Italian aerospace giant Leonardo has embarked on a major expansion of its presence in the US with a vast new Helicopter Training Academy. Tom Batchelor looks at what’s on offer and the benefits it will bring
With the capacity to train more than 1,000 civil and military helicopter cadets a year, including flight crews, aircraft operators and maintainers, Leonardo Helicopters’s new Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, facility is set to boost the company’s offering in the lucrative North American market, while simultaneously meeting the growing demand for training services from customers in South and Central America.
Leonardo is very much focused on the future of flight crew training, with augmented reality and artificial intelligence among the features being rolled out at the site. The academy, which opened its doors at the end of April, is located on Leonardo’s existing campus in the city, providing a one-stop shop for established clients and future pilots.
The star attraction is undoubtedly the AW609 tiltrotor Level D Full Flight Simulator (FFS) – the highest standard simulator available. The AW609 is an aircraft that combines the speed, range and altitude of a fixed-wing turboprop plane with the vertical take-off and landing versatility of a helicopter, and the company's Philadelphia campus will offer the world’s first comprehensive training syllabus for the AW609, as well as the first Full Flight Simulator for the type.
A global operation
Leonardo is headquartered in Rome but operates globally, with training hubs in three other domestic markets – the UK, United States and Malaysia – alongside a commercial network of offices, subsidiaries and joint ventures in 46 countries worldwide. In 2020, it attracted orders worth nearly €14bn and the company has a backlog of orders for its aerospace, defence and security products totalling more than €34bn – which is equivalent to about two-and-a-half years’ production.
The first Leonardo Helicopter Training Academy opened in Sesto Calende, Italy, in 2006. In its inaugural year, it trained 600 students – that number has now grown to an average of more than 10,000 annually across the company’s training network.
Since 1980, Leonardo’s US helicopter business has been based at the Pennsylvania site. Located at Northeast Philadelphia Airport (KPNE), just minutes from the city’s central business district, the facility has grown over the last 40 years from a basic service centre to Leonardo’s US Industrial Centre of Excellence for helicopters. So, when Leonardo confirmed it was to build a new academy to cater to an expanding market across the Americas, it was no surprise that Philadelphia was selected to be its home.
Strengthening the US offering
The new training facility was announced at the 2019 Heli-Expo in Atlanta and opened on schedule on April 29, 2021, despite the challenges brought about by COVID-19. The academy is part of a US$80m investment by Leonardo in its US business that will provide training services for pilots, support crews and maintenance technicians across the region. It is the second-largest academy in the company's portfolio, after its main hub in Sesto Calende, and will be expected to mirror the services offered by its sister site – including ground, air and virtual training and simulator capabilities jointly developed by Leonardo and CAE and operated by their joint venture, Rotorsim.
The academy provides training services for the AW119, AW169, AW139 and AW609 models for civil, military and government customers. It boasts two FFSs – one AW139, which was relocated to Philadelphia from Whippany, New Jersey, and one AW169/AW609 with roll-on/roll-off capability, enabling cockpits from varying Leonardo helicopter types to be easily used within the same full-motion base simulator. An additional empty bay exists to allow a third simulator to be added in the future.
There are also three maintenance simulators (AW139, AW119 and AW609), which provide up-close familiarity with all aspects of the aircraft through hands-on experience for students (both technicians and pilots), and ten multimedia classrooms equipped to handle the latest technology, including interactive 3D graphic content. Additional facilities include meditation and exercise rooms for students to relax and recharge between classes. The academy has been certified as an Approved Training Organisation (ATO) by the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), and its US counterpart, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). It is also an approved Transport Canada Civil Aviation facility.
The majority of Leonardo’s courses last between four and six weeks, while the longest in the catalogue is 27 months. The latter training course takes someone who has never sat in front of the controls of a helicopter and ensures they are ready to pilot one of the company's fleet of aircraft. Leonardo offers screening, ab initio training and licencing, including the commercial pilot licence with multi-engine instrument rating. Cadets receive specialist training to prepare them for any mission, from search and rescue to mountain flying.
Speaking to AIR International, Paolo Petrosso, Leonardo Helicopters vice president for simulation and training services, said the entire training portfolio was available at any one of Leonardo’s training hubs, including Philadelphia. He highlighted two helicopter types with particular significance to the company’s US operation: the AW119 and the AW139. The latter has “historically been the backbone of our training capacity and volume in the US,” explained Petrosso.
