Helicopter Simulators Finally Becoming Key Training Tools
The civil helicopter industry is, at last, taking advantage of simulators in pilot training decades after the fixed-wing aircraft industry began to do so. Simulators are proliferating around the world and, after having been concentrated in the medium-twin segment, now also include light turbine singles. The emergence of rotorcraft simulators in recent years was prompted by a combination of factors: technology, cost, insurance and a realization that the industry must improve a poor safety record.
Simulators can be operated by a helicopter operator, a helicopter manufacturer or a dedicated training organization. In the first category, one can find Albertville, France-based SAF, which bought an Airbus Helicopters EC135 full flight simulator (FFS) from Thales. The company uses it for its own pilots and also offers it to third parties. SAF also illustrates the advent of light-single simulators, as the EC135 sim is soon to be joined, in the same training facility, by a Thales-operated AS350 Ecureuil/AStar simulator. In the second category, Airbus Helicopters operates an AS365 N3 Dauphin simulator in Singapore. Finally, FlightSafety International (Booth No. 5902) provides simulator training on all Sikorsky S-76 models and the S-92 as well as other types, such as the AW139 and EC135. Training provider and simulator manufacturer CAE also offers helicopter simulator training.
Software and hardware technology for simulators has progressed significantly to the point where they can now cope with the complex flight dynamics of a helicopter, said Patrick Bourreau, CEO of simulator training specialist Helisim. The company is an Airbus Helicopters joint subsidiary with Thales and defense consulting firm DCI. The first civil level-D (the highest level of realism) simulator at Helisim, an AS332 Super Puma, began operating in 2002.
Simulators now fly with the same flight control aerodynamic modeling as the helicopter they replicate. Increasingly, wide graphics displays offer much better resolution, and FFS are thus becoming more and more realistic.
Improved verisimilitude of FFS is only one of the trends in simulator technology. The second is in the flight navigation procedure trainer (FNPT) and flight training device (FTD) segment. FNPTs and FTDs enjoy improved fidelity, too, at a much lower and ever-decreasing cost, thanks to advances in technology. In fact, the general trend for simulator acquisition prices is downward, according to Bourreau. This favorably impacts the operating cost. One simulator hour costs between 25 and 50 percent of one real flight hour, which makes using simulators attractive, in addition to the safety benefits such training offers.
Another factor is the cost of insurance. “We do have incentives,” Jean-Baptiste Saintagne, deputy director of SAAM Verspieren Group, told AIN. Verspieren executives started talking to Airbus Helicopters Training Services (AHTS; at the time, Eurocopter Training Services) about the use of simulators in 2009, he recalled. The interaction resulted in a partnership for recurrent training signed in 2010. “If the customer trains with AHTS, a less expensive insurance premium will partially offset the expense in training,” Saintagne said.
Accidents tend to be caused by simple errors, he emphasized. This is why he deems simulators, and also FNPTs, so useful. The latter devices, albeit slightly less realistic, help pilots practice procedures and thoroughly learn the instruments and avionics, he said.
Not all insurance companies, however, share the same approach to simulators. Sylvain Roulier, secretary general of insurance provider La Réunion Aérienne, said his firm offers no particular incentive. “We know of no study that would show better safety statistics for those pilots who have trained in simulators rather than real aircraft,” he said.
A watershed event in the helicopter industry’s safety efforts was the creation of the international helicopter safety team (IHST) in 2005 and the in-depth studies it has published. Terry Eichman, director of Sikorsky’s Training Systems, was a member of the IHST when it was formed. “The IHST’s study was a wake-up call to the commercial helicopter industry that pilots needed more comprehensive training to learn how to operate their helicopters safely during challenging circumstances,” he said. He sees flight simulators as valuable training systems because pilots engage in realistic emergency situations.
Verspieren’s Saintagne agrees. “The industry has become fully aware of how seriously safety should be tackled,” he said.
The IHST has had a strong influence on helicopter training. The joint facility that SAF and Thales run in Albertville “follows recommendations by the IHST,” the latter company said. The authorities have pushed for the use of simulators, Helisim’s Bourreau added.
Sikorsky’s Eichman predicted that small operators will put simulators to use increasingly. “Simulators for light helicopters are not full motion, so they are affordable, yet still effective,” he said. Helisim’s Bourreau agreed, citing the benefits of FNPTs, which cost less than full flight simulators.