Accidents (and a persistent accident rate) are prodding device makers and flight trainings to develop tools and courses to boost decision-making, mission skills.
TALK ABOUT BEING PREPARED. THE STORY GOES THAT when a shoulder-launched missile scored a direct hit on the engine of a C-17 Globemaster taking off out of Baghdad on Dec. 10, 2003, the pilot handled the situation just as he'd done in training, bringing the aircraft in for a safe landing.
He had been practicing on a Level C-equivalent simulator ordered up by Boeing and built by FlightSafety International. The six-degree-of-freedom, full-motion device provided instructors with a total of 800 malfunctions to use in any manner they saw fit, one of which apparently included bringing on the symptoms of this particular missile strike.
"Typically, people say the simulator flies like the aircraft," noted John Slish, manager of product information for FlightSafety. "In this case, the pilot said the aircraft flew like the simulator."
Such mission-specfic training opportunities, both in the simulator or the cockpit, are not as readily available to a large percentage the civil rotary-wing community for the obvious cost and availability reasons. Experts say the lack of above-and-beyond-the-rules training is one reason the accident rate for helicopters is higher than for other forms of transport. "It's one area the helicopter industry is woefully inadequate in," said outgoing Helicopter Assn. International President Roy Resavage.
Though HAI accident statistics show that the number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours in the U.S. civil helicopter fleet has steadily declined over the past three decades, from roughly 30 in 1970 to 10 in 2000, the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 hr. has stabilized stubbornly close to 1.5 since about 1980. By comparison, the fatal accident rate for U.S. scheduled air carriers last year was 0.006, the rate for non-scheduled Part 135s was 0.78 and the rate for general aviation as a whole was 1.2, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. Within the civil helicopter ranks, most of the accidents over the past 10 years occurred in Part 91 personal operations (21.2 percent), instructional flights (21.2 percent) and public use operations (10.1 percent). Farther down the list were air taxi operations at 5.9 percent, air medical services at 4.4 percent and executive/corporate with 0.3 percent. A look into the make-up of helicopter emergency medical services accidents in the NTSB database over a seven-year period highlights some of the key problem areas. Of the 27 fatal accidents from January 1998 to December 2004, 21 occurred during night operations. Of those 21, 16 involved inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
Fatalities aside, even minor incidents are causing unneeded expense, damage to a company's reputation and higher insurance premiums. To curb the problems, key training outfits and simulator manufacturers are sharpening their training programs. "There's been a tremendous move afoot to do more things, including specialized training," said Resavage.
Bell Helicopter by the middle of next year plans to launch a Master Pilot course designed to boost skills by adding extra time in classrooms and in flight training devices, giving pilots hands-on practice with everyday and time-critical operational scenarios that are not typically covered in training. Classes will be taught at the manufacturer's Customer Training Academy at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas. Marty Wright, chief flight instructor at the Academy, said Bell came up with program in response to requests and interviews with customers who wanted not only safer operations, but lower costs.
"The biggest thing that precipitated this was an attempt by Bell to get together with the insurance industry to help our customers get a better rate," Wright said.
Insurance companies have been helping in that department for more than a decade. Michael Kriebel, senior vice president for U,S, Aircraft Insurance Group, said HAI and the risk-management department at Bell first contacted USAIG in the mid-1990s, when there was a "perceived crisis" of rising insurance rates for small and medium operators due to accident rates. Kriebel said premiums were fluctuating at the time because new insurance companies were entering the business and losing money. Regardless, USAIG came up with a preferred-operator program and began to take on a wider range of clients. Before that time, USAIG focused on large operations, where Kriebel said there was enough of a "premium base that if you got the rate right, you had a chance of underwriting profitability."
The issue with smaller operators, he said, was that they were not taking advantage of what the manufacturers had in terms of initial and recurrent training. Those programs go beyond FAA requirements, which Kriebel said USAIG considers minimums, "and not very good minimums" in most cases.
"For years, we stayed out of the small commercial arena because we didn't see any hope for profitability due to the accident rate and number of fatal injuries."
With the preferred-operator program, Kriebel said there was a dramatic drop in accident rate for participating operators, which now number about 200. To help with the additional cost of sending pilots to Bell or other manufacturers for training, USAIG developed its "Safety Bucks" program, which gives operators a 5-percent rebate on premiums, which can then be used for pilot or mechanic training at a discounted rate at the manufacturer, which is itself willing to reduce prices to reduce product-liability concerns. To date, Kriebel said USAIG has issued close to $3 million in Safety Buck credits.
"We think, based on the accident rate comparison, a better way to go is to take advantage of the manufacturer's training, including mission-specific training."