While the AW119 is an important part of the new academy’s offering, Philadelphia has been a Centre of Excellence for the type for some years. Around 95% of Leonardo’s AW119 training globally is done in Philadelphia and the company has used the site to develop its training package for the US Navy. “So the AW119, and its variant, the TH-73A [which was selected by the US Navy in January 2020 to replace its fleet of TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopters], are really at home in Philadelphia and in the US,” Petrosso said.
As for the AW169, Philadelphia will see the first US-based Level D Full Flight Simulator for the type, while the site will also host the world’s first AW609 tiltrotor training device.
Lifelike pilot environment
Leonardo’s new training academy features FFSs with a 1:1 replica of the cockpit plus motion systems, a control loading system and sound simulation, to create a lifelike environment for pilots – the majority being state-of-the-art Level D devices. Philadelphia’s newest AW169 and AW609 simulators have an ultra-wide field of view and large, 12ft mothership.
For trainee engineers, the facility “combines the hands-on practical training of the live maintenance training simulator with digital maintenance training, which is run in our multimedia classroom,” said Petrosso. “We have digitised the aircraft, so that our engineers are able to practise in a synthetic but lifelike environment.”
The advances in training capabilities at the new campus mean virtual reality and artificial intelligence will play an increasingly dominant role: “We are developing virtual reality trainers that will be connected with the flight simulators – it is not yet installed in Philadelphia, but it will be,” Petrosso explained. “We have in our headquarters [in Italy] a virtual reality lab where we are developing the integration between the virtual augmented reality and a traditional simulator. What we have in mind is that you will have a combination of a live replica element ina flight simulator and virtual reality. We're very much pushing that.
“The next big thing for us is taking all of the data on board our simulators, as we are doing for the aircraft, and from our classroom, and digitising the learning environment, so that we can analyse their performance. That gives us a much better picture of how the student is behaving, how much they're learning, how fast they are learning, what else they need, and to link every training event to the next training event, to follow their performance throughout the process. It's very close to the evidence-based training that the airlines have now implemented. This technology is giving us better insight into how effective our training is.”
Integration of VR and AR
Leonardo Helicopters is also looking at whether a virtual headset can be combined with desktop and touchscreen devices to enhance its training package for flight crews. “We are working on the integration of the virtual imagery together with some touch-and-feel elements that will give a mock-up of the cockpit with the controls,” explained Petrosso. “We are exploring together with partners a motion system... for smaller platforms, where we know that full-scale [simulation] at a decent level is probably not the answer, due to cost.”
The business is also working to incorporate artificial intelligence, including using data analysis to enable the development of tailored simulations of a variety of synthetic environments, plus customised training system and self-maintenance tutorials. Alessandro Profumo, Leonardo's CEO, said: “In our sector, only organisations with a clear vision, strategy and consistency in execution can aim for a sustainable long-term business and become strategic assets for their countries. We want to be regarded as a partner, not just a supplier, by continuing to ensure an outstanding service and training experience. And we integrate these capabilities into our unique helicopter offering with the ambition of becoming the world leader in the sector. Advanced simulation, augmented reality, artificial intelligence – all embedded today in our US academy – are examples of this vision.”
Ensuring simulated and virtual pilot and maintenance crew training remains an effective alternative to live flight training has another benefit, too: reduced carbon emissions. “This is really important for us,” said Petrosso. “More and more, we are moving towards synthetic, multimedia classrooms and virtualising the training. We have made a calculation that globally, across the entire training networks, we have been able to reduce our carbon footprint by about 10,000 tonnes in a single year [by] using simulators compared with live flight training.
“The simulator hours that we annually do are between 40,000-50,000, and we do 4,000-6,000 hours, depending on the year, in live flight activity. So, basically, we are flying on real aircraft less than 10% of the time that we fly in the simulator. We all need to do something and work together to reduce our carbon footprint and the technology is helping us a lot.” Added to this, the new simulators for the AW609 and AW169 are fully electric. Switching from hydraulic to electric actuators has removed the need for oil and made the machinery lighter and less noisy. “With that simulator alone, we are not going to save the planet, but we at least took a little step,” he added.
The academy was built to capitalise on a burgeoning market for highly trained helicopter crews across the Americas. Petrosso explained that helicopter services benefited from being geographically close to their customers, since many expect to be able to fly to the facility in their aircraft (the AW169 has a range of around 500 miles, for example). More than 50% of the company’s target students are based in the US, and it also uses the campus to serve the Canadian market and Central and South America.
