The EC135 Full Flight Simulator represents FlightSafetys latest technology advancements, including smoother-running and easier-to-service electronic servos.
For as long as I can remember, when anybody would mention FlightSafety International (FSI) helicopter training, my thoughts would immediately go to the companys Bell Learning Center, adjacent to the Bell Helicopter factory in Hurst, Texas. Over the years, I have experienced many quality training sessions at that facility.
It wasnt until earlier this year, however, when I was invited to fly FSIs Eurocopter EC135 full-flight simulator at its flagship facility at the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport, that my eyes were opened to not just the beautiful and modern facility the company has in DFW, but also to where FSI is (and is going) in relation to supporting its helicopter customers.
FSIs facility at DFW isnt exactly a secret, although its certainly better known in the fixed-wing world. Opened in 2001, the DFW Learning Center trains around 7,200 students a year, about a third of whom are international. To support that customer base are 250 employees, including 150 instructors (26 of those for maintenance training alone).
The facility began with 125,000 square feet of space housing 16 simulator pads, classrooms, maintenance labs and offices. Then, in 2010 , building 2 was built, adding 85,000 square feet of space housing eight more simulator pads, more classrooms, briefing rooms and an engine shop. Most of the simulator pads at the DFW facility are dedicated to airplane simulators (including a Pilatus PC-12NG sim that should be open for training by the first quarter of 2013) but a few of the new spots will be earmarked for helicopters. Indeed, George Ferito, FSIs director of rotorcraft business development, indicated that three of the new pads will actually house the three Level C or D simulators [212, 412 and 430 models] from the Bell Learning Center, which will be closed by the end of this year.
One helicopter sim is already up and running in FSIs new building: its new EC135 simulator, which went into service in September 2011. This is the machine I took for a test drive while also learning more about FSIs revamped, scenario-based approach to training and I was impressed all around.
As Good As Expected
When it came to flying the EC135 sim, I have to say I wasnt surprised. Thats a bad thing and a good thing. Bad, because its fun to be blown away by something new, and although the EC135 sim is new, flying FSIs Level D simulators is not new to me. I knew it was going to be… well… good. (Luckily, FSI also let me fly its Gulfstream G150 sim for an hour, and that blew me away especially when I hit the power for takeoff and I was pushed back in my seat during the acceleration.)
With John Healey, FSIs assistant director of training for helicopters, as my guide, my first tasks were typical: to take off to a hover, fly a normal pattern, and land. I was instructed to fly it as if I were in my helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) EC135P2+ back home. So I did. Except for the normal FSI simulator characteristic of hovering with a higher sight picture than normal (easily corrected by looking farther away), the sim felt right at home. One thing I noticed right away was that the auto-trim follow-through feature of the EC135, in which the cyclic trim automatically adjusts to pilot pressure at slow speed, kicked in just like I would expect.
Part of making simulator training real is to do exactly what you would do in your own aircraft. This way, the instructors can see you as you normally operate and can then provide more pointed instruction. It wasnt that hard to pretend I was back in North Carolina flying my own ship.
After the warm-up pattern work, it was time for scenario-specific flying. To this end, we didnt just go do something. Healy had spent considerable time briefing me well before we climbed aboard as to what our mission profiles would be for the session. So, this would be an actual training session not just a sim demo.
Whereas training at FSI used to be death by PowerPoint, followed by flying a bunch of tasks, now the process is much more integrated. The high-tech student stations used for classroom instruction have students manipulating systems from their desks and running scenarios for each system. This prepares them for when its time to apply and test their learning through the use of a graphical flight simulator (GFS), located in another room, which emulates the flight deck of the specific aircraft. As Ferito explained, The use of the GFS has eliminated two simulator periods. We can cover items like starts, avionics and emergency procedures, which generates a more prepared and confident student. Plus, they can be used for extra [no charge] practice, without the need for additional [and expensive] sim time.
The GFS systems are used in conjunction with video presentations and refined notebooks that have many more color illustrations than previous versions did. In the future, FSI will be shifting to iPads, which will be issued to students for the duration of each course.
