By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Helicopters are complex to handle, pilot and to operate in any situation, especially in critical civil and military operations. It is widely acknowledged by the helicopter industry that the current helicopter accident rate is excessive and that solutions must be found to address the problem and to improve pilot skills.
As this market looks to improve its safety record, simulation-based training is seen as a viable method to significantly increase the safety of rotary wing aviation, all over the world. Secondly, especially for civil operators, helicopters are expensive to purchase, operate and maintain. In the last few decades, helicopters have been inducted in operations in India in both civil and military fields in a big way.
Today, the helicopter industry is poised for a bigger growth, with over 1,000 helicopters planned for induction over the next few years. While the estimates for growth of the industry vary, what is undeniably true is that new machines being inducted use advanced technology configured with integrated avionics, mission computer systems, sophisticated weapon systems and are costly. The complexity of the helicopters being inducted will necessarily involve intense training for effective utilisation of the capability of these machines. Along with the initial cost of purchasing the helicopter, the cost per hour of operation has also increased, thereby increasing costs of training. Further, practicing some of the more critical emergencies on the actual helicopter is fraught with risks and sometimes just not possible without actually invoking the malfunction. This has brought into focus simulator training in helicopters.
Simulator training has been extensively used by airlines for decades now. However, helicopters maintain some unique characteristics in areas such as aerodynamics and vibration that make high fidelity simulation a difficult task. Hence, simulating rotary wing aircraft and designing a training programme to meet training objectives is a major challenge, as helicopter simulators require a much more complex aerodynamic and terrain model than transport aircraft simulators. It is only in the last decade or so that simulation technology has advanced to a state where a helicopter and its flight, including malfunctions, can be represented with the requisite levels of fidelity. As use of simulators for flight training increased, it began to be recognised that not only do flight simulators permit training in exercises that cannot always be done on the actual helicopter and reduce costs of training, but also permit training in a more effective manner. Today, in most of the advanced nations at least 80 per cent of the initial type conversion training/recurrent training and 60 per cent of the mission training on helicopters is done on simulators.
The safety and effectiveness of helicopter operations can be greatly improved by providing pilots with regular training within difficult conditions and scenarios, which would otherwise be too difficult or dangerous to replicate in live training exercises. Developing and utilisation of high fidelity simulator systems is required to duplicate real world environments that are necessary to help pilots prepare for their operational flying.
Types of Simulators
At present there is no common military standard for simulators of various levels. However, in the civil aviation the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) of Europe and Federal Aviation Administrator (FAA) of the US have well developed standards, and accordingly the Simulators/Flight Synthetic Training Devices (FSTD) are classified into the following categories:
• Full Flight Simulator (FFS). These necessarily have motion, and have specific-to-type aircraft cockpit and flight model
• Flight Training Device (FTD). These do not have motion, but are specific-to-type aircraft cockpit and flight model.
• Flight Navigation Procedures Trainer (FNPT). These are not specific-to-type and may use a generic cockpit and flight models.
The military aviation fraternity normally uses the above standards for defining the specifications. However, the emphasis is on suitability of the device for training for various tasks and missions. In addition to the specifications of a particular level of FSTD, several additional training tools such as computer-generated and programmable battle-field environment and weapon delivery systems are also added. Such a simulator then becomes a Full Mission Simulator (FMS). An FMS is usually of Level D standard, the highest level in the field of Simulators.
Simulation capability offers unprecedented realism for helicopter specific mission training and improves safety of operations by enhancing pilot proficiency and eliminating risks of training in aircraft. The simulation environment enables risk-free exposure to events not possible for training on actual helicopters. The extremely realistic simulators now available provide many advantages and increase effectiveness in training. Some of the advantages are enumerated below.
Critical Emergencies Training: Critical emergencies are those which have a potential to endanger the safety of the helicopter and in which the handling of the helicopter is different from normal. These emergencies require special training in handling the helicopter as well as decision-making to address the situational element. Emergencies like loss of tail rotor thrust/engine failure, the simulation of which is not feasible on actual helicopter can be effectively and realistically simulated and practiced on a simulator due to the following:
• The trainee pilot can handle controls fully till touchdown, without inputs being given by the instructor for reasons of safety
• The trainee can be allowed to make mistakes even if it leads to a crash, so that the impact of mistakes is fully understood and analysed
• The trainee can practice Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) with his co-pilot, which is not possible in the actual helicopter as the instructor sits in the co-pilot seat.
• Trainees can practice these emergencies in operational scenarios, which brings into focus not only the handling of the helicopter, but also aspects such as decision-making etc.
