Airbus Helicopters boasted one of the most robust OEM training offerings in the world, training more than 8,000 pilots who logged more than 30,000 simulator hours in 2019.
Then came 2020 and Covid-19.
In response, the company enhanced its distance learning capabilities and is now making many of those and associated technology changes instituted during the pandemic permanent, both in the U.S. and worldwide. “Covid brought us into a new normal which will help us become safer,” said Romain Trapp, president of Airbus Helicopters, Inc., the company’s American arm.
At Airbus’s training facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, the company installed a video studio, where Bruce Webb, the company’s director of education, began making a variety of flight and maintenance training videos. “You need to use technology to make it lively,” said Trapp. Webb’s videos were posted to YouTube and other social media and routinely attracted more than 20,000 views each, Trapp said. “The training piece is absolutely critical to ensure the highest level of safety. We need to work together to reduce accidents. While the number of helicopter accidents worldwide has been significantly reduced over the last 20 years, there are still too many.”
Worldwide, Airbus Helicopters operates 18 training centers and the company has recently been leveraging synergies between them, said Sabrina Barbera, head of training and flight operations. That includes the adaption of distance learning technology.
“The virus lockdown put us in a crisis. We were not prepared for the situation,” said Christian Finkbeiner, Airbus Helicopters’ technical maintenance training manager. “We needed to continue training to keep our customers qualified and in the air.” Airbus instituted distance learning training in March 2020 but faced two immediate challenges: getting those courses approved by local regulatory authorities and motivating trainees to participate in distance learning.
Finkbeiner said Airbus has grown its distance learning to more than 100 courses and more than 500-course weeks. Customers who still require hands-on simulator or device training sometimes traveled to centers and then completed distance learning while quarantined in nearby hotels prior to in-person training. Other courses were converted to pure distance learning, such as the electrical systems differences course for upgrades from the light twin H145D2 to the five-bladed D3.
In Grand Prairie, distance learning allowed the company to eliminate first-day ground school for recurrent training in the H125 single and immediately place students in the helicopter, according to Lindsay Cunningham, head of customer training for North America. This made it possible for the company to operate the training helicopter more efficiently and reduce travel costs for customers, she said.
Grand Prairie trains more than 800 pilots a year and that number is slated to increase with the opening of the new Helisim training facility there and the qualification of a new level-D H145 simulator there this May. Cunningham said the cockpit of the D2 and D3 are so similar that EASA is not requiring differences training but that Airbus is offering a one-day theoretical differences course “to ensure that pilots are aware of the minor differences.”
Grand Prairie also is now offering the equivalent of a pinch-hitter fixed-wing course for the non-flying crew, enabling them to safely land the helicopter in the event of pilot incapacitation. It also continues to offer an entry into inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions course, which is free to customers insured by USAIG.
Throughout the company’s training network, digital trainers are increasingly being used to represent software on helicopters, said Eric Cazeils, Airbus Helicopters' chief avionics instructor. For distance maintenance training, Airbus combined mechanical mockups and jigs with video and computer technology. Full-sized maintenance training devices, such as those for Fenestron tail rotors and fuel tanks, are also used in conjunction with distance learning as are iPads, which provide a three-dimensional representation of key helicopter systems. Several maintenance training devices are available to facilitate maintenance differences training, such as a five-bladed mast hub. Airbus is investigating adding virtual reality to its training but has yet to do so.
Customer satisfaction with the new training model has been positive, according to Barbera. “We aim to continuously improve the customer experience by implementing organizational change in our training,” she said.