Frasca photo

Editor’s note: When it was first published on Jul. 12, 2021, this story inadvertently suggested that the FAA did not provide credit for VFR flight training in some flight training devices. We have updated the article with corrected information.

Pilots benefit from flight simulation training, but limited availability of FAA flight credit inhibits its full potential.

As simulated flight-training technology improves and becomes more affordable, the helicopter industry’s training environment is evolving to embrace it. Insurance companies and helicopter operators increasingly require flight simulation in VFR and IFR training regimens. While the FAA provides limited credit for training in specific training devices, industry safety advocates strongly encourage every pilot to take advantage of any approved flight simulation technology for improved proficiency and safety.

Simulators Come Late to Helicopters

For decades, helicopter training was available only in the aircraft, limiting pilots’ ability to maintain peak proficiency. Some maneuvers and procedures are simply too dangerous to simulate in flight, such as extreme unusual attitudes and full emergency procedures.

Pilots who train only in aircraft practice these maneuvers in theory. For instance, a pilot touches the handle, knob, or control that would be manipulated in the event of the emergency or talks through the procedure rather than actually making the flight input. In a true emergency, however, this type of training can leave pilots without the needed muscle memory or proficiency because they’ve never actually practiced the maneuver.

Training in aircraft has other drawbacks. Hearing your pilot examiner announce an engine failure is a very different experience from losing power midflight, identifying the problem, and making the correct flight inputs, all in a matter of seconds. In a simulator, a scenario can be simulated, paused mid-action, and immediate feedback or correction given. A pilot can practice the same maneuver multiple times in rapid succession; there’s no need to circle back to reposition the aircraft.

Airplane flight simulators became popular in the 1980s, with more than 300 in use by 1991. Yet, at the same time, helicopter simulators were available only in the military in the United States. While the technology was proving its value in Europe, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the FAA began working on standards for helicopter simulators. Those that were approved were expensive full-flight simulators (FFSs) designed for large aircraft.

Editor’s note: In this article, we use “simulator” to describe any type of pilot training device that artificially re-creates various aspects of the flight environment. Please see “Simulator 101” at the bottom of this article for a comparison of the different types of simulators.

Simulator manufacturers have worked closely with OEMs and operators to deliver the next generation of flight training devices for the industry, offering very realistic experiences and training environments at a significant savings over Level D full flight simulators. (HeliSim Photo)

By the 2000s, little had changed. During the HAI Insurance Committee meeting at HAI HELI-EXPO 2005, insurance underwriters cited the lack of simulator availability as the main reason for not requiring simulated flight training for helicopter pilots, despite requiring it for airplane pilots.

Simulator manufacturers at the time, however, were hesitant to make the costly research-and-development investment needed without helicopter OEM buy-in. Aircraft-specific data was needed to make accurate, realistic simulators. The industry focus turned toward developing strong relationships among simulation manufacturers and aircraft OEMs, with the goal of increasing access to flight simulator options. Simulated flight-instruction advocates encouraged OEMs and simulation technology manufacturers to share key manufacturing and flight data information that, in the end, allowed simulators to accurately emulate cockpit layout and flight characteristics.

Meanwhile, the industry accident rate continued to be concerning. Safety advocates lobbied for more training, specifically in simulators, where full emergency procedures could be practiced.

Their voices were heard—to a point. In 2014, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released Safety Alert SA-031, which recommended that helicopter pilots train in simulators. In the alert, the NTSB noted that in many of the accidents it investigated, “training in approved simulators could have provided pilots with additional knowledge and skills to handle in-flight emergencies and avoid maneuvering errors.” The document emphasizes that “consistent, standardized simulator training will help prepare pilots for the unexpected and will decrease the risk of an accident.”

The FAA soon after updated training regulations to allow a minimum of simulated training device time toward initial pilot ratings and IFR currency. The insurance industry and many helicopter operators’ clients, such as offshore oil companies, however, stipulated this regular training in contracts.

Industry flight-training consultant Terry Palmer, president of Pilot Landing LLC and chair of HAI’s Training Working Group, has been actively involved in promoting simulator training in the helicopter industry for more than two decades. One of the training industry’s leading advocates, Palmer has an insider’s view of the evolution of simulator training.

