‘Sim’ a sharp training tool for rescue helicopter team

It’s enough to make a landlubber lose their lunch without even leaving the ground, but SRSL’s portable flight simulator is a critical new training tool for rescue helicopter services.

Sitting in the helicopter cockpit, an instructor beside them, the pilot pulls a hood down over their face and flies with just cockpit instruments to guide them.

That’s the traditional technique pilots use to train for flying in conditions like deep cloud when working under Visual Flight Rules.

But there’s a better way, says Search and Rescue Services Ltd (SRSL) pilot instructor Massey Lynch. And that’s the portable flight simulator newly commissioned by SRSL to add to its arsenal of training tools.

Parked in the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust’s Gisborne hangar, the “sim”, with its crisp white walls and gleaming stainless steel hardware, resembles nothing more high-tech than a giant chiller.

Inside, though, its all screens, instruments and controls and for nearly three weeks the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter team has it all to themselves.

Designed for pilots and crewmen to work in tandem, the sim is primarily focused on the key skill of instrument flying when visibility is impaired.

What they’re training for, says Mr Lynch, is something they hope will never happen.

“We’re responding to incidents that have occurred overseas where a pilot simply could not avoid flying into cloud, or where there had been a failure of Night Vision Goggles,” he says.

“So what they are working on are really emergency skill-sets rather than something they will use every day, but it’s definitely something they need to have.

“Crews also use the simulator to practice working as teams to manage a variety of other possible in-flight scenarios.”

The SRSL company was formed by five rescue helicopter trusts — including Gisborne’s own Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust (EHRT) — to manage ops across eight North Island bases and, as such, has big responsibilities in making sure pilots, crewmen and critical care flight paramedics are trained to be at the top of their games.

That’s why it commissioned the design and construction of the $140,000 portable simulator, for which each of the trusts paid their share.

Operational since July of this year, the sim is designed to mimic conditions when flying both the BK-117 helicopter the Eastland team flies now and the Instrument Flight Rules-capable EC-145 they hope to fly in the future.

While the structure itself does not move – as some bigger sims do – the shifting of the virtual landscape can give the aviation version of landlubbers a queasy feeling and Mr Lynch sees this as a sign of its success.

“The aim was to make it as realistic as could be achieved within the space of a two-by-four-metre portable shell,” he says.

“We could have gone bigger, to one of the more complex sims, but that can run from hundreds of thousands of dollars to as much as $14 million for what we considered would be relatively modest additional training benefit.

“More importantly, it was critical that we be able to take it around to all of our bases to ensure it is accessible to all pilots and crewmen for significantly more time than would be possible if it was centrally based.”

In early November SRSL will put the sim through its paces for Civil Aviation Authority certification, which means pilots will be able to formally log the training they do on it.

“It doesn’t have to be certified for the specific training we are currently undertaking, especially as what we are doing is in excess of any CAA requirements,” Mr Lynch says, “but it does if the pilots want to log flight-time credits towards licences and currencies.

“The primary reason for commissioning the sim was to complement the current training we do in the aircraft with additional training that can’t safely or effectively be conducted in flight, so it’s a fantastic training tool.”

Massey Lynch works out of the Philips Search and Rescue Trust base in Hamilton, not far from his hometown of Te Awamutu. From there, he oversees both pilot training and operations of the Westpac Air Ambulance service that runs fixed-wing aircraft from Hamilton Airport, often carrying critically-ill patients from Gisborne through to Waikato Hospital.

In fact it was in fixed-wing craft that he got his start, flying commercially until the mid-1990s when he joined Eagle Airways/Air New Zealand to look after operations for the Beech 1900D craft flown out of regions like Gisborne.

Since joining the Philips trust (and subsequently SRSL) nearly a decade ago Mr Lynch has used that broad skill base in his training role, at the same time flying both fixed- and rotory-wing aircraft.

“I did always want to be a helicopter pilot but at the time I couldn’t afford the training so I got my fixed-wing licence while still at high school and a commercial licence soon after,” he says.

“Then when I joined the Phillips trust I was able to do the helicopter licences and instructor training needed for the work I do now. So it took a while, but I finally got there!”

The Eastland Rescue Helicopter team of three – soon to be four – pilots have a “huge wealth” of skills and experience but despite flying regular missions, they need to keep up their safety currencies, says Mr Lynch.

“Until recently that has been achieved almost entirely with flight training, but now we can complement that with scenarios that are not safe or practical to do in an aircraft,” he says.

“Using the sim means they get to train as a crew more often and in more diverse (albeit simulated) conditions, enhancing their skills to manage a wide range of flight conditions and emergencies.”

CAPTION: Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter pilots and crewmen work in tandem to negotiate flight conditions and crewman Kelley Waite and pilot Tony Brice were among the first to work with the new portable flight simulator after it arrived at the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust’s Gisborne hangar.

The Facts

  • The new flight simulator was commissioned by Search and Rescue Services Ltd (SRSL), the company formed by the Eastland (Gisborne), Philips (Taupo, Rotorua, Tauranga and Hamilton), Hawke’s Bay (Hastings), Taranaki (New Plymouth) and Life Flight (Wellington) rescue helicopter trusts to manage ops across eight North Island bases.
  • Being portable, it can be taken to all bases to ensure pilots and crewman have access to the most up-to-date training tool.
  • Its primary use is to give pilots and crewmen emergency skills for flying in vision-impaired situations that would be too dangerous to seek out above ground.