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Can This Affordable Training Technique Benefit Helicopter Air Medical Pilots?

By Keith Hughes | June 22, 2018
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LifePort medical interior for the H130 aircraft. Photo courtesy of LifePort

LifePort medical interior for the H130 aircraft. Photo courtesy of LifePort

On two separate occasions in the past 16 years, I found myself faced with the prospect of having to take a full instrument check ride in a helicopter without having been able to practice to a sufficiently confident level. On both occasions, I had been working for a single pilot visual flight rules (VFR)-only helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operator. The opportunity to practice flying basic instruments, enter holding and performing instrument approaches just wasn’t available for lack of a safety pilot, time or monetary reasons.

I tried and practiced these instrument maneuvers on my laptop computer using a flight simulator program and a control stick while sitting in a company ready room waiting for a call. And to my surprise, practicing on the laptop increased my instrument scanning speed, situational awareness and general confidence about taking the instrument checks. The results were amazing, I had absolutely no trouble with the check rides on both occasions.


Having done so well and been so confident during the check rides, I wanted to see if this exercise could be scaled up to a higher level. Would or could this laptop-based instrument training help pilots if they went inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC)?

No matter how the statistics are kept, or by which organization, the accident rate of HAA when the pilot encounters IIMC is a serious problem. A pilot entering deteriorating weather conditions and losing control of the aircraft or making a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) probably accounts for 18 to 25% of all HAA accidents. Many current accident prevention mandates, which seem to work, have included expensive new systems such as the helicopter terrain awareness warning system (HTAWS) and new operation control centers. Exploring lower cost methods that can be used in conjunction with the existing mandates could prove to be a viable strategy to decreasing accidents in the HAA community.

Being a firm believer in data-based decisionmaking, I sought to find evidence that could be provided to prove or at least test my hypothesis of increasing helicopter safety and possibly reducing the accident rate by using a low-cost method of increasing proficiency. This is what I found.

I conducted a systematic literature search and review of 32 articles and studies pertaining to associated topics concerned with helicopter accidents, pilot training and instrument skills. Data supports one theory that accidents related to IIMC in the HAA area could be due to a lack of instrument proficiency which is a result of lack of practice. This may be due to the cost involved in proficiency training. One possible solution to this problem is to increase proficiency in instrument skills which will increase competency and confidence thus lessening the likelihood that the pilot will lose control of the aircraft if they enter IIMC. Practicing the actual instrument tasks on a regular basis will make you more proficient. Performing the instrument practice on a personal computer offers an enhancement to flying instruments and could be a low-cost alternative.

In 1997, Wuerz and O’Neal performed a blind study in a full-motion helicopter simulator. HAA pilots were given a HAA flight scenario and unknown to the pilots they would encounter inadvertent IMC. “The instrument-proficient pilots lost control less often (15% vs 67%, p < 0.05), maintained instrument standards more often (77% vs 40%, p < 0.05).” The study concluded “instrument proficient pilots more safely manage an unexpected encounter with IMC. Helicopter EMS programs should strongly consider maintaining instrument proficiency to enhance safety."

A 2011 study asked 20 commercial instrument-rated volunteers to fly five flights on a Bell 206 simulator and knowingly enter IIMC from VFR. The conclusion stated that pilots showed a clear degradation of control movement performance during IIMC encounters, but the control movement performance greatly improved with each session suggesting that short training periods would help during any future IIMC encounter. So the old adages are true, “Repetition is the mother of all skills and practice makes perfect."

Numerous studies have been conducted with fixed-wing participants that showed instrument training received on a personal computer aviation training device (PCATD) transfers to the aircraft. A PCATD must have some physical controls to be recognized by the FAA. There is a requirement to have a physical self centering, displacement yoke or control stick, self-centering rudder pedals, a physical throttle and several other controls. The cost of these PCATD units is in the several thousand dollar range.

During a U.S. Army study at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the use of a personal computer with flight simulation software on it as an aid to helicopter flight training was completed. It was determined by both groups that VFR task requiring the manipulation of controls were of little value to training, especially hover tasks. 15 of the 16 participants stated the device was beneficial as an instrument trainer.

All referenced studies include simulation training devices that included full controls or that were approved by the overseeing aviation administration. There seems to be no doubt that these training devices work, but have significant associated costs. I propose taking the personal computer training device to the simplest level and using the device with a control stick only. Putting low cost, practice and proficiency together in a very low-cost bundle may help reduce the accident rate of HAA aircraft regarding inadvertent flight into IMC.

Taking the next step and having HAA pilots fly a desktop or laptop instrument flight simulator program for two hours per month could increase their ability to maintain basic helicopter instrument proficiency, increase situational awareness of instrument scanning techniques and increase their confidence while flying in marginal weather.

Commercially available computer flight simulator programs can be purchased for approximately $25 on internet gaming sites. Each HAA base may use whatever airport is near them to fly basic instruments and the actual airport approach that suits their needs. The weather can be set for any altitude and visibility.

One important aspect must also be discussed here. The control stick must be one that can be moved to any position without being spring-loaded back to neutral. The helicopter simulator is very hard to fly if the control stick is spring-loaded back to center. One such control stick that operates on a plastic ball with no spring retails for approximately $120. So for a total cost of about $145 per base, an operator can have a desktop or laptop flight simulator that, as data shows, will help pilots perform meaningful repetition of instrument flight maneuvers and possibly prevent an accident.

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