Realistic and cost-effective, CAEâ€™s new 3000 series flight training devices should usher in a new era of training possibilities in the light civil helicopter market.
In the 1990s, aviation researchers at the University of Illinois used flight simulators to subject 20 visual flight rules (VFR) pilots to simulated flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Some did better than others, but all became spatially disoriented and lost control of their aircraft in a matter of minutes. The average time from entry into IMC to loss of control was famously reported as 178 seconds â€” a figure that is now cited in just about every discussion of inadvertent IMC.
Although I hold helicopter instrument and instrument instructor ratings, I could relate to these poor VFR pilots: for many years, 178 seconds was my average life expectancy in a simulator or flight training device (FTD) under any conditions. Broad daylight, blue skies â€” it didnâ€™t matter. Put me in a simulator or FTD and ask me to â€œhoverâ€ it, and in 178 seconds Iâ€™d be looking at the red screen of death. Oh yes, and Iâ€™d also have a headache.
Last year in the magazine, I described how I began to warm up to FTDs when I used one for an instrument proficiency check (IPC) at Independent Helicopters in Newburgh, N.Y. (see p.6, Vertical, June-July 2010). Although I had long been theoretically convinced of the safety benefits of full-flight simulators (which have a motion component), as well as FTDs (which generally donâ€™t), that was my first experience in actually using one to my personal advantage. However, the fact that I spent most of my IPC in uniformly gray â€œcloudsâ€ â€” where the visuals that normally gave me a headache were a non-issue â€” meant I still wasnâ€™t fully comfortable with these devices for general training purposes.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to demo the CAE 3000 at a media day in Phoenix, Ariz. I hopped into the right seat of this FTD, and, as I normally do, promptly triggered the red screen of death. This time, however, I wasnâ€™t ready to just give up. I was impressed by the realism of the device itself â€” which replicated a Eurocopter AS350 B2 AStar â€” as well as by the clear and detailed visuals. So, a few months later I returned to CAE for a complete AS350 transition course, curious to see just how long it would take me to get the hang of it. I was pleasantly surprised.
Attention to Detail
CAE debuted its 3000 series FTD at Heli-Expo 2010 in Houston, Texas (see p.15, Vertical, June-July 2010). As a leading provider of simulation and modeling technologies, CAE has designed full-flight simulators for a wide range of complex, multi-engine helicopters â€” experience that it was able to draw on in creating an unusually realistic, yet cost-effective FTD for the light civil helicopter market. The CAE 3000 uses the companyâ€™s sophisticated Tropos-6000 visual system, which actually exceeds the requirements for full-flight simulator Level D qualification. It features high-definition, commercial, off-the-shelf projectors and an up to 220-degree-horizontal by 80-degree-vertical field of view with chin window coverage, allowing for complete immersion in the virtual experience.
The technical capabilities of the Tropos-6000 are matched by the quality of its modeling. Clearly, CAEâ€™s modelers have put in some late hours at the office: their virtual world is rich with texture and detail. For example, one very basic problem Iâ€™ve always had with FTDs is estimating my height above the surface â€” when the â€œgroundâ€ is a solid plane of color itâ€™s difficult to tell whether youâ€™re five feet above it, or 500. Although this was an occasional stumbling block for me when making a forced landing in the 3000 in a less fully modeled part of its virtual world (easily resolved by a quick glance at the radar altimeter), for the most part I found the visual system extremely realistic when close to the ground. I also found it convincingly three-dimensional. In the 3000, you can weave between buildings and towers, land solidly on rooftops (whether they have designated helipads or not) and chase moving cars along freeways. Things get better from thereâ€¦ but more on that in the final section of the article.
CAE selected the Eurocopter AS350 as its first platform because of its ubiquity in the civil helicopter market, in applications ranging from emergency medical services (EMS) to utility work. Just as the company went the extra mile in creating realistic visuals, it invested considerable effort in replicating the flight characteristics of the machine. Granted, I canâ€™t speak from personal experience here, because I donâ€™t have time in the real thing. However, the unbiased opinion of a friend who has flown the CAE 3000 â€” and who flies an AS350 B3 in his full-time EMS job â€” confirms that it does indeed handle like an AStar.
While some of the CAE 3000â€™s advantages become apparent only with time and proficiency, many of them are obvious right off the bat. So, it didnâ€™t take long for me to conclude that this FTD was pretty cool. The question was: would I actually be able to fly it?
To Hover Is Divine
As a manufacturer, CAE is naturally interested in selling the CAE 3000 to companies and organizations large enough to benefit from it. However, it has also gone into the training business with the CAE 3000, offering instruction at its facility in Phoenix, which is co-located with the US Airways flight training center. Because I lacked prior experience in the AS350, I opted to go through CAEâ€™s transition course from start to finish, much as would a low-time pilot that is transitioning to the AStar for tours or charter work.
My training experience actually began well before my trip to Phoenix, when I completed CAEâ€™s e-learning program. This computer-based training is an alternative or supplement to regular ground school, thoroughly covering aircraft systems and normal and emergency procedures. Customers are given a password to log into CAEâ€™s secure e-learning site, where they can complete modules at their convenience. Voice-overs, interactive diagrams and animations supplement the slide presentations of each module.
