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Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

The importance of suitable training for pilots has been recognised since the beginning of manned flight, with flight simulation a critical asset to the safety and advancement of an industry whose sophistication knows no bounds. Megan Kennedy takes a look at the role flight simulation has played in aviation and discovers a cutting-edge industry that just gets better and better. 

Modern day simulation is a multi-million dollar industry with a wide range of applications within the aviation sphere. In addition to flight training and management, the training of defence air-crew personnel, aircraft analysis, maintenance drills and training in air traffic control operations all involve simulation-based components. Gaming also has close ties with simulation, as both industries strive to create more immersive realistic experiences through technological advances.

As an established component of training, evaluation, and research, simulation is recognised for its cost saving advantages and significant reduction in aircraft training fatalities, instilling correct and instinctive reaction times in the event of an emergency. Sim Train International’s Dr E. Paul Baxter states that “training sessions in a real aircraft are constrained by having to follow a sequence, e.g., pre-flight checks, clearance, take-off, flight time, and landing. Simulator training has no such constraints. The sim instructor can focus on any one of these components, in any order. Furthermore, the instructor can put the trainee through challenging situations and emergency procedures that would be unwise in an actual aircraft, and do this over and over again until the trainee gets it right”.

The history of simulators can be traced back to the pilots of the first mass-produced powered aircraft, marking at least 100 years of flight simulator technology in aviation. Former manager of Qantas simulation services, Ray L Page muses that “the mythical story of Icarus and Daedalus is usually related to a warning about flying too high because the heat of the sun would melt the glue used to hold together the feathers of the wings – this is probably not a correct interpretation of the warning. The more probable warning was about the danger of flying too high before adequate training and becoming more acquainted with the controls and performance of the flying machine”.

According to Page, “the pilots of the first powered aeroplanes learnt by progressing through a graded sequence of exercises on real aircraft”. Early versions of flight simulation were low-powered aircraft that students would taxi around in for rudder practice, allowing them to get accustomed to the cockpit environment. Promotion to a higher powered aircraft would then allow students to practice elevator control by making short ‘hops’ along the ground without completely taking off. Finally, students would graduate to a fully powered aircraft and achieve flight. A similar system known as the ‘penguin’ system involved the use of an aircraft with a heavily reduced wingspan. This method was developed during World War I and used at the French school of infantry, the Ecole de Combat, with a Bleriot aircraft.

Rudimentary devices used to assess the reaction times of pilots were often tethered to the ground and elevated with a large number of balloons. The Sanders Teacher, which resembled a winged mechanical bull, was constructed from aircraft components and mounted on a universal joint which was faced into the wind for a sense of forward motion. Other devices included a rockable fuselage which was manually jolted back and forth unexpectedly by an examiner to test reaction time, most likely providing much entertainment to all but the trainee inside.

The endless flow of student pilots in World War I required the development of more effective methods of instructing and assessing student pilots without losing the aircraft and occupants in the process. Eventually mechanical or electrical systems were developed to rotate a simulator fuselage automatically, some even reflecting the student pilot’s control inputs. A French device described in 1917 was reported to consist of a dummy fuselage with pitch, roll and yaw motions produced by compressed air motors which also introduced simulated response and speed sensations. Engine noise and basic visual presentations were also described. The most successful and well-known of these simulator devices was the Link Trainer developed by Edwin Link between 1927 and 1929, approximately 25 years after Orville Wright took-off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the Wright Flyer biplane. As an amateur pilot himself, Link was disgruntled with the lack of flight training that was available and utilised mechanisms he was familiar with from his development of pianos and organs to construct the first Link Trainer. Patented in 1930, Link advertised his trainer as “an efficient aeronautical training aid and a novel, profitable amusement device”.

In the early 1930s, the US Army Air Corps was hesitant to recognise the usefulness of mechanised simulator devices. However, in 1934, the Army Air Force was given a government contract to fly the postal mail which required daily flights regardless of weather. The ineptitude of young pilots assigned to the task of flying in difficult weather conditions resulted in nearly a dozen deaths within the first few weeks of the contract being awarded. The Army Air Force decided to reconsider their position on the Link Trainer and were impressed by Edwin Link’s ability to fly in to meet them at Newark Field in New Jersey despite the day’s bad weather, thanks to the practice he had undertaken in his own device. The USAAF purchased six Link Trainers, all painted in a trademark blue. The Link Trainer was then produced in numerous versions and sold to England, Japan, France, and Germany, marking the official introduction of the flight simulation industry. According to an article provided by the American Society of Mechanical Systems (ASME) some 10,000 Link trainers were produced to train 500,000 new pilots in the USA and Canada alone.

