Flight Simulation Training for airborne special missions: pilots and crews
Flight simulation training has become increasingly sophisticated, to the point that it is often considered a full alternative to flight training hours in an actual aircraft, as Mario Pierobon found out
The flight simulation training experience is getting closer to training in the real environment, and significant investment has been committed by airborne special missions operators to simulation training devices, supporting and boosting safety levels in the industry.
State of the art simulation equipment
According to Randy Gawenda, Business Development Manager at FRASCA, what is being witnessed today is a significant leap in realistic helicopter simulator training compared to what was the case just a few years ago. “Visual graphics improvements and more processing power have yielded significantly improved visual scenes for visual flight rules (VFR) mission training, and processing power offers the ability to further refine aerodynamic and systems modelling,” he explained. “In our Level 7 flight training devices (FTD), we have seen very experienced training pilots teach new and transitioning pilots the same control input strategies in the FTD that they use in the aircraft. So, we are confident that training in high-level FTDs does indeed transfer directly to the aircraft.”
The high-level FTDs and full flight simulators (FFS) that air medical customers typically procure and use for training are FAA Level 7 FTDs and EASA FTD 3, according to Gawenda. “These are type-specific replications that have to prove objective match to the aircraft data, including the low-speed regime. So, there is minimal chance for differences,” he told AirMed&Rescue.
LifeFlight in Australia provides rotary flight training for both RACQ LifeFlight Rescue crews and external clients, in a Thales-built Reality H AW139 FFS. Based at the LifeFlight Training Academy in Brisbane, Queensland, since 2016, the equipment is a Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approved Level D simulator, which provides the highest fidelity level of simulator qualification available. “In fact, the visuals and experience are so accurate, they allow an AW139 type rating to be completed without any additional training requirements in an actual aircraft,” noted Philip Head, Head of Operations at LifeFlight Training Academy. “In addition to AW139 type ratings, the simulator allows training, checking and examining for helicopter air transport pilot licenses, instrument ratings, night vision currency and proficiency checks, TCAS II (traffic collision avoidance systems), night visual flight rules, winching, ship operations, rig operations, multi-crew training and crewperson training and checking.”
Air Evac LifeTeam in the US runs a Level 7 simulator, which is effectively a duplicate of its BH-206 fleet with a few different switches. “We primarily use scenario-based training (SBT) for all phases of training – new hire, recurrent (annual), and inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC). This allows us to make the syllabi as useful and applicable as possible to day-to-day flying,” explained Tink Sullivan, Chief Aviation Simulator Operator and Pilot Trainer at Air Evac LifeTeam. “With any device, there are the so called ‘simisms’, but we have noticed that when motion is added, the differences from reality diminish significantly. Generally, if pilots are going to have issues with the simulator, they will manifest themselves in a hover or close to the ground. With that, most low to the ground and hover work is saved for late in the SBT.”
The incorporation of SBT in rotorcraft simulation is an emerging area of training. SBT has been a valuable tool in fixed-wing operations for 30 years as line-oriented flight training (LOFT), but it is not just for the commercial airlines. “This uses the simulator for one of its largest benefits – to expose a pilot to dangerous, even deadly, conditions that have happened in the real world, and use the simulator to teach them how to avoid those situations,” stated Gawenda. “The focus is on making them realistic, and scenarios that do not only apply to one type of aircraft or locale. We have been working on a video with the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) that will help demonstrate what SBT is, how to employ it, and the benefits that it can produce when done correctly.”
FRASCA has been doing rotorcraft simulation for several years, and this involvement has led to nuanced modelling specific to helicopters. “Many edge-of-envelope maneuvers such as vortex ring state, rotor droop, hover in / out ground effect (HIGE / HOGE) characteristics fall naturally out of our modelling process. When we get into areas like dynamic rollovers and loss of tail-rotor effectiveness, to ensure the highest correlation between the simulator’s behaviour and the aircraft’s, we use as many data sources as we can find to help validate,” said Gawenda. “We also include our customers’ subject matter experts in the process. This helps to ensure that areas that can be subjectively tuned meet customer expectations.”
