Loading please wait....

If you are a registered, please log in. If not, please click here to register.


According to accident figures and popular opinion- simulator training reduces accidents. Despite the availability of a wealth of high-tech training systems though- accident statistics for business aviation continue to show that flawed crew decisions dominate the underlying causes of a majority of accidents.

Dave Higdon   |   1st July 2009
Back to articles
Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
Read More

Flight Training
Mind-taxing scenarios enhance simulator-practice quality.

According to accident figures and popular opinion- simulator training reduces accidents. Despite the availability of a wealth of high-tech training systems though- accident statistics for business aviation continue to show that flawed crew decisions dominate the underlying causes of a majority of accidents.

To contribute to improving pilot judgment and thinking skills means changing attitudes toward training tasks and using training aids as the backdrop for the tasks. And since not all that simulates needs motion to inspire our synapses- business pilots today enjoy an increasing array of training systems capable of flexing pilot brain power.

That’s a good thing on a couple of fronts. First- many pilots fly aircraft on business for which high-fidelity full-motion simulation systems either exist in limited numbers (and thus- limited access) or don’t exist at all.

A growing inventory of cockpit procedure trainers and flight training devices take advantage of computing power to present flight scenarios to pilots that require them to correctly process the situation and the solution to succeed – without the platform moving them to mimic the sensations of actual flight.

In addition- the continuing expansion of these options opens up lower-cost- more convenient access to honing the mental skills on which pilots predominantly depend to safely manage their machines in challenging circumstances. Together- the variety of ground-based machines provide opportunities for out-of-airplane training focused as much on mentally taxing the trainees as on polishing the physical stick-work-and-systems skills – be it a Level D Simulator or a stationary Flight Training Device (FTD).

And simulation technology contributes in other areas- too; specifically as a tool to improve aircraft design and development and as an analytical tool in the investigation of aircraft accidents. But the goal remains the same throughout: To improve flight safety.

For decades of advances in the technologies of flight simulation- learning exercises focused on teaching aircraft performance traits- systems- operations procedures and handling various high-risk or common failure modes.
To cite a simple- common example- the simulator instructor might “fail” an engine beyond the point of aborting the simulated take-off to give the crew a chance to exercise their ‘stick-and-rudder-in-an-emergency’ skills and their mental quickness.

In scant seconds the crew must continue with the take off while also securing the ailing engine- and transitioning the aircraft to a stable configuration in preparation for the emergency landing as the crew should have declared in stating its intentions. Putting other variables into the mix to challenge the response changes the training – for example- forcing the crew into dealing with weather deteriorated below levels safe for a single-engine instrument approach- then choosing a new option.

Sometimes the scenario builds on a known accident- forcing trainees to confront a situation that resulted in an accident for a real crew in an actual aircraft. The teaching moment may involve showing that the only safe decision was one not to go; it may involve illustrating that following a fixed formula may block out a smarter option.

Other common scenarios involve failure of other aircraft systems at critical points in a flight: environmental systems that control pressurization- electrical-generation systems- flight instruments- possibly even hydraulics for the flight-control system.

Increasingly the focus seems to be shifting to the inclusion of more scenarios designed to test or teach judgment skills- since failures of manual flying skills seem to contribute less to aircraft accidents than failures of thinking skills- as evidenced by the continuing high percentage of accidents deemed avoidable by investigators – avoidable had the pilot or crew made different decisions that acknowledged the circumstances of the situation.

Such mental-based training underpinned the founding and the foundation of training seminars like Bombardier’s excellent Safety Standdown. Blending training in judgment skills with simulator training brings together the best of both worlds. The goal of such scenario-based training in multi-crew situations is to further the cockpit resource management skills of the aviators.

For pilots who work single-pilot cockpits- the goal is to help them learn methods for better managing the unusual- single-handedly. Ultimately- though- the goals in both environments centers on reducing accidents brought on by judgment errors.

