Virtual revolution in the helicopter industry

Mountainflyers is committed to innovative thinking. Always wanting to be one step ahead. This time, they may well be two steps ahead. They are the first company to use the virtual reality simulator by VRM Switzerland as a training tool. Fitting for one of the founding members of the new Leading Helicopter Academies (LHA), a network of helicopter schools raising flying standards in Europe.

 What makes Mountainflyers so daring?
Mountainflyers invested heavily in unproven technology in an unproven market. A totally new training tool, before the regulators had even approved it. That takes great courage and belief in what you’re doing. We talked to Micha Berger, Safety Manager and Helicopter Flight Instructor at Mountainflyers. What makes the company so daring?

“That has a lot to do with Christoph Graf, the CEO of Mountainflyers. He is really an innovation-driven guy, who always wants to be ahead of the competitors. He’s also fascinated in growing and adding other business fields, such as simulator training. Even before 2017, the company was trying to develop a simulator. We helped to sell a special set-up with pedals and a computer monitor, and just played around a bit. We saw that people were interested in the technology, and that helped Christophe to really move on in the direction of acquiring a simulator. However, at that moment, the cost-benefit ratio didn’t make economic sense.”

 The virtual simulator was launched in 2018
Christoph was determined to find a way and he did. He had known Fabian Riesen, CEO of VRM Switzerland, since 2017, a company specialised in virtual reality technology. Christoph shifted his focus from standard simulators to a new kind of simulator using virtual reality. Convinced that this was the future. The virtual simulator was launched in 2018, but it needed a lot of development, with Mountainflyers as one of the launch customers. It took almost four years from the launch until final realisation and certification of the product.

It’s important to note that Mountainflyers is not interested in innovation for innovation’s sake. It is about using technology to provide better training and create better pilots.

“There were many people involved in the development process, especially pilots. To test the simulator and also give feedback through interviews and feedback forms. Mountainflyers was very involved, especially going through the certification process.”

 Simulating the R22 and H125
The first virtual simulator deployed by Mountainflyers is based on the Robinson R22. This helicopter has been around for decades, and many pilots have learned on it. The virtual R22 is a great representation of the helicopter, and Mountainflyers is using it to promote procedure training. How to hover, how to approach a landing point, all the basics around flying. A helpful tool to accelerate pilot training.

Mountainflyers then deployed the H125 simulator, based on the single engine helicopter that outclasses all other single engine helicopters. In performance, versatility and low maintenance. It is the workhorse of the industry, especially in harsh conditions. When it comes to transporting people and slinging big loads, they literally live in the mountains. The good news is that the simulator has been fully accepted by the regulators, which means that the hours count. And that’s important because every pilot has to requalify periodically.

One third of the training on a simulator
“The tests on the H125 simulator are of course much less expensive than the real helicopter. It also opens opportunities to do special training and write a handbook of what the pilot has to do during these checks. It enables you to identify the training deficiencies in the company and then to improve both the flying skills and decision-making abilities of the line pilots. I think that this is a huge advantage. You can log time for the training as well, contributing to the minimum hours you need. For the PPL that’s five hours and for the CPL, it’s already ten hours. Which means that one third of the whole training can be carried out on the simulator. Amazing for such new technology.”

Obviously the simulator is less expensive, but let’s not forget the environmental aspect. No emissions. Not only can you carry out all sorts of checks that you have to do every six months anyway, you can also recreate exact situations over and over. Meaning that you can compare pilots under normal and stressful conditions. And train things that you can’t normally train in real life. Like flying into stormy conditions, instruments breaking, zero visibility in a cloud and suddenly you’re dangerously close to a mountain.

Virtual simulator certified in 2021
“The R22 virtual simulator was certified in late 2021, so far we’ve already done numerous training sessions with students. Mostly focusing on procedure training and basic training because we think that creates the biggest benefit. Then we can do the real exercises in the real helicopter, when they’ve reached a certain level of proficiency. We can do autorotative descents, when the engine’s out and the rotor blades are driven solely by the upward flow of air through the rotor. All the way to the ground in a safe manner. This is something we could also do in a real helicopter, but Advanced Emergency Training accidents are at the top of the accident statistics.

 Also, simple things like procedures. How to start the helicopter. You can do it again and again without actually really starting the engine. You can teach students how to follow the checklist in the right way. You can also do hover exercises, however, we discovered that this can be difficult. If you’ve never done something before, you really need a flight instructor sitting next to you.”

 Virtual simulator is changing the rules
The virtual H25 was certified by EASA in May. Mountainflyers is now working on approval for type ratings (first in Europe) and proficiency checks. The licence proficiency and operations proficiency checks have already been approved. That shows just how much trust and belief the authorities have in this new technology. In fact, the virtual simulator is changing the rules in Switzerland. For example, the regulations now state that the regular proficiency check, which every helicopter pilot has to do, should be carried out on a simulator if it’s reasonably accessible.

 “Yes, that’s a game changer. It’s another reason that we were willing to invest in the product. Basically, since the virtual simulator has been approved, other helicopter operators now have the opportunity to carry out proficiency checks on the H125 simulator.”

 Better, safer, cleaner
Within the next few months, after the approval of type ratings, the simulators can then operate to their full capacity. Which is better, safer and cleaner. So, what do pilots think about virtual flying?

“ First of all, they are very hesitant. Understandable, they want to fly in a real helicopter and it’s not real. They want to log their flight time in a real helicopter. However, when we show them what we can do and we go through different scenarios with them, then they start to think like, wow, I’d never imagined it would feel so real. I need all my skills to fly the helicopter and follow the procedures. When they get challenged, I think that’s when they start to be more open to the technology, it’s really realistic. I have heard stories that pilots were confused when they got off the simulator because they felt like it was exactly like a real helicopter.”

What’s the next step?
“When Christoph was at HAI HELI-EXPO in 2018, that was when we were looking for a simulator and talking to all the big players. He was asking them about virtual reality technology. All of them said that it wasn’t going to work, so they were not willing to invest in it. Now they’re having to move fast to catch up with the technology. Even develop their own product or work with VRM Switzerland.

 I can imagine that in a couple of years you can do most of the flight training on a simulator. VRM is actually working on a research paper with people off the street. The idea is to see what happens when the exercise is done only on the simulator. Then, after they have completed it, send them on a real helicopter and see if they are able to fly it. We think that more and more pilot training will move from real helicopters to simulators and virtual reality within the next few years.”

Never stop asking questions
Being innovative and future-minded means that you never stop thinking and asking yourself new questions. The same is true for Mountainflyers.

“We are still investing a lot of time in the simulators right now. What training course we could offer in the future? Where is the need for operators? How can we prepare tailored training? Maybe even for pilot selection as well. Companies and operators write a handbook with the requirements they need. Or for the kind of pilots they are looking for. They send that to Mountainflyers. We then do the practical assessment, maybe together with one of the operators, things like that.”

Would you like to know more about training with virtual reality simulators? Contact LHA member academies Mountainflyers or Heli Austria Flight Academy