Lower-level devices like flight navigation procedures trainers or FAA advanced aircrew training devices allow for representative or even generic modelling, and thus they are the area in which there is the possibility of greater differences between the simulation and the aircraft. “While those devices do have training value, we would like to see training tasks have a better correlation between the fidelity of the device and the amount of training and checking credit being given. We are starting to see that, but rotorcraft simulation has been bundled up with fixed-wing simulation philosophy for a long time,” noted Gawenda. “However, the significant differences are being better understood, and we are starting to see many regulatory agencies focus on high level FTDs because of their training value.”
Investment in simulation more accepted in the air medical community
Although it is difficult to see the likes of ‘zero flight time’ training in the air medical pilot training community, it should be observed that pilot simulation is increasingly more commonly accepted today. “Not too long ago – and this is true of the rotorcraft industry mostly as a whole – simulation training became a normal and expected part of pilot training, much like it has been for decades in fixed-wing operations. Oil and gas were early adopters of simulation training, but we now see a very prevalent level of acceptance in the air medical community,” Gawenda told AirMed&Rescue. “Partly due to accident rates, the air medical community has been very progressive about using simulation now. Embracing rotorcraft simulation is gaining a lot of ground as a method to help combat the accident rates typically experienced.”
The amount of investment in simulation by the air medical community is very significant, according to Gawenda. “They have bought in on a broad level and are already seeing the safety effects of that decision. They have also bought into better equipping the aircraft and that is also showing the benefits. So, we see things like radar altimeters, helicopter terrain awareness systems (HTAWS), and night vision goggle (NVG) operations widely used in air medical aircraft, which improves safety. And now, they can train in the simulator in the same fashion using the same equipment.”
LifeFlight’s Head observes that before the Thales simulator was introduced in Australia, operators had to either send their pilots overseas for simulator training, or conduct all their training and checking in actual aircraft. “Training for emergencies in real aircraft was limiting and came with risks. So now with Thales AW139 simulators in Australia, CASA requires all emergency training to be conducted in them, which removes the risk to the actual aircraft and crew,” he said. “Most operators now utilize simulators twice a year, to satisfy most of their training and checking requirements. They often involve the co-pilot or front seat crewperson, so the training and checking is conducted in their normal crew operating configuration.”
Air Evac LifeTeam, a Global Medical Response (GMR) company, is committed to adding to the simulation fleet to enhance training, as well as the safety of flight, notes Sullivan. “Along with the current fleet of one Level 7 simulator and seven AATDs, this year, we have already accepted and installed a BH-407GX Helicopter Training Device in O’Fallon, MO. We are currently installing a BH-407GX Level 7 simulator in Denton, TX. Later this year we will be installing another Level 7 simulator in South Jordan, UT – all the Level 7s have cueing (motion),” he added.
Peculiarities of the air medical domain
The fact that simulator training has come a long way in the air medical domain has been accompanied by enhancements in fidelity and visuals, which now allow for new capabilities like night vision, search and rescue modes, winching, TCAS II, slope operations, avoidance of hazardous weather conditions, elevated hospital helipads, operations in (and recovery from) dust and snow environments, and pilot incapacitation procedures, according to Head. “Another benefit is the equipment’s ‘freeze’ function, which allows the instructor and crew to observe, discuss and explain the emergency indications, initial actions and use of the checklist in slow time,” he explained. “A major advantage is that CASA proficiency checks and operator proficiency checks can be conducted in our simulator, without having to use a real medical aircraft. This ensures the check is completed without disruption, and allows the actual aircraft to remain operationally available and serving the community.” Projected future advancements at the Thales LifeFlight Simulation Centre include the installation of Phase 8 Software, which introduces a synthetic vision system.
According to Sullivan, visuals represent the most significant change in the last decade in support of air medical pilot simulation training. “Early on in simulator training, the visuals were primarily at night, with little depth. Today, we have daytime and nighttime visuals that look like real places. We also have the night vision capability using the near-infrared spectrum that allows pilots to fly the simulator with goggles – unheard of just some years back,” he pointed out. “Our newest devices all have the most up-to-date visuals, as well as an aerodynamic model that closely represents the real aircraft.”
The inclusion of the night vision imaging system (NVIS) environment in the simulator culminates with the flight crew bringing their actual flight line NVGs into the simulator and using them in the same fashion as in the aircraft. “Our NVIS rotorcraft solution allows simultaneously correct viewing of the visual scene (out the window) aided or unaided. Thus, a flight crew under NVGs would be able to see terrain and wires in the visual scene while looking through the goggles. If one crew member is not using their NVGs, they will effectively see a very dark nighttime scene where many of these visual features cannot be detected by the naked (unaided) eye,” noted Gawenda.
