Aviation college is on the ascent

Flying school in Dubai prepares students for the challenges ahead by putting them to the test in highly realistic cockpit simulators.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 11:  John Franklin, Instructor Pilot, flying the Bell 412 helicopter simulator, at the Emirates Aviation College in Dubai on December 11, 2008.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National) For story by Jen Gerson. *** Local Caption ***  RS009-1211-Simulator.jpgRS009-1211-Simulator.jpg
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // The circular helipad atop the Burj al Arab is not easy to land on, John Franklin says, flipping a toggle on the Bell 412 helicopter. "This part of the approach is really quite difficult, because you don't have a lot of references as to what your airspeed is." Pilots have to determine their position by looking at landmarks in the distance. In this case, the Palm Jumeirah provides the necessary contrast against what seems to be an endless view of sea, sky and sand.

Circling seaside around the hotel, Mr Franklin moves into the wind to land on the tiny plate. The helicopter shakes. Its propellers beat against a light wind coming off the ocean on an otherwise perfect day. But the landing is flawless. "I hope it's happy hour here," says Mr Franklin, an instructor who has been flying helicopters since the late 1960s. "I've heard that they won't let this type of helicopter land on the helipad because it doesn't have wheels. They're afraid it might mess with the paint job."

He lingers for a few minutes, then takes the chopper up again. Or seems to. In reality he is flying low over a 3D version of Dubai circa 2001. Sheikh Zayed Road has no traffic and Mr Franklin can fly through the box-like arches of the Dubai International Finance Centre and between the Emirates Towers, before mimicking an engine failure and landing at the airport. "You'll never see this in real life," he says. "At least, I hope not."

In the white flight simulator, about the size of a large, walk-in closet Mr Franklin can afford a little chicanery. The Bell 412 is one of 12 simulators inside a glass bay at the Emirates Aviation College. From the outside, the simulators look like enclosed yachts with a flattened bow, raised more than 10 feet from the floor. Inside the simulators, 20,000 pilots undergo training and testing every year.

It is the leading training facility in the Middle East and one of the largest centres in the world outside the US. The company that runs the training programmes, CAE, operates more than 20 training facilities around the world. It began here as a joint venture with Emirates Airline in 2003. By 2009 the school will add two simulators, making the facility the largest outside Dallas, Texas, where CAE has almost 40 simulators.

"In the Arab world, the US is not always the preferred place to go," says Walter Visser, the managing director of the CAE centre in Dubai. "There are issues of visas, and homeland-security procedures." Dubai is an easier location for Middle Eastern pilots, with the added benefit of offering more luxurious accommodation. The centre trains pilots from 150 airlines on simulators that are near-perfect copies of the cockpits of commercial aircraft, such as Boeing 737 and 777, and of private corporate aeroplanes.

To train a single pilot can cost as much as US$28,000 (Dh102,843), Mr Visser says. The simulators can cost $500 to $1,500 an hour to run. New pilots must spend as many as 40 hours in a flight simulator, so training is conducted around the clock. The experience is very close to flying the real thing, Mr Franklin says. The feel of the controls is almost identical; every toggle and meter is in the correct place.

"If you've flown one before, you can get used to it very quickly," he says. The graphics look like a video game from about five years ago, lacking fine detail but close enough to seem like the real thing. The simulators are also built to move in time with the steering. They shake, sometimes violently, when conditions call for it. They can simulate good weather and poor, emergency landings, crashes - even smoke in the cockpit. The helicopter offers landing sites in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, New York and Zurich.

"The idea is to get the pilots used to seeing it here so that if they experience it in real life, they'll know what to do." There are 350 helicopters like the Bell 412 operating in the Middle East. Most of them are owned by police, defence, and the oil and gas industry. One of the simulations Mr Franklin uses to teach prospective pilots forces the helicopter to land on an offshore oil rig. The Abu Dhabi Aviation Company recently signed a contract with CAE to train on the Bell 412. CAE also has a military training division.

"If a company has only one or two helicopters, they usually don't have the training facilities," he said. The real growth, however, is from the corporate jet sector. The number of corporate jets in operation, such as Hawkers and Gulfstreams, is growing by 20 per cent a year. The Emirates-CAE school offers training for both makes. Mr Visser expects business to slow because of the global financial crisis. However, as most of the pilots come to Dubai for routine retesting mandated by the industry, he does not expect business will suffer in the long term.

However, as airlines in the region begin to mature, they are developing their own training regimens and rely less on CAE's instructors. "Every airline prefers to do training themselves if they have the capability," he said. "However, for some smaller or newer airlines, it's not economically feasible." In addition to the facility in Dubai, CAE maintains three simulators owned by Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways and operates several others in Qatar and Bahrain.