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Learning the AW169: The Leonardo Training Experience

Posted 4 years 289 days ago ago by Admin

Even though I had arrived one and a half days earlier in Sesto Calende, Italy, I found myself in culture shock and jet lagged. On my first day in the Leonardo Training Academy classroom, we jumped right into the aircraft specifications and limitations at a swift pace after a short introduction by our ground school instructor Paolo Fracchia and the issuance of our Microsoft tablet and training materials. 

When I realized the training bus was leaving the station and I better get on board and start taking notes, it took my brain at least 30 minutes to catch up. Then at the end of the first day, we were informed that at the conclusion of ground training there would be a 100-question closed-book exam, proctored by EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency). We would have to correctly answer 75 percent of the questions to continue training. My visions of gallivanting around Italy with my colleagues, drinking beer every night and dining on pasta, evaporated in an instant.

Ground training

Training technically started prior to my arrival at Sesto Calende. Once registered for a course of training, students receive login credentials to the Leonardo Training Portal where manuals and training modules may be completed in advance. This work generally takes 10 -12 hours.

For the first two weeks, the classroom segments flew by as my classmates and I were pushed to our limits to absorb materials on dozens of subjects including autopilots, engines, hydraulics, drivetrain, navigation, display systems, and yes . . . the dreaded electrical system. I am not exaggerating when I say that this was one of most challenging ground training courses I have received in my 27-year career, which brings me to my first training tip.

Training Tip #1: Don’t wait until later in the ground training to cram-study before the big test. Set aside a minimum of two hours every evening after class to transfer the day’s notes to some form of organized study guide, then study it. My personal technique was to turn my written notes into sample test questions and type them into a Word document each evening.

Every morning at the beginning of class Paolo would ask, “Are there any questions from yesterday?” After all of our questions were answered, the fun would begin as Paolo would announce in his Italian accent, “OK, now I have some questions for you.” He would then proceed to call each pilot out by name and request that we explain a system or a concept from the previous day.

The only breaks we got from the classroom during ground school were a couple visits to the maintenance training hangar and an introduction to the Virtual Interactive Procedures Trainer (VIPT), both of which are amazing training tools.

Into the Cockpit

After the big test day, pilots got to formally transition into the VIPT. The VIPT is a stationary, simulated AW169 cockpit that allows students the opportunity to learn the helicopter’s “switchology,” run checklists, practice instrument scanning, perform startup/shutdown procedures, and navigate the flight management system (FMS) and display units. A minimum of four hours were spent in the VIPT prior to moving into the full flight simulator (FFS).

If for some reason the VIPT is out of service for maintenance, there’s also an AW169 flight training device (FTD) that can be used in the initial cockpit transition training. However, because it's a much higher-level training device, a technician must be available to run the simulator.

Training Tip #2: Attempt to spend extra time in the VIPT. It’s possible to check the VIPT schedule for open slots and book them as additional sessions. Extra sessions are often available in the morning, evening, or weekends outside of normal class time. Although they may eat up some of your free time, they do prepare you for the fast-paced transition into the full flight simulator, where your sim instructor will expect you to navigate your way around the cockpit on Day One. In addition to my 2-hour VIPT sessions, I managed to do five extra sessions during my off time, which definitely helped prepare me for the FFS.

How did I and my five other classmates fare on the written exam? Paolo did an amazing job preparing us and all six of us passed, with my score being 93 percent. Thanks Paolo!

Wheels Up

The AW169 FFS is a Level 7, full-motion helicopter flight simulator developed in partnership between Leonardo, CAE, and Rotorsim. The FFS is the perfect place to perform emergency procedures that cannot be done in the actual helicopter. Engine failures in various flight regimes, tail-rotor failures, and engine fires are emergencies that can be realistically simulated in the FFS and require some of the highest levels of crew coordination.

For fair weather flyers who have an ATP or instrument rating but see very little actual cloud time, the IFR sessions act as an excellent instrument refresher and challenge your capability. Yet, that is not the main purpose. The main purpose during IFR sessions is to fully understand and utilize the autopilot and FMS, as well as to be able to recognize failures of those systems.

Training Tip #3 - If you have not flown IFR for some time, break out some instrument approach procedures (IAPs) as well as standard instrument departures and refresh on how to brief the approaches. Also, if there are IAPs from your local area that you are familiar with, print them out and bring them with you so Leonardo can place the simulator into your local flying environment.