As an example, Kriebel said USAIG had seen a "very high rate" of accidents involving handling problems during the initiation of autorotation. The company found that the operators experiencing the programs often were not performing full-touchdown autorotations during flight training. In contrast, Kriebel said most manufacturer training programs "will take it down to the ground."
For Bell's Master Pilot program, which Wright said is being developed with the help of safety regulators and insurance companies, the training will include "things people never get training for," like how to use a parking dolly and takeoff and landing operations on an elevated platform. Bell is currently building an elevated platform at its practice area near Alliance Airport.
Equally important will be a newfound focus on decision-making in a simulated environment. Bell is planning to design computer-based scenarios for flight training devices (FTDs) that will include an accident scene where pilots will have to make decisions about the landing zone, an exercise similar to what's done in the military. "Military training goes over human factors training a lot of the time," said Wright. "In the simulator, they're able to set up the scenario and see what kind of decision pilots made, and go back and talk about the scenario with them."
In the military, simulator manufacturer CAE is in the process of developing the latest line of simulators that will take the human factors concept to new levels. The company is building five advanced, Level D-equivalent simulators for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment for the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Ky. The $35-million simulators will augment existing Black Hawk and Chinook simulators built by Link in the early 1990s. Along with having the fidelity to practice emergency maneuvers like autorotations, the five new systems, two for the MH-47G Chinook and three for MH-60K/L Black Hawks, will be fully networked and interoperable so that crews can rehearse battle operations as a group. In addition, according to CAE, the simulators will be able to "ingest various sources of data for a hot spot they're about to enter." CAE plans to deliver its first Chinook simulator to the 160th in mid-2006 and its first Black Hawk by late 2006 or early 2007. FlightSafety is building simulators for the Army at Fort Rucker as part of the service's Flight School XXI program. Included with 35 Level D-equivalent TH-67 Creek and Blackhawk simulators the company is building is a visual database that encompasses the whole of Fort Rucker, said Slish.
Based on his military background, HAI's Resavage is a believer in simulators, particularly for off-line practicing of full autorotations and recovery from unusual attitudes in IMC. "Instructors can let you progress and get into situations that, as a memory item, you really don't want to get into," he said. "I come from the Navy where we used a tremendous amount of full-motion simulators. As a pilot, I never liked doing it because it's a humbling experience."
In the civilian world, Bell's Wright said such simulator-based human factors training has until now focused on a crew environment for airlines. "We're trying to develop something that can bleed over into the single-pilot area," he said. Key to offering that type of training at Bell is the new-generation flight training devices being made by companies like Frasca International.
A Bell 206B/L unit built by Frasca features a parabolic vision system with a 220X58-deg. field-of-view wraparound dome. Bell uses motion-sickness devices that students strap on to help prevent the queasiness that a certain percentage of the population experiences when the body senses visual motion but not physical motion. Wright said such upgrades are allowing Bell to broaden its offerings for single-engine helicopter training. Under an agreement, Bell medium-lift twin-engine helicopter pilots attend training at FlightSafety using the more expensive full-motion simulators built that company. For VFR training however, Wright said the "visual portion of what your eyes are seeing is more important that the little bit of motion you'd get in the Level D."
The academy currently offers initial transition training in the Bell 206B, 206L and 407, a rotorcraft pilot refresher course, a private pilot course, its "Heliprops" professional pilot safety program, night-vision goggle training, and a variety of maintenance courses.
Key to making the FTD visual cues realistic will be upgrades to the visual database. In general, visual databases for FTDs are built for the fixed-wing community and contain high fidelity for airports but minimal landscape along the route. Bell is contracting Frasca to build visual databases for emergency medical pilot training. When complete, the enhanced FTD will feature an accident scene that will present emergency medical pilots with an accident, rain-slicked road and obstacles like power lines in the vicinity of the accident scene, as well as an elevated landing pad at a hospital on the other end of the trip. Like the military, Bell plans to eventually network simulators so multiple aircraft can participate in a scenario.
John Frasca, vice president of Frasca International, said other customers have been asking for upgrades for their FTDs as well, including Petroleum Helicopters and Air Logistics for high-fidelity scenes of specific operations bases. The work is primarily a programming task and involves taking satellite, aerial or land-based photography to make the scene "look exactly like the real world," said Frasca. He said another customer was having problems with dynamic rollover, and had Frasca enhance the aerodynamic modeling in the FTD to include the potential for rollover brought on by a stuck skid.
The Master Pilot course that Bell's training academy is developing for introduction next year will be available only to pilots who have already completed a training course at the academy, Wright said. The course will operate on a two-year cycle, with two weeks of training at the start and then every other year, with a one-week course in the in-between years. The time is needed for more simulation and classroom time and to include as mandatory the training elements that are now optional. "This is for those pilots who want to be a cut above the rest," Wright said.