Commercial, Public Service, Training

Scenario-based Training: As Real as it Gets

By By Dale Smith | June 1, 2010

Commercial airplane pilots have it easy. They take off from a paved runway. They fly along prescribed airways (under the watchful eye of ATC). They land on a paved runway. Those airplane pilots who never land off-airport are in the vast minority.

It’s just the opposite for a commercial helicopter pilot—especially those who fly EMS, ENG, heli-logging, heli-skiing, SAR—pretty much everything, for that matter. The take-off may occur from a paved helipad, but from that point on, all bets are off. Operators fly in all kinds of weather, close to the ground and are often under some high-level of external stress or pressure to accomplish the mission. In fact, for most helicopter pilots the only “routine” flying they do is when they’re training. Helicopter industry experts and insiders think the predictable routines of helicopter training may be part of the overall safety problem.

Within the boundaries of commercial helicopter training everything is pretty much structured. The student is expecting certain things to happen at certain times—definitely not the way it occurs in real life.


“At CAE, we were very intrigued about the combination of our training capabilities and the track record of helicopter safety,” said Claude Lauzon, vice president of Civil Aviation Services. “We started to participate with the ICAO on an international working group that is redefining the standards for training devices and tasks.”

Lauzon explained that CAE “created a helicopter advisory board consisting of a cross-section of our industry—insurance companies, OEMs and large and small operators from different segments of the industry,” he said. “We started with the fundamental training, gaps and requirements and one of the things they stressed most was the desire to do scenario-based training mission rehearsals.”

But what is scenario-based training, exactly? The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) defines it this way: “Scenario-based training provides an opportunity to experience the situations that may occur during a routine flight and teaches systematic risk reduction and critical thinking skills.”

Curt Peredina, chief pilot for North Andover Flight Academy, the first helicopter flight school in the world to offer a FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) curriculum, explained how scenario-based training was shaping his school’s training curriculum. “Where accepted helicopter training has fundamentally provided instruction in maneuvers, our FITS syllabus enhances the commercial helicopter training experience by placing the student within scenarios that will build their flight skills as well as their judgment and risk assessment skills,” he said.

“It basically wraps up all of the elements within the commercial training program into distinct scenarios rather than just going up with an instructor and flying around and doing repetitions,” Peredina said. “Plus, it puts decision-making and resource management into each lesson.”

And when you get right down to it, learning good decision-making skills is really at the heart of what scenario-based training is all about, whether you’re a newly minted commercial helicopter pilot or a grizzled old veteran with a logbook as thick as a phonebook.

“I’ve seen a lot of Part 135 check rides where the check airman sits down and goes over the normal oral regulations, systems, general knowledge questions then they go off and fly,” said Randy Sharp, manager of the flight training department for California Shock Trauma Air Rescue (CALSTAR). “They do the same maneuvers again and again—maybe simulate this or that. One through five on the 814-10 checklist to make sure they’re covering all the items.”

He added that is fine “for just going out and making sure the pilot can perform the maneuvers to commercial standards. But it seemed to me there had to be more to it than that—especially in the EMS pilot’s world. It just wasn’t a representation of [whether] this pilot is ready to handle the kinds of issues he or she will face doing their job, but is he or she having any problems with these issues? Regular training just wasn’t created to do that.”

Well, in the minds of Sharp, Peredina, CAE and other leading helicopter industry safety advocates the answer is a resounding: No!

Scenario-based training is nothing new. The U.S. military has been using it for years. “I flew in the Air Force for 22 years and they concentrated heavily scenario-based training,” Sharp said.

Nevertheless, he added, “being able to demonstrate a maneuver is one thing, but it’s not about the maneuvers, it’s about the whole package during an exercise, training event or check-ride.” Sharp explained that CALSTAR wants to train to an elevated standard. The company has strived to improve overall effectiveness in the judgment and decision-making processes for its pilots.

Welcome to Our World

Whether you are planning training for green commercial helicopter students or highly experienced EMS pilots, the goal of scenario-based training is the same: creating situations where the pilot is put in a position that will challenge the ability to “think outside of the box” and make solid, rational, safe decisions.

“We are setting the student up for the particular situation without them even knowing about it,” Peredina said. “They learn from what happens rather than from being told what will happen … just like real life.”

Peredina explained the one of the first lessons a North Andover student will experience is a simulated photo flight—something a lot of new commercial helicopter pilots will probably have to do. “The instructor acts as the ‘client’ and sets the student up for certain things to happen within the scenario,” he said. “Things like out of ground effect hover, settling with power—things like that.”