I was performing the FAA AW169 certification course of training that is broken into two types of simulator training: six hours of VFR flight maneuvers followed by four hours of IFR flying. Because I was not attending training with a colleague, I was paired with Leonardo Training Captain Antonio Moya, a fast-paced Spaniard who speaks three languages (Spanish, Italian, and English), to act as both my instructor and copilot. Because many of my classmates were colleagues from similar companies, and were there in pairs, they could fly together and train in a true multi-crew environment.

Since instructors usually sit in the back of the FFS while torturing – or training – us pilots. Being in the cockpit was probably a challenge for my instructor Captain Moya. It was, however, a tremendous benefit to me. He was able to quickly point out areas that needed my attention. Because he knows the checklists inside and out, he made one hell of a copilot! This fact did not get me off the hook during more complex emergencies, such as engine fires in flight, since Captain Moya insisted that we alternate between the flying pilot and non-flying pilot so I could run the checklists and perform the procedures myself.

Because the simulator doesn’t fly exactly like the real helicopter (I have yet to fly one that does.), I estimate that approximately 85 percent of the experience you gain in the simulator transfers directly into the actual helicopter. This really pays off when it comes to the most challenging of all maneuvers: Category A takeoff-and-landing profiles during normal operations and engine failures.

These takeoff-and-landing profiles have multiple airspeed and altitude gates that must be flown rapidly and precisely. The simulator builds muscle memory and trains a fast instrument scan during the maneuvers. If you can nail it in the sim, flying it in the actual helicopter is much easier.

Training Tip #4 - Using the distance learning training materials available online before the course, study the Cat A and Cat B takeoff profiles, and memorize the airspeed / altitude gates for each.

On the flight line at Vergiate

Once simulator training was finished, we were basically on the home stretch and we were assigned a two-hour block of flight instruction at the manufacturing plant that doubled as the flight training academy in Vergiate, which is 10 minutes from Sesto by car or train. The training was very straightforward and included autorotation, VFR maneuvers, emergency procedures, and a focus on engine failures during every phase of takeoff and landing.

Training Tip #5 - Because the simulator training is thorough and you are so prepared, the flight in the helicopter is actually fun! My instructor, Captain Colombo, taught me many things about flying the AW169 and made me laugh more than once. So sit back, relax, fly as you have been trained, and enjoy!

Final thoughts

Following my training flight, I was met by the director of training, Salvatore Caporale. He sought honest feedback on my training experience, good or bad, and my favorite aspects of the training. There were two things that I absolutely loved. First, the Leonardo Training Academy is located in a beautiful village in Northern Italy. Which leads to tip 6.

Training Tip #6 You’re in Italy! Get out and see some of the country during a weekend or two. Train routes are abundant and there is so much to see. I visited Milan’s Duomo, the third largest cathedral in the world, and went stand-up paddle boarding in Venice. Leonardo training manuals even encourage sightseeing by highlighting places to visit and including detailed tips on how to get around the country.

Lastly, I was completely floored by the cultural diversity and exchanges with pilots and mechanics from every corner of the world. I was training and socializing with pilots from the U.K, Kenya, Belgium, Pakistan, South Africa, China, Japan, and many more countries. Although we all speak different languages and dialects, and eat different foods, there was one thing that brought us together in common cause: the helicopter!

Check out the Video Feature that accompanies this story.


Leonardo started training pilots and technicians in 1965. The company now employs more than 300 training personnel. Alongside the Sesto Calende headquarters, Leonardo students train at Yeovil in the U.K.; Philadelphia and Morristown, New Jersey, in the U.S.; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All training facilities feature the latest synthetic training devices alongside courses for aircrews, rear crews, ground crews, and maintainers. Services include civil-type rating courses, basic training, refresher training, and complete turnkey solutions.

Leonardo’s training mission focuses on safety, effective training, and customer satisfaction, explained Paolo Petrosso, vice president of customer training.  Leonardo training courses make use of a range of methods including:

  • Ground school: theoretical study, rules and doctrine.

  • Synthetic training: full-motion flight simulators, emulation and immersive gaming technology, flight training devices (cockpit and cabin), and part task trainers.

  • Live flying training: using customer aircraft at customer locations or AgustaWestland (Leonardo) training centers.

