Simulator cuts training costs

FLYING HIGH: Manawatu Standard reporter Kathryn King takes the controls.
FLYING HIGH: Manawatu Standard reporter Kathryn King takes the controls.

A new helicopter training course at Ohakea Air Force Base has helped trainee pilots soar through their training using a simulator.

The new Helicopter Basic Course, for Wings Course graduates, began at the start of the year incorporating the A109 Flight Training Device, an A109 flight simulator in the Helicopter Synthetic Training Centre.

The reproduction of the A109 cockpit was built in 2010 and became operational in 2011. It sits within a space-age looking cabin, complete with multiple projectors and spherical screen, and can replicate helicopter movements, sounds, weather conditions, time of day, and emergencies all while the pilot soars over the plains of Manawatu.

Squadron Leader Ron Thacker, the Synthetic Flying Instructor, believes that New Zealand's military may be the only one in the world to take on basic training in an advanced helicopter in the manner the new course does. Of the 110 hours flying trainee pilots will do over seven to eight months, about half will be in the simulator, he says.

An hour in a helicopter costs about $3000, while an hour in the simulator costs about $300. "The taxpayers should appreciate we get really good training at 10 per cent of the cost of using the aircraft."

And the results were already speaking for themselves. After flying four sorties in the simulator, trainee pilots were able to fly, hover and land in the actual aircraft without any instructor intervention, something Thurston says would have taken trainees learning to fly the former Sioux helicopters twice as long.

Among the trainees is Flying Officer Lindsay Johnstone, who has completed about 16 hours in the simulator. Moving from the carefully controlled simulator to the aircraft was a little different - slightly twitchier controls, and more uncontrolled outside elements to think about, but was otherwise much the same.

Thacker thinks the combination of real-world flying and simulator work is a recipe they've got about right. "There are some things you can't replicate, but that's part of our job, to work out where you draw the line. That's why we don't do 60, 70 0r 80 per cent of our training in the sim, if we think 45-50 per cent is about right. It gives us maximum efficiency in terms of money, but still gives enough time in the actual aircraft to be able to operate in the real world."

The new course trained pilots in a broader range of skills, doing more things than they would have in the past, but more effectively, minimising training time when they moved on to the much bigger and more complex NH90 and Seasprite, Thacker said.


Staring down at Ohakea air force base falling away below us, it would be so easy to believe that we really were soaring the skies of Manawatu. You're sucked into the illusion as soon as you shut the helicopter doors on the simulator, strap on the four-point harness, don the communications headset and grasp the control sticks.

The dash is full of every button, switch, dial and screen they could fit in the space available, with more spilling onto the centre console and roof. I'm bumped back to earth briefly though, when it strikes me as somewhat comical that my pilot, Flying Officer Lindsay Johnstone, has to release the handbrake before we can take off.

It's comforting to know there's at least one element of the process I could have mastered. As the noise of the rotor blades cranks up and the simulator starts to shudder, the feeling of becoming airborne can't be denied, it really does feel like taking off.

After wending our way peacefully across the rolling Manawatu landscape for a while, we have an emergency, one of the engines is on fire.

There's a lot of button pushing and a rather insistent red light, but Johnstone handles it. Then, while still running on one engine, I'm handed the controls. Well, the kiddy-lock version of the controls, anyway.

One minute I'm using some serious bicep to get the helicopter to turn, and the next I'm in oversteer when they drop the resistance back down to almost nothing.

But hey, with the pretty much true-to-life scenery below, I would happily have cruised back to Palmerston North for a flyover of my house if they'd let me.

Maybe next time. After all, I've already got the handbrake part nailed.

Manawatu Standard