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Roughly 350 kilometers (220 miles) southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, deep under the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic, lies the Hebron oil field. The Hebron project — to recover the estimated 700 million barrels of resources contained within the field — is one of the key offshore projects in the region, utilizing a 680,000-tonne platform.
Sitting in the back of the Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-92 just a few hundred meters from the structure, the sheer scale of the construction, standing seemingly immovable above the crashing waves, was impressive. The platform’s blinking lights reflected off the sea as the skies began to darken. But something wasn’t quite right. And not least the fact that the Hebron platform doesn’t quite exist yet.
“Can we make it about 15 minutes later?” asked Vertical photographer Heath Moffatt, who was leaning out the side of the cabin. The technician to my right tapped a few buttons and the skies instantly darkened.
“Oh, great! But maybe another five minutes?”
A few more increments took us to 4:36 p.m., which, it turned out, provides just about the perfect ambient light for a photograph of the inside of a simulator. Yes, despite our view, we were on dry land, and just a few minutes’ drive from Cougar’s headquarters in St. John’s at a new helicopter training and research and development (R&D) center in nearby Mount Pearl.
Fully funded by the Hibernia Management and Development Company and the Research & Development Corporation, and operated by Montreal, Quebec-based CAE, it contains the first Level D full-flight simulator (FFS) with night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility in Canada, as well as two classrooms, a virtual simulator, and an instrument procedures trainer. The virtual simulator is a computer program that allows students to explore a fully-functional S-92 cockpit, while the instrument procedures trainer is a fixed simulator with a number of screens around two pilot seats that display the S-92’s controls.
The simulator was certified in March 2016, and recurrent courses for Cougar — the center’s major customer — began the following week. Cougar uses the facility for its initial training on the type, as well as its recurrent, night proficiency, and search-and-rescue (SAR) training. Prior to the center opening, Cougar’s pilots had been travelling to FlightSafety International’s facility in Lafayette, Louisiana; and then to Oslo, Norway, to perform their simulator training. Having such a facility so close provides obvious financial and logistical benefits.
The simulator replicates the cockpit of Cougar’s search-and-rescue S-92 to exact detail, down to that aircraft’s registration number — C-GIKN — appearing on the name plate on the simulator’s dash.
Paul Carter, Cougar’s chief pilot, said the operator worked closely with CAE to develop the simulator. “It’s almost a custom sim,” he told Vertical. “They built and replicated our auxiliary fuel tank system, which is a VIH design and modification . . . they have our quick position alert button, the Blue Sky tracking system built in on the overhead, and they have all our offshore routes, all the installations we fly to in the right positions. And they now have the Hebron platform — which is to set sail in spring — in the actual latitude and longitude that it’s going to end up in, in June. We’re already landing on it and it’s not even operational.”
The secret to success
CAE is a major presence in the international flight training market, providing its services to 120,000 pilots across its various fixed- and rotary-wing training facilities. It now has five S-92 Level D FFSs in operation around the world — and their distribution is truly global. In addition to Mount Pearl, there are S-92 FFSs in São Paolo, Brazil; Oslo, Norway; Zhuhai, China; and Brunei in Southeast Asia. However, the simulator in Mount Pearl is the first to be compatible with night vision goggles (NVGs).
But what goes into creating such a realistic product — one that incorporates and seamlessly blends advanced mechanical and software engineering? In terms of numbers, about 250 people will work on a simulator before delivery, said Peter Cobb, CAE’s business development leader for helicopter training, but more fundamentally, it requires a deep understanding of how the helicopter operates.
“Certainly a lot of data gathering is required, so we flight-tested several S-92s in order to gather the necessary data that we needed to simulate the systems and the performance of the aircraft,” said Cobb. “Then of course we’ve got a strong baseline capability — we delivered the first Level D simulator to the Australians over 20 years ago now — so we’ve got a broad level of capability around helicopter simulation, which is quite specific.”
Cobb said the introduction of CAE’s 3000 Series, about five years ago, ushered in a new era of immersive mission training in helicopter simulators. “One of the things we did . . . was move to direct projection domes as opposed to the columnated visuals that you see in fixed-wing simulators. And those direct projection domes allow you to give a bigger field of view, which is particularly important for helicopter pilots, because they’re looking down much more than they’re looking straight ahead. It provides very accurate feedback in terms of where you are with regards to the ground or the water.”
According to CAE, its simulators can replicate up to 400 malfunctions in an aircraft — and the ability to introduce these during training is a huge benefit to pilots. But for Cougar, it’s the ability to fly not just in the North Atlantic environment, but the exact geography off the coast of Newfoundland — with the oil rigs and platforms in their exact location — that’s a unique draw.
“The more realistic simulator training is, the more value the training is going to have . . . so we’re pleased as punch with this,” said Barry Steeves, chief training pilot at Cougar. “They’ve modeled turbulence through the [oil rig] structure, which is a big thing for us, and the vessels move with sea states, so when we train, it allows us to train in a really contextual environment.”
The team can even call up Cougar’s dispatch center and have them create a flight plan to and from a offshore vessel — and they will then fly that mission with the weather and conditions exactly as they are outside.
Of course, a huge benefit of training in a simulator as opposed to a real aircraft is in practicing emergency operations. “We can do things in this simulator that we could never hope to do in the aircraft, as far as training goes,” said Steeves. “Everything from the classic engine failures, to practicing autorotations to the sea, to doing ditchings, to landing on moving platforms. So the fidelity is the key with this simulator that puts it a little step ahead.”
More than a simulator
CAE has four full-time staff running the center. While Cougar is clearly the major customer, projected to fly over 1,000 hours a year in the simulator, HNZ and CHC have also made use of it. CAE hopes the simulator will ultimately complete 1,500 training hours annually.
But the center’s purpose is to provide more than just a home for simulator training. There are five ongoing research projects at the facility, each exploring various aspects of pilot performance in the offshore flight environment. The trials are supported by Cougar (which supplies the majority of the pilots for the tests) and in partnership with local firm N2M Consulting.
They include an investigation into the various factors that might influence pilot performance, such as fatigue, temperature, or alcohol consumption — whether recent or in the near past. One of the tools the team is able to utilize at the center is a climate chamber. This allows pilots to be exposed to high or low temperatures and then taken to the simulator to fly, to monitor the impact on their responses and ability. The overall aim of the project is to develop an offshore helicopter aircrew health monitoring guide.
Another project is looking at helmet fatigue — a particularly relevant issue for Cougar’s SAR pilots who fly with NVGs on their helmets — to explore what the parameters are in which pilots become fatigued and develop strategies to alleviate it.
Other projects are exploring ways to optimize crew resource management and taking a more empirical look at the first office induction process.
The establishment of such a world-class facility in Canada has been no mean feat, and Cobb said he’s particularly proud that two great Canadian companies have been able to partner together to make it happen. “We’ve been talking to Cougar for a long time about getting a Canadian training capability for them, so it was certainly very satisfying personally and I think also satisfying from a Canadian professional perspective.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the January-February edition of Skies Magazine — Vertical Magazine’s sister publication.