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Virtual Reality Pilot Certification…Why Not?

Posted 2 years 327 days ago ago by Admin

Recently, our company has partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) to combat Inadvertent/Unintended IMC fatal accidents using Virtual Reality (VR) simulation. The training is conducted in the HeliMOD III VR simulation system developed in partnership between Precision Flight Controls, a US company, and Ryan Aerospace (Australia).

Although the intended purpose of the training is U/IIMC and more specifically Spatial Disorientation, our staff found the device and VR training method to outperform conventional flight training proficiency models on many levels. As I observed the safe, efficient, and comprehensive ability to provide flight training to students using a VR platform in a controlled environment, I could not help but wonder how far this technology can move aviation forward.

This led me to look at the initial pilot certification process within the civil aviation helicopter training market. The current training model uses small helicopters to conduct pilot training. The primary purpose of using these smaller helicopters is cost. The price of helicopter training is at an all time high with many experts in the labor force questioning the viability for the average person to become a helicopter pilot due to the income/debt ratio they will encounter. Can VR pilot training be a viable solution to address increasing flight training costs?

I believe the answer is an easy YES!    

Imagine for a moment completing all flight training in a VR device. In conjunction with flight training, the student pilot completes all the other requirements to obtain a pilot certificate to include ground training, knowledge testing, etc. Once the flight training is completed, the student would take a Practical Test in the virtual world using the VR device. Upon successful completion of a virtual proficiency-based test, they would receive their pilot certificate with a limitation (example only: “flight in aircraft limited to category/class 61.56 completion”).  This would complete the pilot certificate process.

Once the pilot certification process is completed, the pilot would receive in-aircraft flight training until they exceed minimum proficiency standards for the grade of FAA pilot certificate they hold in accordance with 14 CFR 61.56. This process is remarkably similar to how the industry functions today. As an example, a pilot may train in a small piston helicopter, however they will not fly in a more advanced helicopter as PIC until they have flown with a qualified instructor, receive some level of a certificate or endorsement, and demonstrate proficiency. Why couldn’t we replace the small helicopter with a VR device?

The ability to alter flight environments to include weather, air traffic, performance, aircraft emergencies, and many other factors that pilots deal with in post-training flight are available in other simulation systems, so why would VR training be different. The answer…Immersion!

Unlike traditional simulation, VR places the pilot in another realm of awareness. Every human sense can be engaged. The ability to place a pilot in the VR world with all the decision making required in actual flight would significantly reduce Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) accidents.

I am excited to see where VR pilot training can take our industry. Improving safety by allowing pilots to learn ADM in a VR world will have a direct impact on how actual aircraft decisions are made. It is poor decision making that often drives the helicopter accident rate needle upward.

My concern is that regulatory agencies will find a way to make VR training complex, costly, and unattainable. In aviation, there has never been a more appropriate time and opportunity for use of the K.I.S.S principle. May common sense prevail!

About Randy: 
Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.

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