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The New Era of Simulators

By By Joseph Ambrogne | August 1, 2015



Metro Aviation’s Helicopter Flight Training Center is equipped with two high-end FlightSafety International simulators, within which pilots from throughout the industry are invited to sharpen their life-saving skills. Pictured here is one configured as an Airbus AS350.
Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation

Positive transfer of knowledge—yes, it sounds overly technical, and no, I’m not talking about inserting a disk into your hard drive. In fact, any CFI will tell you that it’s really just a common-sense concept in flight instruction. When what you are learning enhances what you already know, that’s positive transfer of knowledge. When repeated hovering practice makes you better at landing a helicopter on a slope, that’s positive transfer of knowledge. Of course, we learn bad habits just as easily as we learn good ones. When you practice hovering with a miscalibrated cyclic, and it takes your muscle memory weeks to readjust to the norm, that’s negative transfer of knowledge—something to avoid at all costs in the training environment.

The question is: where does that leave commercial flight simulators? Arguably, there hasn’t been a simulator built yet that can reproduce the experience of hovering a helicopter with 100-percent realism. Many pilots will tell you that the maneuver just feels a bit off. It would be forgivable, then, to recommend that pilots avoid simulators altogether if they want to learn to hover the right way. But as Rotor & Wing International has learned, doing so would ignore the real value of flight simulation, which extends far beyond simple margins of accuracy. We’ve talked to flight schools large and small about how they are using simulators and flight training devices (FTD) in training new pilots, improving the safety of commercial operations and advancing the cutting edge of the aviation industry.

Programming Primacy

Metro used an actual EC135 to reverse-engineer performance data that supports the realism of this full-flight simulator.In this photo, the second story bridge has been raised and the simulator is active.

At Heli-Expo 2015, I made a fool of myself at the controls of the TruFlite R44, Frasca International’s newest FTD. Even with an electronic control loading system creating realistic vibrations and pressure on the cyclic, I bounce back and forth like a rodeo clown, while a Frasca employee talks me through the maneuver in his reassuring instructor’s voice. Only then do I realize just how much I’ve come to depend on tactile sensations—that feeling in my gut as the helicopter sways under the rotor hub, and the light scraping under my seat indicating that I’ve made contact with the ground. These are all part of a pilot’s toolbox, but maybe I’ve been using them as a crutch in place of a better instrument scan and sight picture.

I leave Frasca’s booth feeling a bit let down, but not because of the FTD. Actually, I wish I’d had a few more hours to perfect my hover, and maybe try out some advanced maneuvers I usually avoid. There is no danger. Had it not been for my paranoia that an entire show floor—and in particular, that group of uniformed Embry-Riddle students directly behind the booth—were watching me struggle, I’d have been completely immersed in the challenge.

The Frasca TruFlite R44 is a Level 5 flight training device (FTD), accurate enough to count towards flight time at Part 61 and Part 141 schools, and—at a price tag of roughly $350,000—comparable to that of an actual Robinson R44.

In fact, helicopter simulators from companies like Frasca and XCopter were all over the Heli-Expo show floor. Almost all of them were configured to resemble R44s and R22s, those affordable, single-engine helicopters so popular for training. Clearly, simulation companies had arrived with every intention of selling to private flight schools. Given the price points and safety of these devices (and the fact that they don’t require aviation fuel to run), it’s a mystery why there isn’t a simulator sitting in every U.S. flight school hangar. What holds the buyers back?

Perhaps the most obvious disadvantage is to a pilot’s logbook. The FAA allows a certain number of simulator hours to count towards the flight time requirement for a rating, depending on the device used. But there’s a limit. CFIs also can’t use an simulator to log actual flight time, making it harder for them to build experience and apply for other jobs. For these reasons, even schools with the money to spare might rather purchase additional helicopters instead of spending a comparable amount on an entry-level device.

For other schools, primacy may be the concern. Another of those overly technical sounding flight instructor terms, primacy refers to one of psychologist Edward Thorndike’s principles of learning. It states that what is learned first creates a strong, unshakable impression in the mind of the student. In other words, if you don’t learn to do something right the first time, you may have difficulty trying to correct your bad habits later on.

 An EC135s comes in for a landing at the Metro Aviation complex. In addition to external customers, all of Metro’s pilots are sent to the simulators at least once per year.
Photos courtesy of
Metro Aviation

At Bristow Academy in Titusville, Fla., one of the largest private helicopter flight schools in the world, the majority of students are trained ab initio—meaning from zero flight time all the way up through commercial employability. It’s no surprise that the academy places tremendous emphasis on the primacy principle. As the academy’s deputy training director and FAA chief flight instructor, Philipp Wynands, explains, everything—from the helicopter model used to the location of its fire extinguisher—is carefully controlled to maximize the way students first learn a task.

