Ask someone what comes to mind when the state of Texas is mentioned and the answers will surely be varied: Cowboys (both real and football players), Dallas (both the city and former TV show), the Alamo, cattle, oil, you choose.
To me, Texas is associated with the best helicopter playground in the world. I am speaking of the Bell Helicopter Customer Training Academy and Delivery Center and its adjacent partner, Flight Safety International, located in Fort Worth.
Bell Helicopters is probably the best known of the helicopter manufacturers and the ubiquitous JetRanger has become an icon in the commercial industry. Two of the most famous Bells were the bubble-nosed Bell 47 that Chuck and P.T. flew around in the late 1950s TV show “Whirlybirds” and the beautiful black 222 that stared in “AirWolf,” a mid-’80s TV show. Bell has an impressive offering of single-engine and multi-engine turbine helicopters designed to handle almost any commercial market niche, in addition to its military offerings.
For those of you who read my regular column, you know that I am an advocate of regularly scheduled recurrent training. Bell Helicopter along with Flight Safety takes this to an art form.
When you buy a new Bell, you take delivery at the Bell Helicopter Customer Training Academy. If it’s a single-engine model or the new light twin 427, that’s where you get your initial training (it’s part of the deal). For recurrent training, it’s back to the Academy, as well.
The Bell Customer Training Academy takes up about 59,000 square feet of space, which houses classrooms, training labs, administrative offices, the flight department offices and lobby, the simulator rooms, and a maintenance training hangar. This houses production versions of just about every Bell turbine helicopter for mechanic training as well as pilot systems instruction. Just outside of the flight training lobby is an expansive ramp area where a dozen or so training helicopters come and go throughout the day.
The operative word in the Customer Training Academy’s name is indeed customer. You’ll never see an ad for the academy in any publication yet the place is always jumping. The philosophy seems to be to use this facility as a customer service arm rather than promote it as an individual unit. Spend any time in this facility and they sure don’t seem to be hurting for business.
Cruise down the halls when class is in session and all you hear is seasoned instructors teaching all sorts of aircraft type-specific material to general operating subjects. And in spite of the fact that you know they have done this so many times over so many prior years, they pitch their knowledge to the class with the enthusiasm of a first week employee.
Having the home court advantage is something that should not be considered lightly when looking for Bell training. The course materials on aircraft specific details are the latest available, sometimes only hours old. Course books are well laid out and derived from engineering data available right there from the folks who design, update, and build these machines. There is no guesswork here. When you get it from the Bell instructors, you know it’s correct and current.
It’s interesting to kick back in the instructor’s office and just watch the activity. If they’re not scheduling the next class or field trip (sometimes they do take their show on the road) they are building up the latest PowerPoint presentation based on new data. No matter when I sneak a look in, they’re always busy.
One of my favorite parts of any Bell Academy ground training is the sessions in the maintenance training area. Although primarily intended for mechanic training, this is a great opportunity for pilots to see the real thing, but opened up, cut away and fully functional. There’s no better way to fully understand how a system is installed, how it works, and how to preflight it than to see it busted wide open. Bell instructors have taught me more in just a few hours in that hangar and with better retention than what it would have taken me days or weeks to learn by book study alone.
The Academy has also committed a significant amount of money and course development to integrate Flight Training Devices into their curriculum. These are full size cabins set up to emulate the aircraft with full screen visuals. They are very much like simulators but lack motion capabilities. The three FTDs they have now were all built by Frasca and emulate the 206, 407 and 427 model helicopters. And they do it well. These machines are very effective at developing cockpit procedures, practicing scenarios and systems procedures, and all while very realistically simulating actual flight. The transfer from the FTD to the aircraft is very noticeable, extremely effective and saves the recurrent student money, too.
And then there is the flight training. For many, the Academy instructors are legendary. They know these aircraft better than anyone and are relentless at making sure that as much as possible of this knowledge and skill is transferred to the student in the time allotted. From experience, I can tell you that you work your tail off during the whole session but if you really want to know as much about a Bell as you can, you’ll get it at the Academy and it will be a blast.
When an engine quits in a single-engine helicopter, the emergency procedure is to perform an “autorotation.” This is accomplished by quickly placing the flight controls so as to allow the air flowing through the blades of the falling helicopter to keep the blades turning. Helicopters in autorotation are very maneuverable and when they get close to the ground, a flare is performed with the remaining energy in the blades used to cushion the landing.
Under most training environments, especially with turbine helicopters, the autorotation practice is terminated at about five feet off the ground with a power recovery that prevents the actual touch-down. This prevents wear and tear of the machine, and eliminates the higher degree of risk for damage to the helicopter. But it also short-changes the student. Well, not at Bell. All autorotations are done to the ground. And they are done from every conceivable situation. Just after takeoff, from a high hover, from downwind, and everything in between. I still haven’t really decided whether the instructors are just ruthless, crazy, or good. But I know that when I leave the academy it’s with the confidence that I have seen and worked through just about every possible autorotation situation. When I took the 407 course two years ago, I had 36 autorotations to the ground, some at night, before it was over. And that was in addition to all of the other normal and emergency procedures covered in the flight syllabus.