Instrument Flying: With advanced technology and state-of-the-art avionics, helicopters like the commercial airliners are capable of flying on instruments without reference to external environment, thereby acquiring Instrument Flight Rating (IFR) capability. Hence, training for flying under Instrument Met Conditions (IMC)/near zero visibility conditions has now become mandatory. Even if not flying under an Instrument flight Plan, helicopters often flying in marginal weather conditions have resulted in a spate of accidents due to lack of training in flying under such conditions. The reason for this is that when aircraft and instructor are available, the flight conditions may not be IMC, resulting in practice in simulated IMC, which is not quite the same thing as flying in actual IMC. When the flight conditions are actual IMC, Air Traffic Control is reluctant to permit training flying due to the pressures of actual traffic.
However, IMC flying can be realistically practiced in a simulator, without the above constraints. Aspects such as recovery from unusual attitudes, potential controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) conditions, and use of available navigational aids for instrument approach procedures can be practiced in simulators till proficiency is maintained.
Maintenance of Cognitive Skills: Skills required for flying consist both of psychomotor and cognitive skills. Normal flying under visual flying conditions requires psychomotor skills, which like riding a bicycle, are fairly well retained with minimal practice. However, instrument flying procedures and emergency handling are cognitive skills which decay faster and require regular and recurring practice to obtain proficiency as well as to maintain it. To maintain these cognitive skills, simulator training is the best option.
A study on ‘Fidelity requirements for Army Aviation Training Devices: Issues and Answers’ done by the US Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences highlighted the following:
(i) There is evidence that simulators provide greater training value than the actual helicopter in collective training i.e. training with other aircraft and ground entities operating towards the same objective
(ii) Training combining simulator and aircraft is superior to training in aircraft alone.
(iii) Even lower fidelity simulators yield good training value when the training method is to train to proficiency rather than in an hourly based training program.
Enhancement of Flight Safety: In addition to contributing to mission accomplishment, simulator training plays a major role in enhancing flight safety for both military and civil operators by improving crew proficiency in handling emergencies, adverse weather conditions and efficient cockpit resource management (CRM). Training imparted regularly on simulators for handling malfunctions keeps the pilots skills current and updated. Also, should an emergency occur on the helicopter, the pilot has a huge psychological advantage if he has handled it before, albeit on a simulator. The confidence derived from having been trained for handling such an emergency prevents panic, which is really half the battle won. Such training also results in correct responses consequent to an emergency, which goes a long way in successful handling of the emergency and thereby, enhancing safety.
Validation of Concepts/Doctrines: In the defence forces, concepts/doctrines of operations are regularly updated. Validation of these with respect to the role played by a helicopter in determining outcomes is not always possible in an actual military exercise. Networked simulators can play a very useful role in validation of such concepts/doctrines.
Besides training effectiveness, it is universally acknowledged that training carried out using simulators results in cost savings. In a detailed and well-researched paper by Bruce Angier and Earl Alluisi on ‘Simulators and Enhanced Training’, prepared for Defence Department in the US, the authors came to a conclusion that more extensive and intensive use of simulators and training devices are cost effective and accrue large financial savings. The cost saving by usage of simulators results primarily due to the following:
• Cost per hour: Training done on a level D-FFS for a highly advanced helicopter costs approximately 45-55 per cent of the actual per hour cost of operating a helicopter, considering all fixed and variable costs.
• Weapon Training: With munitions becoming prohibitively expensive, particularly for guided weapons, it is near impossible to provide sufficient weapon firing practice to aircrew. In a Full Mission Simulator aircrew can practice detection, acquisition and delivery of weapons in a highly realistic manner.
• Training in Battlefield Scenarios: Training in a FMS permits detection, acquisition and engagement of targets in a realistic environment, with appropriate battlefield entities also engaging the helicopter. In the real world, such training would require expensive mobilisation of formations, which may not be possible at the frequency required for maintaining these skills and updating the same.
• Saving Helicopter Hours: Training done on appropriate simulators reduces the actual training required on the helicopter. This results in increasing helicopter availability for operations, thereby saving precious helicopter hours. This not only has a direct cost saving benefit, but also a long-term saving in spares, man-hours etc.
• Time Taken for Training: Simulator training is unaffected by usual factors such as weather, day/night, range availability, air traffic constraints etc. Thus, training can be completed in a time-bound manner, reducing the time a trainee pilot has to stay away from unit and operations. It is difficult to accurately estimate the cost-saving benefit of bringing a new pilot to operational status, but it definitely does make a difference as units would have fewer non-operational pilots on their strength at a given time.
Flight Synthetic Training Devices, an umbrella term covering all types of simulators, are used in conjunction with training programmes approved by the respective national aviation authority such as Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India for civil operations and in the case of the military by respective training/operation directorates. The training programmes used fall typically in the following categories:
• Type conversion: In the civil helicopter industry, the norm in the western world is to carry out all type conversion on the simulator except for one flying lesson on the actual helicopter. In India, DGCA permits 66-80 per cent of the syllabus to be done on a FFS, depending on whether the trainee is from single or multi-engine background. Even in the military aviation the world over, more than 66 per cent of the basic conversion syllabus is completed on a type specific FFS.
• Recurrent/Continuity Training: This is carried out annually to maintain skills for handling critical emergencies and instrument flying currency.
