SAR training with AMST’s synthetic hoist trainer

Synthetic training systems are not new phenomena in emergency response aviation, having long been used to reduce the cost and increase the availability of training opportunities, particularly for pilots. However, less attention has been paid to providing technical solutions to the training requirements of non-aviators who are involved in these missions.

Aviation comes with a host of risks, both to aircrews and those in or around aircraft — particularly if their attention is focused on another safety-critical task, such as lifesaving. It is essential that such personnel are not only comfortable and confident in the aircraft, but aware of the risks and familiar with the complex, but highly standardized, procedures that accompany aircraft operation.

The Bavarian mountain rescue service recognized these requirements, and in 2003 began to investigate a means to address them without the risk, cost, and complexity of live helicopter training. Within five years it had built a facility specifically to provide hoist, rescue and helicopter deployment training, ranging from basic familiarization to the most complex scenarios. The center now provides specialist training for a wide variety of emergency response personnel whose role brings them into regular contact with helicopters.

Roland Ampenberger is the chief of the rescue service’s training facility, which includes the groundbreaking Helicopter Rescue Hoist Trainer. He started his career in emergency response as a mountain rescue volunteer, and has since made it his profession.

With the AMST Helicopter Rescue Hoist Trainer, the aircraft fuselages are suspended from the ceiling and can be manipulated to perform a variety of maneuvers. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“We started with the question of how to train effectively, [while] saving costs and reducing risks,” he said when Vertical visited the facility in Bad Tölz, Germany. “There were already a few types of helicopter training systems, but they all involved flying in the helicopter.”

The aim of avoiding live training was not only to make the training affordable for charitable organizations such as mountain rescue teams, but to reduce the hazards associated with introducing unfamiliar personnel to the highly dynamic environment of aviation. Ampenberger explained that existing synthetic training systems could not offer the range of training opportunities that were required.

“There already existed a few types of simulation for helicopter rescue but no way to train whole scenarios,” he said. What he wanted was a system that took students from theory to a live airborne setting in a controlled environment that wouldn’t overwhelm those unfamiliar with it. “You have to introduce the dangers of height, stressful experiences and the sensation of flying,” he said. “Our first idea was to move an aircraft with a crane inside an industrial unit.”

Not only does the Rescue Hoist Trainer make training more affordable, it also provides a progressive way to introduce new crewmembers to a highly dynamic aviation environment. Lloyd Horgan Photo

After building the training hall, the mountain rescue service began training with two BK117 airframes, one of which was static, and the other was attached to a crane. Before long, other professional rescue services were expressing an interest in the facility, including services with responsibility for fire and water rescue. Initially, training scenarios utilized basic wooden mock-ups to simulate likely rescue situations.

The center’s development was focused on identifying and meeting the individual training needs of its customers, with funding provided through training fees, charitable contributions and the state (due to the environmental benefits of training without aircraft).

In 2013, engineering think tank AMST partnered with the facility. AMST is a recognized center of excellence for the research, development and manufacture of aircrew and aeromedical training solutions.

“The mountain rescue service was interested in having and providing to their customers high-class training,” said Tobias Seidl, who is responsible for training solutions at AMST. “AMST is interested in developing and providing first-class training solutions, and financing through public-private partnerships gives organizations the potential to establish such facilities.”

The Helicopter Rescue Hoist Trainer allows for students to be trained on whole scenarios in a controlled environment. Lloyd Horgan Photo

AMST is a technology supplier to the mountain rescue service and has been instrumental in the development and delivery of a second, larger helicopter fuselage module specifically designed for training in the facility. “AMST specializes in tailored solutions,” explained Seidl. “Several organizations train here. Each one has different requirements and operates different equipment. The larger [fuselage] cell incorporates a specialist winch system which can simulate any aircraft winch in use worldwide.”

The facility now includes a variety of rescue scenarios, from urban to wilderness, including an artificial rock face, a pool for water rescue and even a cable car gondola. The aircraft fuselages are suspended from the ceiling and can be manipulated to perform a variety of maneuvers, while lights and powerful fans simulate rotor strobing and downwash. The fidelity of the system can provide an intense experience, but Ampenberger explained that its flexibility was just as valuable. “You can train as long as you want; you can train very intensive or very slowly,” he said. “The ability to do it step-by-step provides a very good base for the next step of live training.”

This step-by-step approach and the ability to vary the intensity as required highlight the fact that this method is not intended to completely replace live training. As well as the utilitarian functions of reducing cost and weather dependence, it also builds confidence and reinforces drills and safety procedures, making live training more effective by decreasing the likelihood of errors. The scale of the facility allows for larger scale rescue scenarios such as from a replica domestic house, but also provides the benefit of training at scale; depending on the requirements of the customer organization, up to 40 people can be trained simultaneously.


AMST has the ability to train an entire rescue scenario all the way to arrival at a hospital. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Although the facility has global reach, there are many customer organizations locally, including a variety that conduct search-and-rescue (SAR) and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), as well as police and special forces who require training in specialist helicopter dispatch methods. The variety of aircraft and skills involved make the facility’s flexibility invaluable, but its focus on rescue and emergency response allows an unusual depth of training that recognizes the necessity to train procedures and processes traditionally delivered “on the job,” such as the transfer of patient care. The facility includes a medical room that simulates a hospital trauma room.

“Although we initially focused on technical work, during development we felt that we could train the whole rescue scenario from the initial alarm through the execution of the mission,” Ampenberger explained. “The rescue chain ends at the hospital, so we have the capability to train all the way to hospital arrival.”

Those who live and work around them every day often forget how intimidating an aircraft can be. Sensory overload and stress reduce the ability for students to take on new information and reproduce complex cognitive functions — skills that may be lifesaving. Training repetitively at incremented complexity reinforces skills and conditions the trainee to a state of respectful familiarity with their new environment, ready to make the maximum use of live training opportunities.

As ever, live training comes with a significant risk factor, and the main priority must always be flight safety. This can lead to early intervention to prevent error, and consequentially poor learning. An environment like the one offered at the facility allows the opportunity to learn step-by-step, developing from simple scenarios to very intensive, with the focus firmly on training outcomes.

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