Sitting in on a small class of business aircraft pilots brings home the difference between sim training to learn rote flying procedures and stick-and-rudder skills- on one side- and sim training geared to tax the trainee’s head skills. All these pilots flew single- or twin-engine turboprops- half of them as the pilot/owner of their business. All held the required advanced ratings – multi-engine and multi-engine/instrument- or at least instrument-rated – and boasted several thousand flight hours accumulated over more than 20 years of flying.

They all flew as the single pilot of their propjet aircraft- and attended four days of refresher training annually – the two pilot/owners- in part- to satisfy insurance underwriters but primarily to regain familiarity with situations they would not- or could not safely practice in their planes. “That’s the handy part of the early sim sessions-” one trainee noted. “The latter sessions help because they focus on ‘whatif’ scenarios you hope never to encounter - ones without a set formula to resolve them.”

The latter sim sessions followed sessions in the classroom where the work focus (a weather scenario of common occurrence) involved the trainee/pilots in thinking through their options and crafting their own resolution solutions.

The scenario: The weather- worse than forecast- en route forces a deviation that puts the airplane close to minimum fuel for the trip; after selecting a suitable nearby option- the weather at that location starts to deteriorate – and the aircraft suffers a partial failure of the pilot’s primary flight display. Does the pilot go with standby instrumentation for an at-minima approach to avoid cutting into minimum fuel – or risk the lower fuel remaining by continuing to friendlier weather conditions 20 minutes away- where a VFR approach is possible?

When the scenario presented itself in a sim session the next day- the pilots each encountered variables unmentioned during the class discussion – forcing more decision making- on-the-fly- with the sim keeping the feeling ‘real’. The sim instructor stopped short of making any given approach an impossible mission- while making each mission as close as possible to actual potential problems.

For example- one pilot in the classroom insisted that the only viable alternative involved taking the closest acceptable alternative to preclude the prospect of hitting “Bingo fuel-” as he put it (the fuel-remaining amount briefed for the flight). During the short search for the alternative airport and the time required to call up the electronic chart- the pilot managed to enter the frequency for the Automated Terminal Information System (ATIS) and hit the flip-flop button while getting the appropriate TRACON handling for the new decision.

Before hearing the first cycle of the ATIS recording- the approach controller informed this pilot of the deterioration of the weather – slowing arrivals. Fuel wasn’t yet an emergency – that was the pilot’s point in the decision.

The instructor’s point- though- focused on the trainee’s habit-based application of his training experiences in making a decision before fully assessing available options. As it worked out- this pilot faced the prospect of entering a holding pattern for the alternative airport chosen- or flying on 20 minutes to a second prospect – one with better weather.

Progressing through his decision process in the sim- encountering the wrinkles presented in turn- he ultimately confessed he made his decision based on an assumption of no changes from older weather reports. Assessing the options with the knowledge that several viable ones existed would have saved the pilot from ultimately landing with fuel at an emergency-declaration level.

“From here on- the first step in my action plan is to stop and ask myself to consider the options for my action plan- while getting updated weather-” he concluded.

Flight Training Devices; Procedure Trainers; Systems Trainers; Avionics Simulations; Full Motion Simulators… The variety of flight-training equipment choices has virtually exploded in the decades since high-power- low-cost computer processing power arrived on the business scene. These different devices can serve as part of a program- or in a stand-alone environment to suit the needs of an operator. In some instances- companies can afford to own and operate these training tools- providing an in-house capability on which crew can practice upcoming trips and see the actual scenery and scenarios they may encounter – right through the approach procedures available at the destination.

The same approach is also moving into prominence at flight-simulation based training centers with the expansion of scenario-oriented exercises in the instructional syllabus. But making new pilots good and good pilots better is only the most-visible edge of how flight-simulation technologies contribute to aviation safety. From helping prove new ideas to helping solve aviation’s tragedies- flight simulation science makes itself felt across many lines.

Whether the simulation comes from Frasca or CAE; SimuFlight or FlightSafety; the goal of making pilots better with more accessible training stands as universal. And these companies and others continue to advance the state-of-the-art in new and creative directions – in the process delivering new and more affordable options.

