Sunday, May 1, 2005
Bringing Visuals Down to Earth
In place in its new home, Bell's training academy is focused on enhancing customer learning in part by improving the tools they use to prep for specific mission activities.
Flight training devices are impressive things.
Built to match the aircraft they represent, to a high degree of fidelity, the more advanced of these devices permit a great deal of systems, procedures and basic flying-technique training at a fraction of the cost of such training in an aircraft. They also allow instruction and practice in emergencies that would be too dangerous to do in a real aircraft and much more costly in a full-motion simulator.
The drawback with FTDs is that, while they can emulate a particular helicopter type's performance very well, they can't match that fidelity in portraying the environments in which helicopters typically operate. As a result, you can't get very far in practicing helicopter-specific mission skills and scenarios, such as those involving emergency medical services, law enforcement, logging and firefighting, in an FTD.
There are a few civil flight-training devices in use whose visual systems have been tailored for helicopter-specific mission training (mainly for offshore operators like Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. and Bond Air Services). But most of the devices available today use visual databases developed for fixed-wing applications.
The reason is simple and understandable. There is a much bigger market for fixed-wing FTDs. Developing and maintaining high-fidelity visuals can be a pricey proposition. If those costs can't be spread over a broad enough market, no savvy FTD maker is going to foot the bill for developing helicopter-specific visuals for what amounts to a market niche.
As a result, helicopter pilots who spend the vast majority of their flight time in relatively close proximity to the ground and objects on it must train in devices built for pilots who are only close to the ground when they are taking off or landing. Mission-specific training for helicopter crews must be done largely in real aircraft, and operators are prevented from gaining the cost efficiencies of moving some task training into realistic FTDs because such units simply aren't available. That, however, may be changing.
Bell Helicopter is working with Frasca International to develop visual databases for Frasca's line of FTDs that would support mission-specific training. Such training could become a foundation for future training at Bell's newly relocated Customer Training Academy, which opened its doors north of Fort Worth on Jan. 10.
"This is an area we've identified as critical to our strategy to enhance the customer's learning experience and reinforce the safety aspects of the training," said Launa Barboza, Bell's director of customer training and logistics.
The relocation itself is a major part of that strategy. The new center, which replaces the old, 1970s-era training center adjacent to Bell's production plant in Hurst, Texas, gives the training staff more space and modern facilities. (Bell has been training students since 1947, when it began instructing pilots to fly the Bell 47; it claims to have trained more than 90,000 students from more than 100 nations in that time. The academy's motto is "We Train The World.")
The new academy is co-located with Bell's Commercial Business Unit in a 160,897-sq.-ft, facility on AllianceTexas, a 15,000-acre, mixed-use development that surrounds Fort Worth Alliance Airport. The facility also is planned as the home of the delivery center and training school for the BA609 when deliveries of that civil tiltrotor begin.
Ross Perot had Alliance Airport built 15 mi. northwest of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, in the 1990s as an industrial and cargo airport, with visions of linking it to the U.S. railroad and highway networks for easy shipment of goods moving through it. About 125 companies have operations there.
Perot's Hillwood Properties, which owns the airport and AllianceTexas, leased the center to Bell for 15 years. Hillwood also built a 100-acre training area to the north that is for the exclusive use of Bell students. The practice area includes three runways--a 2,000-ft. lighted north/south runway, an 850-ft. north/south runway and an 850-ft. east/west runway--and four separate concrete landing pads.
"There are actually eight pads--four are spots on the runways--so eight aircraft could practice in the area at one time," said Wayne Brown, a Bell instructor who provided a bird's-eye tour of the area in the academy's Bell 47A-G4. The practice area is 3.8 nm. by GPS from the academy's ramp at the airport. It's a briefer trip there for students, who practice in the FAA Part 141 flight school's seven dedicated training helicopters, all of which are faster than the Model 47.
Hillwood finished the surface of the runways and pads with a smooth asphalt coating that allows helicopter skids to slide easily along it. Full-time rescue personnel provide support for the area.
Back at the academy, there are 18 large, modern classrooms, three aircraft overhaul labs and a 41,000-sq.-ft.-plus hangar for hands-on maintenance training.
The academy offers initial transition training in the Bell 206B, 206L and 407, a rotorcraft pilot refresher course and a private pilot course. (Under an agreement that dates back to 1978, FlightSafety International trains students in Bell's medium-twin helicopters at its Hurst center.) Bell also offers its Heliprops professional pilot safety program and night-vision goggle training for civil operators, as well as a variety of maintenance courses.
All those aspects of the academy will benefit Bell customers. But the aircraft maker's push for more capable FTDs could benefit all helicopter training by providing the market incentive manufacturers of those devices need to justify fielding helicopter-mission-specific visual databases.
The academy currently has three FTDs--one for the 206B/L series, one for the 407 and one for the 427. The Frasca 206 unit uses a new, parabolic visual system with a 220X58-deg. field of view that provides plenty of straight-ahead and peripheral visual cues to make a new pilot feel like he's flying in a real helicopter.
For these devices, Bell wants Frasca to develop a visual database that will allow EMS pilots to practice landing at night on a rain-slicked road to pick up the victim of an auto accident, then fly from that scene to a hospital landing pad. Such a database also conceivably would let police pilots train for law enforcement missions and let other pilots practice logging and firefighting.
"We want visuals with road signs, rain, flashing emergency lights and other ground cues that give the additional stimulus in the visual environment to make the training more realistic and more useful for our customers," said Terry Eichman, who is in charge of course development at the academy.
The first step in that effort is a customized database to present FTD visuals for a 100X100-mi. area that will allow pilots to train with realistic presentations of confined areas, wires, road accidents and hospital landing pads. Eventually, Bell wants to network the FTDs so students aren't restricted to practicing when theirs is the only helicopter in the air.
"We want to complement the flight line," said instructor Mike Phillips, "and become the bridge between the academics and the flight training."