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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Bull Market

Training and equipment providers see growing demand for vision aids.

AS WELL AS PROVIDING A LOOK

at what's ahead, night-vision systems have the uncanny ability to impart some hindsight. "We look at what we did in the past and wondered if what we did was smart," said Brian Fennessey, chief of air operations for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Dept.

He spoke of life before enhanced vision and after. San Diego began using night-vision goggles (NVGs) in 2004, and earlier this year, incorporated a single-band enhanced vision system (EVS) built by Max-Viz into its Bell 212HP nighttime operations.

Similarly, Mike Atwood, president of Boise-based Aviation Specialties Unlimited, a provider of NVGs, NVG-compatible lighting conversions and NVG training, recently put out a survey to which 23 emergency medical services operators responded. Question: "Do you feel that operations were safer when you began using NVGs?" Unanimous answer: "Yes." When the operators were asked if they were tempted to "push" weather minimums with their newfound abilities, all said "No." Some had even increased their minimums "because now they could see the weather," said Atwood.

Such epiphanies are more and more common as the civilian fleet equips with aids for seeing at night. Whether they use NVG, EVS, synthetic vision systems (SVS) or some combination thereof, a robust market confirms that operators are finding the benefits of equipping with advanced technology visual aids are outweighing the costs. "If I could get 1,000 goggles tomorrow, I think I could get every one of them sold," Atwood said. "It's absolutely chaos." His clientele in the past had largely been law enforcement, but now they're mostly EMS.

"It's been kind of a continuous push," he said. "There's been a proactive approach to it, in the interest of safety." Last year, Atwood said he began to see a "significant increase" in interest from smaller operations, those with five or fewer aircraft.

Safety regulators are chiming in. An April 2005 report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau concluded "NVGs have the potential to enhance the safety of visual flight at night" and that "compared with unaided night vision, NVGs increase a pilot's ability to see the horizon, terrain, observe meteorological conditions and to identify objects." They "assist a pilot to maintain spatial orientation, avoid hazards and inadvertent IMC entry and visually navigate."

Not surprisingly, equipage is particularly hot in the EMS sector, where 50 percent of the nighttime accidents over the past two years were the result of controlled-flight into terrain, said Bill Harwood, director of sales for EVS manufacturer Max-Viz. As of late September, Max-Viz had delivered 100 EVS units, most of which have been the uncooled, 8-12-micron "long wave" EVS-1000, which displays a 53-deg. forward field of view (FOV) on an LCD or electronic flight bag. Harwood said the equipped price for an EVS-1000 on a helicopter is about $80,000. Though no training is required, Harwood said he talks to crewmembers and tells them "what to expect." He said the company is doubling its EVS business on a year-to-year basis and has a large backlog.

Aviation Specialties' Atwood said equipping a single-helicopter operation for NVGs costs about $60,000--$25,000 to make cockpit lighting compatible with the goggles, $10,000 each for two sets of goggles, about $13,000 for initial training for four pilots and $3,200 per pilot per year afterward for recurrent training. Aviation Specialties maintains goggles for operators as well, recertifying the units every six months through its Part 145 repair station certificate for about $200 per unit. The company's Part 135 initial training course includes 8 hr. of ground school and 5 hr. of flight time; refresher training involves 4-8 hr. of ground and 1.5 flight hours. TSO'd goggles include ITT's 4949 model and Northrop Grumman's M949. Other training vendors include Bell Helicopter, with its Part 141 NVG instructor pilot training course, and American Eurocopter.

Simulator manufacturers supporting those operations are also getting a boost. John Frasca, vice president of Frasca Interational, said two years ago the requirement for NVG-compatible simulators was "rare," with the feature being built on one or two simulators a year. Now, said Frasca, 50 percent of his helicopter simulator customers want NVG compatibility, including systems where the visual scene itself looks like what the pilot would see if he or she was wearing NVGs.

San Diego Fire-Rescue is atypical in that it's a customer of both Aviation Specialties and Max-Viz. "We find that the combination of both (NVG and EVS) enhances our operational safety at night," said Fennessey. Due to San Diego's local climate--a strong coastal influence that brings haze and inversions on a nightly basis--the department equipped with NVGs and EVS. NVGs, which operate just above the visual spectrum (about 1 micron), have a 40-deg. field of view and allow the pilots to see in any direction their head is turned, but they are not capable of seeing through smoke and fog. EVS on the other hand is limited in its field of view, but it has other advantages. Fennessey said the EVS-1000, mounted in the center windscreen post of the 212HP, allows pilots to get on the backside of blowing smoke columns to be able to see homes and structures threatened by oncoming fire. It's also useful for getting back to home base when temperature inversions bring in fog later in the evening when crews are returning.

Commercially available SVS packages for helicopters include Chelton's Flight Systems' FlightLogic unit. FlightLogic features 3D synthetic vision and highway-in-the-sky flight path guidance. Hillsboro Aviation, which installed the first ever Chelton system in a helicopter under an STC owned by Chelton, now has three equipped Bell helicopters in its fleet and is working on five completions for other customers. Like NVGs and EVS, the SVS offers pilots an additional means boosting situational awareness.

With NVG and EVS programs becoming more popular, operators and providers have some lessons-learned to share. San Diego's Fennessey advises that operators preparing to launch an NVG or EVS program "contact us and other agencies using the equipment." As only the second fire department in the U.S. to have such a program, San Diego scoured the sector to see what was available. The Los Angeles Fire Dept. had had an NVG program since the 1970s, though its operating methods were largely unwritten. "This wasn't going to work for a new program," said Fennessey. "In the days of liability and litigation - everything has to have a procedure, a manual of operations." Fennessey said the department gathered information from a wide variety of sources, including conversations with the L.A. department, the military, the National Guard and the Forest Service. The importance of training and documentation is shared by the Australian safety board, which said initial and recurrent training are crucial to having a safe program, since pilots can "overestimate the capabilities of the technology and fly into inappropriate conditions for safe flight." It noted aircraft must be modified for compatible lighting and the operator should develop special operational procedures for the gear.

From a provider's perspective, Aviation Specialties' Atwood said some operators found out the hard way that certain expenses cannot be avoided when becoming an NVG operation. "Every type-certificated aircraft has to have an STC for NVG-compatible lighting," he said. "There's no easy way to do a conversion." A rule change in December 2004 precluded using a Form 337 to incorporate the lighting. "If you try to half-ass this thing," he said, "it's going to be a half-assed operation."

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