Is it time for helicopter operators to adopt an “airline attitude” toward training and incorporate simulators as an essential element of the curriculum for pilots?
The excuse that helicopter flight simulators are technically inadequate or too expensive is no longer valid. In the past decade, and especially in the past year or so, simulator manufacturers have developed and are rapidly deploying helicopter-specific technology at all levels of the training continuum, and it can be argued that the rotary-wing community now enjoys levels of visual and motion fidelity that exceed those of their fixed-wing brethren.
“Until about 10 years ago, visual systems did not provide a realistic enough training environment,” Randy Gawenda, Frasca International representative, told EVA. “As technology has improved, so has the visual capability, and helicopter simulation has now reached the point as a viable tool for training and not just instrument work or procedural training. The rotorcraft industry is quickly learning that there are much more cost-effective ways to train and produce the same highly proficient pilot than just in-aircraft training.”
“As technology advances and more high-fidelity simulators are deployed globally, we are definitely seeing both increased acceptance and adoption of simulation training,” said Robert (Rob) H. Lewis, Vice President and General Manager of Montreal-headquartered CAE’s global business aviation, helicopter and maintenance training. “The key is continuing – and even accelerating – the operator trend on the civil side to bring the efficiency and safety mindset to bear while leveraging technology to enhance realism and improve the training experience.”
Hi-Fidelity Motion and Visuals
Two areas in which technology is significantly improved in the new-generation helicopter simulators: motion systems and visual systems.
Paris-based Thales is one of several manufacturers using an all-electric motion platform. (Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, Thales retained its civil helicopter simulator business when it sold its civil fixed-wing sim business to L-3.) Thales Vice President, in charge of Training & Simulation activities, Jean-Jacques Guittard, told us their ‘Hexaline’ six-degree-of-freedom hexapod system features “incredible smoothness … equivalent in terms of smoothness to the experience of a state-of-the-art hydraulic system but with a very low life-cycle cost.” Guittard said, “An innovative counterbalancing device without pneumatics or external energy” results in “no noise, no vibrations” and is both oil-free and air-free. Power requirements are claimed to be 80% lower than equivalent hydraulic motion systems, thus reducing the environmental footprint of the simulator (as well as the nuisance of fluid disposal).
The most dramatic and visible improvement in helicopter simulators is in the visual systems, both with regard to field-of-view (FOV) and scene content.
For many years, helicopter simulator vertical fields of view were limited to tilting display systems designed for fixed-wing aircraft simulation up or down a few degrees, never quite adequate for the ground-level experience helicopter pilots need. Horizontal FOVs were generally 200-220 degrees wide, the limit provided for airline cockpits.
FlightSafety International’s current CrewView display for helicopter simulators is up to 310 degrees wide, close to a complete wraparound for whatever a rotorcraft pilot might be able to see. The glass mirror display also “eliminates edge distortions common in legacy soft-film (mylar) mirror systems,” according to Steve Phillips, Vice President, Communications for New York City-based FlightSafety. “This is particularly important for near-ground operations and increased fields of view, allowing the pilots to train with virtually the same out-the-window view in the simulator as the helicopter.” The CrewView vertical FOV is up to 60 degrees.
CAE opted for a direct projection dome for its new-generation 3000 Series helicopter flight simulator – for medium-size helicopters, a 210-degree horizontal by 80-degree vertical FOV in a 10-foot diameter dome; for large birds, up to 220 x 95 in a 12-foot dome.
The training advantages of direct projection are “greatly improved height and speed cues in close to the surface for ground and water operations,” CAE’s Lewis told us. “Maneuvers requiring a high degree of visual accuracy, such as helideck and ship landings, ditching scenarios, and touchdown autorotations can be trained with greater fidelity by direct projection visuals.”
Frasca’s Gawenda noted, “Many of our high-level devices include a large vertical field-of-view so that elevated pads and rig approaches can be done the same as if they were in the aircraft because the visual extends to the chin bubbles and the pilot will have the same visual references through the pedals that they use in the real world.”
On the database generation side of the visual package, the enhancements in the simulator world parallel technology advancements in the computer graphics driven by the Xbox/PlayStation consumer video game market. But rather than sci-fi aliens or bouncing Italian cartoon characters, helicopter pilots benefit from highly detailed offshore oil rigs which look remarkably like the real-world platforms they land on, blowing grass and other rotorwash effects in landing zones, and urban canyons that replicate the streets, vehicles, buildings, power lines, and construction cranes of the city environments where they conduct emergency medical or suspect-pursuit missions.
