ERA boosts safety with flight simulator

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

It was an investment that ERA Aviation could not refuse.

The Anchorage-based regional carrier, Alaska's largest regional airline, recently purchased a $200,000 flight training device for its fleet of nine Twin Otter planes.

"It's really a question of can you afford not to make an investment like that," said Paul Landis, ERA senior vice president.

The device is built by FlyIt Simulators, a division of Simpkins Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif.

It uses Microsoft graphics to reproduce every FAA-recognized landing strip in Alaska. It can also simulate bad weather, engine fires, electric failure, hydraulic failure and wind shear.

"It's a wonderful device for us," Landis said. "It's state-of-the-art for regional-sized aircraft. It saves wear and tear and cycles and hours on our aircraft."

ERA's Twin Otters are a two-pilot, 19-seat twin turbine worth about $1.3 million each.

"I think what it shows is ERA's commitment to safety," Landis said. "The Twin Otter is a versatile aircraft. We've done a lot of different missions in it. It's really the workhorse of our scheduled airline."

The pilot-training device is a private purchase and will not be used by other carriers, but Landis said ERA "will allow the Medallion Foundation to show off the attributes of simulator training."

The Medallion Foundation promotes aviation safety in Alaska. Jerry Dennis, Medallion's executive director, said the device is a key component for safety.

"The things you can do in a simulator you hope you never have to do in an aircraft," Dennis said. "From a business point of view, not only is it safer, it's more efficient.

"From a pilot's point of view, you don't have time to make all the mistakes. Their skills have to be honed and honed continuously."

While a simulator can't factor in human emotions during real emergencies, it can still help.

"If you train for emergency procedures, you can instinctively react, and that can save lives," Dennis said.

Richard Harding, president of Medallion, also praised ERA for the purchase.

"One of the things we can do is teach pilots to recognize deteriorating weather conditions, and train them how to avoid and get out of that type of condition," Harding said. "You can also simulate wind shear problems, which is very important in Alaska."

Landis said aircraft are most vulnerable to accidents on approach and departure at slower speeds and lower altitude.

"We can throw everything at them in that degree of flight," Landis said of the new device.

Mike Coligny, chief executive of FlyIt, said the company anticipates selling other simulators to Alaska carriers. FlyIt earlier sold a device to Coastal Helicopters in Juneau, and has made sales in Canada, Columbia and Europe. It is negotiating contracts in New Zealand and Australia.

ERA was purchased by Rowan Companies of Houston in 1967. ERA is one of the top 25 regional airlines in the United States. The company employs more than 800 people, with 500 in Alaska.

ERA plays a role in the Alaska and Gulf of Mexico petroleum-support industry and is capturing a growing share of Alaska's expanding visitor traffic. It runs a fleet of nearly 100 helicopters and 21 fixed-wing aircraft.

In 1978 ERA established a fixed-wing division in Alaska after purchasing Jet Alaska. In 1980 the company expanded after buying three 50-passenger Convair 580s for charter-airline service. Founded by Carl Brady, ERA is the world's oldest, continuously operating helicopter company, with operations in Anchorage, Reno, Nev., Lake Charles, La., and the Gulf Coast.

In 1958 ERA opened a base at Merrill Field and expanded to Kenai in 1962. In 1992 five ERA helicopters participated as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Croatia. In 1994 ERA landed a three-year contract for two Super Pumas flying offshore support in China. Rowan, the parent company, is a provider of international and domestic contract drilling and aviation services. In 2002 Rowan reported net income of $86 million, or 90 cents a share, up from $77 million, or 80 cents per share, in 2001.

Pat King is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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