A virtual reality solution for accident-prone helicopters

Helicopter-flying involves its challenges and there is a need for a training device that enables the practising of abnormal and emergency procedures

A virtual reality solution for accident-prone helicopters
A Robinson R44 helicopter. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/D Miller

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has approved the first virtual-reality-based flight simulation device, which may provide a solution to the helicopter industry regarding pilot training and other safety aspects.

"This is a significant milestone in the evolution of Flight Simulation Training Devices (FSTD)," said Jesper Rasmussen, EASA Flight Standards Director. "The agency is pursuing the modernisation of its regulation for training devices to reflect their actual capability and technology advancement. This evolution will make a wider range of cost-effective training devices available to complement Full Flight Simulators (FFS) and is being driven in part by training needs for new Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft.

Robinson helicopter crash history

The Robinson helicopters have been notorious worldwide with the R44 model accounting for 1.6 accidents per 10,00,000 hours. The Robinson helicopter company began in 1973 as a helicopter manufacturing entity, based in southern California in the US, producing the R22, a two-seater model, and the R44, a four-seater model. 

In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified the company’s newest model, the R66, a turbine-powered model, and since that time, more than 800 R66 helicopters have been sold. In the past four decades, the company has built more than 12,000 helicopters.

In total, there have been at least 1,577 accidents or incidents involving the Robinson helicopters, 394 of them fatal accidents resulting in 703 deaths.

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Below are the injury and fatality statistics according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident database for each Robinson model aircraft, as of March 1, 2021:

Model R22 – 1,001 accidents, 180 of those being fatal; 265 people have died.
Model R44 – 525 accidents, 193 of those being fatal; 395 people have died.
Model R66 – 34 accidents, 17 of those being fatal; 36 people have died.

In a blog, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association writes about the good, bad and ugly aspects of the R22. The good being that the R22 is hands down the world’s leader in civil helicopter training. It is like the Cessna 152 of the fixed-wing world. The helicopter is reliable, cost-effective and safe if operated within its guidelines. However, the R22 demands respect and regardless of the pilots' experience is unforgiving during engine failure and other emergencies that require autorotation.

If you are not diligent, the ugly is not getting the helicopter into an autorotation in the small window and allowing the rotor revolutions per minute (RPM) to get below about 75%. You may never get it back. So it is essential to just get the helicopter into autorotation, maintain the RPM, deal with airspeed and find a suitable place next.

Stored energy in altitude is your best friend; continuous low operation is not a good idea. There are other problems, such as the rapid rollover rate if you stick a skid, and the helicopter can be very unforgiving. 


The suitability of the virtual reality (VR) concept was verified through a training evaluation programme involving pilots from industry and aviation authorities, including helicopter flight instructors and test pilots.

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This evaluation confirmed the suitability of the VR concept for training purposes, particularly for cases such as autorotation, hovering and slope landing where exact height perception and wide field of view are required.

The device, for rotorcraft pilots, enhances safety by opening up the possibility of practising risky manoeuvres in a virtual environment. This addresses a key risk area in rotorcraft operations, where statistics show that around 20% of accidents occur during training flights. The device was developed and built by VRM Switzerland. 

Helicopter-flying involves its challenges and there is a need for a training device that enables the practising of abnormal and emergency procedures. India must utilise such training devices for helicopters to curb the accident rates amongst helicopters which is almost over two accidents per year. 

(This article first appeared in safetymatters.com)

(Cover image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/D Miller)