Thanks to the blending of powerful desktop work-station-level computers with large display technologies and low-cost electrically-driven motion hardware- the costs of flight-simulation systems have dropped to the point where serious game players can afford a motion system for a family game room.

Just a notch up from that we find systems like a motion simulator for the SR22/SR20 aircraft with the Garmin G1000 panel – priced in the mid-five-figure range. Or a pilot can download PC-based software to learn the G1000 basics on a home computer.

Meanwhile- the big players continue to advance the states-of-their-art to new- evermore-realistic levels through the application of new electric-driven motion platforms. One pilot/sim instructor we visited recently spent time putting an all-new Level D motion sim through its paces for his employer. A veteran of years bouncing between motion-sim cockpits and the flight decks of the real jets he teaches- this usually cynical instructor came away highly impressed with the fidelity of the sim’s movements- as well as the graphics and the software.

“It’s more like the real thing than anything I’ve ever experienced – quieter- smoother- more believable-” he said. “We may be seeing the emergence of a new level of realism that deserves its own new qualification level. You have to ‘fly’ it to believe it.”

Earlier this year- Embraer noted that in the work advancing for two new mid-cabin jets- the Legacy 500 and 450- test pilots had already logged considerable time with the new fly-by-wire system going into the aircraft… for two aircraft yet to fly…

Such advanced testing and refinement work illustrates another realm in which flight-simulation technologies contribute to the furthering of aviation technology and safety. By marrying the control laws- computer code- essentially- commanding the response movements of control surfaces written for the calculated aerodynamics of the airframe- aircraft designers get the opportunity to learn how their design will fly with the control architecture designed for the aircraft.

Thanks to the accumulated knowledge of how to program a machine to respond realistically to match the characteristics of an airplane- the simulation community can use the fluid-flow and aerodynamic characteristics of a computer-based design- and program the computers to respond like the aircraft – up to and including what might be little-used scenarios that harbor irresolvable machine responses.

They can put to work the actual control hardware and fly it on the ground- with the computer programming providing the reference. So if a situation such as a failed engine overpowers the control architecture in the simulator- the engineers can change the design before anyone suffers the life-threatening problem in-flight. Increasingly- the first flight of a new design is less a demonstration of the basic stability of a design- and more a confirmation of performance and response traits previously seen in the simulated machine.

Two winter accidents- one involving a mainline airliner (no-fatalities) ditching in a river and the other involving a fatal regional airplane turboprop crash: The translation of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) shed light on the atmosphere in the cockpit and the demeanor of the regional crew as it flew toward Buffalo with the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 accumulating ice.

But by merging the electronic records from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) with a modern flight simulator- an image emerged portraying exactly what transpired that night- the movements of the aircraft- flight controls- throttles – and its reaction in the weather conditions.

The US-Airways A320 ditching in the Hudson River in January came to graphic life thanks to the application of FDR and CVR info into animations investigators could study. These retroactive uses of simulation technologies in accident investigations are far from new- but thanks to the convergence of today’s high-power- fast-running processors- digital simulation systems and digital multi-channel FDRs- the marriage has never produced so quickly an illustration so pertinent to solving the mystery.

The behavior of the Dash 8 that fateful night seems to reflect the normal responses to the conditions and the hands flying it. But occasionally- aviation faces an all-new scenario- impossible to understand without actually repeating the scenario. Of course- no one wanted to take up a 747-100-series freighter and shed two engines from one side to learn how it handles- but after a second post-take-off crash revealed indications of just that type of unthinkable failure- investigators turned to simulation to answer questions. The biggest question: Is that aircraft- similarly loaded- still flyable after two engines break off one side?

A 747 motion simulator was programmed to reflect that failure scenario – a scenario neither imagined nor imaginable – and pilot after pilot tried. They all crashed – every one – with the best performers managing only to stretch the spiraling descent to the impact point.

As the Dash 8 accident illustrates- programming actual aircraft data from a known flight into a matching- approved-for-that-aircraft simulator- can produce credible answers reflective of how the plane responded – an eyewitness of sorts- who never blinks.

Related Articles

linkedin Print

Other Articles