The development and use of helicopter simulators and training aids is advancing despite regulatory chaos.
At SKY Helicopters in Garland, Texas, owner Ken Pyatt charges $255 an hour dual to rent his Robinson R22 for instrument training. It's not an unreasonable price compared to what other flight schools charge for R22s or Schweizer 300CBs—the Cessna 152s of the rotarywing training world.
One "aircraft" in Pyatt's rotary-winged fleet, however, undercuts the competition by at least a factor of two, making it a popular draw for students building the required 35 to 40 hr. for an instrument rating. It is a FlyIt Professional Helicopter Simulator, a flight training device that students can use to log half of their hours for the instrument rating, 7.5 hr. of the private pilot rating, 5 hr. of their commercial, plus all of the instrument currency and recurrency time.
Pyatt's rate for the FlyIt is $100 an hour, with instructor, and it can be set up to emulate either the R22 or Schweizer.
The competitive edge that an operator like Pyatt can gain by making the $110,000 investment is fueling a slow but sure emergence of helicopter simulators into the flight training arena. The slow part is due to the bureaucratic red tape and regulatory burden of proving that the simulators closely match the complex dynamics of helicopter flight. The sure part is the dramatic difference in cost per hour to log time.
As with airplanes, helicopter "simulators" fall into increasingly complex and costly categories, with benefits that generally increase with price. Guidance for aircraft is laid out in FAA advisory circulars, and helicopters have sort of tagged along. On the low end are the PC-based aviation training devices, or PC-ATDs, that can cost only a few thousand dollars and are often used for familiarization, but possibly in the near future can be used for flight training credit. Although Advisory Circular AC-61.126 (Qualification and approval of personal computer-based aviation training devices) allows for up to 10 hr. of instrument time to be logged on a PC-ATD, no helicopter training device has as yet been approved.
Matt Henkenius, CEO and lead engineer with Chino, California-based Flight Link, Inc., hopes to change that. His company has sold thousands of PC-based simulators to individual owners and flights schools internationally over the past eight years, covering the spectrum of helicopter models from the R22 to the Blackhawk. Flight Link's devices were originally developed to help students and pilots practice procedures and to familiarize themselves with airports and routes. These devices are based on Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane type software running on a PC that interfaces with collective and cyclic controllers and rudder pedals.
By adding the capability to monitor the performance of the control sticks and the rudder pedals—items that Flight Link already manufactures and supplies to other simulator makers including FlyIt—Henkenius said that virtually the same system will now be certified for 10 hr. toward the instrument ticket, 5 hr. for the commercial, 2 hr. for the private and all instrument currency and recurrency. However, the $3,500 unit will not be labeled as a PC-ATD by the FAA, but instead will be called a Flight Simulation Device (FSD), the new catchall term the FAA will be using under a proposed set of new regulations in Part 60.
Approving these simulation devices in advance of a ruling has become a bone of contention between some vendors and the FAA.
Less controversial, but still in murky regulatory waters, are the next higher level of simulators—flight training devices or FTDs—which run from Level 1 to Level 7. These generally include realistic cockpit environments with lifelike controls and controls panels, including bezels, switches and knobs, and fields of view out of the windows. Level 1 is assigned to existing simulators that were grandfathered into the new categories by AC-120-45A (Airplane Flight Training Device Qualification) when it came out in 1992. Level 2 and 3 FTDs have generic cockpits with the latter having the most detailed emulation; Level 4 are procedures trainers generally used by airlines; Level 5 and 6 have aircraft-specific cockpits with the latter being the most detailed. A Level 7 is a companion device to a Level C full motion simulator. Don't confuse the higher numerals with better simulators - For instance a Level 3 can be more complex and costly than a Level 5.
To date, only Illinois-based Frasca International has received approval for a non-grandfathered FTD - for a Bell 412 Level 3 device - though other manufacturers who have developed "various forms of helicopter simulation devices" have been given "some form of authorized use" under parts 61 and 141, according to the FAA. In some cases, these devices have been labeled flight simulator devices rather than flight training devices.
Ken Pyatt's FlyIt trainer fits into the "other" category. Terry Simpkins, president of the Carlsbad, Calif.-based FlyIt, said his FTD is the only one on the market with FAA approval for VFR training credit, in addition to IFR, commercial and currency approvals. With three years in the trade, Simpkins said he's delivered 34 of the trainers so far and is doubling his business every year. The device, which Simpkins said was certified as an FSD, has a full size cockpit with dual controls and a lifelike flat panel LCD monitor for the control panel. It uses a rear-projected 6x8-ft. screen in the front plus a screen below for visual cues, and includes an instructor desk with three LCD monitors with a forward view, instruments readings and a moving map — all typical ingredients for mid-fidelity simulators. The system runs on Windows XP Pro and can replicate various helicopter models including the R22, R44, Schweitzer 300, MD 500 and Bell 206. Simpkins said the flight training device, which is designed to be "a little harder to fly" than the real thing, can be used to demonstrate dynamic rollover, tail rotor failure, autorotation and various emergency procedures.
