Simulator tech just keeps evolving

 - September 29, 2010, 11:32 AM

Just when we might have thought that flight simulators are about as “leading edge” as they can get, it turns out that the engineers have been busy developing new concepts.

At the UK’s Farnborough airshow in July, European flight simulator manufacturer Thales introduced a fixed-wing simulator in which the flight-deck module for one aircraft type could be lifted out of the simulator–leaving the visual system behind–and replaced by that of a different type. The company’s initial offering is an Airbus A320/Boeing 737 combination, and is aimed at smaller airlines that operate both types. The company has not indicated whether it has its eye on such things as a GV/Global Express combo.

But while Thales has introduced the first fixed-wing convertible machine, its Canadian competitor, CAE, did a similar thing with an Indian partner some years ago with a moving-base helicopter simulator, offering a selection of four separate cockpits. After the exchange, the removed cockpit is placed into a docking station that has its own visual system, and becomes a fixed-base simulator. Peter Jarvis, the company’s chief technical officer, said CAE’s fixed-wing simulator line could be adapted to dual-cab operation, but questioned the market demand as well as the cost and efficiency benefits. On the other hand, he pointed out that in-situ cockpits of “family” pairs such as the GIV/GV and Embraer E170/190 are routinely converted at training centers by changing some control panels and software programs.

FlightSafety sees little benefit in interchangeable cockpits although, like CAE, it also converts “family pairs” of aircraft. “The question we always ask about any new concept,” said v-p for simulation Rick Armstrong, “is how does it train a pilot better than what we already have?” That, he said, was what drove FlightSafety’s pioneering investment in replacing hydraulics with electric-powered motion five years ago, and is what is now driving the company’s research into higher-accuracy and distortion-free visual systems. Work is also going on in improving icing models, weather simulation and upset training.

Sim Experiences To Rival the Real World
But more things are going on behind the closed doors of research laboratories. Ideally, for simulation to be totally effective, a pilot with experience on a certain aircraft type should never feel that the simulator environment is a “close, but no cigar” copy of the real thing, since such feelings distract from the training experience. We can therefore expect that cockpit noise effects–including even subtle avionics noise–will become even more realistic, from start-up to shutdown.
Motion, too, will more precisely mirror the cockpit environment, clearly differentiating, for example, between a heavy landing and a smooth “greaser,” and accurately representing changes in cockpit vibrations.

And the most difficult simulation of all, the full simulation of positive and negative g, is getting closer, although it seems unlikely to be able to reproduce an equivalent slightly heavy sensation in one’s arms as the simulation presses the seat into one’s back in a positive-g event.

At ICAO, in partnership with the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the flight-training industry, a concerted effort is now under way to both advance and internationally standardize computer-based and flight simulator training, under the aegis of the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals. Designed specifically for the airline industry, where many overseas training departments are noticing a slightly deteriorating quality in new hires, the objective is to introduce “performance-based” (sometimes called “competency-based”) standards. The idea–although over-simplified here–is to produce young pilots who not only have the basic motor skills to fly straight and level and land the aircraft in an emergency, but who can also fully appreciate what’s going on throughout the flight, along with an understanding of what today’s complex systems are actually doing, plus their inter-relationships with each other, rather than merely pushing buttons. Also, it clearly establishes the roles and responsibilities of captain and copilot.

This is the Multi Crew Pilot License (MCPL) training formula, and extensive studies have shown that this type of training–coupled, of course, with actual flight training–develops a level of capabilities four times more quickly than the traditional ways of accumulating experience. It certainly appears to be based on sounder principles than the recent Congressional view that 1,500 hours (even when spent in small piston singles) makes for an acceptable copilot in an advanced turbine aircraft. The MCPL concept is now fairly widely accepted overseas, but it is unclear whether U.S. authorities will consider it equal to the 1,500 hours Congress requires.