In the modern era a working Link Trainer is a rare commodity, although the basic premise of flight simulation, accurate and responsive modelling of the behaviour of a flight vehicle, has remained the same. According to Page, “simulation today is a multi-million dollar industry and its application has spread to a vast number of training and analytical requirements”.

Varying functional requirements and roles require different levels and types of simulators. Defence simulators for example require a different cockpit layout to a light aircraft training set-up and not all simulators rely on graphic video components. Instrument-only simulators are an effective substitute to visual-based simulations, especially in the introductory stages of professional training for low visibility scenarios, encouraging pilots to rely on and become familiar with IFR navigation, with cues based solely on flight instruments.

Mick Stone, director and owner of SIMULINC, an Australian company with expertise in the certification of flight simulators, explains, “under current legislation there are many levels and simulators are divided into mainly two categories. The first and the one that most people think of are Full Flight Simulators (FFS). The highest level of these is Level D. That is the simulator that can take a pilot from novice to qualified. There is a specific definition for a full flight simulator and many requirements must be met to achieve Level D. We use the term “fidelity” to describe the degree to which the simulator matches the aircraft. Level D FFS has a very high level of fidelity. The other type of device is called Flight Training Device (FTD). These are synthetic devices that may replicate a specific aircraft but lack some of the modelling and/or components of a FFS, mostly a FTD will not have motion. The introduction of different levels of synthetic device is gaining widespread popularity. Training of crews will then progress through the lower levels of the FTD to the FFS”.

Within modern simulator construction user input is predominantly implemented through digital computer systems, run through operating systems capable of accurately reflecting an occupant’s actions by translating them into simulated responses. This means that even the simplest of home desktop simulators is similar to a fully immersive simulator in that it receives a user input which it processes via digital software systems and outputs the required information accordingly, producing a visual, audible and sometimes physical response from the simulator.

Consumer level home flight simulators were among the first types of simulators to be developed for early computers. Technologies such as 3D graphics and online gaming were first utilised in combat flight simulators such as Red Baron II and European Air War, with game world scenery in flight simulators often modelled on real-world environments. However, this genre of aviation simulation is often simplified to appeal to a wider audience by reducing the number of flight controls and allowing for manoeuvres that would either knock a pilot unconscious or rip an aircraft apart in real life. Combat flight simulation titles are more numerous than civilian flight simulators due to variety of subject matter available and market demand.

For those wishing to create a more authentic home experience, replica control panels are commercially available. Designed to mimic panels found in modern airliners such as Boeing or Airbus designs, these panels can be mounted into a home constructed cockpit frame, normally made from wood. However, on the transition from home-flight simulators to actual flying, CASA’s Roger Weeks warns that “one of the difficulties associated with self-teaching on this technology is that, without realising it, they become performance pilots. They try to fly by performance, rather than by attitude. The cautionary note is that attitude flying (power plus attitude equals performance) is always the correct means of controlling an aircraft. If you have a solid foundation in attitude flying, the transition to flying a simulator or on instruments is that much easier, but if you have taught yourself performance flying you’ll chase the numbers forever”.

Consumer software based simulators such as X-Plane 10 continue to push the boundaries of home flight simulators, advertising VFR and IFR approach scenarios, accurate emergency scenarios, true-to-life scenery and lighting, and realistic ATC and radio communication. Mick Stone mentions that advances in the gaming industry have enhanced the simulation field. “In recent times the biggest improvement has been in the quality of the visual scene,” he explains. “A great deal of this is probably due [to an] increase in the visual computer gaming industry and the simulator visual system has improved accordingly”.

Desktop simulation has become progressively more popular among both students and licensed pilots for preparation and revision purposes, making use of structured tutorials and automated instructors to guide the operator through a range of exercises. The use of downloadable and constantly updated environmental modelling of real-life locations, including accurate depictions of airports are often used to familiarise users with airports or locales before undergoing a ‘real life’ flight.

FTD (flight training devices) otherwise known as ‘fixed’ simulators are widely used due to their relatively small size and cost advantage over the fully immersive motion flight simulators. Businesses such as Jet Flight Simulator have capitalised on this technology by offering customers the opportunity to experience flight in a realistic and responsive cockpit setting without the cost of motion platform technology. Currently in its fifth year of operation, Jet Flight Simulator is Australia’s only privately owned and operated fixed flight simulator based specifically on the Boeing 737-800NG.

