Learning without the risk

Coastal's simulator makes for lower-cost training

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

Håkon Såtvedt, a pilot for Coastal Helicopters, ran into some trouble during a flight Tuesday afternoon. He was struggling with engine failure, low fuel, and extremely rough conditions, and couldn't hold the machine steady enough to land.

"Oooh ... oh, he's done for," said John Garrard, a Coastal pilot who was monitoring Såtvedt's flight. When Såtvedt crashed nose-first into the ground, though, he walked away unscathed, leaving no broken machinery or burning ruins.

Såtvedt was testing his flying skills in a professional helicopter simulator, the first of its kind in Alaska. Coastal Helicopters bought the simulator from FLYIT, a company in Carlsbad, Calif., last month.

The simulator allows pilots to do a large amount of flight training without leaving Coastal's hangar at Juneau Airport. The custom-made device, which Coastal ordered last spring, is designed to imitate the AS350 B2 helicopters the company flies.

"This will reduce our costs of training, give us better training and enhance our safety," said Jim Wilson, president of Coastal Helicopters.

Alaska has the highest accident rate for small commercial air taxi operators, including planes and helicopters, in the United States, said Boyce Bingham, aviation safety inspector with the FAA.

In June 1999 seven people died when a Coastal fightseeing helicopter crashed into Herbert Glacier in flat-light conditions that made it hard for the pilot to distinguish the sky from the glacier.

Three TEMSCO helicopters crashed into Herbert Glacier in September 1999 in flat-light conditions, but no one was killed. A small plane and an Era Helicopters craft collided in midair over Gastineau Channel in May 1998 in good visibility, killing the two people aboard the plane.

A large screen in the simulator projects images of Southeast Alaska's landscape, and a smaller screen in front of the pilot's seat acts as the control panel of a helicopter, showing air speed, altitude and other information. As the pilot flies, the joystick and seat of the simulator vibrate, and simulated radio communication from other aircraft comes through headphones.

"We can change weather conditions to whatever we want," Wilson said.

An instructor sitting at two computer screens and a keyboard behind the simulator's cockpit can challenge the pilot with rain, snow, zero visibility or a failed engine, among other conditions.

"It actually looks like there's rain beating off the front of the aircraft as they're flying, or snow, or what it looks like when you're approaching whiteouts," Wilson said. "We can also put (pilots) in emergency situations that they can't do when they're flying."

Most helicopters flown in Southeast Alaska are not approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in weather with extremely low visibility, Wilson said. The simulator allows pilots to train for these conditions, in case they encounter bad weather mid-flight.

The simulator, a $100,000 investment for Coastal Helicopters, will be used to train new pilots, hone the skills of pilots accustomed to flying in the area, and train pilots for other companies that rent the simulator.

The Alaska Air Carriers Association will donate $15,000 to $20,000 toward the cost of the simulator, said Wilson, a member of the AACA board of directors. The money will come from a $3 million grant awarded to the AACA by the FAA last May to fund safety programs.

The AACA's principal safety program, Five Star Medallion, is designed to lower Alaska's air carrier accident rate by half in the next decade. Alaska air carriers are encouraged to earn stars by developing a company safety program, providing continual training to pilots, increasing ground service and mechanic training, and submitting to safety audits. Time spent in Coastal's flight simulator will help companies earn stars for pilot training.

"Medallion carriers will get a very reduced rate for the simulator," Wilson said.

The helicopter flight simulator is the first of its kind in Alaska, said Mike Coligny, chief executive officer of FLYIT. It is less expensive than top-of-the-line simulators used by the military and major airlines, which cost $10 million to $30 million, but more life-like than flight training devices, which can cost between $600,000 and $2 million.

"If you have to train in the aircraft, it's $1,800 an hour, versus $1.50 in electricity per hour in the simulator," he said. "You can maintain your skills at a very reasonable cost, and because it's so reasonable the pilots can train much more than they would normally."

The flight simulator uses a program from Microsoft, and has all major U.S. airports programmed into its software.

"You could basically fly from here to Dulles (International Airport, near Washington D.C.) without ever leaving Juneau," Coligny said.

Before it acquired the simulator, Coastal Helicopters trained pilots simply by describing dangerous situations and how to handle them.

"We would discuss a lot of the items, and take pilots up on the glacier on days when the weather was marginal to show them the conditions and how to avoid getting into it, but all you could really do was talk about it," Wilson said. "There's a lot of things we can do in the simulator that we can't do in the aircraft."

Coastal, which owns six helicopters and employs five pilots year-round, often flies eight helicopters and hires up to 11 pilots in the summer.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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