As the large helicopter-driven offshore oil and gas market treads water, rotorcraft training companies are focusing more on smaller aircraft favored by medical, rescue and law enforcement operators. Rick Adams offers a look through the chin windows.

The price of oil is no longer in free-fall, as it was in 2014-15 when it dropped from more than US$110 to about $30 a barrel. But neither could it be considered stable, given geopolitical issues in oil-producing countries such as Venezuela, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere. The result is continued overcapacity in the offshore helicopter transport sector (and correspondingly at pilot training centres). According to CAE, “the active helicopter fleet for oil and gas and search and rescue declined at an annual rate of 3% per year over the last five years.”

The glimmer of hope is in smaller rotorcraft: single-engine and light twin-engines for HEMS (helicopter emergency medical services), law enforcement, corporate transport, even firefighting. Aircraft such as the Airbus H125, Bell 505, Leonardo AW169 and Sikorsky S76D now comprise about half the market in the US, Europe and Asia.

Data Packages

One dilemma for simulator manufacturers and training organizations is that aerodynamic flight models for smaller aircraft often aren’t available. For some older models, the data was never collected by the OEMs in the certification process. For others, collection was deemed unnecessary or too expensive because of the modest training device market for aircraft which do not require a pilot type rating.

So simulator manufacturers are increasingly generating their own data packages.

Reiser Simulation and Training, a 30-year-old German company but a relative newcomer to high-end flight simulation, is focusing on what CEO Dr. Roman Sperl calls the “crown jewels” – the flight model and the replicated cockpit. Rather than purchase a data package from the aircraft OEM, which can be a recurring expense with each simulator produced, Reiser instrumented an aircraft and developed its own aero package, including blade characteristics, engine performance, angle of attack, sideslip, avionics. “It’s not hardware-in-the-loop, it’s not re-hosted software, it’s something we’ve written from scratch,” Sperl told CAT.

“We don’t want to be asking people whether we can build a flight simulator and then disclose to them the customer, and pay a lot of money and do that every time again,” he explained.

Flight test instrumentation “is an expertise you build up over the years. It’s something that grows. You just don’t buy it on the market. You need to be aware of all the characteristics of the aircraft, where to record the data, and how to make sure it’s the right accuracy,” Sperl commented.

With an OEM-supplied data package, he noted, “There’s nothing you can learn from. It’s just integrating data, and you have no clue how the data was derived. You can’t tune anything. We wanted to understand the flight mechanics, the physics, the aerodynamics, the engines, the avionics.”

Reiser chose to enter the helicopter training market because it was more complex than fixed-wing flight simulation, and the airline market was already saturated with sims.

Reiser Simulation and Training’s EASA Level D H145 FFS at the Norwegian Competence Centre Helicopter, Stavanger. Image credit: Reiser Simulation and Training.
Reiser Simulation and Training’s EASA Level D H145 FFS at the Norwegian Competence Centre Helicopter, Stavanger. Image credit: Reiser Simulation and Training.

Developing their own data packages also enables Reiser to scale the software for both Level D full flight simulators and flat panel training devices. The investment for the 10-month data collection and processing effort is about equal to the cost of purchasing an OEM package, perhaps a bit more, but by the second or third simulator they consider they are ahead of the curve.

Frasca International Business Development manager Randy Gawenda said the data collection cost is “break even” for the first simulator and “pays dividends” for each device thereafter.

Frasca has developed flight data packages for about 30 different aircraft, both helicopter and fixed-wing. In many cases, the data was not available to buy; for other aircraft, “the price point for the data package took up the entire budget for the simulator,” he said.

Lighter Side

The new Frasca HTD (helicopter training device) is targeted directly at the lighter aircraft used by emergency medical, police agencies and ab-initio flight schools. Classified as an AATD (advanced aviation training device), the $200,000 single-seat HTD features a visual display and can be reconfigured by changing out the collective and circuit breakers. Current cockpits reflect the Bell 206 and 407 with Robinson R44 Cadet and Eurocopter AS350 kits to come this year.

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from law enforcement departments,” Gawenda told CAT. “They have a training need, but they don’t have a huge procurement budget. There’s a lot of lower-cost stuff out there that’s fairly cheap and either isn’t reliable or decent fidelity, and it isn’t supported. We said there’s a market there if we can build something that’s durable and reliable for these guys. A decent training device but it doesn’t break the bank. There are some operators we can help take some steps forward with improving their training.” The Frasca HTD will fit in a squad room or trailer.