“Insurance companies respond to NTSB recommendations,” Palmer says. “When the NTSB made the recommendation for training in simulators, the insurance companies finally put pressure on their customers, the helicopter operators, to use simulators. The operators then put pressure on the OEMs for better simulators, and it snowballed from there.”

By this time, Level D full-motion full flight simulators (FFSs) were being used at several training locations. However, training time in these advanced simulators, which provide a high-fidelity experience in a full-size replica of a specific aircraft cockpit, has remained very expensive—sometimes twice the cost of training in the actual aircraft. Flight simulation was therefore rarely used beyond insurance or customer contract requirements.

Meanwhile, better computer flight simulation and graphics opened the door for less expensive flight training devices (FTDs): simulators that may or may not emulate a specific aircraft model and typically do not move, but that provide accurate instrument responses and flight controls to practice regular and emergency procedures. These less sophisticated simulators, while not delivering the immersive experience of an FFS, provide all the advantages of simulation training—a way to accurately practice procedures and build correct muscle memory—at a lower cost. Helicopter OEMs and operators began working with simulator manufacturers to bring more FTDs to market and get them approved by the FAA.

By 2017, the FAA had begun allowing simulator credit toward minimum requirements for ratings and certificates in approved basic aviation training devices (BATDs), advanced aviation training devices (AATDs), and FTDs in addition to FFS, as well as allowing their use in instrument proficiency. Allowances range from 2.5 hours toward a Part 141 private pilot certificate to 25 hours toward a Part 61 commercial helicopter pilot certificate, plus the use of these devices to meet instrument proficiency requirements.

Simulator Training Today

Today, most large helicopter operators, such as those supporting offshore energy production, government contracts, and helicopter air ambulance missions, provide annual or semiannual simulator training for all pilots, some in FFSs and some in FTDs.

As a direct result of their customers’ increased demand for simulator training, helicopter manufacturers have stepped in with their own simulator-equipped training centers. Offerings range from FFS-focused instruction to a variety of technologies that include FTDs.

Earlier this spring, Leonardo unveiled its new training center in Philadelphia, featuring three Level D FFSs, three virtual interactive procedural trainers (VIPTs) that simulate cockpit controls and avionics systems, and two FTDs. With the opening of the Leonardo training center, all helicopter OEMs in North America now offer simulator training.

Of all the OEMs, Bell operates the most FTDs in the United States, at its training academy in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to the Level D FFSs, Bell operates Level 6 and 7 FTDs to represent the company’s light aircraft. Airbus Helicopters in Grand Prairie, Texas, built a new training center to house the first H145 and H175 Level D simulators in North America. This adds to Airbus’s FTDs for its EC135 and H125 aircraft. (Please see “Simulation Training Resource Guide” at the bottom of this article for a list of simulation opportunities.)

In response to customer demand, helicopter OEMs are offering increased simulator access as an incentive to purchase a helicopter. Leonardo’s new AW139 FFS (pictured) is a part of the OEM’s new US Training Academy. (Leonardo Photo)

“The OEMs realize their customers require simulator training for their pilots to safely operate the aircraft,” Palmer says. “Access to an affordable simulator is now a part of the buying decision. If you don’t have a simulator in-country, you could lose the sale to a competitor. At the same time, operators have not only accepted the value of simulator training for their own training regimen, but they also recognize the technology has improved to the point where they don’t need the $20 million Level D simulators to achieve their training goals.”

And the OEMs aren’t the only game in town. Established flight simulation companies such as Frasca and Redbird have invested in developing more affordable FTDs with high-fidelity imagery and accurate aircraft responses, and many companies have begun purchasing their own FTDs.

Med-Trans Corp. of Denton, Texas, purchased a Frasca Bell 407GX Level 7 FTD to bring its pilot training in house. Each pilot trains three times a year, and one of those multiple-day trainings is in the FTD annually. The company used to outsource simulator flight training, but the value of the training, combined with the higher-fidelity options from Level 7 FTDs at a fraction of the cost of sending pilots to a third-party FSS, enticed the company to purchase its own machine.

