Innovation and thoughtful developments take place so often in our training and simulation world that it is easy, sometimes, to be blasé and shake off the latest “look what we’ve done” as simply another nugget of gold on our own yellow brick road. Sometimes, however, the innovation is so compelling, so unusual or so plain off the wall that one cannot help but take a step back and mutter “Wow!”
That was just the case recently when TRU Simulation and Training told MTSC of the delivery it made late last year of the first ever Level D full flight simulator (FFS) for the Canadair (now Viking Air) CL-415. What makes this interesting is the aircraft’s role: as a waterbombing aircraft for aerial firefighting, not only does it land on water – in itself a challenge for a simulator, in which TRU has developed considerable experience – it takes in over 6,000 litres of water in 10-12 seconds and drops it – at low level, with fire raging beneath it and on either side – in just six. How does one replicate that in an environment in which pilots can gain a flavour of firefighting operations and the unique challenge they bring – and do so routinely, cost-effectively and in safety?
The answer, according to Thomas Allen, TRU’s Vice President of Technology and Innovation, based in the Montreal area, was to understand from the beginning that there were three models to be built for this simulator, not the usual two. “In addition to the aerodynamic model for the aircraft – which had not been instrumented like this before – and modelling the ground interaction for take-off, landing and ground handling, we had to consider the hydrodynamic characteristics of the aircraft as it lands, takes on water and takes-off in a marine environment,” he told MTSC this week.
The fundamental problem, as Allen succinctly puts it, is “there is no windsock at the airport.” Largely because there IS no airport. The usual visual cues that assist pilots in gauging wind strength and direction are entirely different when landing on an Italian or Canadian lake, for example. Waves and catspaws on the surface give some assistance, but the lack of elevation cues in the immediate landing area presents a difficult task to the pilot, whose brain is used to very different external cues. Veteran pilots, according to Allen, have in the past been known to open the window and throw out a life vest which then provides the hindbrain with an immediately understandable point of reference.
TRU has developed quite a heritage of modelling aircraft hydrodynamics, having built the world’s first seaplane FFS, for the TWIN OTTER 400 (the rights to which aircraft also now belong to Viking Air) in 2017. That simulator is currently training pilots at Pacific Sky Aviation in Calgary, Alberta. Lessons learned from that programme have been digested and leveraged into the CL-415 FFS, to excellent effect, by all accounts. The TWIN OTTER experience was invaluable and brought unanticipated aspects of aircraft handling to the fore. “When docking, the aircraft actually backs into the dock, so we had to provide a whole second set of visuals that the pilot could see when he stuck his head out the window to manoeuvre,” Allen explained. Which gives a whole new meaning to ‘out the window’ visuals in simulators!
Returning to the CL-415 simulator, however, what prompted the development? The market does not seem at first glance to be a huge one. “One driver for this was the regulations, which state that training for the aircraft must take place on a Level D simulator if available. Since there wasn’t one at the time, we decided to build one,” Allen stated to MTSC. The market is indeed not huge – the global fleet of CL-215 and CL-415 amphibious aircraft is put at 164 aircraft by TRU – the majority of the fleet being in Europe and North America and with Greece, Italy and Spain managing the largest national inventories. Training, in the absence of a Level D device, has traditionally been conducted on the aircraft – an undertaking not without a measure of risk.
That risk is considerably greater, in many respects, than that faced by the great majority of non-military pilots. From the very nature of the mission, a waterbomber flies at low level to drop its load ow water and/or fire-retardant chemicals in the heart of the blaze. Doing so brings the aircraft into contact with an entirely different set of aerodynamic and ground interactions. Allen says that in discussions with pilots through the development process, it became apparent that updrafts from a fire could have so powerful an asymmetric effect as to potentially flip the plane over on one wing. How does one train for that in a safe environment without a full flight simulator? “The low altitude makes the visual aspect of control much more critical,” Allen points out – which has a direct effect on the quality of the visuals in the simulator.
Firefighting operations are high intensity. If we needed any proof of that, analysis of the spate of wildfires and forest fires in Europe, Australia and North America in 2018 provide that quite amply. High intensity, dangerous and difficult operations, coupled with the growing supposition that global warming is going to exacerbate the current scale of the problem, have made it important for operators to provide better training where possible. Which is what drove TRU’s launch customer, Ansett Aviation, to commission the CL-415 FFS.
Delivered to Ansett’s Milan training centre in September, qualified to EASA Level D standards and ready for training in December, the simulator is now delivering what the customer needed: a safe, routine training environment, engineered specifically for the unique challenges faced by this small group of pilots and certified to the highest possible standards. Practicing risky missions in a true-to-life environment is a goal that justifies the investment, in Ansett’s judgement – and the wildfire events of last year have heightened interest elsewhere, according to Allen. “The training provided in the simulator arguably actually enables higher quality training to be delivered – pilots can learn to deal with situations in the safety of the simulator that it would be impossible – or, at least, not reasonable to try – in the live aircraft,” Allen observed.
Orienting simulator capabilities to the unique nature of the pilot tasking has required four different shapes of fire to be modelled, with four levels of intensity, coupled with the simulation of wind streaks in 3D dynamic waves at speeds above 15 knots. Not challenges that most fixed-wing pilots have to worry about – though the question does spring to mind as to how similar some of the conditions faced by naval helicopter pilots might be.
TRU has addressed and resolved a thorny issue, effectively, to the customer’s satisfaction and with some ingenuity, it would seem. Allen and his engineering team – indeed, the company as a whole, is to be congratulated. Not least for rekindling the enthusiasm this column has for searching out the unusual, the offbeat, the slightly off the wall.