Modern full-flight simulators are so realistic that a student pilot can learn to fly from scratch in the virtual world and step directly into an aircraft for real-world, leave-the-ground checkout flights.
High-fidelity virtual reality simulators may be one answer to training the thousands of pilots the global helicopter industry will need to meet an expected skyrocketing demand over the next decade. To make that training more efficient and affordable, it is important to tailor training to individual students, according to Nick Scarnato, director of global strategy, training and mission systems at Collins Aerospace.
Growing up in the digital age, raised on handheld computers, immersive video games and the Internet, younger pilots learn differently than the methods employed by many, traditional pilot training programs, he said.
“Today you have smart phones and iPads and cloud-based solutions and a lot more of what I would call very realistic graphical virtual reality, augmented reality solutions,” he added. “When you put students through what would be considered a more hardware-in-the-loop type approach, the interest isn't there, which could have an effect on training.”
Training pilots is costly and time consuming, so virtual reality preparation may sound like an efficient and affordable solution to the looming pilot shortage. Industry seems to agree, as global flight simulator market revenue is expected to grow from $5.7 billion in 2019 to $7.7 billion by 2025--full flight simulators being the largest share, according to a 2019 report by Research and Markets.
High-fidelity full flight sims are pricey. FAA-qualified full flight simulators can cost $10 million. Full-time equivalent (FTE) Level six and seven trainers without motions still cost up to $1 million. Before “throwing technology” at the problem, industry should focus on how individual students learn and use new technology not just to teach them, but to design bespoke curriculums and metrics for progress, Scarnato said.
A training approach that includes time with an instructor in low- and high-fidelity simulators may produce pilots more efficiently, especially if there are appropriate ways to measure a student’s progress.
“We see a trend where they’re going with a blended approach,” Scarnato said. “They may order more lower-level devices like an FTE level five or six, that is not motion, but they can get more students through that and then they just do their checkout flight in a level D device and then when they pass that, they can then go on so they can get more students through the pipeline.”
Training outfits and helicopter manufacturers are investing heavily in training programs, recognizing the need for a glut of new pilots to enter the business.
Both the Sikorsky S-97 Raider and Bell V-280 Valor have dedicated simulators that show off the advanced fly-by-wire controls and unique capabilities of the aircraft, though neither is full-motion. The Navy’s new TH-XX trainer, for which Leonardo, Bell and Airbus are competing, will also include an immersive Ground Based Training System (GBTS) procured through a competition the service considers important enough to separate from the helicopters themselves.
Leonardo is investing $65 million in a 60,000-square-foot training campus at its facility outside Philadelphia that will mirror the one it already operates in Sesto Calende, Italy. The new academy will include maintenance training bays, virtual-enhanced training devices and Level D full flight simulators for the AW119, AW139 and AW609 tiltrotor, as well as new class rooms and customer lounges. The facility will also introduce dedicated services for customers of the AW609 as it enters mass production ahead of FAA civil certification, as well as the first U.S. AW169 full flight simulator.
“We are getting the experience coming from the field to be replicated in the dynamics of the helicopter on the simulator, as is usually done for any aircraft through life cycle or after any product upgrade which needs to be reflected by simulation devices, especially Level D [full flight simulator],” said Vittorio Della Bella, Leonardo's senior vice president of global customer support and training.
Airbus runs a network of 20 training centers that offer high-fidelity full flight simulators to reduce the cost of training in general. At the same time, the company has prioritized time with a human flight instructor during its courses for younger, less experienced pilots.
“Virtual reality and immersive tools can certainly play a role in reducing the costs of training in general, and Airbus is indeed investing in this area,” an Airbus spokesperson told R&WI in an email. “But we must ensure that these tools have a sufficient level of fidelity and, especially so for young pilots, that they are used in conjunction with a flight instructor. Airbus believes very much in the huge added value of instructors, and we must take care that immersive tools do not lead to self-training. This is why, in our mind, virtual tools can be a good means for reviewing a course, or for deepening the students’ knowledge on a particular topic; but, at least in a helicopters context, we do not see them as an alternative to instructor-led training.”
