“You want to do full-motion?” asks American Eurocopter simulator instructor Eric King. “We have this bag right here.” King points to a jumbo sick sack between the two pilot positions in the $6 million Eurocopter AS350B2 and AS350B3 Level B simulator at the company’s Grand Prairie, Texas campus. For a fleeting moment, I focus on the pair of sliders I had for lunch at the nearby Krystal. That was probably not the best choice. However, today motion sickness will be the least of my problems.
In a little more than 30 minutes, I’ll be dead. It will be a simple autorotation into Long Beach Airport. I’ll flare too high, mash the skids and roll over into a cloud of blade shrapnel in stunning, 3-D, full-color realism and a painfully authentic soundtrack of annunciator warnings, heaving engine and buckling metal. The visuals are so realistic that my inner ear will think I am actually on my side.
But for now King and I will put the sim through its paces, taking off from the USC Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles and dodging in and out of the glass canyon of nearby skyscrapers. You feel the vibration just like the real deal. You even get the shudder when transitioning and that loping feeling that comes with settling with power.
King goes for a quick start while explaining how the sim can be converted easily from B2 to B3 cockpits by changing out the instrument panels and the collectives. “The helicopters have a different fuel-pump set-up, caution warning panel and dual tach,” he explains. The upper panel on the B3 contains the engine start switch, the fuel flow cutoff switch and the rotor brake. On the B2 the fuel-flow control lever and emergency cutoff switch are on the floor. The twist grip on the B3 is either at idle or flight due to the engine’s Fadec system–there’s no modulation.
“In the B2 we can modulate all we want. If we have a governor failure, we can practice low-side and high-side failures,” King explains. All told more than 84 separate failures can be practiced in the sim: flameouts, chip-detector warnings, main-gearbox failures, tail-rotor failures–whatever sadistic combination the instructors care to throw at you.
Because the sim is set up to train both pilots and crews together, including law enforcement tactical flight officers, these unfortunate twists of fate can come at night during car chases or while dodging sniper fire, or when you are on the night-vision goggles. They can come during scene work on approach to a freeway pile-up or during a brown-out while on an EMS pickup from a construction site. You can hit inadvertent IMC while flying through snow lightning in the LA Basin or after rotating into the haze or fog from an oil platform off Catalina Island. Pick your poison, it’s all here. Right now we are about to lose power while lifting off from a rooftop helipad 600 feet above the street. “Now you have to figure out what to do, but at this height it is not all that difficult,” King said. It’s not pretty, but we live.
For customers who do more low-level work, it can be a different matter. “We have customers from Canada who do a lot of powerline and logging work where they are down between 50 and 200 feet agl and zero airspeed. We practice autorotations there, too,” he said. “Generally unsuccessfully. In here you realize that there is only one thing to do: push forward, cushion as much as you can on the bottom and hope for the best.”
Realistic 3-D Environment
The sim contains visuals for both the L.A. basin and Dallas as well as 3-D inserts for LAX, Burbank, Long Beach and Santa Ana airports. “When we put L.A. into the sim we thought it would be good enough for other cities with tall buildings and an urban environment,” King explained. “A visual database is expensive to build so we picked L.A. and we thought it was the best bang for the buck. There are a lot of our helicopters out here.”
And a lot of cars. As we “cruise” over the L.A. freeways there are 100 cars–avatars actually–wandering around the 3-D environment. For fun, newscopters and airliners can be added to the mix. Generally the avatars can be pre-programmed and go from points A to B as they follow the terrain. But “pop ups” can be added for a little extra excitement. There will be an A340 lifting off at the last minute as I make my fateful run into Long Beach.
The sim’s 3-D inserts are placed over two-dimensional imaging similar to what you see on Google Earth or from a satellite image over a topography grid. Distant images appear in two dimensions, but when you get close the image converts to 3-D. The system’s realism is good, but not perfect. It can’t simulate weird winds off buildings or in hovers. “We don’t have mechanical turbulence in the sim,” King explains. “If the wind is 270 at 20 when it hits the building it will still be 270 at 20 when it hits you. In the mountains we don’t get that convection heating and the currents, either. Those are things we did not program into the sim,” he said.
But for the most part, it is realistic enough. The instructor can program in east-to-west weather systems, moving clouds, change the weights from minimum to max gross, move the center of gravity as far forward as the customer wants or as far back as the helicopter will allow. “There are a lot of customers who max this thing out with fuel and load and we have realistic weight as the fuel ‘burns off,’” King said.
American Eurocopter can either provide turnkey or dry leases of the sim. Numerous law-enforcement agencies are currently using it and helicopter EMS provider Air Methods recently signed a three-year, 1,000-hours-per-year contract for training all its AS350 pilots there.