Flight Simulation and Securing the Safety of the Aviation Industry

8 mins
July 26, 2022
The aviation and aerospace industry is one of the most exciting career areas within the UK, with plenty of different roles to choose from. Springpod and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the regulator for the industry in the UK, have collaborated to provide an unprecedented virtual work experience and live week. Thousands of young people will have access to leading industry experts, interactive content, and invaluable information to find out more about careers in the industry.

Ahead of the virtual work experience and live week, Springpod spent some time with people from different areas of the CAA to bring you closer than ever to the dedication and innovation within aviation and aerospace. In the fourth instalment of our blog series, you’ll hear from Andrew Bell, Principal Simulator Test Inspector with the FSTD & Flight Test Engineering Team. Andrew provides a unique insight into this important area of safety within the CAA, looking at how flight simulation ensures pilots are operating to the best of their ability. Along the way, he shares some personal experiences about how he got into the career, and what the future has in store! Let’s get ready for take-off!

Why did you join the CAA?

I always wanted to be in aviation, and that influenced a lot of my choices. After leaving university at the end of the 1980s, I worked for a company that designed and manufactured flight simulators, including all of the specialist software and hardware that allowed them to function. I was completely fascinated by a side of the aviation industry that I previously knew very little about. 

I became more experienced over the years and grew in seniority and expertise. After 21 years, I felt like I’d achieved everything I wanted to in terms of design, development, and tests, and I felt like I was running out of challenges and wanted to contribute something different. The logical step was to switch to the “other side” and move into regulation with the CAA. When I joined the CAA FSTD section, there were four other inspectors already here, all of whom I had previously worked with (including my former boss), so it was a fairly straightforward move. There was a steep learning curve that still continues, but it was exciting as it offered me new challenges to flex my brain in a different way.  

Would you be able to explain in more detail your area of expertise?

I’m part of the FSTD team, which stands for Flight Simulation Training Devices. Regardless of how much you know about aviation regulation, there’s a good chance you’ll be aware of flight simulators! 

A civil pilot will continuously undergo competency testing and assessments throughout their flying career.  That pathway will start at the PPL level on a relatively non-complex aircraft and could go all the way to obtaining an ATPL and ultimately a type rating to fly a large commercial passenger airliner. Even at that point, there will regular checks of proficiency which will mostly take place on a suitably qualified flight simulator. Pilots will also undergo additional training if they switch aircraft type, operator (airline), change seniority or become trainers or examiners. 

For any training and competency to be recognised by the CAA, it has to be conducted on a simulator that we’ve assessed and qualified. This can mean different things for different simulators, but typically, this means that the simulator has to replicate the aircraft handling, performance and system operation in “normal” flight as well as a variety of abnormal conditions such as stalling, unusual attitudes, wind shear and a variety of different systems failures.

Aircraft and simulator manufacturers develop data collected from flight testing and other experimental means to generate simulation software models. They also produce validation data. This is required to test the simulator and ensure that it replicates the class or type of aircraft that is being simulated to the required level. We’ll return to it each year to ensure it generates the same results and is in good condition. 

The CAA qualification process for a simulator varies based on its type and the required level. The first step will be the initial evaluation leading to the initial issue of a CAA qualification certificate. This must be followed up by a shorter, annual evaluation to ensure the standard initially achieved has been maintained. This checking is all conducted against detailed regulations.

Every evaluation we do involves a team of two – one of our team of FSTD inspectors, who mostly deal with looking at all the objective, and technical aspects of the simulator, and a suitably qualified CAA flight inspector who will do the Subjective flight testing, putting in malfunctions, different weather scenarios, etc., to make sure the simulator accurately it replicates the aircraft in question and is a capable training tool. 

Throughout the lifetime of a simulators service, which can be upwards of 30 years, it will undergo numerous modifications and updates, perhaps to keep up to date with aircraft changes to introduce newer technologies. Our oversight extends to these developments as well.

What would a typical day look like in your position or department at the CAA?

CAA ATOs can only conduct credited training, checking and testing on FSTDs that are CAA qualified. Currently, the FSTD section oversees more than 330 CAA-qualified FSTDs globally. This number has grown by approx. 200 since the start of 2021 in order to ensure training continuity for CAA ATOs as a consequence of EU-Exit.

A typical working day consists of a lot of planning work for me - our department works to a carefully managed schedule, and it is an endless task to ensure that all tasks fit without overloading the team. In the FSTD section, each inspector is responsible for conducting around 60-70 evaluations per year. These will all need to be planned in coordination with the simulator operator and the supporting flight inspector, conducted on-site and then followed up on. This last issue is very important. It’s not just a case of the CAA evaluating a simulator and recording any issues of concern. We must then monitor these issues to ensure they are addressed and resolved by the FSTD operator in a timely manner. This is achieved by ongoing dialogue with the FSTD operator, at defined intervals, post-evaluation.

While we have developed several ways of conducting evaluations remotely, from the office, removing the need to travel to the FSTD itself, these are relatively rare occurrences (although they were the norm during the Covid-hit 2020 & 21), and the majority of our evaluations occur on site. We oversee devices as near as half a mile away from the CAA or as far away as Dallas or Singapore, with a large number in Europe too. This means a typical week includes a chunk of travel, along with working with other aviation authorities globally. 

Our obligations also include periodic auditing of the Management Systems that FSTD operators must develop to operate their devices.

We also support industry conferences, working groups, rulemaking tasks, regular deliveries of an open-access FSTD Qualification & Oversight training course and FSTD-related enquiries that regularly come in from the training community. 

What benefits do a background in STEM have?

STEM gives you an indication of where you could end up - it is for someone who likes challenges, variation, and technology. I’d say fundamentally, it forms an interest in aviation, or can tell you if it’s not for you, as it can help prepare you for what to expect.

If you could give advice to anyone keen to pursue a career in aviation and aerospace, or within the CAA, what would it be?

Expect the unexpected! It’s important to be flexible if you want to achieve and get the most out of your career, and you can really enjoy it as a result. 

What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people may have about the CAA?

The main misconception is that we’re there to make life difficult. We write and apply the rules, and block rather than make progress. It’s really not true - we have to have regulations, but we’re there to help people be the best that they can be and support the civil flight training community. We’re a door to innovation and progress, not an obstacle - we have to be harsh, but we’re fair, and we always want to work with organisations rather than against them. 

Do you see any particular areas becoming more of a focused priority for the CAA in the future?

More performance-based regulation will come in place - this means giving the better or more experienced organisations empowerment to regulate themselves more. This would involve giving organisations the power to inspect simulators on our behalf, subject to the proper training and oversight from us. We already have many years of experience doing this with a couple of FSTD operators. In this scenario, the final decision on the qualification status of each FSTD still remains with the CAA.

For as long as regulated FSTDs have existed, they have consisted of established types and levels of devices representing fixed-wing aeroplanes and helicopters. Times are changing and, a variety of new technologies and training methodologies are emerging fast, meaning that there will need to be some significant changes to the regulations in the near future to support these.

The use of VR and MR technology and simulators to support the likes of eVTOL aircraft will become very commonplace. In fact, a number of solutions already exist and are being marketed. We need to ensure that the new regulations ensure maximum benefit is achieved but without the quality of training and safety being compromised. This work has already commenced.

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