aircraft’s chin, and then by building the motion system underneath the device, completing the cockpit and adding an instructor’s station.

The result is an FTD offering a seamless view of the simulated world that fools the eye with illusory depth and texture without breaking the bank on projection visual systems such as those used in full-flight simulators built by FlightSafety and CAE SimuFlite. The Fidelity simulator also includes a large instructor’s area behind the pilot where a wide array of flight variables, from weather to time of day to systems malfunctions, can be manipulated on a whim. The entire device is designed to fit in a normal-size room rather than a purpose-built simulator bay.

Taking the Show on the Road
With engineering and validation efforts proceeding on pace, Fidelity in December decided to go ahead with a challenge that it had set for itself months before. The company would bring the under-construction FTD to HAI’s Heli-Expo in Dallas to drum up interest among other potential customers. But with the show just seven weeks away and work on the simulator barely started, the Fidelity team had to work quickly.

Meanwhile, the customer gave its blessing for the device to be crated off to Dallas. Stat Medevac is a consortium of Pittsburgh-area hospitals that provides medical transport of critically ill or injured patients throughout western Pennsylvania. It operates 14 helicopters that fly more than 8,000 missions per year in all types of weather, day or night. Through its alliance with CJ Systems Aviation Group, Stat Medevac also flies a fixed-wing fleet of Learjets and King Airs that operate farther afield.

By commissioning its own in-house simulator Stat Medevac was betting that it could sharply reduce costs for training, including pilot travel to the big, established vendors. But to meet that goal, pilots needed a highly realistic, full-motion flight simulator housed at their own facility.

Fidelity promised to give Stat both. But before doing so the designers worked double time to get the device ready for the annual Heli-Expo tradeshow. It was a tough challenge, Limbach admitted, but the effort was well worth the trouble.

“During Heli-Expo we received more than 100 inquiries from manufacturers, operators and schools,” he said, “most of whom were unaware a low-cost, type-specific, full-motion helicopter flight simulator even existed.”

During the convention, visitors signed up for time slots to fly the device. Most, said Limbach, came away impressed by the realism of Fidelity’s device compared with non-motion-based FTDs. Just as important, he said, insurers have stated their strong preference for motion in FTD and simulator training sessions.

“The niche we’re going for isn’t the helicopter market or the turboprop market,” he said. “It’s the insurance-underwriter-driven market. That’s where the real value to the customer lies.”