Rotor & Wing International
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Visualization Realization

Helicopter simulator and training device capabilities are increasing, while their cost-to-benefits are decreasing.

Modern high-fidelity helicopter simulators and training devices that artificially re-create rotorcraft flight and the environment in which pilots fly have become powerful training tools for pilots. Among their many benefits, they can:
Simulation Evolution

  • Enhance the quality of aircraft training time by letting pilots completely understand concepts and develop significant flying skills before entering the helicopter.
  • Ensure safety by allowing pilots to learn safe operations and make mistakes in a safe environment.
  • Enable year-round training operations.

Simulation Evolution

Advances in aerodynamics and ground-handling models have produced extremely accurate simulations of helicopter performance. At helicopter simulation training’s inception, “The operators of larger helicopters came to appreciate it and were early adapters,” says Steve Phillips, VP of communications at FlightSafety International Inc. “The twin-engine operators started it, and then single-engine operators came on board in a big way.”

Phillips compares the evolution of improved helicopter flight simulation to the move to high-definition television. Originally, “flight simulation was in black and white with no daylight scenes, but now it really looks like a high-resolution image,” he said. “Advances in computer technology, including faster processing speed and storage, have made technologies such as photorealistic visual displays possible and have vastly increased the realism of the simulation.”

Due to advanced flight testing and more realistic visual systems, there are also mission-training capabilities that can be applied to law enforcement and air medical transport scenarios, according to Frasca. For example, “Simulators can now be equipped with flir technology to simulate a helicopter pilot following a suspect,” Frasca’s Peggy Prichard said. “We can also simulate landing in difficult conditions for emergency rescue operations. Better mission-training capabilities leads to better-prepared pilots. Visual systems have become increasingly more accurate with exact replication of landmarks, and more incredible realism with waves in the ocean and weather effects.”

Frasca’s Level 7 Flight Training Device is evidence of flight simulation’s evolution. “It gives us the kind of training fidelity that you could previously only achieve with a full-flight simulator,” said Stephen “Tink” Sullivan, an Air Evac Lifeteam simulator instructor and retired U.S. Air Force helicopter flight instructor. “With Frasca’s new cueing system, a pilot really senses motion with the vestibular apparatus (in the inner ear) and the proprioceptive sensors (the body).”

Frasca International’s Level 7 Flight Training Device is evidence of flight simulation’s evolution.Photo courtesy of Frasca

Simulation Replication

The closer helicopter simulation replicates the physics of the real world, the more immersive and realistic the training becomes. Because helicopter simulation has moved to more physics-based modeling techniques, Phillips said higher fidelity flight characteristics, landing gear reactions, visual scenery and motion cueing are possible. “Improved modeling of wind effects and flow fields around objects is allowing for more accurate rehearsal of actual helicopter operating locations such as rooftop heliports, offshore oil platforms and shipboard operations,” he added. “Aerodynamic modeling and motion control algorithms allow for more realistic training in the simulator of maneuvers such as autorotation.”

Troy Fey, VP of technology at TRU Simulation + Training Inc., agreed that technology advancements have provided the means for a more immersive and realistic training environment, especially so for today’s out-the-window visual display systems. “The simulation industry benefits from a large consumer base of commercial, off-the-shelf projection systems and gaming software. This creates competition and consumer demand drives product evolution. We can now cost-effectively provide larger field-of-view visual systems with higher resolution, lower latency, better contrast and more full-featured realistic dynamic objects. Not only is the training more immersive, but the training tasks can include artificial intelligence-driven mission sets in a wider variety of simulated environments. In this dynamic, free-play environment, we can more effectively incorporate risk-based decision-making into our training programs.”

Fey stressed that, in any simulated environment, the suspension of disbelief must be provided and convincing to the user, especially with helicopters, since pilots are so dependent on visual feedback. “The brain senses when there is a disconnect, but helicopter simulation technology has brought the pieces together to make an immersive environment. Today’s simulation helps pilots stay engaged with the stress-level of decision making.”


Fey said he believes each operator will have its own independent variables and weighting factors when looking at this analysis. No matter what variables are used, certainly one overriding driver and justification for simulation’s costs is a focus and emphasis on safety. Simulators provide a safe environment where a pilot can make mistakes and errors and learn from them. Trainees can even perform and repeat normal and abnormal procedures that might not be considered appropriate or safe when executed in a real helicopter.

“I’m sure each operator places a high value on safety, but whether any given operator believes safety can be improved more cost-effectively by training in a simulator than in an aircraft is likely circumstantial and biased,” Fey contended. “The cost per hour of aircraft versus simulator, acceptable versus unacceptable training risk, pilot and instructor logistics, access to simulators versus access to aircraft, weather, etc. all play a role.”

In any simulated environment, the suspension of disbelief must be provided and convincing to the user, especially with helicopters.Photo courtesy of Tru Simulation + Training

Efforts are ongoing to field more cost-effective training options. In July, Austin, Texas-based Redbird Flight Simulations gained FAA approval of the Robinson R22 configuration of its VTO full-motion helicopter trainer as an advanced aviation training device. That allows pilots to credit some of the time spent training in the VTO towards the aeronautical experience requirements for the pilot certificate or rating. The company said private pilot applicants can credit up to 7.5 hours and instrument applicants up to 20 hours in the VTO.

Redbird CEO Todd Willinger said the VTO “allows helicopter pilots to train more affordably, effectively, and efficiently.” He added the VTO was specifically designed to teach the two most difficult and time-consuming maneuvers: hovering and auto-rotation.

Even the U.S. military is appreciating simulation’s cost to benefits.

According to a Government Business Council survey, reduced cost is the military’s top benefit to integrating live and virtual training. It said 57% of U.S. Defense Department respondents cited this more than any other benefit. The survey cited that increased use of virtual training could cut costs by, among other things, lowering maintenance costs, avoiding costly trainee errors and shrinking logistics costs. RWI