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Old 13th Dec 2006, 13:25
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ICAO Adopts New Flight Simulator Training Rules

Flying Without Wings
Rule on Simulators Could Change How Pilots Are Trained

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006; D01

Before stepping into the cockpit of a commercial jetliner for the first time, pilots have racked up hundreds of hours in the air, usually at the controls of small planes.

In coming years, they may get most of their flight experience without ever leaving the ground.

The international organization that sets the world's aviation regulations has adopted a new standard that could alter the nature of pilot training. In essence, prospective co-pilots will be able to earn most of their experience in ground-based simulators.

The move is designed to allow foreign airlines, especially those in Asia and the Middle East that face shortages of pilots, to more quickly train and hire flight crews. The United States isn't expected to adopt the new rules anytime soon, but international pilots trained under the new standards will be allowed to fly into and out of the country.

The change is generating some controversy. Safety experts and pilot groups question whether simulators -- which have long been hailed as an important training tool -- are good enough to replace critical early flight experience.

"In a simulator, you have pride at stake," said Dennis Dolan, president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, which has raised questions about the new standard. "In a real airplane, you have your life at stake."

Officials at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is setting the new standards for pilot licensing, said the role of simulators has grown substantially in most airline training programs. Airlines often train co-pilots for new aircraft only in simulators, without flying; such a co-pilot's first flight on the new plane is with paying passengers on board.

The new rules apply only to co-pilots of commercial planes. Captains, who are in charge of those aircraft, must have hundreds more hours of flight experience. The new standards will allow people to become a co-pilot on a jetliner with about 70 hours of flight time and 170 hours in simulators. Other licenses require about 200 hours of flight experience. Co-pilots perform many of the same duties as captains.

In the United States, a co-pilot of a commercial plane must have at least 250 hours of experience, some of which can be earned in simulators, federal regulators said.

Each country sets its own licensing requirements, which can be tougher than the ICAO standards. The Federal Aviation Administration is not expected to adopt the new license in this country. But experts say that if the number of people learning to fly in the United States continues to drop, the FAA could be forced to adopt the rules.

The new standards allow airlines to more properly train and supervise young pilots before they develop bad habits at flight school or flying alone, industry officials said, adding that the devices better prepare pilots for today's sophisticated cockpits.
"Those hours flying solo in a single-engine piston airplane, they do us no good at the airlines, and we can't monitor the pilots," said Christian Schroeder, an official with the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents airlines. "We are training a better-qualified and safer pilot this way."

However, safety experts and pilots groups said pilots gain invaluable "white knuckle" experience during hundreds of hours of flight time in real planes. Flight crews also learn the intricacies and pressures of dealing with air-traffic controllers in congested air space -- conditions that are hard to replicate in simulators, the experts and pilots said.

In addition, no one has studied whether simulators can safely replace early flight experience, said Cass Howell, chairman of the department of aeronautical science at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

"There is no objective proof that this will be just as safe a method of training," Howell said. "At this point, nobody knows if this is an effective training method."

Still, Howell and others say simulators have helped make aviation far safer than it was just a few decades ago. Full-motion simulators with advanced computer graphics are exact replicas of airplane cockpits, down to the switches and circuit breakers.

The graphics displayed on cockpit windows have become so advanced that pilots can watch baggage carts rumble across taxiways and see wisps of clouds rush past their windows and even snow drift across tarmacs. Full-motion simulators -- giant boxes atop moving legs -- can toss crews around in bad turbulence and even duplicate the thud-thud-thudding of a jet streaking down a runway for takeoff.

Pilots use the devices to practice difficult approaches to airports, recovery from engine failure and what to do when they encounter extreme weather -- all scenarios that are too dangerous to attempt in an aircraft. The simulators also have become instrumental in teaching pilots about managing the increasingly complex and computerized cockpits of modern jets.

In the United States, simulators help pilots adjust to new aircraft and keep them up to date on safety measures. They also are used to teach pilots how to manage modern cockpit systems, how to work together and how to troubleshoot problems before they get out of hand.

"They allow us to teach our crews that there is more to flying an airplane than just the stick and rudder skills," said John T. Winter, director of United Airlines' training center in Denver.

Like most major carriers, United Airlines has a big training center, and instructors rely heavily on simulators to train pilots. On a recent afternoon, pilots Ron Davis and Jeff DePaolis took an Airbus A320 simulator through situations they could never attempt in a real plane because they are too dangerous.

In one simulator scenario, they were approaching Denver International Airport in poor visibility. Suddenly, about 600 feet above the ground, DePaolis noticed that the wind was rapidly shifting. He alerted Davis to the hazard. Then a computerized voice blared: "Wind shear! Wind shear!"

The cockpit jolted and felt as if it were falling. Davis pulled back on the control stick and shoved the throttles to full power. The plane throbbed and seemed to hover. Then, slowly, it inched safely back into the sky.
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