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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Training: Simulation for the Masses

Ernie Stephens

IT WAS IN THE 1920S WHEN THE TINY, WOODEN, SINGLE-SEAT LINK trainer became one of the world’s first flight simulators. Its main purpose was to familiarize student pilots with an airplane’s primary flight controls and the results that could be expected from various inputs. By 1948, flight deck mock-ups were replicating actual aircraft cockpits, complete with electrically driven analog instruments. They didn’t move, but they were a reasonable familiarization tool.

Thanks to today’s lightning-fast computers, hydraulic and electric actuators, and state-of-the-art software, modern flight simulators, and training devices have the look, feel, and sound of an aircraft in flight. That’s why the military, airlines, corporations, and the flight training centers they hire rely heavily on them to help make pilots proficient in everything from takeoffs to emergency landings without putting anything but egos in harm’s way.

But why should big organizations be the only ones with access to such tools? Shouldn’t every pilot have a chance to hone their skills in one?

The answer is a definitive "Yes." But with the best simulators — those with the most realistic look, feel, sound, and responses — costing millions of dollars a piece, the average individual can’t afford to pay $1,800 an hour to rent time in one, let alone buy one outright. Of course, there are less sophisticated simulators that sacrifice a certain degree of realism for a more affordable price, but even then, buying one is a six-figure affair, and renting time in one can be around $500 an hour. (You could almost fly the real aircraft for those prices!)

So what drives the price of today’s flight simulators? What makes them so expensive that most flying schools can’t afford to buy them, and most students are unwilling to rent time in them, not to mention buy one of their own? The answer is simple: fidelity.

Fidelity is the degree to which the simulator acts like a real aircraft. In the broadest sense, it’s the ability of the system to make a pilot believe that he or she is flying a specific model aircraft in the real world. This is accomplished through accurate cockpit layouts, realistic performance models, appropriate sounds, and visually correct computer-generated views of the environment outside the pilot’s windows. It’s this high level of fidelity that makes the best of them cost several million dollars.

For all intents and purposes, you can bring those prices down, but fidelity (and the training benefits that go with it) will suffer proportionately. The question is: by the time prices becomes affordable to various consumers, is there enough realism left to make the simulator useful? The answer is yes.

Take Frasca International’s TrueFlite H342, which faithfully replicates the instrument panel and flight characteristics of specific single-engine turbines, such as the AgustaWestland A119 Koala. Fidelity was dialed down considerably by building it on a motionless platform, which, by the way, technically makes it, and any other motionless sim, a flight training device (FTD). The visual illusion of movement is accomplished by pitching, rolling and yawing the virtual world on a wrap-around video screen. The result is a training experience that retains visual and tactile fidelity, but loses all seat-of-the-pants fidelity. This tradeoff trims the purchase price to around $350,000, which is within the reach of some flight operations, but not most individuals.

Displaying the graphics of a motionless device on just one large, flat screen that is positioned directly in front of a replica cockpit, as done in Frasca’s TrueFlite H system, dials down the fidelity even more by taking away the pilot’s peripheral views of the virtual world. Las Vegas-based Silver State Helicopters operates 35 of them around the country, because of the attractive balance it strikes between cost and realism. The result: a system that retails for about $175,000. (Silver State includes the cost of using it in their flight training tuition.)

Besides price, there is one result that vindicates cutting peripheral cues: zero-zero instrument training. If the FTD is set to simulate instrument meteorological conditions, it doesn’t matter what the student’s field of view is, since the only thing they can consult is their instrument panel. And while the ability to feel the motion of a simulator can help reinforce a pilot’s need to disregard what they feel and trust their instruments, a stationary platform is the next best teacher of that lesson.

AeroSimulators is a Belgian/U.S. company that specializes in high-quality, motionless flight training devices (FTDs). It builds them on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to generic model. "We attempt to work with our customer to get the right solution," said Mike Coligny, CEO of AeroSimulators USA. "We can build a full mock-up or anything less the customer wants."

Their requirements analysis consists of finding out who will be using the device and what their real-world mission is. Will it be for a single-pilot charter operation in an R44, a two-person police patrol team aboard a Jet Ranger, or a three-member medical crew flying an EC135?

Aero Simulator’s is most proud of three of its sub-systems: one tracks and records the pilot’s eye scan, another allows operators to simulate in-flight use of thermal imagers, and the third (available in early 2008) faithfully recreates an airborne medical suite.

"We offer savings," said Coligny, who added that it can cost $1,800 per hour to practice maneuvers in a real helicopter, but only $16 per hour in their most sophisticated FTD..

Environmental Tectonics offers a range of helicopter training devices and tools. Its showcase product is the GAT-II HELO multifunctional helicopter flight trainer. It is designed to emulate the performance of a generic, light utility helicopter in a realistic flight environment. It combines the capability to support training in basic flight, instrument navigation, and spatial disorientation, in the same training program.

The GAT-II HELO is an economical helicopter pilot training solution, the company says, combining affordable purchase price, low operation and maintenance costs and capability for high utilization. Atlantis Systems International has developed the helicopter vocational trainer (HVT), which it says offers affordable, high-fidelity training. The HVT, originally developed for the Canadian Forces to provide safe practice in the challenging task of landing a helicopter onto the deck of a ship at sea, has developed into a training system having a much broader range of applications in both the military and civil sectors.

By integrating virtual-reality headgear with a dynamic six-degree-of-freedom electric motion-base system and electric control loading, the HVT features full real-time helicopter dynamics and flexibility.

Using technology developed by Defence Research and Development Canada in Toronto, Canada, the Atlantis HVT is a dynamic training system with innovative features that include the ability to train a wide range of military and civil tasks, including deck landing, search and rescue, fire fighting, long-line, rooftop/urban operations, air ambulance, and special operations maneuvers.

The HVT also permits integrated training over an HLA network that allows pilots in different locations to participate in the same training session and repetitive training of dangerous, challenging, and complex helicopter operations.

The final step down on the fidelity/price continuum is easily the most well-known, most widely used product on the market, but even the company that produces it sometimes refers to it as a "game." It is Microsoft Flight Simulator (FS), or more specifically, Flight Simulator 2004 (FS2004) and Flight Simulator X (FSX), the two latest versions of the personal computer-based software package introduced in 1981.

With a retail price of around $60 for FSX and $30 for FS2004 (the still-available version that FSX replaced in 2006), one might assume that the fidelity is as low as it can get. That assumption is correct in some respects, but far from accurate in others.

In terms of cockpit environment and motion, the fidelity of FS is a flat zero. It lacks a mock cockpit and offers no physical motion. As far as flight modeling is concerned, the program’s Bell Helicopter 206B and Robinson Helicopter Co. R22s look and sound like the real aircraft, but provide only a mild resemblance to the way the real ones handle.

Where it shines brightly — and in some cases better than the multi-million dollar simulators — is in its graphically rich, jaw-droppingly accurate re-creation of the real world.

So, is there a learning component in FS? "Yes," said Ed Easterbrook, a professional rotorcraft pilot and certified flight instructor. "As an instrument trainer, it has great advantages for the 500 hr guy," he said. "It can provide exposure to and knowledge of instrument procedures." He is quick to add, however, that neither the FAA, nor the aviation authorities in other countries, recognize FS as a certified FTD, probably because of the hardware shortcomings mentioned earlier.

Easterbrook also helps run Metro Helicopters, an Internet-based club that links members’ computers together for group flying missions in flight simulators. He uses readily available after-market software products to correct the shortcomings found in FS’s helicopter models. He even helped independent designers beta test a Sikorsky Aircraft S-76 computer re-creation.

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