“We are absolutely happy with the device,” says Mike LaMee, Med-Trans director of operations. “You can’t simulate an engine fire or get engine gauges to show oil temp highs or loss of oil pressure in an aircraft. With a simulator, you can. It goes beyond learning emergencies academically. You can see the real indications you would experience in an actual situation.”

LaMee goes on to say that offering in-house simulator training provides additional benefits. “We’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback from our pilots, not just in the training and experience, but also in the connection our pilots make coming to the headquarters. This gives us the opportunity to engage with everyone in the 25 states where we operate.”

Med-Trans is one of three global medical response (GMR) companies that own and operate Level 7 FTDs from Frasca. The other two are AirEvac Lifeteam of O’Fallon, Missouri, and Guardian Flight in South Jordan, Utah. All three FTDs include cueing—some movement to give the pilot the sensation of changing direction in a 3-D space—yet take up only a small portion of space compared with an FSS.

“These really are tremendous devices,” says Tink Sullivan, AirEvac Lifeteam’s chief aviation simulator operator and pilot trainer. “The visuals are spectacular. The movement is very realistic—it’s given me the leans. About five minutes after you’re in, you feel it. We wanted to increase our training capabilities, so we looked at adding the FTD. I can say we are in a much better training situation now with it.”

Newcomers to flight simulation manufacturing are also increasing opportunities with out-of-the-box thinking. VRM Switzerland received approval in April of this year from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for its Robinson R22 virtual-reality training device, the first approval by the agency for such a product. With its EASA flight and navigation procedures trainer (FNPT) II certification, the device can be used for credit toward European private and commercial helicopter licenses. The company plans to obtain FAA certification for this and several other model-specific devices in the works.

The Big Hurdle

VRM Switzerland’s recent EASA certification highlights a major hurdle that continues to limit simulator training across the US helicopter industry: the lack of significant FAA credit for simulator use in VFR training and currency. While the FAA currently accepts a minimum approved simulated flight training device time for private, commercial, instrument, and ATP ratings, arguably the bulk is used for instrument training.

“Safety advocates and simulator training providers have done a great job of educating the industry to understand the importance of simulators, with an emphasis on Level D simulators,” Palmer says. “But you don’t need the expensive full-motion simulators to practice and train for many emergency maneuvers and situations. The push now is for more FTDs and to make simulator training more affordable for all operators.”

While individual operators may provide simulator training for their pilots, convincing the rest of the pilot population that would have to pay out of pocket to access this technology for training and proficiency remains an uphill battle without more FAA credit. “To ensure everyone is using them to increase their safety, we need the FAA to recognize their value and offer VFR recurrency credit in FTDs,” says Palmer.

Tim Tucker, former chief flight instructor at Robinson Helicopter Co., FAA designated pilot examiner, and industry safety advocate, agrees. “The only way simulator technology will take hold is if the FAA grants increased credit for simulator use, whether it be in initial training, recurrent training, or reviews,” says Tim Tucker, “Otherwise, you’re just relying on people’s safety attitudes.”

Today’s simulator technology has become so advanced, Tucker says, that it provides very realistic opportunities for VFR pilots to practice maneuvers and emergency procedures that are just too dangerous to fully perform in an aircraft.

“When you can practice something properly that you can’t do in the aircraft, there’s considerable value there,” Tucker says of simulators. “For helicopters, that’s instrument training, because most training helicopters can’t actually fly in instrument meteorological conditions or safely execute some high-risk emergency procedures such as low-G recovery, engine failure, or tail-rotor failure.”

Tucker doesn’t, however, advocate simulator training for inadvertent IMC (IIMC) for non–instrument-rated pilots who fly non–instrument-certificated aircraft.

“When it comes to IIMC, that’s where my opinion differs,” Tucker says. “For non–instrument-rated pilots, I’m against discussing and practicing what to do if you get into inadvertent IMC with VFR-only pilots. For many pilots, that doesn’t work. I’m more for teaching people how to stay away from getting anywhere near that situation. Certainly, you can teach avoidance in a simulator.”

