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Spain’s predictably fine weather means it has always been popular with Europeans learning to fly. But Bell Helicopter and TRU Simulation + Training clearly had another motive in mind when they opened their first ever training center outside of the U.S. in the Mediterranean port city of Valencia in February 2017 — given that the majority of flights completed there are within the climate-controlled confines of a full flight simulator.
The center — known as the Bell Helicopter Training Academy (BTA) — offers initial type and recurrent training exclusively on the Bell 429 Global Ranger. It contains the world’s first Level D 429 full flight simulator, certified by both the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Proving particularly popular in the corporate and emergency medical services (EMS) roles, the 429 has seen robust sales performance in Europe, which has not been particularly fertile ground for the American manufacturer in the past. For a company proud of its ethos of strong customer support, the facility will add a vital link to European operators, who were previously supported through a network of Bell’s instrument rating instructors and service centers.
As well as meeting its criteria for customer support, Bell no doubt intends for the academy to play a part in consolidating its position in Europe; it is likely no coincidence that two of its rivals are headquartered in neighboring countries. But the center’s influence will reach far beyond European borders. Given the 429’s popularity in the Middle East and Africa, and with more than 65 currently operating throughout Latin America, Spain occupies a strategically central position between these markets, as well as linguistic ties to much of South America (the academy’s nine staff also speak English, French and Italian between them).
“The center staffing includes fully-qualified Bell 429 TRIs [type rating instructors] to deliver EASA training and TREs [type rating examiners],” Vance Ontjes, the BTA Valencia training center manager, told Vertical. “We have received approvals from Argentina, Mexico, and India to conduct training for pilots licensed in these countries. We expect further approvals from Brazil and Russia soon and will continue to add approvals as we see the need.”
Building a Mothership
The 100,000-square-foot (over 9,000-square-meter) building houses the simulator hall as well as offices, classrooms and breakout space, with plenty of room left to expand. In its first six months, the academy trained 35 pilots, and has the capacity to train around 300 annually. While it’s co-located with an existing Textron facility (a Cessna Citation service center), as yet, no Bell Helicopter maintenance or technical training is carried out at the academy.
To meet its customers’ training requirements, Bell has adopted TRU Simulation + Training’s Odyssey H platform — a helicopter-specific full flight simulator. The Odyssey H has been designed from its inception to replicate rotary-wing flight, incorporating projection and motion systems designed to produce highly realistic visual and tactile situational cues to the pilot.
The graphical element is comprised of 10 Barco projectors configured by RSi Visual Systems to produce a collimated, 240-degree horizontal and 80-degree vertical field of view, with an additional projector providing the chin window display. This provides a main display in ultra high definition reaching 41 megapixels — unparalleled among commercial systems and highly immersive; it is possible to represent the movement of individual blades of grass and produce an unnervingly accurate impression of sea swell and waves. Similar detail has been applied to the motion engine, which incorporates two separate motion systems, each with six degrees of freedom and utilizing electric drive systems.
TRU refers to its simulator module as “the mothership,” with the main display and motion platform simply playing host to a completely modular crew area assembly. The simulator is capable of accepting cockpit modules from light to heavy helicopters, representing various aircraft manufacturers. The disconnection of two major cockpit assemblies allows them to be literally rolled out of the simulator platform, and replaced by those of entirely different aircraft. The whole process can be carried out without specialist off-site support, and it takes a matter of hours to return the simulator to service.
However, this is not the only innovation. “The simulator IOS [instructor operator station] was designed to resemble modern user interfaces using two large and convenient touch monitors,” said Ontjes. “The menu structure was developed with the instructor in mind to make setup quick and easy, and an iPad gives the instructor the ability to control the entire system wirelessly from anywhere in the simulator.”
Training for the Worst Case Scenario
Although EASA requires two hours of flight training in the actual aircraft, as well as a skill test, the majority of the initial type rating course at BTA Valencia is conducted in the TRU simulator and is a 10-day course that includes 24 flying hours. Bell also offers recurrent training as well as a dry-lease, which it says is aimed at reducing aircraft maintenance and fixed costs, as well as giving the customer more control over their schedule.
The type rating course includes elements that would be too difficult or risky to offer in a live environment with any degree of realism. Among these is the inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) element, which simulates an unplanned and unbriefed entry into poor weather conditions. Failing to recognize when such a situation is imminent, or even failing to accept it when it happens, can leave pilots in an extremely hazardous flight condition, with a commensurate sudden increase in workload. The benefits gained from exposure to these conditions in a simulator depend on the fidelity of the system to accurately recreate the visual and motion cues that accompany such an event. Experiencing a high degree of disorientation is an excellent learning process, and is essential to developing avoidance and recovery techniques. It is one element of the course that is type-agnostic, and pilots are likely to benefit from it in whatever aircraft they fly in the future.
Ontjes said that customers have been particularly positive about this element of the training program. “The verbal feedback we have received has been very good,” he said. “The simulator has some great inadvertent IMC scenarios that require critical decision making by the pilot to safely handle the situation, and the motion system is incredible in giving pilots the appropriate sensations allowing them to fly and react to situations as they would in the real aircraft. Pilots are impressed with the almost endless scenarios we can execute.”
The Bell 429’s appeal is strong in Europe, and with countries such as Slovakia now expressing an interest in militarizing the type, Bell Helicopter and TRU have been shrewd in the positioning of the BTA. Having planted its flag in the heart of Europe, and with a good and growing customer base on its periphery, it will be interesting to see whether the American company is able to stage a resurgence on the continent.
The realism of the 429 simulator is very impressive, and Bell has capitalized on that strength to deliver the reduced training costs that naturally follow the adoption of synthetic training programs. However, the real potential of that fidelity is fulfilled in using it to improve safety operating in meteorological conditions that will be familiar to many medium twin pilots, particularly in the core 429 target roles of EMS and corporate. And that can never be a bad thing.