The North Sea, in many respects, is the epicenter of civil helicopter operations in the world. Since the ignition of the oil exploration boom in the area a half-century ago, Norway and the UK have become the primary users of helicopters, operating nearly 70 percent of the total fleet in Europe and 95 percent of airframes with more than 18 passenger seats. In the Norwegian and UK Continental Shelf sectors, there are more than 300 helideck-equipped fixed exploration platforms and more than 100 mobile helidecks. In 2012, over helicopter 200,000 sectors were flown, carrying nearly two million passengers – mostly platform shift workers – encompassing nearly 150,000 flight hours.
|Frasca Airbus Helicopters AS350 trainer. Photo courtesy of Frasca|
The area can be harsh, no question, with extremely challenging weather, winds, and waves. One pilot described “winds enroute close to 70 knots with drift angles of 25-plus degrees … landing on a heaving deck on a black night … and violent windshear and turbulence when passing through weather fronts.”
In the wake of five accidents in four years, the most recent of which in August claimed four lives when a CHC-operated Eurocopter Super Puma crashed into the sea off the Shetland Islands, the civil aviation authorities of the UK and Norway launched a review of “the risks and hazards of operating in the North Sea and consider how these can be managed more effectively.” Capt. Bob Jones, the UK CAA’s flight operations head, led the review along with Geir Hamre, head of helicopter safety for the Norwegian CAA.
In February, the results were published, titled, “Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas.” They included recommendations heavily focused on water ditching situations. The UK CAA, for example, plans to prohibit flights “in the most severe sea conditions” to improve the chances of accident survivor recovery. The review urged the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to make safety and survival training for passengers a requirement. And they suggested that helicopter operators worldwide implement lightning forecast systems.
The British Air Line Pilots’ Association (BALPA), which incorporates professional helicopter pilots, had criticized the planned review when it was announced in September, questioning the credibility of the government’s regulator to “review itself.” But once the findings were released, BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan lauded it: “The CAA has recognized that independently setting and protecting decent helicopter flight safety standards in the North Sea is more effective than a ‘light touch’ approach. Pilots particularly welcome the ban on flying in adverse conditions and the recommendations on how the chances of surviving an incident can be improved.”
The UK/Norway CAA review scrutinized pilot training, noting that 44 percent of accidents between 1992 and 2013 were attributable to “operational” causes, the majority of which the reviewers labeled “pilot performance issues.”
One area of significant weakness: “training/checking requirements are heavily biased to runway-based, one-engine inoperative flight, and this does not adequately prepare a pilot for the environment in which the types are to be operated. Likewise, the annual license proficiency check and six-month operator check perpetuates this historical focus.”
Instead, training should reflect the offshore operating environment. Some operators who input to the review suggested an alternative training and qualification program that would draw on flight data monitoring (FDM) information to align the curriculum to real-world line operations.
|AgustaWestland flat panel trainer. Photo by Rick Adams|
Another area of concern, which has afflicted the commercial fixed-wing pilot community as well, is reliance on automation. “There is a well-recognized dichotomy affecting both airplane and helicopter operators known as ‘automation dependency,’ which affects those who operate these highly complex types,” the review stated. BALPA had “expressed concerns about new helicopter pilots joining the industry who rely too much on automated systems, and tend to focus on managing the systems rather than flying the aircraft.”
The CAA promised to review, by second quarter 2014, all helicopter recurrent training programs to ensure that basic instrument flight skills are maintained so that crews can readily deal with manual flight if required.
A third area of pilot training concern is recency. Currently, there are no explicit requirements for pilot recency in helideck operations. The oil and gas industry does, however, place recency contractual obligations on helicopter operators. Pilot requirements for helideck operations are incorporated into the draft EASA requirements specific to offshore helicopter operators.
Not surprisingly, the northeast shore of Scotland and southwest coast of Norway have likewise become the axis of the helicopter simulation world.
Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) installed a new Indra-built EC225 full-flight simulator at its new North Sea Service Center in Aberdeen, Scotland at the world’s busiest heliport, three years ago. They also established a long-term training agreement with CHC Helicopter. Sufficient space is available to add another simulator in the future, perhaps for the Airbus-AVIC EC175 helicopter.
The Airbus-Indra EC225 full-motion simulator features a visual system field-of-view of 210 degrees horizontal and 80 degrees vertical, including 50 degrees below the horizon “look down” capability for search and rescue (SAR) and night helideck landing training. The visual database covers one million square kilometers from Scotland to Norway, and is compatible with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and night vision goggle (NVG) operations.
CAE operates a simulator in Aberdeen for the Airbus AS332 L2 variant of the Super Puma, inherited as part of its 2011 acquisition of CHC’s training operations.
Frasca International has delivered two EC225s and a Sikorsky S-92 Level B simulator to Bristow in Aberdeen.
Rotorsim, a joint venture of AgustaWestland and CAE, will install an AW189 simulator in Aberdeen in 2015, designed specifically to support Bristow Helicopters and other operators. “We are excited to introduce AW189 simulator training in the United Kingdom to support search-and-rescue operations,” said John Ponsonby, AgustaWestland’s senior vice president of customer support and training.
Airbus Helicopters and CAE are collaborating on an EC225 simulator to be deployed in Stavanger, Norway, where Montreal, Canada-based CAE already has devices for the AS332L/L1 and Sikorsky’s S-61 (also via the CHC partnership). Airbus and its local representative, Østnes, intend to also install an AS350 helicopter FFS at the facility.
CAE has a further presence in Scandinavia with EC225 and Sikorsky S-92 simulators in Oslo, Norway, and a Bell 212/412 trainer in Stockholm, Sweden, owing to their mid-2012 acquisition of Oxford Aviation Academy.
