Back to school
Peter Mitchell, Etihad Airways' VP for training and standards, explains how in-house flight simulators are benefiting the airline's operation.
When did you buy the simulators?
Last year we took delivery of two simulators, covering the Airbus 330 and A340 range. They are convertible simulators, which means engineers can reconfigure the simulator in 30 minutes to either represent an A330 or A340. That's the difference between a two-engine and four-engine aircraft. They were purchased from CAE in Canada and are based in our new training centre quite close to Abu Dhabi airport. We have those two simulators and are talking to manufacturers about purchasing a third one for our recently started narrow body fleet of A320s. We are right in the final stages of negotiating to have that delivered in the early part of next year.
How expensive were they?
Extremely. It depends which one you are looking at. They start from about US$10 million and go up to around $15 million. In terms of the training we do with 500 pilots, it would be impossible and expensive to put the aeroplane in the air. Also, you couldn't do in an aeroplane what you can in a simulator, such as create failures and freeze the session halfway through.
How realistic is the training?
Very realistic. So much so, that while we come under the General Civil Aviation Authority in the UAE, our simulators are certified on their behalf by the UK civil aviation authority. They are certified to level D, which means pilots flying other aircraft types come to us and go through the training course. The first time he flies the aeroplane for real is with passengers on board. Level D means the simulator is high fidelity, so we can train pilots to do circuits and landings in the simulator rather than in a real aircraft.
With the general pilot shortage, how important is it to have in-house flight simulators?
It's very important because the simulator is an integral part of the training. Through the convergence course, we cover the normal and abnormal operations. With aeroplanes these days the reliability is such that pilots could go through their career and not experience any serious failures. But we need to prepare them for any potential failure and train them to react under pressure accordingly.
What features do the aircraft simulators carry?
You can fully simulate weather and runway conditions, wind and temperature, so there's a whole range. You can also recreate the airports and airfields that we fly to. We have some specialised air fields that provide a realistic outlay of a particular airport. Abu Dhabi is one; we have a full vision model, which has everything from the terminals to trucks and vehicles on the taxiways, and all the surrounding areas. Modern graphics use photo enhanced overlays of terrain and the surrounding geography, so it's very realistic when you fly away from the immediate airport vicinity.
How many hours will a trainee pilot spend in the simulator?
It depends what level they come in at. If they are coming after already qualifying on one of their aircraft types, they do quite an abbreviated course. They could do anything from 20 hours in the simulator, but if they are involved in a full course they do 15 days worth, which amounts to about 60 hours.
How do you recreate flight times for long-haul services?
Pilots come in once they have completed their type conversion and know how to operate the aeroplane for reoccurrence training twice a year. They are trained and checked to make sure they have maintained the standard. On the first day, they undertake the regulatory and technical requirements.
We then give them LOFT training, which is a flight from A to B in real-time involving a couple of scenarios but not necessarily technical failures. Sometimes they can be the softer failures, forcing pilots to invoke decision-making skills and interact with the crew. They may also have to work with ground-based personnel and air traffic control to make decisions.
Aeroplanes are reliable these days, but unfortunate incidents still happen and a lot are caused by human frailties or errors. Therefore, a lot of training now concentrates on cruise resource management (CRM), decision making and situational awareness rather than the technical aspects.
When you have two pilots in the cockpit, they need to be working as a team and the simulator is invaluable to that. You can put a camera in our simulators, playback the entire session and get the crew to review how they worked as a team, what they feel they did well and what can be improved on.