Tucker is excited by the EASA approval of the VRM Switzerland simulator. He sees it as being almost on par with a Level D FFS, which opens the door for new pilots to embrace realistic simulation training from the beginning of their schooling. This is the first device approved to closely resemble the world’s most popular training aircraft, the R22.

“To have that for a Robinson is pretty incredible,” Tucker says. “It shows that the quality of VFR simulation is getting better, better, and better. It truly can have a positive impact in training.”

Without FAA credit for ongoing VFR simulator training, however, Tucker and Palmer believe this technology can’t reach its full potential to save lives. Currently, the US training system incentivizes aircraft time over training value. Without the incentive of credit for more simulator use, pilots scraping to afford their education can’t or won’t regularly choose sim training beyond the minimums credited, Tucker emphasizes.

How much time a pilot chooses to train using simulated flight training technology after receiving a rating, license, or check out in a new aircraft really depends on the pilot’s experience and skill, Tucker says. Practicing emergency procedures an hour or two in a top-level FTD twice a year would be very valuable for all pilots, as even the highest time aviators can get rusty. Tucker recommends using these devices more often, perhaps even quarterly, if you’re a low-time pilot or fly only a few hours a month.

“The key is you’re able to do things in a sim that you can’t do in the aircraft,” Tucker says. “Therefore, the simulator becomes valuable at every pilot skill level.”

At this time, the FAA has no plans to increase simulator credit.

“Currently, the FAA is not seeking to expand the simulator credit allowances for FFSs, FTDs, or ATDs,” according to a statement sent to ROTOR.


Simulator 101

There are three FAA-defined categories of simulation-based training devices currently used to provide flight simulation training. As simulators become more complex, they provide a more realistic training environment in terms of flight systems, visual displays, motion simulation, and cockpit environment.

Just as you look to buy the aircraft that most perfectly suits your mission requirements, you should invest in the simulated training environment that best suits your training needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Full Flight Simulators

The full flight simulator (FFS) is the most advanced type of flight simulation available to pilots and training institutions. An FFS has a motion base and includes a full replica of the cockpit of a specific make, model, and series of aircraft. All aerodynamics, flight controls, and systems must perform as the actual aircraft would in flight.

There are three levels of FFS available:

  • FFS Level D: The highest level provides a motion platform capable of moving in all six directions, a visual system with a 180-degree view, and a number of motion, visual, and aural effects that enhance the realism of the cockpit environment.
  • FFS Level C: This level has the same motion and visual capability as Level D but features fewer visual and aural effects.
  • FFS Level B: This level has at least a three-axis motion platform and a visual system that responds to pilot input at a slower rate than the level C or D.

Flight Training Devices

A flight training device (FTD) is usually a nonmotion trainer that replicates a specific aircraft, including instruments, equipment, panels, and controls, in an open or closed flight deck. Some newer FTDs have a motion base. Research has shown that an FTD that provides even subtle motion or aural cues, such as vibration seats, can match the immersive experience offered by a more expensive FFS.

Aircraft-specific flight training devices are designated by numbers rather than the letters that correspond to full-flight simulators:

  • FTD Level 7, the highest level, has an enclosed flight deck and a fully operational aerodynamic program with all helicopter systems operational. All controls and switches replicate the feel of the aircraft. The visual system must provide cross-deck viewing from both pilots’ seats, and vibration cues enhance the realism of the training.
  • FTD Level 6 is the same as Level 7 without the vibration cues.
  • FTD Level 5 has at least one operating system, and the flight controls must be physical controls.
  • FTD Level 4 has one operating system.

Aircraft Training Device

An aircraft training device (ATD) has a nonspecific cockpit. Significant developments in computer flight simulation and visual graphics capability have led to the increased use of ATDs in general aviation training. This evolving simulation technology provides effective training capabilities at reduced cost for flight schools.

Virtual Reality Simulation

The simulation industry is rapidly evolving, with manufacturers developing new technology that in some ways challenges current FAA-defined simulation levels, such as virtual reality. As these new devices come to market, more revolutionary and affordable options will help expand simulation training access.