Another development is that FSI training now centers on the normal operational day flow the typical course of operations for each specific pilot. Said Daniel MacLellan, center manager for FSI DFW: Our EC135 instructors have direct experience in the major disciplines all our bases are covered. Primarily we see HEMS, offshore and corporate clients in the training here. And, our emphasis is on CRM [crew resource management] and pre-mission planning. Right from the start, students are introduced to systems and procedures with realistic scenarios underpinning the training. I liken it to line-oriented flight training with a systems emphasis.
All of this prepares students to tackle realistic training scenarios in the sim, just as I did during my own training session. After my preflight briefing, my first task was to fly to a hospital near Central Park in New York City (yes, these sims somehow can move cross-country faster than Airwolf). The hospital pad was confined, with multiple buildings affecting the approach. So, I did my normal recon, decided on how I wanted to approach, kept it tight and even kicked it out of trim on short final to get a better look at the landing zone. It was just another day in HEMS.
Once on the pad, Healy adjusted the takeoff weight to reflect the (heavy, of course) patient. And, as you are
probably anticipating by now, I was handed an engine failure coming out of the top of a maximum performance takeoff. Utilizing the techniques I revisit every six months with my employer, Air Methods, it all went well. What made it more realistic than the training Im used to, however, was the fact that this EC135 engine panel wasnt in training mode everything I was looking at on the first-limit-indicator display was real. Plus, I had the opportunity to play with the power and try some exercises at Healys direction, with nobody being on edge for fear of torching an engine or causing an over-torque.
From New York City, it was hyper-speed again to a highway accident scene in a mountainous region. It had been awhile since I had last been in an FSI simulator, and it was clear that one of the major areas in which theyve improved is in location graphics. Its so much easier to get wrapped up in scenario-based training when the graphics so realistically place you into the story. For me, it really did feel like just another day on the job the fact that I was in a simulator barely registered. (For variety, I sampled an offshore platform approach and landing, as well.)
My session concluded with a couple of emergency procedures: a full-authority-digital-engine-control (FADEC) failure, and landing with a stuck pedal. Following flight manual procedures resulted in very successful outcomes without risking the aircraft and engines, or even wearing out the skid shoes. These procedures were supplemented by the instructors numerous little tips and tricks, which will sure be nice to know if Im ever hung out for real in one of these emergency events.
The sim itself also had several little things that impressed me: during the simple act of taking off, the EC135 came up gently on the heels of the skids before lifting off; and it touched down on the left skid first. It was so like the real helicopter, at first I didnt even notice some of the subtle similarities. Another example: the EC135 has a high Nr feature (or, on some variants, a Cat A button) to increase rotor r.p.m. for operations under 55 knots; predictably, the vibration signature of the helicopter changes with r.p.m. change and so did the sims, perfectly.
The sim was also highly convincing when it came to scenarios such as dust and snow landings, and the use of weather radar to circumnavigate storms in the area. And, the instrument-flight-rules (IFR) flying was, to me, one of the most realistic parts of my session. With foul weather incorporated into the scenario, the full-featured autopilot behaved just like the real deal. All the autopilot upper modes were fully functional and completely predictable. What a great and safe way to not only get IFR and/or inadvertent-instrument-meteorological-conditions proficient, but to learn how to best utilize the autopilot and integrate the use of modern avionics, as well.
A Mature Offering
As I stated earlier, the reality of the EC135 sim came as no surprise Im very familiar with FSIs commitment to getting things right. In fact, back in the early 1990s, when FSIs Bell Learning Center was just bringing a 412 full motion simulator on line, I happened to be visiting Bell and FSI for some story research. Being a Bell 412 line pilot at the time, I wound up getting collared by FSIs manager to fly the thing in the wee hours of two different mornings, for hours at a time, to help the engineers tweak the reality factor.
