One reason the serial killer has not been curtailed is because training technology limitations have made IIMC conditions very difficult to safely replicate. Until now, there has been no available training method that simulates both visual and vestibular inner ear sense-of-direction illusions. When pilots first encounter actual degraded visibility conditions in flight, their brains are forced to sort through their conflicting senses, specifically their visual and vestibular systems. To worsen this confusion in the cockpit, two pilots may simultaneously perceive different illusions about the direction of their aircraft. One pilot may feel they are falling while the other believes they are turning. The end result of this disorientation is too often tragic.

Through dogged determination, Phillips and Lavallee developed the AT Systems (ATS) Training Device that allows safe, effective, controlled, real-world training for IIMC conditions. The device attaches to the training pilot’s own (unmodified) helmet and controls visibility and ceilings wirelessly by a tablet app. Regularly updated real-world accident scenarios in the app replicate confusing accident conditions for the pilot, affecting vision and sense of direction. The patented device’s redundant safety features clear the visor from the pilot’s field of view, ceasing the training scenario when the pilot exceeds user-preset parameters involving pitch, roll, altitude, descent rate, and the proximity of other aircraft to the training aircraft. The ATS Device can even simultaneously train pilots in multi-ship formation flights, allowing each flying pilot to experience the same scenario conditions at the same time.

“Executive Watch” wants to time travel in a DeLorean and profile Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in their Cupertino, California, garage. Despite our desire to catch inventors in their garage days, Phillips humbly says that he and Lavallee are not techie inventors. Their contribution was to come up with a groundbreaking idea, then marshal the resources and people to make their needed new idea a training reality. “We built the ATS Device from an instructor pilot’s perspective and from an operator’s perspective. At the end of the day, we are not inventors. We’re two standardization pilots and instrument examiners. We very much looked at our product development through the lens of what we would want in a training device. We started the process in 2015, and in 2016 we submitted for our patent and received it in 2018. Everything’s just grown from there.”


One germane factor in that growth has been a heaping, helping dose of passion. “I don’t know many helicopter pilots who are more than two degrees removed from someone who has been killed in a degraded visual environment,” Phillips says with a tinge of sadness and overriding resolve. “This is my very passionate stance and I always try to share it: most disorientation accidents are not happening because of overwhelming vertigo, they are happening from a combination of visual illusions and vestibular illusions. To give you an idea from an offshore, overwater accident: a pilot perceives a false horizon due to poor visibility. He sees lights in the distance and takes them to be on the horizon. Our eyes are so dominant in the body’s orientation system that they will convince our inner ears to agree with the perceived

vision. The vestibular system gets tricked by the eyes and then the motion of the aircraft. When the eyes eventually focus on the cockpit instruments, the brain then becomes confused because the readings are contradicting the body’s senses. That’s the basic accident sequence in a nutshell. It’s spatial disorientation with both visual and vestibular illusions. It’s not usually vertigo, which is an overwhelming sense of disorientation.”

Most trainees in devices such as a “vomit chair” experience extremely dizzy situations and unfortunately don’t understand that spatial disorientation accident sequences sneak up subtly. This is where the ATS Device bridges the gap from traditional training. “You don’t get ‘the leans’ in your usual flight training simulator. Vestibular illusions take 20 seconds of sustained motion, according to the FAA,” says Phillips. “Traditional simulators do a great job convincing the eyes, but don’t input into the inner ear, so pilots who have only trained in a traditional simulator don’t get to train with vestibular illusions. Our system creates an environment conducive to visual illusions. The natural movement of the aircraft creates the vestibular (inner ear) illusions, which provides a complete training experience. Our scenarios are not only intended to train or acclimate the brain to vision and vestibular illusions, but are also designed to improve a pilot’s decision- making process from the beginning of an actual accident scenario. Our training system is realistic, relevant, and current.”

To make sure this potentially paradigm- shifting training actually remains relevant and current, Phillips is also determined that his company’s training gets used effectively. “We don’t just try to sell our ATS Device that may get put on the shelf

Tyson Phillips (right), and business partner Andre Lavallee, presenting on degraded visual environment induced spatial disorientation during the 2019 CHC Safety Summit. 15

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