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May 05, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

Call it "finishing school" for elite helicopter pilots.

For more than a decade, NRC has provided specialized training for major test pilot schools at the NRC Flight Research Lab in Ottawa. NRC offers two-week training sessions on "advanced handling qualities" for students at training organizations in the U.K., the U.S., France and Canada.

NRC's Bell 412 helicopter in flight

NRC's Bell 412 helicopter in flight.

"These students are incredibly keen and very skilled pilots," says Rob Erdos, chief test pilot at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research in Ottawa. "They have typically flown 15 or 20 types of machines by the time they get here. At NRC, we help them polish their flying skills so they can master different machines, not just to fly them but also to evaluate them and articulate their performance — including agility, stability, control and accuracy — in the context of a mission."

Test pilot schools send their students to NRC mainly for its variable stability helicopters — a Bell 205 airborne simulator and a Bell 412 "advanced systems research aircraft" — that are unique in their ability to simulate other aircraft in flight. "They have on-board computers connected to the flight controls," Erdos explains. "If you input the software for a Piper Cub, the helicopter looks, feels and behaves just like a Piper Cub. And if you put in the software for an Apache Attack Helicopter, the pilot suddenly feels a very different machine." Thus, students can experience flying a different type of helicopter every ten minutes over a 90-minute flight.

Test pilot trainees are generally selected by the military to take an exclusive and expensive — about $1 million per pilot — year-long course that combines aeronautical engineering with flight testing experience. The course covers airborne systems (e.g., navigation systems, radar, weapons and optics), measuring aircraft performance (e.g., speed, rate of climb, turning radius) and handling qualities — "basically, the art and science of measuring an aircraft's suitability for a task," says Rob Erdos of NRC.

"We can also reprogram the computer in flight," adds Erdos. "We can say, 'what would it feel like if the tail was larger, the centre of gravity was further forward and the machine was two tonnes heavier?' As we make those changes, pilots can observe how they must compensate to overcome deficiencies in the machine."

One crucial skill that test pilots must learn is how to control an experimental aircraft that has not been certified for flight. "They must be able to quickly assess how to survive the experience," says Erdos. "Because our helicopters are programmable, we can simulate bad flying conditions that test pilots might never experience in certified machines."

Both variable stability helicopters have dual controls: while the student's side resembles a weird "Frankencopter," says Erdos, the instructor's controls are not programmable. "If conditions become so challenging that a student is struggling to control the helicopter — even right to the edge of a crash — by disengaging the computer, the test pilot instructor can recover and land, while the trainee gets the invaluable experience of flying a terribly deficient machine under challenging conditions, safely."

A typical NRC course includes 8-12 students. "Typically, trainees will get several flights in our helicopters and possibly some extra flights in our Harvard, Twin Otter or Falcon aircraft," says Erdos. "Recently, we created new software for our Bell 412 that allows us to fly it like an airplane and then reprogram the characteristics: it's sort of a helicopter that can act like a bunch of different airplanes."

NRC has trained hundreds of test pilots over the last ten years. "It's safe to say that most of the helicopter test pilots trained in the western world have been trained by us," says Erdos. "There really is no other organization that offers a 'graduate level course' for test pilot schools."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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