“I had one student take me up to ‘take pictures of my house.’ I asked him to hover at a certain altitude over an island right in front of us. He didn’t realize it was a tail wind situation—he was not thinking about it,” Peredina said. “What happened with this student was as he set me up for an OGE hover he got into the onset of settling with power and lost tail rotor effectiveness.”

The helicopter swung to the right, he continued. “He couldn’t control it. I had to take over to get out of it. Then we went back up to that altitude and I explained what happened. It was a lot more effective than just going up and doing a planned maneuver.”

Because CALSTAR’s 49 pilots are highly experienced and fly in their own real world 24/7, Sharp’s scenarios need to be even more realistic on a variety of levels. “I have multiple scenarios, but one of my favorites is a call for an ATV (all terrain vehicle) rollover in a confined area on the side of a steep hill. There’s 45-year old male with multiple injuries,” Sharp said. “I play the crewmember flight nurse. Sometimes I’m a good nurse, sometimes I’m a bad nurse—not ‘bad’ in evil, but ‘bad’ in lack of knowledge and helpfulness to the pilot—that’s what the pilot faces in real life.”

Three crewmembers are on each flight, the pilot and two flight nurses. “The nurse is an important crewmember and often can be a valuable asset for the pilot,” he said. “I give the pilot the input as the nurse would. I don’t tell them I want to see a particular maneuver but I put them in a particular situation to demonstrate it to me without them knowing about it. No two sessions are the same.”

“There’s a big scenario game that makes the pilot think—really analyze the problem. I can beat down the throttle and it may look like an engine failure but it’s just in ground idle,” Sharp explained. “He or she has a set of parameters to deal with. Is it an engine failure or something else?”

Sharp continued: “Say the engine drops to ground idle power. They now ask the flight nurse what the engine is doing—what are the instruments saying? Okay, it’s at ground idle and they decide to leave it there. That’s a good answer,” he said. “It could come back online. It could just be a low side failure. Rather than immediately shutting the engine down, what are the options? The best solution for this situation?”

Sharp said that the goal of his training scenarios is to not just check off boxes on a form. “I want to see if they have a real life understanding of what they are supposed to do. Say they do an engine shutdown and forget to turn off the fuel valve. Guess what comes up next; an engine fire. That’s what happens in a actual flight when they don’t shut the engine down properly.”

Safety First

Of course actually shutting down an engine in flight isn’t something anyone suggests, or the actual completion of many helicopter maneuvers including auto-rotations. It’s all just simulated to the best level of realism possible. But, you have to ask: is that good enough?

“One of the key insights is when you train in a helicopter, you never actually train to the end of the scenario. The instructor pilot will judge that you have actually [demonstrated the skill], generated enough risk or are operating at a risk level that is the limit,” Lauzon said. “For example, if you want to train for auto-rotation, you will practice at a certain height and then below 100 feet you will stop the auto-rotation. Very rarely will you actually perform the training to the end.” Operators comment that “if you don’t see a scenario through to the end, you can actually have some negative training for that situation,” he noted. “You will not have rehearsed a complete story. It’s the same with inadvertent IMC. They will not want an inexperienced pilot in a real helicopter to fly into IFR conditions and then let him sort himself out.”

Before going out on a flight, Sharp tells the pilot there are two switches that cannot physically be turned off—the fuel valve and the throttle from ground idle to full off—unless there’s a real emergency. Other than that we make each flight as realistic as we can while still being safe.”

Simple Scenarios

While using scenarios for platform landings, EMS operations, heli-logging, or whatever application, this type of training is also proving to be extremely helpful in reinforcing even the most basic piloting skills.

One skill that both North Andover Flight Academy and CALSTAR stress is good fuel management and both operations blend it seamlessly into specific scenario situations. “Instead of building their night solo time flying around the pattern, we give students places to go and things to do,” Peredina said. One is a simulated police search over the city. “They go out and perform a set series of searches. When they come back they get dispatched right back out again. I want to see a few planning skills, but the biggest is whether they’ve checked to see if they have enough fuel to complete the mission. It’s an easy thing to overlook in the heat of the moment.”

Sharp said that one skill he tries to get all of his flight crews to develop—and it can be the hardest of them all—is to just say no. “I go to remote locations and try to get the pilot to land on a steep slope or in other difficult areas. He can just say no. Sometimes that’s the best answer. All of our pilots want to accomplish their mission,” he said. “Yes there are lives on the line, but at what price?”

That’s what scenario-based training is all about. As Peredina put it scenario training “is based on much more than the maneuvers. It’s based on all the decisions and all the planning that has to be done to safely complete any and every flight.”

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