Flying To Fight The Fire - Civil Aviation Training

Flying To Fight The Fire

One of the ultimate “touch-and-go” manoeuvres is scooping water from a lake or the sea. Now there’s a one-of-a-kind FFS to train water-bomber aircrews. Chris Long checked out the new CL415 trainer in Milan.

It is not often that non-military aircrews are told to “Scramble!” (to get airborne as fast as possible) but that is what the aviation element of the Vigili del Fuoco, the Italian firefighting organisation, does as a matter of course. These crews, on permanent daytime standby during the high-fire-risk season (with two aircraft available for deployment anywhere in Europe) are trained to do so quickly to mobilise their CL415 aircraft. The biggest aircraft in their fleet is the CL415 amphibious water-bomber, a turboprop, updated from the venerable piston-engined CL215, but which still has the rugged construction and powerful handling characteristics of the original version.

Until recently, water-bomber training was of necessity conducted in the aircraft, a high-risk environment that also added to airframe and engine wear. Image credit: Viking Air Ltd.
Until recently, water-bomber training was of necessity conducted in the aircraft, a high-risk environment that also added to airframe and engine wear. Image credit: Viking Air Ltd.

The tasks are frequently carried out in mountainous terrain, close to built-up areas, in amongst electricity pylons and other hazards and, inevitably, at very low level to deliver the fire-extinguishing water as effectively as possible. Add to that the frequent turbulence encountered at low level, and the complications of scooping up water from nearby lakes/sea, and it can be seen that this is a difficult operation. There is huge emphasis on responding rapidly – as with all first responders, everything has to be done as quickly as possible – getting airborne, picking up water close to the site of the fire, dropping accurately, and immediately replenishing at the nearest water source. Inevitably the risks of accidents and incidents in that harsh operating environment are high, but recent analysis revealed that about half of these occurred during training – an unacceptable rate.

Until recently there was no credible way of simulating such training and not only was the aircraft used – eating into fatigue life, but this was in a high-risk environment. Fortunately, things have now changed with the advance of technology and some visionary thinking.

Unique Challenge, Novel Solution

There was no seaplane FFS (Level D) in the world until TRU Simulation + Training developed one to support training for the Viking Twin Otter Series 400 floatplane, deployed near Calgary International Airport, Canada. This naturally required work on unique software to represent varying water conditions, waterborne taxiing and aircraft docking, so there was a head start in understanding what would be needed for the CL415 FFS.

That alone was not enough – step up Ansett Aviation Training. This Melbourne-based company, sporting a much-respected name in Australian aviation, was set up by, amongst others, Margaret Jackson, a former Chairman of Qantas. Richard Anderson, COO, delights in pointing out that it has specialised in identifying niche markets worldwide, for instance acquiring and operating FFSs for mature aircraft such as the BAe146/Avro RJ or the Fokker 100 and the King Air for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. With a healthy demand for training on these aircraft there is a premium on pricing so there is a very strong business case. The same could be said for the CL415, and Ansett have secured exclusive rights to the first two FFSs made to this specification. But it is a complicated process to create such a device. Ansett Aviation Italia, located at Malpensa (MXP) Milan, Italy, was established amongst other reasons because the biggest single fleet (19 aircraft) of CL415s is based in Italy.

It Takes a Team

Given the virgin territory that this venture wanted to move into, it was rapidly recognised that no single outfit could make this happen. The solution was to bring together different areas of expertise, working closely together, to meet the challenge. Unlike more recent aircraft designs, this aircraft was neither fly-by-wire, nor did it have a backstory of software design and development that could readily be used as a software package for the FFS.

The team consisted of a group of geographically wide-ranging companies across a similarly broad reach of expertise. These included the OEM, Viking Air, which had all the original drawings and specifications, as well as its Pacific Sky training arm; Ansett Aviation Training, which was establishing the training centre (which, incidentally, features other FFSs for the A320, B737NG and Avro RJ); TRU Simulation + Training, which had a head-start on water-borne simulation; Babcock Italia, which had a pool of excellent test pilots; and, finally, but critically, the Italian NAA – L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazone Civile (ENAC).

