Loft Dynamics gave AIN editor-in-chief Matt Thurber a chance to fly its full-motion virtual reality (VR) simulator at Heli-Expo to demonstrate how accurately it replicates flying the Airbus A350B3e/H125 helicopter. During the demos, Thurber got to experience full immersion in the VR environment. Here, he describes the experience.
Loft Dynamics' simulator holds EASA flight simulation training device (FSTD) FTD Level 3 authorization (equivalent to FAA Level 7 FTD). It became the first company to receive EASA FNPT II authorization for its motion-base Robinson R22 VR simulator in 2021.
The Loft VR design not only replicates the cockpit and the real world in any direction that the pilot looks but it allows for animation of the occupants. This means the pilot wearing the VR headset can see his or her own "artificially represented body," that is, hands and feet manipulating the controls and moving buttons and switches. This is an advantage of the VR environment, according to Fabi Riesen, co-founder and CEO of Zurich-based Loft (Booth C2610, formerly VRM Switzerland). “Virtual reality is important to give the pilot full immersion,” he explained.
The Loft simulator mounts on an electrically-driven 6-degrees-of-freedom motion platform developed in-house by Loft engineers, adding to the realistic flight characteristics. The H125 simulator at Heli-Expo is equipped with standard instrumentation, but Loft is also developing an optional cockpit with Garmin G500H TXi and GTN 650Xi touchscreen displays. Another VR advantage is that Loft can design the cockpit with touchscreen displays that replicate the real avionics, but the real avionics hardware isn't needed as all the action takes place in software.
During a demo of the H125, I was able to experience full immersion in the VR environment. The simulator operator/instructor sits at a three-screen console in front of the simulator where he can see what the pilot sees while wearing the Varjo VR headset.
With the headset on and adjusted to assure proper alignment and resolution, the operator performed the takeoff and then handed off the controls to me one at a time, beginning with the collective, then pedals, and cyclic. We were immersed in a daytime view of a valley surrounded by Swiss mountains.
The controls were just as sensitive and responsive as the real helicopter, which I have flown. But what was fascinating was that I could see my animated hand reaching for the instrument panel to adjust the lighting settings when the operator changed the outside view from day to night. He demonstrated how the operator can gradually or instantly change visibility from VMC to IMC, which is tremendously helpful for training pilots to handle inadvertent IMC encounters. The motion platform added a lot of fidelity to the experience, especially when the operator switched on turbulence, starting with mild, then moderate, and finally a few seconds at the severe level.
I tried a visual approach to a hover, but misjudged the height of the helicopter and bounced off the runway surface. I should have paid more attention to the runway elevation and watched the altimeter, but I was having too much fun flying and looking outside. I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to get used to flying close to the ground, and after removing the headset, I just wanted to spend more time in the simulator.
As it did with the H125, Loft is working with Airbus Helicopters on replicating the flight dynamics of the H145 for its next simulator. The R22 sells for roughly $200,000, while the H125 costs less than $1 million, according to Riesen.
The first H125 delivered to a U.S. customer went to Colorado Highland Helicopters in Durango, Colorado. Along with high-altitude operations and initial training, including hovering and autorotations, the company uses the simulator to train pilots on external load flying. Company owner and chief pilot Brandon Laird said that learning external loads in the simulator gives students much more time to get comfortable and to see how the helicopter reacts without the risk and high cost of training in the machine. Student pilots are soloing in the real helicopter in only five "blade" hours after training in the simulator, he said, and going for their private pilot check ride right at the minimum 40 hours.