‘He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying’.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The planners and the Head of Training will design a course that almost invariably will have a linear ‘learning curve’ – in fact not a curve at all but a straight line. The course designer simply starts at zero and draws a straight line to the required standard at the end of the course. Hopefully the designer has used the mantra ‘we do simple first, difficult will come later’ so progression through the course is theoretically linear. As a guide this is fine but the reality is often very different. There is no need for this to be a problem if this reality is properly understood.

Such is the huge impact of life inside a simulator (full motion system with 210 degree visuals) that many students have a great deal of difficulty settling in to this challenging learning environment. Add to this the impact of using digital cockpit displays and you have a seriously ‘front-loaded’ learning process. This necessarily slows the rate of progress in the beginning of the course so it pays to lower expectations during these first few sorties. Once settled the vast majority respond well and the pace of the teaching can then be stepped up so that the required standard can be achieved by the scheduled course completion.

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You, the SFI, are the only member of the training staff witnessing the behaviour and response of your student so you have the right (duty?) to adjust the content and sequence of manoeuvres in order to achieve the required outcome. Remember though that one objective at your ATO (or in your operating company) is standardisation so keep to the overall plan even if sometimes you need to vary the delivery in order to get there.

I was recently reminded about the impact the FFS environment has on an experienced pilot when encountered for the very first time. Two helicopter pilots, each with more than one thousand hours of flight time arrived for a Type Rating Course. Their initial attempts at hovering were so bad that they both crashed. There was a huge disconnect between their performance in a real helicopter and their performance in the FFS. This is not uncommon and without the skills of a specialist scientist I can only conclude that their cognitive functions have, in some way been affected by the artificial nature of the visual environment and this has in turn degraded their basic hand-eye coordination.

I surmise, in my amateur psychologist way, that they arrived at the simulator with the skill of hovering intact but were unable to relate the simulator’s version on ‘the real world’ to the one stored in their brains.

These two pilots were also new to the complex cockpit of a twin turbine and the digital displays that replaced their more familiar ‘dials and needles’. I could surmise, in addition therefore, that their ‘input systems’ were deluged with too much that is unfamiliar and the simulator’s version of the outside world was not close enough to the real thing for the student to replicate his hovering skills. This is something for the simulator designers to contemplate.

The remarkable difference I have observed between a relatively low-time pilot like those described above, and the more experienced pilot who is familiar with the cockpit environment but not familiar with the FFS is worthy of comment. It seems that faced with the same challenge to make sense of the simulator’s version of the outside world they adjust more quickly and settle into a stable hover more quickly. This, to me, is an indication that pre-simulator training, that would allow newcomers to the world of digital flat screen displays to adjust, would help the overall training effort. We are pushing ahead with such a programme at my current school.

When the SFI delays a manoeuvre due to lack of achievement the manoeuvre must, of course be introduced at a later stage. It is often the case that a student new to the simulator environment will struggle at first but then he or she will settle, adjust, and be able to learn rapidly providing the fundamental skills are present. It is a major headache for the SFI in these circumstances if he is replaced by another SFI early in the course because the lack of continuity will make these kind of decisions very difficult. Sometimes a student on a TR course will experience more instructor changes than is good for the overall effectiveness of the training delivery.

Where, as previously mentioned, the student falls below the required course entry skills and knowledge this can be compounded and made more complicated by the SFI having expectations that manoeuvres will be completed without issue. This was the (unspoken) promise when he was trained as an SFI but regrettably below-par students are common even though they profess to have the required entry qualifications. The SFI’s own training course was designed to deliver an outcome based on expectations about the competence of the student. If the system fails to deliver on those expectations then the equation falls apart. This is why so many new SFI’s struggle during their early months (years?).

My personal view is that we have moved on from the days when we used to learn to ‘fly’ using simulators. Certainly in the context of twin turbine helicopter simulators the candidate arriving for a course on a different twin turbine helicopter arrives with some basic professional skills. Number one is that he knows how to fly a helicopter. There may be subtle differences with the new type that require some tuition and some practice but you can be sure that when the candidate leaves the ATO he will teach himself how to fly the thing.

With that in mind I believe we have the cart before the horse with a modern complex helicopter. The current syllabus is geared to teaching the candidate how to fly and while you do that you have to show him how the automation works and then hope he can take it all in. My idea is to do things the other way around. Teach the guy how to operate the automation and whilst you do that he will learn how it flies and become familiar with the trim systems and how to manage them. Any skill deficit at the end of the course should, in my opinion, be in the ‘handling’ section rather than in the ‘system knowledge’ section. It’s easier for a professional pilot to improve his handling skills than it is to learn how to master the complexities of the Flight Director, Autopilot, FMS, TCAS 2, TAWS and Weather Radar. In any case the simulator handles like a simulator and only approximates the real aircraft so whatever finely tuned simulator handling skills may be acquired they will be of dubious benefit when set alongside the amount of training time consumed acquiring them.

What do you think?