‘Learning and innovation go hand in hand.

The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.’

William Pollard

The FCOM, or Flight Crew Operating Manual is set to be the latest weapon in the crew trainer’s quest for TQM – Total Quality Management. TQM was the fashionable solution to everything that was wrong with the car industry many decades ago. It focussed on the need to get every stage in the assembly process as close to perfection as possible as each shortcoming added another problem further down the line. The fixed wing world addresses this issue, at least in the context of flight crew training, by looking to the manufacturer to define the optimum methods for operating their aircraft. Now, at last the helicopter industry has been nudged into falling in line with their fixed wing cousins and is turning to the manufacturers of our products to provide an answer to the burning question, ‘what’s the best way to operate your helicopter?” The answer is the Flight Crew Operating Manual or FCOM.

At a recent conference on training the Airbus Helicopter representative described the astonishment felt by the aircraft leasing industry when they found out that the helicopter world did not use FCOMs. One leasing industry heavyweight was apparently heard saying, “You mean that every operator makes up their own way of operating the helicopter?”  When told “Yes, is there any other way?” They were taken aside and the realities of the fixed wing leasing world explained – no FCOM, no lease deal. Airbus went on to produce an FCOM for the H225 and Sikorsky have a draft FCOM out for the S92. Leonardo Helicopters are working on their version for the AW139 and I am part of the team putting it together.

If you are a helicopter flight crew member and have been frustrated by changing employers only to find that you have to learn a new way of doing just about everything even for the same type of helicopter then salvation is at hand courtesy of a standardised world created by the FCOM.

Every OEM is now obliged to provide appropriate training via an Approved Training Organisation (ATO). The dilemma is that everything is driven by the regulations and the certification regulations allow an ATO to create a type-rating course that addresses only the ‘basic’ aircraft. This means that virtually all the additional ‘customer option’ equipment is excluded from the TR training. It makes for a cost effective solution to pilot training but one devoid of any practicality given the extent to which many ‘options’ form part of the ‘standard’ avionics suite.

When the latest generation of helicopters hit the market in the early ‘noughties’ it soon became obvious to the Type Rating Instructors working on them that a training system based on the minimum level of equipment had a big hole in it. The AW139 for example, has an integrated avionics suite with a sophisticated Flight Management System at its heart. The peripheral equipment designed and provided (in most cases) as ‘standard’ has not until recently been included in the training. This keeps the TR course short and cheap. However, the operator is left to arrange for the supplementary training of their crews to ensure that they can do the job using all the equipment provided. Sometimes this is good quality but sometimes such additional training is non-existent. The lack of supplementary or ‘operational’ type training is often for cost-saving reasons but many organisations seem to be unaware that this is essential rather than just ‘desirable’.

Either way the designer/provider of this important equipment has no input into the standard or appropriateness of any training given so the scope for mis-training is a serious problem. This is how we end up with every operator doing it their way. Post FCOM the world should be a different place with operating companies large and small being given a template for their day-to-day operations delivered by the very people who designed and created their aircraft. There is every prospect that at some stage in the future the not-so-handy RFM will be replaced by a well-designed electronic flight bag version of the FCOM.

The philosophy behind the RFM is that it is essentially a ‘certification’ document. It is not a truly useable reference document because the design has been created using the ‘basic aircraft’. Everything added to the basic aircraft is covered by a supplement and the details may vary or even conflict with the instructions in the basic version. The current AW139 Flight Manual is close to four thousand pages. Readers of the supplements are often invited to study the Pilot’s Guide provided by the original equipment manufacturers where this equipment has been provided by external suppliers. These are generally five hundred to a thousand pages long.

It is just impossible to take in the important information in this huge amount of printed material. Hermann Ebbinghaus (see previous chapter) and his fellow researchers indicate that book reading is the most fragile of learning techniques with the lowest levels of knowledge retention. We can therefore say with some confidence that leaving the trainees to accumulate knowledge via reading is unlikely to deliver the best outcome. We therefore need to teach and practice the use of this equipment and that’s exactly what we are doing now at my ATO.

Customer feedback via the HeliOffshore organisation has encouraged the creation of these FCOM’s as definitive documents that take the OEM’s from the world of simply making helicopters into the world of operating helicopters via their involvement with crew training. The Flight Crew Operations Manual, is intended to join up the world of front line operations to the manufacturer’s vision of how their equipment should be used.

The irony of this endeavour is that the manufacturer is not normally a reservoir of current operational experience in each of the many areas of helicopter operations. At our ATO we are fortunate to have some with appropriate experience but it is clear that there will need to be ongoing interaction with the operators to keep the document relevant and up to date.

It is also clear that the research done for the FCOM project to date indicates that a definitive set of standard operating procedures and techniques is anticipated. The influence of industry best practice plus that of academics with specialist skills in areas such as CRM will play a major part.

When eventually the FCOM’s for the modern range of helicopters are in service it will irreversibly tie the OEM to the world of the operator. In so doing they will perhaps learn that whilst for many years the commercial department may have viewed the operator as their primary customer, the reality is that, at least in the offshore world, the customer is in fact the oil company. The helicopter world has matured a lot in the last twenty years or so and these days it is important for OEM’s to understand the needs of the operator’s customer if the FCOM is to truly deliver a satisfactory product.

It is already apparent that there will have to be an FCOM for each of the major roles, offshore, HEMS, law enforcement, fire fighting, corporate/VIP and search and rescue. This is necessary to ensure the SOP’s are entirely appropriate and in line with current best practice. Each has role-specific equipment that must be included in the crew-training syllabus.

You may believe this is the first time that the end-use of the helicopter has featured in the machinations of pilot training but this is not so. The International Pilot Training Association has a Workgroup focussing on this very subject.

I have previously banged the drum for a greater understanding of the skill gap that emerges when a helicopter pilot successfully completes a Commercial Licence course. Unlike his fixed wing counterpart his fundamental skill set will not automatically allow him to find a job. The skill gap needs to be analysed and documented for each role the helicopter is used for and a suitable training package created for each ‘skill-gap’. This will be an important step towards adding role-training to the licensing process.

With that news I hear a sigh of despair about the increasing expansion of the licensing process from those in charge of  flight operations. Well, we have to recognise that we simply haven’t got it right in the past.

The key to role training is access to cost effective FSTD’s. At my ATO in Italy we have successfully developed a search and rescue course that makes use of our AW139 simulators. In the future, it will be possible to conduct meaningful role training for a variety of roles in the 3000 series FFS that we use in our ATO’s in Malaysia and the US as well as Italy.

I wrote this chapter because I wanted to draw attention to the OEM’s growing links to the operation of the aircraft they build and the increased awareness of the need for cost effective role training to complete the pilot training picture. Maybe the OEM’s greater understanding of the industry’s needs will lead to improved awareness of the nuances of helicopter operations and that, in turn, will help to improve designs and operability. A well-designed cockpit together with improved man/machine interface techniques could go a long way to improving pilot performance in a world that seeks to maximise the use of automation.

The simulator is the key, give us better, more reliable FSTDs and give us more of them. Then make sure you understand the true value of a competent SFI for they will turn your otherwise useless piece of ironmongery into a truly fantastic teaching tool.