Europe’s collaborative helicopter training community is keeping current with its customers, adapting to new configurations and missions. Rick Adams visited key sites in France, Italy, and the UK for a look at the latest simulation technology.

Under the vigilant gaze of a pair of HK416 assault rifle-armed NATO special forces infantry, neither moving a muscle, we lifted off from helipad H10. As we crossed the shoreline heading northwest, two CH-47F Chinooks parted in a nose-down ‘bow’ to allow us to pass.

It was a beautiful bright-sun day, a few cirrus clouds high overhead, and several bateaux à voile caught the slight breeze in their sails.

As my instructor pilot Capt Phillipe Debrand banked our NH-90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) to a southerly heading, he pointed out a dark, oblong object on the surface of the water. It took me awhile to make out the partially submerged shape because I wasn’t expecting a Le Triomphante-class ballistic missile submarine in the middle of the Étang de Berre, the lagoon adjacent to Marignane, France, site of the Marseille Provence Airport and home to Airbus Helicopters and the Helisim Training Centre.

Of course, this was a simulated NH-90 demonstration flight, so just about anything was possible, including an SSBN.

We cruised over the water at about 500 feet, but as we approached the slender bridge over the Grand Canal at Martigues, Capt. Debrand reduced our height to 200 feet, then less than 100 as we cleared the structure and some power lines beyond.

Now we were in the Med, and we passed by a luxury liner, an offshore oil rig, a 7000-tonne Horizon-class frigate, as well as France’s lone aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. Our next destination was a Mistral-class helicopter carrier, and Capt. Debrand executed a perfect side-slip landing next to the bridge.

We quickly took off again, flew in formation with a squadron of A400 fixed-wing transports, and vectored east toward Marseille, where the neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde is the most prominent landmark high above the city. We flew through the heart of the Old Port, which would have surely frightened the tourists in the real world, then raced at lamppost level up the boulevard known as La Canebière, Marseille’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Élysées.

Next stop was Les Baumettes prison to the south, where Capt. Debrand showed the simulator’s impressive “brown-out” rotor wash effects in the visual system as we hovered over a dirt exercise yard.

On the way back to virtual Marseille, he demonstrated an engine-out autorotation maneuver, impacting on a grassy football pitch with a thud and skidding to the goal line.

The final element of the flight was a landing on the 147-metre (482-foot), 33-story CMA CGM Tower, the Zaha Hadid-designed centerpiece of the city’s ambitious regeneration project, Euroméditerranée. Helisim customer SWAT police forces use the structure to practice high-rise building fast-rope assaults. The helicopter pilot’s challenge is made more difficult by the sea breezes and lack of good external reference points in the vicinity of the isolated tower.

Capt Debrand also showed me night vision goggle (NVG) and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) effects using a rather heavy helmet, required for the electronics that simulate the optics. Crews also have an option of training with actual military-grade NVG gear that Helisim keeps on hand.

We finally headed back to Marignane, and when we touched down I’d swear the NATO guards still had not moved.

NH90 Training Choices

The NH90 multi-mission, fly-by-wire helicopter programme – a consortium of Airbus Helicopters, AgustaWestland, and Fokker – is nearing delivery of its 200th 11-tonne-class aircraft, and has a backlog of 300 units from 15 customers. Qatar signed a letter of intent in March for 12 of the TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) troop transport variant and 10 of the navalised NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) model.

The Helisim NH90 simulator is a Level C device produced five years ago by an NH90-focused, German-headquartered joint venture of CAE and France-based Thales Services SAS known as Helicopter Training Media International (HTMI).

In addition to the Marseilles area, the Thales database features areas around Lanvéoc-Poulmic, Hyères, and Le Luc. “Five-inch resolution” is claimed in urban areas for nap-of-the-earth training. The simulator display is projected rather than collimated with fields of view up to 240 degrees horizontal and 85 vertical (30 up, 55 down). Formation flight, search-and-rescue, and combat missions can be flown against computer-generated targets such as other helicopters and tanks.

Helisim – which also operates simulators for the AS332 Super Puma, AS365 Dauphin, EC 155, EC225/725, and (beginning this summer) the EC175 – is a joint venture of Airbus Helicopters and Thales with the French state-owned Défense Conseil International - DCI - as a minor shareholder.

There are currently four other NH90 training centres worldwide. Three involve high-end CAE-Thales simulators in Germany, Italy, and Australia; a new centre in France, to be ready for training in 2015, will feature a full-motion simulator in development by Sogitec.

The first CAE-Thales NH90 mission simulator was installed in 2008 at the Germany Army Aviation School at Buckeburg, a facility that now includes two NH90 simulators and 12 other CAE-built devices (CH-53, EC135, UH-1D) and has generated more than 100,000 simulator training hours in a decade of operation.

The most recent CAE-Thales collaboration is a pair of MRH90 mission simulators for the Australian Army in Oakey, Queensland and RAAF Base Townsville. The first entered service at the end of August – believed to be the first NH90 sim to be formally certified to Level D by a defence force and an independent aviation regulatory agency (Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority - CASA); the second device is expected to be certified this year.

David Burke, Commandant of the Australian Army's Aviation Training Centre, described the MRH90 simulator as the best he’s ever flown. The new simulator “presents pilots with a wide range of operational training scenarios such as flying into remote bush landing sites, flying in formation with other aircraft, and being safely exposed to complex emergency situations."

There’s also a CAE-Thales NH90 simulator at Rotorsim in Sesto Calende, Italy, part of AgustaWestland’s training centre at the historic Marchetti aircraft manufacturing site at the foot of the Italian Alps near Milan. Rotorsim is a separate JV of AgustaWestland and CAE.

