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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Customers Set The Pace

James Careless and James T. McKenna

In corporate helicopter training, operators want quality courses that focus on their specific mission and airspace requirements.

KEEP THE CUSTOMER SATISFIED: IT'S A BUSINESS MANtra, and one that the corporate helicopter training sector seems to be taking to heart. In a bid to woo students and operators alike, manufacturers like AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter Textron and Eurocopter and training vendors like CAE SimuFlite and FlightSafety International say they are spending more time listening to what their clients want, and doing whatever program customization is necessary to satisfy those desires.

When it comes to corporate helicopter training, "cost doesn't seem to be the issue with customers as much as it is quality," said Ned Carlson, director of business aviation sales for Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport-based CAE SimuFlite. "People want quality instructors and quality technology to train on."

Beyond quality teaching and technology, corporate helicopter clients want courses that address their particular, even unique needs. This is why "we're focusing on industry-specific training," said Terry Palmer, FlightSafety International's manager of rotorcraft and special programs. "To meet what our customers are asking for, we are developing specific training programs."

A case in point: "It used to be that corporate helicopter training courses were pretty much off-the-shelf," said SimuFlite's Carlson. "No longer: Customers want to train for the airspace they work in." For instance, he said, one SimuFlite customer, an operator in Anchorage, Alaska, was interested in training pilots in the idiosyncracies of flying over the North Pole. "So we customized a global operations course so that it focused on polar routes."

In addition to demanding customized courses, corporate customers want to play a role in how those courses are put together. One could say that they want to define the "custom" in customization.

Bell Helicopter's corporate customers have made it clear that what they want is "scenario-based pilot training that addresses their mission requirements and helps reduce their insurance rates," said Launa Barboza. Her duties as Bell's director of customer training and logistics includes overseeing the company's newly relocated and expanded Customer Training Academy at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas.

The demand for advanced, tailored training is illustrated by the pace of utilization for FlightSafety's still-new Level D Sikorsky S-92 at the company's West Palm Beach, Fla., Learning Center. Approved by the FAA last December, the simulator is being used to train six S-92 pilots a month in the initial full-service course. In addition to offshore customers, which are making heavy use of the S-92, the trainees include pilots from pharmaceutical maker Pfizer and Stansted, London-based Air Harrods. Air Harrods took delivery a year ago of the first corporate S-92, fitted with 19-seat VVIP interior. It is maintaining and managing the aircraft for a customer.

New clients for the S-92 simulator will include operators from Turkey and Washington Times Aviation. FlightSafety has considered adding an additional S-92 Level "D" simulator. The current sim is equipped with the VITAL 9 five-channel visual system, which covers 220 deg. horizontally and 60 deg. vertically. The simulator incorporates digital map displays and enhanced ground proximity warning, traffic/collision avoidance and dual flight management systems. It is the world's first full-flight simulator for the S-92.

This month, Agusta and CAE plan to take the next step in their helicopter training partnership when they opened their joint Rotorsim center in Sesto Calende, Italy for classes. The center is to receive its first CAE-built, full-motion simulator for the Agusta 109 this year. After checkout and certification, it should begin operations in early 2006. That simulator will be followed by one for the Agusta 109 LUH military light utility helicopter. After that, the center is to receive an AB139 simulator.

To improve the utility of its offerings, particularly for North American customers, the Helisim training center in Marseilles, France is pursuing U.S. FAA level-D certification of its EC155 full-motion simulator as well as a Level D EC225 simulator expected to come on line in 2007. Over the next five to 10 years, Helisim plans to open new training facilities in the U.S. and Southeast Asia to serve new Eurocopter customers in those markets.

Located near Eurocopter's main offices and the Marseilles-Provence International Airport, Helisim is a joint venture of Eurocopter, Thales and Defense Conseil International. It operates JAA-certified, Level D full-motion simulators for the Super Puma AS332L1 and 332L2, Dauphin AS365 N2 and EC155. Like most full-motion simulators, they are operated around the clock, except when they are down for maintenance.

While officials of the manufacturers and training vendors agreed that customers value quality over cost, they also pointed out that cost still matters. Specifically, many customers are not willing to pay $1,000 an hour to rent time on full-motion simulators when they can rent actual aircraft--or use their own--for less. Major corporations expect to train their flight crews in six-degree-of-freedom full-motion simulators and budget for their aviation departments accordingly. But smaller operators still aren't sold on the cost-benefit trade-offs of such devices.

"We believe in FTDs," said Bell's Barboza. "Students like them. The visual systems are very realistic and FTDs are a lot more affordable than full-motion simulators when it comes to price." A typical six-degree-of-motion simulator can cost up to $25 million. That's a price tag that can make sense when the aircraft in question is a heavy-lift, multi-engine aircraft, but not a single-engine light model costing $3 million or less.

"Ninety-five percent of the scenarios that a full motion simulator can create can be found in FTDs," Barboza said. "We considered adding motion chairs into our existing FTDs recently. However, this technology is still very expensive. We will continue to monitor the cost, seeking the ability to integrate such capabilities at a reasonable price. But the 95 percent training solution in the FTD is really good enough because our students also spent at least one hour flying in the aircraft, during which time they do a number of take-offs and landings."

While Eurocopter provides full-motion simulator training for its larger aircraft at its Marseilles training facility, the company recently "determined that it needed an FTD to augment the training requirements on the EC135" in the United States, said Del Livingston, American Eurocopter's vice president of flight operations and customer training.

Eurocopter is a booster of the FTD/actual aircraft training model. "With today's computer technology, you can create affordable FTDs with visuals as good as any full-motion simulator," Livingston said. "FTDs can also save wear-and-tear on actual aircraft, while giving students better training in many instances."

Clearly, these training companies believe that FTDs and in-flight instruction is enough. This is why the first Eurocopter EC135 full-motion simulator in North America wasn't commissioned by these companies, but rather a customer: The EMS helicopter operator STAT MedEvac.

Based in West Mifflin, Pa., near Pittsburgh, STAT MedEvac has 10 EC135s in its fleet, with four more on order. To provide its EMS pilots with "superior flight training at a dramatically lower cost," the company hired Fidelity Flight Simulation to create an EC135 full motion simulator for under $1.5 million. Based on Fidelity's six-degree-of-freedom MOTUS trainer, which uses small electric motors to substantially reduce the cost of providing motion, the Fidelity EC135 full-motion simulator is now stationed at Allegheny County Airport outside of Pittsburgh.

"The use of this simulator will take our training to a higher level," CJ Systems Aviation Group president and COO Larry Pietropaulo said. CJ Systems provides the helicopters that STAT MedEvac uses. In total, CJ Systems operates 110 helicopters nationwide. The EC135 full-motion simulator won't just be useful for pilots who fly EC135s, "but for other helicopters as well," Pietropaulo said.

Still, some operators insist that the only truly effective means of training safe pilots is with full-motion simulators. While its order book for AB139s is chock full, for instance, Bell/Agusta Aerospace Corp. has had at least one customer walk away from the new medium twin because a full-motion sim for it is not yet available.

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