Global pilot challenges

Global pilot challenges

With the current furlough of 1000s of commercial cockpit crews due to COVID-19, you can be forgiven for thinking there may be an overcapacity of pilots lining up for alternatives such as aerial firefighting jobs. The short answer to that is, unfortunately: no, writes Eric Dauchy, of Geosim.

We know why of course… It takes years of experience and a Pilot’s background may be military, commercial or agriculture – still, aerial firefighting demands optimum performance for an extended period of time during high-intensity situations. It is a heavy load to carry during the annual wildfire season. 

Let’s therefore take a step back and look at how the US Air Force is currently instilling the necessary skills into their next generation of pilots for 21st century battle scenarios.

Pilot Training Next (PTN) is part of the US Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to ‘reimagine’ how to deliver learning to Airmen. PTN focuses on how Airmen learn and uses emerging technology to train them better and faster, as well as foster deeper learning. Technologies employed include virtual reality, artificial intelligence and data analytics, all of which can be tailored to the training environment and individual student.

“There was a misconception that PTN took the flying out of flying training and that is not the case at all,” said Lt. Col. Robert Knapp, operations officer for Detachment 24, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, TX during an interview. “Our students are able to practice individual manoeuvres at a higher frequency and achieve a greater depth of knowledge before they strap into the jet.”

By using off-the-shelf technology, coupled with artificial intelligence, PTN has created a capability that permits more repetition of individual manoeuvres than the traditional flying training programme. This repetition enables US Air Force students to gain competencies faster than ever before.

Fast forward to Aerial Firefighting. 

As the fire season gets hotter, and longer, it is obvious more crews will be needed in the short and medium term. Pilot workload also has become a major topic of concern with companies having to send relief crews within a few weeks as compared to 1-2 times per wildfire season say 10 years ago.

Dealing with this pilot challenge means to focus on a critical mass of existing pilots with an overall experience of 20 years in the business. Babcock, operating over 400 professionals across Europe and Canada, has created a high retention rate of its pilots due to its ‘best -in-class’ approach with a full coverage pilot’s contract and a very demanding training tailored for the highly specialised operations which it is called to manage.

Recruitment, retention and training is at the core of every successful aerial firefighting operation and the combination of simulation/real training has become an integral part at Babcock to allow more pilots to hit the ground running, at a lower cost.

Conair Group Inc., the world’s largest privately owned aerial firefighting company, is another leading light in the industry. They run aerial firefighting simulator programmes for AVRO RJ and AT-802 Air Tractor in Abbotsford, BC, Canada.

In 2019, Conair commissioned a Level D full-flight simulator for the RJ 85, to train the company’s own pilots and other operators’ crews. The simulator only reproduces airline operations, not firefighting missions, but Conair will soon revolutionise the way its crews are trained.

Mirroring networked training systems developed for the military, Conair’s Distributed Wildfire Simulation Centre (DWSC) will link six fixed-base simulators – one dedicated to the AT802 Fire Boss with five re-configurable units that will match every plane in the fleet. 

“You’ll be able to put a fire on the landscape; meet over it with a group of airplanes; look out the window of your cockpit; see the other airplanes; watch them drop and practise all the elements of aerial firefighting,” said Jeff Berry, Director, Business Development.

“Our slogan, borrowed from the US Air Force, is ‘train like you fight, fight like you train,’ and we’re developing a world-class aerial firefighting training and tactics centre that will allow us to do just that.”

Conair and Babcock, together with TRU Simulation + Training reflect a new era in aerial firefighting – offering smart, effective and above all, lower costed simulated aerial firefighting training to combat the increase of the world’s wildfires. 

Fire Down Under

From Australia, another country unsparingly hit by devastating and deadly wildfires, comes more good news for aerial firefighters. GeoSim Technologies, based in Ipswich, Queensland, has been in the flight simulation business for over 18 years, delivering customised fixed and rotary wing flight simulators to agricultural, commercial and military markets.

Charles du Plessis, Managing Director of GeoSim Technologies, which has been delivering customised fixed and rotary wing flight simulators to agricultural, commercial and military markets, has indicated that the development of their Vulcan Firefighting Simulation solution was already well under way before the devastating wildfires in Australia in 2019 and has also said “Our country is a on the frontline of this annual battleground as you could see on the horrific images portrayed in the press in 2019. We believe that our Aerial Firefighting Simulation Centre will assist in further preparing our brave and skilled aerial aviators as they enter into the 2020/21 fire season and Vulcan could well prove to be a real lifesaver in this annual battle.”

“The aim of the Vulcan Simulation Centre is to assist and prepare firefighting aviators for the unexpected emergencies that can and do occur when flying into areas at low altitudes in adverse climatic conditions. It is designed to also support joint training exercises so that fire and rescue professionals are well practiced in mission preparation, communication, situational awareness and terrain familiarisation before they start to work as an effective team.”

Creating realism extends beyond equipment to the visuals involved, as well as how situations unfold. The fires are not simply animation, but react in the virtual world to factors that actually drive the progression of a blaze in the real world, such as temperature; fuel load; wind speed; and direction, as well
as topography.

Currently available is the Vulcan Simulation Centre package, which consists of an Air Tractor A/T 802, Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3 plus three VR systems, a winch operation system together with the Communications, Command and Control Centre.  

Interestingly, the global flight simulator market is projected to grow from $5.7 billion in 2019 to $7.7 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 5.2% from 2019 to 2025, according to an Aero News Network report. Flight simulation is witnessing this growing demand due to the reliability of the simulators and provision of safe flight operations. Acceptance of virtual training to ensure aviation safety, such as risk associated with the life of the pilot and aircraft is also supporting the demand for flight simulators. 

Aerial firefighting simulation will be a small part of this market but growing at a fast clip, due to the technological advances in flight simulators and importantly, the lower cost of ownership of aerial firefighting simulation packs through smart, total solution offerings.