An oft-cited study conducted by the University of North Dakota and Helicopter Association International and published in 2018 described an inevitable shortage of close to 8,000 helicopter pilots in the United States alone through 2036. That is largely the result of a net loss of pilots in the industry and the expectation that fewer pilots will join the industry than will leave it over the next dozen years, the study found.
Several factors are converging to whittle down the existing pilot population and choke off the pipeline of incoming student pilots. The list of contributory factors is lengthy. The current crop of commercial pilots — Boomers are heavily represented — is aging. The U.S. Army is trying desperately to staunch attrition in its pilot ranks, which are being poached by higher-paying commercial airlines.
“Everybody's aware the pilot field is dwindling,” Scarnato said. “That's also the case in the commercial world. Plus, there are a whole lot more platform types that are coming into the market, new commercial aircraft, which is amplifying that problem.”
Entry-level commercial helicopter pilot salaries are dismally low compared to other industries and dwarf the debt some cadet pilots incur on the way to certification. When the helicopter industry was hit by a one-two punch of the global financial crisis and falling oil prices, hundreds, maybe thousands, of helicopter pilots were suddenly without jobs. When rotorcraft jobs servicing offshore oil platforms dried up, the fixed-wing side of the flying industry started to look greener for them.
As a result, demand for pilots — and an expected abrupt increase in future demand — will far outstrip the current supply. Most in the industry agree that traditional sources of new commercial pilots and training methods are not sufficient to fill the gap.
Shuffling more students into simulators will not suffice to overcome the problem. Likewise, squeezing a curriculum into their brains twice as fast is not twice as efficient, Scarnato said. In fact, research aided by Collins engineers is trying to find a method of determining each student’s saturation sweet spot to maximize instruction but avoiding cognitive burnout.
To do that, Collins is analyzing training effectiveness and the application of adaptive learning using “pretty trendy aspects” of machine learning, data analytics and artificial intelligence to solve the problem, Scarnato said.
“At the base of all that is getting to the cognitive learning, the ability to affect a student’s training to where they could retain what we’re delivering in the way of training scope so that they become certified and retain that information and getting them there quickly. That’s what we view as one of the biggest challenges and the thing we would like to see more research and more dollars spent on.”
One study Collins engineers helped conduct found that simulator fidelity “greatly affects the performance of competent and expert pilots, but less so in novice pilots.” Lower-fidelity simulations can’t fool more experienced pilots whose “air sense” is attuned to subtle cues from the aircraft, according to the study, presented at the 2018 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. What’s the name of the study? May be good to include.
Low-tech sims are less effective at training advanced maneuvers to experienced pilots, but these less expensive simulators may be the ticket to ushering new and novice pilots through basic flight training, the study found.
“Novice pilots quickly learn to adapt to the dynamics of a flight model with lesser fidelity as they do not have to unlearn established dynamic parameters experienced in real flight,” the study found. “Novice pilots simply learn to fly the lesser fidelity flight model with no regard to how this skill transfers to real flight.”
Immersing less-experienced pilots in high-fidelity simulators also could overload their capacity to perform certain tasks critical to flight training, but students performing tasks beneath their ability become bored. Matching challenges to an individual’s abilities is more efficient than throwing students into a full-flight helicopter simulator, the study found.
“Experiences that are too challenging and difficult cause a feeling of anxiety and exceeds the capacity for an individual to perform,” according to the study, called “Define ‘Expert’: Characterizing Proficiency for Physiological Measures of Cognitive Workload.”
“Experiences that are too simple can result in boredom, causing an individual to lose focus in performing necessary actions to complete the task. … Matching the challenges and skills optimizes the quality of an experience,” it says. “An adaptive training system could increase the level of task difficulty during those iterations to maintain cognitive workload expenditure at an optimal level while performance rapidly continues to improve. The expected result will be faster training cycles, and better trained learners with a higher degree of spare capacity.”