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Frasca International occupies a unique and storied position in the flight training device world, thanks to founder Rudy Frasca and his involvement in the early stages of building FTDs back in the 1950s. Now five of his eight children continue to carry the torch and keep the company ranked as one of the top simulator OEMs in the world.
Frasca president/CEO John Frasca and his siblings were raised in the world of aircraft. Their late father Rudy was as passionate about piloting aircraft as he was about building flight simulators to help make aircraft safer.
Now with 62 years of experience, Frasca International is the only major family-owned flight simulator company. It employs more than 130 people, and about 3,000 of its sims are being used across more than 70 countries.
"As computers have evolved, we've been able to build better and better simulators," John Frasca said. "We kept evolving the software to become more sophisticated with our aerodynamics, increasing the fidelity of the simulator, adding things like control loading and visual systems and motion systems, meeting regulatory requirements, and so on. Today we're the leader in the most sophisticated helicopter devices and we keep evolving."
Frasca serves a wide variety of sectors including military, EMS, law enforcement, oil & gas, tourism, and flight training schools, said John Frasca's sister Peggy Prichard, the marketing manager for the company. Clients run the gamut including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Bell Training Academy, NYPD, Air Evac EMS, Japanese Coast Guard, German Federal Police, Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Navy.
"I want a simulator that (provides students with) the most 'real feel' of the aircraft from control feedback and instruments that match our current fleet, all while displaying a high-definition visual system of the surroundings and terrain," said Dennis "DJ" Cassady, Flight Simulation Manager at the Embry-Riddle campus in Prescott, Arizona. "I want the instructor station to be intuitive and easy to navigate. I want the simulator to be dependable and offer outstanding support from the manufacturer. Frasca delivers all of this and more."
The early helicopter simulators taught just instrument procedures with trainers, John Frasca said. Now their systems use real-world data to mimic all the visual maneuvers that pilots encounter. The sophisticated control loading systems match the feel of an aircraft, he added. Motion cueing systems also have experienced multiple advances, with quieter electric systems offering more power and realism.
Technically, there are four FAA levels of Full Flight Simulators (FFSs) and four levels of Flight Training Devices (FTDs), although the lower level of FFSs (A) is no longer being manufactured and FTDs Level 1-3 are now defined as Aviation Training Devices (Basic or Advanced). Frasca is especially at the top of the heap when it comes to the most sophisticated FTDs at levels 6 and 7.
The FAA registry of active Level 6 and 7 helicopter FTDs shows Frasca owns about 75% of that market, related Randy Gawenda, Frasca's business development manager. In a more global sense, Frasca has a number of EASA-qualified Level 3 FTD simulators, and EASA Level 3 is the equivalent of FAA Level 7. Frasca has vast experience in this field, having built its first helicopter FTD in 1973.
Level C and D full-flight sims cost more per hour than flying an actual single-engine light turbine helicopter in many cases, Gawenda noted, so it doesn't make sense to train helicopter pilots on FFSs. Most people don’t realize that a Level 6/7 helicopter FTD requires a type-specific cockpit and a type-specific, objectively qualified flight model, he added.
"So the quality and accuracy of L6 and L7 is very similar to Level C/D standards, just without the high acquisition cost and infrastructure required to support it," Gawenda explained. "It’s a very high level of fidelity, but at a much more cost-effective price point." And Frasca now offers a lower-priced Helicopter Training Device (HTD) to meet customer needs in this market.
Frasca builds it all
The process of creating a Frasca simulator is a highly collaborative affair involving the buyer, a project management team and the sales team, Prichard said. The average time frame runs from 1-4 months for an HTD or RTD (reconfigurable training device) to about 9-12 months for an FTD and 18-24 months for the more complex simulators, Gawenda estimated.
"The whole team is dedicated to providing flight training that is accurate and cost-effective for our customers," Prichard explained. "We just want to keep providing flight sims that make flying safer."
It's amazing what those 130 Frasca team members can create.
"We are very vertically integrated," John Frasca said. "We manufacture everything that we use in the sims." Frasca also designs the simulators and collects the data.
Frasca's manufacturing capabilities include realistic cockpits, instruments and control panels, visual systems, patterns and molds for composite parts, and structural components. Details go right down to collective covers, seat cushions, laser engraving, woodworking, and powder coating.
"There's a lot of craftsmanship that goes into that," Gawenda said. "We seldom build the same simulator twice."
There are a number of ways to simulate realistic communications, Gawenda said. Frasca simulators feature full intercom systems that allow instructors to role play as ATC if they wish. This helps the instructor's lesson plan stay on track, especially during scenario-based training. The instructor might want the student to focus on specific holding instructions or special VFR clearances, for example. Frasca also has developed synthetic ATC communications that feature voice-recognition capability. And third-party ATC communication providers can now be interfaced with its simulators.
"So really it boils down to what sort of training our customers will need to do, and then making sure we tailor our solution to fit those needs," Gawenda said. "Fortunately, our customers have a variety of options."