While the program had a few hiccups, overall I found it to be a great introduction to the AStar. (Admittedly, it wasnâ€™t an easy one â€” the frequent quizzes and end-of-section knowledge exams demanded my full attention.) The chief advantage of this digital learning was that it allowed me to greatly reduce my ground school time in Phoenix, giving me that much more time to spend in the FTD.
CAEâ€™s 3000 series chief instructor in Phoenix is Joe Ugulano, an industry veteran whose diverse helicopter background includes years of experience on AStars. Initially, CAE brought Ugulano on board to provide a pilotâ€™s perspective in refining the AStar handling characteristics of the 3000, so he knows the FTD inside and out. But while Ugulano is uniquely qualified to teach the nuances of the FTD, he also brings a valuable real-world perspective to the job. In other words, youâ€™re not getting instruction from a computer programmer, but from an experienced flight instructor who knows his stuff.
After running through start-up procedures, Ugulano had me start with some hover work. I was dubious of this approach. Most of the FTDs I had flown to date were so unstable in the hover that my instructors always advised me to transition immediately to forward flight rather than court the red screen of death. And, indeed, my first few attempts at hovering were extremely frustrating â€” the CAE 3000 lived up to the AS350â€™s nickname of the â€œSquirrelâ€ and then some.
Yet, within about half an hour I realized that I had actually gotten the hang of it. Indeed, the CAE 3000 was so stable in a hover that eventually I was able to do pirouettes down the runway: a training maneuver Iâ€™ve always enjoyed in real life, but had never even thought about doing in an FTD. When I moved on to forward flight, I realized that there was a method to Ugulanoâ€™s madness â€” after getting the hang of hovering, forward flight was a breeze. Moreover, because I was handling the controls smoothly, I wasnâ€™t getting the wildly gyrating visuals that had previously contributed to my disorientation and headaches in other FTDs. I still felt a little woozy after a session in the machine, but I was able to shake off the feeling pretty quickly.
Like most transition courses, only the first couple hours of my training were devoted to normal procedures. After that, it was all emergency procedures, all the time. Of course, emergency procedure training has always been where simulators and FTDs have earned their keep: even in a relatively basic FTD, you can safely experience situations you could never practice in the real aircraft. The CAE 3000 is no exception. Ever wanted to try a touchdown autorotation with a hydraulics failure? You can practice them to your heartâ€™s content in the 3000, and I did.
Touchdown autos were probably the maneuver in which I was most surprised by the unitâ€™s realism. While the CAE 3000 is not a full-motion simulator, it does have a three-degrees-of-freedom vibration platform that replicates the vibration cues of actual flight maneuvers. This includes the distinctive shudder that runs through an airframe after a touchdown auto â€” I could have sworn I was actually contacting the ground.
Although I botched my fair share of autorotations, that was my fault, not the FTDâ€™s. My ability to accurately judge my height above the ground meant that my flares and touchdowns were meaningful training maneuvers, and I improved accordingly. I practiced autorotations from all manner of airspeed-and-altitude combinations, including from out-of-ground-effect hovers just 200 feet above ground level. Here, Ugulano was able to turn the wind on and off to demonstrate how much autorotational advantage one can get from a 20-knot headwind â€” I wish every commercial helicopter student could have the opportunity to experience the same thing.
Training for the Mission
I passed through Phoenix again a couple of months after my initial transition course, and swung by CAE to try out some of the 3000 seriesâ€™ more advanced offerings. After two months of flying a desk, my start-up procedures were rusty indeed, but I was happy to discover that I could hover the FTD as comfortably as before.
With CAE having paid attention to the industryâ€™s growing emphasis on mission-specific training, the 3000 is set up to simulate a variety of mission scenarios. The first one I tried was an EMS scenario. Once I was in the air, Ugulano pointed out some flashing lights in the virtual city below me, and I followed them to an accident scene. After doing a couple of orbits to identify potential hazards â€” including wires, a slowly rotating crane and a hovering news helicopter â€” I set up an approach and landed on a road that had been cordoned off by police.
While bystanders watched in the distance, a paramedic came running up to the helicopter pushing a loaded gurney. He disappeared in my peripheral vision for a few seconds and then re-appeared with his gurney empty. Aha: I now had a patient on board. I lifted off and flew a short distance to a rooftop, hospital helipad, where I completed the virtual patient transfer.
Afterward, Ugulano transported me to the Gulf of Mexico, where I flew approaches to offshore oil platforms in gradually deteriorating weather. Just as I had been required to watch out for the news helicopter on the accident scene, here I was forced to contend with other landing traffic, as well as the multiple obstacles typical of offshore platforms. Finally, Ugulano turned the virtual daylight off and I began a nighttime, over-water flight back to base in Lake Charles, La. Naturally, Ugulano gave me an electrical failure en routeâ€¦ because a simulator instructor never misses an opportunity to throw in an emergency procedure.
Is the CAE 3000 as good as the real thing? Well, Iâ€™m not going to argue that it can replace 100 percent of the training currently being done in real aircraft, but the extent to which it can replace or supplement that training is remarkable. In creating a realistic, cost-effective flight training device that can be flown well by people like me â€” pilots who have a reasonably good track record of keeping actual helicopters upright, but who have no natural talent for simulators per se â€” CAE has helped pioneer a new generation of FTDs with a dramatically expanded potential role in the light civil helicopter market. Once you can control a machine for more than 178 seconds, the possibilities are endless.