In September, Sikorsky and FlightSafety International opened a new FlightSafety Learning Center at Aircontact Aviation Center at the Stavanger Airport in Sola. Bristow Norway has signed on to train its S-92 pilots there. “The fact that our pilots will no longer have to travel abroad for training entails significant efficiencies for us in terms of reduced time-consumption and travel costs associated with training,” noted Renee de Jong, CEO of Bristow Norway.
Flightsafety also has an S-92 simulator in Farnborough, UK.
Paris, France-based Thales is planning a new helicopter training center in southern Norway as well, scheduled for the second half of 2015. The Reality H simulator may feature training for multiple aircraft types using roll-on/roll-off technology which allows different cockpits to use the same base motion and visual systems. According to Thales Norway CEO Glenn Pedersen, “Norwegian oil and gas helicopter pilots operate in one of the world’s most challenging airspaces for rotorcraft, requiring outstanding skills, response times, and attention to ever-changing weather patterns.”
Further afield, the oil and gas industry’s trend toward deepwater drilling further from shore is fueling demand for longer-range, large transport helicopters, and the training industry is ramping up deployments of simulators to address demand.
FlightSafety will install a Level D S-92 simulator in Sao Paulo, Brazil in third quarter 2014. CAE and joint venture partner Lider Aviacao are servicing S-76C++ pilots of state-owned Petrolio Brasileiro (Petrobas) who traverse offshore platforms in the 350,000-square-kilometer Santos Basin. CAE is planning an S-92 device in Sao Paulo, and also has a Bell 412 simulator in Toluca, Mexico.
Helibras (Helicopteros do Brasil), an Airbus-owned helicopter manufacturer, is building a new training center in Rio de Janeiro with a combination simulator for the civil EC225 and EC725 military version.
In Asia, Airbus’ Malaysia Training Center recently installed the first EC225 FFS in the region. The company also has an EC225 Level B device in Beijing. CAE has a new S-76C++ simulator in Zhuhai, China, and is planning an S-92. They will also deploy an S-92 in Rimba, Brunei, as part of a broader government-military-commercial training complex.
CAE has a presence in India in a joint venture with Hindustan Aerospace Ltd (HAL), including AS365 N3 Dauphin, Bell 412, and HAL Dhruv simulators in Bengaluru. In Dubai, CAE offers a Bell 412 device at its JV with Emirates.
The AgustaWestland-CAE Rotorsim collaboration, which began in 2001, features simulators for several models at a relatively new training academy and support center in the historic old SIAI Marchetti plant in Sesto Calende, Italy, north of Milan. Simulators for the A109E, Nexus, and Power variants are available, as well as AW139 and AW189.
The joint venture has further AW139 capability in Morristown, N.J., near New York City. The partners have discussed AW169 and AW189 training in North America.
AgustaWestland is also expanding its global network of authorized training centers with AW109 training in Zurich, Switzerland and AW139 courses in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A joint venture with Mubadala Aerospace intends to launch AW139 training in Abu Dhabi this year.
FlightSafety dominates the U.S. Gulf Coast and corporate helicopter markets with its training centers in Lafayette, La., West Palm Beach, Fla. and Dallas, Texas. At Lafayette: AW139, Bell 206, Bell 407, S-76C+/C++, and a new Sikorsky S-92 Level D qualified simulator by Q3 with the new Vital 1100 visual system and Crewview glass mirror display. At West Palm: S-70, S-76C/C++, and a new S-76D. In Dallas: a new EC135 in April with Garmin avionics suite, Bell 212, Bell 412, Bell 430 (close to Bell Helicopter’s Fort Worth headquarters), S-76B, and in 2014 a new NVG-capable Bell 212/412EP Level D full flight simulator.
In Shreveport, La., FlightSafety installed a Level 7 AS350 flight training device in November at Metro Aviation’s center. The high-end FTD includes night vision goggle (NVG) and inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) training.
Airbus Helicopters plans a Level D EC175 FFS by 2016 at a location to be identified in North America, citing the rotorcraft’s introduction in the Gulf of Mexico.
Frasca will be delivering a 407 GX FFS to the Bell Training Academy in Alliance, Texas.
The proliferation of new-technology simulators, which is in its relative infancy, should pay off with improved flying skills and situational awareness in the coming years, traits the civil helicopter needs to help reduce the accident and incident rate.
Several decades after the airline industry embraced high-end simulation for the bulk of pilot training, it’s difficult to understand why there’s a need for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to issue a “Safety Through Helicopter Simulators” alert … but it is. Far too much training is still done in the aircraft, and one-quarter of helicopter accidents occur during the training phase.
FAA issued new rules in February, among them a requirement that pilots are tested to handle flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions, as well as and demonstrate competency in recovery from inadvertent IMC. The agency will also require that aircraft be equipped with a flight data monitoring system by 2018, and (in what seems a no-brainer) the FAA wants pilots to “identify and document the highest obstacle along their planned flight path before departure.”
Coming sometime over the next few years is the expected implementation by various national aviation authorities, such as FAA, EASA, and others, of new helicopter flight simulation training device (FSTD) guidelines published last year by ICAO. Unfortunately, ICAO’s role is only advisory, and it is up to each NAA to work the often excruciatingly slow process to convert the guidance into regulation.
The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) says that from 1997 thru 2005, the average number of annual civil helicopter accidents worldwide was trending upward at a rate of 2.5 percent. Since 2006, the average has been trending downward at about 2 percent. That’s good, but no one considers it good enough.