Frasca's upset recovery module is one way to add a "startle effect" to the sim. Instructors also can insert traffic that might pose a collision hazard, or insert a wind-shear scenario. In some cases, Frasca has added smoke generation to the cockpit or sound effects that create the startle factor.
Speaking of g-force, one of Frasca's unique technological advances is the Frasca Motion Cueing System (FMCS), which optimizes on the principles of 6 degree of freedom (6DoF) Stewart platforms for rotorcraft simulation.
"Simulating the hover has always been a challenge, but we threw a lot of traditional thought out the window because many of those tenets are born from fixed-wing simulation," Gawenda explained. The FMCS is able to deliver motion and on-set cues at a much faster response rate than a Level D FFS, and it provides vibration cues up through 200 hertz. Comparably, large FFS motion systems can typically produce a maximum of only about 20 hertz for vibration effects. Vibration is a key helicopter-specific cue that provides more immersive simulation training.
"Based on the feedback we’ve received from high-level customers that are well versed in simulation like the U.S. Navy, RCAF, Air Evac, and Temsco, this system produces a new level of realistic fidelity in helicopter simulation," Gawenda said.
Frasca is closely monitoring advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and VR goggles, Gawenda said. The company is guarding its AI plans at this point. VR technological limitations still exist in the pilot training applications world, Gawenda added.
"There are some tasks that VR is quite suitable for training use," Gawenda said. "VR, and AR/MR applications as well, are constantly progressing in terms of development, so it will be interesting to see how that continues. However, I don’t see VR as being a panacea for more traditional forms of pilot training. It may, at some point in the future, but I think that is still a ways off.
"My main point would be to assess the capability of any training tool and understand not only its use, but also its limitations, and make sure you are using the right tool for the training task required," Gawenda added.
"Frasca is always pushing the technological boundaries to improve the fidelity, value, and immersion level of our simulators," concluded Gawenda.
Looking to the future
Simulator manufacturers regularly need to incorporate new technology to comply with new FAA regulations, such as recent changes in Helicopter Air Ambulance aircraft equipment requirements like HTAWS and radar altimeter, Gawenda said.
Government regulations continue to lead to more and more sophisticated data sources and simulator testing to validate that they operate like the aircraft, John Frasca said. That means gathering more aircraft data, matching it, and testing the results, which can be a lengthy and detailed process. Qualified simulator construction depends upon data. OEMs can keep tight controls on their data and designs, so getting the data may require a lot of collaboration.
Frasca has the important capability to gather its own data as well, as it designs and builds sensors to collect data in flight while test pilots fly specific maneuvers. Engineers then put the recorded data into equations and prove they match. Then it's time to test the sim's ability to simulate the same flight maneuvers.
"It's a very engineering-intensive project and requires thousands of iterations to get all the tests to pass," John Frasca related. In addition to objective data validation, if pilots say it doesn't feel right, engineers are able to perform subjective tuning of the model, as long as it stays within the tight tolerances that match the aircraft data.
"That results in a model that's extremely accurate," Gawenda said of the in-house data gathering process. For example, it can model loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) and vortex ring state.
The future looks bright
Frasca has been fortunate to avoid slowdowns because of the COVID-19 virus, Gawenda said. "We have actually seen our backlog increase and hired some additional teammates as a result," he added. "We have had some requests for delayed delivery, but because of our company’s strength, we’ve been able to accommodate those changes and requests without any major difficulty, in order to support our customers while they sort through a very difficult period for many."
Data, aerodynamics and visual systems are seeing marked improvements, John Frasca said. Gawenda sees the visual systems as the biggest recent technological change in the industry. By offering VFR and NVG, the sims can offer more realistic mission training.
Frasca now offers its "Connected Sim" that gives student pilots the ability to remotely access an array of flight training resources for loggable time. The platform connects to the Cloud so a variety of other services can be attached including scheduling, record keeping, billing, automated instruction, remote instruction and debriefing capabilities, John Frasca said.
Remote instruction through the Cloud with Frasca's "Connected Sim" allows the instructor to control the simulation, monitor student performance and change the environment, John Frasca added. Later, an expert can analyze the recorded data to see if the student is ready to advance. The ultimate goal is to teach the computer to score pilots using data.
All these technological advances have helped change attitudes toward flight sims in an extraordinary way over the past decade, Gawenda observed. While a small percentage of pilots trained in sims just a decade ago, pilots and agencies such as the NTSB now view them as a valuable safety tool.
"Consistent, standardized simulator training will help prepare pilots for the unexpected and will decrease the risk of an accident," the NTSB stated in Safety Alert 031. The SA specifically cites sims' value in safely practicing emergency procedures including auto-rotations, use of NVGs, recognition of degraded visual conditions, and recovery from unusual attitudes.
"The future for Frasca and simulators in general is very bright," John Frasca concluded. "There seems to be an endless need for sims when you look at the forecast. More and more training is being done in sims because they're becoming more realistic."
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