Specialized training offered by Leonardo includes platform and deck landings, load lifting, night flying, night vision devices, search & rescue missions, medical missions, surveillance operations, crew-operated weapons, fleet management, and glass cockpit operations.

Simulator training at Leonardo prepares crews for all kinds of operational environments including offshore, day/night flight, ship deck landing, search & rescue, para-public and military.

Sesto Calende’s Alessandro Marchetti Training Academy features 18 classrooms and a maintenance training hangar with two full systems trainers linked with multi-screen computer-based training and emulations. The academy is the first OEM to be designated as an official FAA Part 142 training center.

This flagship training facility is located at the historic SIAI-Marchetti factory, where aviation production structures date back to 1915. It’s named for aircraft designer and engineer Alessandro Marchetti, who was born in Sesto Calende and manufactured his designs, including seaplanes. Historic buildings on the property include a 1920s-era structure with marble and wood stairs featuring wood that was bonded the same way Marchetti put seaplane propellers together. Leonardo moved to the location in 2005. “It’s an honor for us to work in this place,” Petrosso said.

Leonardo’s 5-year-old simulation building in Sesto Calende features seven full flight simulators and five flight training devices, including an AW169 full-flight simulator. They are certified at the highest current international FFS standard (Level D) by civil aviation regulatory authorities around the world, including the FAA in the USA and the EASA in Europe, so that one hour of simulator training equals a one-hour helicopter flight. Leonardo simulators have delivered more than 150,000 hours of training with a simulator reliability percentage of 99.5 percent (as of 2017).


Leonardo has now also developed a new enhanced training device (ETD), introducing it at this year’s HeliExpo. It’s unique because it can be reconfigured to simulate multiple platforms, and it exceeds all applicable FAA/EASA certification requirements. The ETD leverages Leonardo’s well-established capability for the design of training devices including VIPT (virtual interactive procedural trainer), FTD (flight training device) and FFS (full flight simulator). The ETD enables pursuit of training objectives that are typical of higher-end devices, at a fraction of the cost.

The ETD is based on a fixed flight training device combined with extensive use of touch-screen technology. It’s ideally suited for cockpit familiarization, automation training, standard/emergency procedures, training with platform-specific avionics, flight management systems,  the radio management system, IFR, and multi-crew coordination. The ETD’s state-of-the-art reconfigurable and fully representative cockpit allows flight and mission simulation training for a number of helicopter models.


Leonardo trained more than 11,000 students from 43 countries in 2017, with more than 6,000 at its flagship facility in Sesto Calende, Italy. That includes 40,000 hours of simulator training worldwide, with half of it at Sesto Calende. It also includes 7,500 flight hours. Highly skilled instructors are the key for Leonardo; it employs 150 ground instructors and 80 pilot instructors. “What makes us different is the people,” Petrosso said. “We have instructors from virtually every part of the world, because our students come from virtually every part of the world.”

With so many multinational students who speak so many languages, Leonardo also employs translators to enhance communications, especially for those who do not speak English. Leonardo sets aside extra training time to avoid language barriers. Time also is set aside for students who practice their religion and pray at specific times.

During Leonardo’s 12 years of operations at the Alessandro Marchetti Training Academy in Sesto Calende, the annual student population has increased from a few hundred to more than 6,000. More than half the training focuses on the AW139, but training for the AW169 and AW189 is picking up. The AW139, AW169 and AW189 models all are part of the Leonardo family of new generation helicopters. Leonardo uses the same training approach for all three models. The AW169 is Leonardo’s “latest-generation 4.6 (metric) tonnes twin-turbine helicopter.”

Follow-up distance training is a new emphasis. When Leonardo upgrades its helicopters with new technology to provide superior situational awareness, especially mobile and digital technology, it notifies customers about its new distance training courses that customers can use by logging on to Leonardo’s distance learning portal. These distance learning programs deliver course materials in digital formats for use on PCs and tablets. “It’s such a great thing,” Petrosso said. “We can reach everybody around the globe.”

Recognizing the value of training in person as well, Leonardo is planning a network of regional training centers in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. Future training expansions include AW169 training with simulators in North America. “In the future, we’re certainly looking to expand our footprint and our presence around the globe,” Petrosso said. “One of the key areas where we’re looking is AW169 training in the U.S.” The AW169 has been FAA-certified and U.S. deliveries already have begun, he added.

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