• Competency Checks and Skill Tests: All annual competency checks such as route checks, line oriented flight training checks and other proficiency checks required by civil aviation authorities are carried out on D level FFS. The military aviation can also carry out their annual categorisation and instrument rating checks on the simulator.
• Recency: Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) usually have stringent requirements of a specified amount of flying in the last six months or year for a pilot to continue exercising the privileges of his license, in order to ensure that a licensed pilot does not get his skills rusty. In absence of this, a recency skill test can be carried out on a D level FFS. Military services can make a minimum number of simulator sessions mandatory for maintaining validity of the pilots rating/for meeting experience requirements of the pilots.
• Role Specific Training: DGCA has specified minimum role training, before a licensed pilot is utilised in certain roles such as offshore flying, hill flying, Helicopter
Emergency Medical Services and External Load carriage. FSTDs, mainly level D are now being permitted on a case by case basis for these kinds of role-based training by DGCA, and a civil aviation regulation (CAR) issuing guidelines on this is under consideration at DGCA.
• Mission training: For military flying, the missions undertaken are far more complex, and training usually involves operating in conjunction with other entities such as other aircraft and ground forces, both hostile and friendly. Simulators are very effective training tools for mission training for the following reasons:
(i) Helicopters used for military missions are often complex, and require high proficiency in use on onboard equipment. Proficiency of this kind can be obtained only by regular and extensive hands on time, which is possible only by use of simulators.
(ii) Regular collective training can be done only in FMS which have computer virtual and programmable forces, as it may not be possible to mobilise all the required participants in the real world due to cost and practical reasons.
(iii) Performance in collective training done using the actual aircraft and other participants is judged subjectively by an umpire. In simulator training, success criteria can be set, and performance evaluated more objectively.
However, unless the level of the simulator chosen is appropriate for the training task, the training imparted may not be fully effective, or even worse, result in negative transfer of training, i.e., when a pilot has to unlearn what he learnt on the simulator and re-learn on the helicopter. On the other hand, not every training programme requires complex devices such as a FFS or a FMS, nor can every training institution afford these. As mentioned earlier, when using lower end and therefore, may be lower fidelity simulators, good transfer of training can result if the training methodology is appropriate.
Facilities in India
Given the anticipated growth of the helicopter industry in India and the need to support the new helicopter inductions with state-of-the-art training, there is an urgent need for the establishment of state-of-the-art simulator facilities in India. The few simulators available with the armed forces are basic and rudimentary and do not subscribe to the modern helicopters.
However, a modest beginning has been made in the establishment of a modern state-of-the-art helicopter simulator facility at Bangalore — a joint venture between the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) and Canada-based company, CAE, a world leader in high-end simulation solutions. This world-class facility for simulated helicopter training has been appropriately named HATSOFF (Helicopter Academy to Train by Simulation of Flying). The facility consists of a Full Motion Helicopter Simulator that features the revolutionary Roll On/Roll Off cockpit design, which enables cockpits representing various helicopter types to be used. The facility became operational in June 2010 with due certification by DGCA as a level D simulator.
Today, it carries out training of pilots on Bell-412, Dauphin and the civil version of the Dhruv helicopters. The cockpit for the military version of the Dhruv is presently under construction. While the Bell-412 and Dauphin cockpits are being extensively utilised by the civil operators, the Dhruv cockpit is being used for training by the Indian Army, Indian Air Force, Indian Coast Guard, Border Security Force and Pawan Hans Ltd. Once the military version of the Dhruv helicopter cockpit is ready, it will also facilitate the training with respect to the weapon systems, thereby accruing large savings.
A simulation facility needs not only the simulators, but also extensive infrastructure required for conduct of training and maintenance. Setting up of a simulator facility for rotary wing cost roughly about two times the cost of the actual aircraft plus the infrastructure costs. The international standard of simulator requirement is one simulator for every 60 aircrafts. Typically, establishment of such facility would require Rs 200-400 crore of initial investment, depending on the number of simulator platforms, and approximately Rs 30-40 crore of recurring annual costs. Much of the initial and recurrent costs involved relate to infrastructure and manpower. Cost effectiveness of a simulator facility is dependent on number of helicopters/users and exploitation of the facility to its full potential. It is, therefore, cost effective to exploit existing facilities and add necessary cockpits to such a facility, than to establish an independent facility for each helicopter induction.
With advances in simulator technology to support needs of helicopter training, simulators have now become an indispensable tool for training. Increasing costs of training and complexity of helicopters have made it necessary for both civil and military helicopter industry to look to simulators for effective training. Simulators are not only a very effective training tool for emergency handling, instrument flying and mission accomplishment, but are also cost effective. Simulators are also ideal tools for training which requires cognitive skills to be maintained. With high fidelity simulators permitting across the board training from basic to mission training, state-of-the-art simulator facilities are the need of the hour.
(The writer is a former ADG, Army Aviation Corps)