Aviation is skills based industry and towards this requirement, training goes hand in hand. Commercial airline pilots may once have been assessed wholly on their manual flying (aircraft handling) skills; nowadays pilot assessment is predominantly based on Systems and Crew Management, where management of the automated systems and maintenance of situational awareness replace many of the traditional flying skills.
Use of Flight Simulation in Training
The availability of advanced simulator technology permits replicating the cockpit’s environment at any stage of flight. Such technologies are being used extensively for training and checking of flight crew. The complexity, cost and operating environment of modern aircraft has made the use of advanced simulation necessary.
Traditionally, simulation devices come in two sub variants – Full Flight Devices (FFS) and Fixed Training Devices (FTD).
Full Motion 6 Axis FFS
A FFS is a high fidelity full size replica of a specific type or make, model and series aeroplane flight deck which can represent the aeroplane in ground and flight operations. A FFS has a visual system providing an out of the flight deck view, and a force cueing motion system (at least 3 axis). It is in compliance with the minimum standards of regulatory FFS Qualification. Airlines are the predominant users of FFS’s.
Modern Fixed Training Device Without Motion
Flight training device (FTD) means a full size replica of a specific aircraft type’s instruments, equipment, panels and controls in an open flight deck/cockpit area or an enclosed aircraft flight deck/cockpit, including the assemblage of equipment and computer software programmes necessary to represent the aircraft in ground and flight conditions to the extent of the systems installed in the device. It does not require a force cueing motion. It is in compliance with the minimum standards for a specific FTD level of qualification.
The above are broad definitions and both the FFS and FTD have several subclassifications.
Type rating and recurrent airline pilot training has changed little in past 30 years. Regulators mandate a large part of such training to be conducted on very expensive full motion simulators or an actual aircraft. Training is compliance based and some of it based on outdated legal and regulatory instruments while not covering the latest technologies and techniques.
The expense of training and the fact that it based on compliance and not scenarios can result in ineffective quality and quantity of pilot training. Type rating and recurrent training suffer most as the huge expense brings an enormous pressure on airlines to keep costs down.
FFS are extremely costly – ballpark 10 million USD per FFS – with other costs like land, buildings (at least a 3 storey structure) and infrastructure to support the device. Maintenance and operation is expensive and most airlines therefore either do not have their own simulators or use third party devices – located in different cities of even countries.
FFSs create realism by fooling sensory systems which is at variance how an actual aircraft provides sensation. A case in point – deceleration is simulated by tilting the simulator forward which creates a sense of falling out of the seat. However at this time flight instruments indicate a pitch attitude which is at variance from the expected. This causes a conflict in the pilots’ inner-ear balance and the eyes. at odds with what their eyes tell them.
Yaw or sideslip can be simulated by sustained tilting, but vertical acceleration can not be sustained. Ask any pilot (me included) – it is common to over control in a simulator than an aircraft. Because of the physical limits of an FSTD’s motion base, the ratio of inertial cues (cues from sensory organs in the inner ear that sense acceleration) to visual cues is not the same as in flight. When motion and visual cues are not congruent, pilots can become disoriented — this can even cause motion sickness in simulator training.
Over the past few years, FTD technology has advanced to a level that apart from motion, the device can replicate everything else which can be expected in a cockpit. Products are available today which provides high-fidelity reproduction of the aircraft’s cockpit and controls, have collimated (infinity-focused) visual systems that provides complete realism. Vibration and ambient noise is simulated. Seat actuation systems provide “seat-of-the-pants” sensations of turbulence, runway surface roughness or airframe vibration.
Modern FTDs use the same simulation software as the full-flight simulators, based on manufacturer-supplied data packages, and with high-fidelity aerodynamic, ground and engine performance and control forces.
Coming to the subject line of this blog. It may not be completely true that a full-motion FFS is better than a state of the art fixed base device. I argue that scenario based training in a modern FTD with induced failures such as wind shear, ground proximity and systems failure as compared to legacy training in an old school FFS will actually result in a higher level of effective training.
It will not be practical for airlines to sustain frequent positioning of aircrew all over the world for flight simulator training any longer. Such travel will incur a huge financial burden and would also not be a wise considering the pandemic and social distancing requirements.
To be fair most regulators are aware of advances in simulation capability and are prepared to take advantage of the latest training tools. A FFS now does not have an edge over a modern FTD. Interest is being generated in using modern FTDs as alternatives to more expensive Level D “zero flight time” FFS for recurrent training. Shifting to motion less simulators with scenario and competency based training rather than just limiting to what is the minimum accepted compliance based training requirements is the need of the hour.
The world has evolved rapidly in the COVID19 environment. A paradigm shift in aviation training is needed and we have to start thinking and planning now to be better prepared for the uncertain future.