Frasca is also venturing into virtual reality (VR) training with a winch and hoist operator trainer for a European federal law enforcement customer. Using an HTC Vive Pro headset, the trainer can be used standalone or networked with a helicopter FTD for crew coordination training.

FlightSafety International has gone small in a big way, partnering with leading air ambulance provider and tour operator Air Methods to deliver AS350 B3, Bell 407GX, Airbus EC130T2 and EC135 Level D simulators. The four aircraft types represent 75% of Air Methods’ 500-strong helicopter fleet.

More Simulation

Air Methods previously handled much of their training in the aircraft. But with the new training centre in Denver, Colorado, “They brought a lot of their training into simulation,” said Steve Gross, senior vice president, Commercial for FlightSafety. “Kudos to Air Methods for breaking that paradigm, and working with us on developing the data so we can do these single-engine helicopters. It’s added tremendously to the safety and operation of the aircraft.”

“The AS350 has become one of the busiest simulators in our network.” The Denver devices are also available for training of other operators’ pilots as well. “People have come through and seen what they can do in the Level D simulator; it’s just amazed them,” Gross commented.

One of the appeals is night vision goggle (NVG) training. “We do NVG training on a number of different platforms (including Bell 412 and Sikorsky S92), and we plan to continue expanding that into more models,” Gross added. “If they’re flying with these things in routine patrols, we’d encourage them to utilise that technology while they’re training.”

FlightSafety now also offers a Master Aviator – Helicopter curriculum, which parallels their fixed-wing Master Aviator and Master Technician programmes. For two-pilot aircraft, one of the core courses is advanced crew resource management (CRM). “We run them through some very specific scenarios and challenges where crew coordination is key,” Gross explained. Another course addresses surviving inadvertent IMC (instrument meteorological condition) “where we see a lot of the accidents today. A lot of these guys are running under the clouds and into bad weather; let’s make sure they’ve got those skills, how to transition from VFR to IMC.”

A third course (coming this year) focuses on energy management – “you’ve got the helicopter moving through space and it’s got momentum, it’s got torque, it’s got all these physical aspects that are affecting it. How do you manage that kinetic energy to get you to the point in space you need to be?” Older pilots might suggest this knowledge comes from years of experience and “seat of the pants” flying. “With this course, we give the pilots a good basic understanding of why the helicopter is doing this in this particular environment. It could be a torque function, an airspeed function. It will give them a really good understanding of the physics involved in the flight of the helicopter,” Gross said.

Flight Training Devices

TRU Simulation + Training, part of the Textron Aviation family which includes helicopter manufacturer Bell, has recently certified (both FAA and EASA) a Level 7 training device for the 505 Jet Ranger X five-seater for law enforcement and passenger transport. David Smith, who was lead engineer on the 505 and is now TRU’s vice president, Training Centers, said the FTD will augment Bell Training Center in-aircraft training with “any-weather, all-time coverage … like inadvertent IMC where you can give customers preparation for the major causes of what creates problems for VFR pilots. We’re also able to do much more efficient flights, unique airports, even things like prepping them for the most complex parts of the avionics and workload without having to burn jet fuel.” A similar 412EPI Level 7 device is in final completion in Tampa, Florida.

Smith said there is no full flight simulator for the 505 “in part because of the economics. From a cost to fly standpoint, the aircraft is very efficient and economical, designed actually for primary flight helicopter training.”

“What we’re doing with the FTD is offloading some of that flying time for procedural training and the most extreme emergency scenarios so you can do those safely, also potentially getting some training credit for those scenarios.” He added, “The full flight is such a significant cost increase beyond that, millions of dollars more, it’s a tough argument because you can buy five or six 505s for that same price.”

TRU has delivered its latest Odyssey H full flight simulator – including 66-inch-stroke main motion platform and short-stroke mini-motion vibration under the cockpit – to sister company Bell to support development and customer demonstrations of the new 525 Relentless helicopter. The 525 is in the final stages of flight testing with aircraft certification expected “soon.”

“One of the things I’m excited about is that we are all-in on helicopter realism in training,” Smith exulted. “The Odyssey H platform just starts with meeting the requirements of the regulation. It’s done that and more; this is just the beginning. The regulators have made overtures that this may be the basis for future increases in credit up to and including zero-flight-time training and getting to a totally different delivery style for helicopter type rating training. To realize that opportunity, we’re continuing to invest in R&D work that I think is going to drive customers to say, ‘Why would I ever want to train my type training in an aircraft?’ They can do so much more in the sim.”  

Published in CAT issue 1/2019