For example, bucking the popularity of Robinson R22s, Bristow Academy trains its students in the Sikorsky S-300. Considered more forgiving of pilot errors, the S-300 permits a training environment in which Bristow’s students focus less on fighting the aircraft for control and more on absorbing the lesson. “It’s not the aircraft itself; it’s the training paradigm that surrounds that aircraft,” said Wynands. “So, whereby we are very much maneuver-focused in the R22 because you have to master that aircraft—and then all you can focus on are the maneuvers and the technical ability—what we’re building here is the mental capacity of a pilot.”

Wynands has a similar opinion of flight simulators, which he said haven’t yet reached a sophistication level necessary for teaching students ab initio. “Simulators need to provide the same fidelity as the actual aircraft, so flight time in the aircraft can be replaced with time in the simulator, to maximize training use and minimize risks inherent with a new pilot training in the aircraft.”

Bristow Academy does maintain a trio of Frasca’s advanced aviation training devices (AATDs), which aren’t as complex as the FTD showcased at Heli-Expo 2015. According to Laura McColm, chief instructor for synthetic training devices, the academy uses these with great success for instrument training, turbine transitions and emergency procedures—but only after a student has already mastered the basics of flying.

“When you’re talking about initial training—learning how to hover, learning how to take off and fly around—this is where the primacy issue really comes into play,” said McColm. “I know there are schools out there who do put people in some kind of training device, and I understand why.”

Colorado Heli-Ops uses training devices like the Elite Simulation Solutions TH22 AATD throughout pilot training, and to give prospective students a risk-free taste of helicopter flight.
Photo by Dennis Pierce, courtesy of Colorado Heli-Ops

Colorado Heli-Ops is one such school. The Denver-based outfit offers both ab initio training and individual ratings. Its training devices are often used with students who already have basic helicopter training.

But according to David Dziura, chief pilot and flight instructor, the school is seeing improved results from its devices, particularly from its new Elite TH22 AATD, which he said provides amazing realism both in performance and feedback. He said he might even consider putting new students behind the controls.

“The simulator has a much better representation of what you’re actually overflying out there—real terrain, real buildings, and things like that,” said Dziura. “Now we can start to integrate those discussions at the primary level in the simulators, whereas before they weren’t actually factors. It helps us train to a standard that’s more than just maneuvers-based.”

Though Bristow Academy and Colorado Heli-Ops may have slightly different opinions when it comes to new students, they both agree that simulators are ideal for training in inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions. IIMC presents a special challenge to most helicopter flight schools, whose single-engine aircraft are neither approved nor equipped to purposely conduct instrument flights. “There are absolutely things that we cannot do in the helicopter, because we don’t have that capability, or that we won’t do for safety reasons,” McColm said. “That’s where these simulation capabilities really shine.”

Without simulators, instrument training is accomplished by other means, like using visors that impede a student pilot’s view above the instrument panel—a scary notion for sure, but nowhere near as disorienting as becoming lost in fog.

In an EC135 simulator in Metro Aviation’s Shreveport, La., Helicopter Flight Training Center, I get to “help” a veteran pilot simulate a nighttime medical transport mission. By help, I mean that the circus is back in town. I’ve already botched another hovering exercise—this time in an AS350 FTD—and the night-vision goggles on loan from the school for this exercise are giving me a migraine. I elect to sit and watch, with my hands off the controls. After our instructor cues the nighttime lighting, the pilot calmly departs from a digital Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and heads out towards the mountains. The instructor throws a few obstacles in our path.

First, a warning sounds, prompting the pilot to troubleshoot an electrical systems failure. Next, the sky instantly whites out as we plunge into IIMC. I notice the pilot tense up for a moment, but he quickly adopts a proper instrument scan and ascends to clear skies above the cloud tops. He touches down in a valley to simulate patient pickup, and then flies to a heliport on the roof of an urban hospital. Finally, he returns back to the airport under full cloud cover, using a published instrument approach. Though both pilot and instructor are relaxed, I stay quiet so as not to distract from the serious, professional tone. When the pilot skids the helicopter to a halt in a running landing, my torso swings forward from the force.