It’s no mystery why many of the insurance companies are now requiring Bell training for the pilots of the Bell helicopters they insure. And it’s not unusual for insurers to give premium discounts when this training is completed. There is not a Bell pilot out there who could not be both humbled and enlightened from their first (and subsequent) visit to the Bell Academy.
Directly adjacent to the Bell Customer Training Academy is the Flight Safety Bell Learning Center. (Flight Safety also has a Sikorsky S-76 center in Florida.)
Flight Safety-Bell provides factory-approved training for Bell’s twin-engine line except for the newly certified 427 light twin. Twins included in their training include the 222/230 series; the 430, which is a new, larger, four-bladed version of the 230; and the 212/214/412 series aircraft. The latter three are all derivatives of the venerable Huey series helicopters that date back to the Vietnam era. (The 412 is the latest in the series and is the model I fly for a hospital air ambulance program in North Carolina.)
Although Bell twin training is available from the factory academy, this is only done under special circumstances and at the direct request of the customer. Otherwise, Flight Safety is contracted as Bell’s “exclusive” source factory training program for the bigger twins. Should the customer desire actual aircraft training after the Flight Safety course, then Bell Academy instructors would accomplish this training in the customer’s aircraft.
Flight Safety-Bell’s facility occupies 35,000 square feet of space that includes four bays for the full motion simulators, 16 classrooms, administrative offices, eating area, and maintenance quarters. The classrooms are very comfortable and use PowerPoint (with much of it animated) for subject presentation. Flight Safety has built a reputation of having a top notch teaching staff and providing training manuals for each aircraft in their curriculum that are unmatched for this class of aircraft.
Sixty percent of Flight Safety-Bell’s customers come from foreign countries. In a nice touch, the lobby features a stand displaying the flags from each of the countries whose pilots are training there that week.
Flight Safety-Bell has four, full-motion simulators. One is for the 222/230, two are for the 412 and the fourth is for the 430. One of the 412 simulators represents the latest in state-of-the-art simulation for helicopters and is approved to level D standards, which means all training and checkrides can be conducted in the simulator without having to fly the actual aircraft. The 430 is a Level C simulator, which can handle most training requirements. Certain restrictions may apply and those are worked out on a simulator by simulator basis with approval from the FAA.
I have visited Flight Safety-Bell many times for training and these simulators are indeed very accurate. In fact, they are built around actual aircraft cabins, with all critical data necessary provided from Bell. The full motion simulator is one screaming platform that pitches, rolls, climbs, drops, and twists with a range of motion that makes the wearing of seatbelts mandatory. The computer generated visuals wrap around the nose with a continuous view. There are a considerable number of visual options such as mountains, water, airports, oil rigs, city skylines, hospital helipads, wooded areas, beaches, and cattle ranches, to name a few.
Additionally, Flight Safety can program in any instrument approach published in the Jeppessen manual, for any airport worldwide with a runway length of 5,000 feet or more. You can fly your favorite approaches in the comfort of the simulator and never know the difference. The sim can offer up any kind of weather from severe clear to low IFR. The simulator’s ability to emulate all types of clouds with varying ragged or smooth bases, colors, and concentration is awesome. Thunderstorms, complete with lightning, would be off in the distance and as they got closer, the sky would look meaner and the ride got rougher. The broken clouds looked incredibly real. You can fly through some excellent low visibility conditions including haze, mist, and rain. Some of these low visibility conditions would open and close as if you were breaking in and out of the bottom of a low ceiling or scud running. (The visuals are fantastic when you pop out on top of an overcast, too).
Emergency procedures are where it’s really at in simulator training. You can explore all the options and if you screw up, the only thing hurt is your ego. Simulated failures will include generator failures, inverters, and various buss failures. Hydraulic system malfunctions, along with tail rotor failures are also part of the drill. The true value of the simulator comes into play during these failure situations. At times the instructors will have you watch what happens to the affected systems without reacting, even if a simulator “crash” occurs. This allows the student to understand the appropriate reactions and that the quickest response isn’t always the correct one#. In many cases, they would show me that the symptoms of one problem were identical to another but more serious problem. Knee-jerk reactions would have actually caused more of a problem than the original malfunction.
I have had a number of opportunities to just fly the sim for fun. It’s not as easy to do this anymore because these boxes are booked up for 20 hours out of a 24-hour day. (This must drive the maintenance technicians mad!) But it’s really a blast to fly it normally. The realism gets you into the moment and you forget you’re in a sim. If I wanted to do something, I just did it and it responded in kind as I am used to with the real helicopter. Approach angles, speeds, and attitudes were all very accurate compared to the aircraft.
Texas was built on a “can do” attitude, and that’s clearly reflected in the training at Bell and Flight Safety. When they promise flight training, they really go all out. And from a pilot’s perspective, you couldn’t ask for anything more.