A Customized Frasca
Frasca builds its products on a case-by-case basis, developing simulators to a customer's specifications. In the case of the R22, Victor Veltze, a sales representative for Frasca, said the company can build a customized Level 1 device for $175,000 which will allow for 20 hr. of the instrument training requirement. With more than 45 years experience in the simulator business, Frasca has delivered more than 1,900 fixed wing and helicopter simulators worldwide, including several customized flight training devices to the U.S. military.
The company's Bell 412 Level 3 FTD, designed and built for Lafayette, La.-based Petroleum Helicopters, has allowed that company to save money by using the FTD and a minimal number of in-flight hours to perform the practical test standards training it previously did in a full-motion simulator. Priced at approximately $2.8 million, the Frasca 412's operational cost is $50 an hour, compared with $756 for the actual Bell helicopter. Petroleum Helicopters said it uses the device, which includes a 220-deg. parabolic screen, to train pilots on "every conceivable off-shore and onshore flight scenario, including IFR operations with an emphasis on human factors and crew resource management."
Veltze said Frasca is also developing "long-line" hoisting-type simulations to aid search and rescue and load-moving operators. The add-on will use a larger visual system that will project downward to give a relative sense of motion between helicopter and payload and will be available for all simulators.
Flight Link hopes to jack up the stakes in the R22 FTD field in the near future. Henkenius said the company is working with the FAA and Vortex Helicopters in Mississippi to certify a $65,000 Level 2 for the helicopter. Vortex will be supplying the training curriculum, a necessary ingredient for certification of the training device along with the simulator hardware and software. The company is also certifying a Puma SA/330J FTD for Denver-based Geo-Seis Helicopters to train pilots for the company's Mediterranean re-supply missions, said Henkenius.
Hovering above the PC-ATD and FTD fray are the full-motion simulators, devices that range in complexity and price on a scale from A to D and can be used as a sole means to attain a type rating. FlightSafety International (FSI) was the first to achieve certification of a Level D, the top of the line, which includes the most precise environmental details, such as sun flickering through the blades, and the highest fidelity motion cues, such as secondary motion systems to provide vibration inputs to the cockpit seats. FSI's first Level D helicopter simulator, a Bell 412, went into service at its Fort Worth, Texas facility three years ago. Since then, the company has produced Level D simulators covering the twin-engine Bell 212, 214, 222 and 430 models for its Fort Worth training center and the Sikorsky S-76 and S-70 Blackhawk commercial variant and S-92 for its West Palm Beach, Fla., training facility. FlightSafety says it is the largest maker of flight simulators, and the largest customer.
FlightSafety would not discuss the cost of its simulators, but would only say that a full-motion simulator for a single-engine helicopter would end up costing more than the aircraft itself—which is why it builds full-motion devices for twin engine models only. CAE SimuFlite has newly emerged as a competitor to FlightSafety in the full-motion arena, with an approved S-76 Level D simulator set to go live at its Fort Worth facility this fall.
From the regulatory standpoint, the entire simulation business is in a state of flux at the moment as the FAA attempts to recast the design standards and certification guidance contained if the various simulator advisory circulars as a rule. The FAA has been targeting January 2006 as the date for the finalized rule, but that date could easily slip as officials and simulator manufacturers debate the merits of the draft document. In fact, a comment period which closed in February 2003 was reopened this February for another 30 days to capture more input from the stakeholders.
An FAA/industry panel is now studying the complex rule, which will lump all manner of simulators under the Flight Simulation Device moniker. The panel plans to meet in June to hash out their differences. Sticking points include a provision that requires training organizations to put quality control measures into place, define sponsors and ensure minimum annual utilizations of the equipment; and a plan that would denote today's Level 1 FTDs and PC-ATDs as advanced and basic aviation training devices, an association those companies with a Level 1 device think somewhat diminish the perceived value of their product. On the positive side, however, aviation training devices fall under a blanket certification while each Level 2 and above flight training device must be certified individually.
Despite the turbulence, the simulator business at the moment is going quite well for the companies who choose to deal with the rigmarole. Frasca's Veltze calls it a "recession-proof business if you keep your nose clean" and Flight Link's Henkenius said the market outlook is "very positive," with high interest from consumers looking for lower cost mid-fidelity FTDs.
"Anything over $100,000 is overpriced for what you're getting there," he said.