Flight Simulation and the Single Pilot Environment

The accident statistics published on both sides of the Atlantic by the FAA* and EASA* show similar trends regarding ‘causal factors’. It would not surprise me to find that those similarities were mirrored across the globe. These statistics reveal the ‘poor decision making’ by the pilot is either mentioned or implied in six out of the top ten causal factors.

When this interesting contributory factor is examined more closely, it begs the training world to come up with a solution.

It has always been my contention that the helicopter industry has done itself no favours by perpetuating the myth that using ‘newbie’ pilots to train the next generation is a smart idea. Not only is it madness, it is close to being criminal. No other skill-based profession would give the idea house-room. Imagine the newly qualified surgeon teaching the next generation and then putting your close relative under the knife – ooooh – I shudder at the thought.

My gut feeling is that this ‘newbie-teaching-the-newbie’ idea is a conspiracy between the regulators and the helicopter industry to save the operators money. The FI works for next to nothing because he/she apparently profits by the accumulation of flight hours. This is a bad scheme in so many ways, but crucially it devalues the role of the Flight Instructor and creates the impression that experience is unimportant. It is also at fault for creating the misleading impression that ‘flight hours’ are the undisputed ‘currency’ of experience when no account is taken of the exact nature of the flights involved. Does a pilot have a thousand flight hours or a thousand times one flight hour?

Nobody should, in my opinion, be allowed to teach helicopter pilots for a living unless they have an ATPL(H)*.

Decision-making skills come with experience and as we all know you cannot teach experience. You cannot expect a newbie instructor to have available to him a decent sized ‘library’ of past decisions made in an aviation context. He or she just would not have been exposed to the huge variety of situations that befall the journeyman aviator in the course of his or her daily work activities.

If, instead of the ‘newbie’, we place the student pilot alongside an experienced aviator with time under his or her belt, out there in the world of offshore, HEMS*, law-enforcement, fire-fighting, corporate charter, VIP*, crop-dusting or the military, then a curious process akin to ‘osmosis’ takes place. The student is exposed to an instructor with a huge ‘library’ of decisions to call upon who transfers that experience by example.

We are in a bad place, does anybody care? Is anyone doing anything about this situation?

One area currently being addressed by ICAO* and the IPTA* is to look at the skills-gap that exists between the issuing of a CPL(H)* and those extensive new skills required by the industry in the workplace. Maybe one day it will be necessary to gain a role-related certification before work in one of these discrete sectors of the industry can begin.

The MCC* environment is pretty well placed to move a newbie along a pathway that begins with P2(u/s) all the way to PIC. Those lucky enough to travel that road should emerge into the RHS fully equipped thanks to the extensive use of FSTD’s* of many different shades.

The Single Pilot environment is another kettle of fish, however. The smaller light-twins and singles generally operate with just the one pilot and the competition at this level is fierce enough to make the additional costs of sim-training unattractive to both the operator and the customer alike. Can we let this situation persist? My reply is simply, ‘not if you want to reach your accident reduction goals.’

OGP* has had a profound effect on the offshore operators by setting out a preferred way of operating offshore helicopters. It should be possible for those supplying rotary wing services at the lower end of the market to find a way to emulate this excellent example. If this cannot be done by the operators then perhaps a consortium of ‘customers’ can achieve a way forward.

OK. So, we finally get an expanded training budget, now what? Well, as I pointed out earlier the problem of ‘poor decision making’ is a big one. I would have preferred to see newbies given better training by mature and experienced colleagues but we are where we are. My solution would be for the simulator industry to design and build a supply of affordable FSTD’s and then use them to ‘role-play’ in scenario-based training sessions. This is where the regulators need to get real and play their part. Every commercial pilot MUST undergo a minimum of six hours of sim-training at approved centres every year. The two-pilot world may already be there, but for the HEMS, Law Enforcement, VIP, Corporate and Fire Fighting communities the use of FSTD’s is patchy.

If you find yourself going along with this analysis, I beg you not to join what I call the ‘micro-wave oven’ community. They are the ones that mistakenly believe that placing a pilot in a sim is all you have to do. Set the timer for two hours, for when it goes ‘CHING’ at the end of the session you can remove the pilot knowing that he or she is now ‘done’ – cured. It doesn’t work like that

An FFS* is a thing of beauty and an amazing piece of technology, but it runs permanently on ‘Beta software’ and requires a skilled SFI to get the best out of it and deliver a truly educational lesson. Never be tempted to skimp on the preparation of your SFI’s. Give them the best training, mentoring and support and they will make a difference. If you don’t, the only contribution to your operation will be to add another meaningless line to a pilot’s logbook.

If a simulator training programme makes use of a series of well-designed ‘scenario’ based lessons then maybe we can make up the deficit in decision-making skills. Having experienced such programmes myself, I know they can make a difference, but we will need good (reliable) equipment and quality instructors.

*Glossary

FAA                Federal Aviation Authority (USA)

EASA              European Aviation Safety Agency

ATPL(H)        Airline Transport Pilot’s licence (Helicopters)

FSTD              Flight Simulation Training Device (a generic term for all types of flight simulators and training devices)

CPL(H)           Commercial Pilot’s Licence (Helicopters)

HEMS             Helicopter Emergency Medical Service

VIP                  Very Important Person (Operations for Presidential or similar important persons)

FFS                 Full Flight Simulators (The most sophisticated level of flight simulation with motion and visual systems).