Prior to using simulators with software and mechanics designed specifically for aerial firefighting, pilots relied on a combination of basic aircraft simulation, ground school, and actual test flights. Test flights are not able to recreate the unforgiving environment of the real-world scenario, and cannot simulate the complexities of the actual aerial firefighting arena to fully test standard operating procedures. The ability to train for aerial firefighting scenarios in a risk-free setting that incorporates all components of mission response is a great advantage, providing operators with the ability to equip crews with the experience needed to respond safely to wildfires.
In 2019, Conair opened a specialized Training + Tactics Centre in Abbotsford, Canada, which provides pilots with the ability to perform mission-based procedures within the safe environment of flight simulators. The repetitive practice of realistic scenarios in a controlled setting creates pilots that are better prepared for fighting fires in the real world. At this time, the Training + Tactics Centre includes an AVRO RJ85 Level D Full Flight Simulator, retrofitted for aerial firefighting, and an AT802 Level 5 Flight Training Device. Shannon DeWit of Conair told AirMed&Rescue: “We are also in the process of installing a Mission Training System (MTS) which will be the first of its kind in the world. It will feature up to six aircraft platforms – birddogs and tankers – that can operate in concert over a simulated fire. Functions will include target accuracy reports, realistic radio communications simulating demanding multi-channel scenarios, and the measurable results of a contained fire where the team’s execution was successful. In the Canadian aerial firefighting operation, air attack officers from the provincial government agency are positioned in the right seat of birddog aircraft, and Conair pilots in the left. The air attack officer develops the strategy and tactics for fire control operations, which the pilots of airtankers execute. The MTS will offer the ability for air attack officers and pilots to train side by side, ultimately creating more successful and safe operations in real-world scenarios.”
Troy White, BC Wildfire Service Air Attack Officer, commented: “Wildfire simulation training involving multiple agencies and staff, particularly pilots and air attack officers, provides greater benefits than single-agency training. The relationship between professional pilots and aerial firefighters is critical for safe and effective aerial wildfire suppression operations. The use of flight simulators that incorporate additional wildfire simulation software provides a learning environment free from the stress and risk associated with using aircraft in low-level flight operations. The simulation exercises offer a cost-effective method to build skills and strengthen procedural competencies. The greatest limitations in wildfire simulation training are the initial investment and annual maintenance costs to support the simulator program. However, the alternative is far more costly — both financially and in exposure to risk.”
Virtual reality and desktop trainers aid skill development
On top of flight simulation, there are other simulation tools that can help pilot training, such as part-task trainers, desktop trainers and virtual reality (VR) type devices. “We recently received a Garmin desktop trainer for the BH-407GXi in addition to our current inventory of five Garmin 650/500H emulators,” noted Sullivan.
In addition to the flight simulator, the LifeFlight Training Academy also offers simulated training across other aspects of aeromedical care. “A medical simulator, which replicates the cabin of an AW139 helicopter, is used for training flight doctors, paramedics and nurses for in-flight scenarios,” said Head. “A VR aircrew officer simulator was introduced last year, completing our suite of simulators, and allowing crew to practice winching and other procedures in a controlled environment. It is also used as initial training for the Certificate IV in Aviation (air crew officer). Pilots can also carry out their helicopter underwater escape training and emergency breathing systems training through our submerged helicopter simulator, used in a pool.”
Devices other than flight simulators are not usually one-to-one replicas of actual aircraft, and as such do not provide a fully immersive environment. “However, they can facilitate certain training tasks and areas of learning. We have also produced other types of training devices to help learn and obtain proficiency with new avionics, like the Garmin G1000 system. Especially with more complex avionics and flight management systems, these are areas that benefit from training aids,” concluded Gawenda.
While simulation may never be quite as good as flying a real helicopter, the improvement in totally immersive technology has meant that pilots’ skills can be tested and trained to ensure that when they are in the air, their reactions are honed to a point where muscle memory will help them to respond in a way that can ensure the safe operation of the aircraft, and the safe return of the crew, at all times.