Housed within the UND Aerospace school is a business that trains and maintains flight credentials for corporate pilots. That business is set for a boost once a state-of-the-art helicopter simulator is installed.

It’s called the GAT-HELO Rotary Wing Spatial Disorientation Trainer, and outside the military, there’s nothing else like it in the world. After the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter in late January 2020, as well as five other similar crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration formed a helicopter safety team dealing with spatial disorientation. The simulator will be part of a training program that already includes exposing students to hypoxia and the effects of rapid decompression, so they can function should an incident happen mid-flight.

UND’s goal with the simulator is to train its aviation students, both on-campus and corporate, to rely on their instruments, when their senses deceive them.

“They're all trying to fix this problem of spatial disorientation in helicopters,” said Tom Zeidlik, director of aerospace physiology at UND. “Once we get it, we will have the only one in existence outside of the military.”

The GAT-HELO is designed to expose helicopter pilots to recognized illusions found in aviation, which will enable them to avoid, recognize, prevent and recover from events that cause a pilot to experience spatial disorientation. The simulator features a single seat generic cockpit, and shows operators a variety of meteorological conditions, and aircraft instrument and engine failure scenarios. Those scenarios can fool a pilot into not knowing which way is up.

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“You have something in your inner ear called semicircular canals that are filled with fluid, that's what senses motion, and airplanes will lie to you,” Zeidlik said.

Thomas Zeidlik, Director of Aerospace Physiology at UND, controls the altitude  chamber at UND's Odegard during a training session for commercial aviation students Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. In the chamber, Aerospace physiologists Steven Martin and Alyssa Geatz monitor students Sarah Hines, Nathaniel Freese and Ben Parma. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Thomas Zeidlik, Director of Aerospace Physiology at UND, controls the altitude chamber at UND's Odegard during a training session for commercial aviation students Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. In the chamber, Aerospace physiologists Steven Martin and Alyssa Geatz monitor students Sarah Hines, Nathaniel Freese and Ben Parma. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The GAT-HELO costs about $800,000, including its separate computer system. The lead time for getting the new equipment is about eight months.

Once it’s installed, Zeidlik said he anticipates an increase in the number of corporate helicopter pilots coming to UND for training. The physiology department in the aerospace school will need to hire another physiologist, and will hire a number of student workers as well.

UND began offering corporate training courses in 1990. Zeidlik said the 500th corporate class was recently completed, with a group of students from Mankato State University. More than 3,000 pilots have been trained in UND’s corporate courses, not including the more than 330 UND undergraduate students who take pilot training annually. Corporate students pay about $1,100 for a two-day course. Courses run twice a month and can accommodate up to 16 students at a time. Students come from all over the world, Zeidlik said.

According to a Nov. 16 release, UND awarded the contract for the helicopter simulator to the Pennsylvania-based Environmental Tectonics Corporation, which designs, manufactures and sells software driven products and services to recreate and monitor the physiological effects of motion on humans.

UND Aerospace already has a fixed-wing simulator, which came in at about $400,000, and has been in use for about two years. The school used the previous simulator for 21 years, and upgraded when new software couldn’t be installed on its old computer. Prior to that, the school used a simulator that often yielded messy results. Zeidlik called the old machine a “poor man’s version” of the latest model.

“You’d sit in it and slide this thing shut, and it spins around and everybody throws up,” Zeidlik chuckled. “It was a very painful experience, a painful memory.”

Both students and corporate aviation customers go through other training at UND, including spending time in a chamber that induces hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, and creates a rapid decompression situation. The effects are not simulated. The chamber looks something like a reinforced train car, with windows. A military-grade pump can remove air, the way decompression would happen on an airplane in flight. People hear a “bang and a whoosh,” and when the oxygen is sucked out, then they go for their air masks.

“It was a whole lot of anticipation followed by a whole lot of instructions,” said Thomas Warner, a senior aviation student, who added the experience of decompression was more surprising than scary.

But it’s necessary to understand those effects. Other flight schools don’t have such a chamber, Zeidlik said, and make students memorize an FAA list of hypoxia symptoms, like shortness of breath and a headache. UND makes students and clients feel those symptoms for themselves. Certified pilots also need to go through those events every five years, along with some additional classroom training.

Zeidlik said he has received a number of emails from former students who have experienced a hypoxic event. The training saved their lives, he said.