Rotorsim operates the Joint NH90 Training Program (JNPT), an 18-year partnership with The Netherlands Ministry of Defence that began in 2008, and is currently training pilots and tactical officers for the Dutch MoD, the Belgian and Italian navies, and the Norwegian and New Zealand air forces.

“We’re creating a community of NH90 crews,” Stefano Ceriani, Rotorsim General Manager, told me on a recent visit to Milan. “Everything developed is shared with other services, with the exception of their tactical environments.”

The Rotorsim NH90 full-mission flight trainer (FMFT) can be configured for either the NH90 N2 cockpit used by the Dutch military or the T1 German Army TGEA tactical transport cockpit. The FMFT is qualified to Level C by the Netherlands MoD and Netherlands Militaire Luchtvaart Autoriteit (Military Aviation Authority). In the future, the JNPT plan calls for the simulator to be relocated to a facility in The Netherlands but will continue to be managed by Rotorsim.

In addition to typical flight handling skills, specialised training capabilities include anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy, search-and-rescue, hoist, slinging, special operations, expeditionair, mission planning and mission rehearsal. Training databases encompass northwestern Norway, the English Channel, and North Sea environs with portions of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France.

A four-person instructor station, mission planning and lesson planning stations, and a briefing room can display cockpit video, selected avionics, and control inputs from the sim session, as well as a stealth view animation of the aircraft. The network includes 184 computers, 60 to drive the simulation for the flight deck and 124 for the sensor operators tracking submarines and extracting special ops teams.

Sogitec is building its first NH90 full-flight simulator on behalf of NATO’s Helicopter Management Agency. The FFS is scheduled to be deployed next year to the French Inter-Army Training Center (Centre de Formation Interarmées – CFIA) at Le Luc, in Provence.

Sogitec has subcontracted to Simthetiq for real-time 3D simulated models, including helicopters, fighters, ships, submarines, and ground vehicles. Standard features include; multiple levels of detail, “authentic” texture schemes, precise material codes, distinct damage states, and accurate thermal signatures.

“We fully train the ground-based Army crew and partially train the Navy crew,” said CFIA LtCol Eric Morales. “The Navy crew are awarded their type qualifications and then get themselves familiar with the specific aspects of the aircraft and its arms system within the Training and Instruction Grouping at the aeronaval base of Hyères in Southeast France.”

The first NH90 aircraft arrived in July 2012, and training incorporated Helisim for the simulation element. LtCol Morales estimated it takes about 18 weeks to train a new NH90 pilot who has prior experience on a manoeuvre helicopter – 220 hours classroom, 30 hours of flying, 100 hours of simulation. Captain qualification requires an additional nine weeks of training.

According to the CFIA, Belgium has also formally inquired about training their crew and mechanics at Le Luc.

Shifting Priorities

In the UK, training continues to shift to simulators, and CAE is a primary beneficiary. Andrew Naismith, Managing Director of the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF) at RAF Benson, said the Royal Air Force (RAF) is moving toward a 50-50 balance of aircraft/simulator time, compared with the traditional 70-30 split.

This means the synthetic devices need to be up to snuff, so last year CAE upgraded its Chinook mission trainers to the latest CH-47D and CH-47F configurations. “The main thing is keeping the simulator up to speed with the front-line aircraft so they are exactly the same,” Naismith told me when I visited the training facility in the Oxfordshire area west of London.

With UK forces exiting Afghanistan, training is shifting to a focus on so-called “contingency operations,” which Naismith said could mean many different things: non-combat evacuation, hostage rescue, aid to refugee camps. Upgraded CAE Medallion visuals (replacing the original Rockwell Collins system), for example, include a new urban database. “The ability to rehearse various mission scenarios synthetically de-risks everything,” noted Naismith.

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Image credit: CAE

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) began training on the new Chinook sims last fall in a contract that runs through 2018. The simulator upgrade included ensuring concurrency with the RNLAF’s current Avionics Control and Management System (ACMS) Block 5 CH-47D, of which they have 11 aircraft, and new Block 6 CH-47F Chinook helicopters (six aircraft). The CH-47F Chinook simulator was also upgraded to support other features such as missile warning sensors, radar warning receivers, chaff/flare dispense system, and digital automatic flight control system.

CAE previously enhanced the MSHATF Puma simulator to the HC2 LEP (life extension program) glass cockpit configuration for its RAF customers.

The US$150 million facility features a half dozen CAE helicopter simulators – two AgustaWestland EH-101 Merlins, the Puma, and three Chinook. The 40-year private finance initiative contract (PFI) began operations in 1997, and is three-quarters owned by CAE, one-quarter by a consortium of banks. Instruction is subcontracted to Serco. “The level of experience the ex-military instructors bring to bear in the flying school is phenomenal,” Naismith commented.

Other MSHATF customers have included Canadian forces (CH47D); Australian Army Aviation (CH47D); Royal Danish Air Force (EH101); Italian Navy (EH101); Royal Oman Air Force (Puma) and the Japanese Self Defence Force (EH101).

Elsewhere in the EU

The Swiss Air Force has a new Level D Airbus Helicopters EC635 full-flight mission simulator at Emmen Air Base near Lucerne. The Thales-built device is used to train aircrews for cargo and personnel transport, search-and-rescue, and forest firefighting. Any area of Switzerland can be reproduced from a high-resolution aerial imagery database containing detailed roads, buildings, power lines.

CAE is developing an MH-60R mission operational flight trainer (MOFT) to train pilots, tactics officers, and sensor operators for the Royal Danish Navy. Delivery is planned for 2016 to Karup Air Base in central Denmark. The simulator will feature the CAE Medallion-6000 image generator and common database (CDB) architecture. The MH-60R Seahawk is focused on SAR and anti-surface warfare operations, including anti-piracy operations.