Thales’ Guittard said their ‘ThalesView’ family of image generators “offers helicopter-specific effects and rapid terrain database generation. The database encompasses a range of specific exercise zones, enabling a broad spectrum of training environments to be reconstructed. Today’s visual system dramatically improves visual cues and realism for pilots for the best immersion in the training scenario.”
“The increased power of recent image generators has enabled more detailed scene content along with dynamic, intelligent models of people and vehicles as part of scenarios such as accident scenes and offshore operations,” said CAE’s Peter Cobb, Business Development Leader, helicopter training. “Combined with the large fields of view possible using dome displays and very high-resolution projector systems, this greatly improves the sense of immersion in training tasks that have visual demands.”
CAE’s visual system, marketed as Tropos to the civil market and Medallion to military customers, is now offered with visual databases developed using either satellite imagery or a ‘Motif’ production technique. The Motif technique can be used to create “country-size” areas of imagery without relying solely on expensive satellite imagery. Cobb explains that satellite-only databases may lack the correlated 3D content critical to low altitude visual cueing. Additionally, imagery shading, shadowing and time of year are permanently etched into the picture, thereby preventing real-time control. These factors can seriously affect training tasks that involve low-level flight operations. CAE Motif compositing offers a significant reduction in the cost of database ownership and also provides all-season generation as well as attributes for infrared and night vision training, which are being increasingly used in civil helicopter operations.
FlightSafety’s newest image generator upgrade, VITAL 1100, was rolled out the latter part of last year, and features “hundreds of millions of scene elements processed every second and presented along with environmental effects such as physics-based weather models of rain, snow, and hail that develop and react as they do in the real world.” Other unique features include dynamic shadowing and enhanced shading effects. Jon Hester, FlightSafety General Manager, Visual Systems, said, “VITAL 1100 offers unprecedented fidelity for a wide variety of uses with full-flight simulators and a complete range of other advanced training devices.”
FlightSafety’s Phillips notes the VITAL visual system includes scenes for offshore operations, as well as a comprehensive model of New York City for executive transport missions and imagery for emergency medical scenarios. “The visual system is optimized for training low-level flight operations, offers increased scene content, vastly improved weather features, and enhanced levels of detail for optimum cueing.”
FlightSafety claims VITAL 1100 can provide system resolutions that are “well over 20 million pixels” for a typical 200 degrees horizontal FOV. The computational performance of VITAL 1100 is up to five times greater than that of its predecessor. The enhanced display management system is also designed to reduce life cycle and maintenance costs.
Low-End Trainers Proliferate
Helicopter simulator training is not solely the domain of high-end full-flight simulators (FFS). There are several companies offering devices which can provide training in fundamental procedures and flight tasks.
California USA-based Professional Helicopter Simulators (PHS) has sold more than 120 ‘FlyIt’ devices to customers in 26 countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The devices represent light helicopter types such as the Bell 407 or Airbus Helicopters AS350B2. Cost of a FlyIt trainer is on the order of US$150,000-800,000, compared to several million dollars for an FAA-qualified Level D FFS. However, PHS Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Terry Simpkins told EVA the advanced training device (ATD) offers “80 percent of the training capability of an FFS at 5 percent of the cost.”
In the US, type ratings are not required for light helicopters. Simpkins said the FlyIt is “the only ATD ever authorized [by the FAA] for 7.5 hours of hover training.” After using the trainer, students have reportedly been able to hover the helicopter in only 1.5-2 hours.
ETC Aircrew Training Systems, Southampton, Pennsylvania US, produces a general aviation helicopter trainer with three axes of motion and a single-channel visual display, which can be used for selecting pilot candidates. They have also developed a generic-cockpit ‘Heloflight SD’ device with 14 training profiles, as well as an advanced 6-axes simulator with night vision goggle compatibility.
Elite Simulation Solutions (Zurich, Switzerland and Orlando, Florida), in cooperation with Daedalus Technologies and Laminar Research, debuted a Robinson R22 trainer at the Sun N Fun event in Florida in March. Wayne Keyes, Elite Director of Business Development, said, “The orientation and size of the visual display gives the correct spatial orientation for hover training, confined area landings, pinnacles, auto rotations, and deceleration maneuvers. We also incorporated a dynamic audio tactile feedback system that totally immerses the pilot into helicopter seat-of-the-pants flying.”
The US$50,000 ‘X-copter’ from Guidance Aviation, Prestcott, Arizona US, introduced in February, features two touchscreen monitors for the avionics, buttons and switches. It can be configured to simulate analog and glass panel versions of the R22 or R44.
Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer for AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France, Geneva, and Dallas. He may be reached at email@example.com