Todays improvements, however, are palpable. Electronic servos are used in place of hydraulics to control the simulators motion base, providing for not only a smoother ride (unless the instructor dials in the turbulence), but also a much more reliable simulator with less down time for maintenance. The extent to which the EC135 simulator mimics the real thing is remarkable (in fact, the sim was built around real-world data, with an actual EC135 from Metro Aviation being used for FSIs engineering work and the FAAs extensive simulator certification process).
Adding to the realism, the avionics in the simulator are what is being used in the field today. Indeed, FSIs entire training process has become much more geared toward avionics, since they are such an integral part of not only the aircraft, but also of the operational day flow of the entire mission.
Other mission equipment is also being incorporated into the training experience: by years end, FSI-DFW will be certified by the FAA to conduct FAR Part 135 night vision goggle training in the EC135 sim, with customers using their own goggles and helmets.
Just as its simulators have evolved, FSIs overall approach to training has progressed to emphasize realistic scenarios and common-sense decision-making, as I witnessed during my own training. As EC135 program manager Healy explained, FlightSafety has matured. Long-term clients are given different scenarios we change it up to keep it interesting. And we emphasize a logical sequence of events. Healy made the point students with a training mindset will sometimes make decisions that they wouldnt normally make a traditional trap of simulator training. FlightSafety is now trying to discourage this; as Healy explained, We want them to treat the situation just as they would on the job even to the point of turning down a flight scenario we present to them if they would normally.
That mix of simulated reality in training and flying seems to be working. According to Ferito (FSIs director of rotorcraft business development), The EC135 sim has been busy since day one. The sim is offered out on both wet and dry lease programs: under a dry lease, customers provide their own instructors and are basically just renting time in the sim, while operators who use the more traditional wet lease send their pilots out for training using the FSI program and instructors.
Some customers are in the process of converting from the dry lease approach to a wet lease program. This is mainly due to pilot shortages and the inability to spare their own instructors. However, as FSI assistant director of standards Cole Hendrick explained, such wet leases arent as easy as they used to be. The FAA is getting much tighter on credit and scrutiny, and, accordingly, this puts a much higher administrative load on FSI. Not only that, but FSI now has to undergo training to each of our customers Part 135 ops specs, and undergo their company training and checks. Essentially the FSI CFI [certified flight instructor] is trained to the same standard as their own company check airmen, and we teach to their program.
Thats only part of the challenge FSI faces today. As Ferito noted, Its a challenge for us having the right models, options and missions to meet customer demands. A brand-new simulator takes 14 to 16 months to develop and deliver and can easily cost up to $10 million US or more. Much depends on the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] data package, explained Ferito. Intellectual property is now a hot commodity, and the manufacturers are now charging for it. We were fortunate that Metro Aviation provided us with 160 hours in their EC135 for our development and testing.
Despite these hurdles, FSI has been thriving, as reflected in the fact that Heli-Expo 2012 was the companys most productive ever. And its not planning on slowing down, or compromising its standards, anytime soon. According to Ferito, the future at FSIs Dallas-Fort Worth Learning Center holds nothing but Level D [simulators], including the single-engine helicopters. He added, The growth of the helicopter footprint [at FSI] will be significant over the next three years. In fact, well see more growth in helicopters than in fixed-wing. And, this will be both regionally as well as internationally.
Indeed, my return to FSI after a long time away revealed a company that is certainly not resting on its laurels. It has invested in modern facilities, state-of-the-art instructional aids and techniques, top-of-the-line simulators, and highly qualified career instructors with a huge knowledge and experience base. It all reflects a clear dedication to supporting the helicopter industry. Most importantly, in my opinion, FSI has embraced a progressive teaching process that wraps the necessary training around the way we actually fly no longer is it just days in the box being slammed by one failure after another. As such, I have no doubt that FlightSafety International will remain the leader in keeping it real for many years to come.
Guy R. Maher is a 16,000-hour dual-rated pilot and flight instructor for helicopter, airplane and instrument ratings. He is an EMS pilot flying an IFR Eurocopter EC135 in North Carolina. In addition tobeing a FAASTeam representative, he is frequently called upon to provide consultation on aircraft sales, operational, and safety issues, and to provide testimony for legal proceedings. He can be contacted at email@example.com