Although it is hard to believe, Polish Mi-24 pilots have trained on the simulator of the said helicopter for the first time in 2018.
For pilots of all types of aircrafts such as helicopters, transporters and fighter jets, simulator is a standard part of the training. Unfortunately, for those who sit behind the controls of the Mi-24 - it was not. In Poland, there is no such suitable simulator, and no company in Europe has met the requirements of the 1st Land Forces Aviation Brigade (1 Brygada Lotnictwa Wojsk Lądowych), which is in charge of the air bases equipped with Mi-24 in Inowrocław and Pruszcz Gdanski.
"Since 2013, we have tried to find a provider of such training. Even a suitable tender inquiry has been submitted. Unfortunately, no one came forward," says Lieutenant-Colonel Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, commander of the 1st Helicopter Assault Squadron of 56th Air Base in Inowrocław. Only four years later - in 2017, a company providing training in the Mi-24 simulator at its compound in Petrovac (Macedonia), approached the airmen. However, it turned out that the device is adapted to the more modern version of Mi-24, referred to as Alexander. In order to check whether the training makes sense and how the simulators look like, Lieutenant Colonel Krzysztof Kwiatkowski and Lieutenant Colonel Marcin Kurandy, commander of the Aviation Action Group at 49th Air Base in Pruszcz Gdański, flew to Macedonia.
The basic difference between the Polish Mi-24 and the version called Alexander concerns displays in the upper pilot cabin (Mi-24 has two cabins: the upper one is for the first pilot - the crew commander, and the lower one is for the second pilot - the operator). "(Alexander) ...has digital displays, and we have analog instruments", explains Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski. However, pilots have decided that the simulator will be suitable for training. Why? "Main analog instruments were left in the simulator booth. For example, an artificial horizon, altimeter, speedometer and variometer are located in the simulator in exactly the same position where they are in the Polish Mi-24. Without these instruments, training would not make any sense", says the commander of the Inowrocław squadron.
Many more differences have been discovered in the lower cabin of the helicopter. "Instead of a station to control the weapons, there are two displays and a mission computer, so the training is difficult for the co-pilot," says Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski. A total of about 50 pilots from 56th Air Base and 49th Air Base went to Macedonia in 2018. Why the training did not cover all the pilots serving in both bases? "First of all, we were limited by the budget, which was planned much earlier, when we did not yet knew that the training would take place. Secondly, I wanted to learn from the trainings, how to modify the course in the future and how to diversify the missions. I can count on such tips from pilots who already have some experience", says Kwiatkowski.
Sphere under observation
The Mi-24 helicopter simulator located at the training compound in Petrovac is an FMS (Full Mission Simulator). From the outside it looks like a large sphere. Inside, the Mi-24 cabin was imitated. A cockpit has been mounted there, and on the walls around, some images corresponding to the mission that the pilot performs are being displayed. For example: desert landscape, high mountains; sunny , rainy or snowy weather, also imitating changes of the time of day. The airmen emphasize that the flight in the simulator is very realistic. "The device trembles, rotates, rocks like a real helicopter. When I turn left, it tilts the same way and gives the impression of moving in a circle. Just like in reality, "says Maj. Jacek Janowski from the 56th Air Base in Inowrocław, one of the pilots trained in Macedonia.
The center has also a simulation control center. Macedonian and Polish instructors are watching - while standing meters away - what pilots are doing inside the sphere. "The Macedonians were rather responsible for the technical maintenance of the simulator, but we were the ones to decide on how the mission should look like. Each movement of the pilot is being recorded, so in real time we saw which devices he turned on, but also, thanks to the cameras inside, how he behaves - which way he looks at, etc." says Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski. During a real school flight, Polish instructors do not have such possibility, because the Mi-24 is constructed in such a way that pilots from the first and the second cabin cannot see each other. Instructors cannot control whether trainees are being focused on right instruments. "Sometimes a procedure in the simulator was failing and it turned out that the pilot was watching the wrong indicator. Mundane but very important matters", says one of the instructors.