According to Canberra office manager of Jet Flight Simulator Nick Walsh, “Jet Flight Simulator Canberra came to be by the owners seeing an opportunity within Canberra for a product that is not only unique but entertaining for the general public and aviation enthusiasts”.  Operated Australia-wide and expanding into the USA, Jet Flight Simulator offers customers the opportunity to experience flying operations in a fully operational cockpit, accompanied by a fully trained instructor, emphasising that the instructor’s level of competence is a crucial component in conveying a realistic experience to a customer. Nick explains that prior knowledge varies from instructor to instructor with experience varying from “home simulator environment[s] to GFPT, PPL and CPL licenses to pilots who are currently employed within general aviation/airlines and have thousands of hours of flight time along with all the necessary ratings and endorsements”.

The instructor’s level of competence in the simulator environment and their ability to respond to the theoretical and technical operations of the simulator is crucial to the realism of the experience, meaning a familiarity and a passion for the ins and outs of aviation is important.

“Most [staff] have come from a charter background, however some have worked in training including a former Grade One flight instructor,” Nick says. “Some of the guys also have tertiary degrees in aviation. As far as active flying goes, one is a survey pilot, two others are currently employed with a long established general aviation operator flying Cessna 404, 441 and Metro 23 aircraft. We also have in our employ a first officer in the airlines flying RPT turboprop aircraft for a national carrier. Several of the individual’s flight times amount to around 4000 hours.”

Day-to-day operations of a flight simulator business is centred on the customer experience and varies depending on the customer’s expectations. “Sessions commence with a short pre-flight brief and then it’s into the flying,” Nick explains. “Any technical aspects of airliner operation can be expanded on whilst ‘in flight’, the aim is to provide entertainment as well as information, and it all depends on what the customer seeks from the experience. Most of our customers are the general public and have little or no flying experience. Often though, we encounter people who either travel by air frequently or have a strong interest in aircraft or flying and would like to gain a better appreciation of it, as in the current climate flight deck visits are out of the question. On occasion though we enjoy seeing retired aviators come in to reacquaint themselves with an old passion, prospective boys and girls wishing to gain an insight into becoming a pilot; the Air League (a self-funded youth organisation for Australian boys and girls which encourages an interest in aviation as a career or as a hobby) has been a recent visitor and in a couple of instances, active airline flight crew obtaining some jet familiarisation prior to moving on to larger aircraft”.

Despite the simulator’s limitations, customer feedback is generally positive. “The initial response is usually the same – amazement and excitement. As this particular simulator is fairly accurate in its representation of the B737 flight deck, most of customers (being the general public) are in awe of what comprises a modern airliner’s systems and flight controls.”

The most sophisticated level of aviation simulation is a simulator coupled to a motion platform that moves to reflect physical sensations of flight. Dubbed ‘full’ flight simulators (FFS), these simulators are extremely expensive and are usually tailored to be aircraft specific. Within the commercial industry, simulators have become a crucial component in training and engineering. A notable example of this is the development of the Boeing 777 project in which pilots were already undertaking full simulator training to fly the aircraft before it was even built. This preliminary training sped up the training process of pilots and provided an unprecedented method of testing control methods and systems, smoothing out rough and costly edges in the engineering process.

With the development of FFS’s, Helicopter flight simulators are also becoming increasingly prevalent. Aaron Stroop, Director of HeliSim Australia explains, “helicopter simulators in Europe and the USA are quite popular, however the concept is relatively new in Australia. As a keen pilot I wanted to provide an exciting and realistic experience for the public. There [is] already a number of fixed wing simulators in Sydney, I wanted to offer an entirely different experience”.

Operating out of Bankstown Airport, HeliSim provides an “advanced motion simulator which is elevated from the floor to enable realistic motion”. To reflect reality, the simulator’s field of view screens are larger than those for fixed wing simulators and the interior setup is outfitted to the parameters of a realistic helicopter cockpit. With credits available towards log book hours pending CASA certification, the simulator can be configured for nine different types of helicopters, five turbine and four piston engines: the Robinson R22, R44 and R66, the Bell 206 and 407, the AS350B2, MD500, Enstrom 280FX and the Schweizer 300.

“The leisure market enjoys the experience” says Aaron “and we have a number of regular clients, while the commercial market views simulation as a worthwhile training adjunct”. Confident in the future of the helicopter industry Aaron says “I see the future of training moving toward simulators as it has distinctive cost advantages and allows training in dangerous situations which would not be available to be attempted in the real world”.

For a fully immersive simulator to be effective, the system must convince the user of the reality of the experience with seamless sensory inputs correctly calibrated to the inputs of the user. Any errors could result in an ‘interruption’ of the illusion, a halt in the experience of true training circumstances. Consequently, additional sensory cues are added to the full simulator such as accurate audio, in collaboration with the motion and visual stimuli. In addition to the normal controls, all other possible control interfaces such as circuit breakers, instrument data, and navigation and flight computers are all fully functional in the simulator. This is so that the instructor can induce certain conditions in accordance with training requirements. A successful simulator provides a genuine training experience but also subconsciously tricks the operator’s brain into reflexive actions which can reveal bad habits such as pattern-errors that can result in accidents due to conflicting practices formed in other aircraft.