The CL415 FFS team was comprised of OEM Viking Air, its Pacific Sky training arm, Ansett Aviation Training, TRU Simulation + Training, Babcock Italia test pilots, and the Italian NAA, ENAC. Image credit: Ansett Aviation Training.
The CL415 FFS team was comprised of OEM Viking Air, its Pacific Sky training arm, Ansett Aviation Training, TRU Simulation + Training, Babcock Italia test pilots, and the Italian NAA, ENAC. Image credit: Ansett Aviation Training.

28 Test Flights, 82 Hours

One of the most remarkable aspects of this project was the research necessary to build the software package. This was very much like the initial development and test flying which is mandatory for certification of an all-new aircraft. Although there are about 100 of this aircraft type in service, they are busy – so the Babcock Italia test pilots and specialists had to wait until there was a window to take an aircraft out of service and fly it intensively.

Some 800 sensors had to be installed so that the full range of data could be recorded during the more than 82 block hours flown through 28 test flights. However, not only did the usual test points have to be measured – rates of pitch, roll, rudder inputs, together with tests on spiral stability, Dutch roll, measurement of Vmca, etc. all had to be calibrated even before the specific-to-role tests were undertaken. Monitoring the data during turbulence trials was not easy – the vigorous movement of the aircraft made it nearly impossible for the flight test engineers to monitor the readouts during the flight.

Then the critical and unique add-ons. This had to include assessment of the taxiing characteristics in different water states, CofG, wind effects, etc. The flying elements included a range of take-off and landing conditions and CofG changes. The take-off tests naturally had to include varying wave heights and directions, with and without crosswinds, followed by measurements of the handling during engine failures/aborts during the take-off.

Handling during the approach and waterborne landing was tested incrementally, in stages from 150 feet all the way down to 10 feet to understand and calculate ground effect. Throughout the work close to the water surface the critical need to avoid touching the floats when at high speed needed to be understood and compensated for. Additionally, of course, the full range of handling during water pickup and drop had to be checked, with and without engine failures. Finally, there was a short time in Canada to confirm the operational environment.

A very rich range of handling challenges – must have been fun!

Training for Operations

Building the software was also not straightforward. Starting with a standard aerodynamic model, TRU discovered that, because the CL415 characteristics had, perforce, moved well outside the performance margins of a normal commercial operation (bank angles, ground proximity, etc.) there was significant modification needed to absorb those wider performance parameters. With the NAA, ENAC, fully involved during the entire process, full EASA Level D qualification was achieved in January 2019, and formal training started in March 2019. Ansett Aviation Italia has also been designated as a fully approved Viking Training Centre.

Designing a training package for the myriad backgrounds that new pilots come from is interesting. As Thom Allen of TRU points out, completing a training course for type rating under EASA rules is relatively straightforward, and the normal run of initial and recurrent training can be carried out, as can training for IFR and instrument approaches. The unique feature of this device is that it is designed to address the challenging operational task as well, for which training there is no specific regulation. And it is here where the real value of the device kicks in.

Discovering the effect of low-level turbulence – that impact of flying your wingtip through the updrafts caused by the fire is something of a surprise – and building the confidence from operating an aircraft at low level when really vigorous handling is necessitated by the demanding terrain and other demands encountered is essential. Happily, the size of the control surfaces gives the control authority to manoeuvre positively and accurately, and the power available from the ultra-reliable Pratt and Whitney PT6 turboprops makes for confident handling in that tough environment.

The CL415 FFS at Ansett Aviation Italia, a fully approved Viking Training Centre. Image credit: Ansett Aviation Training.

Pilots’ Reactions

Captain Domenico Mazza, General Manager at Ansett Aviation Italia, has been delighted with the reaction of experienced pilots to this new device. Many of those crews have not been exposed to sophisticated simulators in their aeronautical lives. Brought up in the hard school of on-the-job-training in a challenging environment, the idea that this could be re-created in a simulated arena met with some scepticism. The good news is that they were rapidly converted to the value of the device and the benefits and safety improvements which would roll out with this, both for the type rating and for the operational training of emergency procedures during dangerous conditions. Low-time pilots are going to get real exposure to the task and skills required, but in a safe environment, and that has to be a win-win. 

Originally published in Issue 5, 2019 of CAT Magazine.