Natasha is warning
For what emergency situations have the pilots trained for? For example, a hydraulic system malfunction, damage to the tail rotor, fire of one engine and then both. "When the hydraulic installation fails - first the main one, then the spare one, one of the most important tasks of the pilots is to control the helicopter. The problem is that the installation is responsible for control assistance, so in order to safely land a three-ton helicopter on the ground, a great physical strength is necessary. Sometimes you need the strength of two pilots in order to pull the control stick", explains Lt. Col. Krzysztof Kwiatkowski. It is difficult to train such situation in the real world, because the risk is too high, as is the case of the event of a fire of engines - one of the most dangerous failures.
"In the simulator it looks the same as in reality, so we receive information about the fact that we have a fire. Natasha sounds the alarm, a system that loudly informs about a failure. A red lamp lights up in the cabin. I look at the control devices of the power unit - if there is a fire, I can see how the engine temperature is rising", says Maj. Jacek Janowski. Pilots perform next steps listed on the checklist. "Thanks to correct procedures, you can control the situation" - one of them says. The most important ones must be memorized. The pilot checks whether the fire extinguishing tank has worked and then turns off the burning engine. "At this point, I go to the next point of the protocol - a flight with one engine...
Precision, time, self-control. In case of a failure, they are all as important as the knowledge of procedures. You cannot learn it during real flights, because these are the situations that carry a huge risk. "If we are training - we do it in the air. We do it at a safe height and at a safe distance. We know when the failure will happen, we can prepare for it. In the simulator, everything happens by surprise and in the least comfortable conditions", explains Kwiatkowski. Also, some of the procedures are being practiced on the ground, in helicopter cabins. "Steps of the protocol are being repeated. Turn on the lights and turn them off again... The pilot memorizes and masters these activities, but there is no adrenaline and stress" says the commander of the Inowrocław squadron.
The CRM (Crew Resource Management) - that is crew's cooperation in emergency situations - has also been practiced. "At first, it was supposed to be a training for crew commanders only, but it turned out that the simulator can also be used in pilot-operator training", admits Lt. Col. Marcin Kuranda. "They learned that their role during the flight, especially in an emergency situation, is very important," adds the commander of the Aviation Action Group.
During the crisis, responsibilities must become divided between the two pilots. "The number of stimuli that the crew commander is experiencing is so high that at some point, the other pilot has to take over some tasks - from reading points from the checklist to the helicopter control. Then the crew commander has time to deal with switching, turning off or switching on further devices in his cabin. Due to the fact that in the Mi-24 they are not only in the cockpit in front of the commander, but also next to and behind him, he may find it difficult to turn them off and simultaneously look ahead. Therefore, help of the co-pilot is very important in such cases", explains Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski.
How experienced pilots benefited from the training? "The answer is very simple. My chances of surviving the malfunction of a helicopter have increased. I know that if something would happen to me in the air, I will have what I have practiced in the simulator before my eyes" says Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski. "There is no way to train for all emergency situations during the real flight. In 2001, Mi-2 helicopter that I was piloting, lost its engine. As a pilot, I had a small amount of hours spent in the air at that time, because I finished the School of Eaglets only a year and a half earlier, despite that, habits developed during training flights, have allowed me to happily land in a casual area. Back then, everything went very well. The crew was saved, so was the helicopter. It was not a training, so nobody paid any attention to mistakes thant I have made. And such knowledge is very important for pilots and the simulator gives us the opportunity to obtain it", says Maj. Janowski.
Pilots admit that it would be best to train more frequently, regularly and in Poland. Since there is no chance of that to happen, in 2019 they will fly to Macedonia again. But the training program will be slightly modified. "The assumptions will remain the same, i.e. training procedures in emergency situations. However, we want every mission, from the first to the last one, to be a surprise for the pilot in training, so that he cannot be prepared for a specific situation", says the squadron commander. He adds, that in 2019 all pilots of this machine will undergo training in the Mi-24 flight simulator. "Training in Macedonia has already been included in their individual training plans", says Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski.
autor zdjęć: st. chor. sztab. mar. Arkadiusz Dwulatek / CC DORSZ