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Here’s a question for you:  What’s the difference between a $14 million full-motion, level D flight simulator and a $500 couch?  As I was to find out, the answer to that question is … not a lot.

In the January 2014 issue of Rotorcraft Pro, there were several very well written and informative articles about flight simulators.  Lyn Burks, the editor-in-chief of Rotorcraft Pro, had written an article about his experience flying a S76 C+ flight sim at the CAE training center in Whippany, New Jersey.  Ryan Mason wrote an insightful article entitled “Trends in Helicopter Simulation.”  Reading those two articles reminded me of the couch, and what a wonderful training tool it is.

Abu Dhabi Aviation needed copilots for a new Saudi helicopter EMS contract they’d just landed and, to their great credit, they decided to bring in some new blood to the organization by hiring pilots who had recently acquired their airline transport license.  Many of them had never flown a turbine-engine helicopter, let alone a medium-twin engine helicopter like the Bell 412EP.  It was a big gamble for the company because of the expense to train them, and because it was a very big step for these guys.  Most of them were coming from a Robinson R-22 background. 

To our great delight, they did just fine.  Ironically, the few pilots who didn’t make it through training were the older, supposedly more experienced pilots.

The new pilots, who had only flown single-pilot, had to learn how to operate in a two-crew environment, a major step for them.  For example, when the copilot read from the checklist and came to the part where it said, “Captain’s Brief,” the guys who’d only flown single-pilot were at a loss as to what to say. 

Understandably, most of them were not clear about their role when flying as captain, or as copilot.  So I came up with a training device for them that was so simple, it shocked me how effectively it taught two-crew ops.  This high-tech training device is called … a couch.

The other sim instructor, Philippe Berling, would fly his two new pilots during the four-hour evening sessions and I would fly my two guys during the four-hour morning sessions.  When Philippe and I had time between sessions to talk, we both remarked how the new pilots didn’t know what was expected of them in their respective roles.  So, I hatched a plan.

We were staying at a hotel in Dubai during training at the CAE training center.  I had us all meet in my hotel room for a training session.  I taped to the wall in my room a poster of the Bell 412EP cockpit that I’d taken from the Flight Safety Training Manual.  Turning the couch to face the wall, I had one of the new pilots sit next to me on my left, while I took the captain’s seat to his right.  The other three pilots sat behind the couch, observing.

The new copilot read the pre-start, start, and after-start checklists, while I demonstrated what the captain should be doing and what he should be saying.  Then I gave him the captain’s brief before takeoff.  I told him to envision from the points of hovering, to accelerating, to climbing, to leveling off and what he would say, which sounded something like this:

“OK, we’ll be doing an IFR Alpha 31 departure to Zakum Field.  I want you to call out: airspeed alive, TDP (takeoff decision point) at 45 knots, Vy (best rate of climb speed) at 70 knots. 

“If an emergency occurs below 500 feet, no switches will be switched until mutually confirmed, except for an engine fire in which case I want you to pull the illuminated T-handle for that engine and fire the fire bottle. 

“If we have an emergency above 500 feet, I will do the initial actions and I will call for follow-up actions as per the checklist.

“I want you to call 1,000, 500, and 100 feet from assigned altitudes. 

“Please advise me plus or minus 10 knots from my assigned airspeed, plus or minus 10 degrees from my assigned heading, plus or minus 100 feet on my assigned altitude.  It you see anything you don’t like, or have a question about anything, please bring it up and we’ll discuss it.  Any questions?” 

Then we would do an imaginary flight that included takeoff and climb out.  During the climb, I would announce that we had an engine fire and talk them through the emergency.  I had the new pilots rotate into the left seat as the imagined flight progressed.  As they made their mock radio calls I would act as air traffic control, giving instructions and answering back.  We’d do a whole flight that way, requesting radar vectors for an ILS (instrument landing system) approach for runway 31 back at Abu Dhabi, while on single-engine. 

We would practice doing all the checks, imagining that nothing could be seen of the runway environment at the decision height at 200 feet.  Then we’d imagine doing a single-engine go-around, using the go-around button on the collective pitch lever, and climb for another approach doing radio calls, checks … everything.  It was just like flying in a sim, except we were doing it while sitting on the couch in my room.

The results Philippe and I saw after that session were astonishing.  It was like the four new pilots had been struck by lightning!  They ‘got it.’  I was amazed.  So was Philippe.  From then on, we included couch training for all the new pilots.

I found it funny that we got so much accomplished using a $500 couch.  Fourteen million dollars will by one simulator … or 28,000 couches.

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