Simulation Training Resource Guide

Below is a list of some training centers and flight schools that offer simulation training. Simulator manufacturers are also listed.

Training Centers

Coptersafety
Finland | coptersafety.com

Certifications

  • EASA
  • FAA – in process

Simulators

  • AW139 Level D
  • H125 Level D
  • H145 Level D
  • AW169 Level D
  • Coming soon: AW189 Level D

Additional Services

  • Full courses, including aircraft-specific, IFR, human factors, night-vision goggles
  • Custom courses and dry leasing available

FlightSafety
UK, USA | flightsafety.com

Certifications

  • EASA
  • FAA

Simulators

  • AS350 Level D
  • AW139 Level D
  • Bell 212 Level D
  • Bell 407 GPX Level D
  • Bell 412 Level D
  • Bell 430 Level D
  • EC130 Level D
  • EC135 Level D
  • EC145 Level D
  • S-70 Level D
  • S-76 Level D
  • S-92 Level D

Flight Training Devices

  • BH206
  • BH407

Additional Services

  • Full courses, including aircraft-specific, IFR, human factors, night-vision goggles
  • Dry leasing available

HeliSim (Airbus, Thales)
France, USA | helisim.fr

Certifications

  • EASA
  • FAA

Simulators

  • AS332 Level D
  • AS350 B3 Level B
  • H145 Level D
  • H155 Level D
  • H175 Level D
  • H225 Level D
  • NH90 Level D
  • Coming soon: H160 Level D

Flight Training Devices

  • AS332
  • AS365
  • EC135
  • EC145
  • H225

Additional Services

  • Full courses, including aircraft-specific, IFR, human factors, night-vision goggles
  • Custom courses and dry leasing available

Bell Training Academy
Spain, USA | bellflight.com/support-and-service/training

Certifications

  • EASA
  • FAA

Simulators

  • Bell 407 Level B
  • Bell 429 Level D
  • Bell 525 Level D

Flight Training Devices

  • Bell 206
  • Bell 407
  • Bell 412
  • Bell 429
  • Bell 505

Additional Services

  • Full courses, including aircraft-specific, IFR, human factors, night-vision goggles

Leonardo
USA, Italy | leonardocompany​.com/en/customer​-support/elicotteri​-helicopter/training​-solutions/rotorsim

Certifications

  • EASA
  • FAA

Simulators

  • AW109 Level B
  • AW139 Level D
  • AW169 Level D
  • AW189 Level D
  • Coming soon: AW609 Level D

Flight Training Devices

  • AW109
  • AW119
  • AW139
  • AW09 (formerly Kopter SH09)
  • AW609

Additional Services

  • Full courses, including aircraft-specific, IFR, human factors, night​-vision goggles

Flight Schools

Colorado Heli-Ops
Broomfield, CO, USA | coloradoheliops.com

  • Elite advanced aircraft training device
  • Full courses using aircraft and simulation
  • Simulation supported pilot training

Hillsboro Aero Academy
Hillsboro, OR, USA | flyhaa.com

  • Frasca advanced aircraft training device
  • Full courses using aircraft and simulation
  • Simulation-supported pilot training

Simulator Manufacturers

CAE
cae.com/civil-aviation

  • Level D simulators

Elite
flyelite.com

  • Advanced aircraft training devices

FlightSafety
flightsafety.com

  • Level D simulators

Frasca
frasca.com

  • Advanced aircraft training devices
  • Flight training devices
  • Level B simulators
  • Level D simulators

Redbird Flight Simulations
simulators.redbirdflight.com

  • Advanced aircraft training devices

Thales
thalesgroup.com/en/activities/market​-specific-solutions/training-simulation

  • Flight training devices
  • Level D simulators

TRU
trusimulation.com

  • Flight training devices
  • Level D simulators

VRM Switzerland
vrm-switzerland.ch

  • Virtual reality training devices

Author

  • Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with CFI and CFII ratings. Jen now runs her own public relations and communications firm.

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with CFI and CFII ratings. Jen now runs her own public relations and communications firm.