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With the global flight simulator market generally forecast to grow to the equivalent of nearly $8 billion by 2024, as more operators come to appreciate the potential savings from not using real aircraft for more of the training syllabus, a Textron Inc. company is rapidly accelerating its market penetration.
TRU Simulation + Training Inc., a corporate sibling to Bell Helicopter, Beechcraft, Cessna and Hawker, had a high-profile presence at CANSEC 2017, the growing Ottawa trade show organized by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).
Despite its growing presence in the simulator market, TRU isn’t very old as a brand. It was formed in 2014 out of three legacy companies. Mechtronix Inc. in Montreal and OPINICUS Corp., in Lutz, Fla., were acquired by Textron and consolidated with part of AAI Logistics & Technical Services, a Textron Systems operating unit in Goose Creek, S.C.
James Takats, senior vice-president for global simulation and training strategy, and Gregg Sturdevant, director of business development, sat down with Skies at CANSEC to talk about recent TRU successes and plans for the immediate future.
“On the commercial side, we’re growing a lot in our air transport-focused business,” said Takats, who has spent more than three decades in the simulation industry. “That’s our Montreal-based business we’ve built to support the global airline market. We’re the 737 MAX exclusive manufacturer for Boeing and in the past year we won the 777X contract.”
TRU has two full-flight training suites for the 777X on contract in Boeing’s Singapore and Gatwick training centres, and this past year delivered two 737 MAX Level D simulators–the first ones in the world–to Boeing training centres in Miami and Singapore. Takats said two more are expected to be qualified this summer, in Gatwick and Shanghai, China.
“We also delivered an Airbus A330 and a 737NG to Oman Air. We have six people on the ground in Muscat 24 hours a day, supporting the training centre where we take care of logistics, spares and simulator maintenance operations. We don’t do the pilot training; that’s being done by Oman Air.”
Six more TRU personnel are based in Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, where they support a two-sim centre for Air Arabia, a low-cost carrier. The A320 FFS X Level D devices were manufactured in Montreal.
“We’ve also sold some B737s and A320s to other customers, so we’re really ramping up quite a bit,” added Takats. “We have a full factory in Montreal and overflow capacity we’re building in Charleston, S.C. We assemble sims there, do integration and then ship from there. We have a lot more capacity than we had before.”
On the helicopter side of TRU, the company late last year secured what he described as “the largest helicopter contract ever” for a Finnish company, Coptersafety, in Helsinki. This involves five Level D simulators, for the Leonardo 139, 169 and 189 and the Airbus Helicopter H125 and H145. “We’re performing our own flight test programs on all those platforms,” said Takats. “So we’re instrumenting and flight testing the aircraft to collect the data to do the simulation and qualification.”
Coptersafety, which currently has only one simulator, is building an eight-bay facility specifically for helicopter training, all with night vision goggle capability.
“We have configurations for oil and gas, search and rescue, and HEMS (helicopter emergency medical services) training. There are a lot of features in there. For example, on the 125 we have visuals below so you can see the sling load. That’s our ODYSSEY H, a brand new from-scratch helicopter-specific simulator design. We delivered the first one last year, a BH 429 Level D simulator, and got it EASA [European Aviation Safety Agency] qualified in our new Bell/TRU training centre for helicopters in Valencia, Spain.”
Asked how TRU differentiates itself from other simulator companies such as CAE Inc. and Flight Safety International, Takats said TRU offers the largest standard visual field of view on the market for rotorcraft simulators. “The number of projectors and the amount of resolution we use, the image generator we use, is different from what our competitors provide.”
“We have incorporated a second six-degree of freedom motion capability so we can do much more accurate cueing simulation. For example, as you translate into forward flight with a helicopter, there’s a buffet effect [and] we can simulate vibrations, buffets and onset cues in six degrees of freedom…that’s X, Y and Z–pitch, roll and yaw.”
It also can simulate hard landings and ship landings, all events which can be dangerous and horribly expensive in the real world.
“The ‘mini-motion,’ as we call it, actually is capable of 15 degrees of pitch, roll and yaw as well. So we can add that to the pitch, roll and yaw capability already in the big 62-inch motion system, so we have greater motion capability than a traditional helicopter simulator. We’re the only ones currently doing this and it is qualified by EASA to Level D on the 429 that’s now in Valencia, Spain, at our training centre.”
Sturdevant, who has 4,500 hours logged (the majority in Boeing-Vertol 46-E Sea Knights on U.S. Marine Corps combat missions in Iraq, but he also flew the Bell UH-1Y, Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules in Afghanistan), agreed that the “motion on motion” aspect gives a more realistic experience and said the Canadian and U.S. military forces are buying into this.
“There’s a desire to take some of the training out of the actual mission platforms and pull it back into the ab initio side,” he said. “We’re able to go way beyond what we used to do . . . which was start up and shut down and those types of procedures.
“The mission rehearsal stuff is very important. When you go across the line of departure into a country you’ve never been in before, the last thing you want is to be experiencing that environment for the first time. With our simulator, we can go through mission rehearsals and do everything Jim just described, leveraging all the differentiators, the visuals, the realistic training piece, so that the crews are better prepared to go to war.”
Asked to quantify the potential savings in a sector where hourly operating costs can range from $2,000 for a light twin to more than five times that for larger platforms, Sturdevant said sims are “cost effective” not simply from the hourly cost perspective but from the way crews are trained and the reduced stress on actual aircraft.
“If something’s going on and you’re in the middle of it and don’t do so well, we can stop, have a quick debrief, reset and run it again. You’re able to replicate it very quickly.”
He said missions such as a mountain rescue can be replicated five times within a short time frame. So can other complex scenarios such as various types of offshore platforms and even landing service crew on a wind turbine where challenging vortices can be generated even with the blades stopped.
“The value of simulator training, especially in helicopters, is massive,” he said. “Technology was good enough 10 years ago for the fixed-wing market; we did zero flight-time training for the airlines and 10 to 15 years ago as technology was good enough for flying from point A to point B. But technology wasn’t there yet for helicopter mission training: the visual resolution, the motion cueing, a lot of the environmental effects.
“With the realism getting better and better, we’re now seeing the acceptance of the flight crews. When they get in the simulator today, they go ‘Wow, now I can train, I can do 90 per cent or even all of my training in the simulator.’ And, of course, there’s been a lot of incidents in training, so eliminating that alone is a huge advantage.”