Launched at the 2011 Airborne Law Enforcement Association conference, American Eurocopters IIMC training course is rapidly gaining in popularity. Jay Miller/ American Eurocopter Photo
What does a 12,000-flight-hour, emergency-medical-service (EMS) pilot with 420 hours of instrument time have in common with a 3,000-hour tour pilot who retired from the military after serving as a safety officer and instrument check pilot? Or with an instrument flight instructor who was hired by a low-time private pilot to ride-along on a cross-country flight or with an almost-17,000-hour EMS and agricultural pilot who had 115 hours of actual instrument flight experience, but just one hour of simulated instrument flight time in the previous 10 years?
One common denominator is that all of these helicopter pilots had some level of instrument flight experience and training. Another is that they and their passengers were all killed after inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions.
I learned as much last October while reading through accident reports on my first day at American Eurocopter Corp.s (AECs) inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) training course at the companys facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. I fly relatively little these days, and I certainly dont think of myself as instrument proficient. In October, however, I was technically instrument current, because I had successfully completed a helicopter instrument proficiency check (IPC) within the past few months.
The accident reports were a sobering reminder that a helicopter instrument rating and occasional IPC do little to guarantee survival after encountering instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions in a visual flight rules (VFR) helicopter. What really drove the point home, however, was getting into AECs full-motion AS350 simulator, where I was put through a series of scenarios that were far more realistic and demanding than anything I had done under a floppy, view-limiting visor on my recent IPC. In fact, part of the point of AECs course is to scare you straight: to destroy any false confidence you might have in your ability to recover a VFR helicopter after flying into clouds. The other part is to give you the skills you need to actually do so making it valuable as well as eye-opening training for pilots of all experience levels.
AECs IIMC course is not a traditional instrument training program; its goal is not to teach you how to operate normally in the IFR system. Instead, its essentially emergency-procedures training in that it treats inadvertent flight into IMC (or IFR conditions, as the United States Federal Aviation Regulations refer to it these days) as an emergency that should be addressed immediately. Consequently, this two-day course which includes two ground training sessions and two sessions in the simulator is much like autorotation training in that it is appropriate for all pilots, whether or not you have an instrument rating.
Likewise, the course is not model-specific. Although it is conducted in American Eurocopters AS350 Level B flight and mission training simulator (see p.40, Vertical 911, Heli-Expo 2011), pilots dont need previous AStar experience to gain from the training. Once you get a feel for the simulator and instrumentation, all you need to focus on is the hands-on flying systems and procedures are topics for another AEC course (for those who are interested in learning that). In fact, I attended the IIMC course with one of the pilots being cycled through the training by the Dallas Police Departments helicopter unit, which operates Bell 206B-3 JetRangers, not Eurocopters.
Said Del Livingston, AECs vice-president of flight operations and customer training: This course reinforces our commitment to increasing safety industry-wide. It was designed to be non-airframe-specific, allowing pilots of any helicopter type to benefit from the advantages of our AS350 Level B simulator and this important training.
The inadvertent IMC course was launched at the 2011 Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) convention in New Orleans, La., in July, so its still relatively new. However, its steadily gaining in popularity. At Heli-Expo 2012 in Dallas, Texas, in February, AEC announced that Metro Aviation had signed an agreement to use the AS350 simulator to augment its pilot training program (see p.10, Vertical 911, AAAA 2012). In addition to practicing system failures and emergency procedures, Metro pilots will undergo IIMC training as part of their time in the simulator. Said Metro Aviation president Mike Stanberry: The availability of the AS350 simulator will allow us to put our AStar pilots into the actual model they fly and practice emergency procedures that you couldnt perform in a real airframe. . . . Were also going to take advantage of the additional capabilities this simulator offers, such as training for inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.
At the launch of the course last year, Jack Reichert, AECs simulator marketing consultant, elaborated on the value of the simulator for IIMC training: The industrys current training method of using vision-restricting devices simply does not prepare a pilot for the intense challenges of an IIMC encounter. The sudden onset of a complete loss of visual clues cannot be replicated when training in a VFR helicopter. The full-motion capability of the AS350 simulator is what really makes the difference in this course. The realism of punching into the clouds and the feel of initiating a proper recovery is only possible with full-motion simulation.
Getting a Reality Check
What does punching into the clouds feel like in the American Eurocopter sim? Well, it certainly doesnt feel like anything Ive experienced under the hood.
The AS350 simulator permits a variety of entries into IMC: from a deliberate climb into a clearly defined cloud layer, to being gradually engulfed by mist and rain. None of them are pleasant, and it doesnt take long to realize how quickly things can go pear-shaped in a VFR helicopter once you lose visual references. Situations that are hard to imagine when read in an accident report such as a high-speed, port-side, inverted impact with water become very real when you get yourself into a simulated version of the same thing.
According to instructor and simulator technician Eric King, one of the primary objectives of the course is increased awareness of the complexity and severity of flying into IIMC in a non-IFR-rated helicopter. Check. Youll probably gain this increased awareness during your first session in the simulator, which will also heighten your appreciation for another objective of the course: avoiding IIMC through weather information-gathering and go/no-go decision-making.
The other two primary objectives of the course are gaining more familiarity with aeronautical decision-making, and gaining the skills required to survive IIMC.
Overall, the course takes a systematic approach to skill building. The first step is to get comfortable with the simulator itself, which, like most sims and flight training devices, takes a bit of getting used to. Thats followed by some relatively basic attitude instrument flying, such as climbing and descending through stratus cloud layers.
Sounds simple, right?
Actually, even basic attitude instrument flying can be supremely challenging in the simulator. I was surprised to realize how difficult it is to switch from a VFR to an IFR mindset in mid-flight. While attitude instrument flying is generally no big deal on a dedicated IFR training flight when your heading bug is set, your charts are handy, your mind is prepared and your safety pilot is in the next seat it can be a struggle when you lose visual references on short notice. The experience underscores the extent to which IIMC recovery has more in common with emergency procedures than with normal IFR flight.
As you become more comfortable with attitude instrument flying, the scenarios become more demanding. Instead of stratus cloud layers on an otherwise bright day, the weather becomes driving rain in fading daylight, or dark clouds with no clearly delineated tops and bases.
Following the time-honored formula of aviate, navigate, communicate, the focus of the course is first and foremost on maintaining aircraft control. When you have a handle on that, you can start working on getting yourself where you need to be: using your GPS to navigate back to an airport, or getting directions from air traffic control (a role convincingly played by King).
With just two sessions in the simulator, the course is relatively short; compared to normal instrument training, its relatively straightforward, too. Yet, I was surprised by how much value I got out of it. I would love to see this training become as routine as recurrent autorotation training (and so would the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which last year recommended to ALEA that it revise its accreditation standards to require that all pilots receive training for safely exiting IIMC). The good news is that, with the advent of realistic, cost-effective light helicopter simulators such as the AS350 I flew, recurrent IIMC training might actually happen… and American Eurocopter is certainly leading the way in making that a reality.
Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late-1990s.