A long-established trainer
Leonardo’s existing training facilities in Italy, the UK and Malaysia provide much the same level of training services for customers in Europe and Asia. At the A. Marchetti site in Sesto Calende, there are 21 ground school classrooms, plus one Flight Training Device (FTD) Level 3 and one FFS Level D for the AW109 helicopter series, able to cover several variants of the model through the use of four different cockpits (AW109E, AW109S, AW109N and AW109LUH); two FFS Level D for the AW139, one FFS Level D for the AW189, one FTD for the AW169, and one FFS Level D for the AW169. There are also a number of maintenance training simulators covering the entire AgustaWestland product line as well as facilities for distance learning, computer-based training, virtual interactive procedural training and virtual maintenance training.
The UK site, in Yeovil, Somerset, delivers courses specifically dedicated to military products (AW101, AW159, Lynx and Sea King), while Malaysia offers a range of services for the AW109 Power and AW139 helicopters, and expects to expand the range of courses to cover new types, such as the AW169 and AW189.
A unique offering
So what will the implications be for the wider US helicopter training market now that the Philadelphia site is up and running? Petrosso admitted it was “difficult to predict what the competitors and the market are going to look like” in the near future, at a time when the pandemic has brought so much uncertainty to the industry. However, he said the new Pennsylvania facility offered something unique: “The beauty of our service offering is that we are not just offering training, we are not just offering support or engineering. We want to provide the full capability to the customer, so that we can leverage all of the service offerings to make the client safer and more effective in their mission.”
While the scale of the new academy is impressive, further expansion of the Leonardo Helicopters facility is not off the cards. The ten simulator instructors, ten ground instructors and five flight instructors have the capacity to train in excess of 1,000 students a year. But, as Petrosso explained, the business has room for growth: “The academy will serve a dual-use market – civil and government customers. The most important military customers that we have in the US are certainly looking, in the medium to long term, to have an in-house training capability. And we will support them to reach that goal.” Leonardo hopes to expand in Florida next, with a customer support centre adjacent to the Naval Air Station Whiting Field, subject to its contract with the US Navy for the TH-73.
The new academy is located next to Leonardo’s existing production, support, sales and administrative offices, in order to give customers a seamless experience in a single location. “We wanted to not only to provide cutting-edge training with modern technology to our customers, but also give them an inside view of our organisation, our culture, and how our product is made and maintained,” commented William Hunt, CEO of AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corporation and managing director of Leonardo Helicopters US. "It really is a one-stop-shop concept,” added Petrosso.
A world first
Leonardo’s Philadelphia hub will be home to the training services for global customers of the world’s first tiltrotor set to receive civil certification – the AW609. The aircraft, which is pitched at customers seeking executive or private transport, as well as medical and rescue services, has a range of more than 1,118 miles and a service ceiling of 25,000ft, enabling it to avoid bad weather or terrain, which can hamper conventional helicopter operations.
The 8-tonne tiltrotor, which is due to begin certification this summer, has space for nine passengers and two crew members, is fitted with a fully digital suite of VFR/IFR avionics and fly-by-wire controls, and is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67A engines while boasting one-engine-inoperable capability. Bristow Group, the helicopter operator that provides offshore transportation for oil-and-gas workers, is set to be the type’s launch customer.
Philadelphia’s AW609 Full Flight Simulator is a world first, and when not installed into the full-motion base simulator, the cockpit can serve as a fixed-base flight training device. A similar approach will also be made available in the future for other helicopter types, significantly increasing the versatility and range of training services in the US.
Leonardo Helicopters’s Paolo Petrosso explained that the AW609 simulation programme was still in the early phase of its development, since it required “an entirely new way of flying”. He said: “We want to provide training for whoever needs it. So, if the pilot is coming from a rotary-wing background, then we will have a bridge course for them to fly a tiltrotor. If they’re coming from a fixed-wing, we will have a slightly different training path. The majority of this bridge training will be delivered in a blended way, so that we can be efficient in not taking crews away from their business or their mission. We will have a lot of interactivity from the first day in the classroom.”
The AW609’s Level D Full Flight Simulator is designed to have an ultra-wide field of view, and pilots in training will be able to practise all the required operational tasks and procedures for the tiltrotor in both normal and emergency conditions, with the option of using night-vision goggles for simulated missions in the hours of darkness.