When it comes to preparing pilots for IIMC, nothing beats training in a device like Metro’s EC135 full-flight simulator (FFS), the highest quality device available on the commercial market. Most rotorcraft operations are conducted under VFR, and helicopter pilots are notorious for lacking currency in their instrument ratings. In fact, for many pilots, visiting Metro’s Shreveport Center is the first time they actually experience what it’s like to fly “in the cloud”.

Even an FFS has limits—like, you guessed it, hovering. Surprisingly, though, Metro’s visitors seem to prefer it. Both the pilot and instructor I flew with in the EC135 believe that trying to hover in the simulator actually makes them better in the real aircraft when they regain the familiar feedback. According to Casey Marland, Metro’s Part 135 training director, simulators can create some priceless opportunities even for hover training.

“Let’s say, for instance, that you’re hovering fast—you are just one of those kinds of guys, and I’m trying to train you out of it,” Marland said. “Poof, the engine quits, without me having to roll the throttle, without me having to touch the controls. All of a sudden the engine quits as you are doing 25 knots over the ground. Let’s see how that works out.”

Above is is a birds-eye view of the Metro Aviation Shreveport complex. The Helicopter Flight Training Center and CommLab take up the entire the right
side, while the simulators are housed in the corner, two-story addition.
Photo courtesy
of Metro Aviation

In fact, emergency procedures are another area where simulators can actually be better than training in the real aircraft. In addition to being totally safe, a good enough simulator lets pilots explore subtleties of an emergency procedure that couldn’t possibly be reproduced in the air—such as what an engine failure actually sounds like. “It gets kind of quiet, something you’re not used to when you are practicing autos.”

Terry Palmer has been one of the most influential players in the development of modern rotorcraft simulation. When Metro’s President, Mike Stanberry, envisioned the Helicopter Flight Training Center, he asked Palmer to oversee the use of its EC135 FFS and Level 7 AS350 FTD (and soon its Level 7 407 FTD and EC145 FFS).

Metro sends all of its pilots to the center for currency checks, but it also rents the simulators out to other operators, allowing them to develop custom training plans suited to their needs. Even would-be Metro competitors bring in their pilots. Both Palmer and Stanberry agreed that the benefits far outweigh the expense. As Palmer points out, the value of her simulators extends far beyond merely instructing pilots. It’s also about experimentation.

One way to do this is by inventing simulators for non-pilots. Her center has CommLab, the world’s first simulator training center for aeromedical communication specialists. With its integrated computer systems, CommLab allows its participants to train alongside the pilots just down the hall—dispatching them on air medical transport missions, monitoring their flight paths and acting as their ground support network. CommLab opened earlier this year, and has already received positive feedback from the industry.

Simulators can also advance the psychology of aviation, referred to as human factors. The National EMS Pilots Association (NEMSPA) is conducting an experiment at Metro’s center called the EDP Project. (EDP stands for Enroute Decision Point.) The project is studying how pilots subconsciously reduce airspeed when they enter IMC, the same way a motorist slows down when his car enters a deep fog. NEMSPA hopes to develop preventive measures, and Metro has volunteered its simulators to help out, harnessing the IIMC course it gives all visiting pilots.

“They wrote in the scenarios that NEMSPA wanted, but they don’t tell their pilots that when they go in there, part of what they are doing is collecting data for this event,” said Palmer. “They throw the event and see what happens.”

Palmer said she also wants to harness flight data monitoring (FDM) technology to create training scenarios and to discover patterns that can lead to improving the training that already exists. This too can be done in the simulators, both by collecting FDM data from simulator flights, and by running the resulting scenarios.

Palmer called the Helicopter Flight Training Center her “retirement job,” saying that for most of the industry, large-scale simulator training doesn’t immediately benefit the bottom line. “Most people try to develop training as a profit center and it doesn’t work,” Palmer said. ”You have to care about training like Metro does.”

Nevertheless, she knows the difference simulators make better than most.

A few years ago, a company sent a pair of pilots down to pick up their new helicopter from Metro’s completion center. They had some extra time, so the pilots were invited to tour the training center.

“There was some open time in the simulator, so I said, ‘Would you like to get in the sim?’“ Palmer said. “They said, ‘We’ve never been in one.’” The pilots trained with an instructor for hours. It was late when they arrived back at the completion center to take their new aircraft home. The journey would be roughly 1,500 miles, but they elected to fly it. On the final hour of the flight, they encountered IIMC and declared an emergency.

“Sunday morning, I got a call at home, and it was these two pilots. They said ‘Terry, the sim training saved our lives.’”

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