Dr E. Paul Baxter gives the example of pilots familiar with flying a Beechcraft Baron converting to a Learjet 45, stating that often “students incorrectly applied the landing technique they learned in the Baron to the Learjet”. He goes on to explain that, “when placed under pressure to perform or during periods of intense cockpit activity, even experienced pilots can inadvertently revert to their previous training, that is, they apply techniques and knowledge acquired during training in previous aircraft that may endanger the passengers and crew. Old, well trained, habits die hard”. However, the sophistication of a full simulator “provides a safe environment where trainees can test their skills. During such testing, errors can emerge which are noted by the instructor and corrected during the sim session. Recurrent training makes use of simulators for this reason. It enables trainees to improve and helps experienced pilots to keep their skills up and adapt to new equipment and procedures”.

Aviation-based simulators are also used heavily within the defence industry where simulation practice is not limited to the training of pilots and co-pilots. Peter Redman, Vice President and General Manager of CAE Australia and Asia/Pacific explains, “often in military aviation, you will hear people talk of the “aircrew”, which includes…a range of other crew positions depending on the type of aircraft being flown. In a tanker aircraft, you would have a crew position for an air refuelling officer, sometimes called a boom operator. In a transport aircraft such as the C-130J Hercules, you might have a crew position for the loadmaster, who is responsible for loading and dropping cargo.  In a naval helicopter such as the MH-60R Seahawk, you have a crew position for the rear crew sensor operator, who is responsible for the sensors that detect submarines.  In all these cases, there are simulators that are developed to train the tasks of these crew positions”.

As an example, Peter Redman discusses the training of aerial refuelling within part-task trainers (simulators that are designed to focus on a specific role within the operation of the aircraft). Aerial refuelling requires accuracy and practice in what is often a complex and potentially dangerous undertaking. These live operations are also very expensive to perform due to the number of aircraft, resources and crew required. “CAE has developed and delivered several A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) air refuelling officer part-task trainers (ARO PTT) to air forces, including the Royal Australian Air Force. The CAE-developed ARO PTT is a sophisticated, high-fidelity training device designed to train the air refuelling officer… on the demanding tasks of a refuelling mission in a safe, cost-effective synthetic environment.  The CAE-built ARO PTT features a seven-channel CAE Medallion-6000 visual system combined with 3D goggles and displays to provide a realistic 3D view of the boom itself and approaching receiver aircraft. Using the ARO PTT, crews are able to practice the procedures and techniques of air refuelling operations to become proficient, thus significantly reducing the amount of airborne training required.  The ARO PTT can also be networked to a full-mission simulator so that the entire aircrew – pilots and air refuelling officers – can conduct joint training just as they would perform in actual operations”.

Simulators are also increasingly utilised to train defence maintenance personnel. Peter Redman explains, “as you might expect, maintenance professionals need to be proficient at identifying and fixing any maintenance-related issues on an aircraft.  Because most militaries want their aviation assets focused primarily on operational commitments, it is not easy or desirable to take an aircraft out-of-service for maintenance training. Therefore, most militaries apply simulation-based training to maintenance training as well.”

Within the sphere of air traffic control, simulators such as ADACEL’s MaxSim have been developed to allow for safer and more economical training practices. As a high fidelity air traffic control system, designed for both civil and military air traffic control training. It involves seated participants responding to real time software input on computer screens and large, wrap-around projections that emulate the view from a control tower. Scenarios are controlled by a user’s physical input into computer systems as well as voice activated technology and the ability for an instructor to introduce different elements to a particular exercise or evaluate a participant’s progress.

The future of simulation within the aviation industry looks bright, with advances in technology creating an increasingly accessible and realistic experience from consumer to professional level users. Mick Stone is one idividual who is optimistic the industry will grow exponentially in the future. “I think it will only increase,” he explains. “Improvements are being made all the time in the varying components and software development, computers are getting faster. Simulation is already used in many other industries and this too will expand.”

Innovations in gaming technology, such as the Oculus Rift, will soon allow the exploration of fully interactive 360-degree environments. Pilot helmets that grant a 360-degree view from within a cockpit are promising new developments within the industry and advances in remote monitoring, engineering and voice recognition are sure to prove as useful as they are fascinating to developers, pilots and flight sim enthusiasts alike.

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